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

August 27, 2020

US Chapter of One Trillion Trees Announced Today

The role played by trees in reducing CO2 has up until now been virtually ignored.

Trees soak up carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into wood, forest litter, and carbon in the soil (the process is called carbon sequestration). Existing trees annually remove 15% of US emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel use. They have the potential to soak up at least twice as much at a lower cost per ton of CO2 removed than new solar panels or wind turbines.

The 2018 report from the UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimates that an increase worldwide of one billion hectares (2.47 billion acres) of forestland would keep global warming this century below 1.5 degrees centigrade assuming that emissions of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) don’t increase from current levels. However, the UN assumed that it would not be practical to increase forestland by that amount so didn’t model the effect of many more trees in its many scenarios.

Last July an article in Science calculated that it is actually quite feasible to add the equivalent of .9 billion hectares of forestland to the 2.8 billion hectares we already have globally. Historically, of course, much more of the earth was forested. The careful study allows for existing cropland, human habitation, soil conditions, slopes, and water availability among other factors. The authors point out that the UN report lists reforestation as the cheapest alternative per pound of CO2 removed from the atmosphere.

More trees and better management of existing forest are back on the table as a significant, perhaps the most significant, climate mitigation strategy. Just before the pandemic grabbed our attention, the World Economic Forum announced the trillion tree platform to support the already existing Trillion Trees Campaign. Today’s announcement is of the US chapter, us.1t.org, which already has pledges to conserve, restore, and grow 855 million trees.  The chapter is led by the World Economic Forum and American Forests (of which I’m a board member). Sponsors include American Forest Foundation, Arbor Day Foundation, Bank of America, Mastercard, Microsoft, National Association of State Foresters, National Forest Foundation, Salesforce, and the cities of Detroit and Dallas.

This is all good news. Where’s the rub? Why hasn’t this happened sooner?

Just as the fossil fuel industry is accused, often justly, of disparaging renewables to protect its business, the renewables construction industry is notably hostile to anything which might divert dollars from additional subsidies for solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars. Just a little while after the original World Economic Forum announcement, the NY Times ran an op-ed “Planting Trees Won’t Save the World” which says: “Focusing on trees as the big solution to climate change is a dangerous diversion. Worse still [emphasis mine], it takes attention away from those responsible for the carbon emissions that are pushing us toward disaster.” In other words, less expensive and less disruptive plans to save the planet are dangerous because they might cause people to resist the price and disruption of a total ban on fossil fuels. We must be panicked into doing what the authors want.

Here in very green Vermont, where the renewable construction industry has a very effective lobby, our state decarbonization plan only recognizes reductions in greenhouse gas emission towards our decarbonization goal. Taking CO2 out of the air with trees doesn’t count even though it is more effective in terms of pounds of greenhouse gasses removed per dollar than subsidizing electric cars for rich people or over-paying for electricity from solar and wind.

A test for who is a “real environmentalist” as opposed to an environmental opportunist will be support or opposition to forests as an environmental solution which should be funded whenever it is the most effective alternative.

As today’s commitments for 1t.org turn into trees, there will be real carbon savings to point to as well as the ancillary benefits of forests: cooler local temperatures because of shade and transpiration, filtering of health-threatening gasses, cleaner water and less flooding, less severe fires because of better forestry practices, forestry jobs, and more land for both wildlife and recreation. You can learn more about or support 1t.org at 1t.org us.

See also:

Trees v. Solar Panels

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

The Science Behind the Trillion Tree Campaign

August 25, 2020

The Perfect is Not Only the Enemy of the Good

It’s dangerous in its fragility.

Before the pandemic we had developed almost perfect supply chains. Perfect meant that great quantities of product were manufactured or extracted in whatever places could deliver the end product most cheaply to the consumer considering transportation, tariffs, warehousing and distribution costs. Most products are made from various inputs; the supply chains are complex since the subcomponents also have to be the cheapest that can be delivered to the manufacturing site. Prices were generally low and supply adequate.

What’s not to like?

Fragility.

The supply chains were optimized for price. Having a single source of products is often cheaper than multiple sources since only one source can be the absolute lowest price. Inventory costs money to finance and store so the perfect supply chain is “just in time.” If any link in the perfect chain breaks, the perfect chain fails.

The pandemic broke lots of links. The chains failed. Why weren’t there any makers of low-cost surgical masks in the US? Because it was cheaper to have surgical masks made in Asia even including transportation. Why weren’t there stockpiles of surgical masks and other needed equipment for the pandemic? Because there was just in time delivery whenever you needed something. What happens if manufacturing and delivery for some items needs to increase by an order of magnitude? Can’t be done; the optimal factory is running at near capacity and so are its suppliers. What happens when Asia decides it needs the surgical makes it makes more than its customers do? The answer to that is history.

Perfection almost did us in. Couldn’t even get toilet paper because the supply chain which gets TP to the home was differentiated from the supply chain that gets TP to the office; but TP use is all at home during a lockdown. Couldn’t make masks in large quantities at home for a while because the elastic material that hold them on your ears wasn’t made in the US and wasn’t immediately available.

Nature’s way of dealing with the fragility of perfection is based on imperfection. Suppose there is a plant species which has evolved to become highly dependent on the current ratio of nitrogen to oxygen in the atmosphere. Optimized plants will evolve and even dominate if conditions stay stable long enough. All the time, however, mutations (imperfections in gene replication) are occurring. When conditions are stable, almost all the mutations are harmful and die out – who wants to mess with perfection. But all of a sudden there is a higher amount of oxygen available. The plants that are too specialized will die out.  The few mutants who either happen to be optimized for the new mix or are just less dependent on the old mix flourish. Give me adaptability over perfection any day.

If gene replication were perfect, there’d be no complex life –   perhaps no life at all – on earth.

As we return to a new normal, how do we avoid a return to fragile perfection? It won’t be easy since, in the short run, “perfect” supply chains deliver cheaper goods and cheaper goods win in the market. For some customers, like hospitals, we can set up alternate manufacturing and insist on adequate local and regional stockpiles through regulation – cost of these precautions shows up in medical insurance prices; but this is insurance.  Do we go back to protectionism to assure that there is always some local production? Do we assure that we always have enough print on demand capacity ready to spool up and produce whatever’s in short supply? Who pays for that? How does the owner of the standby capacity make money before the crisis; in the crisis, how does she avoid getting accused of gouging?

We have a lot of questions to answer before we reflexively try to go back to the old normal.

See also: The Internet Turbocharged Globalization

August 20, 2020

Covid Forces Vermont to Split Childcare from Teaching

The change may improve both in the long term.

Yesterday Vermont Governor Phil Scott announced a plan to use federal covid relief funds to establish 73 new childcare hubs around the state. These hubs are places where children can go on the days when their schools are offering only “remote learning.” The hubs will have computers and excellent broadband and will be staffed by counselors but NOT teachers. “These hubs will be set up in workplaces, in school buildings, recreational buildings, municipal buildings and summer camp buildings that historically care for children,” according to Vermont Human Services Secretary Mike Smith.

The hubs and other expanded daycare facilities the Governor announced meet an immediate need for parents who must work outside the house five days/week even though their children will only be provided with traditional in-person school for two or three days,  if that.  What this plan recognizes implicitly is that the teaching and custodial roles of traditional schools can be split apart and that traditional subject matter trained teachers are only needed for the former. In fact, since the students will be getting some remote education at the daycare center, live teachers – as crucial as the best of them are - aren’t even needed for all instruction.

The remote instruction will not be limited by the expertise available in individual schools since the hubs are regional. It may well evolve that best-in-the-country online courses can be purchased by the state and made available to all students regardless of what town they live in. This solves a problem which has long hindered education in rural areas of the state – no small school on its own can afford to provide excellent instruction across a wide variety of subjects.

If the hubs work well both custodially and educationally and as the pandemic fades, the hubs and existing schools can be merged into one set of facilities which students attend full time.  Vermont – which has the highest ratio of teachers and staff to students of any state – will be able to reduce the teacher workforce through both attrition and more attention to teacher performance while improving the education our kids get. The counselors who perform well in the hubs will be able to continue their careers as counselors for the online learning and recreational and social parts of the school day.

We will then be able to have a continuum between “preschool” childcare – almost all counselors – to kindergarten – mostly counselors but some online and live teaching - to later years with more subject matter learning but counselors still playing a key supervisory role even during the online learning part of the day. Daycare workers are currently underpaid and under-trained. This new plan should change that. We will need less traditional subject matter teachers but be able to pay handsomely for those who are best at in-person and online instruction.

Needless to say, this is a rosy scenario; but crisis situations often lead to long-term improvement when the crisis makes “business as usual” impossible.

See also: Defunding Teachers for Better Education and More Equal Educational Opportunity

August 17, 2020

Trump-Proof the Election

Reduce dependence on the Postal Service.

Maybe crippling the US Postal Service is a diabolical plot by Trump to prevent ballots for his opponents from counting; maybe discrediting mailed in ballots is his plan B for claiming fraud if he loses the election in the electoral college. I don’t know if either is true (and neither does The Washington Post); but we can’t afford to wait to find out. We must Trump-proof the election. We must make sure that the results have clearly and cleanly been received at polling places, preferably by election day but, if necessary, a day or two after.

Same is true if your conspiracy theories are seen from a right-wing PoV. Maybe the Democrats are getting ready, should they lose, to blame the loss on interference with the Postal Service and start a new impeachment circus even before Trump’s second inauguration. Maybe the postal unions see an opportunity to delay long-needed reforms to the Postal Service and are willing to hold the election hostage to keep underutilized postal facilities in operation.

Maybe Trump and everyone else are all getting ready to use a manufactured postal crisis to delegitimize the election. We can assure that doesn’t happen by reducing dependence on the Postal Service.

It would be great if people who usually vote in person can vote in person on election day in November. But we can’t count on that. There could be a huge resurgence of Covid in the Fall; that cannot be allowed to interfere with the election. The most vulnerable among us can be pretty sure we won’t be voting in person; but all of us should plan as if we won’t be going to the polling place on election day.

We must NOT all plan to drop a ballot in the mail in the week before election day. Here’s what we can and should do instead.

  1. Get absentee ballots as soon as you possible can in your state. In some states you’ll get them automatically (which does create its own problems). We don’t want outgoing absentee ballots to be part of a postal crisis.
  2. If you are voting in advance, drop off your ballot yourself. In Vermont that can be done at town halls. I googled “where can ballots be dropped off” – this link does that for you – and got useful information for many states. Keep your ballot out of the mail.
  3. If you can’t drop off your ballot and aren’t positive you’ll be able to vote on election day, trade off waiting for all the information you’d like to have for making sure your ballot counts. Mail it at least two weeks early and help spread out the load on the Postal Service.
  4. Encourage your local officials to set up drive-thru ballot drop off locations for use on election day. At least 18 Vermont towns did that successfully on primary day. These locations are an extremely low risk way to vote on election day and they keep your ballot out of the mail.
  5. Don’t mail anything but ballots in the two weeks before election day. Pay your bills early or late. Let’s make sure the Postal Service isn’t overburdened.
  6. Don’t order anything from Amazon which might be delivered by the USPS in the two weeks before election. Jeff Bezos can wait and we don’t want anything getting in the way of ballot delivery.
  7. If you’re not highly at risk for Covid, volunteer to be a poll-watcher and or ballot-counter. Many of the elderly who usually do this for us are too much at risk. We the people need to be present to assure a fair election.

Do vote!

Note: Mail-in ballots won’t be an issue in Vermont. Primary voting set a record because of mail-ins and results haven’t been unduly delayed. Moreover, Trump won’t get Vermont’s mighty three electoral votes even if Joe Biden spends between now and election day with his foot in his mouth and Kamala Harris confesses to being a secret agent for ICE.

See also: We Need Massive Turnout and Unambiguous Results from the November Election

August 13, 2020

Gallup Poll: 81% of Black Americans Want Same Level or More of Police Presence

Kamala Harris may be able to make these black voices matter.

Gallup’s numbers speak for themselves:

Gallup

Like other Americans, Black Americans want police protection despite the fact that only 61% of Blacks are very or somewhat confident that they will be treated with courtesy and respect by police compared with 91% of Whites. Understandably, 88% of Black Americans say major police reform is needed while only 51% of Whites feel the same way.

There is national agreement that we need better policing, not less of it. People who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods need effective policing more than those in low-crime neighborhoods; and so they are hurt more when police unions protect incompetent, brutal, or racist cops from discipline (just as the people with the worst schools are hurt worst by teachers’ unions protecting incompetent teachers). Trouble is it’s hard to have the national discussion we need to have about reform – including reform of municipal unions – in the din of “defund the police”.

A Black woman police chief, who has done as good a job as she possibly could among the chaos of Seattle, has just resigned because the City Council unanimously supports drastic cuts to the police budget and refused to denounce people threatening violence at her home. Nationally the murder rate is rising alarmingly; it’s rising the most, not surprisingly, in the places which need better policing.

Kamala Harris was a pretty tough as Attorney General of both San Francisco and California, some say too tough. The leftwing (and libertarian) rap on her is that she prosecuted too many people and too few cops. She was an anti-drug warrior. But Harris, half Black and half Asian, can’t be shouted down as a spokeswoman for male white privilege. As the Vice Presidential candidate (and certainly as Vice President), she’ll be able to make the case for better police protection for Black Americans.

According to Gallup, better protection is exactly what most Black Americans want despite the hue and cry for “abolishing the police”. It took Nixon to make an opening to China and Bill Clinton to enact major welfare reform. I hope Harris can help us achieve more effective policing.

See also: ALL Black Lives Should Matter

August 11, 2020

Leadership in Extreme Disruption

Case studies close to home.

Imagine you’re a leader and don’t have a clue what to do. How do you make decisions in an unprecedented situation? What people and data do you rely on? How do you keep the respect of the people you’re leading when many of your decisions are going to turn out to have been wrong?

Let’s start with a simple case. You and your faithful follower (ff) are in a pitch-black space. You can talk to each other; you can touch each other; but you can’t see anything. There’s no good reason to think you’re going to be rescued; you’re first decision is to try to find a way out. Doing nothing is not an option; that’s rule #1.

You could say to ff “we’ll go this way; I think it’s the best way.” But you have no reason to think that, so there’s no point in saying it. Better to say “we’ll try one direction at a time and see what we find.” Then, if two steps take you into a wall, you’ll have learned something instead of having squandered points from your credibility bank. Rule #2 is don’t pretend to know more than you do.

“Shall we walk or crawl?” asks ff.

“Let’s crawl,” you say; “no telling where there may be a hole.” You crawl for a long time; your knees are sore; you are slowly building mental maps of the space but is taking forever; you don’t find any holes.

“Based on our experience,” you say, “we’d be able to make better progress by walking. But I could be wrong.” Rule #3 is never, never be afraid to say you were wrong. You add to the credibility bank.

You start to walk and promptly stumble into a hole which fortunately isn’t deep enough to do more than bruise your body and ego. “I was wrong,” you say again (having already allowed for that possibility one paragraph ago). “Let’s walk but with one of us in front and holding hands for safety.” I don’t know whether you and ff will escape but you’re doing a good job leading, the plan is evolving, and you still have a follower.

Back in the real covid-ridden world, who’s been doing a good job leading and who hasn’t?

Donald Trump’s done a bad job of both crisis and conventional leadership. He did some things right: shutting off arrivals from China early was correct; daily briefings were a good idea but the execution was terrible; multiple parallel incentives for drug companies to develop vaccines quickly is good traditional leadership. He was dead wrong about the impact although his early guess (rule #2) – “not gonna be a problem” – was not that different than what the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control were then saying. But Trump never got around to admitting he was wrong (rule #3). Awarding himself a ten for an adequate response cost many credibility points; saying “five and we’re trying hard to do better” would’ve left him in a better position to lead subsequently – but that’s not his style. It wasn’t Trump’s fault we weren’t ready for the first wave; no one has accused him of burning stockpiles of masks, ventilators and test kits left by his predecessors. Not being ready for the summer resurgence was an absolute failure of traditional leadership; it should cost him the presidency. Advocating masks with a wink and then not wearing one is atrocious. On the other hand, a national mask mandate except for federal venues and federal jurisdictions like interstate commerce would be clearly unconstitutional.

Dr. Fauci got off to a good start admitting to a congressional committee that the US was not ready when it should’ve been. His credibility and ability to lead have been enhanced by his willingness to contradict his boss. His early prediction that the virus wouldn’t be a major problem was incorrect although it was conventional wisdom when he said it. He should just admit this instead of evading the question when it comes up. The evasion makes him vulnerable to his enemies in the White House.  Fauci reversed himself on masks as the evidence changed; that’s a good thing except he also says he didn’t want people to hoard masks when they were in short supply for medical people. The suspicion that he bends his facts to get us to do what he thinks is good for us makes him a less effective advocate for mask-wearing now than he might have been had he told us the whole truth all along.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has talked a good game. His well-run daily briefings gained in comparison to the President’s pathetic ramblings. He initially underestimated the impact like almost everyone else. Once he understood the danger, he was brutally frank about it to point of exaggeration. His prediction that what was happening in New York (actually the New York City metropolitan area) would happen soon in the rest of the country was fortunately wrong – and may have reduced the willingness of the rest of the country to send even more people and supplies to NY. Cuomo’s decision to send covid-infected patients back to nursing home to reduce the stress on hospitals was catastrophically wrong. It is one of the reasons why New York’s covid death toll remains much higher than any other state even though some states have now surpassed it in number of confirmed cases.  The squabbling between Cuomo and DeBlasio is infantile and harmful to both their ability to lead and their constituents.

My prize for good leadership goes to Vermont Governor Phil Scott I don’t think I’m just overcome by home-state loyalty. We do have the lowest infection and positivity rates in the country; we have no one currently hospitalized; we’ve had just two deaths in the last six weeks. Part of these results are certainly because we’re rural and not densely populated; but we are also less than five driving hours from the epicenters of the early New England wave. The early shutdown of the hospitality industry hurt the people who own and work in our hospitality industry greatly but may have saved us from having our hospitals overwhelmed and may make a winter ski season possible. Credit (and blame) for that decision belongs to Scott. He hasn’t tried to avoid the blame and he has been modest about accepting credit. Leaves him in a good position to lead (and get re-elected) going forward.

Phil’s briefings, never quite daily, were not only appropriately low-key but a model for letting both the experts and the government leaders speak directly to the people of Vermont. All of them, particularly Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith, are quick to admit what they don’t know. Mistakes get admitted such as not more closely monitoring the covid testing protocols at out-of-state prisons to which Vermont prisoners are sent (there has been a large outbreak there).

Scott resisted making masks mandatory for most Vermonters for the very good reason that there was not a good enforcement method so, voluntary compliance was needed. He switched his position when 1) voluntary compliance proved not to be what he hoped it would be; 2) it became clear that students returning from out-of-state as well as tourists will increase the risk; 3) the importance of reopening k-12 schools made other risks less tolerable [nb. I still think we’ll need some enforcement in some places]. Changing your mind when the facts warrant is good leadership. Don’t let your spin-doctors talk you out of simply saying “I learned things and I changed my mind.”

Leadership from congress in this pandemic. Fuhgettabouttit!

And Joe Biden is MIA. His silence may be good electoral strategy while Trump blusters and splutters but it doesn’t set Biden up well to lead as next President.

August 06, 2020

Defunding Teachers for Better Education and More Equal Educational Opportunity

Like policing, schooling is essential and must be available to all. Some of what police do and the funds which pay for that work, can be better assigned to other professionals. Much of what teachers do today (or used to do before the pandemic) can and should be done by others. A silver lining of the pandemic may be to accelerate a transition to better schooling than our children were getting before the virus blew out of the bat cave.

K-12 schools, when they’re open, perform five basic functions: instruction, practice, testing, daycare, and more-or-less supervised socialization. Public schools have also become a place where children are fed who might not receive adequate nutrition at home and where some signs of child abuse or neglect can be spotted.

In-person instruction in most K-12 subjects is obsolete. If lecturing or storytelling is needed, as it often is, that is better done by video featuring the most-gifted presenters and actors. Animation makes much better illustrations than drawing on a whiteboard. Carefully-crafted educational scripts can allow both exploration and re-covering topics a student is having trouble grasping. Interacting with a computer is, itself a skill, which will help today’s students at-least until the successor to computers is invented (as it surely will be).

The schools of the future will be places where students have great broadband capability, all kinds of av equipment, and, regardless of zip code, instruction by the best presenters in the world in a context as compelling as the best games the best gamers can make. The geniuses who make this wonderful content and keep it up to date will be very well paid; they won’t belong to the teachers’ unions; and the cost of production will be spread over the tens of millions of students who benefit from it.  Depending on grade level, two to five hours of the school day should be online.

There do need to be monitors while the kids are watching and interacting with the content (otherwise they might not watch or interact); but these people don’t have to be content experts; they will be more like very well-trained day care workers. If shutdowns of schools are necessary in the future, the content will be consumable at home with mom or dad or a pod doing the monitoring.

Much practice can also be done online. However, students benefit both from well-moderated group discussion as well as very individualized clarification of points they just don’t grasp initially They do benefit from hands-on labs. These are jobs which do benefit from human teachers who are both good with kids and familiar with the content. These teachers should be well-educated and well-paid. They should NOT be protected from firing by their union when they prove incompetent or unwilling any more than brutal or incompetent police should be protected.  Children probably don’t need to be with the teachers providing moderation, clarification, and hands-on experience for more than a couple of hours of each school day.

Testing require only monitors and computers. The testing is essential, however. It provides feedback for tailoring both practice and instruction to the individual students, vocational guidance, and a measure of how effective the instructional material and the teachers supervising practice are.

Daycare and supervised socialization occur together whether at mealtime, sports, or what used to be called recess. Coaches are needed for sports and do need special skills. Again video can teach and illustrate athletics but supervised practice is even more important for muscular skills than for intellectual ones.

On the average, children will only be with content experts (LIVE teachers, coaches, arts instructors) three hours or so every school day. They will still be with adults most of the rest of the time, but at least half the time the adults will be monitors and skilled daycare workers. We will only need half as many teachers per student as we do today; but, thanks to excellent content available in every school, the students will get a better education.

Hiring fewer teachers can mean both more selectivity and higher pay for people who can make an enormous difference in children’s lives.

Note that daycare starting at almost any age fits into this model. For the very young, there’s more care than teaching; but some teaching should start very early. Public, charter, parochial, and private schools will all be able to use the excellent course material at a very reasonable price per student. Assuming broadband availability, the instructional material will also be available for home-schooling when parents feel that’s needed or desirable – or when schools are closed. We will still have to be pay more for teachers and monitors to work in dangerous neighborhoods – and should pay more. But the instruction available in urban and rural depressed area will be as good as it is anywhere else; it will offer a path from poverty.

See also: Defund Teachers During the Pandemic

              Should K-12 Schools Reopen?

              Covid Forces Vermont to Split Childcare from Teaching

August 03, 2020

Defund Teachers During the Pandemic

The police are willing to work.

Beyond the ludicrous argument that we don’t need law enforcement, there are sensible reasons for moving some functions and the funding to accomplish them away from police departments and to those who are trained for the specific functions. The reasons for moving funding away from the traditional public schools are at least as compelling.

This post is about moving money and functions away from teachers who can’t or won’t teach during the pandemic to those, including parents, who will watch and educate kids. The next post is about what the pandemic is teaching us about permanently shifting funds from teachers to those best equipped to perform the tasks that were wrapped up in “public schooling” before the pandemic.

Teachers who don’t teach shouldn’t be paid. This is not meant as a punishment. If waitpeople or nurses can’t work because their workplaces are closed or because they are individually too much at risk, they go on unemployment even though the shutdown or their vulnerability is not their fault.  Waitpeople and the owners of restaurants have incentive to be as creative and flexible as they can to keep their jobs. Teachers’ unions, on the other hand, believe their members have a right to get paid whether they work or not. Teachers might be a bit more creative about returning to work if their salaries depended on actually doing their jobs.

The money paid to teachers who don’t teach is needed by parents. If your daycare center is closed because of COVID, at least one parent won’t be able to go to work; however, you do have the money NOT paid to daycare available to offset some of the salary loss. When you stay home because teachers are not taking care of your children, the teachers are getting paid anyway and you’re not. That’s wrong.  Your tax dollars are paying for a service you’re not getting.

The money paid to teachers who don’t teach is needed to pay those who can and will. If your favorite restaurant is closed by the pandemic, you can use the money you didn’t spend there at the grocery store (thanks to many essential workers who have stayed on the job through the pandemic) or at a restaurant with outdoor dining. If your children can’t get educated at their public school, you need the money which would have gone to pay those teacher salaries to pay daycare workers, private schools, tutors, and/or for online courses.

Outrageously, the Los Angeles Teacher’s Union is demanding that charter schools in the city be shut down as part of the price of their returning partly to work. They want to make sure no one else does the job they are not doing.

Coming Next: what the pandemic has taught us about permanently “defunding” teachers.

See also:

Defunding Teachers for Better Education and More Equal Educational Opportunity

Should K-12 Schools Reopen?

Covid Forces Vermont to Split Childcare from Teaching

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