Thursday, April 16, 2015

A funny thing happened to me on the way to sleep

I was up very late last night working with my two-year old Emily, trying to find some way to help her find sleep. My wife and I have tried all manner of encouragement and discouragement to get her to sleep but nothing seemed to work. There is simply no such thing as negotiating with a two-year old. There is only the art of distraction.

I've fit a few pieces together. First, she needs a bath and she needs that bath at the same time every day. So I will give her a bath every day, on time at the same time. Kids need and like that sort of routine. I find bathtime very satisfying as she tends to lose herself in the toys in the bath and she likes to get her hair washed. She knows how to have fun and enjoys sharing it with my wife and I. My wife and I have agreed that I am the designated bath giver while she tends to my second born at just 4 months, Natalie.

Baths are nice, but there is something else that must happen. She must get into some relaxing activity after the bath, an activity that is conducive to sleep. The fact that she took an unusual 3 hour nap yesterday did not help matters much and as a result, I found us both up beyond midnight trying to find an answer for her to get to sleep. That is more a problem of rhythm than of mental state.

She had that nap because the night before last, she put up a mighty struggle not to sleep. Again, we tried everything we could think of and it wasn't until later, that I figured out that if we give her a reason to resist, she will resist. So I found a distraction from the resistance - drawing - that works because she loves to draw. Well, it's not really drawing, it's more like putting pen to page to make a mark. But she's fascinated by that and she will immediately forget everything if she can draw. Then I found a way to get her in my arms so that I could carry her. She was tired and needed sleep, but something in her mind said no sleep, probably because that would mean, well, I don't know what that means to her. Once in my arms, I began to walk around and sing to her and sure enough, she was asleep. That was two nights ago.

Last night was different. She had a long nap that day and that had created a tremendous reserve. One thing she really needs is preschool so she can expend her energy playing with other kids, but that's another article. I tried all manner of distraction from the notion of sleep to get her on activities that would be conducive to sleep and nothing worked. Drawing, playing, singing, reading picture books, etc. No luck.

But then an idea occurred to me. I remembered my days working as an IT technician at a retirement home. I remembered how I had to sit in the weekly early afternoon staff meeting. The meeting was filled with nurses and executive staff, almost all of them women. I remembered how the drone of their voices put me to sleep. It was no secret that I tended to fall asleep at the staff meetings, and that I somehow, as if by magic, managed a coherent, wakeful and often humorous response when my turn came to speak. The fact that the meeting was right after lunch didn't help. While my stomach was working, sleep seemed like such a wonderful idea. The drone of female voices going on and on about stuff that had nothing do with me in a quiet meeting only served to tip me over into sleep.

So last night, having gone through as many options as I could think of, I seized on a big book of fairy tales. It was pretty and colorful. But the text was dense and each page took about a minute or two to read. Emily seemed to enjoy the reading as she sat patiently by my side on the couch. I knew that her speedy little brain would work hard to process those words and figure out what they mean. The brain uses ten times more energy than any other organ in the body, so all this very busy processing would help to land my toddler to sleep.

Sure enough, while reading three stories the spoken words became a sort of droning sound as my little girl was unable to keep up. I kid you not, the beating rhythm of voices on my ears will put me to sleep, so I'm sure that is what worked for her. I noticed with the conclusion of each story, how she became more and more relaxed. How she slowly slumped down next to me on the couch. It was truly satisfying to see that just reading these classic fairy tales could help her to fall asleep.

Raising children is not easy (understatement!), and with each passing day, I have newfound respect for my peers who have gone before me, their kids already grown up or well on the way. Reading is one of the most important activities I can do for my kids. It is the one thing I want to be sure they learn how to do, so I am setting the example, early. It is a great relief to learn that reading to my kids can be so conducive to sleep. It is such a surprise to me that the big picture books are not as conducive to sleep as books that require more reading than page flipping, though that does make sense now that I think about it. 

It's early days, so I will post an update sometime in the near future on the topic of sleep for kids. If you have kids, your comments are most welcome.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Eliminate the electoral college.

Some people have noticed that Democrats got the popular vote in 2012, but somehow, Republicans managed majorities in both houses of Congress. This has been verified by Politifact. At the same time, Barack Obama was re-elected. Republicans are so unhappy about this that at least Michigan, there is a proposal floating around to change the rules so that Republicans have a better chance to nail the trifecta: House, Senate and President.

Through the wonder of computers, various groups have tallied the votes for Congress and the president and they arrive at pretty much the same conclusion: in 2010, Republicans used their newfound majorities in the state houses to draw districts that would favor their party. Another way of putting it is that Republicans drew districts that would disenfranchise Democrats in their states by splitting their votes. This can leave us with the somewhat uncomfortable condition of having one party in Congress butting heads with the President in the White House.

There is some talk of reform of the Electoral College. I'm not even sure that reform is possible since it was designed from the beginning, to prevent the common man from having a say in presidential elections. As Dave Stewart of US News and World Reports describes it:
"The presidential elector system is an anachronistic vestige of aristocratic attitudes, both undemocratic and easily manipulated. Its survival until 2013 reflects the power of inertia and founder worship. We should change it."
Mr. Stewart offers this tidbit to show the attitudes of 1787 when the Electoral College was created:
"According to George Mason of Virginia, popular elections were the equivalent of asking a blind man to choose between colors."
He goes on to note that times have changed. Most men and women are not so isolated. News travels in seconds rather than days. Literacy is universal. There is no reason that the president cannot be elected by popular vote. Eliminating the the Electoral College would also eliminate the gamesmanship that goes on with the laws regarding how electors are awarded.

Such a plan would create an effective check on gerrymandering. No matter how the districts are crafted, there would be no way around the popular vote, ensuring that a president willing to veto will provide the check on power in Congress we so badly need now. Imagine what life would be like if we had a Republican President in tow with a Tea Party Congress. Why, they'd make every department of government miserable except for the Department of Defense. What's not to love in the DOD?

I can't see a better way to turn the country around. Congressional districts look more like sprawling amoebas with each census. Requiring a popular vote for president will go a long way to reducing the temptation to gerrymander districts. Without an Electoral College to manipulate, a minority party backed by an even smaller, very wealthy minority, just might have to listen to everyone else when writing laws that determine our collective fate.

If we're lucky, the elimination of the Electoral College might happen sooner than we expected.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It's about ideas not us and them

This article is intended to clarify a certain perspective in my blog. It is in response to a comment I received yesterday about how as long as the debate is framed as "my team is better than your team", nothing will change. There is merit to that perspective and today, I would like to explore that with you, dear reader. You can see the comment at the bottom of my blog post from yesterday.

To begin, I don't hate people. I really don't. I recognize that they are human beings and that they are prone to error, just like me. I wouldn't want to be hated because I made a mistake, so I treat everyone as I would want to be treated.

In political discourse, for people I might term as "the adversary", I don't hate them, either. I just don't like what they do. I try to convey the sense that it's not the group that is the problem, it is the ideas they sometimes promote. In yesterday's post, I failed to make that clear. A bad idea is a bad idea, no matter who the proponent happens to be.

For example, in general, I like President Obama. He's done great work with getting Obamacare passed and that law is saving money for the taxpayers. The CBO has consistently revised estimates of health care spending down since the enactment of Obamacare. Millions of people now have access to health insurance where there was none before. And the law has survived many attacks in court, even with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. We can be sure that the law will be under attack for quite some time until "the adversaries" see that gutting Obamacare will cost them more than they wish to pay.

On the other hand, Obama has been in an apparently mindless pursuit of two very important treaties on trade, each between many countries including the US. The problem with these treaties, the TTIP and the TPP, is that they claim to be "free trade" deals when the trade barriers are already very low. The only possible explanation for all of the support for them is that they are essentially massive power grabs for large, very well established corporations. We can infer this by noting who gets access to the texts and who attends the negotiations. Ordinary people, in general, are not stakeholders at these negotiations since they do not attend these meetings.

Do I hate Obama for his unwitting support of these deals? No. But I certainly let him know my opposition to them on Twitter and wherever the subject comes up. Those two treaties are, from what I have gathered so far, very bad ideas for everyone except for the wealthiest among us.

Yesterday, I wrote in detail about my concerns regarding a desire for unchecked power by a certain faction that is well known as "conservatives". In yesterday's blog, I used that term as shorthand for "people who love Reagan and the Laffer Curve", but that post isn't to say I hate the people who support the ideas espoused by Reagan and Arthur Laffer. Politicians can be very personable and charming - that's part of how they get the job in Congress. I might even enjoy a conversation with any of them, even if I disagree with their politics. I may disagree with their ideas, but I most certainly don't hate them.

There are some great ideas that are supported by conservatives. In Colorado, they shine like bright stars doing good things. Colorado legalized marijuana and they now have a thriving new sector of the economy that is generating tax revenue. They are reducing the possibility of a pointless prison term for thousands of people who may do no more harm than spend more time eating Doritos and staring at light bulbs. They are getting mellow.

Conservatives in Colorado did something else in at least 8 different communities. They asserted local control from the state government over local choices in broadband. Some did so in referendums where local control received better than 90% of the vote. Those communities can now plow millions of dollars into a fiber network for their small conservative towns that will provide a great boost for their local economy. Fiber networks offering gigabit access to the internet at reasonable prices for everyone in town are a great idea no matter who proposes it. It's called "Community Broadband" and the majority of community broadband networks are in conservative jurisdictions.

Despite the disdain we hear from conservatives in Congress about how expensive infrastructure is, here in Utah, a Red State, cone zones are everywhere. Hardly a day passes that I don't pass some sort of road work as I go to work or to run some errand. I love to see this because I know that when those guys put the shovels down at the end of the day, they will spend money. Here, in Utah.

There was a time when I was afraid of government. During that time, my occupation was to gather documents from the government with the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act. My requests were mostly directed at the Internal Revenue Service and the Franchise Tax Board in California. It was a very interesting experience for that work taught me more about government than any history or social studies classes have ever taught me. I learned how to use the FOIA and the PA in a little workshop and became a big fan of the Sunshine laws. One thing I learned in that workshop is to be nice to the disclosure officer so that he doesn't round file my request.

During that period of my life, I got to know disclosure officers in two agencies. I began to see that they are people, too. They just want to go to bed at night, knowing that they did the right thing. They're like me. They need air, water, food and space. They need love. They need to know that they're a part of larger group, something we call, "society".

From that point on, I was no longer afraid of government, and therefore, and I'm not even sure if I could say that I hated the government. I simply had a mild distaste for government. But working with the disclosure officers I met during that time really changed my perspective. People in government choose public service for a reason. They seem to believe that working in government is the best thing they can for themselves and us, the people they work for. This is true for conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. I'm not a cynic, I just don't like bad ideas.

The subtext of everything that I say on this blog in a political sense, is that I am more concerned with a bad idea than bad people. Conservatives are not bad people. There are no bad people. Supremely confused people abound and sometimes, we see them on Meet The Press. But they are not bad people and they don't deserve to be hated.

Any ideas, from any source, conservative, liberal, Republican or Democrat, must have supporting evidence to show that it works. In economics, the record has been clear: Democrat presidents tend to fare much better than Republican presidents. There may be disagreement on whether this is true or not between conservatives and liberals, but there will always be facts. The record has shown pretty clearly, at least to me, that liberal economic policy works.

A good idea is a good idea, no matter what the source. Supply side economics is not in the set known as good ideas. There is simply no empirical support to show that it works. Fortunately, the people who support supply side economics are not bad people. Confused perhaps, but not bad. There is no "us and them", there is only us. Some of us have the facts, and some do not. The question we must answer is how to live together when we disagree?

Can we all admit that there is no "us and them" and work together to solve the problems that face us all without seeking an advantage over someone else? I remain hopeful that we can.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Conservatives claim they are going to kick some liberal ass in 2016

Conservatives are girding their loins for 2016. They claim they are going to prevail. But first a "real conservative" will have to run for president and get nominated. Then that guy has to win the election. You can find it here, on Google+ and a few other places around the internet if you do some searching. Yet, they seem to be missing some pertinent facts that do not support their chances of winning the next presidential election - and still be able to claim a consensus.

In the last mid-term election, voter turnout was at the lowest since WWII. Voter turnout has been on the decline and that trend has been persistent over the last 30 years The trend is exacerbated by successful efforts to reduce voter turnout further still. Voter ID laws are the most recent example, despite the lack of any serious evidence of voter fraud.

Now the Huffington Post reports that some Republicans are proposing changes to the way the Electoral College works in the state of Michigan. They'd like to add a sense of proportion to the way the electoral votes are tallied up instead of winner take all as it was before. The new plan isn't without criticism, but in a state that has been carried by every Democrat running for president since 1992, Republicans would like to improve their odds by giving at least some of their electoral votes to a Republican even if the popular vote says "Democrat". The website nails the tactic as follows: "The only rationale for the new method: It would help Republicans."

So if conservatives are so confident that their ideas have any merit, why mess with the Electoral College? Why institute voter ID laws when instances of voter fraud are so hard to find? Why work so hard to draw and get approved contorted districts that splinter the Democrat vote? Oh, wait. They don't want the dummies...I mean, Democrats, to vote.

Want to know why turnout has been decreasing steadily over the last 30 years? The average person has no influence on public policy. How did this happen? The right of nomination has been stolen from the vast majority of Americans by about 132 of the wealthiest people in this country. You know, the "relevant funders". See for more info on this topic.

It would seem to me that so-called "conservatives" would prefer that their power remain unchecked. Gerrymandering, voter ID laws, Supreme Court rulings that say "money is speech" are all ways to sideline or mute the voice of the opposing party. How can anyone claim victory over an opponent so hopelessly defanged? As long as voter turnout goes down, Republican prospects go up. Is that what they call "political capital"? Do you know what happens when a large fraction of the population feels disenfranchised? You get protests.

It is generally acknowledge that when the economy does well, the first term president is elected to office again. We saw this with Reagan, yet so few remember that his tax policies didn't do all that much to help the economy, you can thank the Federal Reserve for that. We saw that with Clinton. With Obama, he was the underdog, raising the Titanic from the wreck left by those who still believe in the Laffer Curve, and he still got re-elected.

Remember those guys? You know, the people in the Bush Administration so anxious to bail out the banks? Remember how the banks said they were going to put a gun to their head and pull the trigger unless they got bailed out? Republicans know that on a national level, their economic policies haven't worked so well. They've managed to gerrymander their way to majorities in many statehouses and a majority in both houses of Congress. But the trifecta, House, Senate and the White House, eludes them still. If they could just get all three and hold them still for 8 years, they could finally prove that their economic policies actually work.

But they don't. We see that in Governor Brownback's Kansas and we see that in Christie's New Jersey. Both states are hopelessly lost in this recovery. So if they change the rules for the electoral college, then maybe the Republicans can get down to business and prove their point. Their best shot at 2016 is to show that Clinton is not really the populist she will try to make herself out to be. That all that Wall Street backing she has received will limit her ability to truly help the middle class.

Even if the Republicans win the White House in 2016, they will be unable to make a convincing claim of anything resembling a consensus, much less a victory, if the voter turnout is low. If the voter turnout is low, will they still claim they kicked liberal ass if they win the presidency?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Neoliberals miss something in all that math: the market is not rational

NakedCapitalism has an interesting piece by Ed Walker titled, "Why the Claims Neoliberals Make About Markets Are Wrong". It's an interesting overview of the claims made by neoliberals concerning the ways in which markets work to allocate resources. The article shows that neoliberals (that's "conservative/libertarian" to most of us), are doing a lot of work but unable to show how their math adds up.

The article also makes an interesting point. If markets are so rational, who gets the good stuff? The wealthy. They get the clean air, water and food. Everyone else? Well, they don't unless they organize politically to get what they want.

After reading the article, I realized that many economists seem to think of people like widgets. You know, something that can be approximated by a number, something that has a known and predictable behavior. Something approaching rationality.

But that is an assumption. Markets are not rational. If you don't believe me, try reviewing the hidden, unregulated market of credit default swaps prior to the collapse of the housing bubble. Because the market was hidden, with no true third party accounting of who had the liability or the assets, there was no way to allocate resources in the market. So when it came time to sell the assets, or pay for the liabilities, no one could figure out what to do except sell, sell, sell.

From water privatization to internet access, from the bankruptcy of Orange County to the dot com bubble collapse, we can prove that the market is not rational. It's easy. Americans spend $100 billion a year on illicit drugs. Have you ever seen anyone on drugs make a rational decision? 70% of Americans use prescription drugs, often advertised on TV. Is that rational? There is a huge fast food business in America that doesn't even sell food, they sell something that is an approximation of food. I see people waiting in line to buy it for breakfast before work as I drive to work eating an apple. Is that rational?

I could go on. The point is, there is no way to assume that the market is rational. The market is good for allocating luxuries. We need government to help allocate resources that everyone needs. That's why water, sewer and electricity have been successfully managed for decades as public utilities. That's why commodities are sold and bought in places like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

I want to put one more idea out there for you to consider: the market cannot be rational without transparency. If you don't know what's going on in the market, you have no way of knowing what price the market will bear for what you are buying or selling. Therefore, you cannot make a rational allocation of resources.

Most of our markets are not transparent. Take the labor market for example. Employers will not tell you the salary range for a job. "Everyone is different, so we cannot tell you how much you will earn in this position." Employers often prohibit the sharing of salary information to prevent comparisons and jealousy. But that very policy prevents people from making a rational decision about what to ask for in negotiations for salary. It's why women often make less money than men at the workplace. That lack of transparency provides the opportunity for discrimination.

When a market is transparent, all participants can review the data to make an informed decision about how to respond to market conditions. They can make a rational decision about how to allocate resources. Making markets transparent is the only way to ensure a rational market. But it's not a guarantee that the market will be rational.

Without transparency, the market is guaranteed not to be rational. Since most American markets are not transparent, there is little hope of a rational allocation of resources. That's why we need government to act as a third party arbiter of transactions to at least bring some semblance of fairness and accountability to society.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Ironically, regulation brings freedom

Time Magazine is running an interesting story about the impact of marijuana legalization in the US upon the profits of the drug cartels. Sales of recreational and medical marijuana have hit $2.7 billion in 2014 and projections suggest sales will top $4 billion by 2016. They have also noticed that violence in Mexico has taken a dive, but not all of the that decline can be attributed to legal marijuana sales and that is not what this article is about. But it is somewhat positive news to see that the violence in Mexico is on the decline.

The Time Magazine article presents a certain irony: consumers of marijuana prefer the regulated, tax-paying sources rather than the unregulated black market sources.

Clearly, the consumers want to know what is in the product, they want to know that they're not financing violence and they want to be able to show that they purchased it legally, without fear of going to jail. The takeaway I get from the article is that indeed, a little bit of regulation can lead to freedom in life.

There is another point to this post. Even if the government didn't step in to regulate, the cartels would do the regulating, but with a far heavier hand and response to errors. In the regulated, transparent world of legalized marijuana, you don't die for botching a deal. You do better next time. In the "free market" world of the cartels, every move is scrutinized and every mistake carries a very painful penalty. So, even in the "free market" there is regulation.

This is probably something that free market proponents don't want you to notice. Promoters of free markets like to pretend that the market is rational, pure, unfettered and free to make the best choices for the consumer. What they don't tell you is that having a 3rd party arbiter, a regulator, to observe each transaction, provides a forum for conflict resolution that you won't find with the cartels. Where the cartels use force as the first resort, regulators use diplomacy.

Creating a taxable, transparent market in marijuana has another benefit. Like guns, we know that if guns are banned, the only people getting guns are the criminals. But if we regulate the market, keep records and create forums for conflict resolution, we know who has the guns and the pot. But we don't arrest them just for the purchase, we just keep track of what is going on for the safety of all.

Contrast the American legal marijuana scene with the unregulated market of credit default swaps before the collapse of the housing bubble. Yes, I know this is an unusual segue, but it makes my point. Various entities had bet against each other in the years leading up to the collapse. Some bought credit default swaps, some bought insurance against them. Some were betting against the homeowner, and some were not. Either way, the market was almost completely unregulated with no accountability. No one knew who had what, so when time came to lay the cards down, some of the biggest finance firms in the country folded. Some others sought government protection for a bailout.

This is the point about regulation and the free markets. The regulation of a market can actually make it free, up to a point. If the transactional cost of regulation is too high, the market will not move, and black markets are created. If the transactional costs are low, then more people are willing to participate and that allows capital and products to move. The market adjusts to the regulation and finds a way to make a profit. Everyone is happy.

So when someone comes to you with a proposal for a free market or a "free trade agreement", remind them that the market isn't rational. The drug cartels and finance firms like Goldman Sachs and HSBC know this, too. They just won't admit it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Accountability is the subtext of the inequality debate

The liberal progressive faces an uphill battle in these neoliberal times. They face campaigns in a Congress filled with safe seats. They face an army of paid political mercenaries intent on securing from themselves and their employers an impermeable dominance. They face the scorn of so-called free market agitators with labels like "socialist", "communist" and "moocher".

Yes, the conservative right has been careful to set the scope of debate. They are happy to debate the merits of inequality. They will happily claim that the lust for money only increases the desire of one to innovate and create jobs, despite the evidence to the contrary so plain to see over the last 30 years.

When Elizabeth Warren takes the podium in the Senate and fires off another populist speech, does anyone give a rebuttal to her claims? I think that if someone did, it would be news.

Warren has been beating the drum of inequality since she landed in the Senate after defeating Scott Brown. She has not only shared her views on the problem of inequality of opportunity. She has also been brazen enough to talk about accountability to the point that Wall Street executives have openly discussed withholding campaign funds from Democrats. They seem to think that if they withhold campaign funds from Democrats that peer pressure will prevail upon Warren to simmer down. That didn't happen.

The subtext of this entire debate is accountability. Bankers who robosigned loans before the housing bubble collapse did not even see a judge. Insurance companies that denied health insurance due to pre-existing conditions or jack up rates just to build opposition to Obamacare did not go to jail. Oil men who leave a vast polluted and destroyed landscape after fracking get a check, not a cellmate. Between bankers, insurance and energy, we have a tag team working the country into a froth. Clearly, these are mistakes of a huge proportion. Did we learn from them? Yes, everyone learned from them except the men who perpetrated them. They are not held accountable.

When raising children, we are quick to hold them accountable for their errors. At first, it's just a mistake so we show them the way. But if they continue as before, without following instruction, then we try punishment to curb the errors. Parents can hold children accountable because of their power.

An alcoholic parent cannot be held accountable by his child. The child cannot make a parent responsible when he's passed out on the couch. When she comes home late. When he forgets to attend the baseball game. When she brings McDonalds home for dinner. When he crashes the car. Other people make the parent accountable because they equal in size and power. They can arrest the errant parent.

Our financial sector, bigger than ever before, is too big to fail, too big to jail. Same goes for the oil, gas and coal industries. Energy, banking and health insurance are all divided by a few really big monopolies. Executives working for those industries pull down tens of millions of dollars a year. Very large corporations can now plow millions into a political campaign, and a million is just chump change when the gross income of a company runs into the billions. This explains why the wealthiest corporations pay very little income tax.

Our public policy at the national and often, the state levels, is dictated by the top 1%. Unlimited campaign contributions find their way to the office holder with no transparency. So when a very large donor makes an error that costs millions of people their jobs, houses or livelihood, it only takes money to make it all go away. We saw this with Wall Street in 2008.

This is the point of progressive taxation. It's not just about inequality of opportunity. It's about inequality of accountability. A CEO making 300x that of his employee cannot be held accountable by the latter. If such a CEO has connections, then he can always avoid accountability. The employee cannot. Progressive taxation helps to level the playing field so that we hold each other accountable for our errors.

A little accountability can go a long way towards better citizens and a better country.