Category Archives: Incoherent Raving - Page 2

History Pop Quiz

Extraordinary optimism sustained an orgy of speculation. Books were written to prove that economic crisis was a phase which expanding business organisation and science had at last mastered. [….] In October a sudden and violent tempest swept over Wall Street. The intervention of the most powerful agencies failed to stem the tide of panic sales. A group of lending banks constituted a milliard-dollar pool to maintain and stabilise the market. All was in vain.

The whole wealth so swiftly gathered in the paper values of previous years vanished. The prosperity of millions of American homes had grown on a gigantic structure of inflated credit, now suddenly proved phantom. Apart from the nationwide speculation in shares which even the most famous banks had encouraged by easy loans, a vast system of purchase by installment of houses, furniture, cars, and numberless other kinds of household conveniences and indulgences had grown up. All now fell together.

It should not, however, be supposed that the fair vision of far greater wealth and comfort ever more widely shared, which had entranced the people of the United States, had nothing behind it but delusion and market frenzy. Never before had such immense quantities of goods of all kinds been produced, shared, and exchanged in any society. There is in fact no limit to the benefits which human beings may bestow upon one another by the highest exertion of their diligence and skill. This splendid manifestation had been shattered and cast down by vain imaginative processes and greed of gain which far outstripped the great achievement itself. –Winston Churchill

Winston was talking about events now 80 years gone. But history does not, despite the popular saying, repeat itself. It just gives pop quizzes to see if anyone was paying attention.

Auto Non-Industry

I just sent this to President Obama (or rather, of course, whichever staffer gets to read these things):

Regarding the auto-industry bail out.

As a long-time General Motors stockholder, I would like to say PLEASE STOP. General Motors are Chrysler are bankrupt. Chrysler will never be a viable business on its own. General Motors might be, but it will take years and hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer (MY) money to get them to that point…if it ever happens, which is improbable.

The arguments based on jobs don’t work. Workers will have to be laid off anyway as the companies scale back. The arguments based on patriotism don’t work. A Honda built in the US is a more significant part of the US auto industry than a Chevy built in Mexico.

Ford MAY be viable, if they can survive their huge debt load long enough to get the products in the pipeline into the hands of consumers. They’ve done many of the right things, and have good products. They just need some time.

It is time to perform triage. If there must be an auto industry bail out, the limited resources available should be put into a company that has at least a chance of surviving without infinite taxpayer support.

Abandon Chrysler. There is no hope there, and never will be.

If you MUST bail out GM, do so through a structured bankruptcy. Simply giving them a blank check without forcing any change will simply led to more blank checks to a non-viable company.

Put most of the resources behind Ford, if they need it. The money there might do some good.

The American taxpayer is tired of opening his wallet to bail out incompetent companies who just happen to be short on brains and long on lobbyists. Stop the madness.

First They Came for the Smokers….

Selling other people’s stuff is a very profitable business. Ask any burglar. It works just as well when the ‘stuff’ is intangible. Ask any government.

It has become common practice to persuade people to vote for restrictions on activities that they do not participate in. Don’t ride motorcycles? Then you probably won’t mind if there’s a law requiring motorcyclists to wear a helmet. Don’t own a gun? You probably won’t mind if there are more legal restrictions placed around gun ownership. Don’t smoke? You probably won’t mind if smokers are taxed more heavily, and limited more in where they can smoke. Don’t drink? You probably don’t mind if legal limits on blood alcohol are lowered to the point where having a bottle of beer in your refrigerator can make it illegal for you to drive. Not overweight? Then you probably won’t mind if overweight people have to pay more for health insurance, are maybe told how much they can eat, how much they have to exercise.

That’s a common refrain these days. This or that lifestyle choice–smokers, the overweight, people engaging in ‘risky’ behavior–are driving up the cost of health care. They are costing us money. (Whenever someone talks about someone’s behavior costing ‘us’ money in healthcare, what they really mean is that they are costing the insurance companies money. Keep that in mind.) They are a problem to be solved.

That sort of thinking is very troublesome. Everyone, you see, uses some sort of freedom that some other people don’t. Thus, everyone can be turned against everyone else, and in the end we all lose.

“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.” — Pastor Martin Niemöller

The old Roman saying, divide et impera is usually translated as ‘divide and conquer’ but that’s not quite right. A better translation would be, ‘divide and rule.’ Divide the people against each other, and you can always gain the support of one group in putting down any other. “He who robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.” A cynical old aphorism, but our government today exceeds it. Now they rob Peter to pay Paul one year, and then rob Paul to pay Peter the next, and so gain the support of both.

We have forgotten something, here in America. We cluster in our little tribes–Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Christian, Muslim, white, black, smoker, non-smoker, Mac, Windows–and we forget that ultimately, we are all in this together. If the country, if society as a whole, suffers, we all suffer. Eventually, the government will want to take something from you, and your neighbors will be more than willing to sell it to them. Just as you were willing to sell their stuff to the government.

Maybe it will cost us a little more money, allowing people to drink, smoke, be overweight, eat meat, drive cars, participate in sports. But isn’t freedom worth paying for? If it’s not, then what is?

Perhaps it is time to close ranks, at least on this one principle. Perhaps it is time to say, “No. Our freedoms belong to all of us, and they are not for sale.”

Happy Thanksgiving

A few weeks ago, I had to make a brief stop at a client’s office on the weekend. Nathaniel and I were going to go on adventures that day, so I brought him along. He likes going to the office he calls ‘the snacky place.’ I took care of what work I needed to do while he had some cookies in the break room, and we were getting ready to go when he asked me, “What’s that?”

‘That’ was a food-bank box, with a few cans rolling around forlornly in it. I considered for a moment how to explain this to a three-year-old, then said, “There are some families out there who don’t have enough food to feed their little boys and girls, so other people give food to help them out.”

Then I thought about what I’d said, while Nathaniel stared at the box and munched on a mini fudge graham, and said, “You know, daddy complains a lot sometimes, but I guess we don’t have it so bad. Whatever else, we always have food in the house and never have to wonder where our next meal is going to come from.”

Then I tousled my little boy’s hair and said, “Let’s go have some adventures, little guy.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Be thankful for what you have, and not just on one day each year.

Daylight Slaving Time

And so our annual subservience to the golfers begins again.

The switch to Daylight Saving Time is well known to kill people. There is an increase in both heart attacks and traffic accidents following the time change. There is no benefit in reduced energy costs, or really anything at all except a little extra daylight after lunch to get in one more hole at the golf course.

Daylight Saving Time was started in WWI by President Wilson (an avid golfer), ostensibly to improve wartime productivity. We won the war, it’s been over for 92 years, and there has never been any proven productivity gain. Can we stop now?

This Best of all Possible Worlds

The recession is over, and now it seems like everyone is waiting for the jobs to come back. There is talk of a ‘jobless recovery’ and the financial press counts every tick in the latest unemployment numbers while new college graduates and the unemployed sweat and scramble for any scrap of a job that comes along, and wait for things to get better.

The trouble is, there is every indication that there is no more better. This is as good as it’s going to get.

Oh, employment numbers may tick up a little bit. Even accounting for all the people who just give up on looking for a job, or are working at a much lower level than they were two years ago, the job market may improve a little compared to the worst. But I see no reason to think that it will ever be as good again as it once was. At least not for a generation or two.

When job markets were local, there was an ebb and flow in the demand for and availability of workers. When the economy boomed, companies hired more people, the pool of available workers shrank, and in the best practices of supply and demand, wages went up as employers competed for the best workers.

Now the job market is global. There are no more labor shortages, and there won’t be until the whole civilized world is at approximately the same level of prosperity and economic development. When times are bad, companies lay off expensive Americans and move operations to cheaper countries, and when times are good they keep doing that and pocket the higher profits. They are, in fact, required by law to do so. (A corporation has a fiduciary duty to make as much money as possible for the stockholders, and they can be–and some have been–sued if they let little things like morals or ethics get in the way of making a bigger profit.)

With no more labor shortages, all the power is in the hands of the employer. They know that most of their employees have no options, and are terrified of losing their jobs, and many of them use that power ruthlessly. I know people who have been fired for refusing to spend practically every waking hour at work (without compensation for the overtime), requiring them to never see their children. That is the work environment we have now; do what your employer says, whatever they say, or risk being fired and not being able to find another job for months, or years, or ever again. They can replace you tomorrow.

Even worse, if you try to stand up to your employer you risk losing your healthcare. In many cases, that gives employers the literal power of life and death over their employees.

This is the reality for most American workers now. The employer holds all the cards, you have little or no bargaining power. Welcome to part-time jobs, the low pay and oppressive work environment of the service industry, and wondering every day if you are going to have enough money to pay your bills, and if you are even going to have a job at all next week.

People have become angry when I attempt to point out that is may be about as good as the job market is going to get. I can’t really blame them; it’s easier to get mad at someone for pointing out a problem than to get mad at the people who caused the problem. Those people are powerful and scary and far away.

However much the government might be talking about jobs and job creation right now, they really don’t care. They haven’t for decades, at least. They can’t care; it’s against policy.

The official US policy for years now has been globalization. Reducing barriers to trade, encouraging multi-national corporations, and whatever is good for business. Globalization may be great for big corporations, but it is as bad as can be for the average worker.

I can’t really blame the government either, though. They’re just doing what their constituency wants. That, of course, being the big corporations. They are who put our elected representatives in office, and keep them there, so that is who those representatives listen to.

(Sure the voters count, but you can only vote for the people on the ballot, and no one who hasn’t been approved by the big interest groups is going to get on the ballot. That is the fundamental fact that you must keep in mind whenever you watch ‘our’ government in action; it’s not our government.)

So, the middle class shrinks, the divide between the rich and poor gets bigger, and people spend more and more of their free time playing games like Farmville, because it gives the illusion that they have control over some part of their lives. Is there anything we can do, besides wait for the global economy to reach equilibrium, leaving no low-wage regions for the corporations to flee to?

Take back the government. That’s more easily said than done, but the government will not act in the best interests of the average person as long as it represents interest groups rather than people.

This was your county once. Take it back.

Brown’s Law of Politics

Any mature political system, no matter what it’s particular mechanisms, is based on increasing the wealth and power of the wealthy and powerful.

Free Speech Day

Today is Everyone Draw Muhammad Day. Some people consider this an attack on Islam. I consider it a counter-attack against the idea that, “You can’t do that because it’s against my religion,” is a valid position.

Muslims have freedom of religion, and can certainly practice their beliefs in any way that doesn’t harm other people. Their freedom of religion, though, only extends to the point where it butts up against other people’s freedom from religion. No group has a right to impose its religious beliefs on any other group. Images of Muhammad may seem like a minor issue (though a recent one; there have been many artists’ renderings of Muhammad over the centuries, many of them by Muslim artists), but it is only the tip of a much larger issue. Seeing a woman’s naked face offends many Muslims too. Should all women wear veils, to avoid giving offense? Women getting an education or, really, being treated like human beings at all is offensive to many Muslims. What do we do to avoid giving offense there? Are all of us subject to Islamic law?

I lack any artistic skills, but felt obligated to take up the task, for freedom of, and from, religion. My humble effort.

Ask Muhammad

Ancient Wisdom #2

“The consequences of anger are often more harmful than the causes of it.” — Marcus Aurelius

The Little Engines That Wouldn’t

Once upon a time, some people were asked to assemble toy trains.

This was an experiment to see how much work people would do before giving up. The participants were paid for each toy they assembled, but each successive toy paid less than the one before. (That is, if they were paid $x for the first toy, the second paid $x-1, the third, $x-2, etc.)

To make it more interesting, the participants were broken into two groups. In one group, the assembled trains were left in the test area, where the assembler could see the product of their work. In the other group, the toys were disassembled by the test monitor and put back in the box to be reassembled.

The first group built more trains before giving up; about ten to the other group’s seven. This is usually interpreted to mean that people will work harder and longer if they can see what they have made; if their work has a visible, tangible, result. I think that that is only part of the answer. I with the test had had a third group; their trains would be removed from the testing area after completion. I am pretty sure that they would have built eight or nine trains before giving up.

As motivational and satisfying as it is to see a tangible product that you have built, it is even more demotivational and depressing to see your work undone as fast as you can do it. I think the second group suffered not only from not having a visible result from their work, but from having a visible non-result.

No one likes for their work to go completely to waste, much less to have their nose rubbed in it.

Both of those things, unfortunately, are common in the workplace.