5 January 2014: Delayed New Year
I wrote the Happy New Year entry on December 31, but it didn’t get posted on the website until today, because although I could see the website, I couldn’t log into the Cpanel or FTP to update the content. These glitches will happen and I’m grateful to the website host for responding to the trouble ticket and getting it fixed in spite of additional glitches.
While waiting for the glitch to be resolved I tried setting up on a free website host as a backup. I chose biz.nf and that was a mistake. Of course I agreed not to post objectionable words, but they have a strange idea of what words are objectionable, like “propecia” (a medication for male pattern baldness) and “investment banking” (but “investment bank” is OK). Pages that included such words raised an Error 403: Forbidden and I had to figure out by elimination which words they didn’t like. Understandably, I didn’t want to play that game.
Eventually the glitch got fixed, and we’re back up. Happy New Year!
31 December 2013: Happy New Year!
Today I decided to look into the warnings I kept getting from my email client that it couldn't get mail from the server on this site. Turns out even the site itself wasn’t accessible. There was no Whois data for the website domain. Some Whois servers said the domain was available, some not. The service provider where I had registered the domain didn’t even show that I had ever had it.
I found another service provider that said this domain, angryoldman.us, was available for purchase. I bought it. Don’t worry, it was cheap. To make a long story short, I went through the whole procedure of setting up the domain name and connecting it with the original website host. We’re back up.
Best wishes for a better and happier new year than the old one we just had.
11 August 2013: Technology is destroying jobs
Automation is destroying jobs faster than new jobs are being created. That’s supposedly one of the main reasons why we have unemployment.
You would think the ability to make what we need with less human effort would be a good thing. But it isn’t. If your labor is not needed, then you don’t get any of what’s produced by other people’s labor.
If we lived in a region where everything you needed could be just plucked off a tree, without anybody even having to cultivate the tree, you might think that would be paradise. Wrong. Everybody—well, almost everybody—would be destitute.
In our economic system, somebody would own those trees, and you would have to pay for anything you took from them. But with no need for work, you would have no way to get money. You would get nothing. Only the owners of the trees would have anything.
Maybe we need a new kind of economic system. Can somebody invent one?
21 June 2013: How to blow bubbles
“The Fed’s Next Move” was the headline of the lead editorial in today’s New York Times.
The subhead in the print edition—you won’t see it on their website—was “Can the Fed stimulate the economy without creating asset bubbles?”
Of course it can! All it has to do is send the stimulus money to the people who buy products instead of to the people who buy assets.
No, I have to correct that. The Fed can’t do that. The Fed can only deal in money, financial assets and bankers’ interest rates. Some other agency has to do it. But it can be done.
The Fed is trying to stimulate the economy by buying bonds on the open market, and the editorial is about whether it should continue to do that. It should not. Because when it buys up bonds, the bond owners have more money but there are fewer bonds to buy. The financial markets have more money chasing fewer assets.
“Too much money chasing too little goods” is the recipe for inflation in the economy. “Too much money chasing too few assets” is the recipe for inflation in the financial markets. And what do we inflate when we have inflation in the financial markets? Bubbles!
But suppose some government agency (not the Fed, some other agency has to do it) buys infrastructure instead of assets; say, bridges instead of bonds. Construction workers get jobs. They get paid money. These are the people who spend money on products, so they buy products.
Now the people who buy assets don’t have to buy inflatable assets, hoping to cash in on the bubbles. They can make real profits by buying new capital goods to make the products that other people are now buying. The process of making the new capital goods creates more jobs, more workers get paid money, they buy more products, and there’s more profit to be made by making more capital goods to make more products.
That’s how to stimulate the economy. But the Fed can’t do that. All the Fed can do is create asset bubbles.
23 December 2012: How to address school safety
Let’s get serious about yesterday’s quickie.
Cars and trucks are dangerous if operated carelessly or maliciously, so we have compulsory training and licensing for anybody who wants to use them. The National Rifle Association won’t actually admit that guns are dangerous if used carelessly or maliciously, but they offer safety training to anybody who wants it.
Do you see a problem here? Cars are designed for transportation but they can be dangerous so we have mandatory training and licensing for drivers. Guns are designed to kill and maim but we don’t have mandatory training and licensing for shooters.
But you can’t buy a gun without a background check! Yes, you can. Two ways. One is by a “private sale,” and most sales at gun shows, and many on the internet, are “private sales.” The other is if the background check takes longer than three days. Some state laws are different, but under federal law a dealer is allowed to sell you a gun if your background check is not completed after three days.
But wouldn’t a nationwide licensing and registration system be very expensive? There are almost as many guns in the U.S. as there are people! Well, there are almost as many motor vehicles in the U.S. as there are people. California has about one-eighth of them and has less than ten thousand DMV employees. So maybe—I can’t find an exact figure—there are as many as a hundred thousand people in the U.S. licensing and registering motor vehicles. So it would take about a hundred thousand employees, mostly clerical, to staff a nationwide system for licensing and registering guns.
NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre has an alternative: “I call on Congress today to act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school....” There are about a hundred thousand schools in the U.S., and each would need enough officers to guard children outside in the schoolyard and inside in dozens of classrooms spread over several floors or several wings. We would need about half a million to a million trained, armed police officers.
Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, speaking for the NRA, suggests an alternative that won’t cost anything: “... this will be a program that doesn’t depend on massive funding from local authorities or the federal government. Instead, it’ll make use of local volunteers serving in their own communities.” I know of rural and suburban communities that have volunteer first aid squads and volunteer fire departments. I don’t know of any that have volunteer police departments or even armed volunteer auxiliary police officers, though there may be a few. Most people live in cities where there aren’t even enough volunteers to staff a fire department or a first aid squad; their duties are performed by a paid municipal fire department. Where are all these volunteer armed guards going to come from?
And even if you could find those volunteers, is this the best use of volunteer manpower? Oh, I get it, those are people who wouldn’t volunteer for anything else but are happy to volunteer to carry guns. So we’re going to have half a million gun-happy guys in buildings with children. No, thank you.
This morning in The New York Times, Ross Douthat complained that “On issue after issue, debate after debate, there is a near-unified establishment view of what the government should do, and then a furious right-wing reaction to this consensus that offers no real policy alternative at all.... What’s missing, meanwhile, are real alternatives – not only conservative, but left-wing as well.” Did I just offer a left-wing alternative?
22 December 2012: After another school shootup...
The NRA says “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” That isn’t even true. For instance, you can tackle him from behind.
But just think: isn’t it a lot easier to stop a bad guy who doesn’t have a gun?
25 November 2012: Copay is a fraud
Whenever you get medical service your insurance probably requires that you pay a “copay” as part of the cost. Depending on the terms of your insurance, that can add up to more than you can afford, especially if you have a medical condition that requires frequent attention. Do you know why your insurance requires a copay?
According to Wikipedia, the copay is there to prevent “moral hazard.” Moral hazard is defined as the tendency to take risks or incur expenses that someone else will be paying for. The idea is that if you didn’t have to pay anything at all you would go to the doctor too often for little things you don’t really need a doctor for.
But how much would that save? Nobody knows for sure. One source says “... doctors believe a significant number of office visits – about 10 percent according to the primary care physicians – are unnecessary....” Another says “Data shows up to 70% of all doctor visits may be superfluous....” Both estimate the cost of unnecessary doctor visits as “billions.” Do you know how much health care actually costs, altogether? Trillions, specifically nearly $2.6 trillion in 2010. Billions are a drop in the bucket.
Doctors make much more costly decisions without having to pay for them. That’s the real moral hazard. They prescribe drugs they don’t pay for. They order tests they don’t pay for. They send you for surgery they don’t pay for. The surgeons, in fact, recommend surgery that not only they don’t pay for, they get paid for. Those, all together, cost far more than the primary care physician visits that you decide on. And whether you like it or not, you’re responsible for the copay.
If copays don’t address the real cost problem, why do we have them?
29 June 2012: Broccoli
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the most controversial provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which imposes a penalty, payable to the IRS, on all individuals who do not buy health insurance. The intent of Congress, apparently, was that it could do so under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes Congress to regulate commerce between the states.
The Court did not agree. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, explained that regulating commerce presupposes that there is some commerce to regulate. It does not include creating commerce where it does not already exist, even if it can be expected to exist in the future.
Instead, the Court held that the “penalty” was really a tax, authorized by the Constitution under the taxing power of Congress, on not buying health insurance. The Court’s opinion held that this is not a new power for Congress. But it is. Up to now, taxes have been levied on things, having things or doing things. Now Congress is authorized to tax not having things and not doing things.
During oral argument before the Court, Justice Scalia asked whether, if Congress can require Americans to buy health insurance, it could with equal justification require people to buy broccoli. The Court has decided that Congress does not have that power under the commerce clause, but it can compel you to buy broccoli by imposing a tax on you if you don’t.
This is a brave new world.
29 April 2012: Be a fool
Lost in the ashes of history is who first said it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
That may be good advice for an individual, but it’s poison for group decisions. Everyone in the group looks at the same foolish proposal, and rather than raise what might be a foolish question, thinks “I don’t understand it, but if nobody else has a problem it’s OK with me,” and the foolish proposal is accepted without question.
The traditional function of the king’s fool (a.k.a. jester or joker) was not just to entertain, but to expose foolishness. Shakespeare made a theme of that. In King Lear, the fool helped the king regain his sanity. In Hamlet, the prince saw the gravedigger turn up the skull of the court fool Yorick. Marcellus had previously remarked that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and what enabled that to happen is that the fool is dead.
As my wisest teachers used to say, there’s no such thing as a foolish question, only foolish answers. Ask the question.
2 April 2012: Support the health care law!
To hear the liberals talk about it, you would think the only way to provide health care for all is to give the insurance companies a captive market, and there can be no doubt whatever that the Constitution gives the federal government the authority to do that. It’s in the commerce clause. Congress has the power to regulate commerce between the states.
You go across the street to your doctor, you go to a hospital in the same town, that’s interstate commerce. There are Supreme Court decisions galore to back that up. There’s one about a farmer growing wheat on his own land to feed his own livestock. That comes under federal regulation because he is affecting interstate commerce, because if he didn’t grow his own wheat he would buy it on the nationwide wheat market. So because some people go to the next state to see a doctor, or go to a world famous hospital—some people go from either coast all the way to Minnesota—your visit to the doctor across the street is interstate commerce.
I never said it wasn’t. I’m concerned about what it means to regulate. To regulate something means to make rules about how you are allowed to do it. It doesn’t include forcing people to do it. Up to now, government could only keep things from happening; it couldn’t make things happen, except what government did itself. Governments can make roads, but it can’t force you to make a road. Oh, maybe if you built a town, government could say you had to make roads in it and into it. But that amounts to saying that you’re not allowed to build a town without roads.
Government says if you drive a car you have to buy insurance. But it’s really saying you’re not allowed to drive a car without insurance. You’re not allowed to employ people unless you pay and collect certain taxes, but the same law allows you to avoid the tax by not employing anybody.
But now here comes a law that says you must, unconditionally, buy health insurance. No way out. Even if you’re not doing anything, you’re engaging in interstate commerce, because by not doing anything you’re influencing a nationwide market. I cannot imagine that the authority to “regulate commerce” really means that.
Well, never mind the Constitution. We need universal health care, and that means everybody has to have health care insurance. Otherwise the government would provide health care, and you wouldn’t want that. The government might end up rationing health care, and you elect the government. If anybody rations health care, it should be a corporation that is owned by stockholders, but is actually controlled by a board of directors that tells the stockholders how to vote their shares. That’s the only fair way.
If you believe that, you just bought a bridge.
22 March 2012: How about a white first lady?
According to recent news stories, Robert de Niro had to apologize for a joke he made at a Democratic fundraiser on March 19. What he said was: “Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white First Lady? [laughter] Too soon, right?”
Newt Gingrich was incensed and demanded an apology. De Niro apologized. Why?
The joke was satirical. You have to be careful with satire. It might be misunderstood if you take it literally. But in this case the question was too absurd to be taken literally. I mean, we have always had white first ladies—well, almost always. So the question is not serious. It’s satire.
De Niro was satirizing bigotry. If you’re not bigoted, you laugh. If you are bigoted, you know the joke is at your expense, and you take offense. Now we know where everybody stands.
21 March 2012: Deadly force in Florida
At about 7:00 pm on the night of February 26, a black teenage boy named Trayvon Martin, and a white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman, were both on the same public walkway in Sanford, FL. Both had a right to be there. But Trayvon feared great bodily harm to himself, while George, as a watch volunteer, feared the commission of a forcible felony.
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
That’s section 776.013(3) of the Florida statutes. It says Trayvon and George both had the right to use force, including deadly force. Both, having being met with force, had the right to stand their ground and meet force with force. But Trayvon was unarmed, while George had a gun.
Putting it that way, it was nobody’s fault that Trayvon died. But maybe we should ask whether they “reasonably” believed that force was necessary.
George called 911 because he thought Trayvon looked suspicious. Why did he think so? Because Trayvon was a black boy walking in a gated community wearing a hoodie in the rain? Is that enough reason to think force is necessary to prevent a crime?
Trayvon was on foot, talking on his cellphone, when George got out of his vehicle. Trayvon may have thought George was approaching him in a threatening manner. Was that enough reason for Trayvon to believe he could prevent death or great bodily harm to himself by attacking a larger, older man?
Maybe neither of them had a good reason to use force until one of them used force without a good reason. Then the other has a right to use deadly force if necessary, the attacker has a right to use force against deadly force, and the altercation escalates until one of them is dead. The guilty party, therefore, is the one who used force first. Who used force first? Who do you think used force first?
17 March 2012: When will the future come?
I went to the New York World’s Fair in 1939. We thought then that by the end of the century we would all be living in gleaming alabaster cities undimmed by human tears, and we would all be working shorter hours because technology would take the place of human labor.
That didn’t happen.
A good twenty years after the war to end all wars, as we were coming out of the Great Depression of the Thirties, we were on the eve of the war to start wars all over again. That war, and the recovery from that war, took us through the Forties.
The Fifties was a time of economic growth and general prosperity, but there were ominous undercurrents. Senator Joe McCarthy sacrificed himself to create a diversion. After we rejected his brand of rabid anti-Communism, we felt that routine anti-Communism was normal. Technology gave us the hydrogen bomb. We fought a war in Korea, and when that was over we started fighting a war in Vietnam.
The Sixties was a decade of protest. A hundred years after the Civil War, we freed the slaves again. We continued the war in Vietnam. Technology sent men to the moon.
The protests died away in the Seventies. The war in Vietnam was closed down. In its place came the war on poverty. Stories about “welfare queens” persuaded us that the rich were not rich enough because the poor were taking money away from them.
We began to correct that in the Eighties. Since low-wage workers don’t pay income taxes, but do pay payroll taxes, we cut the income tax and raised the Social Security payroll tax.
Since then we continued to cut income taxes and began to cut away at public assistance programs. The gap between rich and poor kept getting bigger, because we kept thinking that if only the rich were a little bit richer they would create jobs. Technology gave us financial products.
A lifetime ago, we thought the future would be now. But there are no alabaster cities, no shorter working hours. The rich work fourteen hours a day and live in gated enclaves in fear of petty crime and terrorism. The rest of us are lucky to have any job at all.
6 March 2012
There ought to be a national database of telephone numbers that shows that when I resort to the telephone it’s because I need something a machine can’t deal with!