Monday, December 28, 2009

The Absurdity of the Better Christian Gambit

The man’s words bothered me on several levels as he explained how he went from being a committed Christian to being a secular humanist. He was much happier in his chosen belief system, he said, than he had been as a Christian. He went on to describe the many ways he now reaches out to help others.

Then this man said something that really stuck in my craw. “I’m a much better Christian now than when I was a Christian.” It took me a while to understand what it was about this statement that bothered me. Eventually I perceived two issues I had with it.

Firstly, the man essentially implied that it was the fault of Christianity itself that he was, by his own admission, a slacker when it came to loving and serving his fellowmen when he was a Christian. Why had he chosen that course of action back then and what was it about his conversion to secular humanism that changed this?

It can hardly be argued that the former belief system was inferior to the latter in encouragement to treat fellow beings selflessly. There is nothing in the Christian faith that caused this man to be a poor practitioner of Christian behavior during his tenure as a Christian. Thus, the man’s statement is an indictment against himself rather than against Christianity.

But far more important is the stunning implication that this man has apparently never understood the most basic and central tenet of Christianity. Through years of church attendance, of participating in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and of praising Christ in song and prayer, it seems that this man never grasped what Christianity is all about. It was also apparent from his statement about now being a better Christian that he still failed to understand what it means to be a Christian.

Although various Christian denominations state it in different ways, they all essentially teach that being a Christian means accepting the idea that no person can ever be considered good on his or her own merits. There is too much bad in even the best of us for that to be the case. The only way any of us can ever hope to become truly good is through the merits and grace of the perfect Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, God offers us the free gift of compensation for all of our problems, inadequacies, imperfections, and poor choices. We simply agree to accept this free gift. That is what being a Christian is all about. It is preposterous to claim that having rejected this gift, one is now a better Christian than before rejecting it.

But what of the Christian behavior that my secular humanist friend touted? It cannot be denied that Christ calls His followers to a high standard of behavior. Indeed, loving God and loving one’s fellow beings top the list of Christ’s commandments. How is it possible that one that professes to be a Christian could apparently do worse at fulfilling those Christian commandments than many non-Christians?

The answer to this is two-pronged, but based in a single principle. True Christianity concerns itself primarily with matters of the soul. Physical and temporal matters are important too, but mainly with respect to how they affect the soul. Secular humanism, by definition, is chiefly concerned with observable temporal effects. This helps explain why measures of either system by adherents of the other tend to fall short of satisfying advocates of the system being critiqued.

Back to the two prongs of Christians failing to be Christ-like. First, there are those that claim to accept Christ but do not actually receive His teachings. These people deceive themselves. They are not actually Christians in the most secret chambers of their hearts; where it really matters. They may succeed in hoodwinking others into thinking they are Christian, but Christianity teaches that all accounts will eventually be settled appropriately in the eternal realms so that the effects of all deceptions will be addressed.

Second, the purpose of ‘Christian behavior’ is ideally as an outgrowth of what is already going on in the soul. That is, one follows God’s commandments out of a love of God and His children. Christians also sometimes engage in such behavior to motivate the soul, so that it can work both ways. Or perhaps, more correctly, it can work cyclically in an upward spiral.

My little daughter is fond of writing love notes to me and my wife. These notes are simple and sometimes spelled eclectically. But they are infinitely precious. My youngest son goes through stages where he is very conscientious about performing simple acts of service for my wife and me. My daughter’s notes and my son’s service would not amount to much if measured on the scale of what is expected of an adult. But taken in context, they are an extremely important demonstration of love.

Similarly, our acts of obedience to God are often grossly inadequate when measured against divine perfection. But when proper motivation is present, such acts are precious expressions of our love for God and for our fellow beings. The idea is that we do our level best, and then no matter how pathetic our attempts may be, Christ will apply His Atonement to make up for the rest.

I would not expect this sentiment to be meaningful at all to a secular humanist. After all, that system of belief sees no need for a spiritual Savior whatsoever. And that’s fine for them. The main point here is that it is ridiculous for a secular humanist that does not accept or apply the Atonement of Christ to claim to be “a better Christian” than anyone, including one’s former self.

Given that Christians measure service to others on an entirely different scale than secular humanists; it is also as silly for a secular humanist to claim to be better than a Christian at Christian behavior as it would be for a Christian to claim to be better at secular humanist behavior than a devoted secular humanist. The equation simply does not compute.

My ex-Christian friend probably made his ‘better Christian’ comment in a bid to justify his shift in belief systems. While his claim may have satisfied himself on some level, it was actually a farcical statement that failed to bolster his position. No doubt my friend left his Christian faith behind because he found belief in secular humanism more compelling. But it would be better to simply say that than to make assertions based in absurdity.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Too Much Justice

My youngest son is the informant in our family. He has a keen overdeveloped sense of justice. If any other family member does anything that our informant believes to be even slightly out of kilter, he goes into full tattle mode. (And he’ll remember any infraction FOREVER.)

This morning while the informant was in the shower, his older brother was practicing on the piano. The informant burst upon the scene during a break in the piano practice while the practicing son was looking for a piece of sheet music he wanted to try out.

I asked the informant to resort to my Roland keyboard to practice his piano lessons before playing. He reluctantly complied. The other son soon found the sought for music and practiced it for a while. He then left the piano to do something else.

The informant promptly popped up from the keyboard and started to put his music away. He had only put in about a third of the required practice, so I called him on it. His immediate response was to accuse his older brother of practicing too briefly. (He never tires of the accusation distraction.) When I explained that his brother had already completed most of his practice during the informant’s shower time, he sheepishly returned to the keyboard and finished his practice.

I dearly love my youngest son. I identify with him on a visceral level. You see, I played the ‘justice’ role in my family growing up. There’s a lot that goes with that job, including rigid inflexibility, especially in matters of process. The final outcome pales in importance to the process. Variations in the process cause more upset than variations in the results.

I drove my family members up the wall with my insistence on doing family traditions exactly the same way as we did the last time around. Never mind the fact that conditions were different the next time around.

Another thing my ‘justice’ boy has in common with me is that he is a world class pouter. As a kid, I was a pro at pouting. (My Mom has photos to prove it.) I could keep it up for hours on end when my oversensitive sense of justice was offended.

Like me as a kid, my justice boy sometimes drives other family members crazy. I correct him, but inside I cut him slack, because I look at him and see me as a child. I hope my boy eventually tempers his sense of justice as he grows up. Some people never outgrow this. That’s how we end up with some of the rules and regulations we live with, or with some of the nasty implementations of such.

Friday, December 18, 2009

How I Set Up PHPMyAdmin: A Tale of Unnecessary Difficulty

I did it. I won my battle with PHPMyAdmin. And I learned a few things in the process. I finally decided to bite the bullet and rebuild a Microsoft Access database application I had built for the school to track volunteers and volunteer time using PHP and MySQL.

MS Access is a dandy if you want to run a small standalone application. You can build a MS Access application on any computer that has MS Access installed. Copying the entire application to another computer is a snap. But the target computer also has to have MS Access installed if you want to use your application there. If the other computer doesn’t have MS Access and its owners don’t want to spring for it, you can tweak the app to work with OpenOffice Base, which is available for free.

But MS Access really isn’t adequate for a multi-user environment. (This also goes for OpenOffice Base.) It’s not designed to handle the kind of locking and security needed for such an environment. Yes, I know that there are many instances where MS Access applications are run from a server, but it’s not a good way to go.

The freely available MySQL, on the other hand, is designed function well in multi-user environments. But you need more than just a database. You need a front-end application to allow users to work with the database. That’s where PHP comes in. And, of course, you need an application server application that hosts any PHP/MySQL application you build. Proper installation on a central server allows access via a web browser.

My idea was to rebuild the standalone MS Access database application using PHP/MySQL, and then install the new application on the school’s server so that any computer inside of the school’s firewall could work with the database. But first, I wanted to build and run everything on my home network to work out all of the bugs.

I started by downloading the WAMP package that includes PHP, MySQL, PHPMyAdmin, and the Apache HTTP server from WAMPServer. This is for a Windows environment. Other packages are available for other environments. Initial installation was quick and easy. All of the services started.

The root password
My problems started when I opened PHPMyAdmin and saw a message telling me that I should remedy the fact that MySQL had no password for the root user account. Unfortunately, there was no information about how to do that. I began searching through the documentation that installed with PHPMyAdmin and MySQL, only to become quickly frustrated.

A Google search revealed a broad variety of information. It took me a while to realize that most of it was obsolete. Reading through forums that turned up in the Google search was a tedious and mostly fruitless exercise. It was like digging through mounds of manure in hopes of finding a tiny gem.

I finally discovered that MySQL passwords can be set by running MySQL from the command line and using an arcane chain of commands, or by going to the Privileges tab in PHPMyAdmin, clicking on the Edit Privileges icon to the right of the root account, and then entering (and re-typing) the password in the resulting screen. Unfortunately, this immediately breaks PHPMyAdmin. I started getting “Error #1045 - Access denied for user 'root'@'localhost'….”

I searched around and found that I needed to go to my wamp\apps\phpmyadmin directory and edit the file. There is an entry there that reads “$cfg['Servers'][$i]['password'] = '';” All I needed to do was to enter the password I had selected for root between the single quotes on that entry. (This is fine for a limited environment, but you will want to use the cookie method in a broader environment. That’s outside the scope of this post.)

This fixed everything, right? Nope. The # 1045 error persisted. Nothing I did changed that. After much frustration, I completely uninstalled and re-installed WAMP. The process began over again. Again I ended up at the persistent # 1045 error.

Clear the session files
After much perusal of the Internet, I read an entry that mentioned permissions on the tmp directory. I found the wamp\tmp directory and noticed a couple of files that began with “sess” followed by a series of hexadecimal numbers. Suddenly I had the odd idea that I should delete these files. I did so, and then PHPMyAdmin started up just fine.

Apparently PHPMyAdmin always starts by going to the most recent session file in the tmp directory. If the session ended with an error, the new session will start with the same error, even if you fixed the cause of the error.

Just a couple of notes to the PHPMyAdmin developers: 1) Why can’t the file be automatically updated with the root user password when it is changed via the PHPMyAdmin application? 2) You really ought to do something about fixing the problem with PHPMyAdmin retaining an error upon starting when the cause of the error has already been corrected.

Setting up link table capabilities
Now everything was hunky-dory, right? Wrong. PHPMyAdmin displayed a message in a red box stating that the mechanism for linking tables was not properly set up. Clicking on the link for more info led to the documentation. Although there was a lot of technical stuff in there, there was no information on how to remedy this problem.

I once again resorted to Google and found myself sifting through tons of worthless information in search of something useful. I found an entry that explained that the following entries were needed in the file:
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['controluser'] = 'pma';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['controlpass'] = 'password for pma user';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['AllowNoPassword'] = true;
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['pmadb'] = 'phpmyadmin';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['table_info'] = 'pma_table_info';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['pdf_pages'] = 'pma_pdf_pages';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['history'] = 'pma_history';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['column_info'] = 'pma_column_info';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['table_coords'] = 'pma_table_coords';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['designer_coords'] = 'pma_designer_coords';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['relation'] = 'pma_relation';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['bookmarktable'] = 'pma_bookmark';
But this simply caused me more questions. What was the pma user? It seemed that these entries implied a database named phpmyadmin with at least eight tables in it. (I’m a data guy. I recognize database structures.) Where was that supposed to come from?

Fortunately, I found another link that provided the answer to this conundrum. You can create the pma user account in the Privileges tab of PHPMyAdmin and assign a password. Then the pma user needs rights to the mysql database. In the SQL tab of the mysql database, I ran the following commands:
GRANT SELECT (Host, User, Select_priv, Insert_priv, Update_priv, Delete_priv, Create_priv, Drop_priv, Reload_priv, Shutdown_priv, Process_priv, File_priv, Grant_priv, References_priv, Index_priv, Alter_priv, Show_db_priv, Super_priv, Create_tmp_table_priv, Lock_tables_priv, Execute_priv, Repl_slave_priv, Repl_client_priv) ON mysql.user TO 'pma'@'localhost';
GRANT SELECT ON mysql.db TO 'pma'@'localhost';
GRANT SELECT ON TO 'pma'@'localhost';
GRANT SELECT (Host, Db, User, Table_name, Table_priv, Column_priv) ON mysql.tables_priv TO 'pma'@'localhost';
In the wamp\apps\phpmyadmin\scripts folder is a create_tables.sql file that can be used to create the phpmyadmin database with the eight tables referenced above and to grant rights to the pma user. Even after doing all that, the PHPMyAdmin error didn’t go away until I closed PHPMyAdmin, deleted the session files from the wamp\tmp directory, and restarted PHPMyAdmin.

Finally ready to start developing
Now everything works great. I re-created my tables in MySQL using PHPMyAdmin. I exported my MS Access data to comma delimited files and imported it into the MySQL tables. Voila!, I am now finally ready to start building the application interface using PHP.

I have to seriously question the PHPMyAdmin developers as to why they haven’t streamlined the link table setup. I mean, the clugey hack job you have to go through to set this up and get rid of the error message is simply bizarre, not to mention very poorly documented.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When It Comes to Politics, All Is Vanity

The writer of Ecclesiastes (about whose identity there has been much scholarly dispute) lamented that “there is no new thing under the sun” (ch 1, v 9). He has searched out wisdom and has carefully observed “all things that are done under heaven.” From this he declares concerning all worldly pursuits, “behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit” (ch 1, v 14). (Scholars tell us that the terms “under the sun” and “under heaven” should be understood to mean “worldly” as opposed to spiritual matters.)

In recent weeks I have done more thinking about why I write a blog. I write about various topics — whatever interests me at the moment. But for the nearly five years that I have been blogging I have tended to write more or less about political matters.

Sometimes I write because I think I have something to say. But I find that most of the time, I write to explore what it is I really think. It has been an evolutionary process. Occasionally I will read an old post and realize that my understanding has changed since that time. Other times I will read a past post and think that it states the matter better than I think I could write it today.

There is no question that I write mainly for my own benefit. I’m not doing this as a public service. I do it because it pleases me to do so.

My posts usually draw few if any comments, and that’s fine with me. If you want to reap lots of comments on your own blog you generally have to sow seeds by copiously commenting on other blogs. That works best when you can regularly devote concerted time and effort to keep the comment stream fresh. I can only sporadically put time into blogging. Sometimes I can put in a few minutes for many days in a row. Other times I can go days without having time to blog.

The blogosphere consists of many online communities that gel through comments. I am sometimes amazed at the amount of time some seem to have to comment as broadly as they do. Occasionally I envy those that earn a prominent place in one or more blogging communities. But then I realize that I deliberately choose to devote my efforts elsewhere and that I have little desire to do what would be necessary to play a larger role in any online community.

I appreciate thoughtful and substantive comments on anyone’s blog. Too many comments across the blogosphere come from cyber bullies with abusive tactics, snipers that shoot from the hip without seriously considering the content of the post, and those that appear to simply be involved in debating contests where the game is more important than the content.

I find myself mystified by those that habitually visit blogs to repeatedly state their opposing viewpoints, apparently unaffected by arguments made in the post. They write reasoned responses that are always based on the same handful of points that ignore or disregard concerns that the original blogger deems to be of central importance. Some do this to the point that it comes across like someone incessantly pounding one or two keys on a piano while ignoring all the other keys. Perhaps these people view this as a form of evangelism.

Lately I have noticed a number of instances that I have begun to fashion a post in my head only to drop the idea. As I have pondered this phenomenon, I have realized that several factors have been at play. I think that I sometimes realize that I have nothing new to say about the matter. Or to state it more accurately, I find myself developing no new understanding from the effort.

Sometimes anticipation of the type of comments a given post is certain to invite turns the whole process into a joyless exercise. If it brings me no joy and/or seems meaningless, I see no reason to do it.

At the moment, I find myself somewhat burned out on politics. The more I recognize that politics is itself a business that delivers services for gain, the more jaded I become. Every bit of political news or commentary I encounter lately causes me to lament with the author of Ecclesiastes that “there is no new thing under the sun” and that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

We’ll see what this means as far as political blogging. I might get fired up and write a political post tomorrow. Or I might take a break from such activities for a while.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

When the Gambling Bug Bites

“Why do they send stuff like this to us?” my wife asked, referring to a brochure we had received in the mail about Mesquite, Nevada. I suppose it’s because we happen to be in the right demographic categories. After all, you can see plenty of Utah license plates on cars parked at any of the gambling establishments near the Utah’s borders. (Pretty much all forms of gambling are illegal in Utah.)

We choose not to gamble for personal and religious reasons. My first career was in accounting. I have difficulty putting money in a vending machine where there is a reasonably high expectation of ‘winning’ the desired product. I can’t imagine putting money into a slot machine where the chance of breaking even is much lower. The same holds true for other games of chance. After all, those casinos weren’t built using customers’ winnings.

Many look at gambling as a form of entertainment that has a price attached, just like other forms of entertainment. For example, you willingly pay to receive psychological pleasure from going to a movie. It is argued that gambling works the same way.

However, like a number of other pursuits, gambling is known to be highly addictive. As explained in this Wikipedia article, addiction “is a chronic neurobiologic disorder that has genetic, psychosocial, and environmental dimensions….” It is characterized by one or more of the following:
  • Continuation of demonstrably detrimental behavior.
  • Compulsion to engage in the harmful behavior.
  • Preoccupation with the negative behavior.
Addiction is often accompanied by deviant behavior such as lying and stealing.

When it comes to gambling, researchers know that habitual gamblers place a much higher psychological value on a dollar won than on a dollar lost. That’s one reason that gamblers often regale others with tales about their winnings while rarely mentioning their losses. In their minds, $20 won beats $100 lost. The short-term pleasure of getting their ‘hit’ — actual chemical changes in the brain from engaging in risk — is worth the sacrifices necessary to get that hit. It works the same way with pornography, addictive drugs, and other addictive behaviors.

I once worked with a woman whose entire persona — dress, grooming, speech, mannerisms, etc — came across like a traditional farmwife out of place in an office environment. She once looked wistful as she referred to her husband and said, “I believe that gambling is his most favorite activity in the entire world.” She described how frequently they made weekend trips to Wendover, Nevada to gamble. I remember thinking that these people had a problem.

This WSJ article tells the woeful tale of the former owner of The Oriental Trading Company, who blew $127 million gambling over a two-year period and now faces criminal charges for his gambling debts. Terry Watanabe had proven himself an adept businessman when he grew the “modest toy business [inherited from his father] into a catalog empire that raked in $300 million in revenue by the time of its sale in 2000.”

It seems clear from the article that Watanabe was addicted to work — to running the business. After selling the company at age 43, he apparently sought other channels for his compulsive character. He eventually found his way into a casino. Before long he found himself feted by casinos that gave him all kinds of expensive perks and fed his alcohol addiction while he gambled away as much as $5 million in a single session.

The casinos deny any wrongdoing. One spokesperson quoted in the WSJ article notes that the casino business she represents was an “early advocate and funder of organizations that help gambling addicts.” Frankly, that’s like excusing a heroin pusher that donates to a drug rehab program.

Capable adults are accountable for their own behavior. Given his business savvy, it’s difficult to argue that Mr. Watanabe was so callow as to be innocently taken in by the casinos that fleeced him. But the casinos were certainly complicit in feeding — and taking advantage of — his addictions. They probably did nothing illegal. Whether some of their actions were wrong is another matter.

It is always wise to be wary of businesses whose main trade model is based on generating gain from promoting addictive products or services. The demand for these things exists, of course. But the perversity of the incentives in such commerce means that these businesses are happy to profit from your self destruction.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Bright Future of Journalism

There has been significant handwringing about declining newspaper readership and the demise of journalism ever since the advent of television. The rise of the Internet has evoked increased fear of these horrors to the point that some are seriously calling for a government takeover — lite version, of course — of newspapers and journalism. After all, kinder, gentler tyranny would never morph into heavy-handed tyranny, would it?

News tycoon Rupert Murdoch says that this is exactly the wrong way to go in this WSJ op-ed. (Please note that the Wall Street Journal is owned by Murdoch’s company.) Murdoch says, “Government assistance is a greater threat to the press than any new technology.” He writes:
“From the beginning, newspapers have prospered for one reason: the trust that comes from representing their readers' interests and giving them the news that's important to them. That means covering the communities where they live, exposing government or business corruption, and standing up to the rich and powerful.

“Technology now allows us to do this on a much greater scale. That means we have the means to reach billions of people who until now have had no honest or independent sources of the information they need to rise in society, hold their governments accountable, and pursue their needs and dreams.”
Murdoch notes that some players in the news market will inevitably fail to step up to the challenges of a new and continuously changing paradigm. Those that don’t, he says, should fail. But he is optimistic in the prospects for the news industry, saying, “The future of journalism belongs to the bold, and the companies that prosper will be those that find new and better ways to meet the needs of their viewers, listeners, and readers.”

Murdoch offers the following three rules for success in the new era of news delivery:
  • “[G]ive people the news they want.”
  • Charge a “fair but modest price” for news content.
  • Update government regulations to address the way news works in the 21st Century.
On point one, Murdoch complains that some are writing more for themselves and their colleagues in the journalism profession than for news customers. Thus, they earn lots of journalism awards but have declining circulation. The news business is, first and foremost, a business. No business that fails to satisfy customer desires should expect to survive.

Companies that provide desirable quality content, says Murdoch on point two, will have no problem finding customers willing to pay for that content. “The old business model based mainly on advertising” writes Murdoch, “is dead. … The reason is that the old model was founded on quasimonopolies such as classified advertising, which has been decimated by new and cheaper competitors such as Craigslist,, and so on.”

In a clear jab, Murdoch includes news aggregators such as Google in the customers that will be willing to pay for quality content. Google CEO Eric Schmidt had his own preemptory shot in this direction with his own WSJ op-ed last week. Schmidt essentially said that Google is willing to work with content creators to help them charge for their content. But he also suggested that aggregators provide value to news creators by channeling traffic to their websites that they otherwise wouldn’t see.

On his final point, Murdoch wants government to restructure regulations so as to promote increased competition. It should, he says, scrap anti-competitive rules designed for the ancient past. Above all, government should not get involved in news via direct or indirect subsidization. He writes:
“The most damning problem with government "help" is what we saw with the bailout of the U.S. auto industry: Help props up those who are producing things that customers do not want.

“The prospect of the U.S. government becoming directly involved in commercial journalism ought to be chilling for anyone who cares about freedom of speech. The Founding Fathers knew that the key to independence was to allow enterprises to prosper and serve as a counterweight to government power. It is precisely because newspapers make profits and do not depend on the government for their livelihood that they have the resources and wherewithal to hold the government accountable.

“When the representatives of 13 former British colonies established a new order for the ages, they built it on a sturdy foundation: a free and informed citizenry. They understood that an informed citizenry requires news that is independent from government. That is one reason they put the First Amendment first.”
As a society, we have a very poor track record of predicting new technologies and a worse track record of forecasting how they will be adopted and will impact society. Moreover, we have a deep history of fear of new technologies. One of the earliest cassette tapes I owned was a rock ballad about humankind being conquered by amoral computers that had become sentient. This sentiment stretches into the distant past where blacksmiths were regarded with deep suspicion as workers of black arts and were made to live separately.

Our regulatory structures work similarly to protect established technologies and practices while being slow to adapt to newer paradigms. In doing this, we unwittingly stifle innovation. Fortunately the indomitable human spirit seems to eventually break through barriers to innovate anyway, even in the face of legal disapproval.

I once regarded the future of journalism with the kind of gloom that pervades newsrooms today. I now believe that those grim faced newsies will eventually go the way of the dinosaur as they stand in place and are superseded by more agile and optimistic news entrepreneurs.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Musical Bed

When a new parent first cradles their newborn babe,
An innocent bundle from above,
An instinct previously latent blooms
Imperceptibly mingled with love.

For unrealized in that moment sublime
Are the seeds of deep impulse unseen
That cause each child to intuitively treat
Each bed like a trampoline.

And within each new parent freshly kindles
An urge equally intense and strong
To put a stop all childish bed bouncing
From that moment ever on.
As you know, all children love to jump on beds. And all parents are continually on watch for any such errant behavior. It’s as if parents have a sixth sense that allows them to detect when a child jumps on a bed. Or maybe that’s just how children see it.

Which brings me to the topic of the bed I had when I was a child. It was one of the oddest contraptions you’ve ever seen. It was obviously created for the lower end of the mass market. And that’s probably why we had it — because it was affordable.

The thing that made this bed somewhat unique was that it was made entirely of metal, except for the mattress. You’d be surprised how much the bed’s all-metal construction enhanced its noisemaking capacities.

The headboard and footboard were of a similar make, except that the headboard was taller. They were painted to look like wood. They were shiny, so that they had the rich appearance of fake wood. I think it probably looked better than the phony wood paneling they used to put on the sides of cars back in those days.

These endboards each had a frame made of sheet metal formed into square-ish tubes so as to look like wood beams. The central space within each frame was filled by a panel of sheet metal. Now, I don’t know if this was the result of the manufacturing process, the shipping process, or if regular wear and tear that caused this; but these panels were slightly bowed.

If you applied the right amount of pressure in the center, the panel would suddenly bow the other way, providing a satisfying and resounding thump in the process. The larger headboard had kind of a bass drum sound, while the footboard had more of a mid-range tympani tone to it. Releasing the pressure caused the panel to thump back to its previous position. As you can imagine, this provided for endless hours of entertainment.

These sheet metal panels weren’t the end of the percussive possibilities. Almost any child is innovative enough that they can make noise by finding something with which to beat on any hollow tubular object. And so it was with the tubes of my bed’s endboard frames. These frames could produce multiple tones, depending on where they were struck. This added numerous sounds to the percussion section.

The endboards of the bed were attached to a completely exposed box of springs. The box springs of most beds are built on a wood frame, and the springs and frame are encased in heavy fabric. Not so with my bed. My box springs were built on a metal frame and had no covering at all. Not only did each spring produce its own unique noise, but parts of the frame were flexible so that they added to the cacophony.

I guess you could say that the box springs were sort of like the string section. But they could only be played with blunt force so that they couldn’t be made to sound like the string section of the New York Philharmonic — unless the orchestra was playing an evening of heavy metal hits, or something of that nature.

The bedrails were incorporated into the box springs so that the box springs attached directly to the headboard and footboard, providing four metal-on-metal joints. Each of these joints could be counted on to produce a distinctive squeak when the bed was played quietly, or a loud jarring screech when played at higher volumes. Sometimes these joints sounded like novices on flutes or piccolos. Other times they sounded like the wild bleat of a trumpet or trombone, followed by the sound of the horn being thrown to the floor.

This whole amazing musical contrivance rode atop four metal wheels. Two were attached to the headboard and two were attached to the footboard. The slightest movement of the bed caused these metal castors to rotate a bit. A vigorous jumping session could move the bed two feet or more. The rotating wheels produced many varied squeals that I sometimes thought sounded like operatic sopranos warming up on a cold morning, perhaps while being strangled.

While my bed was a remarkable multifaceted musical instrument all on its own, my bedroom was an important part of the ensemble. When I was young, the room had hardwood floors. We had little other furniture in the room. There were scarcely any soft things that could absorb sound besides the curtains, the mattress, and the bed linens. The whole room acted as a type of amplifier.

No matter how carefully done, any movement by someone on that bed would reliably produce a variety of squeaks, groans, and squeals. Not only did all of this noise reverberate off the floor, walls, and ceiling of the room, but the direct contact of the bed’s wheels on the floor transferred all vibrations directly into the hardwood floor.

Back in that day, the basement of the house was uncompleted. Sounds that transferred into the floor echoed off the concrete walls and floor of the basement, went into the ventilation system, and were quite effectively broadcast into even the most remote regions of the house. It was as if some mad musical genius had designed a whole building that was its own kind of strange musical instrument, with my bed as the console upon which the musician played.

As a child, I was fully aware of the melodious tones that emanated from my bed. But there were holes in my logic capacities. I understood the cause and effect of applying pressure to the bed to make noise. But for some reason, it didn’t dawn on me during my early years that my mother could hear this noise too. In fact, she couldn’t escape it without leaving the house. Every time I tried to jump on my bed, I could only get in two or three bounces before Mom showed up in the doorway with a stern look on her face.

Kids are like that. They’ll tiptoe and whisper when they’re trying to get away with something. But then they’ll turn around and make other noise that is sure to get them caught. That continues until the child’s brain development gets to the point where this concept can be grasped. Then they get away with a lot more mischief. Judging from what I read in the newspaper about some criminals, there are adults that never develop that far.

When my brother and I eventually got new beds, I thought I was being rewarded. It didn’t dawn on me until much later that the new beds were actually a gift for my parents. Bill Cosby likes to quip that the thing parents with young children prize most highly is quiet.

I was still pretty young when we got carpet in the main areas of the home. It took longer before carpet was laid in the bedrooms. By and by, we got more furniture and wall hangings, and the basement was finished. All of that significantly reduced the echo chambers of the home, devastating its previous musical grandeur.

I don’t know what happened to the old metal bed. Maybe it went to the dump. Perhaps it was donated to charity so that some less fortunate family could discover the joys of that terrible noise. Maybe some five-year-old somewhere is right now jumping on that old creaky thing. If so, his mother is no doubt stomping her way to his bedroom with a scowl on her face.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

What the Constitution Really Means Today

This post on the Politics & Prosperity blog presents some thought provoking ideas about what comprises real constitutional law. The author, who lists only the name of Thomas, quotes GMU law professor Randy Barnett quite extensively. Barnett is noted for 2003 book, Restoring the Lost Constitution: the Presumption of Liberty.

As I understand it, the basic idea presented by Thomas is that the Constitution is what it says it is: the “supreme Law of the Land” (Article VI), and is to be taken seriously per its original intent. That is, all legislation and court rulings relative to the Constitution are inferior to the Constitution itself as originally interpreted.

As one writer put it, the Supreme Court offers opinions. It is not a Supreme Council of Ayatollahs whose writings we must regard as sacred or even on par with the language of the original document (as amended). As Barnett puts it in this post,
“Assuming that Supreme Court precedents constitute "the Constitution" empowers long dead judges to rule us from the grave. Sorry, that is hyperbole. It allows the opinions of justices to trump the meaning of the written Constitution.”
Our Illegitimate Government?
Thomas makes the case that most of our nation’s laws are essentially unconstitutional. This, he asserts, renders the governments that create, sustain, and enforce these laws illegitimate, since they are enemies of the Constitution. He writes:
“It is entirely reasonable to think of America’s present governments — federal, State, and local — as occupying powers. We might just as well have been invaded by a foreign power that chose to abide by our electoral rules, then substituted its own laws for what, until then, had been America’s more-or-less constitutional ones.”
In his book, Barnett takes a somewhat different tack in Part 1. He asserts, as far as I can grasp it, that no legitimate basis exists for the Constitution to be binding on those that were not a party to its adoption. In this view, no one alive today could be legitimately bound by the Constitution.

This is not necessarily a new line of thinking. The 19th Century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer argued in his 1851 treatise The Right to Ignore the State that without a truly legitimate method of opting out of the state, it cannot be presumed that the governed have consented to the state’s governance.

The great claim of democratic government is that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed (not from some farcical aquatic ceremony). But if the government has provided no other methods for truly effective and legitimate dissent than to leave the jurisdiction or to become a criminal, the citizenry cannot be considered to have consented. It does not matter that most choose to comply with the whims of government rather than be branded criminals. Tacit compliance does not imply actual consent.

Democracies, Republics, and Votes
Democratic forms of government, moreover, lend tremendous validity to the whims of the majority. In §4 of his treatise, Spencer argues that this is simply an attempt to interpret literally the phrase “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” It transfers “to the one the sacredness attached to the other” and implies that there can be no appeal to the will of the majority.

The great virtue of republican forms of government is supposed to be the balancing of the desires of the majority and the minority, ostensibly through voting for representatives of various branches at various levels. In §5, Spencer questions the legitimacy of the vote as a substitute for consent.
“Perhaps it will be said that . . . the citizen is understood to have assented to everything his representative may do, when he voted for him. But suppose he did not vote for him; and on the contrary did all in his power to get elected someone holding opposite views — what then? The reply will probably be that, by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority. And how if he did not vote at all? Why then he cannot justly complain of any tax, seeing that he made no protest against its imposition. So, curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted — whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this. Here stands an unfortunate citizen who is asked if he will pay money for a certain proffered advantage; and whether he employs the only means of expressing his refusal or does not employ it, we are told that he practically agrees; if only the number of others who agree is greater than the number of those who dissent. And thus we are introduced to the novel principle that A’s consent to a thing is not determined by what A says, but by what B may happen to say!”
Besides, it is obvious that the amount of control you exert over government through your vote (or even through all of your political activities — unless you’re one of the elite few) is wholly disproportionate to the level of control government exerts over you. That’s what happens when government isn’t strictly limited and kept in check.

Though the technical origins of the concept may vary, it would seem that Thomas, Barnett, and Spencer all drive to the inescapable conclusion that our current governments at almost all levels in the U.S. rule over us illegitimately. Thomas calls for widespread “legitimate acts of civil disobedience” against these illegitimate governments. Trivial acts such as breaking the speed limit accomplish nothing, he claims. But as for substantive acts, he leaves that up to the reader’s imagination.

What Makes Government Legitimate?
This brings up the question of what constitutes a legitimate government. I read through a broad variety of different types of works to address this question. There were many varied takes on the matter from various policy standpoints. But most of them ultimately came more or less down to the same concept: That government is legitimized by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people in a particular geographic area recognize a particular government as legitimate.

Acceptance is a much lower standard than the consent standard discussed above. In effect, a government is considered legitimate as long as most people go along with its edicts without significantly rebelling. There is no presumption of a legal foundation or absence of tyranny; no requirement for a legitimate and effective dissent mechanism.

In a twist on the phrase “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” this definition is more like, “the voice of the elite ruling class is the voice of God, as far as they can push the envelope without the people rebelling.” In essence, the absence of rebellion denotes legitimacy. That’s a pretty low bar.

The Shocking Reality
While many would recoil at such a definition, I think that it is representative of current reality. Think about it. While almost everyone is unhappy about the government in one way or another, and some are very dissatisfied with certain features, few seriously think of the government as broadly illegitimate.

Per this statist definition, the Constitution was merely an agreement by which the U.S. Government became recognized as the legitimate national government. Once that was accomplished, the document had served its purpose. Thus, the government is now free to ‘interpret’ the Constitution any way it wishes to meet “modern needs.” There is no need to amend the document when the government can simply do whatever it wants as long as the people don’t rebel on a significant scale.

As appalling as I find this low-bar definition, I conclude that it represents the way things really are. Few would give any thought at all to Thomas’ call to substantive and meaningful civil disobedience because they accept the government as legitimate. To most, any tyranny we live under is either survivable or is nothing that can’t be fixed without a little tweaking. They sense no systemic failure.

I have studied the Constitution and have seen its wisdom and follies. Overall, I consider it a remarkable legal charter for our nation. But when it comes to the way things are really done today and what is generally considered legitimate, the Constitution is essentially meaningless. I do not think that it has to stay that way. But that is another post.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Fed: A Study In Political-Financial Mischief

In October 2008, this WSJ op-ed by celebrated economist John Steele Gordon was published extolling the virtues of a strong central bank. As the economy was reacting to the bursting of the housing bubble, Gordon opined that, thanks to our nation’s central bank, “the present crisis will at least provide another opportunity to give this country, finally, a unified banking system of large, diversified, well-capitalized banking institutions that are under the control of a unified and coherent regulatory system free of undue political influence.”

Economist Thomas DiLorenzo took Gordon’s view to task in this article, calling Gordon’s WSJ article “truly ridiculous.” DiLorenzo challenges Gordon’s historical narratives regarding Hamilton and Jefferson. In essence, DiLorenzo dismisses Gordon’s pro central banking ‘history’ as nothing more than statist propaganda.

Since Gordon’s article was published, the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, has acted in unprecedented ways to, depending on your view, either A) save our economy from a horrible fate or B) expand its political and economic power while enriching the elite at the expense of the rest and creating a slew of future problems.

Economist Robert Higgs votes for B in this article. Higgs takes the opportunity to fisk Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s preemptory article aimed at stanching congressional criticism during his upcoming confirmation hearing for a second term.

Higgs’ article is worth reading. Not to be missed is the link to this Huffington Post investigative article exposing the Fed’s shady practices of hiring those that are supposed to be acting as the Fed’s gatekeepers. It’s a classic example of the foxes guarding the henhouse.

Lest Higgs be misunderstood, he makes clear in a comment what he believes should come of the Fed and of central banking in general. “I favor the Fed’s abolition and, moreover, the complete separation of government and money. (And that’s just to get off to a good start.)”

Economist Friedrich Hayek strongly favored abolishing the government monopoly over money. He wrote extensively about the deep history of mischief of governments’ involvement in money. For example, in his book The Fatal Conceit, he writes (pp. 103-104)
“The history of government management of money has, except for a few short happy periods, been one of incessant fraud and deception. In this respect, governments have proved far more immoral than any private agency supplying distinct kinds of money in competition possibly could have been.”
Governments have been very successful in guarding their monopoly over money. The concept that government should not be involved in the money supply except as even-handed rule maker and referee would be an extremely alien thought to most people. If they thought of it at all, most would react with fear and revulsion. Never mind the fact that markets handle with relative efficiency much of what is commonly substituted for actual money.

The libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul is an outlier in Congress. (The political mainstream regards him much like the crazy aunt in the attic.) Only people in certain fringe categories take his book End the Fed seriously. But after years of trying, he has finally succeeded in getting serious consideration for his bill that would require the Fed to be audited. The Fed and its allies are pulling out all the stops to stymie the bill or at least strip it of any effectiveness.

Despite the pro-Fed narratives, central banking has not served our nation well. Ending the government monopoly on money would be a good step. (Statists will put up all kinds of reasons why this would cause the end of the world.) But it seems that no matter how badly our central bank behaves in this regard, we’re going to insist on it continuing in this role.

Since the Fed has shown itself to be a heavily politicized organization, the very least we can do is to bring it under the control of Congress, audit it, and let some sunlight into its currently obscured operations. No, that won’t solve the problems with our government’s involvement in the money supply. But perhaps it will at least give people a better idea of how the Fed impacts their daily lives.

Monday, November 30, 2009

It's the Story That's Important

This Politico article by John F. Harris paints a worrisome picture for President Obama. (Digging up — or even creating — controversy sells news.) It outlines seven “stories” or narratives that are presenting a challenge to the official storyline from the administration/campaign.

The Politico’s Ben Smith blogs that the effectiveness of the alternate narratives is hampered because they “contradict one another, and that, as far as Democrats are concerned, Obama retains a [sic] enormous power to shape his own story.” Smith goes on in this subsequent post to highlight another narrative coming from a Democrat perspective that the President is “a worryingly indistinct figure. One whose pragmatic sensibility is crystal clear but bedrock convictions are still blurry.”

While it might make interesting fodder to get into the nitty-gritty of the various competing narratives surrounding the President, I want to explore the whole concept of politics as an implementation of the art of storytelling. Harris begins his article by saying:
“Presidential politics is about storytelling. Presented with a vivid storyline, voters naturally tend to fit every new event or piece of information into a picture that is already neatly framed in their minds.”
Harris goes on to say that the President won the election last year “in part because [he and his team] were better storytellers than the opposition.” He writes:
“The pro-Obama narrative featured an almost mystically talented young idealist who stood for change in a disciplined and thoughtful way. This easily outpowered the anti-Obama narrative, featuring an opportunistic Chicago pol with dubious relationships who was more liberal than he was letting on.”
It seems that our nation has a deep tradition of giving significant weight to storied caricatures of presidential candidates in formulating voting decisions. More accurate knowledge of a candidate’s character and policies (the real ones, not the stated ones) is harder to come by. So most of us satisfy ourselves with settling on the narrative that seems most convincing to us.

We do this in hindsight as well. While there are volumes of scholarly works dedicated to the complex nature of each of our nation’s presidents, most Americans know only what has become the mainstream storyline about a small number of these men. They know little or nothing about the rest.

Harris cites the storytelling concept as if everyone knows that this is what really goes on. It’s not about reality; it’s about which storyline can win in the marketplace of public sentiment. Perhaps political wonks know this. Maybe average Americans even think it somewhere in the backs of their minds. But they act otherwise.

Is this narrative game unique to presidential politics, or does it pervade other political spheres as well? I think it pretty much covers the whole political spectrum, from the closest local official to the highest levels of international politics.

The broader the audience, the greater the variation in narratives. It seems obvious that different narratives can be deeply held by different target groups, so that various people can have sharply divergent views about a given politician or political matter.

Of course, the narratives about a politician are not the only things that govern public support. Other narratives may completely overshadow a given individual in a way that may be either beneficial or detrimental to that person’s political career. For example, in light of the Watergate scandal, even a Republican with the most compelling narrative probably could not have won the 1976 election.

Since we are not omniscient, we necessarily approach political matters with imperfect and limited information. Since we all have other priorities in life, most approach politics in a relatively less informed manner. We rely heavily upon more or less deliberately skewed narratives. The more enlightened among us perhaps hope that the narrative that wins in the public marketplace of ideas will end up being the least detrimental.

Is this the way it should be? If not, what truly realistic alternative is there?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Action

I saw a marquee in front of a business the other day that read, “Thanksgiving is an action.” I got to thinking about tomorrow, which is Thanksgiving Day, and what it really means. After watching this video titled In the Spirit of Thanksgiving, I started thinking about how grateful I am.

My first thoughts turned to my wife, my children, and my extended family members. My wife is truly one of the finest people I know. She is certainly my superior in everything that is really important. My children are wonderful individuals.

Both my wife and I count ourselves very blessed with excellent in-laws. My Mom and my Mom-in-law are both fantastic people. Although my Dad and my Father-in-law both passed away in recent years, I will forever be grateful for each of these great men and what they have meant in my life.

Next my thoughts turned to all of the non-family people that have had a positive impact on my life. I will always have a special place in my heart for my Scoutmaster. I had no clue at the time what he was sacrificing so that he could serve us boys. I likewise owe a permanent debt of gratitude to the Boy Scout camp director that hired me to work at Camp Loll years ago.

There is the lady that I barely knew that went out of her way to give me a career changing opportunity. I had friends that helped me make good choices during my youth. There are those have worked to give me educational opportunities. It is impossible to count the people that have actually cared about me enough to make a difference in my life.

I have been blessed with countless opportunities. I live in a beautiful area surrounded by mountains that I love. A short bike ride from my home brings me to spectacular back country adventure. It sometimes amazes me to think that people pay money to vacation in places half as beautiful. I live in a great neighborhood with good neighbors.

Though I have Multiple Sclerosis, my health has been reasonably good. I have been able to live a fairly active life. I live in a time when advances in nutrition and health knowledge and capabilities have permitted this.

In the current economic climate, I am grateful to have a decent job. (Although it is impossible to say how long that will last.) I have a decent home. We have plenty of everything we really need, and plenty of non-necessities that improve life.

I almost didn’t mention what to me is the greatest blessing of all — my relationship with God — because it is very personal and is almost too sacred to share in this type of venue.

Like the one fellow in the video, it would take hours and hours to list all of the things for which I am grateful. I hope that as I celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I will do so by actively giving thanks.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Next Real Estate Bubble Prepares to Burst

Not all real estate is created equally. We all felt the pain when the housing mortgage bubble burst last year. Lately the chatter in certain financial circles about the situation in the commercial real estate market has been heating up.

The word is that the commercial real estate market today is “eerily similar to the subprime crisis” (see 10/22/09 IBD article) before the bubble burst. Regulators are trying to prevent the inevitable (see 11/2/09 Minyanville article) by “encouraging banks to modify loans, rather than foreclose and repossess property, even if the value of the building has fallen below the amount of the loan.”

Regulators are also allowing big banks to put off recognizing commercial real estate loan losses. This strategy only pushes the pain into the future. The only way this could diminish the problem would be if real estate prices rebounded to their previous unrealistic levels before the write downs were to become unavoidable. Nobody thinks that’s going to happen.

SmartMoney author James B. Stewart paints a bleak picture of the affair. He refutes claims by optimists that “the sector’s problems are likely to be contained because they’re valuation-driven, a result of easy credit and the inflated prices it encouraged.”

When it comes to “apartments, retail and industrial space,” vacancies are “rising sharply” and rents are falling at the highest rate ever recorded. “Goldman Sachs now predicts that asset prices will fall 40 to 42 percent on average. Private-equity firm Blackstone has marked down its commercial real estate portfolios by 45 percent.” The number of commercial real estate loans with a debt-service-coverage ratio of less than one (meaning the loan is technically in default), “will rise from a negligible level as of 2008 to 49 percent of all loans by mid-2010.” Forty-nine percent!

From his analysis of this year’s market rally, Stewart believes that most investors have failed to adequately factor in the risk in the commercial real estate market. In other words, he is saying that the market, similar to its condition before the subprime crisis took hold, has not yet considered the developing crisis, although, the information is available for anyone to see. Drawing parallels between the two crises, he writes:
“Stocks in general, and bank stocks in particular, kept hitting new highs in 2007 even after rising default rates in subprime mortgages were the subject of widespread press coverage. Only when banks started taking multibillion-dollar write-downs did investors finally wake up to the scope of the problem, and then they overreacted.”
So as we giddily watch the Dow press past 10,400, we are apparently oblivious to the fact that another crisis as severe as the last is coming. It is close to impossible to accurately predict the timing of the bursting of this next bubble. But I think it is safe to make some forecasts regarding it.
  • Politicians will use the crisis to increase the grasp of the federal government as well as to increase their own political stock.
  • Financial firms will successfully apply to the federal government for hundreds of billions (or even trillions) of dollars in aid.
  • The Fed will seek to expand its power while continuing to insist that it is doing a fine job of stabilizing the money supply and that it needs ‘independence’ to do so.
  • Regular American investors will lose a lot of money again.
While investors may be ignoring the impending calamity, I guarantee that politicians are not. Even as I write this, some politicians are scheming about ways to use the crisis to achieve their desired goals. Will we allow ourselves to be taken in again?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Time to Fight

“Evil rarely comes upon us all at once, and liberty is rarely lost in one stroke.”

Our federal government is out of control. The sprawling government we have today is markedly different from the one bequeathed to us by our Founders, which “was strictly limited in its scope, guaranteed individual liberty, preserved the free market, and on matters that pertain to our private behavior was supposed to leave us alone.” Now is the time to halt the unbridled growth of government power.

Judge Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge that is senior judicial analyst for Fox News, issues a call to action in this article. He begins the article by saying:
“Congress recognizes no limits on its power. It doesn't care about the Constitution, it doesn't care about your inalienable rights. If this health care bill becomes law, America, life as you have known it, freedom as you have exercised it, and privacy as you have enjoyed it will cease to be.”
Before you accuse me of being an evil Fox News ideologue, please note that I still live in the dark ages. I still rely on regular broadcast signals for the rare occasions that I watch TV, having never had cable TV in my home. I’ve never seen Napolitano on TV, although, I once heard him briefly on the radio.

I know that Napolitano is libertarian and I know what his detractors say about him. But the passionate concern for a properly constitutional federal government on display in his article speaks to concerns that I have long had. While the article is mainly focused on the current health care power grab by government, it addresses larger issues as well. Napolitano writes:
“When I recently asked Congressman James Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House, to tell me "Where in the Constitution the federal government is authorized to regulate everyone's healthcare," he replied that most of what Congress does is not authorized by the Constitution, but they do it anyway. There you have it. Congress recognizes no limits on its power. It doesn't care about the Constitution, it doesn't care about your inalienable rights, it doesn't care about the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights, it doesn't even read the laws it writes.”
That, my friends, is the definition of tyranny. Our tyrannical federal government is out of control.

The quote at the top of this post comes from Napolitano’s article. Over time, our federal government has morphed from its original design to become “one big monster government that recognizes no restraint on its ability to tell us how to live. It claims the power to regulate any activity, tax any behavior, and demand conformity to any standard it chooses.”

The current health care bill is a special case because for the first time, the federal government will assume that it has power under the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause (Article 1, Section 8, clause 3) to force you to purchase a personal product “you might not want, or may not need, or cannot afford.”

For those that believe that this would not be too onerous of a price to pay, consider the fact that “If you don’t purchase what the government tells you to buy, if you don’t do so when they tell you to do it, and if you don’t buy just what they say is right for you, the government may fine you, prosecute you, and even put you in jail. Freedom of choice and control over your own body will be lost. The privacy of your communications and medical decision making with your physician will be gone.”

This kind of thing smacks of King George III's actions outlined in the grievances noted in the Declaration of Independence. Now is the time to fight back. We must not tolerate this theft of our freedom. But what can we do? Napolitano urges:
“For starters, we can vote the bums out of their cushy federal offices! We can persuade our state governments to defy the Feds in areas like health care—where the Constitution gives the Feds zero authority. We can petition our state legislatures to threaten to amend the Constitution to abolish the income tax, return the selection of U.S. senators to state legislatures, and nullify all the laws the Congress has written that are not based in the Constitution.”
These sound like drastic measures that have little chance of success. But it may be possible to key into that spark of liberty that lives somewhere in the hearts of many Americans in a way that will set the political class on its heel. This is a fight for the soul of America, for your individual liberty, and for the freedom of your children.

This is not a particularly partisan fight. I agree with Napolitano when he says:
“We do not have two political parties in this country, America. We have one party; called the Big Government Party. The Republican wing likes deficits, war, and assaults on civil liberties. The Democratic wing likes wealth transfer, taxes, and assaults on commercial liberties. Both parties like power; and neither is interested in your freedoms.”
The American system of government was designed to protect our liberties, not to take them away in the name of some collective good. Not to have them meted out by some oligarchy and its army of faceless, unaccountable bureaucratic minions.

This is America. The time has come to fight for our freedoms.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Coming Battle Over Tax Increases/Spending Cuts In Utah

They ain’t taxes if we call ‘em fees, right? At least, that’s how many members of the political class see it.

As the St-Ex reports, the State of Utah is facing a budget shortfall of somewhere around $650-$850 million. Politicians must be longing for the heady days of ’05-’07, when figuring out how to spend multimillion- and billion-dollar budget surpluses were among their biggest headaches.

Here’s how economic cycles work in government. When times are good, you grow government as much as possible. It’s easy and gratifying for politicians to do so. Times are good for taxpayers, so they don’t pay much attention to government growth.

Politicians get to play hero by doling out money to as many of the perpetually outstretched hands as possible. The willing media plays this up (i.e. spending someone else’s money to make yourself look good) as altruism. Some of this bread cast upon the water comes back buttered in the form of campaign contributions and other perks. During these times, politicians are even known to occasionally throw out the bone of a small tax cut from time to time.

When lean times hit, as they inevitably must, politicians find themselves in the unenviable position of cutting spending. State politicians, that is. Federal politicians increase spending instead. They call this “stimulus,” which is similar to what my farmer neighbor says about the stuff he spreads on his fields in the spring. It smells similar too. Only his, uh, fertilizer actually helps grow a productive crop.

During austere times, some politicians inevitably argue, as does state Sen. Stuart Adams as quoted in the St-Ex article, that “There is only so much you can cut” from the budget. You see, increasing spending brings the politician a lot of friends. These fair-weather friends (and their lobbying dollars) dry up when spending is cut.

The natural alternative is creatively increasing taxes. It’s so much easier to look longingly at the pocketbooks of people you will never know than to tell people with whom you’ve developed a relationship that their funding is being reduced.

But ‘tax increase’ is the phrase that must not be uttered by politicians, because it tends to anger constituents. That can mean popularity challenges, perhaps even to the point of having to worry about being re-elected.

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, which has proven itself to be a reliable supporter of big government, has “offered its budget plan, outlining what it called “targeted” fees.” SLCoC President (and former Utah Senate President) Lane Beattie says the plan includes a 10-cent/gallon fuel tax increase and yet another tobacco tax increase. Others also want to roll back the 2006/7 sales tax decrease on unprepared foods.

Gov. Gary Herbert is talking tough against tax increases at present. He says, “With the down economy right now, raising taxes would have a dampening effect on economic growth.”

Herbert has more incentive to not raise taxes than many members of the state legislature. Although he served as lieutenant governor for over four years before assuming the governor position when Jon Huntsman, Jr. left to become ambassador to China, Utah voters don’t know Herbert very well yet. He will face voters to keep his assumed office in a special election just under 12 months from now.

This next legislative session will be a major factor — perhaps THE major factor — in determining how voters feel about Herbert. While legislators in ‘safe’ districts can get by with raising taxes, Gov. Herbert knows that he probably can’t. At least, not this session. And probably not in 2011 or 2012 either, if he hopes to be re-elected in the 2012 regular election.

This may pit the governor against the legislature. The budget shortfall has to be made up somewhere. If cutting spending becomes too painful to endure and tax cuts are too politically unpopular, be on the lookout for California style book cooking on a smaller scale.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that the dependent class will be on full parade during the legislative session decrying the evils of ‘heartless’ and ‘severe’ budget cuts. The competition between members of this class in the halls may resemble a roller derby. But most players will be competing with the real giant — the UEA-PTA team.

For Utah political hacks, the 2010 legislative session will likely be a great spectator event.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Medical Care Follows Basic Economic Principles

Economic scholar Thomas Sowell published a book last December called Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One. He has allowed Investor’s Business Daily to publish the chapter on the economics of medical care. IBD broke it into a nine-part series (see lead page). The parts are:Sowell’s treatise is reasonably well written and lucid. It is geared at a level that could be understood by a moderately informed adult. I am quite disappointed that no bibliography or references were provided. Without this, it can appear that some references and examples were cherry picked and/or skewed. The article series includes many useful tidbits, including this conclusion:
“[M]isconceptions of the economic function of prices lead not only to price controls, with all their counterproductive consequences, but also to organized attempts by various institutions, laws and policies to get most of the costs reflected in prices paid by somebody else. For society as a whole, there is no somebody else.”
I must add that the attempt to obfuscate medical costs plays directly into the hands of the powerful. Both our current system and Washington’s proposed system destroy transparency in favor of obfuscation. If you’ve ever tried to make heads or tails of all of the billing and insurance paperwork that flows from a single hospital stay, you’ll know what I mean.

Those that benefit from such obfuscation include politicians, employers, insurance companies, and the medical industrial complex. When costs are hidden — when it looks like someone else is paying the bill or that you have to make sure you get your slice of the pie — you are more likely to see something as a ‘need’ that would simply be a desire (or even unwanted) otherwise.

Multiply that by all of the people in the system and you have a lot of people getting a lot of care that has diminished real value. But each extra procedure done brings money into the coffers of providers as well as the army of paperwork pushers in both private and public organizations.

Employers look like heroes because they appear to be generously giving employees benefits, when it has been demonstrated that all such benefits are merely in lieu of actual salary. Employees feel more tied to an employer for fear of losing medical insurance coverage.

Politicians get to look like heroes for saving the poor and the sick from horrible fates. Never mind the fact that most of these could be helped without skewing an entire sector of the economy. Moreover, when politicians look like heroes they ensure a continuing flow of calls for political salvation — a self-perpetuating stream of business. Perverse incentives, indeed.

We live in an age where many imagine that they can design methods that exceed the laws of economics. This differs from those that use airplanes, parachutes, and rockets to do things that can appear to defy the law of gravity. They are actually working within the constraints of the law. Rather, there are plenty around today that ignore the very existence of economic laws. They do so at the peril of those that willhave to live with the results of their experiments.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Creating Incresed Risk by Trying to Limit Risk

Yes, there are a lot of “greed merchants” on Wall Street, agrees high rolling economic forecaster Ted Forstmann in an interview with CNBC’s Charles Gasparino reported in this WSJ op-ed. But these greed mongers don’t act alone, says Forstmann, who has “been calling them on the carpet for years….”

Gasparino writes, “The greed merchants needed a co-conspirator, Mr. Forstmann argues, and that co-conspirator is and was the United States government.” He quotes Forstmann as saying, “They're always there waiting to hand out free money. They just throw money at the problem every time Wall Street gets in trouble. It starts out when they have a cold and it builds until the risk-taking leads to cancer.”

Right now the Fed and the Treasury are engaging in shockingly unprecedented activities that are presented as necessary “to ameliorate a once-in-a-lifetime financial "perfect storm."” Gasparino argues that the only thing that makes these actions unique is their size. He documents how the federal government has been subsidizing risk for three decades “on the taxpayer dime.”

Pricing down risk
One of the ways the government has done this is through easy money — a policy to which the Fed has repeatedly turned since the 1980s to lessen “the pain of the risk-taking gone awry.” They did this with the junk bond crisis, the 1980s mortgage meltdown, the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy, when LTCM “blew up” in 1998, and again in the current crisis.

This easy money policy “opened the door for increased risk down the line.” The use of this tool, which essentially subsidizes improper risk on the backs of savers, is now so common that its effectiveness is diminishing.

In addition to this, “policy makers transformed home ownership into something that must be earned into something close to a civil right.” They made this work by creating the mortgage bond, “which allowed banks to offload the increasingly risky mortgages to Wall Street, which in turn securitized them into triple-A rated bonds thanks to compliant ratings agencies.” Gasparino asserts:
“This is where the real sin of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac comes into play. Both were created by Congress to make housing affordable to the middle class. But when they began guaranteeing subprime loans, they actually began pricing out the working class from the market until the banking business responded with ways to make repayment of mortgages allegedly easier through adjustable rates loans that start off with low payments. But these loans, fully sanctioned by the government, were a ticking time bomb, as we're all now so painfully aware.”
The bailout of LTCM in 1998 cemented understanding among investment bankers that the government would step in to stanch the pain anytime big time risk produced big time pain. It just had to appear to be “too big to fail.” This created tremendously perverse incentives for excessive risk taking. Gasparino opines that had LTCM been allowed to fail, the resultant pain would have imposed sufficiently severe costs to prevent the kind of risk taking that led to the recent crisis.

When the picture of the most recent financial market meltdown is considered as part of a collage that includes financial crises throughout the past three decades, there is no question that the big investment firms are as guilty as sin. But they could not have brought the market to its knees on their own. They are like druggies yearning for their next hit. They needed a pusher. And that pusher — the greedy bankers’ willing partner — is our federal government.

In essence, successive financial crises became increasingly severe because the clear message was sent that improper risk would be rewarded. Finally we reached the 2008-9 crisis. The pain has been heavy. But true to its form, government has come to the rescue, ensuring that there will yet be another even more severe bubble in the future.

Why would government do this?
We understand the incentives of the investment bankers. But what incentives does government have to engage in this kind of destructive co-dependency? Campaign contributions, lobbying dollars, and special perks no doubt play a large role here. But that alone is not enough. Among the other factors are the elitist mindset that pervades politics, maintenance of what I will call “the club,” and the rise of the investor class.

Almost all politicians today see their role as saving people from themselves. They play the hero; we play the victim. They see themselves as uniquely qualified to rule. Many of us feed this ideology. Sometimes we are pleased to erect windmills for our elected and appointed Don Quixotes to battle.

Many in the political class also buy into the view of economist John Maynard Keynes, who famously said, “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Thus, the compulsion to “do something” right now, regardless of long-term consequences is somehow justified in their minds.

“The club” refers to the society that exists among those involved in high finance. Some of these people are in the private sector. Some are in the public sector. Some move back and forth between these sectors. Even if these people don’t personally know each other, they enjoy a relationship that is akin to that of belonging to an exclusive club. They share a similar view and are quick to come to the aid of another club member, as it were, even if that aid involves taxpayer funds.

Nowadays most Americans have assets tied up in various investment instruments. If the financial market is hurting, so are they. When they feel negative consequences from taking financial risks, many are quick to appeal to government for relief. As mentioned above, government officials sit astride their white stallions ready to play the role of hero and eager to quell earned consequences in apparent righteous indignation.

Please understand that this is not a partisan thing. Both parties have a deep history of turning government into the pusher for the high finance community.

Slow learners
I believe it is abundantly clear that the most important players in this game have not yet learned their lesson. Everyone will be happy as soon as the current pain passes. Government officials, investment bankers, and investors will all breathe a sigh of relief and be happy to have things ‘back to normal.’

But that state will necessarily be temporary. When the bubble that is currently being constructed bursts (as it must), it will be a much larger deal than our recent crisis. Perhaps the pain will be sufficient to teach us that subsidizing risk creates a faux vision of limited risk that ultimately causes more pain that simply accepting the natural workings of the risk mechanism.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Hands-On Method of Teaching Utah History

Like every other kid in Utah, I had Utah history in fourth and seventh grades. I remember some of that. But we never did anything like the stuff my son's charter school class does.

I spent the day volunteering to hike with my son's class on a 4-mile stretch of the Mormon Trail, up Little Emigration Canyon to Big Mountain. The class had already discussed how this stretch of trail had been used by the Donner Party, the first companies of Mormon Pioneers, and the Pony Express.

For many that came from the east, cresting Big Mountain afforded their first view of the Salt Lake Valley. Learning about this in the classroom is one thing, but actually standing there at the end of a hike looking at the valley provides an entirely different level of learning.

As the students sat there on Big Mountain eating their lunches, they pulled out their class journals and recorded what they imagined their feelings would be had they been among the Mormon Pioneers looking down into the valley. They thought about the great sense of relief at being near their journey's end. But they also thought about the hardships of settling the sparse valley.

Then the students were tasked with doing the same, imagining that they were members of the Donner Party. That group had taken this route as a supposed shortcut. But they ended up using precious time to build the road through the route. From Big Mountain they could see the flat valley that they would have to cross. But it had to be terribly disheartening to see the high and seemingly impenetrable mountains on the other side of the valley, given that their destination was California.

It was chilly this morning when we started hiking. The trail was muddy in many places. The closer we got to the monument at Big Mountain, the more snow there was. We walked past beaver ponds that were iced over enough that rocks tossed onto the surface bounced off.

The entire four-mile stretch runs uphill. This time of year it is quiet and it appears quite desolate, since most leaves are gone from the trees. I was surprised that we passed no other users of the trail on our hike.

Some of the students had no problem on the hike. Some lagged or struggled. But we reminded them that pioneer children younger than them walked that stretch in bare feet. Yeah, I know that's probably as effective as when your mother told you to eat your broccoli because kids in Africa were starving.

It was kind of overcast, but the weather was very good for hiking. There was little wind. It was windier atop Big Mountain, but it was sunny while we were up there.

We had shuttled the kids to the trail head in volunteer's vehicles. A bus was coming to pick the crew up at Big Mountain and haul them back to the school. I was among a few of the volunteers that both drove and hiked. Those of us that did that knew at the outset that we'd be making a round-trip hike.

While the kids were finishing up lunch and their writing assignments, I packed up and headed back down the trail with the other volunteers. We made the trip in about a third the time it had taken to hike up. It's all downhill and we had no students to slow us down. I'm a pretty experienced hiker. One of the other hikers is a high school volleyball coach that runs marathons.

This event was just a sampling of the kinds of things that students at my son's charter school do every week. It is pretty common for them to get out of the classroom and do something hands-on.

I explained how this works to a friend of mine that teaches in an inner city school. He said that he would love to do that kind of thing with his students. Red tape is one of the things that stops this. Getting everything worked out with the school district's legal department is a nightmare. Getting adequate volunteer support is problematic. Making sure that students have proper equipment is an issue.

This friend told me how he taught his students about the trails in the mountains east of Ogden. (Check Weber Pathways.) When he suggested that they get their families to explore the trails, one of his students incredulously asked, "You mean that people like us are allowed to go up there?" He was stunned. Students that have lived for years only a couple of miles from spectacular outdoor opportunities know nothing about such things.

I'm grateful that my kids have expanded opportunities for learning. I'm grateful to have opportunities to support them in these pursuits. I wish everyone could enjoy such blessings.