Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Thinker

For women to actually get equal pay, the sun must shine in

The stay at home mom is now almost legend. Women are at the cusp of being a majority of the workforce. One reason may be that women earn on average 77 cents on the dollar that men earn. All things being equal, that’s a considerable discount if you are an employer. Why wouldn’t you want to hire more women if you could pay them less?

Few believe that the wage gap is entirely due to sex discrimination. Women after all have babies, and this can inconveniently take them out of the workforce for a while. When they rejoin the workforce, often it is in a new position that comes with an entry-level salary. This is unfortunate but is not illegal. Many conservatives will argue that this alone explains the wage gap.

Traditionally fewer women have had college degrees than men. Now women form the majority of college students, so that suggests this will change in time. Some professions such as in science and engineering have traditionally been unrepresented by women, and these jobs often pay more than jobs on average, which might skew the average salaries higher for men. Still, hardly anyone who has studied the issue will dispute the assertion that some of the pay gap is due to sex discrimination. The discrimination may not be overt. It may simply be women setting their salary requirements too low and employers discreetly pocketing the savings. It’s also hard to ask for a fair salary when you don’t know what a fair salary is.

A lot of people resent sharing their salary information. It’s not hard to see why, as one of two things are likely. First, others will discover you are paid a lot more than they are for roughly the same work, which might engender feelings of hostility and resentment toward you. Second, you will realize others are paid considerably more than you while doing the same work, and that’s embarrassing. Regardless, employers can and do use the confidentiality aspects of salaries to their advantage. To truly get equal pay for equal work, this has to change.

But how? Who is going to want to disclose their salary when it engenders feelings of shame or anxiety? On the other hand, how can women have confidence that they are getting paid equivalent to a man without some disclosure?

The tools to find out how much your market wage should be are rudimentary at best. The Department of Labor keeps statistics on wage rates for a variety of professions, but of course wage rates will vary substantially depending on where you live and the local cost of living. The statistics are also highly bracketed. What you really need to know is what does someone in my profession, hopefully at the same company and at the same location, with similar time at the company and similar responsibilities earn? Companies are under no obligation to provide this information.

One way of course is to demand what you consider a fair salary and if your employer does not agree to it to quit. It helps enormously of course to have another job offer waiting before trying this. But it doesn’t necessarily tell you if your other offer is fair either.

I have a potential solution to the pay gap issue. What are needed are independent third-party labor assessors that would collect and verify pay data. Here’s how it could work.

Each community would have one person designated as an occupational salary and benefits assessor. I’m not sure how many would be needed, but let’s say it’s one person for every 10,000 employed people. Ideally the person would be funded by non-profit agencies, but it would also be reasonable for the person to be someone guaranteed to be impartial, such as a government employee, perhaps an employee of the Department of Labor, either for the federal government or for the state and county government. Their task is to make sure that there are no major pay discrepancies in various local companies based on categories that are clearly illegal, such as by sex. Employees could schedule meetings with their labor assessor to input their salary information, or send them documentation electronically on a periodic basis.

These labor assessors would need credentials of course and they would be sworn to maintain the confidentiality of information provided by an employee. The employee would provide the assessor with pay stubs and other related information so the information could not be faked. This might include employer 401-K contributions, employer pension plans, a resume of their work history, evidence of their certificates, diplomas, SAT scores and GPAs. Of course it would also be important to know key information like age of the person, time in job, their gender, their race, the position title, a description of their duties, etc.

The assessor would take the information, verify it, and put it into a database that would anonomize the employee’s information. The assessor may even have the duty to audit a particular company, particularly one suspected of practicing pay discrimination. Interviews would be done off site and perhaps in the privacy of someone’s home if needed. Periodically, perhaps annually, the employee would be asked to update information regarding salary, position and current job duties. It might even require compelling the employee to provide the information. I realize labor assessors could also demand the information from the company, but there is the possibility that an employer might lie or inflate benefits. It is better to get the information directly from an employee.

Eventually this would allow an understanding of how employees in similar skills and positions are paid within the same company. Perhaps the information could remain confidential and the employer could be given some time to rectify pay inequalities that are discovered. If that does not occur the bulk information could be publicly disclosed and if not corrected legal action initiated. This would move the feelings of shame from the employee, where they do not belong, to the employer, where they do belong. It would likely reveal other pay disparities that are illegal: perhaps disparities based on race, age or handicaps.

Lacking any of this, it is hard to see how the situation will change. This is because pay disparities will be purely anecdotal in almost all cases, given the lack of information. Given the undeniable fact that women in general tend to make much less than men, such a system could fundamentally transform pay fairness in the workplace, as well as increase the standard of living for tens of millions of women across the country.

If someone has a better idea, I’d like to hear it.

 
The Thinker

Running scared

What would you do if you knew that your life, as you have known it, was going to change fundamentally? Great traumatic events happen to us in our lives, but none of us welcome them. When they happen, we tend to seek out the comfort of the known rather than confront the discomfort of the unknown.

Many Japanese warriors at the end of World War II preferred what they saw as suicide with dignity – crashing their aircraft into enemy aircraft carriers or self-immolation – to defeat and living in a world that was ordered fundamentally differently than the way they were raised. Others will instead find ways to resist. They think that change can be stopped somehow, and they will simply resist it to the last fiber of their being. And so they turn their houses into fortresses, buy arsenals of guns and create a fallout shelter stocked with years of food, water, medicines and other perishables.

Something like this is happening right now across much of Red America. They smell the winds of change. For years they have ignored it by expressing the opinion that while things may be changing out there it won’t happen here. At some point though the smell becomes too pervasive. Up go defenses and the barricades. For many in power though it means that they feel compelled to use it to their utmost advantage. It means highly gerrymandered districts allowing ever more extreme people to get elected to Congress. It also means creating laws that are clearly unconstitutional (like Missouri granting its citizens exemption from certain federal gun laws) to intrusive for people you don’t like (unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds for women prior to an abortion). It means that their values must be promoted with no exceptions. So out go textbooks that say evolution is established science and in come textbooks that promote creationism instead. You tighten the screws even more on the poor by reducing food stamps and making it harder to get on Medicaid. You sign laws that do away with early voting on weekends because you don’t want that kind to vote anyhow. You are running scared.

It’s quite an ordeal. In fact, the late Eric Hoffer wrote a book about it, The Ordeal of Change, which is an interesting read if you have the time. If you looked at our changing demographics and have read Hoffer’s book, what’s happening today should not be a surprise. In fact, it is entirely predictable. What’s going on in Red America has happened lots of times before and will keep happening in the future. We are now in the “no compromises to encroaching reality” phase of this ordeal of change.

Civilized people of course recognize that change can mean that long established social systems can be reordered. When it appears inevitable, we will seek to make change as easy as possible, to minimize anger and hurt. It’s not always possible, however. The denial phase seems to be in Red America’s rear view mirror, but the anger phase certainly isn’t. They feel terribly hurt because their society is fundamentally changing, and fear it will leave them in a less privileged place when complete.

So the anger gets expressed in laws that even ten years ago they would not have considered, such as transvaginal ultrasounds for pregnant women who want an abortion. They feel they must dish out in pain at least as much as they perceive they are receiving in pain. Why do they do this? Part of it is reflexive meanness toward those not like them, but part of it is also because when anger is served out, its recipients tend to hurt too. Most people give wide berth to bullies. By acting like bullies, they are ultimately hoping we will leave them alone.

In this context, a lot of what is going on in Red America and by Republicans in Congress begins to make sense. If you accept that the Affordable Care Act is the institutionalized law of the land then you realize that you can really only amend it, not repeal it. However, if your lines are drawn and your barricades are in place then you are left with a no surrender mentality. At least so far, there is no sign of surrendering to the rule of law. Republicans will accept nothing less than the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They cannot even come up with a coherent replacement for it, in part because they reject the premise that our old system was not perfect. If they reject what was, then in some way they must also agree that their values were either incorrect or unworkable in the modern context. That creates cognitive dissonance, so it is repressed through the mechanism that tells them, like it told Commander Taggert, to “Never give up, never surrender.”

It is increasingly clear that marriage will soon be available to anyone regardless of their sexual orientation. The Supreme Court has pretty much declared at the federal level that doing otherwise is unconstitutional, because it gives privileges to one sort of citizen unavailable to another. Moreover, because of the Supremacy Clause in the constitution, federal law trumps state law when the two conflict. Consequently, entirely reasonable federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws across the country, even in deeply red states like Oklahoma and Utah. While good for gays and lesbians, it is not so good for those whose values are invalidated through the process of law. To some extent, their anger is counterproductive, because it stokes more anger, and adds to feelings of oppression and righteousness.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Change driven by demographics and social trends can be temporarily stymied but is rarely thwarted. It would help if Red America could look at the larger picture and take comfort from it. Our worship of capitalism will likely keep a large and poor working class for them to look down on. Also, anti-abortion laws will ensure a large population of poor people. Their churches will still be around when this is over, but the demographics will probably mean fewer of us will be in church. The people around us will be more multihued, but they already are: Red America simply isn’t looking close enough. For the most part, people will continue to cloister by combinations of race and class, as they have always done. In short, a lot of the angst from Red America, while predictable, is perhaps too much ado about much less change than they thought.

This should be a source of some comfort. Ultimately though few will understand what all the fuss was about. Only cranks complain about mixed race marriages today. In twenty years the same will be true with those complaining about gay marriage. Getting to the tranquil future from the enraged present though is likely to continue to be trying.

 
The Thinker

Progress through moderation, or why you should eat your vegetables

Do you want to know why so little is getting done in Washington, D.C.? In my humble opinion, it’s because of the absence of moderate legislators. Granted, this would not have been obvious to me a dozen years ago. But today, as I see the actual result of virtually totally polarized government, I am starting to understand that if anything meaningful is to happen in our government, it will require electing a lot of moderates.

DailyKos (where I guiltily hang out regularly) is a progressive on-line community and is all about electing what it calls “better” Democrats. Yes, we’ll vote for a moderate Democrat if there is no other choice. A moderate Democrat counts as well as a liberal Democrat when claiming a majority, and a majority holds the bulk of the power in a legislature. What they really want though are very liberal Democrats: the green tea drinking, carbon-neutral, gay-friendly, single-payer type of Democrat. The thinking goes that if we get enough of them elected, we’ll actually become a green country with marriage rights for all. Naturally, over at sites like Red State, they are recruiting the Ted Cruzes of the Republican Party. It seems like there is no logical end to how deeply conservative they want their candidates to be. Lately the litmus test includes repealing the amendment that allows for the direct election of senators.

I am all for green tea drinking, carbon-neutral, gay-friendly, single-payer Democrats, at least in the abstract. It’s when we actually get them to Congress and need them to legislate that it usually all goes to hell. This is because they are trying to legislate with the other side, which is also polarized. The more partisan you are, the less likely you are to accommodate suggestions from the other side. It’s my way or the highway. And so you get episodes like last October’s government shutdown, a costly and deeply counterproductive boondoggle. You get highly principled legislators so principled they cannot do what they were sent to Congress to do: legislate. Instead, they spend their time complaining.

Congress has given up on the deliberative process. Most committee chairmen spend their time promoting their party’s grievances with the other party, not working on legislation. Congress simply isn’t weighing the nation’s needs anymore. About all they can agree on, and only after a lot of warring, is to continue spending at about the same level we spent the year before. There is little in the way of direction to the agencies of government on how to spend money.

Unsurprisingly, when Congress refuses to do its job, the president gets antsy. We saw it on display at the State of the Union address. President Obama basically said that if Congress is going to sit on its hands, he will act. He’ll use the full measure of his executive powers to make change happen. This, of course, ticks off the Republicans in Congress, and leads to silly vitriol like the president is a Nazi or a dictator. This of course ignores that presidents of both parties have routinely pushed the boundaries of executive power. It was not that long ago when Democrats were complaining about President Bush’s many signing statements, basically saying which parts of a law he will choose to enforce. There is little evidence that President Obama has taken his executive authority to such absurd levels.

There is a solution to this problem: enacting real legislation. Real legislation is not the fiftieth vote by the House to repeal Obamacare, but it might be a reasonably bipartisan vote to change some unpopular aspects of it, perhaps the president’s not entirely true claim that if you like your health policy, you can keep it. That would reflect some debate and consensus. It would also acknowledge reality that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, so we might as well amend it rather than foolishly think we can abolish it. To actually do this though you first have to acknowledge that you can’t always get what you want. You have to, like, compromise.

Democrats are no better. The people at DailyKos want a Congress full of senators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I like and admire both senators. But I also know if the Democratic-side of the Senate were nothing but Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanders not a whole lot of legislation would get enacted into law. Our polarized Congress would just get more polarized.

There are exceptions of course. Great change can be made when one party seizes control of both the White House and the Congress. That’s how the imperfect Affordable Care Act got enacted. It’s how social security became law. It’s great for the party in charge when this happens, but it is invariably a fleeting experience. For the party out of power, these laws simply get their dander up. You can bet when they get power again, as happened to Republicans after the 2010 elections, their pent up resentment will be felt. In the case of House Republicans, it meant fifty fruitless votes to repeal Obamacare. More importantly, it also meant that they controlled the power of the purse, since appropriation legislation must originate in the House. And so we got fiscal cliffs, reduced stimuli and endless brinkmanship over debt ceilings, not to mention boatloads of Tea Partiers. We also got dysfunctional government. That was the price of Obamacare.

Electing “better” (i.e. more extreme) Republicans and Democrats simply ensures more of the same. So at some point a rational voter must ask themselves: is this really in my best interests? Is it really in the nation’s best interest? Does it really make sense to, say, not do anything serious about global climate change until my hypothetically green-friendly legislature is in power because the other side is being so unreasonable?

My answer is no. It’s in both my interest and the nation’s interest to do something about these issues, even if only half measures and imperfect. This is because time is our most precious commodity, and we are spending our future by doing nothing today. Hence, I need to be pragmatic about who I vote for.

I am not thrilled with Mark Warner as my senator. He’s a Democrat, but he’s very middle of the road and business-friendly, and arguably more than a little worker-hostile. However, he has crossover appeal. Even in this partisan climate he is working with Republican senators to try to move legislation, even though it seems impossible much of the time. The nation needs a lot more senators like Mark Warner, even though I do not agree with him on many issues.

The choice is like eating your vegetables instead of a slice of greasy pizza. I’d prefer the pizza any day, but I need to eat my vegetables instead. Ultimately, both I and my country will be better off if I put that clothespin on my nose and pull the lever to reelect Mark Warner. The logical part of my brain tells me I need to reelect him. The emotional side of me though wishes Elizabeth Warren would move to Virginia, so I could vote for her instead.

For the sake of my country, I’ve got to use my left brain.

 
The Thinker

If you care about the environment, choose your realtor with care

The Koch Brothers have been much in the news lately, at least if you follow political news. The two brothers own Koch Industries, which itself is a holding company for a lot of other companies it owns. The brothers are Charles and David Koch, but Koch Industries was actually built up by their father Fred, who long ago went to his reward.

Aside from their obscene wealth, the Koch Brothers have been known for their extremely conservative views. Moreover, they have not been afraid to put their money where their mouths are. Their money helped elect Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s governor. Together their political action committee, KochPAC, spent huge amounts of money on the 2012 elections, to little effect. As an investment, it was an unwise one, but its magnitude was stunning: over $400M. Their PACs alone spent nearly three times more in the 2012 election than the top ten labor unions combined.

Koch Industries is into lots of industries, principally industrial in nature. Their profits depend on getting natural resources cheaply to market. It’s not surprising then that Charles and David are premier anti-environmentalists, who vehemently deny that global warming is a problem and are trying to keep their industries from being impacted by pesky and costly pollution laws. Koch Carbon has created a lot of petroleum coke as a byproduct from refining oil shipped from Canadian tar sands. The product, called petcoke, has been piled up many stories high along parts of the Great Lakes. A huge noxious cloud of dust from a petcoke pile was captured on video last year. Its presence doesn’t bother the Koch Brothers, who don’t have to breathe the stuff, but it was of great concern to residents of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, who were on the receiving end of these polluted dust clouds.

While primarily into industrial activities, the Koch Brothers have influence in some surprising areas. One thing the Koch Brothers do well is create PACs and network related companies to contribute toward these PACs to achieve common goals. For the Koch Brothers, this is principally electing conservatives with an anti-environmental bent.

Many parts of the country are controlled by a handful of national realtor firms. Ever hear of Realogy? I hadn’t. There is a good chance you have heard some of these real estate firm names: Coldwell Banker, Century 21, Southbys, ERA and Better Homes and Gardens RE. It just so happens that Realogy gives heavily to Koch Brothers-related PACs. And Koch Brothers PACs give money principally to candidates that are anti-environmental, not to mention anti-union.

Real estate commissions are quite profitable, typically six percent of a house’s purchase price. A house selling for $250,000 actually costs $265,000, when you add in the typical real estate commissions. (It’s more than that, of course, when you add in all those other fees that come with buying a house.) Often the fee is split between two realtors: the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent. If you consider how many houses are sold across the country annually, you can see that real estate commissions amount to a huge amount of money. Of course the individual agents keep a lot of it: it amounts to their salary. However, they also kick back a lot of it to their companies. Companies like Coldwell Banker ship their profits back to Realogy. Realogy’s in turn uses some of those profits to fund Koch-related PACs. It helps explain why the Koch Brothers-related PACs can find more than $400M to spend influencing elections in 2012 alone. For a company this big, $400M amounts to the change found under the family’s sofa cushions.

Curiously, most of the agents who work for these companies have no idea where these profits go. It’s likely that many of them are like me: environmentalists. They would probably be aghast to learn a substantial amount of this money is spent to help elect politicians who will be anti-environmentalist. I’m not a realtor, but I am a likely home seller and buyer in the next year or so. I would have known none of this had I not spoken to a realtor, who shall remain anonymous, with progressive leanings, who gave me the inside dope on all this.

What this means for us home sellers and purchasers is that unless we are very careful we are indirectly contributing to the destruction of our planet. If next year when I expect to put our house on the market I choose a realtor who works for a company controlled by Realogy, I could be indirectly contributing to PACs controlled by the Koch brothers, which will go principally to electing people who will further harm the planet.

I am so glad to get this insider information. If you are an environmentalist and in the housing market, then you should be glad to be reading this post too. In fact, I hope you will take a moment to “like” it or hit one of the share buttons for this post, and broadcast it to your friends. Perhaps, before listing your house, you should choose a realtor firm not associated with Realogy. Among the national firms not part of Realogy are ReMax and Keller Williams. Perhaps, before hiring a buyer agent, you should do the same. That does not necessarily mean that ReMax and Keller Williams may not be channeling some of their profits into these anti-environmentalist causes. But it seems less likely that they are.

Deciding who to hire as your realtor or buyer agent of course is a complex decision. Typically you are more interested in the agent than the company they are affiliated with, and his or her track record. If you are an environmentalist, you can look for good agents that simply aren’t associated with these firms. You can also choose small, local and independent realtor firms. These firms don’t have to send their profits to a national office. They can keep the money in their community instead. And that sounds environmentally friendly.

You can bet that before I sign a contract with a realtor, I’ll be assured that my money will not indirectly support any Koch Brothers PAC, or any anti-environmental cause. I hope you will do the same.

Updated 3/9/14 – I initially published this with some incorrect information. I had suggested that Realogy was owned by the Koch Empire. This is not true, however Realogy does give heavily to the Koch Brothers’ related and approved PACs. The full extent is hard to determine, since individuals working for Realogy can make contributions to any organization they choose under their own name. As for the official Realogy PAC, you can see how it spent its money here. As you can see, a lot of it went to the Madison PAC, whose Facebook page indicates its purpose is to get conservatives elected to Congress.

 
The Thinker

Mt. Gox: more evidence of why BitCoin is best avoided

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz learned from Glinda that if she clicked her ruby slippers, closed her eyes and kept repeating “there’s no place like home” that she would magically return to Kansas. So simple! BitCoin adherents are a lot like Dorothy. Dorothy at least made it home from her fantastical journey. True believers in BitCoin, the libertarian currency, got a splash of cold water across their faces this week instead. Mt. Gox, the Tokyo-based BitCoin exchange, has gone belly up, along with about $300M in BitCoins. Most likely someone stole those BitCoins, either someone inside the firm or some shadowy hackers. By any standard, this was quite a heist. Looking at history, you’d have a hard time finding any instance of a similar theft inside what amounts to a bank.

In any case, sorry you BitCoin suckers. Real banks and exchanges still have vaults, but they don’t carry much of their assets in cash. Much of it is commercial paper, bonds, mortgage deeds, promissory notes and Federal Reserve Notes. Whether in paper, assets on an electronic register somewhere, or gold bars in a vault, these assets are quite tangible. Someone with a car loan who defaults on their payments is likely to find their car repossessed. Those who defaulted on home loans during the Great Recession found their houses foreclosed and if they had ready cash assets, they were put under legal assault. BitCoin owners with their BitCoins in Mt. Gox now have nothing and the police just aren’t interested in serving them justice.

This was not supposed to happen to this libertarian currency. Freed of its tie to governments, it was supposed to soar above inflation and always retain a finite empirical value. It was all secure and such through the power of math. After all, exchanging a BitCoin involves keeping a record of who its next owner is. Unless, of course, it just disappears. Undoubtedly these stolen BitCoins were converted into a real currency, just unbeknownst to its owners, and perhaps with the help of some money laundering exchange, perhaps Mt. Gox itself. BitCoin is after all the preferred currency of drug dealers, at least until their fingerprints have disappeared and they can convert the digital money into something more tangible and fungible, like U.S. dollars.

I keep my cash in a couple of credit unions and a bank. It’s unlikely that a credit union like Pentagon Federal, where I have a couple of accounts, is going to go under like Mt. Gox. In the unlikely event that it does, I’ll get my money back because it is backed up by what amounts to the full faith and credit of the United States. Mt. Gox was backed up by the full faith and credit of, well, Mt. Gox. It’s like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

And there’s the rub with BitCoin exchanges. When you create a currency detached from a government that will assert and protect its value, there is no one to complain to when your BitCoin bank goes bust. The government of Japan is looking into the event, but it is mostly hands off. It never promised to underwrite Mt. Gox, and Mt. Gox never asked it to. In any event, Japan underwrites its Yen, not BitCoins. Japan has a vested interest in keeping its currency solvent. It has no such interest in keeping another currency, particularly one it cannot control, solvent.

An exchange like Mt. Gox could of course seek out local governments for underwriting of their exchanges. Those BitCoin exchanges and banks that want to remain viable are going to have to do something just like this. Good luck with that. In doing so though they are of course defeating the whole purpose of BitCoin. BitCoin is about a libertarian ideal; it’s about money having a value independent of government apron strings. Affiliate the BitCoin currency in a BitCoin exchange with a government, and you tacitly admit that BitCoin is not a libertarian currency after all. In short, you have to give up the notion that money can be decoupled from government control.

It’s unlikely that many governments will be willing to protect BitCoin exchanges. It is reasonable to protect assets that you can actually control: your national currency. For a government to protect a BitCoin currency, it is reasonable to expect that they would also be able to control the amount of BitCoins in circulation and set rules for their use and misuse. They can’t do that, which means that they would be asked to put the good faith and credit of their country against an erratic currency that could prove digitally worthless at any time. This strikes me as a foolish thing to do, but there may be entrepreneurial countries out there, say, the Cayman Islands, that will take the plunge. The risk might be worth the rewards.

I don’t think you have to worry about governments like Germany, England, Japan, China and the United States doing something this foolish. If there is any organization that might see profit in this, it will probably be the Mafia, or other criminal syndicates, many of who are already using BitCoins as a mechanism for money laundering.

Doubtless other BitCoin exchanges will work real hard to sell trust that is now deservedly absent from these exchanges. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it’s going to be a hard sell given that BitCoin’s value is essentially based on faith in its mathematics and algorithms.

Absent from the minds of BitCoin true believers is an understanding that money must be tied to a governmental entity to be real money. It’s tied to governments for many reasons, but primarily because governments are required to govern, and this includes having the ability to enforce its laws and to collect taxes. Money is based on the idea that entities can force everyone to play by the same rules, including using the same currency as a means of exchange within the country for lawful debts. The truth is, there are no rules with BitCoin other than its math. It is a lawless currency. That Mt. Gox’s treasury of BitCoins can be plundered with impunity proves it.

Libertarianism is built on the idea of caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. No warranties are expressed or implied, but even if they are expressed they depend on the trust of the seller. No one can force the seller to do squat. The best a buyer can hope for is to track the thief down and take justice with his fists or a gun. That’s no way to run an economy, which is why libertarianism is an ideology that simply does not work in the real world.

Again, a word to the wise: just say no to BitCoins.

 
The Thinker

Snow rules for Washington D.C.

It’s snowing outside at my home here in Northern Virginia. It’s hard to measure the current amount of snow given the drifts, but I am guessing it is about a foot of snow and more is still falling. This makes it a major snow event for our area. This will likely the biggest such event since Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon back in late 2009 and early 2010. With our power lines underground, we’re good.

Thanks to the polar vortex, snow has not been unknown this season, although it had not arrived in substantial quantities until last night. Mostly what we’ve known are well below freezing temperatures instead. I used to wear my parka a couple of times a year. For weeks I’ve worn nothing outside but my parka, and an insulated hat, and my warmest and thickest gloves and sometimes a scarf as well. In short, it’s been a real winter, of the sort I remember from my childhood in upstate New York. It shows no sign of leaving anytime soon. The polar vortex is quite happy where it is, thank you very much.

If these events and cold weather go on long enough, it may actually change the snow culture of the Washington area. It hasn’t happened yet. There are rules and a protocol for dealing with snow that are generally unique to our area. If you are thinking of relocating to the Washington D.C. area, here is what to expect:

  • If there is a rumor of snow in the forecast, even if it is a week away, it will be Topic A around the office water cooler. It will send the local meteorologist wannabee in your office to find the most crazy and outlandish forecast, which will spread like wildfire. A chance of snow next Friday will morph into a killer supercell snowstorm because of some odd European forecast model, which professional meteorologists scorn. Guess which forecast your office-mates will believe?
  • Because of the above (or sometimes just the rumor that there might be snow in the next month) you are required to immediately rush to the store to buy milk and toilet paper. Everyone will get the same bright idea at once, which will mean that parking lots will be jammed, store shelves will empty and toilet paper and milk won’t be able to be found which will also be true of the snow. A true Washingtonian knows that even if you have a couple of months supply of toilet paper, and an extra refrigerator stashed with gallons of milk, you are still required to go buy more milk and toilet paper. It’s the rule! You can never possibly have enough, because it could be weeks before a snowplow gets to your street.
  • The federal government is required to dither about whether it will close its offices or not, leaving great uncertainty and confusion because most local governments, institutions and businesses will follow whatever the government does. The poor director of the Office of Personnel Management will get squeezed from both sides trying to call it. Taxpayers don’t like federal employees getting a paid day off and federal employees don’t like getting stuck in snowdrifts going to and from the office or for that matter, working. So the OPM chief is bound to make someone unhappy and upset. Congress will conveniently gavel their sessions to an early close so they can get out of town, while conducting hurried interviews on their way to the airport about the outrage of giving federal workers another day off with pay. In any event, there is a 50% chance the OPM director will call it wrong and a 100% chance that someone will be mortally offended and call for his removal.
  • Some Republican congressman will say that the snowstorm is proof positive that global warming is not happening. Actually, a half dozen or more of them will, but only one will make the papers.
  • The plowing rules are straightforward: when you don’t particularly need your street to be plowed it will be plowed. When you really need it, it won’t be. Our last three-incher brought the plow down our street twice during the night. Getting out of my driveway in the morning was not a problem and my street was nicely sanded with mostly bare pavement. This snowstorm likely means a couple of days before a plow arrives. They are too busy plowing the main roads that no one can get to than to bother with places where actual people live. In general, particularly in Virginia, the snow removal budget will always be underfunded assuming the most optimistic forecast for the winter and there will be great consternation when lots of snow arrives and there isn’t the money to remove the snow quickly. It’s the price of limited government and keeping taxes low.
  • Your local school district works just the opposite of the director of OPM. They want schools to close and actively look for reasons to shut the school down. No one complains except those whiny parents who probably have to work and can’t get childcare. No one in the school system gives a crap about them. A rumor of snow or ice a week away is sufficient to close schools. A temperature in the single digits, and sometimes in the teens, is a reason to close schools. Principles, teachers and students all expect lots of bogus snow days. When the year draws to an end and enough instruction days were not delivered, someone will waive the requirement to extend the school year because, duh, parents have vacation plans already!
  • Here is what you do if you see a snowflake: panic. It’s required. You are driving down a clear street and one stray flake falls from the sky. You must immediately scream and cause an accident. This is because even if you have lived in the area thirty years, you are not allowed to retain the memory of how to drive safely in snow. Even if you did somehow remember, your fellow commuters won’t, because most are newbies and previously lived in tropical environments. In any event it only takes one person who has never driven in snow before to thoroughly shut down a major artery, and it’s guaranteed that you will have plenty of those, so traffic will quickly gridlock. It will be hard to say if it is due to snow, since this is the way traffic is most of the time anyhow, but it is guaranteed if there is just a single snowflake.
  • You will eventually end up with spouse and kids all home together, and you are required to drive each other nuts. This is because it’s not normal to be all at home together at the same time.  You keep your sanity by being physically removed from each other most of the time by being at work, school, or at friends. Suddenly you are together 24/7 and you quickly will discover that while you love your family, you don’t like them. In fact, you secretly hate them, including your spouse. The longer you are housebound the worse it will get.
  • The rule on shoveling sidewalks is: every other walk is shoveled. Some will dutifully shovel in the midst of a snowstorm; some never will, including their driveway. If pressed people will create all sorts of reasons for not shoveling, including school kids will get better traction in the snow instead of on a cleared sidewalk. The lazy ones simply wait for nature to “shovel” the snow for them. Some will hope a kind neighbor to do it for them. The really clever ones keep a broken shovel as a ready excuse and, gosh darn, all the stores are closed so there is no way to get a new one.

That will do it for a starter. I am hoping to retire this year or next and we are likely to move further north. So I expect to see more snow but I also expect the streets will be plowed regularly. It will take some time to forget the Washington snow culture, but it will have me chuckling during each snowfall in retirement. Washington is a city full of eggheads who become vacuous blondes the moment a snowflake arrives. If it weren’t so frustrating, it would be very humorous.

 
The Thinker

How to truly value labor

Paul Ryan, former Republican vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee chairman, has a new concern about Obamacare. It comes from a very selective reading of a new Congressional Budget Office report. The report noted that because Obamacare helps decouple health insurance from employment, some people who are working only because of their employer’s health insurance will quit and get their health insurance through a public exchange instead.

The CBO estimates that the equivalent of more than two million jobs will disappear over the next few years from employees who can now make this choice. Ryan said this means that Americans will “not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class”. This is because, apparently, they will prefer sloth instead because they have the option of getting subsidized health insurance from the government instead.

Other Republicans leapt to inferences the CBO never said. The typical talking point became, “Obamacare will destroy more than two million jobs.” As if when people leave their job, employers won’t try to fill those jobs. By this logic anyone who quits their job is destroying jobs. Moreover, last I heard if you quit your job you won’t get free health care. You may be entitled to a subsidy if your income is low enough and if truly destitute and devoid of assets you could go on Medicaid. But that is hardly new. Moreover, employers may be entitled to government subsidies to provide health insurance to their employees. That’s part of Obamacare too. I guess a business could decide not to take these subsidies, but almost all that can will, because they like profits. I don’t see any Republicans referring to businesses that take these subsidies as freeloaders. But people who quit a soul sucking job apparently have no appreciation for the dignity of work and want to be bums.

Personally, I think it’s great when people quit their jobs. People don’t quit jobs they like. They quit jobs they hate. So Ryan could not be more wrong. People who quit a job generally expect to find a better and more fulfilling work somewhere else. If they thought otherwise they would stay in their current job. Obamacare increases personal freedom. Most likely everyone will be better off. Employers will get more productive employees that are more vested in their work and those who quit will be (or expect to be) in a happier situation.

As for the dignity of work being a personal value, it’s a curious argument for a Republican to make. Right now the situation is reversed. Government gives you incentive not to work, not through health insurance subsidies, but by allowing those with cash to invest their money and tax it at rates far less than the tax rates of labor. Capital gains mean nothing to most of us that are working. We may have retirement accounts with six or seven digits of value, and we still don’t care about capital gains. That’s because capital gains do not apply to our retirement accounts. When, in your geezerhood, you do take withdrawals from your Keogh or 401K, you won’t get a capital gains tax rate of 15% like those moneyed Wall Street types get for their non-retirement investments. That money will be taxed as if you worked to acquire them, i.e. earned income. Only those with liquid assets available for investing outside of retirement accounts can take advantage of those low capital gains tax rates. Others like me are taxed at a considerably higher rate because we work and make a good wage. In my case, I am in the 25% tax bracket. As I noted before, others like Mitt Romney don’t work at all, are filthy rich and are in the 15% tax bracket because their income is almost all from capital gains.

If the dignity of work is now an important Republican value, then how about making work pay? People working at Wal-Mart or McDonalds apparently cannot survive on their wages. Many of these people would be malnourished or homeless if they were not getting food stamps or in some cases public housing. If they could survive without government handouts and actually be able to acquire some modest savings and live in their own place, maybe they would feel dignity and value. But many employers don’t care about their dignity or value because they won’t pay them a living wage. What does that say about how employers value labor? Government could set a living wage floor that actually was a living wage. Low income workers would have more money in their pockets and would likely spend most of it, increasing economic activity. Having dignity in your work implies that you can be self-sufficient from your labor. Low wage jobs appear to have the opposite effect.

And if work should be valued, shouldn’t it be valued at least as much as investment income? Unless you inherit wealth, it takes a heap of high-paid labor to acquire surplus funds to invest outside of your retirement. The argument for low capital gains tax rates was to spur economic growth. That doesn’t seem to be working so well, as evidenced by our anemic economy and the high unemployment rate.

So this argument about the dignity of work is one of two things: rhetoric or, if sincere, it should be a call to action for society to put its money where its mouth is. This can be done by requiring employers to pay a living wage and by increasing capital gains tax rates to at least be at parity with income tax rates. Arguably, capital gains and dividends should be taxed at rates higher than labor. It would demonstrate that we truly value labor.

But you already know the answer to the argument: it’s rhetoric. Republicans like Paul Ryan don’t give a damn about the dignity of work or pretty much anyone not in their socioeconomic class and who does not share their values. For those of us in the working class, there is only one appropriate response and it involves lifting your middle finger to these hypocritical assholes.

 
The Thinker

The point of the Affordable Care Act

Sometimes you want to cheer and shake your fist at the same time. That was my reaction to this Washington Post article that curiously arrived on my birthday, Saturday, when I turned 57:

Nine days into the new year, the 41-year-old call-center worker headed to the health clinic on Highway 15. She saw a doctor about her chronic stomach ulcers, had her blood drawn for tests and collected referrals for all the specialists she had been told she needed but could never afford.

Health insurance finally came last month to Breathitt County, Kentucky and a lady named Mary Combs. Previously, like many of the people in this part of Appalachia, she saw a doctor irregularly if ever. She could not afford health insurance or even to see a doctor most of the time. She could occasionally afford to see a doctor at the local clinic, which at least had a sliding scale of payment based on her meager income. But even twenty dollars came hard to her and many of those who form the working poor of this country. Seeing specialists was simply out of the question. She was uninsured and in the eyes of many, principally Republicans, she did not deserve health insurance. Let them be miserable. C’est la vie.

Of course because she was working, albeit at starvation wages, she made too “much” money to qualify for Medicaid. At least that was the case until the Affordable Care Act finally caught up with her, which made it possible for her to enroll in Kentucky’s version of Medicaid, thanks to a healthy subsidy from the federal government. Mary Combs, like many of the people documented in this article, finally could do something to heal herself. Finally, at last, government gave a damn.

So many people like Mary Combs live in a world of hurt, always a paycheck or less away from losing all they have, and rarely with enough cash to see a doctor, even one with a sliding payment fee. Life for them is mostly suffering, something that is largely endured. Sometimes it ends abruptly and prematurely with a stroke, but often it means slow declines and frequent hospitalization for bills they cannot pay, but which simply adds to their indebtedness and drive overall health care costs higher. Often they come home from the hospital without a job. It left them when they couldn’t show up for their shift for a week. The hurdles just to stay alive simply grow higher every day for people like Mary Combs.

However, now she can afford to see a doctor, and specialists, and maybe start treating one of her many medical conditions. She can do so without going bankrupt, and by avoiding the hospital perhaps without losing her job as well. She had a chance not just to live, but to get better and maybe eke out some modest enjoyment from life again. It’s still a very long road and with her chronic conditions the odds are still against her. But she is getting some relief: psychological as well as medical.

Elsewhere in the article:

“Yeah, sometimes his face will get real red like he’s going to blow up?” Terri said. “Then he gets sick.”

“Okay,” Freeman said, pressing a stethoscope to his chest. “Big breaths.”

“Sometimes my heart hurts,” her new patient said as she listened to his stomach. “All I know is when you get 30, you start falling apart.”

No, at fifty you start falling apart. You don’t start falling apart at thirty unless you simply cannot afford to get treated and your job and environment stress you like a professional football player. At thirty you should be able to go three years without a physical. You should not have crushed discs in your back, suffer from sleep apnea and have already filed for bankruptcy. But if you live in Appalachia like John Wagers profiled in the article, and repair heaters for a living and never had health insurance before, then maybe you do fall apart at age thirty. This is what happened to our ancestors a few centuries back when medicine was more black art than science and most people never escaped a poverty they were born into.

Having affordable health insurance is something I have taken for granted. I can spend most of my life out of pain. I can enjoy most days. I can look forward (I hope) to an active and happy retirement. Now perhaps can the John Wagers and Mary Combs of the country too. Maybe as their health improves they will be able to compete for better paying jobs, because they are healthier and can be productive but also maybe because the minimum wage is raised, as us Democrats want to do. Maybe they will be able to attend a community college when they are healthy and have a few more dollars in their pockets. Just maybe they will get a real chance at the American dream, which needlessly denied them by tactics like only allowing those who can afford it to see a doctor.

The Affordable Care Act is hardly perfect, but it is a start. It warms my heart that in our fractured way we are finally moving people like John Wagers and Mary Combs out of misery and into health. They are being treated like human beings now instead of someone in a lower caste. It’s why elections matter and it’s why I am a Democrat and progressive.

 
The Thinker

Cruising into denial

The good news is that our cruise was perfectly timed. We missed a second massive polar vortex by escaping to the Caribbean via a cruise ship. Moreover, we did not spend it vomiting by catching the Norovirus, unlike the unlucky passengers of the Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas and the Caribbean Princess. Despite these risks, I am definitely starting to see the appeal of being a snowbird. Winter is not bad and it can be pretty and invigorating. But when it goes on too long, or it gets too cold, or when there are no breaks of cold weather, and when you are sick of the sun slipping behind the horizon by five p.m., maybe it’s time to be in southern latitudes for a while. It worked for us. I am still red in the face, despite the sunscreen. With luck it will last for a while.

The bad news is when we came home on Monday we were back into the thick of the cold weather. We missed the worst of the recent cold and snow. But it was still in the mid 30s, and this was sure not Aruba. Our car, twelve days on the BWI long-term parking lot, anemically came back to life. We were greeted to the traditional slow traffic on the beltway and by a mixture of snow and frost covering the front lawn. We may need to deal with a massive snowfall next week too. In short, we’ve been vortexed. We should get above freezing tomorrow but for three mornings in a row it was 8, 9 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning. Temperatures in the 40s will feel like a heat wave.

Earlier on Monday morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast in the dining room of our cruise ship as we waited for our call to disembark. Unless you holler, you usually get paired up with some other couple. You know you have been on a cruise ship too long when you recognize people and some of their names because you had long conversations with them over dinner. I had a few passengers call me by name on the cruise ship. Most of these people are fine to dine with.

Occasionally you get a crank. We got a couple from southwest Florida on Monday morning in the Vista Dining room of the Noordam. After a long digression about the man’s stroke fifteen years earlier, we of course talked about the cold weather, although weather in Fort Lauderdale was already nearing eighty. Doubtlessly parroting Fox “News”, the gentleman we were with expressed the opinion that global warming and climate change were bunk. Look at that polar vortex freezing most of the United States. Case closed.

It’s quite a challenge for me to remain civil in these circumstances. Most people choose to see what they want to see, particularly viewers of Fox “News”, which is fair and balanced, as long as you don’t count the “fair” and “balanced” part. But when you are a white couple in your sixties like this couple, you live in a deeply red part of the state and you have been on 64 (yes, that’s what they said) cruises, you are obviously swimming in money and, when not on a cruise ship, probably living in a gated community somewhere where you can spout crap like this with conviction.

I gently pointed out news reports that temperatures in Rio de Janeiro recently reached a crushing 110 degrees. The southern hemisphere is in its summer, which also means out in Oz (Australia) temperatures are close to these stratospheric levels too. 106 degrees is forecast in Adelaide on Saturday, and there are the now usual brushfires to deal with, meaning there is a catastrophic fire rating in southeast Australia. Hopefully, these brush fires won’t destroy more Australian homes, but it’s becoming usual to have summers where hundreds of homes down under succumb to flames caused by fires created by these long and excessive heat waves. When we returned home and read the news, I learned that the temperature in Alaska reached 62 degrees in Port Alsworth. In general, the west coast is warmer and drier this winter than normal, due to the shifting jet stream, which is pumping the warmer air northward along the west coast, but otherwise is freezing the east coast. More than half of California is experiencing a severe drought. But of course, because the news is full of reports about negative degrees Fahrenheit across most of the northern states, it means to some that global warming must be bunk.

People wonder why scientists are overwhelmingly Democrats. It’s because they cannot deny the obvious, and they examine the totality of evidence before making assertions. For a Republican, if there is a polar vortex it means there is no climate change. If there is an excessive heat wave, it’s an aberration and evidence of nothing. Democrats though are looking at the earth as a system. And on average, in spite of the polar vortex, the earth is warm and getting warmer. It obviously doesn’t mean the world in general is cooling down.

I didn’t press my logic too far with this couple. I knew from experience it would engender some hostility. We simply had to finish a quick meal and the price was right, even if we had to sit with a couple that admired Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Keep pleasant. Keep positive. Keep civil. Smile, but don’t smirk.

It may be inconvenient, but neither Fox “News” nor Rush Limbaugh can change the laws of chemistry. When you keep adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more heat is going to be retained from the sun, on average, than otherwise and that means it’s going to be hotter. Rent a chemistry lab and do the experiment for yourself. So things are going to get warmer until we stop pumping these gases causing global warming into the atmosphere. Maybe God can move mountains, but he never has, at least not unless you count over eons. God isn’t going to change the laws of chemistry and physics simply because it disagrees with our prejudices.

I hate to give up cruising. Fortunately, this couple was not typical of those we sat with. But I may need a special cruise next time: where only sane people are allowed to board. The stupid: sometimes it does not just burn; it flares.

 
The Thinker

No simple solutions to our complex and messy world

Kentucky senator Rand Paul has been busy pushing the Libertarian gospel lately. Today’s New York Times (which is one of the few sites we can read for free on our cruise ship) talks about his recent appearance at a libertarian meeting in Virginia where he was busy preaching to the faithful. If only government were minimal and capitalism were unrestrained, he preached, freedom would blossom and life would be beautiful.

Doubtless he got many rounds of applause for expressing these sentiments. The meeting contained the usual interest groups drawn to libertarianism: the John Birchers, the obsessively anti-war, the isolationists, ideological capitalists, extreme civil libertarians and not a few overt racists. Racism is a view that Senator Paul rejects, although his father, crank and former representative Ron Paul did raise money for the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The money was used to start the institute, and which is overtly racist.

It’s not hard to find groups with simple solutions to our world’s complex problems. They tend to go by one word banners: socialists, libertarians, communists, fascists, free-marketers, environmentalists, unionists and many more that I am sure you can readily bring to mind. What’s true of all of these one size fits all solutions is that when they have been tried they haven’t worked. Libertarianism hasn’t been properly tried, and there is a good reason for that: it simply won’t work. Occasionally you see efforts that meet the spirit of a philosophy and you can observe the wreckage. The state of Florida that we return to on our cruise ship tomorrow has libertarian Rick Scott as its governor. He’s running for reelection but is certain to lose, after four year of libertarian-lite government and overwhelmingly conservative Republican control. During his governorship, Florida suffered disproportionately as businesses fled the state. With the thinnest of safety nets, the poor descended further into poverty and crime increased. Housing prices plummeted and unemployment soared.

Communism was given a good long run and failed miserably. It sounded good in theory, but quickly morphed into a dictatorship of the proletariat that looked a lot more like fascism which, in fact, it was. Those communist governments that remain are largely so in name only. China is still officially run by the Communist Party but Chairman Mao would simply not recognize it. If he were alive, he’d be fighting to overthrow it. Cuba remains the only truly sizable communist state in the world and is mired in poverty. Venezuela looked a lot like a communist state, but is really a socialist state. By the time of its next election, if not sooner, it will cast off socialism. The cost of socialism has been borne out in hyper inflation and high unemployment rates.

Successful states, such as they are, tend to be those that are politically hued. They are invariably democracies. Establishing democracies tend to be straightforward. Keeping a democracy, which is currently not happening in Egypt, tends to be much harder. Running a democracy takes a lot of work. It expects those in charge to be civilized and to follow an agreed on constitution. It expects its citizens to put a democracy above their own political persuasions. Democracies generally require a reasonably educated and informed populace and need neighboring states with hands off attitudes toward it. In a democracy, political consensus rarely lasts for long. When consensus is absent it becomes paralyzed. We have seen this played out in the United States the last few years. Democracies also need independents, who tend to be its most valuable asset. It is independents that break political logjams by voting for their interests rather than a partisan agenda.

Rand Paul is probably hoping to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2016. He is busy trying to increase his political capital and to sell himself as viable to the party’s establishment. In doing so he must subtly show himself as not as hardcore libertarian as his hardcore activists would like him to be. He must come across as likable, not extreme, which is why he is distancing himself from the racist wing of the Libertarian Party. Even if he were fortunate enough to be elected President, he would certainly not be working with a Libertarian controlled House and Senate. Political compromise would still be required. He could make some changes via executive order to make the executive behave more libertarian, but he cannot overturn a law or abolish an agency or department. Even with political gerrymandering, it is very difficult to achieve one party rule. When it happens, it tends to fracture. There are many wings of the Libertarian Party, and they would fracture along predictable political fault lines. But even if consensus could be achieved, there is still a Supreme Court that as an institution resists change.

Our society is a tangle of laws, free market capitalism, entrepreneurship and various political and social forces, all interacting in a generally messy manner. It is human nature to look at such a messy system and to want to straighten it out in a way that matches your political inclinations. But it will remain a mess regardless of who is in charge and what philosophy of the day is dominant. Technology will continue to make advances. Humans will probably continue to populate the planet beyond our ability to sustain the population.

The only constant in life is that it changes, otherwise it would not be life. People through their governments must try to manage this chaos as best they can. Whatever system is tried is going to have its disadvantages. In the case of libertarianism, it is simply unworkable, as is true of any “-ism” philosophy. No system will perfectly fit all the myriad cases it is expected to address. Any system will favor some at the expense of others. The best political system will be one that understands these dynamics and will tend to intelligently accommodate the current changes that are underway.

This is a much harder road to follow. It requires debate, discussion, compromise, science, respect for science, respect for people of all beliefs, lots of education and open debate. It requires an understanding that compromise is imperfect but necessary. It requires respect, if not admiration, for those willing to compromise and a realization that perfection is rarely achievable and when achieved rarely lasts. It requires an acknowledgement that no system will be perfect, that external forces will affect whatever system is in place, and that adjustments will be required. Most importantly, successful governorship is simply being pragmatic and flexible. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s as perfect as we are likely to get at governing.

 

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