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Brian D. Rude


November 30, 14

Thoughts on inequality

      I think it was probably about a year ago we began to hear about economic inequality in America. I interpreted it immediately as politically motivated, and I stick with that opinion. But that is neither here nor there. It is talked about, so I want to have my thoughts on the matter well prepared.

      This essay is prompted by a church discussion on economic inequality in America. The leader of that discussion gave us a lot of statistics, which are certainly of interest, but do not lead to any immediate conclusions that I can see.

      In that discussion there was no doubt that economic inequality was seen as bad, and equality is seen as good. I confess I naturally tend to see it that way too. I don't like the idea of inequality. It seems somehow wrong. However I think that perspective ought to be carefully examined. My perspective in recent years is that inequality of income and wealth is not the worst thing in the world. More specifically, I think general prosperity is more important than equality, much more important. I will try to explain my reasoning on this as I go along.

      I was glad that the leader of this discussion brought up the Gini Index. If you are not familiar with that (and I expect many people are not), you can look it up online. It is a measure of inequality of a society. The index is expressed as a coefficient, from zero to one. A low index, up to about 0.3 or so indicates relative equality of income and/or wealth among the people of a society. If everyone in the society had exactly the same as everyone else the index would be a flat zero. An index of 1.0 would occur only when one person (like a king) owns and controls everything and everyone else has nothing.

      Comparisons of different countries over time and geography are interesting. Before the discussion on that Sunday morning I googled Gini index and found an interesting graphic, a map of the world with countries color coded according to their Gini index. From light green to bright green meant low Gini index. From light red to dark red indicated countries of increasing Gini index. Thus green is desirable, indicating relative equality. Red was undesirable, indicating relative inequality. I made a copy of that map to take to the discussion, but did not share it, as the leader of the discussion seemed to cover it adequately. However I did have one brief observation of this chart that I thought I might want to share in the discussion, though opportunity did not arise. That observation is that prosperous countries seem to be more green than red. Third world countries, or poor countries, seemed to tend much more toward the red.

      I did not find this surprising. Somehow it seemed intuitively correct that prosperity would lead to less inequality, but I'm not sure just how that would work. I decided sometime ago that I want prosperity for everyone. Prosperity gives us the resources to tackle the problems that we want to tackle. And I also decided that prosperity is a moral issue. Prosperity is the natural state of mankind, until we sabotage it. We shouldn't sabotage it. It hurts people to sabotage the prosperity of a person or a society.

      To explain my perspective on inequality, and why I believe it is less important than general prosperity, I will need a bar graph. I want to keep this article totally in words, so I will will not actually show the bar graph I have in mind, but I think a description will suffice. The graph has five bars of increasing height. The first bar, on the left of the graph, represents the wealth of the lowest quintile of household income or wealth. (In the interest of brevity I will henceforth refer only to "wealth", but in this context "wealth" will be used to mean "income and/or wealth".) The next bar represents the wealth of the next 20% of households. This bar must be higher than the first bar, since people in the second quintile have more wealth than people in the first quintile. The third bar is likewise higher than the second, and the four is higher than the third, and the fifth must be highest of all.

      If the fifth bar is only twice as high as the first bar then the gini index of this society would be on the low side. That would not be much inequality in comparison to what actually exists in all parts of the world. If the fifth bar is much higher than the first bar, perhaps ten times higher, then the gini index would be relatively high. An example of this would be a society in which the top quintile has 50% of the wealth and income and the lowest quintile has only 5 percent of the wealth. But the situation might be much more extreme than that. There may be societies in which the bottom quintile has only 1% of the wealth and the top quintile might have 80% of the wealth. This situation would have a high gini index. I don't know just how the gini index is computed, but I would guess this situation my produce a gini index in the .8 or .9 range.

      Now I will use this graph to discuss public policy. One point brought out in our church discussion of inequality was the idea that public policy is very important. I had to think a few minutes before I could decide whether I agreed with that or not, but I quickly decided that of course I do. My initial tendency to shy away from agreement, I eventually realized, was because some part of my brain put "public policy" in the same mental slot as "activist government". But that is in error, of course. Public policy, may be based on principles and tendencies that produce activist government, but public policy may equally well be based on principles and tendencies of prudence and minimal intrusion on citizens. As a conservative, I favor public policy based on the latter. So I totally agree, public policy is very important.

      Now consider that bar graph again. From the church discussion on inequality, one might think of the bar graph as a balloon. If you somehow push down on the fifth bar, forcing it lower, then the wealth must somehow flow into the other four bars. It seemed from the church discussion that somehow bringing down the wealth of the rich people must somehow force up the wealth of the poor people. This was not explicitly said of course. Inequality was definitely lamented. That was the point of the whole discussion. But unless I missed it, there was no suggestion of how inequality could be reduced. I felt it was implied from many things that were said that the rich should be taxed more, and that would bring down the level of inequality. Obviously if other things remain equal, taking wealth away from the rich would reduce inequality. But as is so often the case whenever we say "other things being equal" we should strongly suspect that other things will not remain equal. I will have more to say about this.

      To repeat, there was no suggestion of how inequality could be reduced, other than taxing the rich at a higher level.

      In many discussions like this I sense a zero sum assumption. A "zero sum assumption" is the idea that a gain in one area must necessarily imply a loss in another area. Lots of things in life are zero sum situations. If person A wants to buy something from person B and they are haggling over the price, that is indeed a zero sum situation. If their haggling makes the price go higher, the gain for the seller is matched exactly by the loss for the buyer. If their haggling makes the price go lower, the loss for the seller is matched exactly by the gain to the buyer. This is a zero sum situation.

      If a situation is a zero sum situation it is very important to recognize that. And if a situation is not a zero sum situation it is equally important to recognize that.

      There is a lot of room for argument in many situations about whether it is or is not a zero sum situation. For example, does government spending boost the economy of a country? One could argue that it is a zero sum situation. One could argue that whatever money government spending can put into the economy is exactly matched by the money taken out of the economy by the taxes that produce that money. The other side could argue that it is not a zero sum situation. True, money spent must be taken out of the economy by taxes, but the economic activity produced by the stimulus of government spending can result in a net gain.

      Indeed economists will talk about the "multiplier effect". I think the idea of the multiplier affect applies to a wide range of economic activities, both in government and in business, but I don't claim to know much about that. For example a business might want to invest a million dollars in some new technology. If that action results in a return of a million dollars in increased profits, the multiplier is one. But hopefully the investment of a million dollars would result in many millions in increased earnings. Then the multiplier is many times one.

      This idea of a multiplier effect would certainly seem to apply to the idea of government spending to stimulate the economy. If the multiplier effect is greater than one, there is a net gain. The money taken out of the economy in taxes is more than compensated for by the economic benefit that it generates. A multiplier effect of less than one would seem to me to be expected in some economic situations. It seems reasonable to me to expect that the loss due to overhead, inefficiency, and waste could easily result in a net loss.

      Having a multiplier of more than one would seem to be the basic requirement for a proposed action to be taken. Let's say a particular economic action is expected to have a multiplier of two. That sounds pretty good. Then an investment of one billion dollars would result in economic gain, in some way, of two billion dollars. But where does this two billion dollars appear? Somebody gets it. Does it matter who? Perhaps rich investors get a billion dollars richer. Is that worth spending a billion dollars of taxpayer money on? That is not clear.

      A multiplier of greater than one on a government expenditure may or may not mean the government makes money. Let's suppose that a government expenditure of a half a billion dollars results in a gain, somewhere in the economy, of a full billion dollars. That is a multiplier of two. Let us further suppose that that billion dollar gain in the economy is taxed at a rate of 20%. That is just a guess. I suppose some of that billion dollar gain would be taxed as capitol gains, some as personal income, some as corporate income, and perhaps some in ways that I don't even know about. If an expenditure of one-half billion dollars of tax payer money results in a gain somewhere of one billion dollars, and that billion dollars results in 200 million in new tax revenue, that still leaves 300 million dollars of taxpayer money not reimbursed to the government. That situation may or may not be worthwhile. Perhaps for some government expenditures we should want a multiplier of at least ten.

      But one thing is certain. The economy of a healthy society is not a zero sum game. Western civilization produces tremendous wealth, compared to, say, Europe in the middle ages. Where did that wealth come from? It was created. When two peasants in the middle ages trade a bushel of wheat for a bucket of walnuts, we can call that a zero sum transaction. On the surface at least, no wealth was created. We start with a bushel of wheat and a bucket of walnuts and we end up with a bushel of wheat and a bucket of walnuts. Yet somehow a world of peasants in the middle ages has evolved to a world of tremendous wealth in our time. That is not a zero sum. This is not like two people haggling over the price of something. The production of wealth in the civilized world is many, many, many times what it was in the middle ages. So somehow wealth has been created.

      It has sometimes been said that investing in the stock market is a form of gambling, and part of this idea is connected to the idea that gambling is a zero sum game. That's generally true of gambling. The gain to the winner is exactly matched by the loss to the loser. But that is definitely not true of the stock market. People have been pulling wealth out of the stock market for centuries. Buying into the stock market is buying into a system of wealth creation. Tremendous wealth is created, and has been for centuries. When you buy stock you are buying a claim to a certain part of that wealth. It is true that people can lose money in the stock market. The wealth creation machine is not perfect. It consists of people trying to make a profit, which in general means creating wealth. But some efforts to make money don't work, which means that some efforts to create wealth are counterproductive and investors take a loss. But in the big picture the stock market is definitely not a zero sum game. In the big picture it is a positive sum game.

      Totally absent from this church discussion was any consideration for the creation of wealth, for the processes by which wealth is created, for the conditions that favor the creation of wealth, or for conditions that inhibit the creation of wealth. From this discussion, and many expressions and opinions about inequality in everyday life going back for my entire lifetime, one might conclude that there is some great god somewhere, or a wealth fairy, who annually funnels wealth to the world, ready made wealth, money, that is somehow distributed by government to citizens. People don't create wealth in this perspective. The wealth fairy delivers. We have only to distribute it. If we vote for good government, by this fanciful perspective, then government will distribute this wealth equally. If we vote for bad government, then government will distribute this wealth unfairly and selfishly.

      By this perspective, then good people should vote for the government that will distribute wealth fairly.

      But that is not my perspective. I believe in the wealth fairy no more than I believe in the tooth fairy. Wealth is created. It is created in many different ways, some obvious, others not at all obvious.

      I will state and try to explain three principles of wealth that I believe are important, and then try to analyze equality or inequality in our society in accordance with these three principles.

      Principle Number One: Wealth must be constantly recreated.

      When a farmer raises a truckload of corn, that is the creation of wealth. When a factory builds a car, or a washing machine, or a computer, that is also the creation of wealth. This leads to an important fact that I think is, on the one hand, obvious, but on the other hand, kind of subtle and easily overlooked. A truckload of corn is not permanent wealth. It will be eaten sooner or later, or used in manufacturing, or wasted, or lost, and must be replaced with another truckload of corn. Anything made in a factory, a car, or washing machine, or computer, will wear out and have to be replaced. Buildings must be replaced. Roads and bridges must be maintained and sometimes replaced.

      Critics of inequality seem to have a picture of permanent wealth unequally divided, wealth not in need of replacement, wealth that is not consumed, wealth that does not wear out and need to be replaced. By this perspective we have the "rich" and the "poor". That doesn't change, in this perspective, until the rich give some of their wealth to the poor. When this happens inequality is reduced, and that is good. By this perspective the best thing would be for the rich to give away wealth until everyone is equal. Equality is good, is it not? And since in this perspective wealth is permanent, then equality will be permanent. The redistribution of wealth needs only to be done once.

      Are there any situations that fit this perspective? Perhaps there could be. Suppose everyone lived in stone houses that, once built, never wear out, never need repair. A family with a large and fancy house of this type can be said to have permanent wealth. A family with a very small house of this type can be said to have permanent wealth, but much less than the rich family. If the rich family gives away part of their big fancy permanent house to a poor family, relative equality is increased, and that is permanent.

      Housing in general is relatively permanent, but it does wear out, it does need maintenance, and it does need replacement eventually. And housing, though an important part of wealth, is only a part of the total wealth that we want. We want food. We want clothing. We want transportation and entertainment and telephones and computers and tennis courts and a zillion other things. Most of these things are very impermanent. In general wealth must be constantly recreated, and it is. There is no wealth fairy that delivers an annual load of wealth to the world, to be distributed fairly or unfairly to people.

Principle Number Two: The person who creates wealth is entitled to keep it.

      Or he may trade it away if he finds a willing trade partner. But he doesn't have to, not in Western Civilization. Some would think that is a bad thing. It allows people to be selfish. Perhaps it is a bad thing in the perspective of some idealist view of the world as it ought to be. But the world is not perfect. It is what it is. People are selfish. They want to keep what they have. They want property rights to be secured by law.

      Sometimes it is argued that primitive peoples have no sense of private property. I have never thought that made much sense. A man who crafts a bow or a spear would surely expect others to respect that as property. The woman who crafts a pot would surely not stand by passively as a child carts it away for his own amusement. I can understand that many primitive peoples would not have our ideas of land ownership, but I can't imagine that a primitive person who plants a garden would not feel entitled to defend that garden from others.

      A few paragraphs back I mentioned the idea of two medieval peasants making a trade, a bushel of wheat for a bucket of walnuts. I said at that time that this is a zero sum transaction, but of course it is not. Why would they trade if it is a zero sum transaction? Assuming it is a voluntary trade, then it is a positive sum transaction. More importantly it is a win-win situation. It is not just positive in the total sense, it is positive for each participant. The guy with the bucket of walnuts sees the bushel of wheat as a gain. The guy with the bushel of wheat sees the bucket of walnuts as a gain. If they didn't, they would not trade. Again, of course, we are assuming it is a voluntary transaction, and obviously not all transactions in the middle ages were voluntary transactions. The wealth created by this voluntary transaction may be very small, but it has to be positive or it wouldn't happen.

      And perhaps more importantly, in this little scenario, both the producer of the bucket of walnuts and the producer of the bushel of wheat are in a better position to produce more wealth. Both of these peasants will be in a better position to trade with the talented peasant, or non-peasant who can make tools of iron, or the person who can keep accounts, or the person who can entertain, or a multitude of other people who can produce wealth in a multitude of different ways. This is not to say that we should consider the peasant world of the middle ages as very creative, or productive, or not impoverished, or anything else. But in the big picture a world, no matter how impoverished, that can trade freely can grow a lot more than a world that cannot trade freely.

      Win-win situations are the norm in civilized societies. Whether it's a little transaction, such as when I buy a ball point pen from Walmart, or a big transaction, such as going in debt for thirty years to buy a house, I don't buy unless I'm better off buying than not buying, and the seller doesn't sell unless he is better off selling or not selling. This applies to a humble ball point pen at Wal Mart or any house my wife and I have ever bought or sold. It's the nature of civilization.

Principle 3: It takes wealth to create wealth.

      How can you create wealth without having at least some wealth to start with? It can be done, I suppose. When a primitive person takes some clay and water, and adds labor to end up with a usable pot, he has created wealth, and virtually no wealth was required to start this process. Examples such as this can be found in the modern world as well as in a primitive world, but the wealth produced is trivial in comparison to what we usually think of as wealth.

      A factory creates wealth, and a farm creates wealth, and labor creates wealth. A factory costs money to build and equip. And the labor to run the factory costs money. A lot of that money must be available up front, before a single item of output is produced. To buy a farm takes wealth. To produce something like cars the cost to build a factory is enormous.

      Labor, depending on your perspective, perhaps does not require wealth to begin with. Every day many young and inexperienced workers are hired. They learn their jobs very quickly and produce wealth. However if we consider that society and parents invests a large amount of money to raise and educate a child to make him into an employable adult, considerable wealth is again involved.

      Is there anyway to create wealth from scratch, without any substantial investment? One example would be when an author writes a successful book. J. K. Rowling is an example of this, becoming a multimillionaire on an investment of only time and labor. But that is the exception. The vast majority of wealth in the world is produced in factories and farms that require very substantial investment.

      The result of these three principles is that we depend wealth to produce wealth. That means that to quite an extent the poor depend on the wealthy to produce wealth. Is that good? Is that bad? I suppose it's both and neither. It's just what is. The important point to me is simply that that is the situation we have to work with. Creation of wealth is largely done by, or at least directed by, the rich. A poor man can sell his labor, and that certainly creates wealth, but a poor man cannot generally start a factory.

      We should not think that the rich want to produce wealth for the benefit of mankind. We don't have to idealize the rich. They are selfish, just like the poor, just like everyone. They first want to benefit themselves. But in the modern world they benefit themselves by producing wealth and selling it.

      One way to get equality is to have the equality of poverty. I don't want the equality of poverty. I want prosperity. We know prosperity can exist because we have had it in the past. Indeed we have a lot of prosperity right now. The last six years have been a time of less prosperity than we have often had, but still we have a lot of prosperity. But "a lot of prosperity" can still be very frustrating when we compare with times of greater prosperity. We began to lose prosperity in 2008 as the housing crisis took hold. There were fears of a much greater loss of prosperity than we actually had. When the downturn really began to take hold in 2008 and 2009, I don't recall anyone being worried about inequality. Prosperity was what counted. Indeed prosperity is what should count, in my opinion.

      Now, having explained those three principles of wealth, I want to return to my graphic, the bar graph of relative wealth of the quintles of American economic status. I gave the scenario of pressing down on the fifth quintile and the wealth flowing into the four other quintiles, reducing inequality. Can it really work that way? Is the economy like a balloon? Is it a balloon of a fixed quantity of wealth that can be redistributed, but not created or destroyed? I have already given my answer to that. If you push down on the fifth bar in that bar graph there is no easy way to predict the result. The balloon model doesn't fit at all with the principles of wealth that I have talked about.

      So now I'm going to ask you to use your imagination. In each of the scenarios I'm going to describe below imagine a finger pushing down, or up, on one of the bars in the graph. We've already mentioned the balloon scenario. A finger pushes down on the fifth quintile bar and the other four bars rise. But we can imagine other scenarios, and I think we should. Remember we don't have a mechanism in mind that would explain the balloon scenario.

      I have agreed that public policy is very important. The right public policy can make our society a better place. The wrong public policy can make our society a worse place (which has happened, of course). I will illustrate this with some imaginary scenarios.

      Scenario number one: The result of following this policy is that the fifth quintile (the rich) get ten percent richer, while the poor get five per cent richer. I won't describe the policy here, because I don't know what public policy would have this result. Is it a good result? Do we like it? I'll use the symbol (+ +) for this scenario. The first plus sign means a gain for the rich and the second plus sign means a gain for the poor. This symbol doesn't specify the magnitude of gain or loss, only whether it is positive or negative.

      Scenario number two: The result of following policy number two is that the fifth quintile gets ten per cent poorer and everyone else gets five percent poorer. The symbol for this scenario would be (- -). Do we like this result? Is it better or worse than the result of scenario number one? I don't like this scenario one bit. Everyone gets poorer. But it would reduce inequality a little bit, would it not? Is that good? Is that worth the cost of everyone getting poorer? I don't think so.

      Scenario number three: The result of following this policy is that rich get five per cent richer and the poor get five per cent poorer? We might call this the "evil Republican scenario". A lot of people are drawn to this, but only, of course, for the motive of clubbing Republicans with it. This is like the balloon scenario but the push is on the lower parts of the income scale. How are the rich supposed to get richer by making the poor poorer? The logic of this, or the mechanisms by which it might work, is apparently not of interest to lots of people. The symbol for this scenario is (+ - ).

      Scenario number four: The result of following policy number four is that the rich get five percent poorer and the poor get five per cent richer. The symbol for this scenario is (- +). This would be the policy all of my liberal friends would want. I would prefer policy number one. In both scenarios one and four. the poor get five percent richer. The difference is only in the rich. I'm afraid many of my friends would see some moral advantage to policy four over scenario one. I don't agree at all. The good thing in these two scenarios is that the poor get five per cent richer. Isn't it some sort of sin to gratuitously wish ill to the rich? What would Jesus say about that?

      These four scenarios can be summarized by this table:

             rich        poor

    one       +          +         win-win

    two        -          -         lose-lose

    three      +          -         "evil republican" scenario, a variant balloon scenario

    four       -          +         the balloon scenario

      Both scenarios number three and four can be seen as balloon models. In both models the balloon has constant volume, or approximately constant volume, and if the balloon expands in one place it contracts in another place. This is like the zero sum idea. Scenarios one and two are definitely not balloon models. The volume of the "balloon" is not constant, so squeezing it in one place gives no indication of what reaction might follow in another place. Squeezing on the fifth quintile bar might have some effect on the economy, but it does not follow that wealth would somehow flow to the other quintile bars. Intuitively it might seem that it should, but that is accepting the intuitive idea of the balloon as economic reality. Why should it be? What mechanism would cause wealth to flow from one part of the economy to another?

      If you accept the balloon model and care about the poor, then scenario four is very attractive. But if, like me, you don't accept the balloon model (which is also a wealth fairy model) then you have to wonder how this scenario could work. And you have to ask for examples of it working somewhere sometime. And if actual examples are found, then you still have to wonder how it works. What is the mechanism?

      I don't think the balloon model has ever worked, or ever can work. The balloon model fits with the wealth fairy perspective. But I don't believe wealth is delivered by some magic fairy. I believe wealth is created by the actions of humans. I believe wealth is created by people using their resources wisely, and having a society whose values respect property.

      But I will hold on to this balloon model, scenario number four, for a moment. One possibility of the balloon model working would be a direct transfer by the rich to the poor through taxation and government redistribution. That would mean there could be no overhead, or only a very limited overhead.

      As an example let us suppose that the lowest quintle has 5% of the wealth, the second quintle 10%, the middle quintile 15%, the fourth quintle 20% and the top quintle 50%. (You should check to see if that adds up to 100%.) Suppose we tax everyone so that after redistribution every quintile ends up with 20% of the wealth. Do the math. The fourth quintile would pay no tax and get no distribution. They already have 20% of the wealth. The middle quintile would pay no tax and rise from 15% of all wealth to 20% of all wealth. Thus each person in the middle quintile would increase their wealth by 33% (20 is 33% more than 15). Each person in the second quintile would increase their wealth by 100%. They would double their wealth. Each person in the lowest quintle would end up with four times their initial wealth. The Gini index would end up at zero.

      I will use the term "radical redistribution" for what I have just described.

      Of course I have chosen only four scenarios out of any number we might list just by changing the percentages. But if we stick to the plus and minus scheme these four scenarios are exhaustive. Surely scenario two, (- -), would be last choice. Everyone gets poorer. Or to some people maybe scenario three, (+ -) would be the last choice. I have no doubt that for some people the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer would be even more odious than everyone getting poorer. I do not consider this an enlightened position, but that is a rather academic point.


So for the best scenario we would have to choose between scenario one, (+ +) and scenario four, (- +). In both cases the poor get richer. We might take the attitude that we don't need to care about the rich. Whether they get richer or poorer doesn't matter much, as either way they remain rich. But we should care about the poor. If we can find a way to make the poor richer, do we need to care about it's affect on the rich?


I favor scenario one, in which the poor get five per cent richer and the rich get ten per cent richer, the win-win scenario. The alternative, scenario one, in which the poor get five per cent richer and the rich get five percent poorer, would be the choice only of mean spirited jerks. This judgment, of course, is assuming we have a choice between scenarios one and four. Both scenarios make the poor richer, so why not wish the rich good fortune also? Why wish ill on anyone for no benefit? What would Jesus say about that?

      So now we must ask what policies will lead to any of the above four scenarios. It's all academic if we have no idea what policies might lead to what outcomes. But here we must get into politics. I will give my perspective. And, as I have already mentioned, I do not believe in the wealth fairy.

      Are all four of these scenarios possible? And more importantly, of these two scenarios in which the poor get richer, which are possible? Or we might ask which is easiest to obtain. I believe one is very easy, and the other is simply not possible. The impossible one, in my opinion is scenario four, the balloon scenario, where the rich get a little poorer while the poor get a little richer. However just a few paragraphs I described what seems to be this, and said it would work. But I didn't say how long it would work. Certainly it would work in the very short term. Government, after all, does have the power to tax and the power to give away money. Thus government does have the power to force this redistribution. And as a result of this redistribution the poor would be immediately richer and the rich would be immediately poorer. But how long would it last? Six months? A year? Then what would happen?

      If this scenario substantially inhibits the production of wealth, that has to be taken into account. People in the top would be taxed very heavily. Indeed cutting the wealth of the richest would require a strong wealth tax, not just an income tax, and the income tax would have to be at 100%. This gives the richest people no incentive at all to produce wealth. But also, of course, some people in the top quintile would be only marginally above some in the fourth quintile, who are not taxed at all. The wealth tax on such individuals might be modest, but wouldn't the income tax have to be at 100%?

      Let us suppose the first year after radical redistribution, total wealth production goes down by 20%. We can do a bit of math with that. But then what do we suppose for wealth production the second year after radical redistribution? And the year after that?

      While we are supposing, why not just suppose that the production of wealth is not affected by the radical redistribution I just described? You may suppose that if you wish, but I will not. As I've already said, I don't believe in the magic wealth fairy. Rather I believe that wealth is produced by people expecting to personally benefit by the wealth they produce, by people expecting that the basic rule of civilization that you can keep what you have will continue to be observed.

      I can see how this radical redistribution scenario would appeal to people on the basis of fairness. But, of course, that is only one idea of fairness, the idea that sharing is good. But there is another type of fairness, the idea that a person is entitled to the fruits of his labor. Abraham Lincoln vigorously argued this form of fairness in his famous debates with Steven Douglas in 1858. I'm sure there are other ideas of fairness that could be articulated and that have some conflict with both these types of fairness.

      Fairness is important in modern civilization, but it is not the only thing that is important. We also have ideas of property, and ideas of responsibility, ideas of obligation, ideas of incentive, and probably yet other ideas that at times seem very important. Different people will make different choices and different trade offs in deciding what to favor in any give situation or time.

      I have argued that it takes wealth to create wealth, and that wealth is always being used up and must be constantly recreated. Thus any policy that inhibits the creation of wealth could make every one poorer. I think this has happened many times in the past, and I think it would be bound to happen under this scheme of radical redistribution. When the poor suddenly have four times what they had before they would certainly think themselves well off. But could they keep that wealth? Wealth is always disappearing, being used up, degrading, being lost, or being consumed. If the only form of wealth were indestructible rock dwellings, then people could keep what they had. But in the real world where wealth is constantly consumed and constantly replenished, what would happen? And how can we know?

      If you believe that all wealth is permanent, then I guess this situation after radical redistribution could be permanent. But I have argued that wealth is not permanent, that is is constantly being renewed. Do you believe a loaf of bread is permanent? Do you believe a pair of pants is permanent? Do you believe a bicycle or a washing machine is permanent? I don't. We depend on constant renewal of all our wealth (okay, almost all our wealth). Therefore understanding the means of the creation of wealth is crucial.

      The concerns I have discussed lead to my opinion on achiveibility of these four scenarios. Scenario four, redistribution from the rich to the poor, I have argued is achievable, but only in a very short term. Beyond the very short term it would severely damage the creation of wealth and very quickly turn into scenario number two, a radical lose-lose situation. This scenario, unfortunately, is very achievable. We achieved it in spades during the great depression, and achieved it substantially during the last six years. Government policy that inhibits the creation of wealth is easy to accomplish, and we all suffer from it.

      I don't think scenario number three (+,-) is achievable by intention, not even by evil Republicans, though perhaps it happens some times in some ways that I don't understand. It's not something we want to achieve.

      Scenario number one, the win-win scenario, is very easy to achieve. The free market has always done that. The free market has always been the engine of prosperity, and I presume it always will be. Colonial America was much more prosperous than England at the time. I interpret that is the simple result of a free and healthy society. Freedom, at least in a healthy society, has always produced wealth. I presume it always will.

      Prosperity does not produce economic equality. But it does make everybody richer. Therefore I don't care that much about equality or inequality. I care about prosperity. With freedom and prosperity anyone who wants a job can get a job. No, not everyone will get all the prosperity they would like. It's not a perfect world. We have to choose among realistic alternatives. I don't think perfect equality with prosperity is possible. But simple prosperity is possible. It's easy, and it makes the poor richer. Just don't mess it up by denying freedom.

      My view is that leaving the rich alone and not overtaxing them is the key to the win-win scenario. The rich are the producers of wealth, far more than the poor. The poor have their labor. That is very important. The poor trade their labor for money. The rich have money, and they have a need for labor. The poor usually do better by trading their labor for money than by trying to produce wealth and market it themselves. The poor can produce wealth by themselves in many ways. If they have a little land then can sometimes produce enough food to earn some money. If they have a skill or special talent they can sometimes sell that. I understand J. K. Rowling was poor when she started writing the Harry Potter books. The poor do produce some businesses. But in general the poor go to work for the rich. That is usually the most profitable to them.

      Many of my church friends apparently take it as an obvious truth that the rich steal wealth from the poor. But the poor, by definition, don't have wealth, so what is there for the rich to steal? Many of my friends are convinced that the rich steal from the poor by paying them far less than they are worth.

      I agree that the poor are paid less than they are worth. That's why they are hired, but I'm not convinced that they are paid "far less". The poor are paid less than they are worth for the exact same reason that I pay Walmart less for a a bag of apples than that bag of apples is worth to me. That is the nature of a willing-buyer-willing-seller win-win transaction. The buyer is better off buying than not buying and the seller is better off selling than not selling. If that were not true, the transaction would simply not take place.

      Consider the transaction between me and a Cadillac dealer. A new Cadillac is worth substantially less to me than the lowest price that the dealer would accept. So that transaction simply doesn't take place. It never has and in all probability never will. When I buy a car, and I have done that a few times in my life, I will always pay less, at least a little less, than the car is worth to me. Otherwise I simply wouldn't buy. But it is equally true that I have always paid more than the car was worth to the seller. Otherwise he would not have sold. I cannot force a seller to sell for less any more than a Cadillac dealer can force me to pay more than the car is worth to me.

      A few years ago when my wife and I would pay a woman $20 to come in and work a couple of hours cleaning our house, we paid her less than her efforts were worth to us, though we certainly paid her a reasonable amount. But it is equally true that we paid her more (perhaps very little more) than she would have accepted. Otherwise she would not have worked for us. That is the nature of a free market system, whether for labor, or for a bag of apples at Walmart, or for anything else. The buyer pays less than what the item is worth to him, or else he wouldn't buy. And the seller gets more than the item is worth to him, or else he wouldn't sell. In each case the difference may be very slim. Indeed in many cases both buyer and seller think they are right on the edge of an acceptable price. But still the principle holds, or the transaction would not happen.

      Of course nobody is happy with every transaction they make. If I could rerun the past there is one car in particular that I wouldn't buy again. People make mistakes. And people are constrained by their circumstances. And people are sometimes defrauded. But the big picture is clear. In a free society the willing-buyer-willing-seller scenario is the usual.

      So of course the poor are paid less than they are worth. Every worker is paid less than he or she is worth. But to assume that "less" always means "far less" seems unjustified to me. Advocates of setting wages by law always seem to assume that every business is prosperous to the point that a forced raise in wages would have no affect. My view is that there is a wide range of business success. Some businesses are very profitable and could easily afford to pay more. But other business are on the edge, meaning that any forced increased wages would push them over the edge. How are we going to tell the difference? We know that some businesses are on the edge of profitability, or close to that edge, simply because we know that every year thousands of businesses fail. Controlling wages by law has to affect the labor market. Observing that Business X could absorb a hike in the cost of labor seems very convincing to idealists who want to mandate the price of labor, but to believers in the free market, such as myself, it is not at all convincing. You might as well ask us to believe that the law of gravity has been repealed. Some business could easily pay more. Other businesses are on the edge of profitability.

      We need to get the balloon model out of our thinking. The economy is not a balloon. It never has been and never will be. A balloon has a constant volume. The economy does not have a constant volume. It expends under some conditions and contracts under other conditions. When it expands all segments of society gain at least a little, but not necessarily evenly. When it contracts all segments of society lose a little, again not necessarily evenly.

      Some people will simply refuse to give up on the balloon perspective, or the zero sum perspective. They will not give any thought to the idea that wealth is constantly replenished, or that it has to be. Years ago, I came across the idea of the "right of conquest". In ancient times, as I understand it, and even into some recent times, many people accepted the idea that if one society can conquer and subjugate another society, then the "right of conquest" entitles them to do so. It seems to me that part of the origin and basis of the right of conquest lies in our perceptions of wealth. Ancient people were not great thinkers. (Okay, there may be a few exceptions.) They didn't have lessons of history, or knowledge of the self interest in respecting rights. They observed that wealth existed, and they wanted it. They didn't entertain thoughts about the creation of wealth and the self interest in respecting property. They thought in terms of in-groups and out-groups, I presume, because that seems deeply rooted in human nature. I surmise that it seem obvious to people in ancient times that if you wanted wealth, you simply had to take it. Alternatives were not immediately apparent.

      It seems to me that there is a strong component of the right of conquest in much thinking on the left. People on the right accuse the left of thinking that all wealth belongs to the government, and therefore taxing people is just a matter of government taking what is rightfully theirs. People on the left don't seem to be much bothered by this accusation.

      I take it that an important lesson of civilization is that property should be respected. When rights, including property rights, are respected people are quite content to pursue their interests within the limits established by law, and are therefore good citizens. When rights are not respected, people look to get around the law, either by twisting it, avoiding it, or flagrantly violating it. When rights are not respected we naturally return to the right of conquest.

      I'm not sure just how a "healthy society" ought to be defined, but surely it would have to include some idea that people ought to have ways to attempt to reach their personal goals that are respected by society, ways that are not detrimental to others. Individual freedom and a free market go a long way in meeting that requirement. I'll call it the "pursuit of happiness requirement for a healthy society." Individual freedom and a free market do not achieve perfect economic equality, or even anything close to it. But I don't know of any way to get equality that does not seriously detract from this pursuit of happiness requirement. To me, a healthy society is much more important than economic equality.

Sept 9, 13

About the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

      I want to begin at a point about sixty years ago, when I was a kid growing up in a little town in Missouri called Neosho. I remember the Brown vs Board of Education decision. I wouldn't claim it had any personal meaning to me. I was pretty young, maybe fourth or fifth grade. But I do remember the reaction of people in my world. "Well, sure" they said, "It shouldn't matter what color a person's skin is." Neosho did have a black school at that time, Field School in the north part of town. I assume we desegregated without incident. Of course I could have missed a lot. I don't claim to know much history.

      There was some racism in the world I grew up in. In my childhood I would hear anti-black comments now and then. I didn't give them much thought. I didn't have to. I was not aware of any racial conflict in the school. Race was never an important topic of conversation in my home or in my school. But race was not entirely absent from my consciousness, or the thoughts of people in my world. I was aware that some people were prejudiced. I knew that prejudice was wrong. It was unfair. That idea entered my head along with a zillion other ideas that kids pick up at home and in school as they grow up. I don't remember how this basic idea, that prejudice is wrong, was conveyed, but it was. Fortunately, as I say, there was no racial conflict in my personal little world, so it was pretty much one more idea out of many generalized ideas of right and wrong.

      I was aware that our neighbors across the street were prejudiced. I had very little contact with these neighbors, though I do remember being in their house every once in a while for one reason or another. They had a daughter who was about the age of my older sister, or perhaps a year or two older. A few times I would hear my sister and mother discussing something about that girl. She did not share her parent's prejudice. In fact she was distressed by it, at least to judge by the talk I heard. It made some things difficult for her. The daughter didn't like it that her parents were obviously prejudiced, but teenagers have many things to dislike about their parents. I always assumed her parent's prejudice was just one more thing this teen age girl had to deal with in growing up. Teenagers become acutely aware of the faults of their parents, but they continue to coexist.

      In my childhood I don't remember the term "color blind society", but as I grew up I assumed that was the ideal. The learning of my childhood, that prejudice was wrong, that it "shouldn't matter what color a person's skin is" seemed pretty straightforward and adequate. So of course a color-blind society is the ideal. I don't know when that phrase, color blind society, entered my brain, but whenever it was, I accepted it as an apt expression of an ideal that made sense to me. I couldn't imagine there would be any alternative ideal.

      But later in my life I found an alternative, and had reason to question my assumption that a color-blind society is the ideal. In 1987 my wife and I ended up in a locality that had a Unitarian Universalist church, and we started going. Over time, I became aware that my color-blind society ideal was not quite what my UU friends seemed to accept. It seemed in the world of this group, color-blindness was no virtue. If anything it would be considered a fault. Their idea seemed to be that race matters, and therefore we should be very conscious of race. It's the moral thing to do, they seemed to think. This was never explicitly expressed, but seemed pretty obvious from their talk. Okay, I thought, I'll think about that. I didn't think I liked the idea, but I figured I should think about it. And over a period of months, or perhaps several years, I did think about it. And over a period of time, probably several years, I rejected it. I decided I was right all along. A color-blind society is the ideal. That remains my thinking to this day.

      Individualism versus groupiness enters here. My friends valued fairness very highly, as indeed anyone should. But it appeared that in their thinking it is primarily on the group level that fairness should apply, not on the individual level. Groups should be treated fairly. I suppose they also thought that individuals should be treated fairly, but when it came to race, it appeared that the group level was what counted. If one group has been discriminated in the past, then the other group is guilty, and that is important. The group that has been guilty of treating the other group badly owes something to that other group. Thus, group membership is important. Different races are different groups. Therefore race counts. We should be aware of race, of every individual's race. Maybe it's like going into a courtroom during a criminal trial. People can be divided into the groups of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. If you don't know, and care, who is in what group you're not a constructive part of the process.

      But the more I thought about it the more I became convinced that race should not count. Yes, I am aware than in our imperfect world sometimes events and circumstances force us think about race. But surely we should not consider race unless we have to. I concluded, over time, that I don't like this group based consciousness. Should groups be treated fairly? Well, sure. But that is simply a corollary of what to me seems paramount, that individuals should be treated fairly.

      The essential nature of prejudice, it seems to me, is unreasoned hostility, unwarranted antipathy, undeserved ill will, based on group identity. There is a lot of that in our world. Some of it is easy enough to understand. There are lots of reasons for negative feelings about others. If a person offends me, insults me, or injures me, I quite reasonably have negative feelings for that person. If I offend, insult, or injure another person, that other person quite reasonably has negative feelings for me. There are many many many offenses, insults, and injuries occurring everyday just as a result of misunderstanding, lack of forethought, unfortunate circumstances, and a host of mundane reasons. People have many disagreements about lots of things. That's life. Friction between people will always be a part of life, I presume. It is understandable that some of this friction can lead to group animosities. But strong ill will for no discernible reason seems wrong. Strong ill will that is maintained as a part of one's ego is wrong. Strong ill will based on another's group identity is wrong.

      It's always wrong to nurse your hatreds, isn't it? That's an important part of what prejudice is, and sensible people recognize it as simply morally wrong, as well as causing a host of bad things that we ought to try to avoid.

      Yet it also seems to be a part of human nature. We have our in-groups and our out-groups. And sometimes an out-group is given strong unreasoned antipathy. People do nurse their hatreds. And people nurse their negative feelings that fall short of being actual hatreds. Apparently there is something natural to humans to think of individuals in terms of their group identities.

      Throughout American history people of dark skin were subject to a terrible amount of unreasoned hostility. And there is no denying that some of that persists today. Racism is not dead. However racism has been strongly reduced in recent decades.

      I witnessed some racism in my childhood. But it was limited to intemperate remarks now and then, and usually precipitated by some bit of mundane conflict. Disparaging remarks were all the racism I personally witnessed as a child. But in today's world we all know that disparaging remarks based on race are socially unacceptable. That is progress, great progress. And in today's world people are not limited by racial animosities of others. Nobody's racial animosity has the power to keep a person from voting, or an education, or a job, with perhaps rare exceptions.

      Yes, we have made great progress from the time of my childhood. But a few years ago I began to realize that unwarranted and undeserved antipathy based on group identity is alive and well in our world. In my everyday life I am painfully aware of many instances in which people are judged unfairly based on their group identity, or their supposed group identity. Bigotry and prejudice are still with us. I witness it almost on a daily basis. But the bigotry and prejudice that I see so often today is almost always in the realm of politics.

      In recent years I have come to believe that on a moral level the bigotry and prejudice of politics, is not much less than the racial bigotry and prejudice of America in the 1950s or earlier. I will not claim the practical results are anywhere near as damaging to individual people or to the country as a whole. The racial bigotry and prejudice of earlier times hurt real people and hurt them badly. The political bigotry and prejudice of our time does not usually hurt people in a material way. It does not usually prevent people from getting jobs they are qualified for. It does not prevent people from going to school and becoming educated. It does not prevent anyone from voting if they are otherwise qualified. On the basis of the practical damage done, I agree that there is no comparison between the political bigotry and prejudice of today and the racial bigotry and prejudice of earlier times. But on a moral level I find little difference.

      And I am aware that it can certainly be argued that there ought to be a rough and tumble side of politics, that political rhetoric ought to be colorful at times. In politics we bash the opposition. We've been doing it all our lives and we enjoy it. The opposition bashes us, and enjoys it, so why shouldn't we return the favor?

      Well, yes and no. I'm not sure just what the limits should be. If, in a political discussion, you tell me that my guy doesn't have the brains God gave a wombat, and I tell you that your guy couldn't budget his way out of a wet paper bag, maybe that's more colorful than hurtful.

      And I don't think I can argue that political discussion should never be hurtful. Maybe there are things that must be said even thought they are hurtful. But surely to be gratuitously hurtful is wrong. Surely it is wrong to be hurtful to others when the only gain is to nurse one's own foul thoughts.

      When it comes to politics maybe it's not really hatreds we nurse. Maybe it's something less than that. Maybe antipathy is a better word. Maybe it's not a major sin to nurse an antipathy. Maybe it's only a minor sin, or a subtle sin, but in my mind it's still something that a moral person would want to minimize.

      Does it matter? Well, it matters to me. I am speaking here as a moralist. I think hate is wrong in a moral sense, even if it is a private hate that has no practical effect whatsoever. Hate is wrong in a moral sense because it could cross over to the practical. The human animal has amazing powers of rationalization.

      Okay, I realize we live in the real world. Wishing that everyone would be as pure as the driven snow may be just a waste of one's energy. But it is also true that morality is important. Civilization has to have a moral basis. Thinking about moral issues is inevitably an important part of human life. So, at the moment I am thinking about morality. I am thinking about morality as a normal human being, but also in the context of the teachings of my religion, Unitarian Universalism.

      With that as a background perspective I am going to give my view of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. First of all it is simply that, a tragedy. A young man lost his life. That is a tragedy. Society has every right, and a positive duty, to look into the circumstances of that death, to look very thoroughly, and to prosecute if a crime has been committed.

      But anyone who claims to be a moral person also has a responsibility to not make premature judgments. A moral person, in my humble opinion should reserve judgment until all the facts are in, at least all the facts that will come in. I understand jumping to conclusions in one's own mind. And I understand jumping to conclusions and sharing those hasty conclusions with friends in private conversations. Man is the animal that gossips. I admit to that myself.

      And I also understand, unfortunately, jumping to conclusions that nurse our hatreds. The human animal is very good at that. We are extremely good at rationalization. We're so good that we fool ourselves regularly.

      On a less weighty level, I also understand jumping to conclusions that confirm our established opinions, whether any interpersonal feeling is involved or not.

      But when moral issues are involved a moral person should have second thoughts, and third thoughts, and more. A moral person should not nurse his hatreds, in my humble opinion. And a moral person should not pervert the facts to conform to one's hatreds.

      Or, again on a less weighty level, a moral person should be on guard against subtly twisting reality to confirm to one's established opinions.

      But we are human. We rationalize. We're very good at that. And we fool ourselves. We're very good at that too.

      So when a white person kills a black person without apparent provocation it is understandable that we jump to a conclusion that it was a racial hate crime. Moral cretins are happy to leave it at that, no second or third thoughts are expected or appreciated.

      But in the Travon Martin case facts quickly came out that showed it was not so simple.

      As I understand it there was never any evidence that George Zimmerman held or expressed any anti-black sentiments. The neighborhood was culturally mixed. Zimmerman was described as a "white Hispanic", a new term. As I understand it he could also have been described as mixed race, or even black, by the usual American conventions of racial identity. I understand he had a black Peruvian grandmother.

      Within a day or two of the incident it came out that there was a seriously misleading editing of the audio tape of the 911 call that Zimmerman made to the police. I believe that tape editing was done by a local news media, but I don't know the details. I assume everyone reading this is aware of that editing situation. If not, find out about it. It's very important. You have to read it carefully, the version presented to the public, in which racism might be suspected, and the actual 911 conversation in which racism would not be suspected. I'll assume it was a stupid error of tape editing, not malicious.

      People wondered why Zimmerman was not immediately arrested. I wondered that for a while too, but the explanation was quickly forthcoming. There was a struggle between Martin and Zimmerman. Zimmerman told police that Martin was banging his head against the concrete sidewalk. And Zimmerman had substantial injuries entirely consistent with this story. Zimmerman claimed to have acted in self defense, at a point in time in which he feared substantial injury, if not for his life.

      We understand self defense as a legitimate motivation for the use of force, even deadly force. That goes back thousands of years, does it not? I'm sure it's not easy to legally define, and I'm sure opinions can disagree about just when the idea is applicable and when it is not. You don't have to argue that self defense is never justified in order to argue that self defense was not justified in one particular case.

      So the story up to this point is easy enough to understand. Understanding doesn't lessen the tragedy in any way. But this sort of thing happens all the time, in Chicago anyway, according to what we hear on the news.

      I googled Chicago murder rate. Here's a link to the first site I found. Be prepared to weep.

      I don't know how many people are murdered in Chicago in a year. Such tragedies are not confined to Chicago, of course, but apparently Chicago has far more than it's share, hundreds every year. I presume each and every death is investigated by police. In many cases someone will be charged with murder. Some who are arrested will argue self defense. Some arguments will be good. Some arguments will be laughable. It will be up to the legal system to sort it all out. Many families of victims will feel the legal system let them down, by not investigating enough, or by not prosecuting forcefully enough, or by inept judges and juries, or by lenient sentencing, or whatever. Many families of victims will feel an innocent party was railroaded or framed, or given a too harsh sentence. Some who are aggrieved will be truly victims. Others of the aggrieved will be victims only in their own minds.

      So at this point, before Zimmerman was charged, the situation seemed pretty clear. Local prosecutors didn't bring charges because self defense seemed to apply. But of course that could change. New facts can come out at any time, from many different sources.

      When finally Zimmerman was charged I felt perhaps something new had come out, something that would tilt the balance, in prosecutor?s minds, to the decision to charge. I did hear and read opinions that the case was weak, and political and public pressure caused the charge to be brought, not the merits of the case itself. I can understand that, unfortunately, but how would I know? I didn't try to predict the verdict. I had read some opinions that I considered knowledgeable that the charges never should have been brought. But how would I know?

      A decision of guilty was not entirely unexpected in my mind. There could be lots of holes in the self defense argument that I was unaware of. But a verdict of not guilty was also not unexpected. These things happen.

      For purposes of illustration, here's hypothetical situation. One motorist somehow offends another motorist, perhaps just through a bit of clumsy driving. The offended motorist follows closely behind the other, who is offended by that and so pulls over. Now two drivers get out of their cars and come at each other with tempers flaring. The situation ends badly with the death of one.

      A moralist will rightly say, "Okay the other driver almost caused a collision. That does not justify your killing him." I have no argument with that statement.

      But in this scenario the accused person explains that the other came at him with a knife, and this is backed up by evidence and a witness. Now the moralist changes sides and says, "Well, sure, he may have been mad, but nothing you did justifies him coming at you with a knife. That is a substantial threat of bodily harm or death and you are justified in defending yourself." Again, true enough. No argument there.

      But then a witness says, "He came at you with a knife after you had knocked him to the pavement." So now the moralist says, "So you started the fight, and ended up killing him. That's not self defense."

      Then the accused says, "Okay I knocked him down, but it was in self defense. He was all over me."

      And so it goes. The point is that the moralist is wasting his breath if he doesn't know all the facts, or at least all the facts that can be known. A situation that starts with tempers flaring can change in an instant by the actions of either participant. Civilized people under normal circumstances don't let their tempers flare. Civilized people under normal circumstances will take some abuse rather than escalate the conflict. But sometimes civilized people lose their cool. And some people are not very civilized to begin with.

      When the normal safeguards of civilized behavior somehow fail, an intemperate action on the part of either participant can have enormous consequences. When the survivor of this tragedy is on trial, the difference between acquittal on the basis of self defense, or a twenty year jail sentence, may depend on an action on the part of one that took only a split second.

      So it certainly made sense that things could come out in the trial that indeed made Zimmerman's plea of self defense inadequate. But he was found not guilty. So what are we to make of that?

      Now I want to present another hypothetical case. Unfortunately it's hypothetical simply because I don't have any particular case in mind. I'm afraid it happened many times in the past, but without the relatively happy ending I put on it here. I'll make the setting in a small town in the old south in the 1930s. A crime is committed. Let's make it a simple property crime, a theft of some sort. Townsfolk gossip pins the blame on George, a young black kid in the town. This town, I'll say for the purposes of this scenario, has the usual racial prejudices of that time and place. Townspeople confidently assume that George will be tried, convicted, and sent off to a long term in a harsh prison. But, in my scenario, the evidence is weak. The speculation of the townspeople is not backed up by the actual facts of the case. George is not well thought of in the town. At times he has been too sassy for what is expected of him in his station in life. Indeed he has on occasion taken some beatings for being "uppity." The townsfolk want him convicted simply to punish him for being black, and to serve as an example to others that sassiness will be tolerated only so far.

      But, in this scenario, George is acquitted. The only evidence against him was unreliable testimony. The jury shared the usual prejudices of that culture, but they were fair enough to conclude that the evidence was not sufficient, and he probably didn't actually do it. Somebody else was most likely the thief. So the jury acquits him.

      Now in this situation what should we think of the towns people and their moral judgments? They wanted him guilty, and bitterly resent that he was acquitted. They wanted him punished whether he was really guilty of the theft or not. They would not admit this. If pressed they would simply argue that obviously he really was guilty, that justice somehow miscarried. They would gladly send him to jail in order to nurse their own hatreds. What do we think of them? What should we think of them?

      I think it is clear that any moral person ought to condemn the desire to send George, either George, to jail after the jury has spoken. That is not to say that every jury in every instance has only pure motives. There can certainly be cases in which one may strongly feel that justice miscarried. But it seems to me that simply does not apply to the Zimmerman trial. The death of Martin was a tragedy, but it was not necessarily a crime. It seems to me that we have every reason to believe that if race were not involved there would be no reason to say justice miscarried.

      And was race involved? My answer, and the answer of many others, is a flat no. Race was not involved. It is certainly legitimate to ask if race was involved. It was asked, repeatedly over the course of months. I don't think there was ever any substantial evidence of racial animus on the part of Zimmerman.

      Was their racial animus on the part of Martin? I don't know. Was that question ever asked? Should it be asked?

      My answer to that is very clear and emphatic. Of course the question should be asked. It is highly relevant to the case. I don't know the answer, but it is totally appropriate that the question be asked. I presume it was considered by both investigators and jury.

      The question of the use of deadly force is crucial in this case. By long tradition the use of deadly force is not legitimate except in very special circumstances. But self defense is one such circumstances. Obvious the use of a gun qualifies as deadly force. Does banging another's head against a sidewalk qualify as deadly force?

      I gave that some thought when it first came out, and I quickly concluded that certainly, it can be deadly force. I'm not expert on such matters but I think that certainly death could result by just the right blow of one's head against a sidewalk. I myself have never used a sidewalk as an instrument of deadly force. I have never used a bucket of water as an instrument of deadly force. I have never used a pillow case as an instrument of deadly force. I have never used a car as an instrument of deadly force. I have never used a packet of rat poison as an instrument of deadly force. However, I think that if I am banging your head against a sidewalk, and you fear for your life, you are justified in shooting me if you can. I think that if I have you pinned some way with your head in a bucket of water, and you can't breathe and you can't get away, you are justified in shooting me if you can. And I think that if I have a twisted pillow case wrapped around your neck strangling you and you can't get away, you are justified in shooting me.

      Guns are not the only instruments of deadly force. A gun is certainly a special instrument of deadly force, but many other things can be just as deadly under the right circumstances. We live among deadly force all day everyday. I can go into Wal Mart any day and buy instruments of deadly force. Indeed I do. I have bought hammers, and rat poison, and crow bars, and razor blades, and on and on and on. We live in the midst of deadly force every day. I have instruments of deadly force in the garage, and in the kitchen, and right here at my desk in the study.

      I got a bit more perspective on the use of a sidewalk as an instrument of deadly force one day listening to a talk show on the radio A caller argued that Martin could not have been banging Zimmerman's head against the sidewalk. The caller claimed to know about such things from personal experience. "You just don't get up again" he argued, which told me that a sidewalk not only can be used as a lethal weapon, it sometimes is. However I couldn't accept the caller's argument that therefore it was false that it happened. Zimmerman's injuries were substantial.

      Early on in this event I kept thinking that Zimmerman made a bad mistake in having a gun. Obviously, if he didn't have a gun he couldn't have shot Martin. Martin would be alive today, and Zimmerman would not be charged with murder. But eventually, probably after hearing the caller of the previous paragraph, it occurred to me that maybe Zimmerman would not be alive today if he didn't have a gun. There's no way to know, of course. It is one thing to say that Zimmerman would not face a murder charge if he didn't have a gun That seems pretty sensible. But it is quite another thing to say that Zimmerman would have emerged unscathed had he not had a gun.

      What about the whole idea of a neighborhood watch? Is that a bad idea? Is a community justified in setting up and operating a neighborhood watch when there have been some crimes committed? Is the only moral thing to leave it entirely up to police? I don't think so.

      I am reminded of the time when I volunteered for a neighborhood watch program. Some immigrants' property had been vandalized, and it was suggested that a citizen watch program would be a good thing to do. It never got off the ground. I have no experience sitting in a car in the middle of the night watching a building for signs of foul play. But I distinctly remember my thinking. It would be the right thing to do.

      I expected the program would solicit volunteers, and arrange for eyes to be on that building twenty four hours a day for a period of months, at least. I had decided that I would volunteer. But I figured nothing would ever happen, other than probably a few calls to the police to check something out now and then. I thought about hours of boredom in the cold of winter sitting in a car in the middle of the night, maybe making a circuit of several blocks, until my shift was up and other eyes would take over the watch. That would probably continue for six months or so before being given up as unproductive. So, yes, I thought a neighborhood watch would be a good and moral thing to do. Some immigrant group (probably of color, but I don't remember) had been victimized. The police could do what they could, but they couldn't watch the building twenty four hours a day. An organization of volunteers could, for months on end. Some form of a neighborhood watch program seemed not only sensible to me, but the right thing to do. I was disappointed that it was never implemented.

      I didn't even think about there being any danger involved. The thought of needing a gun never occurred to me.

      Should a neighborhood watch program insist that the watchers be unarmed? Maybe. I expect in some situations that would make perfect sense. But in other situations it would not. Was it wrong for Zimmerman to be armed? I'm not willing to say that, but I can understand that others would.

      So my view seems pretty plain to me. The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy, but so far as we can tell it was not the result of a crime committed by Zimmerman. I can't look into the heart of George Zimmerman. Maybe he has evil secrets that I would soundly condemn. But all the evidence that has come out does not seem to make that very probable. It seems to me that we do not have any solid grounds for believing Zimmerman should be in jail. We can't claim that justice is always done in every trial, but I think we can argue that in this case everything we know factually leads us to expect the outcome that actually occurred. Therefore, thinking morally (which is the whole point of this long essay) I think it is wrong to wish Zimmerman were now in jail. And it is even more wrong to publicly proclaim that Zimmerman should be in jail. And it is wrong to say the tragedy was caused by racism. All the evidence points to the contrary. Gratuitous fanning of animosities, in my humble opinion, is wrong. From all we know, race was not involved.

      Some people who consider themselves enlightened feel Zimmerman should be in jail. A black youth died by the actions of a white man. It must be racism. It must be a hate crime. It must be punished. Or so they seem to think.

      Why do they consider themselves enlightened? Do they think that they are promoting fairness? There was never any reason to conclude that Martin was a victim of a hate crime. They could be both Norwegian and the tragedy could have played out exactly the same. Or they could both be black and the tragedy could play out exactly the same. How many times a year in Chicago do situations play out very much like this? Why would anyone think they are enlightened when they make an accusation of a hate crime solely to nurse their own fowl thoughts? Shouldn't a moralist have something to say about that?

      Do these "enlightened people" think that because many blacks in the past were unfairly sent to jail that it's only fair that now some whites should be unfairly sent to jail?

      I mentioned earlier that some of my friends apparently think of fairness primarily on the group level, not on the individual level. And I said I gave that a lot of thought. So now I'll give it a little more thought.

      One group, black people, were subject to unfairness in the past. So, thinking on a group level, maybe it's only fair that the perpetrator group, whites, be subject to injustice for a while. For how long should this unfairness persist? Maybe a hundred years? Or does it have to persist for three hundred years? If we are unfair to whites for three hundred years because we were unfair to blacks for three hundred years before that, then at the end of that six hundred years, are we ready to smile and shake hands and congratulate each other on the wonderful world we have made for our children?

      That doesn't seem likely. What is the result of this line of thinking? It seems to me that the result is group strife without end. I emphatically reject it. Fairness to groups is desirable, but not when it comes at the expense of fairness to individuals.

      Many people think George should be in jail, in spite of the fact that a jury said no. Which George? Either George. All of those people believe they are on the side of right. They believe they are highly moral.

      It can be argued that the Martin case and my hypothetical case are quite different. Yes, they are quite different in some ways, but quite the same in some ways.

      All of those people arguing that George should be in jail believe that group identity is important. They seem to believe that group identity is important and that race is a fundamental part of identity. That's where I totally disagree with them. Race is forced upon us because of our tragic history. But in the modern world we should resist racial consciousness as much as we can. It is certainly true, as I have said before, that there are circumstances in the modern world which force us to be aware of race. But in the modern world those circumstances are becoming less and less prevalent. Certainly it is legitimate and appropriate to ask if racial attitudes played a part in the Martin tragedy. That question clearly was asked, and the answer was also clear. No evidence was found that racial attitudes played a role. I think it is morally wrong to insist on injecting race into a situation in which the evidence argues against it.

      And that brings up again the issue of the editing of the tape of the 911 call. The editing clearly suggests that the question of racial attitudes was not asked, because the answer was just assumed. Isn't that prejudice? Isn't that pre-judging a person based on race? Isn't that despicable? If not, tell me why not.

      Some people use all the powers of rationalization to argue that George should be in jail. I will condemn those people, in my own mind at least, whether we're talking about one George or the other. I see it as the same. Prejudice is alive and well in our time. We should do better.





August 23, 2103

Subtle Sin, Fanning Animosities

      The concept of "subtle sins" occurred to me recently. There would be times when something in everyday life would make me think that there is something morally wrong with what someone is doing, or with the rationalizations that someone is presenting. Rationalization is very prominent in everyday life of course. We all have our differing world views, and we all have our differing opinions about a thousand things everyday. Many of these opinions are backed up by thoughts, thoughts that we call logic in our own mind, but that someone who disagrees with us would simply call rationalizations.

      Sometimes when hearing rationalizations I feel that there are moral considerations about those rationalizations that are not being addressed. I use the word "sin", as opposed to simply "wrong" due to these moral considerations. I don't choose the word "sin" for it's religious connotation, but for the connotation of personalness. A "sin" in the sense of the word that I want here, means an act or a thought that we are not entirely comfortable with, an act or a thought that we have a sneaking suspicion that maybe we should be ashamed of, that we might be violating some rule of decency.

      Subtle sins are not easy to identify and analyze. If they were, I wouldn't call them subtle. A subtle sin is hard to name. But sometimes I'll see a similar phenomenon a few times and really want a name for it. A name gives a reality to a thing, and a way of handling that thing. So I decided to try to find good names for some subtle sins.

      I am going to talk in this article about only one such subtle sin, and I am going to give it a name. I'll call it "fanning animosities". To explain this I'll give some examples. Unfortunately I have no real examples on the top of my head to use, but examples are easy to make up. So I will begin there.

      The first scenario is a fourth grade class in a school. Let's say this is a home town fourth grade class, children of your friends and neighbors. And in this class is one girl, I'll call her Phyllis, who has kind of a bad habit. She looks for opportunities to set one child against another, or against the teacher, or against anyone. I'll make up some examples:

      Johnny gets a spelling test back and is dismayed to see he missed five words out of fifteen. Phyllis comments "The teacher doesn't like you".

      Another child has a birthday party. Her parents tell her she can invite only six friends to the party, not the whole class. Thus several children are disappointed that they are not invited. Phyllis cannot leave this alone. She says things like, "You weren't invited because your dad is just a janitor". To another student Phyllis says, "You have blue eyes. That's why you weren't invited".

      In the same classroom a student, I'll call her Mary, says something that causes the teacher to momentarily frown. The subject is nutrition and the teacher said that fruits are a good food. But Mary raises her hand and says "Yes, but fruit juice can be bad because it's got a lot of sugar. It'll rot your teeth." Time does not permit the teacher to respond at length to Mary's comment. But Phyllis saw the momentary frown on the teacher's face, and later Phyllis tells Mary, "The teacher doesn't like girls. That's why she didn't like what you said."

      In music class Joe wants to sing a particular song. Later Phyllis tells him that that was a dumb choice and the other kids don't like him for choosing that song.

      And we can make up any number of other examples of fanning animosities, or of generating animosities. So is it always wrong to fan an animosity?

      I presented this idea, of fanning anomosity as a subtle sin, at a church discussion group. I read the above examples. Then when I got to the question, "Is it always wrong to fan an animosity?" I stopped and asked for discussion. I wondered if anyone would be willing to say, "Yes, it is always wrong to fan an animosity." That took just a minute or two. One of our participants replied that yes, it is always wrong to fan an animosity.

      But that is not the direction I want to go with this. So I continued mostly reading from my prepared text.

      Here's another example, but I'm making this example one in which it is good to fan an animosity.

      In the same classroom, another child, I'll call him Tim (as in Tim the timid), won't ever stand up for himself. In one case the teacher tells four students to go to the board and get a piece of chalk and an eraser. Tim and Alan reach for the same eraser at the same time. Tim has the eraser in his hand, but Alan says "I got that first" and Tim gives it up, and finds there are no more erasers at the board. Later a friend tells him, "Tim, don't back down so quickly. You were right and Alan was wrong. Don't give up so easily. Alan's acting mean just cause he doesn't like you."

      Is this a matter of fanning animosity, or is it a matter of assertiveness training? Can all assertiveness training be seen as fanning animosities? Or would it be more correct to say that any assertiveness training is likely to include some fanning of animosities? Is assertiveness training therefore bad? Or is it a bit premature to say that fanning animosities is always wrong.

      At this point in the discussion, I gave my opinion. No, it is not always wrong to fan animosities. Sometimes there are very good reasons to do so. Assertiveness training does not necessarily always involve fanning animosities, but sometimes it may. It would seem to me that sometimes it would have to. My perspective would be that gratuitious fanning of animosities is always wrong. It is wrong to fan an animosity if there is no good reason to do so. But sometimes there are very good reasons to do so. Sometimes a friend may need to be told that he should be offended by something another person has said or done. Sometimes a friend may need to be advised to sue somebody or some entity that has done them a serious wrong. Sometimes it is the right thing to do to advocate that a friend, or a country, to take up arms.

      But gratuitous fanning of animosity, it would seem to me, is always wrong.

      At this point one might ask if fanning animosities might be considered "hate speech". I'm not sure just how hate speech ought to be defined. I would think that fanning of animosities certainly would be a part of most instances of hate speech, but not its totality. I think hate speech would also include other elements, such as deomonization. And it seems to me that to qualify as hate speech there should be a clear call to hate, which is not the same as to feel agrieved, or even hostile.

      My point is that what I call a "subtle sin" involves moral considerations, and thought needs to be given to our actions in such situations, moral thought.

      Unions have always inflamed animosities against management to promote union membership. They invented a new word, "scab" to inflame animosities against those who won't join them. When I read that first sentence to the discussion group I was challenged on the word "always". Okay, "always" seldom applies to anything. I'll change it to "often". I'm not sure others were too happy with "often", but I consider it fully justified. In my life I have encountered many many instances of unions fanning animosities. Is this, unions demonizing management, an example of fanning of animosities that is justified by the desired ends? That would be a matter of opinion, of course, and every concrete example would require it's own analysis.

      Political compaigning inflames animosities to get votes. Is that justified? Of course that again is a matter of opinion that has to be decided for each individual case. My view is that political compaigning very often fans animosities far in excess of what I consider acceptable limits. However I plan to be a political activist in the future, though I have never done so in the past. Will I fan animosities for political gain? Well, yes, I will. I will just as surely as Tim's friend in the above example did to a small degree. However I will claim to be aware of the moral considerations. I will attempt to inflame only those animosities that really ought to be inflamed. And I will endeavor not to demonize anyone. My goal is to always know exactly why I think an animosity ought to be inflamed, to respect opinions to the contrary, and not to engage gratuitious negativity of any kind.

      To repeat, I do not think it can be said that it is always wrong to fan an animosity. My point is that moral consideration should always be given to any instance in which one contemplates fanning animosity. Is the harm done worth the gain? And gratuitious fanning of animosities is always morally wrong. It may be a subtle sin, but it is a sin none the less.

      That is a tall order, of course, and I am under no illusions that anyone of the opposition will appreciate my moral considerations.

      In leading the church discussion on this subtle sin, I did not relate the incident that started my thinking. That incident was the "war on women" of the political campaign a year ago. My view of the "war on women" was that it was a shameless fanning of animosities by the Democratic party for political gain. My opinion was that the Democratic Party was doing a disservice to everyone, especially women. They were stirring up passions, even to the point of making people hate, for their political ends, and that is a bad thing to do. Is "hate" too strong a word? Perhaps. Strong negative feelings toward Republicans and conservatives were generated. I witnessed some of those strong negative feelings and I felt that was wrong. I felt the issue went far beyond the legitimate goal of one party explaining their view of things and and solicting support.

      To be sure there were some actions by some state legislatures than many women felt were against them. To point those out and claim the Democrats had a better alternative is certainly legitimate. But to argue a "war on women" was being waged by all Republicans goes far beyond that . That didn't sit well with me. I said I plan to be an activist in the future. I hope I will never stoop that level.

      Of course all Republicans are accused by Democrats of stooping to that level. That's politics as usual. My goal in presenting ideas such as this is not to change argumentative behavior. That's virtually impossible. Political argument, and many other kinds of argument, is not constrained by moral sentiments so much as by practical necessity. Each side will lie, distort, and demonize as much as they can get away with. But for those rare individuals who want to get to a higher moral level than the usual realities of argumentation, I think this kind of analysis can provide some tools of thought to do so.

      I hope to identify and discuss other "subtle sins" in the future.


      October 15, 2012

Why I'm a Republican this year

      I am definitely a Republican this year, as I have been in recent years, and will likely continue to be in the near future. But I am mostly a republican by default. I am a Republican by default, because I am not a Democrat. Indeed I am emphatically not a Democrat, even though most all of my friends are. I normally don't talk politics with my friends. In this article I will try to explain, as simply and straightforwardly as I can, why I am now a Republican. My goal is not to convince anyone of anything. My goal is simply to explain my thinking.

      All my life I have considered myself a political independent. When I was young and first registered to vote I registered as an independent (or "unaffiliated", as at that time, as I remember, there was some minor party that called itself the Independent Party). This was in Missouri, where I grew up, and you registered according to party. I recognized at that time that I leaned Republican, but it was a point of pride that I was an independent. Thinking people should be independents, I thought. Beyond that I did not think much about politics back then. I had no strong feelings.

      I did not come from a political family. I don't remember us ever talking politics at home, though we might have at times. I do remember one thing my mother said that stuck in my mind. She said that she usually ends up voting Republican. That was a pretty limited statement. It was not an emotional endorsement of Republicanism. It was just a matter of fact statement that when there is an election she usually ends up voting for the Republican. If she said why, I do not remember. She didn't say anything about keeping an open mind or about being fair or non partisan, though I expect she could have. I don't know how old I was at the time. I was old enough to know some basic political facts, but that could be anywhere between age ten and twenty. I also remember the lack of emotion with which she said it. I must have been old enough to know that people often put a lot of emotion into politics. But she did not. So I took her words to mean that she had no blind loyalty to either party, that she paid attention to campaigns and then made her mind up, and as a result of that usually ended up voting Republican. That is no ringing endorsement of the Republican Party, and it certainly didn't tell me how to vote, but in its understated way it seemed a rather powerful statement to me.

      My father died when I was very young, so I got no political guidance there.

      After I got married I soon discovered that I had married into a very political family. I think the only effect of this was to make me more politically aware. I learned pretty quickly that I did not agree with the left wing politics of my in-laws, so I mostly kept my mouth shut. In fairness I would say that after a few years I managed to have some respectful and meaningful political discussions with my in laws, but for the most part I avoided talking politics with them.

      For many years I was well aware that I usually voted Republican, but I always made it a point to be open minded, as best I could anyway. I also made it a point to vote for a Democrat whenever I felt I could in good conscience. I felt one should vote for the best candidate, regardless of party.

      Something that was rather important in my political education occurred when I was a young teacher. The principal of the school was a strong partisan. He was fond of saying, "Just put your x in the little circle under the donkey and everything is going to be okay." This guy was my boss, but I did not think well of him. And I totally rejected his political advice. It seemed mindless. It appeared to me that he gave blind loyalty to his side, and that didn't seem healthy. It's not what builds a democracy. At the time his sentiment confirmed to me the idea of voting for the candidate, not the party. But years later it took on a slightly different meaning to me.

      I probably haven't voted for a Democrat in the past ten years. This brings up the possibility that maybe I am being as ignorant and stupid as the principal that I thought poorly of. (And, by the way, I thought poorly of him as a principal before I thought poorly of him for his political views.) I don't like what I call "knee jerk" politics, supporting one side as a mindless knee jerk reflex. But if I never vote for a Democrat, then maybe I should wonder if that's what I am, a "knee jerker".

      At some point, perhaps fifteen years ago or so I had an important realization. Politics is a team sport. That's probably obvious to many people, but I am not a team player. I'm not attuned to team things. A candidate owes loyalty to his or her party. You can't vote for a particular candidate without also voting for the party. This is not to say that every office holder always votes the party line. Obviously they do not. Office holders are imperfect human beings, but they do have consciences (I think, anyway, most of them). Sometimes they vote their conscience in spite of party loyalties. And for better or worse, politicians make deals. I have no doubt that sometimes deals serve the greater good. But in the final analysis the conclusion seems unavoidable that you can't vote for a particular candidate and think his or her party affiliation doesn't matter. It does matter. It is usually important. Therefore it is very important to consider carefully what each party wants and works for. If you decide that one party's goals are definitely better than the other party's goals, then voting a straight party line makes sense.

      Somewhere along the line I also came across the idea that "party discipline" is a good thing. This must have been somewhere in my early middle age. Perhaps it was an article, an opinion piece, or editorial. The idea seemed to be that in the past parties could count on their base. Now in the modern age - probably this was in the 70's or perhaps 80's - that was no longer true, and we were somehow the poorer for it. How could that be, I wondered. "Party discipline" sounds like mindlessly supporting one side. Sure I can understand how party regulars could see it that way. But from a higher perspective, the perspective of what's good for the country, not just what's good for a particular party, it seemed to make no sense to me.

      So I emphatically reject the idea of "party discipline", but I do accept the idea that it is important to think in terms of party. Parties are important. It is good to consider carefully which party to choose, and then to support it. But it is definitely not good to mindlessly maintain that support once the choice is made.

      There is a concept here that is helpful to me, the concept of a bus driver. If I am at the bus station and want to get to Minneapolis, and there are two buses at the station, one saying Cincinnati on the front and the other saying Minneapolis on the front, I won't inquire about the character of the bus driver. I won't ask if the bus driver is a family man, goes to church, coaches little league, or anything like that. I'll get on the bus that will take me where I want to go. In politics the "bus driver" is a political party. Democrats and Republicans don't want to go to the same destination. Democrats, or so it appears to me at least, want to take us to an America of more expansive and intrusive government. I don't want to go there, so I won't get on that bus. Republicans, or so it appears to me at least, want to take us to an America of more limited government, more limited regulation, more freedom, and more prosperity. That's where I want to go. The driver of that bus, Romney at the moment, may have his faults, but that is not the main consideration. So long as his destination seems more attractive to me, that's the bus I'll get on.

      So it always surprises me how much campaigning is directed toward convincing us that so-and-so is a good guy. But most politicians are good guys, at least in a minimal sense. I won't vote for a person who's main qualification is likability. I want to know where he or she wants to take us.

      There are limits to this perspective, of course. If I want to go to Minneapolis but have reason to believe the driver to Minneapolis is a psychopathic killer getting ready to strike, I'll gladly hop on the Cincinnati bus, no matter how crude and oafish the driver is. But normal politics doesn't present us with that kind of choice.

      Therefore for the past decade or so I have thought in terms of party more than in terms of particular candidates. And in this past decade or so I have become become increasingly a Republican. The Republican Party does not fit me perfectly, but whenever I think about it I quickly conclude that the Democratic Party fits me a lot less than the Republican Party. And I don't really expect that to change in the foreseeable future. This article is simply an attempt to explain why I come to the conclusion that I prefer the Republican party. I don't expect convince anyone, of course.

      Democrats will say that the Republican party is the party of business. I don't mind that. Business is important. Business (including industry) is the basis of our wealth. Business is simply the societal structure we give to trade. Trade, it seems to me, is a logical consequence of property. Property is basic to human nature.

I am now and then surprised when someone wants to do away with private property, or speaks in some way that seems to indicate that. Can we do away with human nature?

      I would go so far as to say that trade is the basis of practically all wealth. If everyone were limited to possessing only what they could personally produce, it seems like we would never rise from a subsistence level of living. Owning property is natural because we are a species that can explore and manipulate our environment, make and use tools, and think ahead to prepare for the future. Without private property all that seems practically impossible. With private property comes trade. People want to trade. And people benefit greatly by trade.

      Free trade, truly free trade in a healthy society at least, is always a win-win situation. Each side in the trade considers what they receive as worth more than what they give, or else they would not trade. Of course that qualification "truly free trade in a healthy society" is not always met.

      Business is the way we trade. I can understand that people will have issues with some ways that business is done, with some of the rules our society has adopted. If that is the case let's hear about them. Our society's rules, our laws, are always subject to revision. No one should think that we way we do things at the present moment is the highest and best that ever could be. Tinkering at the edges is both desirable and inevitable. Throwing out both baby and bathwater is not. Trade is good. It is essential

      I think a lot of Democrats think business takes from the poor. To me it seems quite the opposite. In a free society, and we are pretty much a free society in spite of some qualifications, every commercial transaction is a win-win situation. If I pay Walmart ten dollars for an item, it means that it is worth more than ten dollars to me, but less than ten dollars to Walmart. If it were not worth more than ten dollars to me, by at least a little bit, I simply wouldn't buy it. If it were not worth less then ten dollars to Walmart, they wouldn't sell it.

      I think a lot of Democrats think business has too much power and control. Obviously big organizations will have more power and control than little organizations. But business, big or little, is subject to the control of the market place. If people don't buy the products, businesses decline and fail. This has happened countless times in the past.

      I do not understand how people can criticize Walmart, which competes on price and therefore adds greatly to the well being of poor people, and then fail to criticize doctors, which charge through the nose, protected by government licensing, and do indeed get rich by taking from poor people. A counter argument is that they obviously provide more in service than the price we pay. Yes, to avoid pain a person will give all they have. To avoid death a person will gladly part with their life savings. But to me it seems clear that for doing so, for charging as they do, doctors deserve severe censure (which I provide whenever I get the chance).

      For most things in business, if you don't like the price you just don't become a customer. For me it seems that to say that the businessman becomes rich by taking from the poor applies to doctors more than anyone else. Bill Gates is rich because I gave him money. But I gave him money enthusiastically because he gave me the computer which I am now writing on. The computer has enriched my life far beyond the price I paid. Bill Gates got money from me many times in the past, and in every case (okay in most cases) I am the richer for it.

      I think many Democrats are anti-business because of some idealistic alternative they have in mind, some utopia where everyone is happy, where everyone gets everything they need. Such dreams, of course are very vaguely defined and unrealistic, but I think they must be powerful. I think we should always be aware of utopian dreams.

      As a parallel to Democrats being anti-business, I can easily find myself being anti-religion. Religion has done a lot of harm in the world. But when I think this way I remind myself that to be against religion is to be against human nature. Where does that get me? It seems to me that to be anti-business is likewise to be against human nature. It is human nature to want property, and it is human nature to trade. And yes, it is also human nature to rape, plunder, and pillage. Yes, human nature needs to be controlled. Societal rules governing trade are an important part of controlling human nature, and those rules are imperfect. But I don't see any benefit in being against all trade in principle.

      So being pro-business, establishing a society that allows business to prosper seems just common sense. Yes, we want a system of laws to prevent wrong doing. Yes, we want a social safety net. Yes, we want to expose corruption and abuse. Yes, we want a system of police and courts to punish those who break the rules. All of that is entirely consistent with wanting a social system in which business, trade, and industry can flourish.

      As a parallel consider schools. As a society we want schools to be pro-education and pro-children. But in the service of that aim we want rules of conduct to be enforced in the schools. We don't want schools to be mindless punitive toward kids, and I don't anybody to be mindlessly punitive toward schools and teachers. I don't want society to be mindlessly punitive towards business. I don't want anybody to be mindlessly punitive toward anything. Save your punitiveness for carefully selected targets, so the punitiveness can actually do some good.

      We make trade offs in business, in education, in religion, in any and every area of life. The trade offs we make in any area of life are always subject to review and revision. But in general I think we want a society that is friendly to schools, to churches, to the family, to cities, to farms, and, of course, to business.

      Everyone is simplistic, but Democrats usually seem a lot more simplistic than Republicans. My Democratic

friends have no trouble believing that the current economic woes were caused by rich people getting richer by making bad loans, housing loans in this case. But how can anybody get rich by making bad loans? The answer is pretty simple. You can't make money by making bad loans unless someone else bails you out, unless someone else takes the loss of the bad loans. I think it is pretty obvious that the government took over those bad loans. The banks who made them never had their own money at risk. I have expanded on this idea in my article "Buying Trash" at It is also on this blogspace dated Sep 7, 2010.

      In other words our present housing problem was caused by government. Should we be surprised?

      In the past several years I have taken an interest in the Great Depression. All my life I have heard that the New Deal brought us out of it. As the years went by that seemed questionable to me. By the time I actually got around to doing some reading on it, in the last few years, I had a pretty fatalistic attitude about what I would find out. Why did the depression last all throughout the thirties, rather than lasting only a year or so as other recessions had done? Government action is the answer to that. Of course. What should we expect? I was surprised to learn a few things. I had heard that Hoover took no action and let the depression get worse. It turns out Hoover was just as much of an activist president as Roosevelt.

      Another thing I learned, which perhaps should not have been a surprise, was that at that time, in the 30's, the whole world believed in socialism, in one form or another. The whole world thought governments could do great things. "Fascism" as I understand it, was not a bad word at the beginning of the 30's. Fascism meant rule by the experts, and the whole world took it as obvious that of course rule by experts was the way to go. Communism was commonly believed all over the world to be the wave of the future. Everyone was excited about the revolutionary things happening in Russia. What was happening in Russia was going to be the wave of the future. It was only toward the end of the thirties and later that Communism was seen negatively by significant parts of the world. It was not until then, approximately, that the horrendous death toll and cost in human misery became unmistakable, at least to those who would look.

      It appears to me now, and I am not in the least surprised, that governmental action was important in prolonging the depression. Roosevelt keep trying one thing after another to pull us out of the depression, without avail. It is understandable. At that time the whole world believed in rule by the experts. Conventional wisdom was that, of course, government is what will pull us out of the depression. But I don't think government did.

      An important thing that was not recognized at that time was that governments can do one thing very well. They can cause uncertainty. Uncertainty is very bad for business growth. Uncertainty is very bad for prosperity. With uncertainty people cannot make plans. Uncertainty is bad for living.

      I don't claim to understand the causes of the Great Depression. I don't claim to understand much about its history. Only with a little reading did I come across the "Palmer raids" and the "blue eagle". I conclude the times were very different back then. Mistakes were made, tragic mistakes. I don't know the details, but I cannot help concluding that government action prolonged the depression.

      I was about to say "well meaning government action" in that last sentence. I'm not sure that's warranted. All government action carries the rhetoric of doing good. But inevitably a lot of government action is motivated by the desire to remain in power.

      I can't claim that I have any magic key to ending the depression quickly. But it seems pretty plain to me that government can do a lot of harm by trying to do good.

      This is not to say that I am anti-government. We want and need government for the things that it, and only it, can do. But the conclusion to favor limited government seems a no brainer to me.

      "Do gooder" should not be a bad term. Everyone wants to do good. Government can do good, and it does do good. But government can't do everything. Government can't end poverty. Government cannot repeal laws of human nature. "Do gooder" has become a bad term because so many times efforts to do good end up doing harm. This is not limited to government, of course, but I think we should be especially concerned about government doing harm by trying to do good. Government has coercive power. It can require compliance at the point of a gun (usually figuratively, sometimes literally). Government has taxing power. And government does it all with other peoples' money.

      I have mentioned prolonging the Great Depression as one example of government doing harm while trying to do good. Another example is almost as tragic, perhaps more so, and that is welfare. Welfare goes way back, of course, but the "welfare state" got a big boost with the "Great Society" ushered in by Lyndon Johnson. I don't know if AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) existed before the 1960's but it took on new prominence with the Great Society. I don't know the details, but I think it was probably only about a decade after the start of the Great Society programs that serious questions began to arise. Is it doing harm to the American family? Was it locking people into lives of poverty? Was it eroding American values, human values actually, that were valuable for producing good lives?

      In 1996 welfare "as we knew it" was reformed. My perspective is that by this time, or perhaps a decade before this time, it had become clear to most people that yes, welfare as it then existed was doing harm, especially to families. A critical mass, a "tipping point" in favor of drastic reform arrived at some point. After that it was only a matter of when the right political conditions would permit the reform, and that happened in 1996.

      After 1996 I wondered if there would be a backlash, a groundswell of support for the old welfare, or a groundswell of revulsion of the results of the reform. I suppose some of that happened that I was not aware of, but in general there has never seemed any serious demand that we return to pre-96 welfare.

      So welfare is a powerful lesson on the limits of what government can do. And of course Communism in Russia and elsewhere is a powerful lesson on the limits of what government can do. It is depressing to me that we don't seem to learn the obvious lessons. It is depressing that we don't even seem to ask questions.

      I have heard it said, or read it, somewhere that Democrats want to usher in the millennium, while Republicans simply want to keep the peace. That has always seemed right to me. The phrase "usher in the millennium" is not very specific, but the general sense is something to the effect of ushering in a utopia, a new golden age, something wonderful. By comparison the goal to simply "keep the peace" seems pretty mundane and unexciting. But the simple "keep the peace" goal is very attractive to me because it is possible. It has the promise of a stable healthy society that will allow me to do what I want to do. Ushering in utopia seems fraught with peril. The New Deal was supposed to usher in the millennium, but I think it's primary result was to drag on the misery years beyond what should should have been and could have been. The "War on Poverty" was supposed to usher in a new millennium, in which poverty would cease to exist. But poverty seems to have won that war, at least by emerging unscathed. And Communism in Russia was supposed to usher in a "worker's paradise", but it instead brought untold misery and a death toll at least in the tens of millions.

      All those utopian dreams are apparently powerfully motivating.

      Democrats believe in regulation. If there is a problem, make a rule. Pass a law. What law? Well, obviously a law that will solve the problem. But they seem to be very undiscriminating in what law they think will solve the problem It seems to be that if a desirable goal is in the title of a bill, then they'll automatically support that bill. If we want to fight crime, then any bill that purports to fight crime must be supported.

      What's wrong with that? Well, for heaven's sake, ask how the bill is going to accomplish its laudable goal. If a bill purports to fight crime it might be a bill to throw away the key once a person is incarcerated. Or it might be just the opposite. It might be a bill to replace incarceration with "treatment" in all cases. It will probably be something far away from those two extremes. Maybe it's a bill to establish midnight basketball in big cities. Maybe it's a bill to change the rules of parole. Maybe it's a bill to hire more policemen. Maybe it's a bill to fire bad policemen. Maybe it's a bill to run a public relations campaign in areas of high crime.

      I remember one day, I believe it was in the early nineties, I was installing several new windows on my house and had the TV on in the background. I believe it was C-Span, as it was showing Congress doing something. I was not following very closely, but at one point, perhaps to kill some time while waiting on something, a reporter pulled Bob Dole over for a bit of conversation. I don't remember just what was said. I don't remember whether he was for or against whatever bill was being worked on. But basically the reporter asked him about the bill, he he replied, something to the effect of, "well, sure it has a laudable goal. But the question is how to get there . . . ." That impressed me. To Bob Dole the title of the bill was not enough. "The question is how to get there." That's simple common sense. I don't remember becoming an instant Republican in response to one short statement by Bob Dole, but it always stuck in my memory.

      Of course Democrats would vociferously deny that they give a knee jerk response to the title of a bill. I disagree.

      Actually, I think it's a little more complicated. Democrats will give a knee jerk response to the title of a bill once it is clear that is the stand their party is taking. I think it's true that Democrats are seldom unanimous in their thinking on any particular issue or any particular bill. But the general impression that they will jump on their party's bandwagon indiscriminately goes back decades.

      Don't Republicans share these faults? Well, yes, of course they do. But to me there has always seemed to be a substantial difference of degree. Bob Dole asked "How are we going to get there?" Democrats don't seem to be so thoughtful.

      Democrats believe in regulation. But it was regulation that told banks in the 1990's to make bad loans. Why? I don't know many details, but there is such a thing as the Community Reinvestment Act. As I understand it it was first passed in the 1970's and modified over the years. I suppose it did a lot of things, hopefully some of them good. But apparently it was the means by which government told banks to make bad loans, gave them carrots to comply and held sticks over them for not complying. Probably the most important carrot was this simple promise to take over the losses. I don't know just how that worked, but I think that's what "Ginnie Mae", Fannie Mae, and "Freddie Mac", and perhaps others, were set up for.

      When all this came to a head in 2008, and the housing crisis came crashing down on our heads all my Democrat friends thought we needed more regulation. I thought that was crazy. Regulation was what got us into the mess, bad regulation, regulation that forced banks to do stupid things. But of course the impetus of all this was good intentions, help poor people to buy houses. Now we've had a recession for four years, and guess who get's hurt the most by a recession?

      What caused the Savings and Loan mess of a decade or so ago? I don't know any details of that, but surely that must have been bad regulation, either regulation that forced savings and loans to engage in bad practices, or regulation that gave S&L executives incentives to waste money, or or laws that put financial risk on the government, or something.

      In a healthy society everybody has to take their risks with their own money. American society in many ways is a very healthy society, but obviously not in all ways.

      Democrats seem to think there is some magic in the words, "find funding". this has always seemed strange to me. Instead of thinking in terms of finding funding we should think in terms of first asking if it is worth funding. If it is, fund it yourself, with your own money. If it's not worth funding, don't look for funding. I realize that perspective doesn't go too far. There are many times when something is worth doing, and "find funding" is meaningful. But there seems to be a difference between left and right wing perspectives. For example if a community wants to build a new school building then it indeed must "find funding". But a right wing perspective would be that "find funding" means find a way to pay for it ourselves. Pass a bond issue and pay the money back from our own taxes. A left wing perspective would include this, but would also look for "free money" from any source.

      I think the left wing perspective that pains me most is in regard to race. Democrats think they own the issue, that they can use it anytime and in any way they want, but Republicans have to skirt around the issue. I am sick and tired of that. I think Democrats are wrong on race in some very important ways.

      Democrats think race is forever, or at least they seem to. When will we stop asking for race on the census? In the 2020 census? I certainly hope so. I think it should have been several decades ago. To ask for race on the census, I have always felt, carries a strong message that race matters. But this is the 21st century. Race should not matter now. A time or two I have discussed this with a Democrat. The answer is clear. We have to ask for race on the census because race matters. We have to know race for statistics. We have to have statistics for government programs. We have to have know for affirmative action.

      I understand that. But when will it all end? Democrats, if they really have good intentions, if they really want to treat people fairly, should then go ahead and say, "Of course we'll get rid of asking for race just as soon as we can. When affirmative action programs expire we'll have no need to know race."

      But they don't say that

      If race really should not matter, then shouldn't every affirmative action program have an expiration date? I have always thought so. To not set an expiration date (to not have an exit strategy) implies that we believe race is forever, that it will always matter what race a person is. I find that perspective repulsive. I don't think race is forever. Admittedly race is still important in America. That will not change overnight. But it is changing. I think Democrats one of these years will discover that they are the reactionaries, caught in a world view that is not only outdated, but mean spirited.

      The most egregious thing about Democrats thinking on race is the idea that anyone who disagrees with them about anything political must do so because they are racists. Talk about mean spirited and ignorant! I think that is abominable. But I encounter it frequently among my friends.

      I once listened to David Duke on television, probably for about fifteen minutes. He said that it is legitimate to care about the white race as well as the black race. He was probably on his best behavior for this interview. But thinking about it afterward I realized that David Duke thinks race is forever. He thinks race is an important part of identity and always will be. Then I quickly realized my liberal friends think the exact same thing. They think, or so it appears at least, that race is an important part of identity, and always will be. I disagree with that. I disagree with David Duke on that, and I disagree with my liberal friends on that.

      Paul Krugman wrote a book titled "The Conscience Of A liberal" I read it not too long ago. It was pretty depressing. To be fair there were many sections of it that I could read and think about, sections which had some good food for thought. But he was very plain about something that is central to his thinking. He thinks Republicans are racist, active racists. He thinks the Republicans use race to attract racist votes. Obviously I disagree with him.

      I have in the past wondered if Republicans could fairly be accused of being insensitive to racial matters. I'm not satisfied that I've got that figured out. People are insensitive. People are clods. That's the way it is. People are insensitive to lots and lots and lots of things. Indeed I have long said that the root of all evil is ignorance. The human species can be characterized, among other things, as the animal that is supremely social, and that includes being sensitive to our fellow humans. But we're no dang good at it. Yes we are very sensitive in many ways, but we are clods in many ways too.

      Republicans should be attuned to ways in which they might be insensitive, but in many areas. Democrats also should be attuned to ways in which they might be insensitive, but in many areas. Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers should be attuned to ways in which they might be insensitive, again in many areas.

      It is true, I think, that after the sixties many segregationists in the south went to the Republican party. But that is quite different than saying that the Republicans used racism to attract them. It is also true than after the sixties many segregationists stayed in the Democratic party. The party of racism for over a century was the Democratic party. My understanding is that Lyndon Johnson was instrumental in changing that, and I consider that to be to his credit.

      For many many years the Democratic party had a bad personality split. It was indeed the party of idealistic good intentions, in much of the twentieth century at least, but also in much of the twentieth century it was the party of rabid racism. During those many years both conservatives and liberals were in the Democratic party in large numbers because they were racists, and the Democratic party was the party of racism. I'll give the Democratic party credit for making an about face on racism during the time of Lyndon Johnson. After that time many racists went over to the Republicans because they were conservatives. Though the Republican party for many years was more conservative than the Democratic party, many conservatives were prevented from joining them because they were racists and the Republicans were the civil rights party. But when a racist turns to the Republican party it is because he or she is a conservative. To fail to recognize that, or to flatly deny that, is not enlightened. It is bigoted, in my humble opinion.

      The Republican Party started out as the civil rights party. It can certainly be argued that they drifted from that founding principle. America has a racist past. To say that the Republican Party was much better on civil rights than the Democratic party for a hundred years is not saying much, unfortunately.

      I have come to the conclusion in recent years that the Democratic party is wrong on race. Sure they are quick to trumpet themselves as the civil rights party. But they are also the party that considers race to be a permanent and important part of identity. In that way I think they are wrong on race. And I think that issue is going to be increasingly important as time goes on.

      There is recent situation that made quite an impression on me, and in my mind confirms what I'm saying about Democrats and race. Early in this presidential race, perhaps in late 2011 or perhaps sometime in 2012, Herman Cain entered the race. He didn't get too far. I was very much attracted to him, just based on the few facts that quickly became available, though I couldn't quite get behind his 9-9-9 plan. One day I heard him being interviewed on the radio by a reporter. The reporter asked him what role he played in the civil rights struggle of the sixties. Cain's answer was basically that he played no role. He was a young kid who focused on making something of himself. That much of the interview probably took maybe three or four sentences. But the reporter would not let it go. The reporter insisted on returning again and again to the question. I suppose the reporter (and I don't know who the reporter was) would deny that it was a hostile interview. I suppose he felt it was a relevant issue, an issue that a good reporter would pursue. But to me a conclusion that I did not like seemed unavoidable. Race matters. I suppose the reporter would take that so much for granted that it would not be worthy of comment. Cain was black. Race matters. As a black man Cain must act like a black man. A black man must take an active role in the civil rights struggle, or have a very good reason why not. The reporter's perspective was not my perspective.

      My reply to the statement that "race matters", is "no, it doesn't", at least not in this situation. This guy has some serious qualifications and experience for being president. The fact that he is black doesn't matter. As I listened I wondered how it would be different if Herman Cain were white. Would the reporter return again and again to Cain's role in the sixties era civil rights struggle? To me the answer appeared obvious. No, he wouldn't. He expects Herman Cain to act in a certain way based on his race. I have no doubt this reporter would think of himself as anything but a racist. I would not accuse him of being a racist. I think racism ought to be rather narrowly defined. But the conclusion, that to this reporter race is important, that race is a permanent part of identity, that group identity matters, and that Herman Cain should think the same, seemed unavoidable.

      I think one's role in the civil rights struggle of the sixties is a legitimate thing to ask about, in the same way that one's participation in the military is a legitimate thing to ask about. To have served in the military, or to have served in the civil rights struggle is to a person's credit. So I tried to imagine a reporter grilling Bill Clinton on his lack of military experience. I think that's a fair comparison. I couldn't imagine it.

      To this reporter Herman Cain was "off the reservation". It appeared to me that in his mind a black man had no right to be off the reservation. I don't like that. I don't like that in a reporter, and I don't like that in a political party. I won't call this reporter racist, but I will certainly call him reactionary.

      I can be charged with jumping to conclusions. How do I know this reporter was a Democrat? Of course I don't. But it seems very likely. I can't claim that all Republicans have my attitude that a black candidate should be interviewed the same as a white candidate, but I think there is a difference between the two parties. Democrats seem to passively accept that race is forever, and seem to have no inkling that that is not an enlightened attitude. Republicans, I suppose, may fall into the same thinking, but less so, it seems to me.

      In the past year or so I have been mulling over in my own mind a hypothesis, trying to figure it out. My hypothesis is that the Democratic Party is the party of "groupers". I have tried to explain at length what I mean by "groupers" and "groupiness" is an article on my website which I titled "Let's Do It Together". It's at's-do.htm. Since I wrote this article in 1995 my thinking has advanced a little, but the important idea that groupers and non-groupers think differently and have trouble understanding each others seems true, depressingly true.

      Groupers seem to be "boosters", that is people who blindly join the crowd and jump on the bandwagon. I say this with some caution because I presume Democrats would accuse Republicans of blindly joining the crowd and jumping on the bandwagon. It is easy for any person to see that this is exactly what the opposition does, but very difficult for any person to see that they might do it themselves. All a person can do is to try to keep an open mind.

      In the present political season I can identify several issues that are decisive for me. I consider our national debt a pretty good reason to not be a Democrat in 2012. I am aware that there is very good evidence that we have two tax-and-spend parties in America. I am aware that spending seemed out of control almost every year in recent memory, but that doesn't mean there is no difference in the parties. I don't know how many times I heard in the last four years that maybe we need more deficit spending to get the economy moving. I always thought this was crazy. I don't think deficit spending by government can do anything to boost the economy, and it can hurt the economy.

      A counter argument to that is that it was government spending in World War II that brought us out of the Great Depression. I'm not sure what to make of that argument. It's certainly an inconclusive argument in that there are many differences between the 1940's and the present. Another possible argument is that by the time the war was demanding our attention we had tired of constant government meddling that had been the norm throughout the thirties, and benign neglect was beneficial.

      My gut feeling is that deficit spending by government will not help the economy and will cause harm. That perhaps is the main reason I am a Republican this year. Those who say that, of course, government spending is what will bring us out of this recession have a lot of explaining to do about the past four years.

      Arguments about who the big spenders are, Republicans or Democrats, are complicated by fiscal year 2009, which started Oct 1, 2008 and ended Sep 30, 2009. During this fiscal year revenues went way down and expenditures went way up, producing a huge debt. This was a direct result of the housing crisis, which Democrats are quick to point out we can't blame on Obama. So which president do we saddle with this very bad year, Bush or Obama? Well Bush, of course, if you like. He was president for about four months of FY 09. So he get's all the blame. Or Obama, of course, if you like. He was president for most of FY 09. Se he get's all the blame. Juggle the numbers as you like, to prove whatever you want.

      Yes, Bush failed to control spending, but deficits in the Bush years were usually only about a half a trillion dollars, except for FY09. But deficits in the Obama years, after FY 09, were over a trillion dollars each year. That is worrisome to me.

      Is the national debt more like a home mortgage debt or more like a credit card debt? There is a world of difference. A home mortgage debt of one annual salary of the debtor is a very minor thing. It usually means that the mortgage is a decade or so old and the borrower has been paying down the debt, has a substantial equity in the house, and a net worth very much in the black. That's a healthy situation. That debtor is preparing well for the future. But a credit card debt of one annual salary of the debtor is horrendous. It normally means the borrower can not handle his money and has a net worth deep in the red. That is a very unhealthy situation.

      It seems to me that the national debt is much more like a credit card debt than a home mortgage debt. If there is a reason why the reverse might be true, I'd like to hear it.

      I don't know, in one sense, why the economy has been in the doldrums for the past four years. Yes there was a fiscal mess that we can't blame Obama for (though I will certainly blame the Democrats). But why has the economy stayed down? Why haven't we recovered? Four years is a long time.

      I don't know specifically why the economy is not recovering. Republicans will claim the regulatory burden is bad under Obama. I can certainly believe that, but I don't know any details. Democrats claim the economy was in much worse shape that was realized at the start. That's not very convincing, and four years is a long time.

      Government can do one thing very well, it can cause uncertainty. I don't know details but I can't help but believe that applies to the country today. Obamacare, just by itself, is a vast fountain of uncertainty. So it seems to me that uncertainty must be one factor inhibiting a healthy economic recovery. I think Democrats contribute more to uncertainty than Republicans do. Democrats keep wanting to usher in the millennium. The dream always seems just one act of Congress away. The Republicans, wanting to simply keep the peace, reduce uncertainty to a minimum.

      I have concluded in recent years that prosperity is the natural state for humans, if we just don't mess it up. Of course we often mess it up enormously. I have also concluded in recent years that prosperity is important. Prosperity is no guarantee of a society being healthy, but I think it is a very strong factor leading to a healthy society. To seriously compromise prosperity in the interests of cheering on the home team doesn't seem enlightened to me.

      All the Democrats I know (okay, most of them) seem most interested in cheering on the home team. But I will not join them this year, not their home team.

      As I work on this explanation day after day more and more ideas come to mind. So I'll quit with what I have said so far. Other ideas will have to wait for the moment.


July 21, 2012

The Social Safety Net

      The other day at church we had an organized discussion on "The social safety net". There were about twenty five people present. With that many in a discussion no one gets a chance to say much. I got a word or two in, but what I said was pretty irrelevant to what I had in mind. All in all it was not a bad discussion, but it was disappointing in some ways.

      There was a leader to this discussion. I had hoped that she would give some basic information before the open discussion began. She did have one hand out, a copy of a short article from some publication, an opinion column, titled "Ryan's budget: Would Jesus vote for it?" This article was not very helpful. I will discuss it a little more later in this article.

      I had anticipated this discussion for a couple of weeks before it occurred. My thoughts of what to expect, and what would be good, were not well formed, but had taken some shape. One thing that was clear in my mind was that I hoped the discussion would start out with a talk by the discussion leader, ten or twenty minutes, about our present social safety net.

      By the "social safety net" I presume we mean the provisions made by government and society at large to come to the aid of people who need it, who, for one reason or another, either temporarily or permanently, cannot care for themselves, cannot earn a living. So what are these provisions by government and society at large as things are now?

      We had welfare reform in 1996. That reform seems to have pretty much stayed out of the news for the past sixteen years. I interpret that as good news. It must have worked. The country must be basically satisfied with the current state of our welfare system

      Before 1996 the backbone of our welfare system, I believe, was AFDC, which was Aid To Families With Dependent Children. I think this came out of the 1960's, a part of President Johnson's "war on poverty." I know there were welfare laws before then, and after 1996, but I don't know much about what they were, or are. I don't know, but I would guess that we still have AFDC, perhaps by a different name, and probably reduced in scope.

      How does a poor family get on welfare? What are the income requirements and how are they determined? What percent of the population is on welfare? How does it vary by region? What percentage of residents of my town are on welfare? How long do they stay on welfare? How do they get off? How many are on welfare long term? How is continuous checking of eligibility done? How are welfare fraud cases detected and prosecuted? How much does welfare dependency follow families through generations?

      Should welfare be increased or decreased? Should eligibility requirements be tightened or relaxed? Should payments to recipients be increased or decreased? These answers to these questions, perhaps, would come by answers to the questions of the previous paragraph. Or perhaps the questions of the previous paragraph are totally inadequate to figure out what to do. I don't know.

      AFDC, as I understand it, has always been administered by the states, but with a lot of federal money. Is that still the case? Who sets the rules, the states or the federal government? How do states vary in what they do? Do some states have reputations for doing things right, or wrong? What do people in state government think about the welfare system? We know that states have serious problems with Obamacare. I believe there were thirty states that joined in the lawsuit that ended up in the Supreme Court. Is there similar dissatisfaction with welfare? How much of a burden is welfare for the states?

      Welfare is only one part of the social safety net. There is social security, SSI, medicaid, and I think there are lots of programs tailored for specific problems such as blindness or other conditions. My wife and I have a son, thirty eight years old, who is permanently on SSI. Certainly I support SSI, but I have no idea whether SSI should be changed in some way. Is it too generous, too stingy? I don't know. I am glad it is there for my son. But that does not mean that I should indiscriminately advocate that it be increased.

      Another part of the social safety net is, and always has been, family and friends. There is a good book on this, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty", by Ruby Payne. You will get some disapproving looks if you mention this book in some circles, but I think it is a good book. I think it describes and explains a lot that we need to know and understand about poverty. I think it is unpopular in some circles because it dares to criticize the poor. That doesn't bother me. I'll criticize anybody. My perspective most of my life has been that there is a "natural cussed of human nature", and that it exists in all segments of every society. We cover it up, control it, compensate for it, in many many ways. That is what civilization is. In some segments of society the control and compensations are much more adequate than in other segments of society. But if you look closely enough at any group or any individual you will find things that are distasteful, counterproductive, and ugly. We certainly should not expect the poor to be any different.

      But if you look closely at any segment of society you will also find customs, values, expectations, and controls that are positive. It has long been an important principle in sociology and anthropology that if you look closely at what seems to be a very strange and different society, you will see how the customs, values, expectations, controls, etc fit together in ways that become understandable. Unfortunately many people who consider themselves enlightened love to apply this principle to primitive societies on the other side of the world, but for segments of society very close to home, prefer to play a cheap blame game. The blame game, of course, is also a part of human nature.

      To quite an extent the blame game plays an important role in social control of any society. The blame game tells people what is expected of them and gives them incentives to comply. I am not advocating that we dispense with ideas of fault and blame where they are clearly useful. But we also need to transcend such simple considerations. We are often able to do that when looking at societies much different from us and far away from us, but it is equally important that we be able to transcend such considerations when trying to understand the actions of our friends and neighbors with whom we disagree.

      So my first question, "What is the nature and extent of our present social safety net?" went unanswered. Of course I know something of our present social safety net, but I was hoping to come away from the discussion a little better informed.

      The discussion was interesting of course, if not too productive. Very early in the discussion the idea of obligation was brought up. What do we owe to the poor? The Catholic church has an answer, I guess. One person of our group with Catholic ties talked about the nuns in the parochial schools stressing that we owe something to the poor. That didn't do much for me. I have no ties to Catholicism, nor do I know much about Catholicism. What I do know gives me some reason to be negative to it. Indeed I tend to be negative to most religions.

      From Catholicism the discussion turned to a consideration of Jesus. Indeed the discussion leader had passed out a handout, as I mentioned in the second paragraph. I am not essentially a Christian, though my culture is pretty much a Christian culture. The title of this handout, "Ryan's budget: Would Jesus vote for it?" led me very quickly to some thoughts. Jesus was not a political leader. He was concerned, I believe, with individual salvation, salvation as understood by religious Jews of the first century.. So far as I know Jesus never exhorted his followers to hector their government to do the right then. The government in Jesus' world was the Roman Empire and its local appointees. The Roman Empire was a brutal empire. That was common knowledge in Jesus' world. Would Jesus vote for Ryan's budget? I don't think that's a productive question. Jesus is not an American citizen, much less a member of Congress. His world and concerns were far different that today's world and our concerns.

      Jesus told people to do good. Did he ever tell people to coerce their friends and neighbors to do good, either through government or by other means? Did Jesus ever tell people to do good with other people's money?

      Perhaps Jesus did. I don't know the Bible very well. But I reserve the right to disagree with Jesus. I think there is much to admire in the teachings of Jesus, and in Christianity in general. But I also believe that Jesus was not divine, and that his message was garbled before it was ever written down. He was simply a man who made a name for himself as a teacher and preacher. What he actually did and said was not written down for decades after his death, so how in the world can we seriously think we know what he actually did and said, much less know what he would do or say about something far removed from his world, such as the Ryan budget.

      I like silent night Christianity. I reject blood and guts Christianity. I reject guilt and redemption Christianity. I respond very positively to the messages of love your neighbor, love your enemy, do good to those who do evil to you, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and so on. I also consider all of those sentiments unsuitable for indiscriminate application to most things in everyday life. I am not a pacifist.

      I like Abraham Lincoln's perspective on whose side God was on in the Civil War. It is impossible for God to be on both sides, Lincoln said. He might be on either side, or neither side.

      The article about the Ryan budget proposal seems to come pretty much from a leftest perspective. Perhaps it was from a Catholic publication. The writer (not identified in the handout) says that Ryan ". . . has proposed a 10-year blueprint for reducing the deficit that cuts trillions in spending on food stamps, Medicare, and education, while giving trillions in tax breaks to the wealthy." Wow! Heavy language! But a couple of paragraphs down it is mentioned that the Ryan budget would "merely slow the growth of spending to 3 percent a year, as opposed to President Obama?s proposal to increase spending by 4.5 percent a year." Is that what the Ryan budget says? Ryan does not propose actual cuts, just cuts from leftist's dreams? Is that what qualifies draconian cuts? This article does not use the word "draconian", but it is often used. A 3% increase is considered a cut? The article is obviously written by someone with a quite different perspective than mine.

      Listeners of right wing radio, of which I am one, are sensitive to this language, calling a slowdown in growth a cut.

      In the past, in talking about talking about politics, I have argued that it's good to use the other guy's language when you can. But if that requires me to use the word "cut" for a 3% increase, I can't. An increase, no matter how small, is not a cut.

      So here's my language, in case anyone is interested. A 30% cut in a program, say food stamps, could be called "draconian". A 20% cut could be called " very painful". A 10% cut could be called "painful". A 5% cut ought to be called "modest". A 3% increase is an increase and ought to be called an increase. I would also argue that anyone who knowingly calls an increase a cut without explanation is not being helpful.

      A 0% change might be called "a step in the right direction".

      Now I want to get back to the idea of obligation.

      Religions take obligations seriously and my church is no exception. Indeed I think any civilized person ought to take obligations seriously. But the discussion of obligations in this discussion left me unsatisfied.

      A moral person, or a religious person, or just a person who professes to care about others, ought to give some careful thought about who owes what to whom. Most importantly, I would think, such a person ought to give careful thought to what he or she owes to others. And certainly an organized church discussion is an appropriate place to engage in that thought. And certainly many members of this particular discussion have thought about their obligations to others all their lives.

      What bothers me is a seeming lack of recognition of the difference between what one decides is his or her own obligation to others, and what others have decided for themselves.

      If I figure out what I owe to others, then does it follow that anyone who decides differently for themselves is a bad person?

      In practice, in many people's mind, unfortunately, that seems to be the way it works. They observe that others come to different conclusions about what they owe to others, and jump into the blame game. Do they enjoy the blame game? Well, yes, I conclude that in many cases they do. They seem to enjoy dwelling on the moral shortcomings of others and assigning blame. Perhaps they enjoy feeling morally superior.

      I am not arguing that we can entirely avoid the blame game, or that it would always be good to do so. Other people do bad things at times. The blame game provides a means of social control. Indeed the rule of law can be seen as a matter of codifying the blame game and giving it a means of coercion. That is entirely justified and necessary in many cases. I want laws that put limits on what people can do and impose controls when needed. That is a necessary part of civilization. That is a proper and needed function of government.

      But it seems to me that we should clearly separate the moral code we adopt for ourselves and the moral code we want to enforce on others through the power of government. There are many situations in which I think it is entirely appropriate for a person to say, "I don't approve of that behavior, but I do not wish to prohibit it by law just because I disapprove." And there are other situations in which I think it is entirely appropriate for a person to say, "I do approve of that behavior, but I do not wish to require it by law just because I approve."

      So the question "what do we owe to others?" while clearly relevant to any discussion of the social safety net, is not the final word. It is at best a starting point. It may inform many people of what they would like to see in a social safety net, but it says little about what others might want or support. It says little about the cost or logistics of providing such a net, the trade offs that might be needed, or the path to providing that social safety net. And it provides nothing to persuade others. To persuade others one must consider what their values are, what efforts and costs they are willing to bear, or what trade offs they consider justifiable.

      I do not think much in terms of fairness, but others do. So we must address that issue, if only to arrive at the conclusion that we don't agree on fairness and cannot begin to define it to everyone's satisfaction.

      If a particular person, let us say a prominent person for this discussion pays his taxes strictly according to law, but you disagree with what the tax code ought to say, that it seems petty to me to call that person selfish. In this I am referring to the commonly heard statement, commonly heard at present times at least, that the "rich should pay their fair share". By a very important standard, the rich do pay their fair share. That standard is the tax code, which is law, which was enacted in accordance with legal principles. The tax code is a result of society decision.

      Many people, including many of my church friends, think in terms of societal decision, though that term, "societal decision" is my term, not theirs. A very appealing scenario to many people is of people coming together to work on their concerns, and by a process that is either "democratic", or at least very concerned with every person's thoughts, needs, and interests, arrive at a solution. This scenario very much includes the expectation that having approached the problem so virtuously, everyone gets behind that solution. Everyone supports the solution, because, after all, it was arrived at by the best of means.

      The tax code fits that scenario perfectly. It is totally the result of people coming together to solve a problem together, by a method that is the result of long evolution, a method that is given legitimacy by society.

      I am going to call this scenario the "groupers' dream method". The key word there, of course is "grouper". At the moment I won't try to explain why I choose that term. People come together to solve a problem. Everyone has input, by some means, into the solution. The solution is supported by everyone, because, after all, it was arrived at by the group coming together.

      To a grouper, apparently, there is a tremendous appeal to the groupers' dream method. But I don't feel that appeal nearly as strongly as many people do. I'm not that much of a "grouper". And I am cynical. And I am observant. I observe that the natural cussedness of human nature is never far away. I observe that this dream scenario is often subverted in many ways. At the moment the important departure from this dream scenario is in the last step, the idea that everyone supports the solution arrived at by the group.

      If a person, a rich person let us say, pays his taxes in strict accordance with the tax laws, then it would seem to me that supporting the group decision, the tax code, requires that we have give that person full credit for doing his part. His contribution is "fair" in accordance to a very important standard. That standard is the tax code, and the tax code is the group's decision. It is in every sense a societal decision. It is the end result of what the groupers always talk about so dreamily. We have a problem - government must have money. So we came together as a group to solve that problem. And we arrived at a decision, not at one particular time of course, but the current law is indeed that decision. As responsible group members we ought to support that societal decision. So what should we think about a person who calls another person unfair, even though that other person has fully complied with the decision that the group arrived at. I'd say lets call the criticizer a jerk. The group has made a decision. The tax code is that decision. So support it! Don't be a jerk!

      If a person says, "Okay, the rich guy paid his taxes according to law, so I'll give him credit for that. But I believe the tax code needs to be changed." then I will listen. Any group decision is always subject to reconsideration.

      Indeed, a person might say, "Okay, the rich guy paid his taxes according to law, so I'll give him credit for that. But I personally think poorly of him for not doing a whole lot more." That, to my mind is also a basis for further discussion. I'm not sure that I want to spend a lot of time deciding whether or not a particular person is a good buy or a bad guy. Sometimes that seems important, but more often it seems like worrying about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

      Now I want to turn to a little different aspect of the big question, "What do we owe to others". And this has to do with absolutes and relatives.

      When someone says "the rich don't pay their fair share", that pretty well implies the rich should pay more. So I would like to know what would their fair share be, their fair share, that is, in the eyes of the person making that statement. At present the top tax rate on earned income is 35%. What should it be? 45%? 50%?

      How much should the rich pay in taxes? If you answer is simply "more", that's a relative answer. Relative to what? Relative to present practices I suppose. But I am not satisfied with a relative answer. I want an absolute answer. Of course one can answer that absolutes are hard to come by, and fraught with problems. Well, sure, but still I want to know. If you want the top tax bracket to be more than 35%, when what should it be? Give me a number. Don't just say "more". That's a very poor answer, pretty much meaningless. I understand it as a very beginning point for thinking, but it doesn't last long. It last only for the few seconds it takes for me to ask "Okay, so what should the top tax bracket be?"

      If I get the chance I am going to pose that question to my friends at church. If I get to name the topic in one of our open discussions, I'm going to pass out 3 x 5 cards and ask people to write down two numbers. The first number is the top tax rate you would favor. If 35% is too low, then what rate do you advocate? 50%? or what? The second number is the lowest tax rate, that is the tax rate on people who make enough money that you think they ought to pay some tax. Is 10% suitable for the bottom rate. If not, then what? 5%? 2%?

      This seems pretty straightforward and easy. I hope it will be. But I can also imagine that a lot of people never thought about the question, and might be at a loss as to how to answer. I wonder if some people may resist answering. I hope to find out. Summer time is discussion time at our church, but there's never enough time for every one who wants to to choose a topic.

      My fear is that many people who love to parrot, "the rich should pay their fair share", have never given thought to what that fair share should be. Of course the question is complicated. The 35% top tax bracket applies to earned income, not, as I understand it, to capitol gains and perhaps some other types of unearned income. But I will try to restrict the discussion to earned income. I want to force the issue. If you think 35% is not a fair share, then what do you think a fair share would be? I want to get across the point that it is not constructive to think only relatively, "More. The rich should pay more." I want it nailed down. What do you advocate? 45%? If not, then what? I want an absolute figure.

      If this discussion actually happens, if I get the chance to identify this topic and the chance to give a little perspective on the question, my hope is that people will think for just a minute and write their two numbers on the card, and then we'll see where the discussion goes. If one person put's down 45% for the top tax bracket, and another person puts 70%, we have something to discuss. I might ask the person who puts 70% if the person who put 45% is a rich person who doesn't want to pay his fair share, or something like that. But if people refuse to be pinned down, if they will say nothing more than "The rich should pay more", I don't know where that leads us. That is shallow thinking. It doesn't lead anywhere. If my church friends refuse to be pinned down, of course, there's nothing I can do about it. But I hope I have the opportunity to try.

      Maybe the blame game is more fun than critical thinking. If so, I probably can't do much about that.

      If someone says, "I'm happy with 35% as the top tax bracket, but it needs to apply to all income.", that could be constructive, a basis for further discussion. If someone says, "I'll go for 50% top tax bracket, but that's not important. The real issue is . . . . . . .", that might also be constructive and a basis for further discussion. Indeed there might be many tangents to this topic that could lead to constructive discussions. But I'd also like to know what people advocate for the top and bottom tax bracket, even if they think it's not a very important issue.

      If anyone is interested, the two numbers I will write down are 1% for the lowest tax bracket and 25% for the top tax bracket. But I don't base my numbers on fairness. I think fairness is impossible to define, and impossible to agree upon. I seldom think in terms of fairness. But that is another story. I base my numbers of practicality. I suspect that anything over 25% is probably counterproductive. The Laffer Curve, in my opinion, is not an invention, but a simple logical conclusion based on common sense premises that are hard to deny. But that is yet another story.

      Perhaps I have digressed too far into the field of taxation. But it seems necessary to me. Many of my friends at church very obviously favor an expanded social safety net. That requires public money, lots of money. Therefore it seems to me we have to talk about taxation.

      And then I want to talk about unintended consequences and perverse incentives. I don't see how any discussion of the social safety net can avoid these issues.

      Welfare was reformed in 1996. My understanding of this (and others may disagree) was that finally at this time the country had come to the conclusion that welfare, as we knew it, was counterproductive. I think "welfare as we knew it" would have to mean the Great Society War On Poverty. I don't know a whole lot about these things, but I do remember in the sixties and up till welfare reform in 96, much concern about deleterious effects of welfare. I think early on (sixties and before) conventional wisdom was that AFDC is only for single mothers, because single mothers can not be expected to do a decent job of raising kids if they also have to earn a living with a low level of job skills. By the logic of the day, welfare should not be for families with a man in the house, at least not under normal circumstances. If there's a man in the house, he should work, not go on welfare. But as the years went by it began to be obvious that to some welfare recipients a man in the house was a liability, not an asset. Thus welfare, as we knew it, was taking a heavy toll on marriage and family life. A mother would be eligible for a bigger welfare check if there were no man in the house. This was a powerful incentive for families to break up.

      I don't know a lot of the history of welfare in America. I think the solution of this particular problem was to make families with a man eligible for welfare, just as single mothers were. That ameliorates the perverse incentive but introduces more problems. I don't know how an ideal welfare system would work. I don't know what mix of trade offs is best. But I think welfare reform in American in 1996 was prompted by a growing belief that what we had, the system of incentives and the mix of trade offs, was not good. It was doing more harm than good.

      My opinion during these years before welfare reform in 96 was exactly that, that welfare was doing serious damage to marriage and family, and that the resulting suffering was serious, tragic, and surely avoidable. I'm sure there's no end of considerations along these lines that I know nothing about. But it appeared to me that in the years before welfare reform more and more people were coming to essentially this conclusion, making the case for ending welfare as we new it more and more compelling.

      Our welfare system in recent years seems not to be the subject of national conversation nearly like it was before welfare reform. I take that to be evidence that welfare reform, however imperfect it may seem to those who are involved with it some way, still must be a substantial improvement over what we had pre-1996. This indicates, to me at least, that anyone who wants to make a case for an expanded welfare system, a better safety net, must be prepared to address at length the possibility of perverse incentives and unintended consequences. I was hoping that would be a part of our discussion. But we never seemed to actually get around to the topic of the the present safety net, much less the possibilities of changing it.

      The word count of this article is up to about 5000. It has taken that many words just to try to present the ideas that I had hoped would come up and be addressed in our church discussion. Obviously I expected way too much. Our discussion was only scheduled for about 45 minutes.

      Many questions remain.


July 30, 2011

      Here's something really sad. I've been reading "Left Back", an important book of the history of American education, and have been working on making a study guide for it. I first read the book in the 90's, and have since gone back to it a few times with the intention of studying it carefully. One way to study carefully is to make a study guide. It's not an efficient way, but can be effective if one is willing to put in sufficient time and effort, so I'm working on it. I'll put it on my website when (if) I ever get it done. Anyway here's one question I made up. Later, on rereading it, I was struck how sad and pathetic it is, especially how pathetic for the field of education.

19. Progressive educators in the first decades of the twentieth century thought that,

      a. All children should receive a liberal academic education that would enable them to advance as far as their natural talents would allow.

      b. Most white children and a few black children should receive a liberal academic education that would enable them to advance as far as their natural talents would allow.

      c. A few white children and a few black children should receive a liberal academic education that would enable them to advance as far as their natural talents would allow.

      d. A few white children and no black children should receive a liberal academic education that would enable them to advance as far as their natural talents would allow.

      The correct answer, alas, is d.

      The immediate context of this question is the topic of black education at that time, particularly in the South, and the publication in 1917 of "Negro Education". The assumptions of racial inferiority we can certainly find regrettable, but explained by the times. But the anti-intellectualism? What explains that? Progressive education in this time period was very anti-intellectual. Why? I don't know. Part of the answer, I suppose, is that as education came to be more and more for the masses, it became quite obvious that the masses were not always academically talented (as if the aristocracy was always academically talented.) So one can see anti-intellectualism as a humanitarian urge to provide a meaningful education for the untalented. But it seemed to go far beyond that. At this time academic subjects were grudgingly accepted by progressive educators as necessary only for the college bound, and only as paper credentials, not as anything of intrinsic worth. That, as I understand it, was frequently explicitly stated.

      Of course the ideas of progressive education at that time were not representative of what the general public thought about education. Rather such ideas were the playthings of the educational elite, for by that time there unfortunately had emerged an educational elite, and, if I am reading correctly, that elite has always been at Teachers College of Columbia University. I suppose at this time there were all kinds of ideas and attitudes about education in the general public There always are. And certainly some ideas we would call anti-intellectual were to be found in the general public. There always have been. However there has also always been, on the part of the general public, an attitude that their children, not just the children of the elite, should be given every chance possible in life, and many people strongly associated an academic education with that goal. So at this time, when the educational elite was denigrating academic and liberal education, parents and students maintained an impressive demand for academic and liberal education. The evidence is in the high school course offerings of the time

      At least that's the way I read the history. Educational romantics today often have the fantasy that academic accomplishment can come from fun and games, rather than hard work. That, in my humble opinion, is a serious and foolish mistake. But progressive education today, if we may call it that, does not today seem to have anywhere near the anti-intellectualism of the early twentieth century.

      Has Teachers College ever apologized? Probably not. They probably have no inkling that they have anything to apologize for. Teachers College of Columbia University remains, if I am not mistaken, the premier ed school in America. It has dominated professional education for about a hundred years. It seemed to be the fount of the anti-intellectualism of that era, and a lot of nonsense since. In that era high schools offered academic subjects, including Latin, because students and their parents wanted them. But progressive educators opposed them. Even private black schools in the south, largely funded by northern charities as states didn't provide much education for black children, wanted to give an academic education to their students. W. E. B. Dubois railed against the idea that only practical and vocational education was appropriate for blacks. That's a pretty hard battle to fight when the education world in general thinks only practical and vocational education was appropriate for everyone, and that only a few should get an academic education, and that there is no intrinsic worth in an academic education.

      I am reminded of my impressions of the past few years when I was teaching math in a small community college. Amidst quite a crowd of unserious young kids, and a little bigger crowd of semi-serious and semi-prepared older students, there were always some who really seemed to latch on to academia. When going to class I would see small groups of students who regularly met to study together. And there were always a few students in my classes that I would discover, over the course of time, not only took a serious attitude toward their work, but also seemed to develop a genuine appreciation of the subject. These students had their practical goals, of course, to get a degree and a step up in life. But beyond that, the conclusion seemed inescapable that their studies touched something deeper in them. A fair number obviously found intrinsic worth in learning math, or history, or biology, or whatever. This is not to say that these students maintained an interst in math after completing my course. I am simply saying that something in their minds responded to academic subjects as having intrinsic worth.

      That would not make sense to the professors at Teacher's College. In the early 1900's progressive education was dominant, and Teachers College was most dominant. The professors at Teachers College, with few exceptions, thought no one could really respond to an academic subject. That is especially strange when one reflects that these professors must have been academic people themselves.

      What were those idiots at Teachers College thinking? Do they still think that way? I don't claim to understand it.


      May 8, 2011

      I don't know union history, or labor history, in America. In the recent troubles in Wisconsin about public employee unions some of the rhetoric brings up some points to consider. The rhetoric, I presume, is greatly exaggerated, but still may be useful to bring up things to think about. Some of the rhetoric suggested that the governor wants to get rid of week ends and the forty hour week. The rhetoric suggests he wants to destroy unions, that unions are responsible for the forty hour work week, and therefore if the governor succeeds we will all revert to those bad old days before the forty hour week, and that will include the kids. They won't have any weekends either.

      The idea that only unions can prevent low pay and bad conditions is, of course, promoted by unions. But I have never taken that idea too seriously. It has always seemed to me that the market determines pay and conditions. Union efforts can have some effect at times, for better or worse. But it seems to me that the market for labor is always much more important. The following situation that I will describe speaks to this. It obviously does not prove anything, but does influence my thinking on such things.

      I worked in a factory from 2004 to 2007. It was not my first choice, but that?s the way it worked out, and of course I acquired some experiences useful now and then in arguments. The experience useful to me at the moment was a pay raise. I started in the factory on the night shift at $9.00 per hour. That?s hardly a living wage, but at the moment it was the best I could do. Sometime in that first year I got a raise of over $1.50 per hour. That is a big raise, almost 17%. I?d like to say that was because my merit was recognized. However that is not at all the case. Everyone in the factory got a similar raise. How come? Why did the management give everyone a raise at that particular time, a very substantial and unexpected raise?

      Union supporters, of course, would like to claim that raise as a union victory. But that was not the case. There was no union at this factory. Nor was there any demand for a union. I worked there for three years, and the only union talk I ever heard would be an occasional mention by someone that maybe we ought to have a union. Any such remark that I ever heard would be individual and hypothetical. I always thought most of the workers would pretty much share by attitude about unions, which is a negative attitude.

      So then why were we given a raise? My interpretation at the time, and my interpretation now, was simple market forces. The company saw the need for labor. At the moment business was good, and was expected to remain pretty good. There were hiring, but they were still running nine hour shifts and even occasional Saturday shifts. They expected to keep hiring. But they were hiring in a competitive environment. Times were reasonably good at that time. Unemployment was low. They paid more than Wal Mart paid for labor, but they also wanted a little better quality of worker.

      So why did they give us a raise? It seems to me they figured it was a good strategy to get the labor they wanted, and expected to continue to want. Without the raise, I presume, they figured the lack of labor was likely to become a limiting factor in their growth and profitability. They wanted to grow and be profitable. When I say "they" we certainly might ask just who "they" are. I can't answer that very fully. As I understand it, it was a family owned company. The family had been in that business for several generations, and had done well. I have no idea if anyone of the family took an active hand in running the company or not.

      I suspect the "they" we are talking about, if we could know the details, would be a rather small team of people in the highest level of management. Indeed it might be one person. I don't know who that person would be, but the name would probably sound very familiar to me if I heard it. But whether it was one person calling the shots, or a small team, or whatever, my analysis remains the same. They knew they needed labor, and would need more if business kept doing well. They knew they were in a competitive market for labor. Therefore giving a substantial raise was just a sensible thing to do to prepare for the future.

      Unfortunately this story doesn?t have a very happy ending for the company. Within about a year of giving this raise the bright picture for the factory had dimmed substantially. They had enough labor. I suppose they were doing some hiring to replace workers moving on, but they had no need to increase the work force. I suppose management regretted giving the raise, but I have no way of knowing their thinking.

      My point is the reality of the market. In a free society there is an open market for any commodity. And labor is a commodity. In a robust economy consumers of labor must sometimes bid up the price of labor. In a slow economy suppliers of labor (workers) must sometimes bid down the price of labor. In any free market adjustments are always being made. It is not paradise. There are always winners and losers, and relative winners and losers. When that 17% raise was given I was a winner, relatively and momentarily of course.

      Of course to argue that markets are real is not a sufficient basis to then argue against labor unions. One can argue that life goes on without labor unions. Business continue to buy and sell. Factories continue to produce. People continue to take jobs and quit jobs. Wages go up and wages go down. So labor unions are obviously not necessary for an economy to function and be productive and prosperous. But we can grant all that and still argue in favor of unions.

      Advocates of unions can make two basic arguments. They can argue than society in general is better with strong unions than without. We'll call that argument number one. I'm not sure just what this argument might include though I can easily imagine some possibilities. Or, argument number two, advocates of unions can say that union members are better off with unions than without, even if society as a whole is not better off. This argument is pretty easy to make. Unions concentrate bargaining power. Therefore they get better deals. Critics of unions could say this is a selfish argument. Defenders probably don't care much about society in general, though they'll probably revert to argument one in a knee jerk reaction.

      But that leaves an important question. Could it be that union members are worse off for having the union? That would certainly be a heretical idea to union supporters, but to critics of unions it is a very important question. When I worked in the factory would I have been better off if we had an active union?

      That question is impossible to answer definitively, of course. But it seems to me that a few observations can be easily made that support a negative answer. The first observation is simply that workers, so far as I could tell, did not want a union. Why not? I cannot speak for the opinions of others because the question very seldom came up in conversation and there was indeed a great deal of conversation about factory matters in general. But it seems pretty obvious to me.

      First of all a union always wants to hold in reserve the possibility of a strike. A strike can be very disruptive and costly to everyone involved. I think most of my coworkers would share my attitude that I don't want to even think about that. In the past I've sometimes heard people wonder why Wal Mart employees don't seem to want to organize into a labor union. There's never been any mystery to me.

      And second, I don't think workers in general want the adversarial relationship that we expect a union to foster. "Union rules", to me, is a term with very bad connotations, and I suspect that is true for many other people. In a previous post I related the example that I got from my brother many years ago. He and his coworkers were not allowed to open a package that had come in the mail because union rules had reserved that job for union members. That immediately seemed far beyond distasteful to me. Repulsive would be more the word.

      And, third, in a previous post I mentioned the idea that a union will always protect the center at the expense of the periphery. I think this is something that few people would articulate, but that many would intuitively feel.

      So my gut feeling is that no, I would definitely not have been better off at the factory if we had a union. It can certainly be argued that I would have been paid more if we had had a union, but it cannot be proved. Unions cannot repeal normal market forces any more than they can repeal gravity. Concentration of bargaining power can give one group an advantage over other groups, but always at a cost. This cost is seldom verbalized very well by the critics of unions. But that doesn't mean they don't intuitively appreciate that cost. A union might get you a better wage, and it may cause you a lot of problems and frustration.

      In this short post I have mostly related and analyzed my negative thoughts on unions. I don't claim any of this to be definitive arguments. My goal is simply to help others understand where the negativity toward unions comes from, and why I certainly see no reason to change in any way my negative opinion of unions.

      So why do many people have a positive view of unions? That has always been a mystery to me. Of course I have a few hypotheses, but that will be for another day.


      February 22, 2011

      I am going to write today about my attitude towards unions. I have never been sympathetic to unions, and I can explain why. Indeed that is exactly what I intend to do. The immediate situation that brings up this subject is the recent protest by teachers in Wisconsin that has made national news. My wife and I have lived in Wisconsin for three and a half years now, and it has been a fine place to live. During most of this time I was a teacher of math in one of our two year colleges. I am certainly sympathetic to teachers in general, having been one off and on throughout my life, but in this situation I do not want the teachers to gain their immediate objectives.

      If the battle is primarily about money, then I'm on the side of fiscal responsibility. Therefore I feel I must support the governor as opposed to the teachers. It might be argued that our new governor is not on the right track for fiscal responsibility in our state. I know very little about our state finances, but given the choice of the governor's plan or the teachers' wishes I have to go with the governor's plan.

      If the battle is primarily about reining in unions, then I'm on the side of reining in unions.

      My purpose in this article is simply to explain where my attitude toward unions came from, not to make a general argument for or against unions. Though I will talk about a few general issues, or related issues, that I think are important.

      One of early influences on my thoughts about unions came in my teen age years. It was probably in August of 1961, though I might have the time frame off by a semester or even a year. My brother was a year ahead of me in school, and had started an engineering track in college. He entered a program where he would work in industry one semester and go to school one semester. He had just completed working a summer in Chicago, for some engineering company I suppose. He had a lot of stories to tell about the experience, nothing earth shattering, but just of interest. One story concerned unions. I don't wish to make this overly dramatic. It was just one more little story of his summer, but I never forgot it. He was working with a few other people on some project, and some packages were delivered. Apparently they had been waiting on these packages. They knew exactly what they contained and were eager to get whatever was inside and get on with whatever the project was. My brother started to open one of the packages, but was immediately stopped. "Oh, no! We can't open them. We have to let a union guy do that." he was told. This was obviously nonsensical to my brother, as it was to me. I don't remember what my attitude toward unions was before this time, but from that time on it was negative.

      I have thought about this over the years. At the time I passively assumed that any normal person using their common sense would be repulsed by this situation. It is a totally repugnant situation in my perspective. You can't open a package because a union guy has to do that? How could anyone think of it as anything other than a repugnant situation, a totally unhealthy situation, a soul-deadening state of affairs. In the intervening years I have come to realize that my attitude would not be universal. Some people would defend the union rule. They would explain that that rule was arrived at in a bargaining situation and agreed to by all parties as part of some broader framework. So it should be respected and adhered to.

      All that may be true and relevant. I assume that my brother's associates adhered to the rule. They didn't open the packages. They let a union guy open the packages. That was the rule. But did they respect the rule? I have no way of knowing. But my perspective is very clear. That rule stinks. It really stinks!

      Should we respect the rule? My answer is firmly, no. The union should have been ashamed to ask for such a rule. It's repugnant. It's shameful. It's greedy.

      Yes, everyone is greedy. I am greedy too. But hopefully I wouldn't engage in featherbedding. Hopefully I would never bargain for a rule that degrades the quality of life for everyone, as this rule so obviously does.

      But, others probably don't see it this way. Some would not agree that this rule degrades the quality of life for everyone. How can that be? What kind of thinking could possible lead to that conclusion?

      That is not a rhetorical question. I have an answer. The thinking of "groupers", apparently can lead to the conclusion that such a rule is okay. I have given much thought to the thinking of what I call "groupers", and the result is at's-do.htm. I think it's a very important article.

      Another factor in my thinking about unions comes from what I have seen on TV news at various times throughout my life, though perhaps not in recent decades. The scene would be a picket line of some striking union. TV news would show the strikers throwing rocks at the cars of workers trying to break through the picket line and go to work. I don't know how many times I have seen this on TV news, but it is definitely more than once, and every time left a deep impression on me. It is a repulsive scene. People are resorting to violence to achieve their ends. It might be argued that it is not life threatening violence, but it is certainly violence. And it is certainly intimidation. Where were the police?

      In later decades when reflecting on these scenes I easily come to the conclusion that violence is not a legitimate weapon in such situations. Persuasion is the only legitimate weapon. Or perhaps I should say that persuasion should be the only legitimate weapon. It may be that the workers breaking the picket line are breaking binding agreements they have made with the union and are therefore vulnerable to some legal repercussions. But violence? Throwing rocks? No! Civilized people do not do that in labor disputes. That is beyond the pale. I am as quick as anyone to defend a person's right to self defense, even with deadly force in some situations. I am not a pacifist. There are some things that we must fight for sometimes. But that has nothing to do with a labor dispute, at least not in my life time.

      Unions like to say that they are fighting for human rights and human dignity. That may have been true at some times in the past, but I don't think that has been the case in my lifetime. Strikers throwing rocks at the cars of picket line crossers are assaulting human rights and human dignity, in my humble opinion.

      Anyone trying to convince me to support unions would have to have a good answer to what I have described. Actually, a good answer would not be too hard to find. A good answer would be that what I have described were mistakes of the past and that unions of today totally repudiate them. I would very much like to hear that.

      Now I want to come to my personal experience with unions. That is not a long or deep experience. In 2001, when I was well into my fifties I managed to get a masters degree in math. I wanted to teach math in college, and I did. My first job was in Minnesota. I stayed there two years. It was a good job in many ways, and I would have liked to stay there permanently. College teachers in Minnesota have a union. I did not join it. They didn't ask me to join it, and that is very important. The union dues for a low level teacher such as myself in the state university system was somewhere around $500 a year. That is not a great sum, but it is not inconsequential either. Since I did not join the union, the union did not get that $500 a year. However they got 90% of it, about $450. Presumably I was represented by the union, even if I did not join it. Therefore they got money from me whether I consented or not.

      Why should they invite me to join them? They got my money either way. For them to get that last 10% I would have to join the union, and I might be more trouble than I was worth. I might vote the wrong way in union elections. If I don't join, they still get the money, and I won't be a bother to them. So I don't think they wanted me to join.

      I knew going in to this job that union dues, or 90% anyway, would be automatically deducted from my paycheck. I didn't like that, but it was not a deal breaker. I really wanted that first college teaching job. I accepted the union as a necessary evil. I might do the same again if the situation arose. But it did sensitize me to the union. I was well aware that I already had negative thoughts about unions, but I tried to keep an open mind. I wondered if anyone would come around and ask me to join. No one did, and that's not something I would forget. A couple of years later I accepted a similar job in North Dakota. In North Dakota they have a union, but no one is required, or coerced, to join. Early in my year there a union representative came to see me and made a pitch for the union. We had a good conversation. I did not join the union, but I respected the union, something I could not do in Minnesota.

      How can a union in Minnesota take my money, by payroll deduction yet, without my consent? I presume they have a state law that allows that. Is that a good thing? Under what circumstances should a state government delegate authority to tax to an organization that is not a part of that state government? If a government does delegate taxing authority to some organization then is that organization actually a part of state government? Should some level of government delegate taxing authority to General Motors? It might make the American auto industry more globally competitive. Or it might sap their vitality.

      Does Minnesota's law that allows unions to take my money without my consent sap the vitality of the union? I presume it does, but I don't have knowledge about such things. I presume it has to.

      What I have described certainly adds to my low opinion of unions, but the worst is yet to come. I was hired as a "fixed term" employee. Other states may use different terms, but I think most states have similar practices. That means I had a one year contract. People with higher qualifications, usually meaning a doctorate, can get on "tenure track", which leads to lifetime employment (if things go well). I was made to understand from the outset that employment for that one year has no bearing on employment for future years, and even if things went very well employment would always be one year at a time. I accepted that. I was glad to just get a job. I hoped the job would turn into a permanent job. Teachers in general are hired on one year contracts. In most school situations there is the cultural expectation that teachers will be hired back as long as they want, providing they are not really bad teachers and the budget allows. Any beginning teacher knows they have a one year contract, and nothing is guaranteed beyond that. In my experience it is not much different in most occupations. A person hired to flip burgers in a fast food place has no contract at all for any length of time. But cultural expectations are that employees are not fired frivolously. Of course union rhetoric would assert the opposite. But I don't think that means much. So with my one year contract I had hopes that I had found a permanent job.

      As it turns out I stayed there two years. After my first year there all fixed term teachers in the math department, like myself, were hired back for the next year. There were probably five or six of us. We had masters degrees in math. That's the basic qualification for teaching in most colleges, but it doesn't put you on tenure track. You're at the bottom of the totem pole. You understand you're the first to go when needed. At the end of my second year there it was announced that there were slots the next year for only three out of the six fixed term teachers in the math department. I think all of us applied for the next year, but I was not one of the three who made it.

      Having said all that it can be argued that what I will explain next is irrelevant, and to a certain extent that is true. But it is not totally irrelevant, because it shaped my thinking. I learned early in my first year that there is a rule at this college that a fixed term teacher can not be hired for more than four years. I applied for a third year of employment, but was aware that with this four year rule I'd have to move on sooner or later. So I was not terribly disappointed when I was not hired.

      But the more I thought about it the more I realized how this four year rule poisoned everything. You could be the best teacher in the world, but it would count for nothing after four years. Why would anyone take a job under such circumstances? The answer to that is simple enough, of course. I needed that first job to get started. But such a rule is a cloud over the head of anyone subject to it.

      I wondered at times if that rule were broken at times. Suppose the college really needed a certain teacher who was only eligible for fixed term employment, but had already served four years. Would some way be found around the rule? I have no way of knowing. But that is not too relevant. The rule, whether it was strictly enforced or not, did damage to individuals and to the institution.

      What could account for this four year rule? It certainly seemed counterproductive to providing a good education for the students we serve. No one disputed that it was a union rule. That is, it was a university rule instituted because the unions wanted it. Why they wanted it has never been totally clear, but it does point to what I consider a very important truth about unions in general. They protect the center at the expense of the periphery. The "center" in this case would be the high ranking professors. The union is for them. They get the rules that they want. The "periphery" in this case, of course, are people like me, people of low academic ranking. We don't need protecting. That's not, I conclude, what the union is for.

      Of course the union might argue this. It was explained somewhere along the line (not by a union representative - I never talked with a union representative) that in return to my coerced union dues I was entitled to the protection of the union. If I were treated unfairly by the university, the union would come to my defense, whether I was a union member or not. This, at least in the eyes of union supporters, justified taking my money against my well. I got a benefit as well as a detriment.

      When I first heard this I jumped to the concept of "involuntary contract". I had thought about that concept previously, and concluded that the only appropriate place for involuntary contract is by government. I think the concept of involuntary contract is something that can be understood by children at perhaps the fifth or sixth grade, and I think it's a concept that everyone should be exposed to. But that is another story.

      The union would come to my defense if I were mistreated by the university? What is the chance of that? Unions play up that idea, as if it happens everyday. But that does not square with my experience. There are lots of things that can go wrong in a job, lots of reasons for management to have a dispute with a worker. I have heard second hand tales about such disputes for all my life. Sometimes my sympathies would go one way, sometimes another. But the scenarios painted by union rhetoric doesn't fit my experience. My experience tells me that in American society management will put up with a lot from a problem employee. Indeed I have personally seen that on several occasions. Thus I don't feel any value in the union's promise to defend me from bad treatment by the university. I am a lot more concerned about being treated badly by the union, as I feel I was.

      And of course my view is that involuntary contract is wrong, with the exception of government, regardless of the value of what is given to the unwilling partner. Involuntary contract would be wrong even if tales of mistreatment by the university were as thick as flies.

      People are surprised that Wal Mart workers are often resistant to unionization. It is no mystery to me. People sense that in a low level job they are on the periphery. They intuitively understand that unions will protect the center at the expense of the periphery. Thus unions, despite all their rhetoric, are not really going to be "on their side".

      This "center versus periphery" also explains why unions in the past were often guilty of racial discrimination. Blacks were not allowed in at first, and when they were, of course they entered at the periphery, so of course got little protection, and were the first to go in bad times. Unions protect the center at the expense of the periphery.

      From all that I have said I conclude that unions are the most special of special interests. I suppose that's a bit of hyperbole. More accurately I should probably say that unions are special interests. They gladly and repeatedly sacrifice the interests of everyone else to their narrow interests. That is shown in every strike. A strike in one industry causes hardship to the general public, and to other segments of business and industry. Have unions ever cared about that? What is the evidence?

      Some years back there was a strike by Caterpillar workers somewhere. The usual union rhetoric was brought out, but it was not very convincing. In one TV news story it was mentioned that Caterpillar workers were already making about twice the prevailing wage of workers in similar jobs in that area. So what was their justification for asking for more? They got no sympathy from me.

      The "zero sum game" concept is relevant here. Unions have two kinds of rhetoric. On the one hand they will say, "Join the union because unions make wages go up". On the other hand they say that unions are good for the general public. I'm not saying the two are always mutually exclusive. Indeed I think it is a common mistake to assume that every thing is a zero sum game. It is a very important philosophical and economic point, in my humble opinion, that free exchange is definitely not a zero sum game. Indeed the normal free exchange is a win-win game. Both parties profit. But can the caterpillar workers claim that boosting their already high wages somehow helps the general public? That's going to take some explaining.

      In the caterpillar situation, whenever and wherever that was, the explanation that fits with my perspective and experience is that the union is a special interest. They want power and money. I don't condemn them for that. I also want power and money. Everyone wants power and money. But it is not in the interests of society in general to idealize any special interest as more deserving than others of our support. I try not to be unreasonably negative towards unions. But I certainly rebel at any rhetoric that idealizes unions. And I think governments give unions privileges that are unwise and unwarranted. So whenever there's a union fight about something, I tend to root for the other side.



Jan 8, 11

      It occurred to me the other day that I don't remember any call for wage price controls in recent decades, or in response to our present economic problems. I remember Nixon tried wage price controls, and of course they failed to work, as is always the case. I googled wage price controls, and from my brief (very brief) research I conclude that my memory is correct. Nixon imposed wage price controls in 1971. They were supposed to be for 90 days only, but dragged on much longer when they didn't work. As I understand it they were supposed to restrain inflation, which, according to my reading was in the range of 3 to 4% at that time, which doesn't sound very serious to me. I don't remember how bad inflation got in that era, but I remember savings accounts, or savings certificates, in the 15 to 17% range in the mid or late seventies. That would indicate inflation considerably above the 3 to 4% range, I would think. Wage price controls in the 70's were eventually phased out because they either didn't work or they caused serious associated problems.

      So why didn't we hear any calls for wage price controls in the eighties, nineties, and the aughts? Was it that inflation remained low all that time? Perhaps, but I like to also think that people do learn. We learned that wage and price controls are either ineffective or counterproductive, and we even understand why.

      The important thing to me is that people do learn. For years and years I have said that people do learn. They learn slowly, however, agonizingly slowly, glacially slowly, and often only after we have suffered greatly, and often only as a last resort, but we do learn. The appeal of wage and price controls is easy enough to understand. Pass a law. That should solve the problem. Of course "should" is the key word here. One of the lessons of life that seems very difficult for us to learn is the limitations of "should".

      This comes to mind because I just read a book on the great depression. I never gave much thought to the great depression most of my life. It's ancient history. I was born in 1943. Both the depression and World War II were past history when I became old enough to learn something about the world. All my life the conventional wisdom seemed to be that the depression was caused by imprudent investing on a large scale in the 20's. And I guess there is at least some conventional wisdom that Roosevelt's New Deal brought us out of it.

      But in recent years I began to suspect that probably government made the depression worse, that the New Deal really didn't get us out of it.. I was not particularly aware politically much of my life, but I thought of myself as generally conservative. It was probably a few years ago that my thinking, such as it was, reached the point that it seemed the sensible perspective that of course government made the depression worse. Then came our present downturn. I have given my thoughts on the cause of our present economic troubles with the last month or so on this blog. I still know very little about the great depression, but my thinking on our present economic problems certainly adds strength to my intuitive feeling that government was much more the cause than the solution to the Great Depression.

      The book I read, and I won't name it because there are a number of books out on the subject and I am not at all convinced this one is a particularly good one, gave me a lot of knowledge about the depression that I had never had before. Yes, of course, government made things worse, a lot worse.

      There is one important idea that I got from this book, even though the author never specifically mentioned it. In the 1930s the whole world was infatuated with collectivism, and of course the guiding light behind this was Karl Marx. Marx gave the whole world a wonderful shiny new idea. I'm not sure what the best name for that shiny new idea is, socialism maybe, Communism, collectivism, or whatever. And I'm sure it's not a brand new idea. New ideas never are totally new, I suppose. In the early thirties Russia was much admired by many in America, and I suppose the rest of the world, for being on the vanguard of putting into practice this wonderful new idea. By the end of that decade that had begun to change, of course. As we learned more the bright picture of Russia turned very dark. But my point is that at the beginning of the depression the population of America was primed and eager to believe that central planning can work, can do wonderful things even.

      But, to return to my main point, people do learn. Apparently we have learned that wage and price controls don't work. That's good. It's too bad we couldn't have learned it decades or centuries earlier. And it's too bad we haven't been able to learn other lessons that should be very easy. After the fall of communism in 1989 it seemed to me that the war of ideas is over. Collectivism didn't work. Socialism didn't work. Central planning didn't work. Capitalism did work. It's that simple.

      Well, nothing is ever that simple. But from the anticapitalist rhetoric I sometimes hear now days, it seems hard to believe that we learned anything from the great Russian experiment, the experiment that failed badly in a vast worldwide trial over much of the twentieth century at the cost of tens of millions of lives. Do people really learn? Well, the lack of rhetoric calling for wage and price controls today is evidence, meager and disappointingly small evidence, that yes, we do learn, at least a little, agonizingly slowly and at monumentally tragic cost, but we do learn.


Jan 5, 11

      I have never been a pacifist. I have never been attracted to pacifism. However I have known people, church friends usually, who I think could be called pacifists, and who would probably call themselves pacifists. So I have given a little thought to the subject over the years. Indeed I have discussed pacifism with these people a few times, never to any great depth, though.

      The argument for pacifism seems to always be the same. If everyone were a pacifist there would be no more war. Is this a good argument?

      On the one hand this argument is 100% correct. I have no problem in acknowledging that. If everyone were a pacifist then indeed there would be no more wars. However I always quickly go one more step. I ask, is that relevant? And I always get the same answer. No it is not relevant. It is irrelevant. It is completely, utterly, abysmally irrelevant. It is irrelevant because it is totally out of the realm of possibility. Of course that is my answer, not my friends' answer. My pacifist friends do not entertain the question usually. Or if they do entertain the question it is briefly and shallowly. They are in love with the idea that if everyone were a pacifist there would be no more wars. That seems to be all that counts to them.

      I don't think I've ever had a conversation with a pacifist that went beyond this point. But in my own mind I have explored the idea a little.

      The question "What if everyone were a pacifist?" is irrelevant to me because it's not going to happen. A more immediate and relevant question is "What if I became a pacifist?" That is what my friends are really after, of course. They would like me, and everyone else they know, to join them in their opinion. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with everyone becoming a pacifist. I am not everyone. Would the world be a better place if I joined my friends in becoming a pacifist? My friends would answer that immediately and affirmatively, of course. But I am not convinced. How, by what mechanism, would my becoming a pacifist make the world a better place?

      A pacifist might reply, "Well, if more people refused to fight, then it would be hard to get armies together to fight wars." That's worth thinking about, I suppose. That argument is an improvement on the "if everyone were a pacifist" argument, but not much. A few more pacifists seem pretty irrelevant to the powerful forces that impel people to go to war. And some of those reasons are powerful to more than just the people directly involved. Sometimes people should go to war, to defend their interests, and sometimes to defend their very existence. I see no virtue in committing suicide to avoid conflict.

      Whenever I think about it I pretty much come to the same conclusion. There are some things in the world we ought to be willing to fight for, if we must. Whether a person is a good person or a bad person depends on a lot of things. And it depends more on what they will fight for, than on their willingness to fight. One can do worse than be a pacifist, but one can also do better, a lot better. A pacifist is better than a criminal, but a person who will stand up to injustice is better than a pacifist. Morally a pacifist is neutral, neither good nor bad. I hope that I personally am on the good side, a little better than neutral. If so, then for me to become a pacifist would be to move a bit toward the bad side, and that would not make the world a better place.

      Suppose 90% of all the people in the world were pacifists. Would the world then be a better place? One can go different directions with this question. My first reaction is that no, the world would not be a better place. That leaves 10% of the world as non pacifists. Wouldn't they just kill of the pacifists and then nothing would have changed? The only question is time. Would this process take two years, two hundred years, or what? What if 99% of the world population were pacifist? Same answer, maybe just a different time frame.

      But that's not a very good answer. That answer sort of assumes that if 90% of the world population were pacifists then the other 10% would be blood thirsty pirates, or something like that. How about if the other ten percent were just normal ordinary people. Let us say that 10% is reasonably well educated and live in a civilized country with some form of democratic government. Couldn't it be argued that life would go on as before. That 10% of non pacifists wouldn't have to control the pacifists. They could just leave the pacifists alone, as certainly the pacifists will leave them alone. That 10% would have to deal with criminals and dictators, just as they always have, so nothing has changed.

      The question is purely hypothetical, of course. There is no possibility that 90% of the world population is suddenly going to become pacifist. We might consider less extreme possibilities. What if through some concerted organized effort 20% of the world population could be converted to pacifism. Then would the world be a better place?

      Isn't this a variation of the question I asked a bit earlier. Would the world be a better place if I became a pacifist. My answer then was no, my becoming a pacifist would not make the world a better place. Indeed my answer is that if I became a pacifist the world would be a slightly worse place.

      I generally dislike starting an argument with definitions, but it seems to me that to progress in this line of questioning we must pin down a little better just what we mean by "pacifist". I think it would be generally agreed that we usually mean a person who refuses on principle to fight in any war, no matter how compelling the reasons for that war. One of my church friends professed to be convinced that World War II was unnecessary. She insists that if we had just tried a little harder to talk things out armed conflict could have been avoided. I do not agree. Of course my thoughts along this line, the line that we should talk things out, do come to a point in which armed conflict on a large scale is no longer part of the picture. When the Nazis rule the world things will be peaceful, will they not? Once we give up everything, life and liberty as well as land and wealth, and once the Nazis are done fighting among themselves, then the peace of the graveyard will settle over the whole world. Wouldn't suicide be the more efficient way to get to this peaceful state?

      But my friend obviously has a different scenario in mind.

      I start out with the premise that some things are worth fighting for, and that there exist some people in the world who will take whatever we are not willing to fight for. I guess my friend would start out with the premise that talk will solve everything if we just try hard enough. I am not willing to give talk unlimited time to work. Sometimes when we are trying to talk we are losing things that we should fight for.

      In defining pacifism as I have done, the unwillingness to fight for anything, we must bring up a few particulars. There have been times when I would try to see if my friends apply pacifism on a local level. Would they call the police if they are robbed? Would they call the police if someone were shooting up their neighborhood? Do they think the police should be called if someone is shooting up the local high school? And if the police are called to a school shoot-up, should they come with guns? And if they do come with guns should they be willing to actually use them.

      The answers to these questions are obvious to me. When I start his line of questioning with a pacifist, I don't get very far. They wonder why I am changing the subject. And I wonder why they are unwilling to confront inevitable and obvious questions. Does their pacifism extend to the use of force by others on their behalf? My impressions is that of course my pacifist friends would immediately call the police when the feel threatened in some way. They would expect the police to act as police do, which on occasion includes the use of deadly force. But is this consistent with pacifism? Is there any moral virtue in refusing to shoot someone yourself, but eager to have the police shoot someone for you? I can see a practical reason for having the shooting done by someone who is trained in the use of that force. But moral superiority? No, I can't see that. Would my friend who thinks world War II was unnecessary also think that police are unnecessary? I don't know.

      Should we respect pacifism? I don't know. We allow conscientious objectors to do alternative service. Is that because we really respect pacifism, or is it just a practical solution to a problem?

      I wonder if pacifists expect their position to be respected by others. I don't know. I suppose they take it for granted that they have the morally superior position. I don't think they do, but I guess that's irrelevant.

      I have never known a pacifist whom I felt gave any deep thought to pacifism. Of course I haven't had very many conversations with people who think of themselves as pacifists.

      People can mean different things by the term "pacifism". In one conversation I had some years ago, a bit deeper conversation than usual, my friend made the point that pacifists are not against the use of force. They are only against the use of violence. Is that a valid distinction? I'm not sure. Can a pacifist use legal action and still claim to be a pacifist? It might be argued that a pacifist can use only persuasion. Legal action goes far beyond persuasion. A tremendous amount of harm can come from frivolous or unjustified legal action. The legal system employs a great deal of force in obtaining its ends. Law is always a blunt instrument. It is not without justification that we sometimes think of lawyers as "hired guns".

      Pacifists like to think of the tactics of non violent resistance used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King as evidence that they are right. I join with them in admiring and respecting both Gandhi and King, but can their methods be called pacifism? Of course any person who calls himself a pacifist can define it as he chooses. If pacifism is simply defined as the effort to minimize force and violence, then I'm a pacifist. I'm 100% a pacifist. But can we reconcile that definition of pacifist with the definition of a conscientious objector who refuses to fight in any war? I don't think we can.

      A few paragraphs above I said that if 90% of the population became pacifists it wouldn't matter to the remaining 10%, as pacifists don't cause any trouble. However that would seem to not be the case at all if pacifists used force in some form, legal action, economic action, and perhaps other forms of force. Again, it seems to me, what counts is what people are willing to use force for, not whether or not they are willing to use force.

      I don't claim to have all this figured out, but for the moment I'll continue to think that pacifism, as it is usually thought of, is not something that makes the world a better place. I tend to think of it more as something selfish or narcissistic.


Dec 31, 10

      An incident occurred a few years ago that I think is worth writing about. Pardon me if I wrote about this before, but I don't think I have.

      I don't like going to doctors, but I can only keep my blood pressure down with medicine. So once a year I have to go in and get a prescription to last me another year. That's what I was doing one day, probably in 2002. At the check-in desk they said they had a form for me to sign. They probably expected me to sign it without reading it. Probably most people do. I do that too, sometimes, but I hate it when I do. A person with a working brain ought to know what he's signing. So I read it. It was about half a page long, as I remember.

      But there was a lot in that half page. It said that by signing I was giving permission to doctors, and everyone else, to do whatever they wanted. I gave permission to be admitted to the hospital, and I gave permission for any medical treatment considered necessary. In other words it was a blank check. They wanted me to sign a blank check to do anything they wanted to do. I felt that I obviously could not sign it.

      But I knew I needed the blood pressure medicine. I had been fighting high blood pressure for years. I had tried diet and exercise to get it down. Nothing worked but medicine. From what I had read, and from taking my blood pressure for years, I understood that without medicine my blood pressure is dangerously high. How dangerous? I didn't intend to find out the hard way. I needed the prescription, but to get a prescription I probably had to sign this form. But it was a blank check. I couldn't sign it. What should I do? I had to have the medicine.

      I compromised. I scratched out the most offensive sentences. Then I signed it. The woman at the check in desk took it without comment, and told me to have a seat in the waiting room. What would have happened if she said I had to sign it as it was if I wanted to see the doctor? I don't know.

      When I saw the doctor I complained, as everyone should. What is this form? I asked. Did someone in the clinic hierarchy think it would be very convenient? To treat us like cattle? Oh, no, was the answer. The form is required by law, the new "hippa" law. I may have that term wrong, but it was something like that. Government wants to do good. So government passed a law regulating patient privacy, what doctors, clinics, and hospitals can and cannot do with patient records and information. Part of that law, I surmise, provided that doctors, clinics, and hospitals must inform patients of their right to privacy concerning medical information and medical records. So to be sure that is done, I suppose, the law also provides that patients must sign a form saying they have been informed. And that, supposedly, was what I signed.

      But what I read was a blank check, blanket permission for the clinic to do whatever they wanted to do. I'm sure that was very convenient (when I use the word, "convenient", it is often dripping with sarcasm) for the clinic. But wasn't it a criminal perversion of the law? When I asked the doctor about it, shouldn't he have blushed in shame about it?

      I suppose there was a mention in that form that there is a new law regulating privacy of patient information and records. Therefore perhaps it qualified as a form to inform patients. But how could such a form be used to get blanket permission for the clinic to do anything they wanted? Isn't it unprofessional to ask for blanket permission to do anything you want? Shouldn't it be? Isn't it unprofessional to use a form purporting to be for one purpose to be for another purpose? Shouldn't it be? Shouldn't every doctor in that clinic feel ashamed of that form?

      I don't go to doctors often. I don't know my way around in the world of medicine. People who do know their way around in that world perhaps know what to expect, and perhaps would be much better prepared to know what to do in various situations. The doctor seemed a little surprised that I really wondered if I would be able to get my prescription or not if I refused to sign the form. I guess the possibility of a problem in that way would not occur to him. He obviously knows the world he is operating in, the world that I don't know, and so probably had no inkling of my apprehension. He probably had no idea why I should feel offended, or even that I was offended.

      But, again, what should I have done? What if I simply refused to sign the form at all? Would I ever get to see the doctor? I don't know. Is that of no concern to the doctors at that clinic? Do they have any ideals about serving humanity? Perhaps they have ideals about serving humanity when it is convenient and lucrative for them.

      What lessons should we take from this experience? I'm not sure. It certainly confirms my general tendency to advocate limited government. Law is a blunt instrument, and law can be perverted. Did the people who wrote this law have any idea how it would be perverted? Would they care if they did? I'm not sure. Has this law actually done any good? I doubt it, but I don't have much knowledge or experience in these things. It reminds me of a form my wife and I once signed in buying a house, in 1975 I think. We signed a form that said we understood all the forms we were signing. I suppose that was also required by law. Is that the caliber of the lawmaking mind, that it will do good to require people to sign a form saying they understand all the forms they sign? Are law makers that stupid?

      Well, okay, people are stupid. Here's another example, somewhat parallel, that comes to mind. Some teachers like group projects and are aware that work may not be evenly divided among members of a group, so that make it part of the project for each group member to sign a form saying that each member of the group contributed equally to the project. Does that solve the problem? Some teachers think so. Are some teachers that dumb? Sad to say I know the answer to that from personal experience.

      Perhaps the central issue I am addressing here is the mentality of too much faith in rules. If we have a problem we'll just institute a rule to take care of it. If the rule is imagined by the rule makers to solve the problem, then people with this mentality are satisfied. It's a type of "should thinking" If it should solve the problem, that's enough. They pat themselves on the back, thinking they've done a good thing, but don't look at actual results.

      How do we get people to look at realilty?


Dec 29, 10

      Today I enrolled in Medicare Part D. For people who don't know much about Medicare, there is part A, Part B, and Part D. If there is a Part C, I don't know anything about it. Parts A and B, so far as I know, cover, to some extent at least, doctor and hospital bills, but not prescription medicines. Part D, for those who want it, covers the costs of prescription drugs, to at least some extent.

      I'm 67 now. I started getting retirement benefits a little before age 65. Part A of Medicare costs nothing and is automatic when you get retirement benefits. I didn't get Part B for a year because I was still working and had health insurance through my job. Last summer when I stopped working I applied for Part B, and that reduced my social security benefits by about $100 a month. I didn't apply for Part D at that time. I don't know whether I could apply for it then, or should have, or what. I just procrastinated. I take drugs for high blood pressure. It would be about two or three months before I would need refills, and I didn't know how much they would cost. When I did need to refill them, and had to pay full cost since my health insurance from work had expired, I found they cost about $225 for a three month supply, or about $900 a year. That's a lot of money, but manageable, so I procrastinated some more in finding out about Medicare Part D.

      However I did hear on the radio, and perhaps learned from other sources, that there is an open enrollment period for Part D that ends on Dec 31. Would I regret it if I didn't do anything before that time? Still I procrastinated. A few ads came in the mail, so I figured I should at least follow up on those ads and learn what I can. I finally did that today, two days before the deadline.

      In the last month or so I developed a few questions about Part D, about insurance in general, and about the public's perception of what insurance is or ought to be. My central question boiled down to this. Is Part D really insurance? Or is it government welfare? That is not an easy question and I may never really get an answer to it. Or I might. If it really is insurance then it doesn't cost the government anything. Premiums are computed to be actuarially sound. That means most people why buy the insurance pay more in premiums than they get back in benefits. That has to be the case so that premiums can pay for those catastrophically hit by the need for medicines. By this scenario I would expect to be in that majority that pays more and gets less.

      For comparison consider property insurance, which is primarily fire insurance. My wife and I have paid for homeowners insurance pretty much every year since we bought our first house in the early seventies. But we've never collected a dime. We've never had a fire, and we never expect to. Are we winners or losers?

      And consider automobile insurance. I've been paying for car insurance since I was sixteen or so, and have collected very little. Actually my wife and I have had a few damage claims on damage to our cars, but still we have paid much more in premiums than we have collected, and expect that to remain the case the rest of our lives. Are we winners or losers?

      I consider that we are winners. We've also paid a lot in life insurance, and have yet to collect. So far we are winners. With real insurance you're a winner if you never have a loss, and therefore never collect anything.

      So my attitude on prescription drug insurance is that of course it'll cost more in premiums than we will collect in benefits. For that reason I don't want it. However, there is the chance that at some point I will need some expensive medicines, so maybe we ought to have insurance.

      But more importantly my perspective has changed. Medicare Part D may be administered by private insurance companies, but it is a government program. Thus it is likely that it is more like welfare than insurance. It is entirely likely that it's free money to me if I have the gumption to claim it. It's likely that premiums are artificially low, so low that even with my modest prescription drug costs (about $900 a year, until something changes), I still might be money ahead to get the insurance. It became clear in my mind that I should find out. If it's real insurance it will be money out of my pocket, but it still might be worth having as protection against catastrophe. If it's not real insurance, if it's a give away of government money, then I'm money ahead to get it. Yes, it does offend my conservative sensibilities to take a government handout and thereby contribute to a greater problem, but my retirement is not secure. So call me a hypocrite, but I signed up for Medicare Part D.

      Here's the figures. Part D will cost me $34.90 a month, taken directly out of my retirement benefit. I have five drugs for my blood pressure. Each of those drugs is "Tier one", meaning relatively cheap, probably generic. Each drug will cost me $7 for a thirty one day supply, which is $35 a month, or $420 a year for all the drugs I presently need. That, plus the monthly premium of $34.90 per month, $418.80 a year, makes a total yearly expense of $838.80, just a little cheaper than I would pay without Part D. But in addition to saving just a few dollars, I have coverage for other drugs I might need.

      But is this the right way to figure it? Is this the way that John Q. Public figures it? Probably. What's wrong with that? What's wrong is that it violates the essential idea of insurance. We should insure against possibilities, not certainties. If you insure against certainties, it's not insurance, it's simply prepayment, prepayment through a third part that will take a cut, thus increasing total expenses.

     I discussed these ideas in my article "The Trouble With Insurance", at

      I conclude that Part D is more welfare than insurance, but I could still be wrong. I consider my prescription costs, about $900 a year, to be relatively modest. A lot of people have a much higher expense. If my premiums of about $420 a year, plus my co-payments of about $420 a year, cover my expense, then probably the government subsidy is substantial. Then Part D is more welfare than insurance. But perhaps there is a large percentage of elderly people with no prescription drug expenses. If that is the case then their premiums pay for my medicine. That's the way insurance ought to work. Premiums are set so that the many who collect nothing pay for the few who collect for catastrophes. But I doubt very much if that is the case.

      Here's a revision of the figures. If I get my meds through a mail order program I will save even more. Through the mail order program a three month supply of a Tier One drug costs me only $8, or $32 for the year, or $160 for all five medicines that I need. So my yearly premium of $420, plus my out of pocket expense of $160, a total of $580 is all the insurance company gets to supply me with $900 worth of medicine. It sounds like a subsidy is in there to me, probably a pretty big one.

      That figure of $900, by the way, is Wal Mart prices.

      Maybe it is obvious that Part D is highly subsidized. Maybe everyone knows that. It's part of Medicare, after all. Parts A and B must be highly subsidized. My premium for Parts A and B are something like $1200 a year. When I was teaching at a community college in recent years the state of Wisconsin paid something like $15,000 a year for my family coverage. Of course that insurance paid a lot more benefits. Indeed I don't remember any out of pocket costs with that insurance, and that was for both me and my wife. But $1200 a year is a very small premium for any kind of health insurance.

      Part D has "gap". At about $2000 Part D stops paying. I'm not sure whether that $2000 is my out of pocket expenses for drugs, or the insurance companies cost for my drugs, or what. Above that level, as I understand it, insurance stops paying. I'm on my own. However there is an upper limit to that gap, somewhere around $5000 if I remember right from what I was told over the phone.

      So Part D is not really very good insurance, but it's cheap. It'll save me a few dollars.

      There's more to discuss about all this. I hung up the phone with pretty good confidence that I did the right thing in signing up. But isn't this an unholy mess? Isn't it so complicated that many people will make unwise decisions? The vast majority of those unwise decisions will be covered up by government money. But isn't that an invitation to ballooning costs over the years? Is it sustainable? Silly question. Shouldn't we be ashamed to have our health care system, as it is now paid for so wastefully, an important part of our legacy to future generations. Another silly question.

      But for perspective, we might look back two hundred years and ask a similar question. Isn't the institution of slavery a shameful part of the legacy we leave to future generations? We know the answer to that. I guess we should count our blessings. There are always better ways to do things, but there are also always worse.


Dec 11, 2010

      My favorite educational blog that I try to read regularly is The Core Knowledge Blog, which is at . In the last few days I have put in two comments, one about the general idea of video recording of teaching, and one about a particular video clip. They are at and .


Dec 4, 2010

      I have a ridiculous situation here. It snowed last night, probably about three inches. I haven't been out in it yet, but need to soon. Here's my problem. How do I get the snow off my car?

      From my first paragraph you might think I lived all my life in southern Florida or somewhere in the hot southwest, and don't know what to do with snow. But that is not the case. I'm sixty-seven years old. I grew up and lived half my life in Missouri, and we get snow there every year, sometimes a lot more than three inches. And I lived the other half of my life up north, both Dakotas, Minnesota, and now Wisconsin. I know about snow. I've been getting snow off my car in the morning all my life. Yesterday I got snow off my car, though it was considerably less than three inches then. It was no problem.

      The difference between yesterday and today is the car. Yesterday I took a snow shovel and scraped the snow off, and then finished up with the brush on the end of a windshield ice scraper. The snow shovel has a plastic blade, which I figure is not going to scratch the car. But I won't do the same today. Yesterday's car was twenty years old. I traded that car in yesterday on a brand new car. That's the difference. I can't apply yesterday's practices and standards to today's situation. The brand new car is . . . well it's brand new. It's immaculate. I'm not going to take the snow shovel to the brand new car. I might scratch the paint, even though I've used snow shovels like that for years, ever since snow shovels came out with plastic blades. I also hesitate to use the brush on the end of the ice scraper that I carry in my other car. That might also damage the paint.

      The point of this is that slight changes in circumstances can make a big difference in how we see things and do things. Things that seem obvious at one point can seem not at all so obvious when something changes. As a practical matter nothing has changed about getting snow off a car in the morning, but psychologically there is a big difference between the old car and the brand new car. Somehow I am prevented from just going outside and clearing the snow off the car.

      It is not news that different people see things differently. And since they see things differently, they react differently. I've always known this on at least one level. But today seeing, and feeling, the difference that it makes that the car is new, brings it home to me with a clarity that I don't remember having before. Yesterday I would not have imagined that I would feel helpless with three inches of snow on the car. I have no doubt that I will soon decide on some course of action, and that action will not be to wait for spring and the snow to melt of its own accord. I will soon forget my feeling of helplessness. But hopefully the experience will help me understand at least a little bit when someone see things differently than I do and I am at a loss to know why.


November 21, 2010

      Here's a link to a talk by Conrad Wolfram about teaching math.

      This was brought to my attention by Mary at Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas.

      I did watch this video, but I don't agree very much with what Wolfram says. Or at least I don't agree very much with his conclusions.

      It can certainly be argued that arithmetic is not the beginning of math, that calculation is not the essence of math, or that math starts with numbers. If we take the basic definition of math as any logical system built by deductive reasoning on a few basic premises, then there are many, many approaches to math that one might take. So why should we start with numbers and calculation?

      My argument is that we should start with numbers and calculation because they are a very good place to start, not because they are the only way to start. Perhaps some day numbers and calculation will not be seen as the best way to start math. Perhaps a better starting point of math will be found. Perhaps - but I have no idea what that better starting point might be

      Numbers, starting with finger counting, is comprehensible to the very young. The question "how many?" arises early in a child's life from any number of situations, and it is a comprehensible question. It leads quickly to counting, and counting is comprehensible to the very young. The similar, but not identical, question, "how much?" becomes comprehensible once the child has some grasp of numbers. Quantity is not quite the same as asking how many. Quantity is better expressed as "how much" Both number and quantity lead to ideas of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Those four basic operations are comprehensible to children in elementary school, but require substantial effort over a period of years. The mathematics of number and counting (arithmetic) can be substantially complete by the end of the sixth grade when conditions are favorable, but are never mastered by some people.

      Numbers, counting, and calculation are not only comprehensible starting from a young age, but are also very useful in everyday life. This usefulness is probably most clearly seen when it is lacking. A person who would like to paint a room but has no idea how to use the information of coverage on a can of paint to know how much paint to buy would be an example.

      In addition to being comprehensible to the young and useful throughout life, numbers and calculation have the additional advantage of being the foundation to algebra, which can be defined as generalized arithmetic. Algebra, in turn, provides a basis for calculus. And calculus is little more than a beginning point of much more specialized math that is necessary in the development of many fields of science.

      So, no, you don't have to start math with counting, numbers, and calculation. But if you do the rewards are immense. If you don't the burden of proof is on you. Starting math some other way is always a possibility, but any other starting point faces pretty stiff competition.

      Dismissing calculation as drudgework that ought to be done by computers is common now days, but I think it is a big mistake. Learning to calculate is how you learn mathematical ideas. When that is accomplished we ought to do calculation in the easiest way possible, which usually means a calculator or computer. But until that is accomplished the goal remains to learn mathematical principles. Learning mathematical principles the easiest way possible is certainly desirable. But to suggest you can learn mathematical principles in arithmetic without calculation doesn't make sense. Calculation is what arithmetic is. Calculation enables one to answer those important questions "how much?" and "how many?" in simple situations, and by extension, to understand how to determine how much and how many in very complex situations. To use calculators in some contexts is to avoid learning mathematical principles. That's no favor to anyone.

      Here's an example. Suppose you have the problem of adding 3/5 and 2/3, what is the answer? As stated that is not a good question. One person may say the answer is obviously 5/8. Another person may say the answer is obviously 1 4/15. Who is right?

      Both are right, but in different ways.

      The first person may reason that 3/5 is like winning 3 out of 5 games, and 2/3 means winning 2 out of 3 games. If a team wins 3 out of 5 games one week and wins 2 out of 3 games the next week then in the two weeks combined result is that they won 5 out of 8 games. Isn't that good addition? It makes a lot of sense.

      The second person may reason that if it takes 3/5 of a gallon of gas to mow the front yard and it takes 2/3 of a gallon of gas to mow the back yard then it will take 1 4/15 gallons to mow both the front yard and the back yard.

      Both of these people are correctly "adding" the "fractions" for the situation they have in mind? So who is learning a mathematical principle? Or is there a mathematical principle involved? My perspective would be that the second person is putting together fractions in the way that the whole world calls addition of fractions. We learn to add fractions like this because of the wide applicability of this type of "adding" The method the first person uses is very restricted. It works only for the situation described. We could be picky about the language and say that both people are using mathematical principles, just different principles that apply for different situations. But the second method not only has wide applicability, it also is consistent for the idea that a fractions itself is a number. In both situations a fraction is a ratio, but only in the second way are fractions numbers that can be put on a number line with all other numbers and can themselves added, which is needed for adding gallons of gas and many other situations. By adding fractions in the second way we can proceed to learn to do much more with fractions, and we can go into algebra, and beyond.

      It is very important that students learn to add fractions in this second way, to understand the rationale of that way, and to become proficient in doing it. Without the understanding and the proficiency, which comes only through careful explanation and sufficient practice, the students have a poor foundation for learning more math.

      It is a legitimate and important point that gratuitous calculation is not good. But that just gets back to a very basic idea in teaching that every assignment must be well made. A poorly made assignment, whether it be poorly chosen problems in arithmetic, or poorly chosen questions in history, or the wrong exercise in football, or the wrong piece in music, makes poor use of a student's time and effort and can be frustrating, demoralizing, and even counterproductive. Every assignment needs to be careful made so that students learn what we want them to learn, and not waste time and effort. But learning does take practice. If students don't practice adding fractions they will not learn to dependably add fractions. It's as simple as that. Calculators and computers have not changed that. I don't see any way that they ever will.

      It is always easy to slip into the idea that the goal of doing a problem is to get the answer. That may be true in everyday life, but not in teaching. We need to never forget that getting a correct answer is usually only a means to an end. The end is to learn something. "learning" includes both understanding and proficiency. Understanding takes explanation. Proficiency takes practice. In the future computers may be valuable for giving both explanation and practice. But in situations in which learning is the goal, using a computer to displace both explanation and practice is counterproductive.

      I used a very simple example above. Both 3/5 and 2/3 are very simple. I could have used 33/37 and 2/19, but that would be harder and less clear. That would require gratuitous calculation. Gratuitous calculation should always be avoided. But it is a big mistake to think all calculation is gratuitous calculation simply because calculators and computers are available. You won't learn arithmetic without doing a lot of practice. If you don't learn arithmetic you're in very poor shape for learning algebra. If you don't learn algebra you can't do much in calculus.

      It was only in the past few years that I became aware of the idea that a poor grasp of fractions is a serious impediment to learning algebra. As a teacher of college freshmen math I have seen students add numerators and then add denominators many times. I have written about this at some length at .

      And I developed my ideas on teaching fractions a little more at .

      And for that matter I have several other articles about math teaching on my website. Links can be found on my homepage, .

      Wolfram would disagree with me that calculus rests on algebra and algebra rests on arithmetic. He gives the example of increasing the number of sides of a regular polygon and showing that it approaches a circle. That, if I understand it right, he claims is a basic idea of calculus, or leads to something in calculus, or leads to the idea of limits, which is important in calculus, or something like that. And he argues, or implies at least, that this is understandable to young children. This, he says, if I understand him right, shows that we can introduce some basic ideas of calculation to children before they even know arithmetic to any great extent. I agree, to some extent at least, but I'm not sure it has any relevance. It's always true that you can talk a lot about a subject without presenting the subject itself. But is it worthwhile to do this?

      There are many, many topics that can legitimately claimed to be mathematics and which are understandable, to one degree or another, by young children. But it does not at all follow that it is worthwhile to do so. I suppose the basics of Euler's graph theory is understandable to fifth graders. And a good teacher could probably make it interesting, even exciting, to fifth graders. But that is not enough to establish that it is worthwhile to do so. Class time is limited. Ask any elementary teacher. I cannot speak from experience. I've never tried to teach elementary school, but from what I read it's always daunting to find the time to cover what is supposed to be covered.

      Arithmetic, the simple mathematical structure that starts with counting and goes through the operations, fractions, decimals, percents and applications is a big structure of knowledge. Good teachers with well behaved, motivated, and competent students get it done pretty well in six or eight years, but it's not easy. I'm not convinced there's much time to play with. And the idea of starting math with something other than counting, numbers, and so on, sounds risky. Anyone without a good understanding and proficiency with counting and numbers is seriously handicapped. We could argue that Euclidian geometry is a better starting point for mathematics. But where would that lead? I'm not sure. Perhaps we would learn that first graders can learn Euclidian geometry, but then when would they get started on counting and numbers? And would they have time to get a good foundation in arithmetic?

      And if they don't get a good foundation in arithmetic, can they learn algebra? I have offered my reasoning and experience that they can't. And can you learn calculus without a good foundation in algebra? I would think not, but I have very limited experience teaching calculus. But I am not at all convinced that spending time talking about limits before they are used to actually learn calculus is worthwhile.


October 15, 2010

      Here's a quote from a comment on the Core Knowledge Blog of October 8, 10. The comment is dated October 13, 2010, at 3:54 pm.

      "I will never forget when students created screenplays based on the American Colonial period that we were studying. They read and then developed their own plays based on specific events, such as the "lost colony of Roanoke Island". Then they critically analyzed the scripts each group had written based on a rubric we developed together. We selected one to produce. They became actors, directors, set designers . . . did all of the camera work and edited the movie down. I added titles and burned a DVD for each student . . . . . . . . ."

      Here's a link to that blog,

      Don, I hesitate to jump in and criticize the project of writing plays that you described in your comment above. Obviously I was not there and you were, so I have no firm basis to draw any conclusions. However, sometimes there is some benefit in getting a glimpse of how the other guy thinks. I'm the other guy, so here's my thoughts. I feel bad that they're all negative, but they exist, and I don't think I'm alone. So here goes.

      Perhaps if I were one of your students in your fifth grade class I would look back on this experience with fondness. But that seems highly unlikely. I obviously can't prove that I wouldn't respond positively, but it seems far more likely that I would look back on this experience with a bit of distaste. I realize there are many things in life you just have to put up with, and I think I realized that when I was in the fifth grade. Your description is very short, but long enough that I can get many visions in mind. The most prominent vision perhaps would be my thoughts as the teacher tells us we've got to write a play. "You expect enthusiasm? You gotta be kidding! How long does it have to be? How many words? We have to be creative? . . . . . ."

      Kids want to be creative don't they? Well, no. Okay, sometimes. But not on demand. Most kids don't like to write. Facing a blank sheet of paper is not what most of us think of as a fun activity.

      Kids want to do projects don't they? Well, no, not that kind of project. It requires creativity. I don't like being creative. Okay, sometimes I do like projects. I've done projects all my life, on my home, on my car, electronic projects, garden projects, learning projects. But those are projects of my choosing. Projects on demand? That's a bummer. A writing project? Double bummer. But we'll do what were told, at least most of us, most of the time.

      It can be argued that man is the animal that does projects. That?s a very good point, and it needs to be developed. Why has that idea not been developed before?

      You didn't describe this play writing as a group project, but it sounds like it. You say, " . . . analyzed the scripts each group had written based on a rubric we developed together." So, not only do we have to do some writing, we have to do it together. Oh, joy!

      Kids do like to work together, do they not? Man is the animal that collaborates, that comes together to accomplish together what they cannot accomplish alone. Right? Well, yes, sort of. Sometimes.

      Some people don't like working in groups, especially groups like that. Groups may combine the strengths of the individual members. That's an additive group. The Manhattan project comes to mind. The best brains were brought together and produced the atomic bomb, which no one person could do alone. Additive groups happen all the time, but not always.

      Another possible group is me and three other students assigned to write a play about Pocahontas, or whatever. Hopefully we'll have at least one student who is enthusiastic, writes a play and we other three say, "Yup, that's pretty good. Let's go with that." That's hardly an additive group, and it certainly not an egalitarian group. It would be a division-of-labor group. One kid writes a decent play. The other three . . . well we'll figure out something to say so that we can sign the statement that we all contributed equally to the project. Okay, we'll sign that statement even if we snicker while doing so. We'll think up something to say for when the teacher asks what each of us contributed to the project.

      A division-of-labor group is certainly better to a subtractive group. That would be when the enthusiastic kid gets flack from others and ends up being resentful that he or she had to include at least some of the mediocrity of the other kids ideas.

      Often the frustration of working in groups is that individual effort is diluted. Subtractive groups happen all the time.

      "Then they critically analyzed the scripts . . ." The picture that comes to mind here is mixed. I can imagine sitting through a pretty boring class period in which we sit politely and listen to each other as we do our best to say what we are supposed to say. When it's my turn to give an opinion on something I'll mumble my lines as best I can, and be glad when it's over. My "lines" are not scripted by anything but my judgment of what I feel I am expected to say. No one is putting words in my mouth. (It would be easier if they would.) Indeed the teacher says a number of times that we are to be candid and sincere. I'm a good kid. I'll try to stay out of trouble and do what's expected. But when I've heard or read the play of another group and think it was really yucky, I can't be candid and sincere. I'm not that dumb. I'll be polite. I'll mumble something appropriate.

      I said the picture that comes to mind here is mixed. An alternative picture is of a skillful teacher discussing the plays with the class. That skillful teacher reads excerpts of the plays and brings up interesting points and perspectives, all the while protecting fragile egos. A few students have comments or questions. The students are genuinely engaged and the time passes quickly. Writing the plays may have been an unwelcome task for most students, but the teacher makes it worthwhile, or at least not totally negative. But would such a teacher have entered into this whole affair? I'm not convinced.

      "They became actors, directors, set designers . . ." Oh, joy again. We've got to pretend some more. What can I do to satisfy the teacher? Okay, I'll join the set designers. What do we have to do? Call me a grinch, but I just can't come up with a convincing positive spin on this.

      So what would I prefer? An arithmetic assignment? Read a section in a chapter of a history book and answer the questions? Circle the adjectives and underline the nouns in a grammar assignment? Well, that depends. I think I had pretty good teachers in elementary school. To some people the above activities might sound highly unappealing. But such activities can be very meaningful if they are carefully chosen assignments that lead to progress in learning various subjects. That's what such activities were to me in most of elementary school. Good assignments can be satisfying to do. They bring satisfaction of accomplishment. That's what happens with good teachers. At least that's the way I remember if as a student in elementary school. As a parent that's the impression I got from lots of assignments that our kids did at home. The same activities can be busywork if the teacher is not very effective. Busy work does not lead to satisfaction of accomplishment.

      Is it fun to do a grammar assignment? Is it fun to paint a wall? No, in both cases. I've painted a few walls in my time, and I wouldn't describe it as fun in any instance that I can remember. Nor do I remember any grammar assignments as fun. But most walls I've painted in my life brought satisfaction of accomplishment. They were meaningful activities. They were projects, or parts of projects - my projects. Most grammar assignments I did in the eighth grade were meaningful activities. There were not "my" projects, but they brought satisfaction of accomplishment. I had a good teacher for eighth grade English. I was aware of that at the time. We learned gerunds, and participles, and clauses, and future perfect tense and probably a whole lot more that I've forgotten.

      In most everything we do our day to day activities can seldom be described as fun. But often they are worthwhile and meaningful. They are part of a larger picture. They lead to the accomplishment of larger goals.

      One can certainly argue that everything described in the play writing scenario would be viewed my most students in a positive light, not the negative light I have presented. I certainly can not prove otherwise. As I say I am simply presenting my thoughts, thinking that in itself might be of some value. I am convinced I am not alone in having thoughts like these. I think my preference of the mundane "worksheet" activities that I described over the "creative" activities that Don describes lies in the relative effectiveness and efficiency of the different activities to building a structure of knowledge. I can understand how people who value social activities for their own sake would see things differently.

      I am reminded of my thoughts in the past on what we consider photogenic in the world of education. When advertisers want to appeal to teachers or parents with photographs, or when a newspaper or magazine wants to dress up an educational article with photographs, they normally will show a group of school children in a group activity. A common theme is a group of perhaps six or seven kids in front of a computer. I suppose there's something naturally appealing to pictures of humans working together. Man is a social animal, is he not?

      Yes, man is a social animal. It's in our genes. We're also the analytical animal, so I tend to analyze photos of that type. In such a photo there will typically be one child in front of the computer, with hands actually on the keyboard. What are the other five or six children doing? Typically they are passively watching. What else can they do? In today's world one computer for six children would not be good. We want, and expect a ratio of one to one between kids and computers. Such a photograph can easily be taken. But would it be as photogenic? A photo of six kids working each on their own computer is no longer a picture of a group engaged in a joint activity, and hence not as appealing to the general public.

      When I see a photo like this I do not find it all that attractive. Show me a photograph like this and I will look for a few seconds, and then point to one of the watchers, and say, "This kid is me." The child I point to will not be the one at the keyboard. It will be one of the passive onlookers, politely not making trouble, politely trying to put on a demeanor of engagement, but politely doing nothing. That's what I think of when I think of group projects in school. It is not active learning. It involves a lot of pretending, polite pretending.

      I never had to do any polite pretending in my eighth grade English class. We didn't have any group projects. I would remember if we did. I'll admit memory is not one of my strengths. Grammar was not all we did in eighth grade English. We also did writing, probably spelling, and literature. I don't remember those parts as positively as I remember the grammar. But I think I would remember any polite pretending if we had to do it.

      As I have said before, I think I had pretty good teachers in my elementary and high school years. I don't remember having to do much polite pretending in my education in general.

      Here is a more recent memory of polite pretending. A few years ago I was teaching freshman math at a college. The math department required that we assign group projects. I didn't like it, but now I recognize the value to me personally in that it gives me at least a little bit of experience with group projects. It's a lot easier to argue against something when you have some basis. We had to divide each class into small groups of three or four students and assign the required problem. We were not supposed to help them with the problem. The group was supposed to figure it out. But it was not uncommon for a group to come to my office asking for help. I couldn't tell them how to do the problem, but I could listen to their ideas and give a little guidance. I noticed the general pattern would be this. A few minutes after the group came to see me I would usually notice that the discussion and evolved into a two way conversation, not a three or four way conversation. One student would usually be the de facto leader. That student would be the most mathematically capable of the group. Once in a while there would be two students equally capable and it would be a three way conversation, but not usually. The most capable student and I would discuss the problem, while the other two or three students listened politely.

      The non participants in the discussion would probably vary a lot in what they were thinking. I'm sure in some cases a student would understand very little of the conversation. That would be a case of polite pretending, probably not very much fun for the student, but no big deal. We are all capable of politely listening for a few minutes when we don't understand what is going on. And I am equally sure that in some cases a student would politely listen and understand every word, just not be eager to join in. And I am sure there were many in-between cases, in which a student would understand some, but not all, of the conversation.

      Invariably the discussion would end when the de facto leader understood the problem, or at least understood what to try next. All of this is understandable, and not bad, but neither is it what is envisioned by advocates of group projects.

      My feeling is that advocates of group projects, of "creative and innovative" ideas on teaching, are like the indiscriminate public looking at a photo in an educational ad or article. A group of students seeming engaged in something collaborative is photogenic because we are a social species. But if we'll look a little deeper we may find that what is photogenic, in a broad sense, is not what's best.

      Maybe I'm all wrong. Obviously I'm making mountains of speculation based on a very short description. I was not there, so the very short description is all I have. So how is educational progress ever to be made?

      Suppose the short description was not all I had. Suppose we had 50 hours of videotape of this project. Supposed Don's classroom had five video cameras in various places. Suppose those video cameras were always on in this classroom. How could this be? Doesn't it violate privacy? What I envision is that a school makes plans for at least a few classrooms to be set up like this. Parents know ahead of time that this is being done in the interest of educational research. They know the cameras will always be on, but will never be mentioned, that the resulting videos will be seen only by "researchers", which would include the teacher, and perhaps a few colleagues, and perhaps a university researcher or two. And in addition suppose Don made video clips of himself explaining what he was doing and why. And suppose small groups of these fifth graders just took it for granted that when they have a group meeting the park themselves at a table underneath one of these cameras. With this kind of video record I could look for evidence of students having opinions like mine, and I could look for evidence of the opposite.

      I don't think this would be impossible. And I am inclined to think nothing less would be adequate for me, or Don, or anyone else to write with any authority on this project. That would be a whole new world. "If you look closer, you'll see more." I have always argued.

      But that's just the way it looks to me.


October 3, 2010

      I was driving home the other day with the radio on. I wasn't listening very closely, but closely enough to follow the news stories. I was jolted by the last sentence in a short report of a school incident. A fourteen year old girl was expelled from school. She brought a box cutter to school. We've heard these stores before, I was thinking. Schools adopt a zero tolerance policy about weapons on the school grounds, and then they feel they have to enforce it to the letter. We've heard about the kindergartener who brought a toy gun in his lunch box and was arrested, and so on. Probably this is a story like that. Probably the fourteen year old girl innocently brought a box cutter to school to work on decorating the gym for a dance, or something like that. It's unfortunate, but understandable.

      But that was not the story. This story was different. The girl threatened classmates with the box cutter (maybe on the school bus, I can't remember for sure,) and even inflicted a cut on another student. Well, okay, I thought. It's not just another one of those usual stories like I had imagined. There is a serious incident here. But that was not what jolted me. The final sentence in the news story was what jolted me.

      The final sentence in the news report was a quote by the school principal, "We will not allow weapons in school!"

      I suppose there are different ways to interpret this. What it sounds like to me, and why it jolted me, is that the principal appeared to equate two situations which to me are as different as night and day, and the difference is important. Situation One is that a student is found to have a forbidden item in his or her possession. Situation two is that a student intimidates others and threatens them with a weapon. Situation one, at least in my world, could easily happen, and probably does, in one form or another, all the time. Box cutters are all over the place. I have several in the garage, probably one in the kitchen, and probably several more lost somewhere in the house and garage. That may not be the situation in all homes, but it would be in many. And box cutters, I presume, are all over the school. They are used by janitors for any number of jobs. They are used in shop classes. A few teachers might keep one in their desk for one reason or another. The principal's office might have one for opening packages. Everyone, janitors, teachers, and secretaries should be careful with them, make sure they are put away when not in use. But that is pretty much like a mother who has sharp knives in the kitchen, or scissors, or needles, or the farmer who has a rifle and uses it responsibly, or the return desk at Wal Mart having a few tools for opening packages. You should be careful with lots of things, but still they are basic tools used in many areas of life.

      Situation One requires action, but most likely is not serious and is easily resolved. You investigate. You tell the fourteen year old girl that it's not allowed for students to bring box cutters to school. Then you ask her why she has it, and what her intentions are. If the situation is totally innocent, as it is likely to be, you may still have to take some action. The rule is made and infractions must be dealt with in some way. But still it's a very minor incident. A student made a mistake. They should use the box cutter that's already in the gym for working on the decorations. You're not supposed to bring one from home. The principal?s quote, ?We will not have weapons in school!? would generally appropriate and meaningful in this setting.

      Situation two, as indeed this turned out to be, is not a minor incident. Brandishing a weapon is a serious offence in society at large as well as in a school setting. And it should be. Whether the weapon is a box cutter from home or a hammer from shop class doesn't matter. If you threaten harm you are in big trouble. It is a criminal matter, or certainly should be. It is not a simple technical infraction of a bureaucratic rule.

      What was the principal thinking? Obviously I cannot know from the brief news report. Maybe the principal's attitude on these things would be identical to mine. Maybe the news writer or reporter is not too skillful or careful with words and sentences. Maybe the principal would say, "Yeah, the way they wrote it does make me sound pretty shallow. I know the difference between an innocent mistake and a serious offence. I know the difference between forgetting a rule and threatening harm."

      But I cannot help considering the possibility that the principal does not know the difference between an innocent mistake and a serious offence, or that she thinks this situation of threatening harm should be handled in the context of breaking a bureaucratic rule. Sometimes a rule take on a life of its own, and we forget the reason for it. We forget the higher purpose.

      Here is the situation that comes to mind, a somewhat parallel situation in which, in my humble opinion at least, we are very much in danger of confusing ends and means, confusing substantial harm with bureaucratic regulations - the issue of underage drinking laws. As I understand it probably a decade or so ago the federal government passed a law that gave all states to an incentive to pass age 21 drinking laws. I never favored these laws, but for years I didn't think too much about them. Irresponsible drinking is a problem most anywhere. If such laws cut down on irresponsible drinking, then maybe they are defensible.

      But as a few years went by it seemed like we heard more and more about binge drinking. Certainly binge drinking is nothing new. There have always been binge drinking deaths. Ethyl alcohol is a poison. I understand all alcohols are poisons. Ethyl alcohol is maybe the least poisonous of the many alcohols. Normally it puts you to sleep before you can drink enough to be lethal. But until all states adopted age 21 drinking laws, binge drinking was not age related. After these laws we began to hear about 21st birthday deaths. The custom arose, in some places at least, for a young person to celebrate his or her 21st birthday by downing 21 drinks in one evening. Alcohol will normally put you to sleep before you get enough to kill you, but if all your friends are in the bar laughing and egging you on, that can change. And of course it doesn't have to be in a bar. It can happen in somebody's kitchen where there is no bar owner with concerns about legal liability.

      Does the age 21 prohibition do more harm than good? I don't know. I'm not prepared to argue either way. What I am concerned with at the moment is that now it appears to be conventional wisdom that underage drinking is bad. Is that okay? It seems pretty plain. Drinking by adults is okay, but drinking by children is bad. What's wrong with that?

      What's wrong with that is that we seem to have lost sight of a much more important truth. The much more important truth is that it is irresponsible drinking that is bad. I don't care what the age is. I don't care whether the drinker is 10 years old or 50. Irresponsible drinking is bad. "Underage drinking" is not bad in itself. Underage drinking can be responsible drinking, and responsible drinking is not bad. If the situation is a ten year old drinking a glass of wine at a family thanksgiving dinner and a fifty year drunk staggering to his car to drive home, then what can we say about age? What?s really important is that irresponsible drinking is bad, at any age. That?s what we want to prevent.

      It can be argued underage drinking leads to irresponsible drinking. And it can be argued that underage drinking is statistically more likely to be irresponsible than drinking at an older age. I am not opposed to either of these arguments. But I don't think anyone is making these arguments. They should. If we don't make these arguments then we have no logical basis for laws against underage drinking.

      Isn't it true that bringing weapons to school is bad? I'm not sure. But I am sure that a much more important truth is that using weapons to coerce, harm, or intimidate people is bad. Mere possession of weapons may or may not be considered bad depending on a lot of things. Every mother has weapons in the kitchen. Does that mean every child is in danger? Should knives be prohibited from all kitchens? Every mother has the weapon at hand to kill her child. What of it?

      An important influence on my thinking along these lines occurred some years ago when I woke up to discover seven armed men at the little motel across the street from my house. I'll never forget it. However this is not a story of trauma, or conflict, or adventure, or trouble, or anything like that. I'll never forget it because I am analytic and introspective and therefore remember things that influence my thinking. This was the first day of hunting season, an important event in rural South Dakota. The seven men were indeed armed, and they had dogs. But hunters getting ready to be in the field for the noon opening of the season is about as threatening as your neighbor cranking up his lawn mower, or about as threatening as your mother putting steak knives on the table. It prompted my thinking. I quickly concluded that deadly force is all around us virtually all the time. We have no more reason be feel unsafe around these seven men with rifles than we would have reason to feel unsafe when a secretary at school pulls a box cutter out of her drawer to open a package of books that was just delivered. And indeed I did not feel threatened in the least by the seven armed men across the street. And I do not feel threatened when an office worker pulls a box cutter out of a drawer to open a package.

      This is not to say that deadly force never need concern us. A woman may think twice about putting steak knives on the table when an impetuous three year old is visiting. A school principal may have a serious dialog with a shop teacher about avoiding accidents with all that deadly force in the shop. And indeed a school may give very serious consideration about what students may bring to school and what they may not.

      We want a safe and happy world. Certainly adopting wise rules can be a part of part of getting to that goal. But sometimes rules can be counterproductive, so we would do well to always keep thinking about the rules. As part of that we should remember that rules are always a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We should never let the goal of eliminating underage drinking divert us from the much more important goal of eliminating irresponsible and unsafe drinking.

      We should never confuse the goal of safe schools with to goal of enforcing rules. Rules should be in the service of goals, not the other way around.

      I listen to the radio about everyday, and I hear a fair number of public service announcements ("goody spots" as I call them, which tells you that I sometimes find them a bit irritating). One of these, which I have heard off and on for some time now is the attorney general of our state talking about underage drinking. He says, if I remember right, that most alcohol provided to kids comes from someone they know, often parents. And he reminds us that that's against the law. He finishes with an admonition to be responsible and don't contribute to underage drinking.

      Is that a good message? I don't think it is. I don't think it contributes to the goal of reducing irresponsible drinking. It seems to me that it very clearly and blatantly accepts the rule as the goal, stop underage drinking. Does this message detract from our recognition that irresponsible drinking is the real evil? Obviously I can?t prove it, but I think it does.

      How do kids learn to drink responsibly? I'm not saying there is an easy and obvious answer to that question. In our house when our kids were growing up alcohol was simply not a part of our lives. We didn't have it in the house. There was nothing moralistic about this. It was simply not a part of our lives, and is not today. Responsibility was a part of our lives. We tried to teach responsibility. Every parent does. We were pretty successful, as most parents are, and have never had any reason to believe that that general sense of responsibility doesn't cover drinking. But what about families where alcohol is a part of their lives, where beer and wine are in the cabinet, or refrigerator, all the time? Are we to tell the kids, "No, you can't drink with us until you're 21?" Is that what the attorney general in the goody spot is advocating? That would not be my way. My way, I presume, would be to include the kids in at an appropriate age. If we had wine at thanksgiving, I would think an appropriate age to let the kids have a little would maybe be about 12. If we typically had a beer in the evening, I would think the appropriate age to let kids partake would maybe be 16, providing they weren?t going anywhere. That would simply reflect my caution. I never had much of a taste for any alcohol, but when I did I would never have a beer at six if I were going to a movie at seven.

      What do people actually do with their kids when alcohol is just a regular part of their lives? I don?t know. But a strict prohibition until age 21 seems neither realistic nor optimum. And treating a box cutter at school brought by innocent mistake the same as threatening harm also doesn?t seem optimum.


      September 18, 2010

The Healthcare Train Wreck
(and why I'm all for it)

I wrote the following as a response a blog posting, A Shrewdness of Apes, Oct 16, 10 , about the health care debate and what we might mean by "socialized medicine".

      I was definitely an opponent of our new health care law passed earlier this year. However, unlike many people whose political orientation I share, I do not advocate the repeal of this law. I expect a real train wreck from this new law, terrible problems that will make our previous problems seem pretty tame and manageable by comparison.

      When are the unanticipated consequences of the new health care law scheduled to kick in? Well, obviously, as we speak. That will produce the train wreck.

      The law says you can keep your old health insurance if you prefer. However the law also puts some requirements on any health insurance. Doesn't that mean your old insurance can't continue to exist indefinitely in its present form? And the law also doesn't guarantee your current cost of that insurance. It can't. So doesn't that mean that your old insurance will be more expensive, to either you or your employer, very soon? I think it does. Doesn't "very expensive" in our present economic circumstances, quickly turn into "unaffordable"? Hence the train wreck.

      Backers of the new law take it for granted that exclusions for pre-existing conditions are bad. Apparently they can't think of any reason for them other than insurance company greed. I think the new law either outlaws such exclusions, or at least puts new limits on them. Doesn't this mean the premiums will go up? How could it be otherwise? Hence the train wreck.

      It has been pointed out before that one thing that government is very good at is causing uncertainty, and uncertainty hurts any economy. I understand the health care law is several thousand pages long, and no one claims to have read it all. Isn't that uncertainty? Doesn't this provide fertile ground for unanticipated consequences to rear their ugly heads? Hence the train wreck.

      Haven't insurance premiums been rising substantially beyond the level of general inflation for years? Won't the new law only increase that? Hence the train wreck.

      Won't the bureaucratic cost of complying with simply the paperwork and reporting requirements of the new law rise substantially? Hence the train wreck.

      Of course there is a saving grace, presumably, or a saving rationale. That rationale is that the cost of health care will be spread more widely. Everyone will be required to participate. Presently those without health insurance, at least those young and healthy low risk people without health insurance, are not now shouldering any share of the burden. That will change with the new law, presumably. Well, in 2014 it will change, as I understand it. Will this stave off the train wreck?

      Advocates of repeal might not use my explanation of these things though I think they should. From what I have heard from the advocates of repeal I would have to admit that most of them seem to be knee jerk rejectionists. They haven't explained their positions very well. But, as I said, I do not advocate repeal. I prefer the train wreck. The train wreck will be painful, but we will learn nothing without it. If the law is repealed both sides will simply dig in their heels and slug it out indefinitely. Advocates of the law will continue to believe we are just a few votes short of solving all our health care problems. Only a real train wreck will disabuse them of that. In other words, the train wreck, painful though it will be, is the way to get maximum learning with minimum pain. In fact, I think its the only way to get any learning at all.

      And I think the train wreck starts pretty soon. I have read that most insurance companies design their employer administered policies to the calendar year. So even as we speak those policies are being prepared, and priced, to take effect on Jan 1, 2011. The price will have to go up. Someone, either employers or employees will have to come up with that money. Over the next few months those policies will be presented to employers and employees. Many employees (but by no means all) will be surprised and perhaps shocked to learn that their employers are asking employees to pay more. In general these are not good times for businesses. The economy is bad, and may reasonably be expected to stay that way for a while. Companies are not making that much money. Health care is a big item in the cost of labor. It has been, and increasing, for years. The cost of labor must come out of profits. It's not a good time to expect companies to be generous.

      But maybe I am mistaken. I haven't read those two thousand pages. Maybe somewhere in the law it says that the cost of health insurance is not to be placed, even in part, on the employee. Won't that take care of the problem? The company has to pay for it. Employees will be okay.

      Of course companies can lay off. And of course companies can decline to hire. That will hurt the economy even more. But mainly it will hurt the individuals affected. Employees are not okay if they lose their job.

      I think the train wreck will happen pretty quickly, mostly in 2011. The new law will put strong upward pressure on health care costs. This will hurt the economy in general as well as cause a lot of individual pain. I think all this will be felt as a train wreck, though that might not be the preferred term for it as it unfolds. I think that in 2011 all this will be sufficient to prompt major changes in the law. An alternative scenario would be that the problems , disruptions, and costs can be contained and absorbed by business as usual. Life will go on, under this scenario, the economy will be good or bad, but we won't call it a train wreck. I'll admit to the possibility of this alternative, but it seems unlikely. I think the train will wreck one way or another. I think there will be plenty of surprises, but few of them will be pleasant. I think the pain will be very real. And the urgency to make changes will be very real.

      And I'm rooting for the train wreck. Nothing else, in my humble opinion, will actually teach us anything. Repeal of the law would teach us nothing.

      The primary source of our troubles, in my humble opinion, is a very simple fact. Third party payment distorts incentives. It distorts them horrendously. It has been doing so for decades now, and as a result we are in deep, deep trouble. We need learning desperately. Let's get on with the train wreck.

      I have developed the idea of how third party payment distorts normal market incentives in my article "The Trouble With Insurance" here.


September 7 2010

Some Thoughts On Our Present Economic Troubles

      As I recall it was in the summer and fall of 2008 that it became apparent that the American economy was beginning to go bad. I remember my thinking at that time. The news reports said we had a housing crisis. A lot of bad loans had been made, and now that problem had reached a stage where it was bringing down the economy in general. It didn't take long at all for me to pull up a memory of the not too distant past, a memory of a mystery that I had not figured out to my satisfaction. It seemed like only a few years ago I would hear a lot of ads on TV for home mortgage refinancing. the first company name I remember was Ditech, but I think there were probably a lot of other companies doing the same thing. The gist of the ads was an appeal to homeowners, especially homeowners in financial trouble, to refinance the home loans. I suppose good interest rates were offered, and perhaps other inducements, but what really stuck in my mind was the implication that you could refinance beyond the usual 80% limit. Indeed after a time I think the ads made the explicit claim that you could finance up to 125% of the value of the home. That just didn't seem right. How could that be? All my life time, so far as I have been aware, the figure of 80% has been considered the rule of thumb for borrowing. If you have a 20% down payment and good credit you won't have trouble borrowing the other 80% of the purchase price. It's always been true, I think, that there are many special cases in which 90% or even 95% loans are made, but they are not the rule. The 80% rule of thumb, I always assumed came out of long experience. When people have less than 20% of their own money in a property problems develop. So isn't offering 100% loans, and more, an inducement to borrow recklessly? Isn't that financially unsound? Won't people dig themselves deep into more financial problems? And won't a company that makes such loans have a day of reckoning when people can't pay those reckless loans? And won't such a company bitterly regret their foolish actions?

      I did have a tentative explanation at the time. I compared it to property insurance. I remembered that when my wife and I would buy a new house and get property insurance we would normally insure the house far above the market price we paid for it. I think the usual figure was 100% of replacement value. To replace an older home with a new home of the same size would cost a lot more than the market price of that older home. I assumed that usually when an older home burns down the insurance company doesn't have to rebuild the same size home on the same location. I always assumed the insurance company offers a settlement to the displaced homeowners, and then they go out and look for another suitable older home to buy. I have little knowledge and no experience on such things, but the important point is this: If we insure our house for 100% of replacement value, then don't we, the home owners, have a motive to commit fraud, to burn our house down, claim it was accidental, and then enjoy a new home at the insurance company's expense? I concluded that of course we do have that motive, and indeed it is probably attempted once in a while. But I imagined that those attempts would be very rare. It would never occur to the vast majority of homeowners to think of committing insurance fraud, and if it did occur to them it would not be appealing. Cultural values, in other words, were sufficient to keep such fraud at a very low level, even though a perverse motive is allowed to exist. Insurance companies allow that perverse incentive to exist because it makes customers happy, and fraud is rare.

      So, I surmised, maybe it's the same in refinancing. If you refinance at over 100% of the value of your home you do indeed have a motive to borrow the money, spend it foolishly, and then when you can't make the payments you just walk away from the home and let the bank deal with the problem. But maybe very few people would do this. Maybe cultural values are such that a bank can loan substantially over the traditional 80% limit, even over the 100% logical limit, absorb a certain percentage of bad loans, and still come out okay in the long run.

      So when the news remained constant in the fall of 08 that we had a real problem with bad housing loans, I felt pretty smug. I had an "I told you so!" situation. I was right. No, you just can't loan 125% of the value of a home and expect to come out okay in the long run. Ditech and a bunch of other companies were wrong. Such companies would lose their shirt.

      I don't know what happened to Ditech. Somebody told me that they went under at some point. That is quite understandable. However it soon became apparent that there was more to it than that. I think the problem was much, much bigger than a few companies making bad decisions and losing money. Common opinion seems to be that they didn't lose money, at least not all of them. They got rich. How can that be?

      Apparently our whole economy was brought down by bad home loans on a massive scale. Many people believe that rich Wall Street people made those bad loans purposely, that making bad loans is a way to get rich. They got rich, according to popular opinion, but the country suffered. Those rich Wall Street people were greedy, but jerks. That explanation seems to satisfy the general public. But it doesn't satisfy me for more than about ten seconds. Yes, I know people are greedy. I'm greedy. Everyone is greedy. It's part of human nature. What about it? Being greedy is not enough to make a person rich.

      One mystery was solved. How can you loan over 100% of a home's value and expect it to work out? Simple. You can't. Events seemed to prove that beyond any doubt. But now a new mystery emerges. How can you make money by making bad loans? It never worked for me, and I've made a bad loan or two in my life time. If I make a bad loan I lose money. I can cite a few examples. But somehow a rich Wall Street banker makes bad loans and gets richer. Just how does that work? Can I do it? I'm greedy. I don't have the wherewithal to do it with home loans, but maybe I could do it on a smaller scale, maybe with used cars. How about if I make bad loans on used cars? Will that make me rich? How?

      I once made a bad loan on a used car. I picked up a very nice 72 Oldsmobile once in my younger days. I don't remember just why I bought it, but it was a beautiful car. One of my friends also thought it was beautiful and wanted to buy it. I sold it to him for a little more than I had paid for it, and let him make payments directly to me. I didn't think of it in terms of a bad loan at that time. As much as anything I was just helping out a friend. I can't remember the details, but after all was said and done of course I lost a little money. So how is it that one can get rich by making bad loans?

      Making a loan can be thought of in terms of buying and selling. When I get a loan on either a car or a home the bank is giving me money and return gets a promise. The bank is a buyer. I am the seller. I am selling a promise. The bank is buying my promise, and paying good money for it. My promise is a valuable commodity. In my life time I have sold promises to buy houses and cars a number of times. When making a loan the bank pays real money, and in return they get a promise. One can say it's a lot more complicated than that, and of course it is. One can say that the bank gets the money back with interest, and that's a lot more than a promise. And one can argue that that promise is backed by the legal right to possess the property if the promise goes bad. That's true enough, in the long run. But in the short run they are buying a promise. No bank, I presume, wants to foreclose and get stuck with property. I don't know if banks always lose money when they foreclose, but I suspect they usually do. If the promise is not valuable in its own right, banks normally don't want to lend. Any lender purchases a promise. Any borrower sells a promise.

      So with this perspective shouldn't we ask how one plans to get rich by buying trash? The trash I'm talking about, of course, is a bad loan, or many, many bad loans. I've bought lots of trash in my life, but none of it has ever made me rich. So how can a rich Wall Street banker get richer still by buying a lot of trash? Every bad loan is a bad promise. How do you get rich by buying trash?

      I think the answer is pretty simple. Unfortunately I don't have many details, but I have heard enough from various sources to convince me of the truth of the basic idea. You can get rich buying trash if there is an aftermarket for that trash. If I go out, for example, and buy a bunch of used cars at prices considerably more than their value, if I buy a bunch of trash, in other words, I wouldn't normally expect to get rich. However if I can turn around and sell that trash to someone else for slightly more than I paid, then I can get rich, or at least richer. This is the "bigger fool" idea. I may be a fool to pay that much, but there's a bigger fool who will pay me even more. I buy trash, but sell it at a profit.

      So who is the bigger fool eager to buy a trillion dollars worth of bad loans?

      Financial institutions buy and sell assets all the time, though I know very little about all that. A good loan is an asset. It has a market value. It?s understandable that home loans are just another commodity traded by financial institutions. Indeed more than once my wife and I were informed that starting the next month we were to send our mortgage payment to a different place? Why? They sold our loan. Why did they sell it? I suppose there could be many reasons. A loan is a commodity. They are traded, just like any other commodity. I doubt if our home loan was every sold individually by a lender. I think home loans are packaged up hundreds or thousands in a bundle. But they are traded. One financial institution, for one reason or another wants to turn their outstanding loans into cash. Another financial institution, for one reason or another wants to turn their cash into an income producing investment. So they trade. But they trade only because the buyer, the financial institution with cash to get rid of, believes in the value of the package of home loans that they are buying. But why would a bad loan have any market value? Why would a bundle of bad loans attract a buyer?

      And who is that buyer, the bigger fool?

      Perhaps the simple answer is just Fannie May and Freddy Mac. Perhaps it's a lot more complicated. I don't know. But surely the driving force of that aftermarket in home mortgages is the federal government. Who else would be the bigger fool? Who else has the motivation to buy a trillion dollars worth of trash? And what is that motivation.

      The motivation, of course, is to do good. People like to do good. When they can do good with somebody else?s money, the appeal is even greater.

      As I understand it the center of all this is the CRA, the Community Reinvestment Act. I don?t know much about it, but I think the basic story is that it was enacted into federal law in the seventies and has been tweaked every few years since then. I think it was intended to do good. It gives lending institutions both a stick and a carrot to do certain things. I think the CRA includes a lot of binding regulations requiring lending institutions to make loans to groups that have trouble getting loans. That's the stick. The carrot, I think, is some mechanism by which those loans are taken off the hands of the lending institutions that made them. I wouldn't want to make a bad loan myself, but I can imagine if I were required to do so by law, and given the means to make a little profit to boot, I suppose I would do so. Perhaps also part of the carrot is that warm fuzzy feeling that you are doing good by giving loans to people who really shouldn?t get them. When I agreed to take payments from the buyer of the 72 Oldsmobile I mentioned, I did indeed feel good. I was helping a friend. I was doing good.

      It's hard to do good. I think that is an idea that needs a lot more thinking about.

      My analysis is woefully short on details. I don?t know much about these things. But what is a better explanation? There seems general agreement that bad loans were made on a massive scale, a trillion dollar scale. Are we to believe that bankers suddenly took leave of their senses and threw out hundreds and hundreds of years of banking experience and accumulated wisdom, and somehow thought they could make money by making bad loans? I am painfully aware that people make foolish mistakes, and I'm sure that includes bankers now and then. But I am also aware that governments make mistakes. And government uses other peoples? money. I?ll keep an open mind about these things. But I?ll also remain skeptical of explanations that don?t seem right, that seem to have big holes in them. The big holes in the ?bankers got rich by intentionally making bad loans? theory are first, the mechanism, and second, the motivation of buyers in the aftermarket for these bad loans.

      The saddest thing about this to me is we are not learning the right lessons. Again and again I hear, even from very intelligent people, that our present economic problems are caused by inadequate regulation of financial institutions. My view, based on all that I have talked about, is that our problems come not from a lack of regulation, but from bad regulation. Those carrots and sticks, I presume, are real regulations with real teeth. That is bad regulation. The cure is not more bad regulation. As a libertarian I tend to think the cure is a whole lot less regulation. But I don't know much about such things. Maybe the cure is good regulation to replace the bad regulation. The important thing, it seems to me, is that no cure is possible if we don't understand the cause.


March 23, 10

comment #4 at about a longer school year. I talk about linearity of input in hours to output in achievement.

I don't usually get into politics, but here's a bit about the new health care law that has apparently just been passed.

March 20, 10

Okay, I'm a really bad blogger. It's been over eight months since I've posted a thing. I started this blogspace thinking I would add something every day or so, but obviously that hasn't worked out. I have plenty of thoughts I'd like to get into words, but getting thoughts into words is a lot of work. I started referenceing comments that I post on other people's blogs, which I think is a good idea. I'm going to try to get back to that now. If I can I'll write a comment or two on my comments. But if not I'll just post a link and see how that works. This is about opportunism. We need more of it.

July 1, 09

This comment is still on the general topic of whether or not every state should have a system of school inspection. I am negative to the idea, and I try to explain in a paragraph or two where my negativity comes from. My comment is the seventh one down.

June 29, 09

This comment is a follow up on my previous one attacking lesson plans. The larger subject is the idea of school inspections. My comment is the eleventh one down.

June 27, 09

Here's a rant. Educators talk of "lesson plans". They shouldn't. Rather they should talk about planning lessons. They should analyze how real teachers plan lessons for real students in the real world. My comment is the eighth one down, marked 1:00 pm, 6/27/09.

June 11, 09

Here's a few comments on individualized instruction, arising out of the question of where educational improvement will come from. My comments are the 35th, 37th, and 39th.

May 20, 09

It always irritates me a bit when people talk of ending poverty, especially when they say we have to end poverty as a condition to accomplishing some other goal. I got my chance to say so here. My comment is the seventh one down.

May 2, 09

I got a few thoughts on the length of the school day and the length of the school year here.

April 26, 09

The discussion about college algebra is continuing on Joanne Jacobs. Some people are arguing that you can't understand algebra if you don't know arithmetic, and I think there is some very good evidence for that. My comment is the 25th one.

April 24, 09

Couple of comments that maybe are worth mentioning here. One is about the usual lament that kids don't know something, in this case their times table. So I put in a plug for my fractions quiz article. Here's a link, and my comment is the second one.

The next one is a little harder to categorize. It's about differing perspectives of educational theory, and differing ideas of educational reform and improvement. Here's a link.

April 17, 09

Here's a short discussion of hazing in high school. My comment is the sixth one down. I have long been interested in the idea of "groupiness" and how it plays out in various contexts. In recent years I have been more and more aware of what I call "group discipline". I think it is true in general that groupers will tolerate a lot of peer pressure, coercion, and even intimidation of members of a group, in order to have group solidarity. I have written extensively on groupiness in my article "Let's Do It Together". In my article "Mediation" I discuss the phenomonen in which people "play to the judges" but deny that they are doing that. I have another article which I have never gotten on my web site. I think I titled it "Submission and the Transmission of Power." I will attempt to put that on my website this summer.

April 11, 09

An interesting discussion has been going on for about a week. I can't even remember everything it's touched on. The 20th comment got me to thinking about freedom and control of teachers. My comment is the 21st.

March 23, 09,

It's spring break. I have a little more time. Here's a post on thinking and how we're not very good at it. We're not really talking critical thinking here, but it certainly relates. My comment is the third one down.

And here's a interesting conversation. It'll take a lot of reading to get the context of this. Ken DeRosa wants to "reboot" American education. He's not getting a lot of support. My comment is the 42nd one down.

March 14, 09, Critical thinking again. Bridging differences again. Here's a link. My comment is the 29th one down.

March 6, 09

Critical thinking has always been a hot topic, or buzzword. I'm still trying to sort out just what might be meant by the term, or what we ought to mean. I think I made a little progress, in response to a comment on Bridging Differences, one of my favorite education blogs. Here's a link. It's the 41st one down.

Sometimes my comments fail to get posted. That may have happened to this one. I'll just paste it here.

      Jean's comment brings some thoughts to mind. Perhaps most important is what we mean by "traditional" teaching. It has always irritated me greatly that people are quick to use the term, "traditional teaching", and expect there will be agreement on what it means. In the ed school crowd there is agreement. They always start with the premise that before our present enlightenment teachers always taught by "rote memorization". There is never any support of that assertion, or even any explanation or discussion. But I have quite a different perspective. I have no evidence that teachers in the past taught any differently than they do now. Of course the constraints of materials and resources have changed greatly over the years, and that has to have some effect. But what evidence do we have that the essentials of teaching today are, or ought to be, any different than in the past? Today we must present information in some form (verbally, read the text). Then we must have the students interact with that information in some ways (homework). We must elicit and provide feedback, correct misconceptions, point out connections, etc. ("going over the lesson"). And finally we must have some sort of testing system, for the benefit of both the learner and society at large. Isn't all this equally true today and a hundred years ago?

      I have argued before (here) that we have a woeful lack of simple description in the field of education. I know how I teach college algebra, but I don't know how other teachers teach it. I presume there is a lot in common with what I do, but there may be some important differences of which I am unaware. And what do I know of how the same subject was taught twenty years ago, or eighty years ago? I can make some conjectures, but I don't know of anywhere I can find actual descriptions, good or bad.

      How was fifth grade math taught 50 years ago? I have my own experience to draw on. Was I taught by rote memorization. To some degree, yes. I had to memorize the times table. Was I taught only by rote memorization? Heavens no. Absolutely no. Unequivocally no. Math always, or nearly always, made sense to me. Should I conclude that it made sense because I'm smart, or because my teachers explained it? Maybe some of both. But to suggest that my teachers taught only by rote memorization is, in my humble opinion, abysmally shallow.

      I don't know much about how math is taught in fifth grade today. I have waded through the Standards published by the NCTM in 2000. But do teachers actually follow those ideas? I certainly hope not. And I would guess that they do not, just based on the idea that good teachers have always resisted the current educational fads of the day. But I also have plenty of evidence from my college algebra students that elementary school math may not be taught well. (See here.)

      I have wondered off and on just what we might mean by critical thinking. My present thinking is that critical thinking is knowing how to organize the facts. That's pretty mundane. It sounds pretty simple. I think it often is very simple. But it leads to two ideas that I think are important.

      First, it is easy for teachers to fail to recognize a lack of organization of facts in the students' minds. If you teach a few facts about Columbus, and then teach a few facts about Magellan, how do you know that the facts about Columbus are not mixed up with the facts about Magellan?

      And secondly, the task of the learner, and the teacher, alternates very quickly between learning facts, on the one hand, and organizing facts, on the other. In a fifty minute college algebra I may alternate many times between presenting facts and organizing those facts. In most topics of algebra it is the organizing of facts that is both difficult and important, and that takes up the bulk of my lecture time. Is it any different in teaching fifth grade science? I'm not sure. I think, at least right now, that critical thinking cannot and should not be considered apart of the teaching of a subject. If I do not do a good job of teaching critical thinking in algebra then I have not done a good job of teaching algebra. To think we should separate them, critical thinking and content, is not beneficial. And to think that the trendy things in education should replace the old fashioned ?going over the lesson? is even less beneficial, in my humble opinion.

      In her comment Jean says, if I understand her correctly, that the pendulum swings back and fourth between memorization and critical thinking. I presume she is thinking on a scale of years or decades. I'm not sure how much I agree or disagree with that. I know educational trends change over time. But I think it is very important to recognize (and perhaps Jean will agree with me on this) that we must change many times in the course of a single hour between presenting facts and helping students organize those facts. So I very much agree with her (and I think others in this discussion) that there is not a dichotomy. My concern, and I think our general concern, is that P21 and similar perspectives de-emphasize content to an alarming extent. We are trying to restore a balance, not weigh in on one side.

      Mar 3, 09

I had a learning experience in 1962 that has stuck with me. The course was freshman American history at the University of Missouri, where I was a freshman. Unfortunately the learning experience was about history education, not about history. The professor and the lab instructor botched it badly. And they were proud of it. Of course they didn't think they botched the course, but I did. I have had occasion to relate this eperience a time or two since then. I described it briefly at the end of my article on Chicago Math. The other day I had occasion to mention it, even more briefly, on Bridging Differences. Here's a link. My comment is the second one down.

Feb 14, 09

Where's the line between teaching positive cultural values and propaganda? It's fuzzy, of course. Here's an interesting discussion that touches on that. My comment is the seventh one down.

February 11, 09

Does the public expect unrealistic miracles from education? Of course. Here's an interesting discussion on that. My comment is the 27th one down.

February 9, 09

Here's a bit on some educational research. Can teaching of "critical thinking" compensate for poor grasp of content? Probably not, but this bit of research suggests maybe. My two cents worth is the 16th comment. Click here.

January 31, 09

I like to plug my articles, and here was an opportunity. Diana Senechal said "group battles are rarely subtle . . ." Of course. My comment is the 27th one down.

January 29, 09

The "fallacy of engagement" is addressed here. My comment is the 20th one.

January 23, 09

The subject is critical thinking. I suggested that other terms, like "disciplined thinking" might be just as important. Another person commented that just making up terms was not very helpful. Here's the result of my thinking on that. My comment is the twelfth one down. My original comment is the tenth one down.

January 22, 09

In the blog "Bridging Differences" Diane Ravitch tells us about a publication from the Department of Education about turning around underperforming schools. The publication is ripe for ridicule Click here. My comments are the eighth and the thirteenth.

Here's a follow up on my comment about "twenty-first century skills" and a physics problem of two days ago. Click here. My comment is the tenth one down.

January 17, 09

The word "regimentation" came up in a discussion, so I gave it a bit of thought. Click here. My comment is the twelfth one down.

"Twenty-first century skills" is an idea much in discussion lately. The suggestion is sometimes made that since everything is on the internet now days, we don't need to learn everything that we used to need to learn. In his blog, D-Ed Reckoning, KDeRosa tries to test this idea with a physics problem. My comment is the twelfth one down.

January 15, 09

I concluded not so long ago that charging high tuition on out-state students is probably a mistake for most colleges. I expanded just a little on this when the topic came up. It's simply a matter of understanding the idea of marginal cost, which I think every eighth grader ought to be taught. Click here Mine is the second comment.

January 14, 09

I don't know much about the teaching of history, but I have given a bit of thought to it in the past. The topic was touched on at the Core Knowledge Blog, so I had a comment. I was a little off the actual subject. Click here. My comment is the third one down.

January 9, 09

It continues to mystify me that people think national educational standards will be an improvement on frustrating state standards. Here's a comment on that.

Here's a very interesting blog concerning the book "Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich. I read it a few years ago and agreed that it was very interesting. The idea of this book, if you are not familiar with it, is that the author, who is successful in one field, spends a year at a series of low wage jobs and then writes about the experience. I believe a central thesis of her book is that low wage jobs do not pay enough to live on. I thought it was a pretty good book. I didn't think of it as too political or ideological. Apparently some think it's pretty left wing. I suppose it is. Now there is a similar book, Scratch Beginnings, by Adam Shepherd, who also writes of the experience at low wage jobs. However this book, as I understand it, will appeal to right wingers. I haven't read it, but I plan to.

January 7, 09

Here's just a short thought about the "business model" for education, and alternatives. Click here.

January 6, 09

This comment allowed me to make a point that I have recently given increasing importance to. The subject is the nature of teaching. Click here. My comment is the 13th one.

January 4, 09

      Obviously this isn't much of a blog. When I started it seemed like it would be pretty easy to say something every day or so. But if you look at the dates, it is apparent that it didn't work out that way. However I have, in the past year, become an addict to many educational blogs, and I often send in comments. Quite often I will spend considerable time in writing a few hundred, or even a thousand words, for somebody else's blog. Why not at least put links to those comments here? So I will.

      I don't spend a lot of time thinking or writing about unions, but I discovered I do have a few thoughts. Click here. The original topic of this thread was not about unions. My comment is the seventh one down.

      I don't know much about Linda Darling-Hammond, but her name has surfaced in the past year. She apparently irritated some people by being critical of Teach For America. She is an education professor. When I came across a video interview with her about "social and emotional learning", I began to form some opinions. Click here.

June 5, 2008,

      I came across an interesting article on the internet by Brian Greene, a physics professer, talking about how science should, and should, not be taught. Here's a link. It seems to me that Professor Greene is saying that in the teaching of science we lose sight of the big picture in our efforts to attend to the details. Actually he does not use the term "big picture", but I think he would not disagree with my use of the term in describing his article. He says science should be exciting, or inspiring. I do not disagree with him on that. But I would argue that his idea is nothing new. You could take out the word "science" and put in "history", or "music" or just about any other subject and the argument would be pretty much the same. We can call it the "big picture problem", as it comes up again and again. And it is a very important concern for all teachers, or at least it should be. But how do we teach for the big picture? How do we prevent the details from getting in the way? How do we make sure we don't lose the forest for the trees?

      I don't think I have a final answer for this problem, but I have some thoughts.

      First of all, I would argue, there is one very important thing that we should not do. We should not decide the details are unimportant. This has been tried many times. It's a standard theme in progressive education in the early twentieth century, at least from my reading and interpretation. Of course the emphasis would vary from time to time. Sometimes the "experts" would simply say that subject matter is not important, in either the big picture or the little picture. Other times they would say that students can get the details on their own, by doing activities or projects. And yet other times they would emphasize that students would understand and remember anything they "discovered" for themselves, making little distinction between the big and little picture.

      The best example of denigrating details in my experience was my college freshman history course. We were explicitly told "Don't worry about memorizing dates, or facts. Try to get the broad themes of American history . . . ." In fact they would actively riducule the learning of facts. "A student comes into class for a test with a head full of facts, and says, 'Don't bump me! Don't bump me! I might lose some facts' ". At the time my reaction to this type of rhetoric was negative. I felt it was wrong. Since then, and at least partly because of this type of rhetoric, I have developed the opinion that the big picture always comes through the details. There may be some exceptions, but I don't know what they might be. I do have some experience teaching both math and music, and all my experience leads me to believe that the big picture comes only through a mastery of a large number of details.

      But there are two important caveats here. There is nothing in my argument to imply that details have to be added on in isolation, that we should approach details as a job of rote memorization. I would argue just the opposite. In the vast majority of cases details to be learned must be fit into the structure of pre-existing knowledge. This is what understanding is, fitting each new fact or idea into the existing structure of knowledge, and not being content until it does fit in. Pure memory has it's place, of course. Fitting a new fact or idea into the existing structure of knowledge takes work and time. In many cases we must simply remember the new fact or idea, because it's much to time consuming to figure it out again each time we need it. I use the terms "structure building" and "brain packing" to refer to these processes of learning. I have discussed them more fully in another article. (Click here).

      The second caveat is this. Mastery of details is a necessary condition for getting the big picture, but it is not a sufficient condition. If students are to get the big picture something more must be done. An important part of that something more is simply pointing out the big picture, which hopefully teachers automatically do. Beyond that, I'm not sure.

January 28, 2007

      According to our local newspaper, the Fargo Forum, our local utility company would like to build a new coal-burning power plant. It's needed to keep up with demand. There is some opposition to the project, of course. Environmentalists don't think it's a good idea to burn coal. The new plant would burn millions of tons of coal each year. If you remember your high school chemistry, you can quickly figure out that a million tons of coal burnt puts about 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air. (Carbon has atomic weight 12, oxygen 16, so carbon dioxide has atomic weight 44, which is 3 2/3 times 12.) Environmentalists think that's a bad idea. I'm not what you would call a raving environmentalist, but I also think its a bad idea.

      So what should we do then? To me the answer is very simple - go nuclear. But nuclear energy has many detractors. Environmentalists in general, I think, aren't talking of nuclear energy when they talk of alternatives. What they prefer is wind and solar energy.

      Solar, I think, is not going to be competitive with fossil fuel in the foreseeable future. But wind energy may be. It was not too many years ago when I was driving in Minnesota and observed a number of wind turbines. It was an impressive sight. They are big, and there must have been twenty or more of them. I'm sure this wind farm is not unique, but it was the first I had ever seen.

      Thinking about this I very quickly decided that this was very good news. They don't put up that many wind turbines, I decided, unless it made economic sense. It doesn't necessary mean that wind power is truly competitive with fossil power, but it has to mean that it is close. What I saw could not be just an experiment. If they just wanted to gather data, one wind turbine would provide plenty of data. That many wind turbines must be put up to actually produce power. The cost of wind power must be competitive.

      Unfortunately over the next few months I decided the issue was not so clear cut. Minnesota, I learned, had some state laws that were enacted to promote wind energy. I don't know the details of these laws. I expect the total picture is pretty complicated. But I think it is fair to say that written into law were a number of "carrots and sticks", legal provisions designed to prompt power companies to invest in wind energy, whether or not it really made sense economically. There would be tax incentives, and perhaps accounting incentives, to favor wind energy, I suppose. And there would probably be some sort of penalties if energy companies don't put up some wind turbines. Indeed there might be a simple legal mandate to put up a certain number of wind turbines regardless of the cost.

      I am not against such laws, in principle, at least. I think there are times when it is well worth while for government to promote an agenda that will be in the long term interests of society, even though there are costs and problems in the short term. When we paid about 30 cents for a gallon of gas and gas shortages started to hit, I quickly decided that I would support a good stiff tax on gas if it would be used to promote alternative energy research. Over the years, however, I have become less of a believer in such actions. Ethonol is one reason for this. I thought that tax breaks and other legal provisions to promote ethanol were a good thing for the country in the long run. However a few years ago I became painfully aware that much of the country thought that tax breaks for ethanol production was just pork for the midwest. And I don't have much faith in the ability of the country to stick with an incentive program over a long period of time.

      So I don't know whether Minnesota's laws that promote wind energy are wise or not. But one thing seems very clear to me, and I think it is important. Any such promotion by government is going to obscure actual costs. I like the idea of wind energy. But I have no way of knowing the actual cost of wind energy production. The simple existence of a wind turbine, with its monstrous blades spinning majestically in the breeze, is not evidence that it is making money, or that it ever will make money. Perhaps people in the wind industry can know the actual costs, but I don't think that means that the general public can know the actual costs, at least not now. Lawmakers can bring in experts to testify about actual costs, before making or modifying wind energy legislation. But there will be conflicting testimony. I will have no way of knowing who is stating the simple truth and who is spinning the facts to favor their industry. Lawmakers will have to decide that, and they make mistakes.

      Thirty years from the answers will surely be in. Perhaps at that time wind turbines will be as common as billboards along the highway. That would mean that wind energy can stand on its own. It doesn't need any help from government. But I can also imagine that thirty years from now wind energy will be a thing of the past, an idea worth trying, but not worth keeping.

      I'm rooting for wind energy. But I have no idea if it's really going to be a part of our energy future or not. And I really don't know if it's wise or foolish for government to support it with incentives.


December 18, 2006

      The latest issue of Time magazine has an article on education. Apparently what prompts this article is a report due out this week by "the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a high-powered, bipartisan assembly of Education Secretaries and business, government and other education leaders . . .". I had not been aware of such a commission, or that it was going to make a report. I hope its report will be better than this article.

      I am a critic of education. Or, more exactly, I am a critic of what we might call the "educational establishment". I am not a critic of our schools as they actually do the job. There are many good teachers in the country who go about the business everyday of transmitting knowledge and culture as best and efficiently as they can to their students. These teachers don't give much thought to the latest educational fads. Indeed they may be unaware of them. The latest educational fads have little to do with their everyday lives. These fads are not relevant, because they don't work. "Constructivism" is all the vogue now, but it is nothing more than a new word for old ideas, ideas that date back to early in the twentieth century and went under the name "progressivism" for decades. These ideas are not all bad by any means, but they have never constituted anything revolutionary in teaching. I am a critic of the educational establishment because for a least a hundred years it has propagated these fads, but neglected to observe, describe, analyze, and report on what actually goes on in classrooms everyday, the actual practice of effective teachers, the actual nature of school learning.

      In recent years I have become a little more tolerant of the educational establishment's lack of reality grounding when it dawned on me that educational leaders are not the only ones that advocate and write admiringly of educational practices that I consider shallow and inefficient - reporters do it too. Time just did it. Obviously there is something appealing to these ideas. Here is a quote from the Time article:

Depth over breadth and the ability to leap across disciplines are exactly what teachers aim for at the Henry Ford Academy, a public charter school in Dearborn, Mich. This fall, 10th-graders in Charles Dershimer's science class began a project that combines concepts from earth science, chemistry, business and design. After reading about Nike's efforts to develop a more environmentally friendly sneaker, students had to choose a consumer product, analyze and explain its environmental impact and then develop a plan for re-engineering it to reduce pollution costs without sacrificing its commercial appear. Says Dershimer: "It's a challenge for them and for me."

      This project approach may sound wonderful and new to some, including the authors of the article, but it is not new. Here's a quote from "Left Back" which is a history of American education written by Diane Ravitch in 2000. Ravitch, unlike the authors of the Time article, is not an admirer of the classroom situation in this quote:

      In 1929 William Heard Kilpatrick visited Moscow, where he discovered that his books were read in all the teacher-training institutes and the project method was widely used. The three R's were not taught directly but were learned, much to Kilpatrick's approval, "incidentally from tasks at hand."

      He visited a fourth grade classroom that was working on the problem "How can we increase the yield per acre?" Another group of students studied "the problem of disposing of disintegrating carcasses of animals left frozen on the roadside, both for the salvage of fertilizer and leather and for better sanitation."

      To me there is very little appeal in this type of project approach. Are we to believe that high school students in Michigan or fourth graders in Moscow are going to actually tackle, in any meaningful way, the problems mentioned? People in industry are continually tackling such problems, and they have the advantage of algebra, calculus, chemistry, physics, and other subjects to work with. School children taking on such problems, it seems to me, are just play acting.

      But people who respond positively to such ideas need to be taken seriously. To refute these ideas takes a lot more than saying I don't like them. To that end I have done a lot of writing over the years, and the results are on my website.


November 20, 2006

      Like most people I consider honesty to be important. But I also realize that in an imperfect world it is not always a simple matter. There are many situations that, for one reason or another, we cannot be honest. Or others cannot be honest with us. Consider the following scenario:

      I am called in to the office of a member of the human resources department of the business where I work. I am informed that I did not get the job that I had applied for, and interviewed for, a couple of weeks previously. This is not unexpected news. The job would be a step up from my present position. My qualifications are basically that I have done a good job in my present position, and have shown myself quick to learn. There is no way that I can claim that I am perfectly qualified, or the best qualified. I do not know who else has applied for this position, and what their qualifications are. However I can guess, based on my knowledge of the company and its practices, that there are not too many other applicants, and that their qualifications, though different than mine in various ways, do not make them a perfect match for the job either. I can also guess that I am considerably older than any of the other applicants. Does this make a differece? So I ask the pleasant young lady who is giving me the disappointing news, "Is my age a factor? Did they want someone younger?"

      This scenario is not all fiction. It happened to me twice in the last couple of years. However the last part of the scenario is fiction. I did not ask if age were a factor in my not being hired. I know better than that. We have laws against age discrimination. Therefore the human resources people did not talk about age. I don't ask if my age is against me because I know what the answer would be. They would say no, my age is not a factor. This reply would be given with apparent sincerity. But is it honest? Can I expect honesty in this situation?

      I think it is very naive to think that age is not a factor. This is not to say that it is factor. There is no way I can know about that. For the particular two jobs involved in my situation, I consider it likely that age was not a factor. There is a lot of turnover in these jobs at this company. They may figure that age is irrelevant because anyone they hire will likely be gone in two or three years. Perhaps my age is even to my advantage. Perhaps they think that an older person will be more stable, dependable, and reliable.

      But what I can know with rock solid certainty is that the company must deny that age is a factor. They cannot be honest with me. They probably would not think that honesty enters into this situation at all. It would not occur to them to think in terms of honesty or dishonesty. But in my mind the question of honesty is involved. If age is important then I would like to know it. That would be valuable information to me. But I cannot get any information from their denial of age consideration.

      Age discrimination labor laws are based on good intentions, of course. In some circles good intentions are given high value. I am much more cynical than that. I often find myself saying that someone "had very good intentions", but my meaning is derision, not admiration. About a decade ago I was doing some serious job hunting, and a number of times I didn't get an interview when I thougt I should have. A little reflection convinced me that it is easy to get a good idea of my age from information on my resume, and if they don't want to hire an older person it's probably best not to interview an older person. This would explain the interviews I didn't get.

      One might argue that I am making wild guesses, that I don't have enough information to draw any firm conclusions. That, I would reply, is precisely my point. I don't have enough information to draw any firm conclusions. I would not claim to know that age discrimination is involved in any jobs I didn't get, or any interviews I didn't get. I cannot know because we have age discrimination laws.

      "Camelot legislation" is a term that I have always applied to laws that have desirable ends, but that we can't have much confidence that they can work. We can't legislate the weather. In a song from the Camelot the words include:

A law was made a distant moon ago here,
July and august cannot be too hot.
And there's a legal limit to the snow here
In Camelot

The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order summer lingers through September
In Camelot.

And so it goes for several more verses.

      In most legislation there are winners and losers. Sometimes it is very plain who the winners are and who the losers are. Sometimes it is not plain at all. Sometimes the winners are very apparent and the losers are invisible, or the losers are visible and the winners are invisible. And with many laws there are unintended consequences. Are age discrimination laws effective? Of course I cannot prove they are not. But common sense and my experience tells me that employers who don't want to hire older people can easily find effective, yet deniable ways, not to. With age discrimination laws honesty is a casulty. I don't know if I am a loser from age discrimination or not, but I know that I cannot know, and that, in my opinion, makes me a loser.


October 9, 2006

      One crisp autumn morning in the early 1990's I looked out my kitchen window and saw seven armed men across the street, with dogs. This experience, after a few months of reflection, gave me a new perspective on disarmament.

      When I was in high school in the late fifties I remember disarmament as being topic of popular discussion and serious political thought. The cold war was well underway by this time. America had an extensive arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union, I think, had a much smaller, but still extensive, arsenal of nuclear weapons. Both sides had the capability of delivering those weapons, though I don't know just what those delivery systems were.

      As I recall everyone was for disarmament at this time, at least in principle. But there was a wide range of opinion on how it should be done. A segment of the population, probably a very small minority, favored unilateral disarmament. They thought, I think, that if only America would get rid of their nuclear bombs then Russia would no longer feel threatened, and would respond in kind. A more common view was that disarmament would be difficult. Unilateral disarmament would be foolish, and disarmament by mutual agreement would be a long and difficult process.

      I was rather complacent about the issue myself. I felt the "balance of terror" was a misnomer. There was a balance of power that would keep the peace. Nobody, at least that I was aware of, lived in terror that there would actually be a nuclear war. But, like everyone else, I thought the world would be a better place after disarmament. Until that came, probably after many decades, things would probably be all right. Disarmament was good, if it could be arrived at safely.

      If disarmament on a large scale is desirable, then it would seem sensible that disarmament on a small scale would also be good. I'm talking about gun control now. Advocates of gun control have often made the point that the availability of guns allow what would otherwise be a minor incident between individuals in conflict to become a major incident of violence. An argument over an alleged insult, for example, can turn into tragedy if someone has a gun. This argument always seemed to make at least some sense to me. If we apply this argument to a large scale then we could say that the possession of nuclear weapons by countries who have a disagreement might lead to a devastating war. Therefore disarmament is desirable. However I was about as complacent on the issue of gun control as I was on the issue of nuclear disarmament.

      It might seem that the sudden appearance of seven armed men across the street from my house that October morning would jolt me out of my complacency, but that turns out not to be the case. Those seven armed men were no big deal, and I recognized that immediately. There was a small motel across the street. This was in South Dakota. It was at the start of hunting season. I think it was a Saturday in either October or November, and I think the hunting season began at noon that day. They were apparently out of town hunters. I did not know these men personally, but in a very real sense they were my friends and neighbors. They were no more threat to me with their rifles than my wife would be with a steak knife.

      Why were these men not a threat? I can't give a full answer to that question. Part of the answer, and a very important part, is in our cultural values, which they share. Another important part of the answer is that they know our society is capable, and willing, to inflict severe penalties for the inappropriate use of deadly force. At any rate I immediately concluded there was no threat. My thoughts about potential threats and danger were academic or philosophic, not emotional.

      But what about all the arguments we hear about gun control and disarmament? Haven't we heard many times the argument that the availability of deadly force is not good. When deadly force is immediately available isn't there the potential that minor conflicts can take a deadly turn? Doesn't the simple presence of weapons tempt people to use them? So shouldn?t the presence of seven armed men across the street give me cause for concern?

      Rifles provide deadly force, but so do steak knives, hammers, gasoline, razor blades, automobiles, and a zillion other things in everyday life. We all live all day, everyday, with deadly force at our fingertips, unless we?re incarcerated in some way.

      The science of animal behavior has recognized for many years that animals that have evolved fearsome weapons (tooth and claw I'm talking about here) have also evolved strong instincts of inhibition against using those weapons under certain circumstances. Dogs, and their wolf ancestors, show this dramatically. (For an engaging exposition of this idea read King Solomon?s Ring by Konrad Lorenz.)

      I do not totally reject the arguments in favor of nuclear disarmament and gun control. But reflecting on the presence of those hunters has changed my perspective a bit. Eliminating a danger, outlawing guns for example, is not the only way to promote safety and security, and it may not be the best way. There are dangers of one sort or another in all cultures, and all cultures have evolved mechanisms to control those dangers. We should not claim infallibility for these mechanisms, but neither should we ignore them. Steak knives, hammers, gasoline, razor blades, automobiles and many other things are dangers we have learned to live with in our society.

      I don?t remember just when it was, but I think it was not too many years ago when some sort of agreement to end the violence of the Irish Republican Army was almost within reach. But, as I understand it, the agreement fell through because the British government wanted the IRA to disarm, which the IRA was not willing to do. I know very little of this situation and its long history, but it did occur to me that perhaps disarmament was not necessary or even important. There have been other situations in which disarmament seemed to be necessary to an agreement, but I really wondered if it was. Haiti and the Balkans after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire come to mind, but I have forgotten all the details. My view in recent years has been that no group will willingly disarm until they know an agreement will hold. Only experience will show if an agreement will hold. An agreement has to offer real incentives to both parties. Those incentives may include creditable threats of the use of force. Managing a danger, in many cases, is a preferable strategy to trying to eliminate the danger. I suspect, but certainly cannot prove, that would be the case when the danger in question is the arms held by the IRA.

      In the politics of left and right things may be changing. Historically I think it is the left wing that would argue that having weapons leads to the use of weapons. I think it was sometime in the 1980?s that I saw a bumper sticker that said, ?You can not simultaneously prepare for war and work to end war?. I immediately decided I didn?t agree with that sentiment, but I took it for granted that the driver who sported that bumper sticker was on the left. They are the ones who would argue that if guns are available then guns will be used. But for the last year or so the argument seems to be reversed, at least for Iraq. The thinking on the left now seems to be that Iraqi arms under Saddam Hussein should not be taken too seriously. One might argue that if that is the case then guns in the hands of shady characters on American streets need not be taken too seriously.

      I suppose disarmament is still a desirable goal, in general terms. But in most situations I don?t think it has a very high priority. Disarming criminals would be good, but gun control, as it is usually considered, does not accomplish that. Disarming dangerous regimes would be good, but can be done only by decisively defeating them first. In any situation I think giving individuals or groups genuine motivation to refrain from using their arms is the more sure path to peace.


October 1, 06

      I did not envision this blog to be a place to post excerpts from other articles on my website, but why not? In reviewing my article "NDSU Math" I came across a discussion of "the box problem". I think the following paragraphs are interesting:

. . . . . . . . For the moment I want to put PBL (problem based learning) together with the idea of ?using technology?, meaning the calculator, and we come up with something like the ?box problem?, more or less as follows:

      A box is to be constructed with a square base, and it must hold 9 cubic feet. The cost of the material for the base is $.20 per square foot. The cost of the material for the sides is $.15 per square foot. The cost of the material for the top is $.10 per square foot. Find the dimensions of the box of minimum cost.

      A problem like this occurs in Chapter One. A problem such as this is likely to occur on several of the tests in the course. One can argue that this makes a lot of sense. It?s the sort of thing that ought to define success in college algebra. It requires students to put together several steps, to translate a problem into an equation (or a function), and then use the calculator to find the minimum of that function, and then to interpret the results. I recognized early in the year that few students seem to be able to do this type of problem successfully. But it was not until the last week of the second semester that I zeroed in in this problem. I was helping a student prepare for the final exam. We had gone over several topics that he asked questions about, and he seemed to understand pretty much what he should understand. Then he said, ?Oh, and what about the box problem? I have trouble with that.?

      This was a reasonably intelligent and diligent student. He was well motivated. Why couldn?t he get it all together for this problem. In helping him with this ?box problem? for perhaps fifteen minutes it became clear that the geometry was not well established in his mind. I explained that if the side of the box has length x and width h , then the area must be xh . His response seemed to be that this was some idea to dredge from distant memory, not something that has been obvious since eighth grade. He had to think a minute to remind himself about the difference between area and perimeter. This surprised me. I thought the basic ideas of area and perimeter of rectangles ought to be obvious to everyone since about the eighth grade. If it is not obvious for this student, does that say something about him, or about the way he was taught math in elementary and junior high school? I don?t know, of course. But it is obvious that if this basic geometry is weak in a person?s mind, then the ?box problem? is not going to be easy.

      Another major part of this problem is translating a written problem to algebraic language, getting an equation in other words. I will have more to say about this in the next section . A third major part of this problem is using a graphing calculator to find the minimum or maximum of a function. This is the only major part of the ?box problem? that is directly taught in this course. Assuming it is new, or relatively new, to most students then it is understandable that it might be a little weak in their minds.

      And then a fourth major part of this problem is interpreting graphs. Finding a minimum makes sense only if one is reasonably fluent in interpreting graphs. I have become aware that this is a weak spot for many students. I would not have expected this. I would have thought that interpreting graphs is normally accomplished by the end of eighth grade by working with bar and line graphs. Then after graphing linear equations in elementary algebra, it should be pretty easy. But it was not for many of my students.

      So out of four major competencies required in this ?box problem?, only one of them, finding the minimum on a calculator, is directly addressed in this course. The other three are considered prerequisite competencies. I will not quarrel with this expectation. It makes sense. Yet very few students could seem to do the box problem, even the third or fourth time they encounter it. I am not sure what to make of this.

September 3, 2006

      The "boss's syndrome" is a phrase that comes to my mind every now and then. It comes to mind when I observe someone being frustrated by others in a certain way. I think it is a useful concept, and a phenomenon that is not uncommon. I will describe the situation that first brought this term, and the idea, to my attention.

      Some years ago I worked part time as a band instrument repairman in a music store. The boss wanted to retire and so he sold the store. The new owner didn't need me, so I decided to get back into piano tuning, something I had done years before. The retiring owner of the store had done piano tuning for a number of years, and was glad to help me take over that activity. However a problem developed. The boss didn't like my pricing strategy. I decided I was going to charge $35 to tune a piano. He had been charging $50. He thought I was cheapening the service. Over a period of a week or so this difference of opinion developed into a major rift between us, and he no longer wanted to help me get into the piano tuning business.

      I stuck to my guns. I was no longer his employee. I was under no obligation at all to do things his way. I was surprised at how hard he took it. He just did not want to accept that I was going to do things my way.

      After some reflection I realized what was going on. For many, many years people had taken the boss's suggestions. It was his prerogative to make decisions. He was the boss because he owned the store. It was his employees' job to carry them out. He was not dictatorial by any means. He was a nice guy. People liked and respected him. He explained why we were doing things the way we were doing them. But for many, many years he was suffering under a delusion, a delusion that we might call the ?boss?s fallacy?. He thought people were taking his suggestions, doing things his way, because of the merits of those ways, and that his explanations and arguments were convincing. That was not the case. They were taking his suggestions because he was the boss.

      Now, suddenly, he was no longer the boss. I was no longer his employee. I didn't have to do things his way, and I had no intention of doing so. I was going to do things my way. This frustrated him a great deal, judging by his reaction.

      This situation happened over ten years ago. Since then there have been a number of times when I would witness frustration on the part of someone whose suggestions were being rejected, and I would strongly suspect that person was suffering from the boss's syndrome. Most of us are very accustomed to making suggestions that are not taken. It is a common occurrence in many areas of life, and we take it in stride. We know that the best of suggestions are often ignored. When a person is surprised, frustrated, and even offended because their suggestions are rejected, then I tend to wonder why. If I then learn that that person has been a boss in the past then things make sense. Of course I cannot be sure, in any particular case, that my interpretation is accurate, but I continue to think the ?boss?s syndrome? is a common phenomenon and a very useful concept.


      August 30, 2006

      I don't know much about American Indian history, or any history for that matter, but at one time I tried to learn a little. One bit of history has always stuck in my mind. I'll describe it briefly, and I hope I'll be forgiven if I get a few details wrong. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail were Sioux leaders, and at one time they made a trip to Washington D. C. This would be sometime in the later 1800's I presume. I'm not sure of the purpose of the trip, whose idea it was, or what it was supposed to accomplish. What I do remember from my reading about it was the different reaction of the two men to what they saw along the way.

      I presume that the trip would be long, perhaps several weeks at a minimum. And I presume it was made mostly by rail, with many stops along the way. The trip allowed the two to get a better view of the world outside their own area. Red Cloud was relatively unimpressed. Spotted Tail was very impressed. Back home in Dakota Territory they would see a few white settlers now and then, and they would see a few hundred soldiers at a time now and then. I expect it was not too hard to believe that this unwelcome incursion by an alien culture could be managed. Perhaps these strange pale people could be persuaded to go elsewhere. Perhaps they could be beaten back by force. Or if they must stick around, perhaps they could be kept in their place, civilized if you will, so that coexistence with them would be tolerable, if not particularly pleasant or welcome.

      But on the trip to D. C. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail would have seen mile after mile of farms and towns as they traveled east. They would have seen concentrations of people that were unknown at home. I expect they would be exposed to technology in some ways, not the least of which would be they train they traveled on. Spotted Tail, as I understand it, quickly became painfully aware that the encrouching white civilization was bigger than had before been imaginable. It was a cultural and political colossus, with dreadful weight and power. Red Cloud, on the other had was unimpressed.

      I can't find my source of this bit of history. And I don't remember the results of this trip. I would assume that Spotted Tail became what we would now call an accomodationist, for the encroaching collossus would have to be accomodated, that much was obvious to Spotted Tail. Red Cloud, apparently, came back with no sense of all this. His world view was as before. His tactics and strategies of dealing with the white encrouchment were unchanged.

      Red Cloud, as I understand it, is the greater hero to the Sioux Indians. What are we to make of all of this? I'm not sure. But I thought it might be worth mentioning.


      August 19, 06

      I once had a brief conversation with a friend about social security. I said that social security consists of three things, and the public mixes them up. The three things are 1) social security contributions are an investment, 2) social security is a form of insurance, and 3) social security is a form of welfare. My point was that by expecting all three things, we are bound to be disappointed in some ways. The three things produce some conflicts. As a society we would do well to think about it and be more specific about just what we do want. My friend worked in social security, and apparently had done so for a number of years. He emphatically insisted that social security is not an investment. I think he thought it was insurance. I think he agreed that there was a welfare component to it, but that was not of much importance to him. I tried to point out that whether or not it really is an investment, people think of it as an investment. He insisted that, no, people do not think of social security as an investment. I argued that at least some people think of it as an investment. He would not even accept that.

      This conversation was some years ago now, but I still think about it now and then. I still maintain that most people think of social security as at least partly an investment. We put money into it. It's our money. Therefore when we get money out we're just getting our own money back. In fact I expect for most people this is the primary meaning of social security. Perhaps most people would accept that it is also a form of insurance and a form of welfare, when it is explained to them, but I don't think that is what they first think of. I can't prove that people think this way. And of course my friend couldn't prove that no one thinks of social security as an investment.

      What was my friends motivation in insisting that no one thinks of social security as an investment? I can only speculate, of course. I did not know this friend very well. But I can imagine that a substantial part of his job is explaining to disappointed and frustrated social security recipients why they are not getting what they hoped for. And I can imagine that a fair amount of this disappointment and frustration arises from the investment perspective. They thought they were investing in social security for all these years, and now feel they are not getting a fair return on that investment. If that is the case then I certainly stick to my contention that as a society we need to think a little harder about just what we want social security to be.


      August 5, 2006

       The news headline today is that the United States and France have agreed to a cease fire in the middle east. My first reaction was almost to laugh. The U.S. and France are not fighting in the middle east. It's Israel and Hezbollah - they're the ones fighting. They're the ones that will have to come to an agreement on a cease fire.

      Of course I know what is meant. I certainly do hope it is good news, that the conflict will soon come to an end. But the way the news is presented, I think, points up part of the problem. Throughout much of my life, it seems to me, most Americans, and probably most Europeans have thought of a middle east peace as attainable simply by getting both sides to talk and hammer out some middle ground that will be acceptable to both parties. By this perspective peace will come through a "process". Both sides will have to compromise. Indeed "land for peace", I believe, has been offered as the essential formula that will someday produce peace.

      In response to this land-for-peace idea I have always asked "How much land, and what land, is the Arab population willing to hand over in exchange for peace?" That, of course, is a joke. That is not what is envisioned. Rather, the idea is that Israel should return to it's pre-1967 borders. Just why pre-19676 borders should be the crux of the deal has never been clear to me. Yes I know about the 67 war. But I also know about the 48 war. Why it is envisioned that only Israel should consider giving up land has never been explained.

      Another part of the "formula for peace" that is often proposed is the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed it seems to be assumed in many quarters that the most important aim of the Palestinian people, and the PLO in particular, is to have their own state.

      Over the years I have concluded that there is one very important factor missing in this scenario. That factor is the simple fact - at least I consider it a simple fact - that the Arab world, or the Islamic world, or both, have always wanted, and always called for, the destruction of Israel.

      But doesn't the Islamic world want peace? Doesn't everyone want peace? Yes, to at least some degree, everyone wants peace. But that is not all there is to it. There is also victory. Sometimes peace and victory are mutually exclusive. That is very often the case in wars. Wars continue so long as each side wants victory more than peace. This is a reality that has to be taken into account.

      So what is "victory" to each side in the present conflict? That is a crucial question. Both Israel and Hezbollah want victory. But what is victory?

      I would argue, and have argued for a number of years, that victory in the Islamic world is defined as the destruction of Israel. This prsents a real problem. Israel will not consent to its own destruction. It has been assumed for many years that Israel has nuclear capabilities. It seems obvious that Israel will use this capability, if need be, before it will lose a war.

      I listen to talk radio when I can, both right wing and left wing talkers. A persistent theme from the right wing is that the media, especially television news, has a left wing bias. I have always felt that the term "bias" is a little too strong. I always thought it was more accurate to say that the national television news has a left-of-center perspective. That is okay. I have a right-of-center perspective, which I think is also okay. People have a right to disagree, to have different interpretations and to come to different conclusions.

      But I think the media have gone overboard for many years on one matter. I think their left wing perspective has led them for decades to misinterpret Palestinian goals. The media seem to have always thought that the most important goal of Palestinians is the establishment of a Palestinian state. Over the years I would now and then hear something different. It would be mentioned once in a while, in one context or another, that the charter of the PLO calls for the destruction of Israel, indeed that Arafat constantly calls for the destruction of Israel, and that in the middle east there are constant calls for Israel's destruction. Yet all we would hear in America that what the Palestinians really want is a state of their own. Then, presumably, all would be peace and harmony.

      Recently the president of Iran has been openly calling for the destruction of Israel. That is a little hard to ignore. I think it is a welcome development in one way. I think it forces the rest of the world to realize what we are up against. I think the only thing new is the lack of diplomacy on the part of Iran. The fundamental problem is not new. The fundamental problem - that the Islamic world wants victory more than peace and victory means the destruction of Israel - is not new. It dates back to 1948.

      A couple of days ago our local newspaper carried a column by James Pinkerton dealing with this problem. He says there is a "fundamental asymetry" in the middle east. The Islamic world wants the destruction of Israel. Israel wants security. I agree with this analysis. I came to this conclusion years ago.

      To me perhaps the most interesting question is why so much of the world is so eager to miss this fundamental point. I link this question to a larger question. Why is it so hard for people to recognize hard realities like this? Why has Marxism and Communism had such an appeal? I don't claim to understand Marxism very much. But I think it is accurate to say that it rests on an unrealistic appraisal of people's ability to work together cooperatively. Why has progressive education had such an appeal to educators throughout the twentieth century? Again I think an important part of the answer is that it has an unrealistic appraisal of people's ability to work together cooperatively. Why has the idea of labor unions remained very attractive to many people in spite of many bits of reality that detract from this attractiveness? Again I have the same answer. We idealize cooperation. We grossly overestimate the possibilities of cooperation. We leave reality behind. We conjure up dreams of teamwork, and think that because these dreams ought to be real, they are real.

      I cannot explain why people cling to an unrealistic appraisal of people's ability to work together cooperatively. I have dealt with what I call "groupiness" in my article "Let's Do It Together" on my website. This doesn't explain groupiness so much as simply give evidence of its existence. This article does not attract many readers, according to my website statistics, but I wish it would. I think it is one of my more important articles.

      July 23, 06

      Perhaps another philosophical idea kids ought to be exposed to (see July 18 blog below) is a theory of value and pricing. What I call the "input theory of value" seems to come to people by default. Oil companies, by this theory, are justified in charging for a gallon of gas only the cost of producing that gas plus a modest profit margin. In the past year gas prices have risen dramatically, but the public feels that the cost of producing a gallon of gas is basically the same as it was a year ago. Therefore the oil companies must be guilty of price gouging.

      But opposed to this "input theory" of pricing is the "free market theory" of pricing. This theory says that if a buyer and a seller can come together on a price without coercion then that is the value. Input costs are irrelevant. By this "free market theory" if I am willing to pay $3 for a gallon of gas, and a gas station is willing to sell it at that price, then that is the "actual value" of a gallon of gas.

      At this point in my explanation many people would only become more convinced that the input theory is better, more valid, than the free market theory. But consider this situation. A neighborhood, I'll call it Edgewood, consists of homes averaging about $100,000 in purchase price. Then a big industry, something like Microsoft perhaps, announces plans to build a big new plant nearby that will employ a large number of very smart and talented employees who will be paid high salaries. Over the next couple of years, in the normal housing turnover, sellers begin to realize big profits. A house that was bought for $100,000 just a few years previously now seems underpriced at $160,000.

      And let me extend this scenario a little bit. Another neighborhood, I'll call it Cityside, had expected for several years to get that big new plant that ended up in Edgewood. So for several years housing prices in Cityside were rising. The houses in Edgewood and the houses in Cityside look very similar in value, and up until recent years were similar in value. Let's say that in Edgewood the Evans family bought a house for $100,000 four years ago, and in Cityside the Cisco family bought a similar house for $130,000 at the same time. Now both the Evans in Edgewood and the Ciscos in Cityside put their houses on the market. The realtor advises the Evans to price their house at $170,000, and advises the Ciscos to price their house at $90,000. What does all this have to say about the input theory of pricing and the free market theory of pricing?

      Is this a question of philosophy, or a question of economics? It seems to me that it is both. It is not just a question of economics. Is this a question that high school kids can benefit from studying and analyzing? I think it is. I think the benefit to them would be great.

      So I?m thinking more and more that philosophy is important.

      July 18, 06

      The other day an idea for an article came to me. It is definitely an article I want to write - someday. It's title will be "Ten Philosophical Ideas Kids Ought To Get In School" or something like that. I can't write the article now because I can't think of ten philosophical ideas that kids ought to get in school. But I can think of one, the one that prompted the idea of teaching philosophy to school kids, and one that I have been painfully aware of most of my life, and others ought to be aware of. That is the idea of "involuntary contract". It is a very simple idea, one that kids can understand. A contract is a set of obligations. Suppose Johnny says to Jane, "Here, have a piece of my candy." Jane accepts. Then a short time later Jane has her own candy and Johnny wants some, but Jane doesn't offer any. So Johnny badgers Jane. "I shared my candy with you. Now you have to share yours with me!"

      A little reflection on this situation, and similar situations, rather quickly leads one to the conclusion that an involuntary contract is never valid, or at least shouldn't be. But if one doesn't go through this analysis one can be taken in by another's false argument. In one of my teaching jobs the faculty had a union. You could join the union and pay dues. Or you could not join the union and the union still got 90% of regular dues automatically taken out of your paycheck. It was explained that the union gives me benefits, and indeed promised to defend me in disputes with the university when needed whether I was a member or not. Therefore, they said, it was right and proper that the union got my money whether I consented or not. The argument was involuntary contract, of course, and I detested it.

      Isn't this concept of involuntary contract a valuable one for kids to learn? I think it is. The world would be a better place if the term "involuntary contract" and the concept were common knowledge. So why not teach it in school? I'm not at all sure what age such an analysis would be most appropriate. I would think fifth grade would be about right, but I don't have much experience to base that on. Perhaps junior high or even high school age would be better.

      It has occurred to me recently that philosophy is important. It should be taught, in some form, throughout school. But my thoughts at the moment are no deeper than that. I don't know philosophy. I don't know why involuntary contract is a philosophical concept, but I think it is. A few years ago I picked up a book on philosophy, a college textbook I believe, and read through most of it. I didn't get too much from it however. Perhaps the book was more about philosophers than philosophy. The ideas associated with different philosophers didn't seem worthwhile to me. So I remain highly ignorant of philosophy.

      Are kids "natural philosophers"? Sometimes in my past I would laugh at such an idea, thinking that kids are anything but natural philosophers. But at other times I would not laugh at the idea. I think it is true that adolescence is a time of life when kids are "trying on ideas" somewhat like they would try on different styles of clothes. One might say they are in a "search for identity". It is an age with a lot of idealism. Often it is stupid idealism. Occasionally it is virulent idealism. Couldn't that idealism, and that search for identity, use some guidance? I think it could. I just don't quite know how.


      July 9, 06

      I have thought for many years that the American system of justice is nothing to be proud of. But how should it be changed? That is no easy question. However two things come to mind.

      I think we need jury reform. How is it possible that twelve people will come to the conclusion that McDonalds Corporation owes a woman four million dollars because she spilled hot coffee in her lap? I think that judgment was reduced on appeal, but I know no details. I have never heard anyone defend that judgment, though I suppose a few people would, but I think they are a very small minority of the general population. My conclusion is that there is something in the American justice system that causes members of that very small minority to somehow get together on a jury. I would have no idea how to get twelve members of that minority together, but I must conclude that smart lawyers do. Therefore I further conclude that lawyers involved in a case should be the last to have anything to say about jury selection.

      So how should juries be selected? I would think a county jury selection board, or something to that effect, would make sense. It would operate something like a draft board. They would sift through names, look into excuses and special circumstances, ask enough questions in order to remove any real misfits, and then write out the roster. The jury for the next trial would simply be the next twelve names on the list.

      I'm sure it couldn't be quite this simple. Nothing in life ever is. But I think in general it would be a much better system than what we have now. The system we have now, I believe, allows lawyers to subvert justice.

      A second conclusion I have come to over the years is that lifetime appointment of Supreme Court justices, and probably a lot of lesser judges, has not worked out. I'm sure it seemed to make a lot of sense when the Constitution was written. The court was supposed to be above politics, I guess. But the result has been bad. Yes, I am indeed one of those people who thinks that judicial activism is out of control. I think I formed that opinion at the time of the Miranda decision, and that was many years ago. I held to that opinion when the death penalty was outlawed, whenever that was. And I hold Row Versus Wade as a classic example of judicial overreaching with a very painful consequence to society at large. I think it polarized the nation, and that polarization has not abated in the many years since 1973. I think it was needless polarization. States, as I understand it, were liberalizing abortion laws in the years before 1973. Without Row Versus Wade, I believe, society would have continued that trend, eventually reaching to the point of abortion on demand as the general de facto result.

      Instead of lifetime appointment, I think we should change the Constitution so that members of the Supreme Court serve a fixed term. I would make it an eight year term, or possibly a ten year term. I don't claim this arrangement would satisfy everyone in every case, but in the long run I think it would be better than what we have now.


      June 30, 06

      What side of the Laffer curve are we on? To me, that has been for many years one of the most important political questions there is. But the general public seems totally unaware of the existence of the Laffer curve, and those who are aware of it don't seem to put the question the way I do.

      Let me explain the Laffer curve as I understand it. I think it is named after a Professor Laffer, though I don't know just who that is. It relates to economics and tax revenues. We start with the simple observation that a higher tax rate, applied to a certain taxable base, will produce more revenue. Thus if everyone paid a tax rate of 10% of income, that would provide twice the revenue as a tax rate of 5%, other things being equal. But of course "other things being equal" seldom applies. Professor Laffer went on to say that beyond a certain minimum, taxes will set into motion various mechanisms that affect the taxable base. That seems like common sense to me. If we set the marginal income tax rate at 95% we can reasonably expect people to take that into account. A tax rate of 100%, we could expect, would produce no revenue. Why should anyone work, or otherwise produce anything, if it is to be all taken by the government?

      A tax rate of 0% produces no revenue, and a tax rate of 100%, at least after a period of adjustment, will also produce no revenue. But a tax rate between those two extremes will produce revenue. So the "curve" starts at zero, goes up to some maximum, and returns to zero. The "curve" is the graph of tax revenue plotted against tax rate, from zero to 100%. It produces the very important question of the location of the maximum. Will a tax rate of 80% produce the maximum revenue? I don't know. It would certainly seem to me that a tax rate that high would severely distort economic decisions. I would expect maximum revenue to be produced at something less than that? Would a tax rate of 50% produce maximum revenue? I don't know. I don't have much experience or training in such matters. I would expect that a tax rate of 50% would cause very substantial distortions on economic decisions. But would those distortions be enough to shrink the taxable base enough to be actually counterproductive? I don't know.

      I remember well being in the ninth grade in a government class learning about taxes. We did not address the issue of maximum revenue. I think it was years later when Professor Laffer brought up the subject, perhaps in the seventies. What I remember from the ninth grade is the difficulty the teacher had in explaining marginal tax rates. She did not use the term "marginal rate" but she could have. But she struggled to explain that if the top tax rate were 90%, you don't have to pay 90% of all your income in taxes. You pay a low rate on the first part of your income, then a higher rate on the excess over that minimum level, then another higher rate on the excess over that second category, and so on. The 90% rate would apply to only very rich people, and it would apply to only a part of their income. Many of my classmates, apparently, had trouble understanding this.

      I remember the figure 90%. I don't know if the actual top rate at that time (1958 or 59) was exactly 90% of just in that range. And I don't remember wondering if such a rate would be counterproductive, though it did impress me as an awfully high rate. I have read that Ronald Reagan also remembers, and that that was one factor that influenced his political thinking.

      I don't know the details, but I think it is basically true that the highest marginal income tax rates declined from about 70% to less than 40% during the Reagan administration. I also think it is of utmost importance that today no one, not even the most wild-eyed dreamer, seriously wants to bring back those high marginal rates. Apparently everyone understands that they are counterproductive.

      The question remains - what is the optimum rate? What tax rate will produce maximum revenue? I've never heard any attempt at an answer to that, though it is of very high importance. In recent years I have begun to suspect that we might still be on the wrong side of the Laffer curve. Fiscal conservatives love to point out that both President Kennedy and President Reagan raised tax revenue by lowering taxes. I think that is basically true, though perhaps it is much more complicated than that. If it is true, it seems to me, then in both cases we were on the wrong side of the Laffer curve. Is it possible we are still on the wrong side of the Laffer curve today? If so then we have everything to gain by lowering the tax rates. There are no trade-offs to be concerned with. We would indeed increase revenues by lowering taxes. If not, then any adjustment to tax rates would involve trade-offs. We would not increase revenue by lowering taxes.

      I expect I'll never know.


      June 25, 06

      Is global warming real? I don't know. For years I have been a skeptic. For years I have thought that if it is real it would take centuries to know. But also for years I have been saying that we can't go on forever burning carbon. I don't like the idea of burning so much carbon that we actually change the composition of the atmosphere.

      And so for years I have been in favor of nuclear energy. I still am. However nuclear energy has some problems. I am not concerned with the objections of many people. To those who say it is evil because it has been used in war I would argue that it ended one big war and prevented more wars. I would also add that gasoline has been used in wars. To those who say it is dangerous I would argue that it is safer than most alternatives. Gasoline, obviously, has a death toll, though I can't quote figures at the moment. To those who say Chernobel proves nuclear energy can't work, I would argue that Chernobel just proves Communism and socialism can't do anything right.

      One problem with nuclear energy is that it can exist only on a large scale. You can make a little gasoline generator that will supply one home with electricity. You can make a little wind turbine that will do the same. But you can't make a little nuclear power plant that will power one home, or one car. And, of course, there is the problem of waste disposal. But I see that as primarily one of politics, not technology.

      Global warming is not the only possibility. There can be other catastrophic climate changes, and I believe there have been. I understand the Sahara shows evidence of a past quite diffrent than the present. And Greenland, I have read, got it's name because it actually was green when it was discovered. And there is evidence that the ice ages, or some ice age, arrived suddenly, on one day, not over centuries.

      Among some of my frends the term "technofix" is used only derisively. They prefer to envision a world in which everyone walks or bikes to work. Some of them, I think prefer to envision a world in which mankind is punished by extinction for having the hubris to think they shouldn't have to walk or bike to work. Call me a nut, but I believe in technofix. I believe in a future in which transportation will continually get cheaper and cheaper, and the impact on the environment will get less and less. I am a fan of the internal combustion engine. To me, gasoline has a happy smell, simply because I associate it with activities of my youth that I enjoyed. But I would argue that common sense and a little imagination tells us that the internal combustion engine will soon be on the way out. It probably won't last more than another half century. It will be obsolete.

      The "green revolution", I believe, has hardly begun. Indeed I think the industrial revolution has hardly begun.

      I hate the high price of gas this last year. But my displeasure is tempered by the belief that it is a good thing in the long run. We won't save cheap gas. And for most of my life, it seems to me, gas has been dirt cheap. We will save expensive gas.

      It will not be in my lifetime that we stop putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But it might possibly be in my lifetime that we turn the corner, that we start putting less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year instead of more.


      June 22, 06

What should a labor union of the 21st century be like? I am no fan of labor unions. During most of my life I have associated unions with an image. That image is real. I have seen it on television, though perhaps not for many years. The image is of strikers throwing rocks at the cars of people trying to cross picket lines to get to work.

      There was a time, I believe, when unions fought for fair play and human dignity. That time, so far as I know, has not been in my lifetime. In my lifetime, or so it appears from what I see on television, unions simply fight for power. And they do not fight fairly. The only legitimate tool of unions is persuasion. Once they start throwing rocks they have exceeded this limit.

      People respond to many ideals. They respond to the ideal of people coming together for their common good. I find I respond to that ideal to a certain extent. It says something in the Constitution about the rights of people to peaceably assemble. That resonates with me. It is important that people can work together to accomplish things that they cannot accomplish individually. So why then have unions lost so much ground in the last fifty years?

      I don't know a whole lot about unions, but I do believe they are stuck in a nineteenth century mindset. A twenty-first century union would start off with a no-strike pledge. Strikes, at least in the modern world, hurt everyone, with the possible exception of a few union bosses.

      Why don't Wal-Mart employees want to unionize? The answer to me seems very simple. The average Wal-Mart employee simply wants to sell his or her labor at the moment. They don't pledge lifelong allegiance to the company. They don't plan a career with Wal-Mart, though some of them will indeed find themselves long term with the company. There is a high turnover, not so much because of the conditions of employment, but because of the individual life conditions of the workers. A union that demands too much, and that might demand the worker join in a strike, is running roughshod over the individual lives of the workers.

      Yes, people ought to be able to come together for their mutual benefit. But a union will be rejected when it expects too much and demands too much, and it should be rejected. Joining the union should be purely voluntary. It should remain purely voluntary. It should do what it can to benefit its members, but as often as not that might mean helping a member move on to a better job. Such a twenty-first century union might or might not have success, but I can't see any future for the usual nineteenth century union. And I don't think it should have any future at all.


      June 18, 06

      If someone were to tell me that they got twenty-eight miles per gallon with a 2005 Dodge Caravan, I would smile, nod politely, and try to change the subject. I wouldn't believe a word of it. I learned long ago that I don't trust people to actually know what gas mileage their cars get. They don't really keep careful records, though they might claim to. However I do keep careful records, and my wife and are getting that kind of mileage.

      The secret is speed. We do most of our traveling on Interstate 94, to and from Fargo, ND. The speed limit is 75. We usually go no more than 55. I think it is true that most of the energy used by a car is for pushing air. It takes a lot less energy to push air out of the way at 55 mph than at even 65 mph. We started going slower about a year ago when gas prices shot up. Our 91 Geo, which had been getting around 33 or 34 mpg at regular highway speeds, was pushing 40 mpg after we slowed down. Our 95 Dodge Caravan showed a similar increase.

      Apparently, and I do not understand this, cars get better gas mileage in the summer than in the winter. I began to suspect this last fall, when the Geo seemed to get lower mileage as the weather got colder. We got our new Caravan in early spring. I was very pleasantly surprised when we seemed to be getting 24 or 25 mpg consistently, a little better than the old 95 Caravan had gotten. In fact we have averaged about 25 mpg over some 5000 miles now. But since late May we are getting about 28.

      I have thought for some years now that modern cars really are better than the older ones. But I have also thought for many years that EPA mileage estimates were exaggerated. I believe it was in the 70's when EPA mileage estimates were first given, and my impression was that real people in real cars got nowhere near the mileage the EPA said they should get. But, as I say, I don't trust people to actually know what mileage they get. I concluded after a few years that nobody really cares. I don't think they care much now. I was disappointed that magazines like Popular Mechanics and Consumer Reports also didn't seem to care. They would quote figures, but were never inspired to challenge the figures.

      I was appalled to learn that the EPA figures, apparently, have never been arrived at by doing actual road tests. But that was never a scandal. The publications that would report EPA estimates and not care about their accuracy, would also now and then devote a paragraph to two to explain that the numbers were arrived at by some formula, not by actual testing. That was just more evidence that nobody really cares much about gas mileage.

      But I am heartened by my figures. Some progress is real.


June 17, 06

      ?Blind into Baghdad? is a phrase that entered my consciousness some months back. It was the title of an article in the Atlantic Monthly. I don?t think I read the article, or if I did I probably didn?t read all of it. But it got me to thinking. Rather quickly I came up with similar phrases, which I think are valuable for perspective.

      blind into marriage

      blind into college

      blind into business

      blind into the military

      blind into North Dakota

      blind into religion

      blind into politics

      People go into marriage, into college, into business, and so on everyday. Do they always go blind into these things? That varies, of course. Many would claim to have a plan. A business plan can be a formal document, but that doesn't mean everything will go according to that plan. A college plan might be almost as formal. A young person might know just what he or she wants and how to pay for it. But that doesn't mean the plan will work.

      How about an "exit strategy"? We often hear that we should have an exit strategy for Iraq before ever going in. I'm not sure that makes any sense. Does one go into marriage with an exit strategy? I didn't. Does one go to college with an exit strategy? Or business? or a new job or a new career?

      I'm all in favor of planning. But in the real world there are limits to any planning.