November 25, 2020

DIY Truth-Checking

Because you can’t trust anyone else to do it for you.

We’re deluged with assertions on twitter, on Facebook, and on the more formal news. Whom do we believe? “The science”? Whose version? The NY Times? Fox News? The legions of fact-checkers sprouting up all over the web? Your favorite blogger? “Fact” is, you can’t trust any of ‘em (trust me).

Part of my quarantine routine is to try to help my grandchildren become savvier critics of assertions. Gave them the following quiz:

A story on the news says:

“A man was found shot in the street last night outside City Hall. No weapon has been found. No one knows who shot him.” You don’t know anything beyond this about the man, the reporter, or the story. Choose the statements below which are true. You may choose more than one.

  1. As far as I know, the story is true.
  2. As far as I know, the story is false.
  3. The reporter cannot know that the whole story is true.
  4. At least one sentence is apparently false.

With careful reading, they’re all true. The word “know” is key to the evaluation

A is true because you don’t know the story is false.

B is true because you don’t know the story is true.

C is true because the reporter would have to know what everyone in the world knows in order to know that no one knows who shot the victim.

D is only apparently true (but I used the weasel word “apparently”). It is likely that someone does know who shot the man. The shooter should know; there may be witnesses who haven’t come forward. However, it could be true that no one knows. He could’ve been killed by a stray shot. The killer could be dead. It could be suicide and someone stole the weapon.

The point of this exercise is 1) practice in knowing whether the teller can possibly know what he or she is asserting, 2) knowing how much or how little you know as a result of being told something, 3) learning to look carefully at the words that are used to make an assertion. I’m the child of an English teacher and a storyteller.

Now back in the real world. The NY Times says “Trump Asserts (pick your assertion) Without Evidence”. We know from experience that Trump’s assertion may well be false (although it’s a false syllogism to say the assertion is false because Trump made it). However, we also know that the NY Times can’t possibly know what evidence Trump has or doesn’t have. I’m tempted to rewrite this “The NY Times Claims Without Evidence that Trump Asserts …  Without Evidence.” They could have easily made the headline accurate by saying “Trump Asserts… Without Giving Evidence” if indeed he hasn’t instead of damaging their own credibility with an assertion they can’t possibly know is true.

That’s why we need DIY truth-checking.

For more on DIY truth-checking see False Syllogisms

November 19, 2020

What if I Think a COVID Restriction Goes Too Far?

According to Vermonters who reelected Republican Governor Scott overwhelmingly in a very blue state, he has been doing a great job leading us through the pandemic. I agree. “But,” I thought, “saying I can’t go for a socially distanced walk in the woods with a friend goes a step too far.” Especially when I was looking forward to exactly such a walk.

“We know that outdoor transmission isn’t much of a problem,” I fumed.  “The resurgence is because of a bunch of spoiled brats going to a bar, some unmasked Halloween parties, and car-pooling to and from a hockey arena. Why do I have to be punished? I’m going to walk with my friend, anyway. Go ahead and arrest me.”

And then I heard what I sounded like. Just like the idiot who won’t wear a mask because “if you’re going to get Covid, you’re going to”. Just like the people who have an unalienable right to party wherever and whenever. And I thought about the people whose businesses are failing because it’s not safe for them to be open, the people who’ve lost their jobs, the people who do keep on working at risk to themselves because we need them to be working.

Then I realized I don’t get to make my own rules or draw my own line during an emergency.

Vermont has more reported cases of Covid now than we had during the first wave, although many less deaths or hospitalizations so far. The numbers don’t just come from more testing; the case load has soared over the last two weeks; hospitalizations are increasing.  Governor Scott prohibited inter-family gatherings indoors or out, hopefully short-term, and issued other restrictions to help get control of the spread rate. His immediate response was broad brush. Essentially he was saying “stand back, stand back!” It wouldn’t have made sense for him to wait until he could spell out every exception to every restriction.

We don’t want to have to go to total shutdown. We don’t want to close the schools. We don’t want to overwhelm the hospitals, especially when our biggest hospital is suffering the computer version of a pandemic. I can wait to find out if hiking is a permissible exception. There are probably people who even think some other exceptions are more important. The sooner the numbers turn down, the sooner we can relax as we did before. And the vaccines are coming!

Had a nice Zoom with my friend to catch up, took a walk with my dog, and realized the answer to the question “what if I think a Covid restriction goes too far?”

Suck it up!

UPDATE: Gov. Scott  has modified the order to say a Vermonter can take a walk with once friend or neighbor as long as socially distancing is maintained. I’m glad for the common sense and still glad I waited.

November 16, 2020

Should Covid Survivors Have to Quarantine?

A virtual dinner table conversation.

As of today, we’ve had 2,899 cases of Covid detected in Vermont. Fortunately, all but 59 have survived. These survivors, once they finish treatment, cannot transmit Covid to anyone else nor is there any likelihood of their getting it again in the near future. Is there any reason why they should have to quarantine?

Since those known to have the disease are only 0.5% of our population, the question isn’t pressing yet. But cases are growing rapidly, unfortunately. Moreover there are probably many more people who have had the virus and don’t know it. Cheap and accurate tests for immunity will soon be available. Soon (I hope) our medical workers and first responders will receive vaccine, which won’t provide total immunity but will reduce the odds of catching or passing on the disease. At what point should there be separate rules for those who are not a contagion risk?

Equity would seem to say that it is double punishment to have had the disease and then have to quarantine anyway. Practicality says it’s hard enough to enforce one set of rules for everybody; and all hope of compliance may disappear if there are different rules for different folks. Do you give the evil eye to people not wearing a mask in the grocery store and stay as far away from them as possible; or do you assume that they are immune survivors or have had their shots?  Do stores ask for proof of prior infection before letting people in? Should restaurants and ski areas be allowed to rebuild their businesses by catering to survivors and eventually the vaccinated? Should survivors be given preference for public-facing jobs?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’d ordinarily use them as fodder for dinner table conversation, but I can’t have the same conversation with Mary every night and we can’t have anyone else at our dinner table.

We will eventually have to answer these questions no matter how soon we have a vaccine. If the vaccine is delayed, we will have more and more immune survivors. If the vaccine is ready on an optimistic schedule, we’ll have more and more people with partial acquired immunity. Either way or both, there will be too many people who don’t pose a risk to maintain quarantine for administrative convenience. If restrictions are lifted too soon, the current resurgence may accelerate. If restrictions are lifted too late, they will be ignored.

My guess is that the draconian restriction prohibiting inter-household socializing will go first. It’s voluntary in the sense that it can’t be enforced. It obviously makes no sense for the non-contagious. Leaving it in place for any period of time without enforcement will erode compliance with all regulations. IMO the requirement for wearing masks in public places will stay in place the longest. It is annoying but doesn’t really restrict any activity. It prevents spread of flu and other diseases as well as Covid – important with possibly over-burdened hospitals. It is enforceable.

Once a vaccine is widely available, the lifting of restrictions on those who have had their shots not only makes sense but is an inducement for vaccination and a way that businesses can come back to life. Aren’t you more likely to fly if you know that everyone on the plane is Covid resistant, either because they are known to have had the disease or because they’ve been vaccinated? Wouldn’t you like to know that your kids’ teachers and classmates pose very little risk?

What do you think? Please pass the virtual peas.

November 11, 2020

Stalk2Stem

Time to replace corn with trees.

40% of US corn is used to produce ethanol. According to numbers from the US Department of Energy, substituting a gallon of ethanol for a gallon of gasoline avoids an average of a little over 6 lbs. of “net” CO2 emissions.  The fossil fuel needed to grow, transport, and distill the corn is counted; but the CO2 which comes from the burning ethanol is ignored since it was recently captured by the corn – that’s why we call these “net” emissions. Using these calculations, an acre grows enough corn to save 1.38 metric tons of CO2 annually.

However, an acre of Midwest farmland planted in trees removes about 3.5 metric tons from the atmosphere each year. The trees are 250% more effective at CO2 reduction than corn!

From an environmental point of view, it would be a huge gain if all the ethanol-producing acres were turned into forests. 39 million acres of trees would remove 136MMTCO2 (million metric tons of CO2) annually from the atmosphere, 82MMTCO2 more than would be saved if all that corn were turned into ethanol. The trees will keep sequestering CO2 virtually forever. The ethanol only helps so long as there is gasoline use for it to replace. It doesn’t do anything for cars parked while their owners work at home or for electric cars.

From an economic point of view, with ethanol prices below the cost of production, the farmers and refiners are in an unsustainable business.  They were lured into producing ethanol by government mandates requiring at least 10% ethanol in most gasoline even though ethanol is more expensive to produce than the gasoline it replaces on a cents per mile basis. The Farm Bureau says “A Pull Back in Corn Acres Is Needed”. They explain that ethanol demand, which had already flatlined before the pandemic, is now in steep decline because Americans are driving less. Prices for ethanol are well below the cost of production. Ethanol refineries are shutting down; farmers are worried that they’ll have nowhere to sell their crop.

From a political point of view, there are three and a half years until Iowa has its next first-in-the-nation primary. The incoming Biden administration has promised to do significant green things without pinning itself down on specifics.

For environmental, economic, and political reasons, now is a very good time to start growing trees instead of corn (stalk2stem) in much of the Midwest. Obviously ethanol production isn’t going to stop all at once and there will be other uses beside growing trees for the land which will no longer be growing corn. Step one, however, is to end all further ethanol subsidies and start phasing out the ethanol mandate; we don’t want to mindlessly expand an already failing program.

There will be a net loss of farm and refinery jobs; trees require a lot less care than corn. But these jobs are doomed as the demand for ethanol continues to decline; an orderly transition to other crops is necessary. National and state programs to buy farmland and turn it into productive forests is as necessary for Midwest corn growers as it is for Vermont dairy farmers. The stalk2stem program can at least partially be financed by ending subsidies for further ethanol development. Growing trees is one of the cheapest ways of reducing greenhouse gasses (GHG). The wood products industry will grow with a new supply of high-grade lumber and wood can increasingly replace concrete structurally for additional GHG savings.

I look forward to hiking the Iowa woods.

Sources

According to a study by the Argonne National Lab quoted by the US Dept of Energy, there is an average 34% reduction in GHG when ethanol is substituted for gasoline. These are lifecycle numbers and take into account the energy which goes into growing the corn and refining it. Gasoline emits 19.4 lbs. of CO2 per gallon so substituting a gallon of ethanol for a gallon of gas saves a little over 6 lbs. of CO2. On average, each acre of corn turns into 462 gallons of ethanol annually. CO2 savings from an acre of corn is 3047 lbs. or about 1.38 metric tons per acre per year. According to the University of Minnesota, an acre of Midwest forest sequesters about 3.5 metric tons/year. The rest is just math.

See Also:

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

The Science Behind the Trillion Tree Campaign

US Chapter of One Trillion Trees Announced Today

November 05, 2020

Almost Half Your Fellow Americans are Disappointed and Frightened for the Future

Stop calling them names!

My liberal friends are asking these questions on Twitter and other fora: Why did so many Americans – more than last time – vote for Trump? Why didn’t they see the light when we called them deplorable racists? Why wasn’t the mainstream media effective at convincing everyone that Trump is the devil incarnate? Why didn’t they do what we told them to do? What’s wrong with America, especially the South and the middle of the country? How could “Hispanics” have increased their vote for Trump? And why don’t they embrace the term Latinx instead of Latino and Latina?

The better questions are: What  can we learn from the fears and aspirations of our fellow Americans? How do we come together during a pandemic and in a dangerous world for a better and stronger America? Almost half of America is as afraid of a Biden presidency as you were of four more years for Donald.

As it looks now, Joe Biden will win the presidency and Republicans will maintain a slim margin in the Senate. For me, this is the least bad of the outcomes possible. Although I voted for Biden mainly because of Trump’s dangerously unstable personality, I found myself reacting with visceral fear at the thought of either candidate winning. I think Biden has a much more stable personality; I think the left-wing of his party, which may or may not control his presidency, is a danger not only to the economy but also to free speech and an independent judiciary.  I abhor Trump’s racist dog whistles; I’m appalled by the “liberal” racist view that racial preferences are required and that minorities are monolithic blocks rather than independently thinking Americans. Hopefully, a Republican Senate can block very bad ideas like packing the Supreme Court or rush admission of new Democrat states.

The very good news –   so far –   is how smoothly the electoral process seems to be going (fingers crossed). Neither Antifa nor the Proud Boys attacked voters or polling places. There was no excuse to call out the National Guard or suspend voting. Counting seems to be going well. There will be some litigation, but everyone was prepared for that. Record turnout is a good sign for America. Record turnout during a pandemic is even better. Process is incredibly important to preserving democracy.

Biden will be better at working with Congress than either Obama or Trump. In a rosy scenario, we can go back to having a legislature which passes laws after debate and compromise and away from having law made by judges and executive orders. It’s time to be hopeful. It’s time to respect each other.

November 03, 2020

The Fairness of the Election Will Not Be Determined by Who Gets Elected

This morning the Dallas Democratic and Republican chairs issued a joint statement which reads in part:

Joint statement

I’ve never known my friends to be so anxious about our national future. This includes both friends who are voting for Biden and those who are voting for Trump (yes, I have friends who are voting for Trump.) Starting today, election day, is time for us all to calmly assure that our processes are followed and that the will of the voters, as expressed through electoral college votes, is respected.

All of my friends (but not everyone) are passionate about protecting our rights and our democracy. Each side believes, to an extent I’ve never seen before, that 1) election of the candidate they oppose will lead to the end of America we would know it; 2) that the other side is attempting to win in undemocratic ways. Many Democrats believe that Trump will refuse to leave even if defeated (he deserves a lot of the blame for this feeling) and will become a dictator especially if elected fairly to a second term. Many Republicans believe that Biden, if elected, will be steam-rolled by the anti-democratic, anti-free speech, anti-police far left of his party; and that a disarmed citizenry? will be left at the mercy of rampaging mobs.

Since both sides passionately believe what they believe, almost everyone is terrified. One side or the other is going to have to make the best of whomever is elected. The best way to assure that our Democracy does survive is to accept the results of the election and then work for what you believe in and against what you don’t. You do expect the other side to accept defeat, don’t you?  They are just as afraid as you are.

Obviously both sides are striving for electoral advantage and would like the election rules to be interpreted in a way that gives them the most votes or their opponents the least. It looks like we will have record turnout, which is a good thing, even though mailed-out unrequested ballots do increase the risk of fraud. In many states it is easier to vote than ever before although still not as easy as some people would like. People who previously were disenfranchised, like convicted felons in Florida, will be able to vote for the first time.

It is true that Trump supporters would prefer that some of these expansions of the electorate not take place because they suspect, probably correctly, that these new voters will favor Biden. It is also true that the Democratic Party’s passion for increasing the voter rolls and fighting even reasonable attempts to protect against fraud is motivated more by a quest for votes than a quest for justice. Let’s be honest with ourselves. From the record early turnout, it does not appear that voter suppression is very successful, at least not in most places.

Thought experiment: Do you expect Democratic lawyers to fight to make sure Trump ballots are not unreasonably invalidated? Do you expect Republicans to fight for Biden ballots? That’s not the way the system works. As they always have, each side will fight to invalidate questionable opponent ballots and to validate questionable ballots on their side. That’s not fraud. That’s the way a competitive system works. We do, however, have a right to expect that, when these disputes reach the courts, they will be adjudicated in a non-partisan way no matter whose appointee the judge is.

Hopefully we are ready to block hacking interference, foreign or domestic, with the polling process itself. If there is significant fraud, we must face it, not deny it. If there is intimidation at the polls, it must be dealt with harshly today, election day, no matter which side or sides the instigators come from. Both sides have radical fringes who believe our system is corrupt and must fall; we cannot let the fringe conspiracy beliefs, sincere or not, drive us into post-election hysteria and tear the country further apart.

I’m afraid we may not know the election results for a couple of weeks; hope I’m wrong but remember Bush v Gore when only one state was in doubt. This year, because of both politics and Covid, we’ve had the biggest one-cycle change in election procedure ever in many states. Then results are going to take time to sort out whether Trump likes it or not. More mail-in than in-person ballots will be invalidated because mail-in is more complicated; this has happened in every election and is not sure proof of voter suppression.

It’s hard to accept in our partisan passion but the fairness of the election will not be judged by who gets elected.

Good luck to America.

Also see: Are You Ready to Accept Defeat at the Polls?

October 29, 2020

Are You Ready to Accept Defeat at the Polls?

Both sides are ready to cry foul.

President Trump has infamously refused to say whether he’ll accept the results of the upcoming election. That’s unacceptable, of course. If the election is close, both sides will demand recounts in key states. That IS acceptable. There will be legal challenges from both sides in recounts; that’s acceptable, too. The huge number of mailed-in ballots will complicate sorting out the conflicting claims; that’s inevitable even if it’s something President Trump has predicted (“without evidence” as the NY Times likes to say unless you count the primaries as evidence – I do).

Maybe the election won’t be close. But, even if it is, the claims will eventually be sorted out by courts at various levels. Once that’s done, whether you’re for Trump or Biden, are you ready to accept the result? Or are you going to spend the next four years trying to reverse whatever decision your fellow Americans made.

If you are a Trump supporter and he loses, are you going to claim that the election was stolen by biased media and/or crooked mail-in ballots or by holdover Democrat-appointed judges? If you are a Biden supporter and he loses, are you going to complain that the election was stolen because of Russian “interference” or because some mail-in ballots were invalidated by Trump-appointed judges? In either case are you going to try to undo the proclaimed election result either by force or by the now over-used impeachment tool.

Do we relitigate Bidengate for four years even if Americans elect him knowing full well that he didn’t recuse himself in the Ukraine when he should’ve. What about Trump not releasing his tax returns? The voters knew about that before the last election.

What about foreign interference? Do we really think that citizens of the most ad-saturated nation in the world were significantly influenced by a puny ad spend by other countries or even by foreign-originated false news? Why do we even use the word “interference” for anything but tampering with actual votes? Radio Free Europe used to try to influence politics and even insurgency in other countries by broadcasting our version of the truth.

Best for the nation is acceptance of the results post the recounts and court cases. A huge number of us will have to face the fact that the person we didn’t vote for is the President. Big deal; that’s what happens in a democracy. Doesn’t mean we have to buy into policies we don’t agree with but does mean we shouldn’t consider ourselves a heroic “resistance” just because we didn’t get our way in the election.

I will wish success to whoever is President because his success is ours. I’ll support polices I do agree with such as radical closing of tax loopholes (only way to raise the taxes the rich pay), a higher minimum wage (never thought I’d say that), charter schools and school choice, freedom of speech, and mandatory Covid vaccinations once the vaccines have been thoroughly vetted. I’ll oppose things I don’t agree with like reestablishing the non-treaty with Iran, allowing excess methane emissions from oil wells, racism including racial preferences, continuing the chokehold teachers’ unions have on education, and limits on free speech from the left or the right.

And I will respect the opinions of those who don’t agree with me… except those who don’t think I have right to an opinion different than theirs. Here’s to a more civil four years coming up.

October 26, 2020

Dystopia, The Novel

Not happy reading for the times.

An early US indignity in Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: a Family, 2029-2047 is China’s successful claim to +1 as its international calling prefix. That ain’t nothing.

There is no pandemic in this book, which was published in 2016; but there was “the stonage”, a period in 2024 when a Chinese hack brough the Internet and the economy to a standstill. A huge huge stimulus package was enacted; the Internet was resuscitated. The Dow was soon setting new records (sound familiar?). The economy came back to life but more dependent on stimulus and Federal Reserve monetization of US debt than ever. The world kept buying US bonds. Economists explain that a reserve currency can essentially be printed without limits. The world kept buying US bonds… until the day in 2029 when the Treasury bond auction failed.

But that can’t happen to the world’s reserve currency. True. Turns out Russia and China and our friends in the Middle East have secretly prepared the bancor, a new international reserve currency which the rest of the world quickly adopts. The dollar plummets against the bancor, which Americans are not allowed to use. Whoops, there goes the economy. This time the Dow doesn’t come back. A lot of people aren’t rich anymore and a lot of pension funds are worthless.

The official line is that the bancor is a plot against the security of the US like 9/11 (which it sort of is). “Oh, that’s certainly how the White House is playing it”, says one about to be impoverished character. “Big conspiracy. Threat to national security. Nothing to do with a Congress that won’t rein in entitlements. Nothing to do with the deficit, or the national debt, or a monetary policy modeled on the population’s waistline. Only evil outside forces conniving to destroy the greatest country in the world,”

Since the US cannot roll over its debt, it repudiates it.  “All Treasury bills, notes, and bonds are forthwith declared null and void,” the President says. Moreover, the government seizes all gold including jewelry in private hands at a price in dollars which is confiscatory since the dollars are now so depreciated. Not only are most fortunes lost – “Hooray,” say those who are against inequality; but the middle class is now officially broke as well. Dollar savings are decimated by inflation. Only those with government jobs can struggle by because their salaries are pegged to inflation and paid with newly minted dollars. But tax rates aren’t indexed to inflation so even government workers are losing purchasing power.

Real estate should be a store of value; but, as public order disintegrates, those with weapons simply seize property from those who are less well-armed.  An apathetic and underpaid police force either can’t or won’t stop the chaos. Mexico closes its border to stop an influx of desperate “Ameritrash”.

Depressed yet? I am but it’s hard to stop reading because this is also an excellent novel with interesting characters.

We are often told what will happen to us if we don’t listen to “the science”. Economists aren’t really scientists and scientists aren’t even unanimous about anything. But what if we should be listening to the classic economic lesson – for which there is much historic evidence – that countries which print money for short-term political reasons (and to alleviate suffering), eventually fall into dystopian chaos? What emerges from the chaos is usually ugly.

BTW, my harping on the dangers of debt is non-partisan. Republicans – and especially Trump – rarely spare the public purse when favor can be bought. And many Democrats have convinced themselves that the lesson of the Obama stimulus is that debt never has to be repaid (so far they’ve been right and they will be until they aren’t). There is no right economic vote in this election.

The New York Times Book Review says “Shriver has always seemed to be few steps ahead of the rest of us, but her new novel establishes her firmly as the Cassandra of American letters.”  

If we’re not going to listen to “the science”, perhaps we should listen to Cassandra.

See also: The Stock Market Doesn’t Seem to Care Who Wins the Election

October 20, 2020

The Stock Market Doesn’t Seem to Care Who Wins the Election

That Should Worry Us.

In the runup to an election which will determine both the presidency and control of congress, the stock market has been almost oblivious to changing poll numbers and has stayed near its all-time highs, which were set AFTER the pandemic sprung from the bat cave.  The Pollyanna explanation is that the stock market focuses on the long-term and the long-term prospects for the US economy are good no matter who the next President is or whether the Democrats control the Senate as well as the House.

The Pollyanna explanation is BS. There is almost nothing as short-term as the stock market. Ask the CEO of any public company (I was once one such), what happens when quarterly earnings are released, forecast, or hinted at. The mob of investors (and robot investors) who rush in or out are about as long-term oriented as my eleven-month old puppy at dinner time.

The market is reacting to the twists and turns of more stimulus. Today it was down quite a bit because Nancy Pelosi gave the White House a deadline of tomorrow for making a deal and nothing has happened yet. If the White House doesn’t cave, says Nancy, no deal until AFTER THE ELECTION. That’s three weeks away, too long-term for the stock market.

Demand created by printing money and shoveling it out the door is hardly long-term. The demand evaporates as soon as the stimulus stops. But the stock market has become addicted to the temporary high of the stimulus drug. The addiction actually began with the recession of 2008. Remember Obama’s close to one trillion-dollar stimulus (seemed big then) and the bailout of the banks, which was another sort of stimulus. Although the federal government didn’t start writing huge stimulus checks again until Covid hit, the Federal Reserve never took back the money which it had poured into the system and kept interest rates incredibly low.

The Federal Reserve is being even more generous now with its low or no interest lending – quite literally printing money. Notice that big bank earnings exceeded expectations in the last Covid-ridden quarter. The banks benefitted both from having almost free money from the Fed to lend to their biggest clients (not small businesses) and also from huge fees they received for helping the government shovel stimulus money out the door.

Back to the stock market: in order for it to keep going up, there needs to be more new money buying stocks than there is money leaving the market from selling. The money flows in and out of the market are more long-term than the daily stampedes – sort of like tides and waves. There has been a tidal flow of money into the market since 2008, thanks again to the Fed which has force-fed funds to the banks at the top of the economic pyramid. Most of this money doesn’t trickle down, it buys assets and creates bubbles. Housing and stock market bubbles are the easiest to inflate and we see them swelling around us. Moreover, when interest rates are low, savings accounts and bonds aren’t attractive, so anyone who has any spare cash is very tempted to put money into stocks.

Notice that none of the reasons I’ve given for the movements of the stock market have anything to do with what’s happening in the real economy. They have everything to do with what government including the Federal Reserve is doing. Lately the market seems to go up on bad numbers like a slowdown in the jobs recovery. Why? Easy. Bad numbers make it more likely that more stimulus drug will be administered.

But isn’t the market worried that Democrats will raise taxes and reduce rich people’s investable funds? Apparently not. Biden’s rise in the polls hasn’t hurt the market. Two reasons why, in my view: 1) Democrats will raise taxes but they’ll put even more money than what increased taxes net them into the economy as stimulus; 2) Biden Democrats aren’t any more serious than Donald Trump about increasing the amount that rich people pay.

If Biden were serious about raising taxes on the very rich, he’d be talking about closing loopholes, not raising rates. If loopholes reduce taxable income to zero, doesn’t matter what percentage of zero a taxpayer must pay. If Biden and Pelosi were serious about making the system more progressive, they wouldn’t be pledging to undo the most progressive part of the Trump tax cut: the low limit on federal deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT, it’s called), which hurts only the wealthy. Actually, AOC understands and is “right” on this issue; but she’s giving Biden a bye.

The stock market doesn’t care that we have an awful choice again to make in this election because it believes the fix is in and that stimulus, Fed largesse, and tax loopholes will remain under both Trump and Biden. The stock market doesn’t care that Trump’s lack of effective national action to help states deal with pandemic and leadership by bad example are crushing the economy or that Biden’s focus on continued subsidies, especially to anybody who paints him or herself green, will grow weeds where trees and factories ought to be. The stock market doesn’t care about the real economy. Until the music stops….

And that’s one more reason we should be very worried in this annus horribilus.

See also: Don’t Watch The Dow!

October 08, 2020

Sampler of Reaction to Moonquake

Don’t worry; this is just fantasy reaction.

First the fake news: At 8:07PM Eastern Daylight Time last night observatories and amateurs alike reported a series of strong moonquakes. The face of the man in the moon no longer looks familiar. The cause is yet unknown. Violent protests have surged in Seattle, Portland, and Minneapolis.

@realDonaldTrump: There is absolutely nothing to worry about. I have ordered My Homeland Security to guard against a possible dangerous influx of Loony Aliens. So-called Sanctuary Cities are hereby warned against endangering Earth’s security.

The Federal Reserve: We have supplied extra capital to banks and loosened solvency requirements.

Antifa: The lily-white face of dominance has been shattered. Violence is necessary for change to be real.

Proud Boys: We are standing by to protect the rights of white people against this huge leftwing plot.

Wall Street: Dow Jones up 1053 points on news of Federal Reserve action.

Joe Biden: Uh… I have not really been briefed on this. During the Obama-Biden administration we did a much better job of dealing with this kind of situation than Donald Trump is doing.

NY Times Headline: Lunar Catastrophe; Women and Other Marginalized Groups Expected to be Most Impacted

QAnon: The deep state is galactic.

Presidential Press Spokesperson of the moment: This President has done more for the Earth and Moon than any previous administration in half the time.

Chuck Schumer: This unprecedented event makes it absolutely impossible to go forward with confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nomination.

Mitch McConnell: It is now even more imperative that we immediately bring the Supreme Court up to full strength. In this unprecedented situation, the Founders’ original intent is more important than ever.

Another NY Times Headline: Trump Falsely Accuses Loonians of Lunacy.

American Federation of Teachers: Our members cannot be asked to shoulder the risk of the sky falling without extra compensation.

NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio: New York City schools will close.

NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo: New York City schools will remain open.

First responders: We haven’t had any calls yet. If we are called, we’ll do what’s needed.

Bernie Sanders: Cawporate greed.

Fox News: (picture of Airforce One flying past changed face of the moon with Star Spangled Banner playing.)

Chicken Little: They should have listened to the science.

October 06, 2020

Covid is the Ill Wind that Brings Opportunity to Vermont

Wealthy people are coming to Vermont for refuge. They are turning seasonal homes into permanent homes, buying homes, expanding homes, and building new ones. After years of trying everything to stem the net exodus of tax-paying people including bribes to get people to move here or work from here, Covid is doing what we couldn’t do on our own and may help save the state and education budgets from a spiral of decline.

Realtors are working flat out. So are electricians, carpenters, plumbers and everyone else needed to add a work -from-home room or change one person’s dream house into someone else’s dream. Home prices are going up rapidly. The importance of a good Internet connection is even greater than it was before. These aren’t retired people; they intend to work safely from here.

We’re entitled to pat ourselves on the back to some extent although other resort areas are experiencing similar immigration. The fact that we’re so far (cross your fingers) the safest state in which to shelter from Covid helps. Many of these newcomers already know and are well-disposed to Vermont because they have vacationed here. A month of demonstrations around City Hall in Burlington is nothing like what’s been happening in real cities.

The benefits and costs

Jobs selling, building and remodeling homes for the refugees as well as continued jobs supporting their lifestyle. They will be restaurant patrons as restaurants reopen and their guests will stay in hotels as the virus wanes. They’ll recreate here even more than they did before. Epic Pass sales in Stowe are significantly higher than last year.

More sales tax revenue whether they shop here or have Amazon ship to a Vermont address.

Property transfer taxes are already coming in. New and remodeled houses will add to the base for property tax and help take pressure off the education fund. However, as towns reappraise, properties similar to the ones being purchased are going to see their appraisals and probably taxes go up.

Increased prices for housing. Good if you’re selling a house. Not so good if you’re buying or renting.

An increased base for Vermont nonprofits to fund raise from. The challenge will be to involve the newcomers in the community as quickly as possible.

Well-heeled demand for better broadband. Buildouts paid for by those now working from Vermont can also serve those who have not been attractive enough prospects for the cable companies on their own.

The big kahuna: more income tax revenue. This good be huuuge if we play our cards right. Most of these people are continuing to work at their old jobs, which they now know can be done remotely. Consider an investment banker who moves here from New Jersey and keeps on investment banking from her Zoom room in Stowe. Is she working in Vermont or New Jersey? To whom does she owe income tax? Our taxes are high but states like New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have similarly high or even higher state taxes. She may have a choice of which state is her tax residence. To whom does she want to owe income tax? We want that choice to be Vermont, of course. We don’t need rock-bottom taxes to compete, just be slightly better than the competition. Also need to make sure our tax structure is among the first in the nation to be work-from-home friendly.

Is this Just a flash in the pan?

Once there’s a vaccine does the panic subside and everything return to the old normal? I don’t think so. The old normal is gone.

Many high-earning people have learned they can work from wherever they want to live. They don’t need to be at many meetings in person. They don’t need to travel incessantly. The slow movement to remote work became an avalanche. Remote work works. Many people will decide they don’t want to go back to the office in the city and don’t need to live within commuting range. If 1% of the people in the urban areas in the Northeast decided to come to Vermont, that would be more than we could handle.

Fear of pandemics will linger even when the novel corona virus fades into the seasonal flu.

Urban unrest and urban decay are getting as bad as they were when the wave I rode in on left the cities and suburbs in the late 60s and early 70s and came to Vermont. Many of that wave were “trust-fund hippies” (not me). This wave is high earners.

The urban problems are likely to get worse before they get better no matter whom is elected next month. Vermont is entering a virtuous cycle of more state revenues without higher tax rates – maybe we could even lower tax rates and provide good public services. The cities have the opposite problem: declining revenue as businesses go remote and both revenues and property values fall.

And in conclusion…

The new normal is giving Vermont a sudden opportunity for growth and prosperity just when stagnation seemed to be intractable. Growth will bring problems as well as opportunities. Making the most of the opportunities and mitigating the problems of growth are our challenges for the next decade. Should be fun.

See also: Forward to a New Normal

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

John McClaughry: Orienting Vermont’s new immigrants

October 01, 2020

There Are Problems with Mailed-In Ballots

Don’t let Trump have that excuse.

Nearly 100,000 New York City voters have been sent invalid absentee ballots, with wrong names or addresses” – headline in the NY Times debate day, Sept. 29. Apparently Donald Trump does not think this is false news because he quoted the number accurately in the debate.

On August 3rd another Times headline read: “Why the Botched N.Y.C. Primary Has Become the November Nightmare.” The story goes on to say: “Nearly six weeks later, two congressional races remain undecided.”

According to the Times today, many more Democrats than Republicans have requested mail ballots (perhaps because Trump doesn’t want them to). This scares Republicans, according to the story, but it is beginning to scare Democrats as well. “This year, with a huge increase in mail-in ballots, and slowdowns in mail delivery, experts have estimated the number of mail-in ballots that are disqualified may exceed one million. While more than 140 million Americans are expected to vote, the discarded ballots could make a difference in competitive states.” Even in a normal year, the rejection rate is one to two percent. This is not a normal year, in case you haven’t noticed.

The Times comforts itself by repeating its mantra that Trump is making “false claims” about mailed ballots as if you could actually make a false claim about something which hasn’t happened yet even if you’re a pathological liar. But the twin dangers that many mailed ballots will be rejected and that an unprecedented wave of mailed ballots will actually leave the election result in doubt through many court cases (which both sides are gearing up for) are very real.  It is possible that mis-mailed ballots or ballots sent to people who didn’t request them and don’t intend to vote could be harvested by others; we haven’t sent out unsolicited ballots before. To some extent, that’s bound to happen. The worst case is that Trump has an excuse or even more a reason to contest the will of the voters. It also won’t be good if Democrats think the election was stolen from them because of contested ballots being decided by Trump-appointed judges. Many Democrats have yet to accept the 2016 election.

So it’s up to us. I’m 77 and have some other Covid comorbidities.  At first I thought I’d vote by mail as I did in the primary. My intent now is to vote in person against Trump. I don’t want any doubt about my vote even though there is no doubt where solidly blue Vermont’s three electoral votes will go. Please consider voting in person yourself if you are physically able. Consider it an act of protest. Consider it an act of resistance. Or consider it thanks for having the privilege of voting for our leaders and an acknowledgement that this privilege  and all our freedoms are fragile and under attack from both the left and the right.

See also: Trump-Proof the Election

We Need Massive Turnout and Unambiguous Results from the November Election

I Voted for Donald Trump

September 29, 2020

The Speech I’d like to Hear from Joe Biden

Could give him the landslide that would be good for America… or not.

“My fellow Americans, my opponent has refused to agree to cede power peacefully if you vote him out of office. We know you will not be deterred by his threats. Americans stand up to bullies. His scorn for our democracy, which also includes his threats to muzzle a free press, is reason enough for us to use our ballots to remove him from the highest office in the land.

“Donald Trump is not a president of ‘all the people’. He has exploited and widened racial gaps which still sadly exist between us. He tolerates and appears to condone rightwing violence.

“As your president I will not tolerate assaults on your freedom or right to live securely and peacefully no matter what ideology is used to justify violence and no matter what the color of the skin of those who threaten you. It is a sad fact that those who believe America is inherently evil have sometimes taken advantage of American’s revulsion at incidents of racial violence to launch violent attacks on their fellow Americans and to burn and loot businesses, many of them painfully built by minority and immigrant people bravely working their way out of poverty.

“As your President I will demand that our central cities and poor rural areas get the effective, firm, and fair policing that their residents want and deserve. I will not tolerate brutality by police, whether racially motivated or not. I will strive for more funding to keep the peace, whether that funding goes to police departments or to relieve the police from having to deal with some mental health issues. Let me be clear, though, I believe that almost all our police are brave and fine people who deserve our support. I know that our minority citizens want to live free from fear of both police and gang violence.

“Unlike my opponent, I understand that most policing is a local and state responsibility under our Federal system. I also know that our federal government is responsible in situations where local governments won’t or can’t act constitutionally or to keep the peace. It took federal action to end slavery when slave states asserted a right to nullify federal laws; Eisenhower used federal force to assure the integration of the University of Mississippi when George Wallace stood in opposition in the doorway. In countless emergencies throughout our history the National Guard has reinforced overwhelmed local authorities. That great tradition will continue on my watch.

“Donald Trump often threatens to shut down what he calls the “fake media”. I have news for him; the media is real even though it is not always right. Fortunately we have great diversity of opinion – even diversity of prejudice – in our media. It cannot be any other way in a democracy. The American people need exposure to many points of view; the issues we deal with are complex. There would be no greater danger than government control over media – whether new media or old. You can count on me to stand for a free press.

“You can also count on me to stand for your right to free speech even if your speech is unpopular. It was not long ago that writing about contraception was banned and public support for abortion and gay rights unthinkable. We Americans did hear a diversity of views; we did change our minds. America is great because it can change its mind and can right its own wrongs. We will continue to right the wrongs of slavery and racism; and, as your president, I will protect your right to speak your mind.

“Four years ago, some of you voted for Donald Trump because you thought he was the best candidate to support your rights as Americans and because he reflected your just pride in America. You hoped he would succeed. I certainly understand and respect that. Unfortunately he has now refused to affirm your constitutional right to elect a president or turn one out of office. He has not been able to lead effectively through the Covid crisis. He has deepened America’s wounds instead of attempting to cure them.

“Today I am asking for the votes of all Americans. I will not be perfect; I will not agree with you on every issue; but I will do my best to lead a united America whose own best days are still ahead.”

“Thank you.”

I am going to vote against Donald Trump whether Biden makes this speech or not even though I voted for Trump last time around. I will almost certainly vote for Biden even though I disagree with him on many important policy issue, not that my vote for president matters in solidly blue Vermont. I will vote in person if I am physically able in order to leave no doubt and to show my respect for the sanctity of free elections and my luck in being in a country which has them.

But I’m afraid the election will be tight and the outcome perhaps in legitimate doubt for a period of time. Both sides have and should have the right to question improper procedures and dubious ballots. It would be better for America to have a landslide in the electoral college so that the result is indubitable (as Trump’s election was whether you like it or not). I think if Biden can move back to the center from which he came, if he can indorse the values and address the fears of most Americans, if he can criticize violence and speech control no matter whom the source, he will earn and receive that landslide even though he will lose some extremist votes on the left and will not get extremist votes on the right in any case. There are few undecideds left; but their votes will be decisive in this divided country.

Most important, a candidate who takes this approach to freedom and democracy will be in a good position to govern.

See also: Trump-Proof the Election

We Need Massive Turnout and Unambiguous Results from the November Election

I Voted for Donald Trump

 

September 24, 2020

If There Were No Welfare, There’d be No Need for a Minimum Wage

But we do need both.

Let’s go back to the bad old days.

If you had a coal mine or a steel mill or a ranch, you had to assure that your workers and their families could live on the premises or in the vicinity. Sometimes you provided housing or credit at the company store; not because you were a bleeding heart but because otherwise you’d have no workers. The accommodations usually sucked and the company store was a ripoff and credit became a way of preventing people from leaving; but, nevertheless, no one but you, your investors, and your customers paid any of the living expenses of the workers.

Now you say that the state ought to subsidize the housing costs and the food costs of the work force it takes to provide your service or create your goods. Whether we buy your coal or steel or beef or not, we pay for welfare so your workers can live. It looks like we’re subsidizing the workers; but we’re not. They wouldn’t be able to work if they couldn’t live. We’re subsidizing you, the owner, your investors, and your customers.

If you had a mansion or a fancy apartment in the not-so-good-old-days, you had rooms in it for the help and you fed them. Now you don’t want the help so close and zoning assures they can’t begin to afford to live in your neighborhood. So you want the rest of us to build substandard “market priced” housing a safe distance away, throw in some subsidized transit, and supplement the skimpy wages you pay with food stamps and Medicaid and fuel assistance. What if you just paid a living wage? Today you don’t have to pay a living wage because the help can still scrape by thanks to everyone paying for welfare.

Sounds like I’m about to say we could just abolish welfare and the need for a realistic minimum wage would go away. I’m not. That might work from the PoV of a Vulcan economist, but it’s inhumane. There are people who can’t work. There are people who skills do not earn enough to allow an employer to pay them what they need to live. There are those just entering the workforce who are going to very productive but aren’t yet.

Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Raise the Federal (not the State) minimum wage to $15/hour almost immediately. This will not cause all the small stores who can’t pay this much to close since their competitors will have the same costs and the pandemic has shown us how much we need services from people who don’t work from home. We will pay more at the store because we are buying the services of people who deserve to earn more; but we will be paying them to work and they will boost the economy with their spending.
  2. Assure that there is no case where an able-bodied person is being paid the equivalent of the minimum wage in welfare for NOT working and that there are very few cases where those who are earning the minimum wage are also receiving subsidies. If work pays enough, it is its own incentive.
  3. Use some of the welfare savings to pay both the employer and employee share of Social Security and Medicaid on the first $15/hour of wages for say the first five years a person is in the workforce. This increases the take home pay for beginners and reduces the cost to employers of hiring them. Perhaps take the cap off social security payments for higher earners. There IS a real danger of politicians bankrupting Social Security and Medicaid by not replacing the individual payments so we have to watch that.
  4. Establish apprenticeship programs including job-training and a fixed period when a subminimum wage can be paid. These should sometimes be done in conjunction with colleges and trade schools. Those without family responsibilities and those with some savings or parental help or scholarships will be able enter the workforce through these programs. Training loans IMO are a much better use of public funds and better for the recipients than loans to attend over-priced and over-built colleges and the training loans could also lead to a degree.

My freedom-minded friends ask “why should government intervene in the private negotiation between an employer and an employee by stipulating a minimum wage?”

I used to feel the same way myself. The answer is that, without this intervention, needed welfare becomes a subsidy to business owners by allowing wages below the cost of living. The owners are transferring a business cost to the rest of us just as if they were dumping their waste in a river we have to clean up. Economists call this an “externality”. Government has a right and a responsibility to manage externalities; the alternative is the much worse one of government and politically connected “stakeholders” micromanaging every aspect of business.

My friends on the left ask “why can’t businesses just be socially responsible and pay a living wage without compulsion (not that my friends on the left are against government compulsion)?”

The answer is that a competitive business can’t afford to be any more social responsible than its competitors or it won’t be in in business for long (there are counter-examples with fantastic PR but, what works for Ben and Jerry’s doesn’t work for Mom and Pop). Government can and should set the guardrails for the good of both businesses and the rest of us.

A higher minimum wage and accompanying welfare reform will keep America great long into the future.

See also: The Free Market Needs Government to Function

Celebrate Labor Day and Essential Workers by Substantially Raising Minimum Wage

September 22, 2020

Debating Minimum Wage Tomorrow

I’ve changed my usually conservative mind on minimum wage and think it should be increased substantially. Wrote about that here. John McClaughry, founder and Vice President of the Ethan Allen Institute and someone I highly respect and usually agree with, disagrees for principled reasons.

Bill Sayre, the host of Common Sense Radio, which is sponsored by the Ethan Allen Institute, has invited us to discuss our differences on the show tomorrow (Wednesday, 9/23) at 11AM EDT. The broadcast is on WDEV - 96. 1 FM,  550 AM, 96.5 FM, and 101.9 FM and streaming is live at https://wdevradio.com/stream/. You can call in at 802 244 1777 and tell us why we’re both wrong if you’d like.

BTW, neither John nor I are running for any office. Have both been there and done that, John more successfully than me.

September 21, 2020

Governments Have Taken the Wrong Approach to Covid Vaccine Development

There is nothing that would be of more immediate value to the people of the world than a safe and effective Covid vaccine.

We want there to be even more incentive to invent this vaccine than there is to distribute the next killer social media app, to be the MVP of the Super Bowl, or to be a uniquely talented hedge fund manager.

“No problem,” say both the rightwing and leftwing socialists atop the governments of the world. “We’ll give billions of dollars of taxpayer money to drug companies to develop a vaccine so they don’t have to take any risk. Having a vaccine available is a good use of our tax dollars, all the more so because those same dollars pay for treating those who get infected.” Sounds good, right? No! This approach will result in waiting longer than we should for a vaccine, spending more taxpayer money than needed, and possible questions about the safety of the vaccines that are developed.

Government funding is increasing the time to success by reducing the number of parallel efforts. Suppose you run a drug development company which is not politically well-enough connected to get one of the megacontracts for vaccine development; are you going to spend your shareholders’ money or go out and raise new billions to compete with companies which did get government contracts? Of course not. You know that government won’t even look at certifying your vaccine if you manage to develop one until it has looked at all the vaccines it funded itself. You don’t expect government to be objective in comparing what you have funded to what it has funded. You know that new investors won’t want to compete against the regulator. The result of government funding is to reduce the number of teams looking for the needle in the haystack.

Even though our physical and economic health would benefit greatly from a vaccine, there is no need to use taxpayer dollars to fund the basic research. Watch the IPO market. Most new companies fail (I’ve started a couple like that myself). The potential for an outsized return motivates some investors more than fear of a complete loss of capital. Greed usually trumps fear. Any company with drug development creds (and many without any) would be able to raise money for Covid vaccine development. Much more private money would be available faster than government bucks – but private investors will not compete against free government dollars nor accept limits on how profitable their discovery is assuming there is such a discovery.

Safety. Russia says they have a vaccine which is almost ready to go. Do we trust the successors to the government which both operated and certified the Chernobyl reactor to tell us when a vaccine they have backed is safe? I don’t. Nor do I trust the US Government to be the watchdog for the safety of a product funded by an investment that very same government has made. Doesn’t matter which brand of politicians are in control; they are not about to admit that they poured zillions of our dollars down a rathole. We badly need government to be a watchdog; we need government to oversee trials, production, distribution, after-effects, and everything else needed to make sure a cure is not worse than the disease. Government cannot effectively police itself any more than corporations can.

Government should be the regulator of new vaccines and drugs, an initial customer for them, and should use taxpayer dollars to assure that safe and effective vaccines and ant-Covid drugs are affordable. Yes, if the first inventors are not government funded, they will be entitled to charge a very high price initially to reward the risk they took. That high price is not the responsibility of the essential and vulnerable populations who will be the first to receive vaccinations. Both governments and other insurers of health care will be willing to pay at least as much as it would cost them to treat the disease; governments also have dollars available that would otherwise be spent on limiting the damage from shutdown.  As more vaccines are available, the price will drop – unless vaccines are only developed by the very few who got government subsidies.

We want tens of billions of dollars to be invested in the expensive process of drug discovery and testing rather than in scooping up bankrupt shopping malls or investing in the financial markets the Federal Reserve is so relentlessly propping up. Most of the money invested in the search for new drugs is lost. Most potential drugs and vaccines turn out to be duds or dangerous. Funding each path towards a vaccine is more like buying a lottery ticket than making a calculated investment. Like Megabucks, the prize must be huge because the odds are so long.

In a sense this post is too late. Russia is announcing its vaccine. Despite my skepticism, some of the government funded efforts say they are close to results; we don’t want to throw these out. It’s not just Trump and Putin we need to be skeptical of, though. I am anything but an anti-vaxxer; but we do not want to damage the impressive safety record of vaccines with hasty approval by the governments which funded them.

We must somehow put aside our political divisions to assure that each new vaccine gets a thorough test and is reasonably safe (“totally safe” is an oxymoron). Government should not fund new development beyond what is committed nor cap the profits private developers can earn with success. If the government-funded efforts don’t result in success or are only partially successful, we’ll want to have a wave of privately funded research as backup and a source of improvement over whatever is first developed.

We don’t want to limit what inventors or investors can earn; we do want the first vaccine be safe and free to recipients for the sake of physical and economic health.

September 14, 2020

Games Grandpa Made

Nerds can’t whittle. 

BugkinsEveryone of a certain age knows that, if grandpa is locked down in quarantine, he’s supposed to whittle toys for the grandkids. I was quarantined for a few days awaiting results of a Covid test – negative, fortunately; but, if I tried whittling, I’d probably cut my thumb off. Instead I used MIT’s marvelous Scratch programing language for kids to make a couple of educational games.

In the first game, suppose a bunch of very orderly boys hid themselves in caves. Since they are orderly, Aaron hid in cave one and Xavier in cave one hundred. The rest are in alphabetical order by their first names. You are given the name of one boy to find but only seven guesses. Think that’s impossible or at least unlikely? Think again. If you follow the right technique, you will always win. You (or your grandkids) can try at https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/424820147/ or by clicking on the game below if you’re reading this in your browser.

 

Hint: divide the problem in half at each guess. 50 should always be your first guess to find the hidden boy. If the name of your quarry is alphabetically after the name of the boy in cave 50, your next guess should be 75. If the name of your quarry is alphabetically before the name of the boy in cave 50, your next guess should be 25.

Fellow nerds will recognize that this game and the one below are teaching a technique called binary search. Programmers use the technique all the time both to speed up algorithms and to find bugs. It is a lot faster to divide a problem in half and then in half again than to look at each possible solution. Binary search is used to find leaks in pipes, electrical outages, and now even in Covid testing.

The second game asks the player to find Computerbudkins. Grandson Jack is the artist behind Computerbugkin (seen at the beginning of this blog and the end of the game). I can’t draw any better than I can whittle.

 

Click the link https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/423727647/ to get to the game if you aren’t reading in your browser.

See also: Forward To a New Normal - The Scratch Version

September 08, 2020

Celebrate Labor Day and Essential Workers by Substantially Raising Minimum Wage

The pandemic has shown the flaws in my orthodox conservative economic view.

Fallacy #1. Wages will find their “right” level in a free market

There is an essential asymmetry in the fact that most employers have more than one employee while most employees have only one employer. As corporations grew larger, unions were necessary to counter that asymmetry for industrial workers. Some unions are corrupt; so are some employers. Some unions and employers have conspired against their workers by trading off unrealistic pension promises for current compensation; but unions played an essential role in lifting American industrial workers into the middle class. The whole country benefited.

Without unions, manufacturers would not have been able to pay higher wages because they would be underpriced by competitors paying less. Industry-wide unions meant that paying a higher wage did not lead to a competitive disadvantage against domestic competitors (see below on foreign competition). Cost advantage can be achieved by investing capital to make workers more productive, unless work rules prevent efficiency.

Unions are not a practical answer for most employees of small businesses. Unions have high overhead per bargaining unit; they promote inflexibility; they can hurt the relationship which grows when the boss knows every employee by name and employees identify strongly with the success of the enterprise. But small employers in competitive businesses can’t afford to pay higher wages than the business cattycorner across from them with a similar product because they would have to raise prices and lose business.

A minimum wage allows small businesses to pay a higher wage than they would otherwise without being at a competitive disadvantage. The cost is spread over their customers; there is literally no free Big Mac. However, today the cost of unrealistically low wages is spread over both the working poor and those who pay the taxes which support welfare for the working poor.

The pandemic has shown us the unfairness of paying grocery clerks and other essential workers low wages. We’re very fortunate most of them stayed at work as the rest of us found how unessential and dependent we really are.

Fallacy #2. Trade should always be totally free

Yes, in theory free trade means each county makes what it makes best and all benefit from the cheapest possible goods and best use of their labor. Yes, part of the success of the US is that it is a huge free trade zone itself and the EU has also succeeded partially through free trade. Yes, globalization has pulled whole countries out of poverty. And, yes, protectionism often benefits the inefficient and/or the over-priced.

No, we have learned, it is not a good idea to have a complex supply chain of lowest-cost providers because eventually the weakest links will break and you will have no supplies. Who would imagine that we would not only run out of surgical masks but also the components that go into making them? Who would imagine that, after the initial shock of the pandemic, we still can’t process tests at warp speed because of a lack of reagents? It is necessary to make sure that whole crucial industries don’t migrate to other places (or even worse a complex chain of other places) because such places may decide that they need the ventilators and masks more than we do even though we’re willing to pay more.

We don’t need to do everything domestically. We should take advantage of cheaper supplies from abroad. But we cannot be fully dependent on the cheapest supply from wherever. We do need a level of tariff protection against supply that comes from places with extremely low wages. We export jobs to them; they export poverty to us when they make it impossible to pay a living wage (see above).

As long as there are huge wage disparities worldwide (and these are actually shrinking), we need to make sure US industries don’t fail solely because they pay a living wage. We do NOT want tariff barriers to reward insufficient factory investment or byzantine work rules.

Although we are a nation of immigrants and I hope we will remain so, we don’t want to be dependent on an illegal work force who are the only ones who will accept our lowest wages.   

This Labor Day is a great time to reward our essential workers and to assure, out of respect for those who have chosen to remain at work in our time of need, that work always pays more than not working and that work will buy necessities.

See also: The Perfect is Not Only the Enemy of the Good

September 03, 2020

FDR Was Against Public Employee Unions Having the Rights to Strike or Bargain Collectively

Public School Teachers’ Unions Are a Good Example of Why

FDRFranklin Delano Roosevelt was a great supporter of organized labor. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (aka the Wagner Act) was passed on his watch and is still the basic federal law governing the relationship of private sector employees and labor unions. FDR also supported the right of public sector workers to organize. However, he was emphatically against allowing government workers either to have collective bargaining agreements or to strike.

He wrote:

“All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.…

 “…Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable…”

FDR did not cite the danger of public employee unions so powerful that they are decisive in elections through both their advocacy and their contributions; that hadn’t happened yet. Public employee unions get two bites of the negotiation apple: once through the election and a second time at the bargaining where the bosses of the people they are negotiating with are the politicians the unions helped elect.

FDR was writing about federal employees, but the same logic applies to state and municipal and school district employees. As you may remember, federal employees did strike despite laws against this. In my youth there were postal strikes and then there was the famous air traffic controller strike. In one of the most overlooked achievements of his presidency, Ronald Regan fired the illegally striking controllers. There hasn’t been a federal strike since.

It is time for a showdown with teachers’ unions. Their protection of the incompetent and their jihad against charter schools is are root causes of an increasingly impenetrable wall between haves and have nots and growing inequality. My immigrant grandparents got a boost into American prosperity from great public schools in New York City and Philadelphia. That essential bridge out of poverty has been dismantled.

Most teachers I know are dedicated; my daughter and son-in-law teach in an underfunded public charter school. But the actions of the teachers’ unions during the pandemic are despicable. They expect their members to be supplied with food, medical care, policing, fire protection, plumbing etc. etc. by the parents of the children they won’t teach. They say “we didn’t sign up to risk out lives for your children.” In NYC Mayor de Blasio just gave into a union demand to postpone school reopening because the unions threatened an illegal (NY State law)  strike.

de Blasio missed the great opportunity a teacher strike presented to help struggling parents!

In recent years teacher strikes have almost always succeeded in getting teachers’ unions most of what they demanded. Frantic parents who couldn’t go to work pressured local school boards and state governments to give in. But that was then and this is now. The public schools are not planning to open open full time in most of the US; they are offering no in person teaching in some of the country. Parents already can’t go to work.

If teachers who aren’t working anyway go on strike, no one is going to miss them.

If teachers go on strike, they don’t get paid with public funds (presumably they have accumulated strike funds good for a while). If teachers go on strike, they are not entitled to unemployment insurance. The money that would have gone to teachers who are not working is then freed up to help parents desperate for both daycare to let them get back to work and an education for their children.

Teachers who want to work –I think there’ll be many despite peer pressure – should, of course, be welcomed with open arms. Those with medical conditions which prevent them working are entitled to the same consideration as those in other essential industries who can’t work. All should be given an opportunity to come back to work once they see that the parent-public is no longer over a barrel.

If politicians learn that the teachers’ unions are not all-powerful, they may stop caving on other important issues like discipline, merit pay, school choice, and charter schools. If that happens and quality public education can once more be a bridge out of poverty, 2020 can still be a year in which equality in America took a big step forward – one FDR would approve of.

 

See also:

Defund Teachers During the Pandemic

Should K-12 Schools Reopen?

Defunding Teachers for Better Education and More Equal Educational Opportunity

August 31, 2020

What Should be Mandatory and What Not

Masks and vaccination, yes. Reusable shopping bags and recycling compost, no.

Government should not use its authority to mandate promiscuously. Personal freedom does demand respect and deference. Overuse of mandates – especially mandates which aren’t or can’t be enforced – causes disrespect both for government and for those mandates which are essential. Moreover, to be effective mandates must be tailored as narrowly as possible.

Masks

After a reasonable wait to see if voluntary actions would be enough, Governor Phil Scott imposed a limited mask mandate on Vermont. We have the lowest infection rate in the nation, which fact, interestingly, can be used as an argument for or against a mask mandate. The problem with our mask mandate, though, is lack of enforcement. I think our mandate should be only for enclosed places other than homes because that’s where there’s the most danger. The primary burden of enforcement should be on the owner of the space.

Accepting the limit on personal freedom of a mask mandate to reduce transmission rate is one way to allow us to increase risk by the necessary action of resuming in-person school.

Store owners will object, reasonably, that they don’t want to be in the business of turning away customers and that some customers will react with extreme anger. However, these arguments don’t stop us from having stores enforce the minimum age for purchasing tobacco and alcohol (both too high in my opinion), no-smoking prohibitions, and various health department regulations.

Plastic bags

To make things easier on the stores and reduce their burden, we should re-allow them to give their customers plastic bags if they want to. During the early days of the pandemic we reasonably forbade store clerks from packing possibly contaminated reusable bags. Then we allowed a ban on non-reusable bags passed earlier to go into effect. The ban was a meaningless symbolic act even when it was passed. Our plastic bags don’t end up in the horrible Pacific plastic gyre; ocean currents don’t work that way. Our trash still goes to the dump in thick plastic garbage bags; the big plastic bags are full of all the long-lasting Styrofoam and plastic that individual food comes packaged in. The take home bags were reusable, especially as poop bags. Now I buy thicker bags for this purpose. Stores used to accept bags for recycling.

During the pandemic the ban on disposable bags is not just silly but also harmful. Virus belongs in the dump. Reusable bags are a possible vector for disease. Moreover, since the clerks can’t and shouldn’t help load customer bags, each checkout takes longer, and we spend more time together in stores.

Food scraps

Similarly the ban on food scraps in the trash never did make much sense. Food waste in a dump doesn’t last forever; it decomposes. When it decomposes, it releases methane which is a powerful greenhouse gas; however, many dumps including Vermont’s only commercial dump in Coventry burn the methane to produce “organic” electricity which goes into the grid. My home composting does not capture methane or produce any useful energy nor do most composting sites.

Now that food scraps can’t be bundled with the other trash, new services are being offered for curbside pickup. I applaud the entrepreneurs setting up these businesses; however, the local bears and racoons are very entrepreneurial also and often get to the food scraps before pickup and take them away free. Since the extra trips to composting sites aren’t all being done in EVs; greenhouse gasses result from the extra transportation.

Vaccination

When there’s a Covid-19 vaccine, it should be mandatory for going to school, day care, or college for both adult supervision and children just as masks are (medical exceptions only). Probably should be mandatory for taking public transportation as well, at least for a while. Individual freedom is preserved. You can home school your kids if you don’t want them vaccinated; you can drive if you don’t want to take public transportation. What you can’t do is freeload on the herd immunity earned by other people getting vaccinated and expose everyone else to your possibly infectious self. The societal reward for this mandate is huge and includes the quick end to other mandates like masks and prohibitions on large gatherings.

While we don’t have a C19 vaccine, this year’s flu vaccine should be mandated in the same way. The flu is now more dangerous societally than it was pre-pandemic. Since symptoms for the two respiratory diseases are the same, flu cases threaten to both cause unnecessary alarm and overwhelm test facilities needed for a possible Fall resurgence of C19. Medical facilities can be overwhelmed by cases resulting from the two different viruses; and it seems likely that people weakened by flu will be more prone to C19 and in more danger should they get infected.

Flu vaccine is available now. There is no reason to wait for a mandate to get your shot.

Let’s lose the unnecessary mandates while we enforce mandates on what is necessary.

See Also:

Should K-12 Schools Reopen?

It’s Time for Mandatory Vaccinations

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