June 11, 2018

The Hillary Clinton Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There would be no immigration reform.

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

The carried interest deduction for hedge fund managers would not have been repealed.

Banks would have relief from Dodd-Franks.

Ethanol would still be mandated and subsidized.

ISIS would be on the run.

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

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

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

The swamp would still be the swamp.

Things that would have been better under Clinton IMO

Discussion between and about international leaders would still be civil.

Appointees would not be trash-talking world leaders.

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

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

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

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

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

Things that are better under Trump IMO

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

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

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

We are out of the feckless Iran deal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charter schools have a fighting chance.

Things I think could be better

(the list is too long for this blog)

See I Voted for Donald Trump

June 07, 2018

An Antifragile Energy Supply

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

Where’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

How do we make our energy distribution system antifragile?

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

See also Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

June 04, 2018

Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

Civil war in the swamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

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

An Antifragile Energy Supply

May 31, 2018

I Voted for Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 25, 2018

An Old Dog, Scratch, and Python

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

This is what Scratch looks like:

Scratch

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

And this is some Python:

Python

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

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

May 17, 2018

The Farm Bill: Where Wealthfare Meets Welfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 08, 2018

Incels: Just Say No

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

The Guardian describes the movement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 03, 2018

A Good Use of One-Time Funds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 30, 2018

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

David Brooks wrote in The New York Times:

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

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

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

Examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks concludes:

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

Election Analysis: It Was TARP that Boiled the Tea

Confessions of a Stimulator

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