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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

David Brooks and Charles Murray

Interesting column today by David Brooks, who recommends Charles Murray's latest book ("Coming Apart") as describing the trends (Murray's WSJ article on the book is googlable, but not permalinkable, as far as I can tell [here's today's link]).  Both of them point to the way life has changed for the top 20% vs. the bottom 20%.  And Murray's statistics use only white people, to eliminate any effect due to race.  In the 1950s, it didn't make much difference if you were in the top -- you watched the same TV shows, stayed married at about the same rate, went to church at the same rate, were employed at the same rate, lived in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, etc. as those in the lower 20%.  Culturally, the country was more unified.  Now the rates have diverged -- in the bottom 20%, 1 in 8 males in the 30-49 age group is unemployed, fewer than 50% of the marriage-age people are married, lots of kids are born out of wedlock, etc.  Whereas in the upper 20%, everything is still almost the same (although marriage rates have gone down).
Interestingly Brooks says that these "findings" (which have been obvious to anyone who watches daytime TV for some time now), show that both the Republicans and the Democrats don't get it:

"Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

"Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness."

Both of Brooks's points are profound non-sequiturs.  Just because a high percentage of the cultural elites supposedly live"traditionalist" lives doesn't mean they aren't playing a part in corrupting regular Americans.  After all, they control the media, and the media is a corrupting influence.  Who knows, perhaps that's how the bottom 20% got to where they are!  I hasten to add that I'm not trying to defend the "cultural elite" fallacy; I'm just saying Brooks is not even addressing its argument, much less proving it false.  But it's certainly interesting to see Brooks bashing the Republican platform that way.

He then says that the 1% narrative is a "distraction," because the real social gap is between the upper 20% and the lower 30%. That criticism doesn't make much sense either.  Yes, Murray has identified a problem that should be addressed.  But so has Occupy Wall Street.  That means that there are TWO problems to address, not that one can simply be dismissed as a "distraction."

Brooks concludes by proposing a National Service Program:

"I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement."

I tend to agree with Brooks that there should be a National Service Program, although his rationale here seems a bit paternalistic, as if the good habits of an upper-20% 18 year old (or whatever) will somehow rub off on someone who grew up in the bottom 20%. 

That doesn't seem likely.  Instead of hoping for self-improvement by osmosis, we should run the National Service Program like the military, where young people from the bottom 20% are routinely made into disciplined, productive members of society.  

It would be very interesting to see someone produce statistics on that -- i.e. how well members of the bottom 20% who join the military fare (say, 20 years later) compared to those who don't.  If those statistics turn out the way I think they would, then that would be a truly compelling argument for a National Service Program -- where our young people would get the benefits of military service, without the risk of getting killed, and without the risk of coming home with PTSD, and without having to participate in the taking of human lives.

And my vision for a National Service Program would include identifying occupations in which even people without strong educations can succeed, and perhaps where more competition is needed.  A high school graduate could be a decent real estate broker, or mortgage broker, for example -- and there's tons of money to be made in those professions!  They could also learn to be plumbers, electricians, or auto mechanics -- all areas that could benefit from more competition and competitive pricing.  Likewise, there is probably a need for more health care workers, to staff clinics that will offer a low-priced alternative to doctors.  A few years working with patients in a National Service Program clinic ought to be the equivalent of a nursing degree.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Julian Sanchez explains how the copyright industry arguments about the need for SOPA are based on inflated numbers.  Bottom line:  those industries might be responsible for a few hundred thousand jobs in our economy, or about 0.4% of the economy.  Why is it that THEY get to tell Congress what laws to write?

And more important, are those jobs really threatened?  He gives statistics showing that the movie industry's revenues have been essentially constant over the last ten years.  People are still going to movies.  And now they are downloading them -- and paying for them -- to their Kindle Fires and other platforms.  

Yes, there are rogue sites off-shore that offer movies to US citizens, and some US citizens -- mostly kids -- take advantage of that.  That's too bad, but it's not destroying the movie industry.  Most citizens pay for their movies, and pay quite a bit.  The kids will grow out of it. 

Relatedly, I've seen statistics -- in the book Screwed, by Thom Hartmann, as well as on-line -- that say that the recording industry and the movie industry in the US are over 70% foreign-owned.  I haven't been able to verify those independently, but have no reason to doubt them.

And, as Glen Greenwald points out, the industries already have the power to shut down any number of sites.  Just call the Justice Department.  Or MegaUpload.

Also infuriating is Greenwald's column on Chris Dodd -- the politician who said he'd never be a lobbyist, who now is making millions as President of the MPAA, lobbying for SOPA.

New Initiatives in Alternative Education!

Again, my ideas have mostly been implemented by other people even before I had them.  So they are not my ideas.  The  Washington Post had an article on Monday Jan. 23 describing some of the programs.  The bottom line is that any motivated person can get a college-level education essentially for free, in a lot less time than it takes to go to college.  You'd think that employers would want to hire people like that.

Rather than look at a college transcript as representative of how well a person will do in a particular job, why don't employers instead develop a test that tests for the kinds of thinking skills required on the job?  That, plus the knowledge that the person has truly completed on-line courses, ought to be enough to cause the college to hire the person.

And these young people don't have to be shut-ins while they are taking these courses.  They can hold jobs, or better yet, there ought to be volunteer opportunities where similarly-situated self-motivators from the region can get together and do good for the community or the country.  That way, they'll gain the work ethic and social skills that they otherwise are supposedly getting in college, while perhaps even contributing to the economy.

Here are some links:,

University of the People

Elizabeth Warren on the Daily Show

Elizabeth Warren on the Daily Show last night.  We need more non-politicians running for office.  People that we feel will genuinely do what they think is right, every day, with absolutely no regard for what might get them re-elected.  That should be our government.  Instead, as she says, Washington works for those who can hire an army of lawyers and lobbyists.

She mentioned a recent study that says that 30 of the largest companies in the US are now spending more on lobbying than they pay in federal taxes.  Probably worth looking at.  Of course, if they are providing jobs and the employees are paying taxes, then perhaps it doesn't matter what taxes the corporations pay. 

But the point about lobbying is well-taken.  Elsewhere on the show, it comes out that a bill to raise the tax rate on interest earnings (i.e. the 15% that Mitt Romney pays) that had bipartisan support in 2007 was killed by an army of lobbyists for people who make money off of interest.  There is a clip from Romney from that time period saying that raising those taxes is not a good idea.  And he also says that people shouldn't vote for someone who pays a penny more tax than he owes.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why US Labor Can't Compete

A very compelling article in today's NYT -- explains that it's not just that foreign labor is cheaper, but that it's a whole lot better.  More flexible, more efficient, better able to respond quickly to last-minute design changes.  It's simply not possible for US labor to compete with the networked factories and live-in worker dormitories that they have in China.  There's really no point in even trying -- that's how far behind we are.

And this tends to undercut the idea that the wealthy here are "job creators."  While Apple used to manufacture a lot in the U.S., it doesn't anymore.  Here are the Apple numbers, from the article::

"Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas, a small fraction of the over 400,000 American workers at General Motors in the 1950s, or the hundreds of thousands at General Electric in the 1980s. Many more people work for Apple’s contractors: an additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple’s other products. But almost none of them work in the United States. Instead, they work for foreign companies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, at factories that almost all electronics designers rely upon to build their wares."

If your kid is going to grow up blue collar, make sure he or she learns some blue collar skill that can't be exported (electrician, plumber, etc.).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hal Herzog on Animal Rights

Almost finished listening to Hal Herzog's Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

It's interesting reading (listening), but what's truly interesting is that he seems to have all the evidence he needs to stop or cut back on eating meat (as a moral choice), but he fails to make it.  He rightly points out various inconsistencies with the positions of animal activists, but then he fails to come to almost any conclusions whatsoever as to what is right or wrong with respect to any of the questions that they are trying to address.

For example, he points out that gamecocks live much much better lives than broiler hens -- they are fed well, and then the end comes quickly in a battle that they have been genetically selected to want to fight -- but then he never circles back to wonder whether there is a problem with eating chicken that have been raised in the conditions he himself describes.  He is a fairly unapologetic carnivore, although I think I heard him say that all things being equal, he'd rather eat cruelty-free meat (whatever that is!).

So lots of fun information in this, e.g. about how smart octopuses are (and no, it's NOT octopi) and how Congress has defined animals (for purposes of the Animal Welfare Act) to exclude mice.  But not a particularly deep guide to the problems.  The only reason that I decided to write about it was the following statement I just heard: 

"Here is a rare bird -- a morally serious person who can laugh at himself."

He was recounting a conversation with a guy who founded an organization that saves unwanted animals (6000 pets during hurricane Katrina), and the guy had explained that if a horsefly bites him outside, he'll swat the horsefly, but if it bites him inside, he'll let it out.  Herzog thought that was the exact opposite of the right approach, but the guy explained that once the horsefly is in his house, he feels a responsibility to it that he doesn't feel when he is outside.  The guy recognized that the rationale was imperfect and that the horsefly would probably just bite him outside now.  

The quote is an example of Herzog's flippant style, where he seems to be portraying himself as too light-hearted and cool to be morally serious.  But he is grappling with "morally serious" issues in this book, and in a way, it is directed straight at people who want to be -- or already are -- morally serious.  It's obviously the case that people who take themselves and their views too seriously often seem to lack a sense of humor, but that's almost tautological.  I'm pretty sure you can be both morally serious AND have a sense of humor, and NOT be a "rare bird."

Also, he can be very sloppy with the facts.  He gives a long hypothetical in which the end result is that since (1) you would agree to killing Nazi concentration camp guards who you knew were going to kill Jews, but (2) you would not agree to killing a scientist who engages in animal research that kills animals, that must mean that (3) human life is more valuable than animal life to you, i.e. that at least some forms of "speciesism" are justified.  Nothing wrong with this argument.  But in his hypothetical, his "inner lawyer" told him to imagine himself outside the Dachau concentration camp in 1939, watching the smoke rise from the gas chambers, and knowing that Jews were being killed there.  Now, it's probably a small point -- since there's no question that many Jews were worked and essentially starved to death in Dachau even before 1939 -- but it's also dangerously misleading on two counts: (1) in fact, Dachau didn't start building gas chambers until 1942 (per wikipedia; and for that matter, there were no crematoria before 1940) and (2) despite this, he is suggesting that the German people as early as 1939 "knew" that concentration camps were using gas chambers and did nothing about it.

Clearly, the German people of that time period can be blamed for not doing more to stop the Holocaust (although even now, nobody "knows" exactly what "they" "knew" when), just as long-dead Americans can be blamed for America's history of genocide, slavery, and racism, including anti-semitism, and many long-dead Europeans can be blamed for encouraging the slave trade.  But let's not pour gas on the fire by getting the dates and circumstances wrong.

SOPA in NY Times

When I first read the Obama administration's response to the petition asking President Obama to veto SOPA, I thought it was pretty mealy-mouthed and ineffective; it didn't say one way or another whether he would veto.  But I'm pleased to report (via the NY Times) that at least some of the content industry sees it differently:

From NYT:  "The chief executive of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, in a flurry of Twitter messages in the hours after the White House announcement, accused President Obama of capitulating to the technology industry. 'So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery,' he posted on his Twitter feed."

What a gift to the Obama reelection campaign!  It's hard to imagine Romney having that kind of petition process in place, and it's even harder to imagine the Romney administration taking a stance that would favor consumers over lobbyists.  The techie vote may well make the difference in this election!

Of course, in reality the Obama administration -- as reflected even in the statement itself -- is going to do everything it can to "stop piracy," and it will almost certainly support measures for doing so that are not in the public's interest.  The MPAA realizes this, as evidenced by its statement:

“Look forward to @whitehouse playing a constructive role in moving forward on #sopa & #pipa,” the association posted on its Twitter feed Saturday night."

Still, if I'm concerned about Internet freedom (which I am), I'd take Obama over a Republican any day.

BTW I wonder who subscribes to EITHER of those twitter feeds.

The One Percent in the NYTimes

The NY Times has published an article (Among the Wealthiest One Percent, Many Variations) that tends to show that there is diversity among the 1%.  So this could be the data that I was looking for with my earlier question (see November) about "Who are the 1%?  Unfortunately, it's more of a puff piece than anything else; it's not trying to be rigorous in any way -- the goal seems to show that the 1% are people too (see especially the last sentence of the piece, about a sign saying "we are the 100%").

For example:

"Though many of the wealthy lean toward the Republican Party, in interviews, 1 percenters expressed a broad range of views on how to fix the economy. They think that President Obama is ruining it, or that Republicans in Congress have gone off the deep end. They favor a flat tax, or they believe the rich should pay a higher marginal rate. Some cheered on Occupy Wall Street, saying it was about time, while others wished the protesters would just get a job or take a bath. Still others were philosophical — perhaps because they could afford to be — viewing the recession as something that would pass, like so many previous ups and downs.

"Of the 1 percenters interviewed for this article, almost all — conservatives and liberals alike — said the wealthy could and should shoulder more of the country’s financial burden, and almost all said they viewed the current system as unfair., and it makes no attempt "

Statements like "Though many of the wealthy lean toward the Republican Party . . . " just make me cringe.  It would be equally true, and equally vapid, to say "Though many of the wealthy lean toward the Democratic Party."  And then of course, the statements of those who agreed to be interviewed can't be taken as in any way representative of the 1%, especially given the fact that (as the author says), many refused to be interviewed.

The data is apparently census data, and it therefore (1) writes down the occupation that people give, and (2) tracks income by household.  I.e. teachers show up as in the 1% if they are married to someone who is.  There is also an interactive chart that lets you see what percent of any given occupation live in households that are in the 1%. 

What's missing is the answer to the question I have been asking -- where exactly do the 1% get their money from?  My answer, is, for the most part, from what I call "skimming" -- i.e. standing near a huge flow of cash (which ultimately comes from consumers, and sometimes taxpayers) and skimming of a small fraction of a percent (like the "golden crumbs" in Bonfire of the Vanities), usually in exchange for some effort that will help preserve or enhance that huge flow.  My point is that there is no way to judge the value to society of enhancing that particular cash flow -- often, e.g. when it reflects monopoly power, it comes at significant social cost.  While these people might believe that they are working hard for their money, and while their employers reward them because of what they do for the employers' bottom line, that does not necessarily mean that what they are doing is socially beneficial.  And if it isn't, then one way to correct the problem is to increase their taxes.  If that causes them to stop doing so much skimming, maybe that's not such a big deal.

Perhaps that's what's missing from the 1% debate.  I'm sure someone other than me is saying it, but it's not coming through loudly enough.  Let me try to rephrase it in one sentence:  "Taxing the rich is justified as a matter of economic policy, and not just because we need the money."  Specifically, the tax system can be used to encourage or discourage behavior that society likes or doesn't like.  If after analyzing the issue closely, society decides that it doesn't like "skimming," then there would be nothing wrong with imposing a special tax on skimmers.  Right now, the 1% is a pretty good proxy for who the skimmers are . . . .  Yes, this tax would HELP us in this time of financial need (which was caused primarily by skimmers), and we can even admit that that's one of the reasons we need to impose it.  But that's not the only justification for it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

SOPA quote

From today's NY Times: 

"Lawmakers and their aides have also been targets [of Anonymous's "hacking" campaign to stop SOPA]. A photograph of a 25-year-old aide for the House Judiciary Committee was superimposed into pornography by a group related to Anonymous, according to another aide who was briefed on security threats to lawmakers and their staffs. 'Why can’t they just hire a lobbyist like everyone else?' this aide said."

I'm pretty sure that the aide was being ironic here, but given the cluelessness of Washington politicians and aides (see above post about Abramoff's book), I can't be absolutely sure.  Ironic or not, it reminds us that the only way to get through to Congerss is through paid lobbyists.  It's a shame that citizens have to resort to this kind of lawlessness in order to make themselves heard (and it seems pretty clear that a majority of citizens who understand the issue are anti-SOPA).  As the Declaration of Independence teaches us, at a certain point, lawlessness becomes justified.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Chicken McNugget Ripoff

I will say that McDonalds seems to be the best-run fast-food outfit out there.  Rarely do the cashiers make mistakes (unlike Burger King, e.g.), and the lines are usually quick. 

ut the unwary -- or unconcerned -- consumer can get ripped off pretty badly, in part because they don't put all their prices on their menus.  I challenge to you search a McDonalds menu for the price of a six-piece McNugget.  You won't find it.  It turns out it's about $3, compared to $4.99 for a 20-piece.  In other words, in a six piece, McDs sells you McNuggets for 50 cents each, whereas in a 20 piece, its 25 cents each, exactly half the price.

So in addition to all the other reasons not to eat chicken, please don't buy McNuggets from McDonalds.  They are obviously a massive profit center, built up on the suffering of birds -- the descendants of the dinosaurs.

I don't have the exact numbers handy right now, so I'm probably off by several orders of magnitude.  But the bottom line is that tens of thousands of chickens are raised ina single filthy and noxious chicken house, and most of them suffer from debilitating genetic or incurred health problems and perpetual discomfort  before they are brutally transported and slaughtered at 42 days of age.  Each chicken is sold by the "farmer" for less than a dollar (it might be only 25 cents).  Should sentient life really be that cheap?   Should McDonalds continue to rake in those kinds of profits for that kind of cruelty?

Santitas bag size part II

Continuing from my earlier post on the subject, in which I (and others) observed that Santita's Tortilla Chip bags had gone from 16 oz to 12 oz while retaining the same "$2 Only" label.  This weekend, I spotted an 11 oz bag sporting the same label, at the Pilot Gas Station at Exit 150 on I-81 near Roanoke. 

Consistent with my own ongoing attempts to identify members of the 1% that are out there creating jobs or otherwise doing good, I wonder how many of the people who responsible for this are in the 1%.  If they are, they are not job creators, but people who basically try to cheat consumers for a living.  Quite possibly another way that the 1% "earn" their money that doesn't exactly seem deserving of any particular respect in our tax system.

Am I exaggerating by saying consumers are being cheated?  Who knows. They are telling the truth of course -- any bag labeled $2 costs $2, and it's their right to say "only."  The reason it seems dishonest is because they put the same label on different sized packages, which is not what a consumer would expect.  And "only" $2 for 11 oz of substandard tortilla chips doesn't seem quite right.