Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Who's afraid of the college essay?

I've taken a few college classes and I must admit, that what I enjoyed most about college is writing the essays. I loved the research, the writing, organizing the paper and turning in the finished copy, a work of love and hope. I always got great grades on my papers, too. I wrote them before the rise of the Internet and after the advent of the personal computer. Much of what I wrote then was on my computer, which made term papers a breeze. I went to the library for my research back then.

Nowadays, it's much easier to crank out a term paper. The research is easy to do from home, on the Internet. Free software like LibreOffice running on Linux can turn out well formatted, professional grade term papers.

Yet, a casual search for "term paper services" yields a plethora of legitimate businesses that charge a fee for writing a term paper or essay. I can't imagine letting someone else write my papers let alone pay for the service! In a very personal sense, I don't just pay for my education, I do the work and honor the grade I get for my effort.

So it would seem that ghost writing, plagiarism and other forms of cheating are prevalent and increasing in higher education. Even high achievers have been found to be cheating. Maybe it has always been this way, but if cheating in college is increasing, what does that say about our culture?

The conservatives maintain that we should be creating greater opportunities for success rather than guaranteeing outcomes. I agree with this statement. How we get there is something we may disagree upon.

For decades now, conservative action has slowly chipped away at public education funding. From preschool to college, they have worked tirelessly to defund public education everywhere. Why? God only knows. Oh, wait. Maybe they're really unhappy that they have to pay for private school and pay taxes for public schools, too. That might be it, but I think the reason runs deeper than that.

By some estimates, it would cost $62 billion to fund free education for everyone who wanted to go. In a $16 trillion economy, that's peanuts. The entire amount could be funded with a tax on trades in Wall Street, and the tax would go unnoticed by the traders who have enough money that they will never have to work again should they choose to stop.

A free education for all at public colleges guarantees that everyone has an opportunity to get an education and get a decent job with that degree. Whether they will or not is entirely up to the effort they put into it.

Maybe, maybe not. If the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy to begin with, people will start to question even a free education. So can we really expect people to honor a degree if we know that we'll be passed over due to nepotism or a lack of connections?

Worse, what if all the so-called "high achievers" working in high finance cheated in college, had connections to get their jobs and kept all that a secret?

Wealthy conservatives would like us to believe that they got there due to some form of meritocracy. Maybe some did, but it is not likely that all did or even a majority did so. Great wealth is a very tempting incentive to cheat, steal or manipulate a way into a job or position. A young man or woman in a rich family could afford to have a ghost writer for term papers and all the coaching they need to pass exams. They could buy the answers before the exam without anyone else knowing about it.

There is no way to know for sure.

But a free education for all means that everyone gets a shot of at least a degree and a way to show that they know how to do the work in the jobs they are applying for. Could it be that conservative policy is more about creating distance between the wealthy and everyone else rather than opportunity? I'm inclined to think so.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Nepotism. The hidden hand of inequality.

Conventional wisdom tells us that capitalism is by far the best economic system for allocation of resources to consumers. The storied history of capitalism in America speaks to this as America is one of the largest economies in the world. Other countries have modeled their economies on the American economy with varying degrees of success. It is even a fair statement to say that every country that has tried capitalism has fared much better than communism. After the failure of the communist economies of the last century, few could argue with that.

But there is another element to capitalism that conservatives remain fiercely unapologetic for: patrimonial capitalism, and its cousin, nepotism. To put it simply, humans are social creatures and therefore have a strong tendency to put social concerns before rational actions in the market. This tendency gives rise to a phenomenon called "crony capitalism". The existence of crony capitalism proves that the rational actor in the libertarian ideal of the free market is largely a myth. If you don't believe me, take a look at the products lined up for sale at the checkstand of your local chain store supermarket.

For further proof, I direct your attention to an observation made by noted economist, Dean Baker. Baker observed that the stratospheric pay packages for CEOs are a deal between friends. Worse, despite the concerns that Warren Buffet may have about those pay packages, he will not divest those companies with the same ridiculous pay packages simply because "he doesn't want to make waves". Even a billionaire is worried about social concerns before money. Is that rational? Hardly. But it does show that social concerns are powerful enough to prevail over money.

Notice that few if any conservatives are willing to discuss nepotism. Comes now, a book by Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century, a book that squarely nails nepotism and patrimonial capitalism in a way that cannot be ignored by anyone. Paul Krugman argues that the book changes the way we think about capitalism, forever. Krugman also notes that conservatives are having a hard time finding coherent rebuttals in their brains and have resorted to calling Picketty a "socialist" and a "communist". The conservatives are in a panic over Picketty's observation that over the long run, capital will outperform labor, every time.

Someone has written a brief overview of the arguments in the book and the data held out to support it. The summary? The super wealthy cannot support their positions through talent alone. So they hand down their wealth and the knowledge needed to maintain it through network of private, nearly secret schools of training that most other people know nothing about. They too, have a social network that allows them to keep what they have and hand it down. Why all the secrecy?

Genes are selfish. Genes are social. Genes want to preserve themselves and no others. That's just the way it is, isn't it? But not every set of genes has the talent needed to keep the economy running at full employment, now do they? If the history of the 2008 meltdown has taught us anything, it is that the meltdown wasn't due to talent at the top, it was due to a dire lack of it.

The Reagan Revolution led us down this path. The Reagan Revolution extolled the virtues of the market while completely ignoring the tension between capital and labor, those who own the capital and those who work for the owners. The Reagan Revolution ignores the disparity between capital and labor and tries to tell us that in a free market talent will always win. Maybe. But if you don't go to that secret, prestigious little school on the other side of town, you may have talent, but you will be working for someone else, someone who might not have talent. He may just have a very wealthy father with connections.

The Greeks observed that your money is only as valuable as the taxes you pay. Taxes can make money scarcer, harder to come by. When money is harder to come by while you're running your business, you get really interested in talent rather than social connections. Even if your best bud is a great guy and can manage things in a business, if money is tighter due to taxes, you will find someone who can do the job better, won't you? I would. It doesn't matter to me if you're family, black, white, gay, whatever. If you can do the job better than anyone else, I want you on my team. Apparently, that's not the case at the top. Higher taxes on capital is part of the solution, but we need more than that.

The nepotism at the top goes largely unnoticed. It is a secret form of racism that few dare to discuss. But it is there. It is a symptom of something called "Social Class Essentialism". Whoever they are, they think they are better than everyone else. Due to their status at the top, they are untouchable by law enforcement, they often don't go to jail for their crimes, and they certainly don't take responsibility for their mistakes. Just ask Lloyd Blankenfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.

Do we really want these people running our country? Is there anything we can do about it? I don't know yet. I'm looking at solutions that could help and there are many, like mayday.us. The Declaration of Independence makes another important observation, "that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." That makes the fight harder, but if the Founding Fathers could bring about liberty and justice, so can we.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A brief primer on the origins and purpose of the income tax

The economic debate is now clearly abuzz with the publication of Thomas Picketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century. Capital in the 21st Century is now the top selling book on Amazon. What is the draw? Why would anyone want to read a 700-page tome of economic history?

We finally learn, without much doubt, that capital will outperform labor no matter the state of the economy. Picketty shows that capital can reliably produce 5-8% annual returns over long periods of time. In a nutshell, capital will outperform labor every time. We see it now and in the past with 40 years of wage stagnation.

Republicans have been keen to point out that the capitalists are taking all the risks. Really? Which risks are those? The ones where you lose your shirt or the risks where you might lose a few million from your billion? Name a wealthy investor who lost so much money that he was out on the street. Name one.

If you want to talk about risk, talk about people who work for a living and live paycheck to paycheck, risking homelessness, life without access to healthcare or robbery from living outside of a gated community. That's risk.

Paul Krugman has reviewed this book and has very nice things to say about it. It's a long review, so take your time. But there is something very interesting in what Krugman writes. He invokes the term, "patrimonial capitalism". Yes, that is what you think it is. Inherited wealth. We are returning to a time where the captains of industry owe their position due to inheritance not talent.

Consider that more than 30 years have passed between the massive tax cuts of Reagan and the financial collapse of 2008. That's a bit more than a generation, but it was long enough to make the transition from an economy run by talent to an economy run by patrimonial capitalism. That would explain the collapse in 2008 very well to me.

Republicans would have us believe that they want to eliminate the income tax. But they won't tell us that they introduced the first income tax with Abraham Lincoln signing the bill. The first income tax was signed into law to support the Civil War effort. It was a tax laid on interest, rents, royalties and dividends. It was, pure an simple, a tax on capital. The original income tax did not contemplate ordinary income from labor. Perhaps they knew then as we know now, that the real risk is being a laborer, not a capitalist.

Republicans would have us believe that they want to abolish the 16th Amendment, when in fact, they introduced the 16th Amendment in Congress in 1909. The idea was not to get it passed, it was intended as a joke to show that Democrats wanted to soak the rich. Never mind that there were liberals in both parties that wanted to see passage of the amendment. You know, like Teddy Roosevelt.

Republicans will not tell you, however, that abolishing the 16th Amendment would do nothing to change things now. The amendment was intended as a clarification to ensure that the courts knew better the intent of Congress. In Brushaber vs Union Pacific, the Supreme Court determined that the 16th Amendment conferred no new taxing power to Congress, it merely clarified a power it already had. Congress already had the power to tax income before the 16th Amendment. What a surprise. And Republicans call themselves conservative.

It is interesting to note that the court found that "a tax on income derived from property such as interest, dividends, or rents was or should be treated as a direct tax." They were talking about capital. Even the Founding Fathers knew the power of capital and feared it. To them, patrimonial capitalism smelled like royalty - and it still does. The Founders knew that our economy had to be built and maintained by talent, not inheritance.

Look at the wealthy now, not just the millionaires, but the billionaires. They are treated like royalty, not necessarily because they have talent (we know they are royalty because they don't go to jail). If they had talent, we would not have had the financial crisis of 2008. Our economy would be strong and remain strong, like it was in 1955. They have returned us to an economy very much like 1890, with the Robber Barons running the show.

What we have now is an economy built on monopolies, bubbles and trade imbalances that only the wealthy can take advantage of. Believe me, if the wealthy were job creators, we'd have full employment now. But alas, we spent a long time at greater than 6% unemployment and that doesn't count the long-term unemployed who have given up looking for a job.

So you see my dear reader, the entire agenda of the elite, with conservatives in both parties promoting it, is to distract us from the wealth of their benefactors and how it is created and grown. It has nothing to do with creating jobs, but rather, the goal is to create distance between the patrimonial capitalists, the people who want to be treated like royalty, and the rest of us. The income tax was designed at its inception, to prevent anyone from being treated like royalty.

But the capitalists have turned the income tax on its head for their own advantage by creating uncertainty in the laws so that only a legion of lawyers can protect income from taxation. They would prefer instead, that everyone else pay the tax for them with sweat, boredom and time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The economy visualized as an ecosystem 2.0

Carl Sagan is famously quoted as follows, "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception." This is the law in every ecosystem humans have ever investigated and explored. Noam Chomsky has observed that every dominant species lasts about 100,000 years, and we're getting toward the end of that. Everything, it seems, has a beginning and an end.

But there is one ecosystem that seems to defy the principles set out above: the American economy. This is particularly true at the tippy-top. You know, those "too big to fail" businesses like banks?

Once the extent and size of the financial crisis had to be admitted, a fair number of very wealthy people had to admit their mistakes. Worse, they were going to lose a fantastic sum of money in a very public way, unless...

They got the help they wanted. Bailouts by the trillions ensued, saving the banks from the great humiliation and calamity of investing in subprime mortgages that went south for the recession. Lucky for them, and thanks to President Obama, no one went to jail, and no one lost any money except the taxpayer. Where did that money go? Why, offshore, of course.

You just won't see anything like this in the animal kingdom. There is no species so completely dominating that they use up all of their resources. Nor will you find any animal at the top of the food chain hoarding food for themselves at the expense of everyone else. It's not practical and it's not really possible for animals to hoard food the way wealthy people hoard money.

There is something else that would happen if there were a few lions keeping it all to themselves: the other lions would starve. Extinction would be close at hand. An elephant stomping here and there, and the gazelles gang up on the remaining lions to kill them off with some serious goring. That's the end of the hoarding business for the lions in this fictional scenario.

Darwin says that the fittest shall survive, he does not say that the strongest survive, only the fittest. The fittest are those most able to adapt to changes in the environment. As we saw in 2008, the banks were not able to adapt to changes in the environment, changes that they themselves helped to precipitate.

The financial meltdown is the result of a very slow train wreck: a collision of more than 30 years of wage stagnation and a strong dollar abroad, combined with a predatory housing bubble. Somebody lost money in that collision, and it wasn't the top 0.1%. They got their money back and more with help from the government. But no one can honestly say that they adapted to the changing environment...without help from the government.

In Iceland, they let their banks fail, put the unruly bankers in jail, wrote off the debts as much as they could, and got their economy back on sound footing. Their unemployment rate is about 4.2%. The Icelanders saw how unfit the banks were to survive. Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.

Had we allowed our banks to fail, wrote off the debt, and put the unruly bankers in jail, the real capitalists would have swarmed in like sharks to pick up the pieces at fire sale prices. Capital would have been freed up to get the economy moving again. People would have money to spend again. We might be looking at 4% unemployment now instead of almost 7%.

If you're a capitalist and you're at the top, do you really need help from the government? If you own any business and you need help from the government to compete, you're probably not a capitalist, more likely, you're a socialist. Most certainly, you're not a fan of Darwin.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The lesser of two evils

Sometimes, when we vote, we have to choose between what turns our conscience and what turns our stomachs. We may find ourselves facing two candidates that offer very little hope that we will be represented in government.

There is a lot that I like about Obama and I voted for him in 2012 even though I was not happy with the way he has defended the men and women responsible for the meltdown of 2008. I wanted to vote for a third party candidate. But I was afraid that my vote would be needed to keep Mitt Romney out of that office. After seeing the kinds of dirty dealing that Mitt did, I could not stomach the idea of having a predatory capitalist sitting as president.

So we may have to choose the lesser of two evils for president, the Senate and the House. Often we have to do that at the state level, too. Third parties have been marginalized to the point where we don't have a democracy, we have a duocracy, where two parties rule, and sometimes, they rule as one.

Who chooses these candidates? Most of the time, it is not us. Candidates have to raise money for their campaigns. Why go door-to-door when you can just call up a local billionaire to get financial aid for your campaign? This is what we do in Lesterland. The billionaires have the final say about who runs for office and who does well in the primaries. That narrows the field to only the people that the billionaires want for office. Then we get to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Until we get money out of politics, our choices for political office are going to be less than appealing. We will be voting as if we're rich, when we're not. What to do, what to do?

Back in the 90's, I solicited signatures for ballot propositions. You know, that guy that was standing outside of the supermarket, asking for your signature? That was me. I was there, offering you a chance to gain a little bit of influence in politics. In California, it's perfectly legal to do that. In Utah, they don't like uppity citizens trying to decide their own fate, so they don't let citizens propose ballot propositions and get them turned into laws directly. But I digress.

One of the most interesting ballot propositions that I worked on was "None of the Above", or NOTA. I read it, liked it, and signed it myself. What a novel concept. You mean, I can say I think that all of the candidates stink and refuse them all? Sign me up! It was a great concept, except that this particular proposition had one glaring omission: even if NOTA won the election, someone would still be elected to office. Someone could still sit in that seat.

A NOTA option with real teeth would not allow anyone to sit in office unless we could vote for candidates we really liked. No longer would we have to hold our nose and vote for someone who is a little bit better than bad. Better still, NOTA would give the people veto power over the billionaires. Then the billionaires would have to put someone out there that we want to elect for office, if they want someone to govern. Or, they could get out of politics and run a business. It would be nice to have someone running for office that would actually represent everyone, not just the guys at the yacht club.

Imagine...with a "None of the Above" option on the ballot, the people can say "Oh, no you don't!" to the billionaires. Now that is something to think about.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The GOP voter fraud campaign is a ruse

For a few years now, we have seen concerted efforts by the GOP to deal with what they claim to be a voter fraud problem. Never mind that almost every study on the subject of voter fraud shows the problem to be either negligible or non-existent in every place they've cared to look.

What I find most interesting is that the GOP has almost completely ignored the voting machines and tabulation systems in any discussion of fraud in elections. Many of the voting machines in use are made by Diebold, and during the 2004 election cycle, there was some news about the CEO of Diebold promising to deliver the votes to the GOP. I guess the GOP didn't feel like the voting machines were a huge problem then and they sure don't seem all that concerned about them now.

But if I were the one calling for better detection of voter fraud, I wouldn't be looking at the voters. I'd be looking at the voting machines and the tabulation systems that gather votes. In fact, I'd be calling for an open source end to end solution, for vote collection and tabulation. Why?

Computer science researchers often find flaws in our voting machines such as security vulnerabilities, programming errors and seemingly intentional flaws have all been found in our voting machines. Take Diebold for example. Their systems run an embedded version of Windows. As far back as 2006, Princeton University researchers ran tests on Diebold machines to show how easy it is to steal an election.

Diebold has demonstrated significant partisan practices in the past as well, with other executives openly supporting George Bush for his 2004 re-election campaign. It is not likely that Diebold is the only company out there with a vested interest in steering elections their way, the practice may be widespread and bipartisan.

After the 2010 Census, many Republican majorities in state legislatures got busy redistricting their states to their advantage. But that wasn't enough for them, it seems. They have also been working hard to limit voter access to the polls, cutting the number of early voting days available and voting hours and polling places. They have also loosened restrictions on observers at the polls, allowing them to challenge voters at the polling places. Their tactics are well documented with a few examples here, here and here. But if voter fraud is so rare, why is it a problem now?

Considering the rarity of voter fraud, the GOP voter fraud campaign seems more like a ruse to divert attention from a potentially far bigger problem. From what I can gather, all of the voting machines are proprietary - the code is secret, it all runs on Windows in some form or another and it's subject to serious security flaws that have yet to be addressed. Why the GOP (or the Democrats) does not have a laser focus on voting machine integrity is beyond me.

There are several very interesting websites that have reviewed the election process in detail, two of which I'd like to bring to your attention now. First there is Blackboxvoting.org. This is an all-around voting issues website that looks at all aspects of election transparency, including voting machines. It's a great place to get an overview or go into details on any aspect of elections and how they work. Note also that this website looks at elections worldwide.

The second site is Open Source Voting. This site is dedicated to using open source software, machines and open standards to create an accurate, transparent and accountable election system that is not easily susceptible to fraud. This technology is not pie-in-the-sky. It is here now, and has been demonstrated to show how practical it is.

Open source voting may seem like a vague concept, but there are three main benefits that I see here. First, with open source code, anyone can look at the code to see what it actually does. The source code for voting machines and tabulation systems should be open source and available for any citizen to see and to submit improvements if flaws are found. System images used for installing a voting machine operating system and software can be verified by hashing with MD5 or SHA1. What this means is that a signature is created so that each and every machine can be verified to have the same code on disk before and after the election.

Second, open source hardware means that any manufacturer can create the hardware as long as it meets a reference specification. A reference specification is similar to what IBM did with the PC more than 30 years ago. The first PC was built by IBM, but IBM allowed others to create clones by releasing a specification and design that anyone else could follow, build and sell. If all the election machines are based on the same hardware specification, it becomes easy to ensure that all the voting machines required for an election are deployed where they are needed. No need to create 8 hour lines when machines are easy to build, certify and deploy from a variety of manufacturers.

The third benefit is open standards. All machines can be required to generate output that conforms to open standards so that anyone can build the software that produces and reads the information generated by the voters. An example of an open standard is the PDF, the Portable Document Format created by Adobe. To promote the utilization of PDF, Adobe released the specification as an open standard and then Adobe created a committee that manages and publishes the standard. Anyone can write software that creates PDFs, as long as the resulting document conforms to the PDF standard. With open standards, we can avoid the vendor lock-in that vendors like Diebold seek and enjoy when they can get a government hooked on their machines. Using open standards will also make it easier for observers to verify that results are accurate during the entire chain of custody for voting records.

The voter suppression campaign perpetrated by the GOP in Congress and in state legislatures across the country seems designed to misdirect public attention from the problem of election fraud to voter fraud. Simple logic dictates that voter fraud on a massive scale is difficult to organize and execute without detection. But if someone wants to steal an election, gaining control of the voting machines and tabulation software would provide a far greater chance of success without detection, a fact that few politicians are willing to acknowledge on camera.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Throwing money at ideas doesn't make them good

So, the Supreme Court still thinks that money is speech? I see that the Roberts Court has not only repeated this tired idea, but they have strengthened it with language in their ruling to suggest that all campaign finance limits are an infringement of speech. Never mind that Citizens United overturned more than 100 years of jurisprudence already. Early analysis suggests that this is only the beginning of the attack on campaign contribution limits and that many laws will be subject to attack and scrutiny with this ruling.

So lets assume that they're right and that money is speech. The Walton family owns more wealth in this country than the bottom 40%. If money is speech, and they get the laws they want, will they take responsibility when things go wrong?

I have seen first hand, what happens when only a few people get to make the decisions in any group. The outcomes go south for everyone except the proponents of the idea. Consider a contrast in software. Microsoft sells Windows worldwide. Windows is written by a few select programmers within the company. No one gets to see their code outside of the company. Fewer still have any meaningful input into the direction of the development of the software.

Compare that to Linux. Linux is shared code. It runs most of the internet today, the securities exchanges and more than a billion devices worldwide known as smart phones. Anyone who chooses may submit code for use in the Linux Kernel. Every time the code is shared with another person, that person benefits. In terms of the market, Linux has been favored over Windows in almost every sector of the IT industry except a few servers and the typical desktop computer.

Because so many more people had input on the direction of development in Linux than in Windows, Linux can deliver what the people want. The people who manage Windows assume that they know what the people want, but also have their own, pecuniary interests that they hold higher than what the people they serve want.

This is the problem with American politics in general and the latest decision by the Supreme Court. The assumption being made here is that the best ideas will draw the most money. Maybe, maybe not. But if the most money supporting an idea or ideology come from only a few people, with limited experience or exposure to the implementation of those ideas, what incentive do they have to vet the idea to ensure it is sound?

I used to be conservative. I voted for Bush Sr. when I was a young man. I liked Reagan then, too. But after 30 years of watching the middle class slide into oblivion, I've lost my enthusiasm for conservative politics. We have a greater concentration of wealth at the top than many countries which we disdainfully refer to as "banana republics". Most of the conservative pedagogy is really about ideals without much empirical evidence to back it up.

Since Reagan, all I've ever heard from conservatives is that if we lower taxes, more jobs will be created. When the top marginal tax rates dropped to 28% we should have had a boom. We did not. We had a bubble. And another bubble, and another one, each followed by recessions and each became more severe than the last. At the end of the reign Bush Jr., we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. People were losing their houses, losing their retirement, losing their cash flow. The money didn't just disappear. Where did it go? The top 1% got it.

Now that wealth is concentrated in fewer hands than ever before in this country, the billionaires are chomping at the bit to get guys like John Roberts in a position to help them out even more. It's not enough that money can buy the laws needed to concentrate wealth. Now they need courts to affirm those laws just to remind the rest of us that it's too late to save our democracy.

Money is not speech and it will never be. It is time for a constitutional amendment to clarify the matter and Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed one in Congress. Maybe someday, that will become law that the Supreme Court cannot overturn.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Here's something to think about the next time you vote

Could we be living in an oligarchy? An oligarchy is a society where only the super rich have any influence on public policy. Worried about the environment? Nothing is going to happen unless the wealthiest among us are willing to do something about it. Worried about Social Security? Hey, if the wealthy don't need it, it will be cut to ribbons if the oligarchs want to cut it. Consider yourself lucky if you even get anything after paying taxes for it.

Average citizens don't get to decide who runs for office and who wins. We think that the decision was made in an election. The decision of who gets to run and do well in the primaries was made long before the election by the oligarchs. Lawrence Lessig was the first to publish clues about the problem of oligarchy. He says we live in "Lesterland", a place where 0.05% of the people get to decide who runs and wins elections.

A recent study confirms that America is no longer a democracy. The study has conducted a detailed analysis of more than 1700 issues to compare influence of the government by business, individuals and grass roots organizing. The finding? If you're wealthy, and you happen to own a very large business, hey, you're in the club. Set theory says that everyone else is not in the club.

I see our representatives inviting ordinary guys like you and me to come to the town hall when they're in town. I used to have the idea that I could go there and ask a few pointed questions to help influence policy, to let them know that they represent me. But the evidence is growing larger to show, rather decisively, that they don't represent me. The town halls are all for show as far as I'm concerned.

Now I understand why I get these bland, uninspiring letters from Congressmen in reply to my communications with them. They can't do anything for me. Their hands are tied by the people that bankroll their campaigns. Now I see that their Facebook pages are just for show, too. They want us to feel engaged, but they're not really doing anything for us. They're still thinking about their benefactors while they pretend to take average citizens seriously.

We used to be a democracy. Average citizens used to have influence over public policy. We can see it in our history. The civil rights movement is a great example, with people like Rosa Parks. But today, what do we get? Edward Snowden? A contractor who made off with classified data and released it to the media. He has done a great deal to educate us all about how our government thinks about us, so don't get me wrong. But if we want social change, we may have to do better than that.

This is a good reason for high marginal tax rates like what we had in 1955. This is also a good reason for effective taxation of corporations. When the wealthy have real limits on the amount of money they can accumulate, they have real limits on the amount of influence they can impose on government. High taxes can be used to support society, no doubt. Canada, Finland and Norway are fine examples of that. 

I'm not so sure that the high tax rates of the previous century were imposed just to raise revenue. I think their original purpose was to limit the influence of the wealthy over government so that everyone can have a say in how government works. You know, like a democracy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The mental narrative has changed

I have a voice in my head. It talks and makes observations. It has suggestions. It can be angry, happy, sad, and it is the voice I hear in my head all the time. Some people have voices, but they're not here. We're talking about having one voice in the head. Yeah, I have just one.

I've been recalling the voices I've heard over my life, the influences on my thinking and now notice a dramatic shift in the way that I think due to the internet.

I remember the days before the internet. Quiet times were really quiet. It was just me, a great sandwich, a bag of chips and a Coke, all in the shade of the trees at the bottom of Sand Dune Hill. There was no cell phone, no smart phone, no computers. Just thoughts running through my head as I ate my sandwich, my chips and drank my Coke as an adolescent boy.

What ran through my head was everything that I heard from other people in school, what I saw in TV (not that much) and what I read in books (all over my mind). There was no phone to peer at while I'm looking for something to do. I made something to do with my mind. I carried magazines or books around when I wanted something to read. That is what I did before the age of the network.

If I wanted to call someone, I needed a payphone or I had to go home to make the call. I might stop in to see someone on the way home on my bike. I would think while I was riding. I did not play music from a little box connected to a headset. There was no distraction available to take away from the ride, the wind and the moment of riding downhill.

I can recall days when I was kid, where I had truly quiet and peaceful moments. I enjoyed spending time under shade trees at the park, sunsets at the end of the pier on my bike and the thoughts running through my head during long walks alone. I know from that experience that true solitude is hard to attain in the age of the internet.

I can also recall a time that I spent at a yoga retreat on Mount Palomar for a week. It was a great time and I learned a lot about myself while I was there for a week. No phone, no computers, no nothing. Just me and the other people seeking some peace. On one particular day there, we had a no talking day. We made gestures to communicate but said no words. That experience allowed me to empty my mind to find other parts of my mind that I didn't know were there. I had peace.

Now I see myself today, on the internet everyday, reading, writing, texting, watching videos and listening to music. Some of the music I listen to I own, most I do not. There is no DJ blather to muddy my mind. No commercials beating on my brain to tell me what to do. In the morning, I listen to really quiet music and write as I'm writing here. I read for inspiration for articles. I watch videos to learn more about the world I live in.

There is so much information available on the internet now, that I've noticed that it tends to crowd out the personal narrative. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the minutia, the trivia, the facts - whatever. Want to follow the story on Flight MH370? You can do that all day, every day for as long as they still cannot find the plane. Even after they find the plane, CNN will still be analyzing the facts of the story until God knows when.

I like to read on the internet, so don't get me wrong. I enjoy the media that I get to sample every day from the internet. It is a part of our culture. There are some stories that I like to follow in detail, but for every story that I follow, I lose a little bit of my own story.

When we follow all that stuff on the internet, we can lose sight of who we are, where we belong, and where to find peace and quiet. I can only read so many stories, but when my daughter trundles in to see me, I stop what I'm doing and spend time with her. She has her own narrative. She sees me as I really am because there is no distraction available to her so that she can ignore me or make me go away. She reminds me that I am here, not there, on the internet.

It is easy to get lost on the internet, to forget oneself. The internet is a very interesting place, but I wouldn't want to live there. The people in my life remind of where I am, they are a point of reference I can see whenever I'm not looking at a screen. They are the anchor I need to reality, the true source of personal narrative, because they reflect me exactly as I am. Now.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Who does the NSA serve with Heartbleed?

The tech world is abuzz with word of the Heartbleed bug, a bug that makes OpenSSL, the software that makes your shopping safer with Amazon, susceptible to attack. Responses in the media and blogosphere range from outrage and paranoia to "ho-hum, another bug - did you update your computer yet?"

Two sources seem to have confirmed that the NSA has been exploiting the bug for a couple of years since it was introduced, Bloomberg and Wired Magazine. Wired Magazine quotes Bloomberg, but has more details on what the bug is about. This is a server side bug, which means that if the server is configured to use the Heartbeat service for OpenSSL, clients connecting to the server may not have a secure connection if the Heartbeat code is unpatched. Proffered solutions abound.

The NSA has been consistently hunting for and exploiting bugs in software for years in an effort to fight the so-called war on terror. I've heard it said by the NSA that if they save even one life from an act of terrorism, that all of their surveillance is justified. Yet, the NSA and other surveillance agencies are not reporting the bugs they find to anyone, not as far as I know, nor have they suggested that they have any responsibility to do so.

Their attitude suggests that as long as the rest of us are insecure, they can maintain security for the people they serve. So, who exactly do they serve? The 60% of the population that owns 2.5% of the wealth in this country? I submit that they are not serving most of us, that they have a higher interest in mind: the 400 hundred families that own most of the wealth in this country.

Ordinary people like you and me did not vote for candidates for federal office with 24/7 surveillance in mind. We did not elect our government to watch everyone and everything. Some of us are even aware that if the moneyed interests want privacy, oh, they'll have it, at the expense of everyone else.

There will always be bugs in software, even very important software like OpenSSL, the software we've come to rely upon when we're shopping on the internet, sending out business proposals to our clients, or merely sending a job application to an employer. But just because the bug is there doesn't mean security agencies get a free-for-all blank check to read and record everything just because they think they might need it to fight terrorism. Why don't you get a warrant like you're supposed to?

The odds of dying from a terrorist attack are about 20 million to 1. The odds of dying from a natural disaster that is a result of global warming are rising every day, albeit slowly. "Extreme weather" has become a phrase of common usage in the media and in culture. Remember Hurricane Katrina?

The war on terror is about control over energy, people and information. The priorities of the 1% are clear: money and control before the environment. We no longer live in a democracy. We live in an oligarchy. We can talk about where you're going to live, later.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Movie Review: We're Not Broke

I know, it's a couple years late. I've been really busy, so getting a movie in here and there is hard. Fortunately, I figured out how to get Netflix running on my Linux machine and it works great. So, last night, I took some time to watch "We're Not Broke" an interesting historical analysis of the financial meltdown of 2008.

The viewing coincides nicely with a wave of book reviews for "Capital in the Twenty-First Century", by Thomas Piketty. Picketty has shown that the ultimate conclusion of capitalism is a plutocracy, using 200 years of data. The plutocracy has resulted not in capitalism. Capitalism is dead, due to its own hand, and has been replaced with something else. It's an economic system that allows a small fraction of people (the top 0.1%) to accumulate wealth, invest it and hold it, with little to no risk. Dean Baker calls it "The Conservative Nanny State". Whatever it is that we have now, it isn't going to support a democracy.

Allow me to explain. The movie We're Not Broke, demonstrates over and over again, that cutting taxes will not create jobs. There are tax policy experts on the left and the right in the movie who recognize the problem of a system whereby the people who benefit the most from international tax law get influence and access to the people who pass the laws.

In the movie, you'll hear phrases like "transfer pricing", "tax haven", and "repatriation". All of it is about how the richest corporations are hiding their money from the authorities, legally. The authorities know that it is there, but wealthy corporations have teams of lawyers who can hide the money across borders to keep it from being taxed. It is estimated that there is more than $2 trillion hidden offshore. Our esteemed corporate leaders say that if they can have a tax holiday, they will bring that money back home to create jobs and make investments.

The conservative refrain is to cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes. Well, for the last 30 years, we did. How did that work out? The movie goes into gory detail about a natural experiment, the 2004 tax holiday under the Bush administration. The tax holiday temporarily cut the corporate tax from 35% to 5% to allow repatriation of money held offshore.

The results? Shareholders and managers got dividends and bonuses - employees got laid off by the thousands. This is just one tax holiday in a giant game of keep-away, with what was once known as the middle class, in the middle. That was one very expensive experiment, one that former President Bush is quite proud of.

This movie only confirms what I've been seeing and saying: conservative economic policy is not about creating jobs. It's about creating distance and removing risk from investing and holding capital. Consider the rise of monopolies like Comcast, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the wireless giants, AT&T and Verizon. They sprang up after the Reagan Administration to become giants that no one could touch. Their stocks are valuable because they are monopolies, not because they entertain true risk in the ordinary sense of the word "capitalism".

Today, the Huffington Post reports new estimates are that there is somewhere between $22 trillion and $32 trillion sitting in accounts offshore. If you're wondering where the "job creators" went, they went offshore. Too greedy and selfish to support the society they live in, paying taxes is seen as out of fashion by this cabal of billionaires. Never mind crumbling infrastructure, expensive education and healthcare, with few if any national initiatives to improve the country. They're shorting America and taking their profits now, before it's too late.

I know a few capitalists. They don't have access to a team of lawyers that can reduce taxes to zero as do Bank of America, GE, Exxon and a host of other multinational corporations. Since the capitalists I know are not running monopolies, they entertain a certain risk of losing customers, and rising supply costs. Their concern of paying higher taxes is urgent simply because the titans can bend the laws to their will, at the expense of everyone else. If you own a monopoly, you're not a capitalist, you're a plutocrat and you're not interested in a free society, unless its high society that has the freedom.

With that kind of money being siphoned from the economy, we can easily explain the wage stagnation over the last 30 years that precipitated the 2008 meltdown and the recession that followed. "We're Not Broke" is a well though out analysis of the crisis we face today and offers some very interesting solutions to restore the balance of power necessary to support and sustain what makes this country great: democracy.

When everyone has a voice in determining our collective fate, we all prosper. But you won't hear that from the plutocrats.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lunch at the Cheesecake Factory

Last weekend, my wife and I had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, courtesy of a gift card we received sometime ago. I must say, it was a fantastic meal. I had somosas and fettucini alfredo. Alice had soft chicken tacos and a big plate of pasta with marinara sauce topped with some chicken. For desert, we had the Black Out Chocolate Cheesecake. All of it was delicious, all of it well worth experience of eating there.

But the one thing I won't forget about our experience is the size of the portions. They were huge portions. Even the cake was big enough for two. The meal was so big that I didn't even eat dinner that night. Around dinner time, I was still buzzing from all the food that I ate for lunch.

As I sat in a chair at home shortly after the meal, I could feel my stomach working, I could feel the pulse through my hands as my body worked to digest this massive meal. I wasn't hungry and I could feel the urge to take a nap. I think I did take a nap that day.

Upon reflection, I started to think about my other restaurant adventures and noticed a similar pattern. The portions are very large, too large for me, probably too large for most people, but you know, "waste not, want not" is running through our minds, so we eat all of it.

Years ago, I read about a study where college kids were invited to eat a bowl of soup. This was no ordinary bowl of soup. There was nothing special about the soup, but there was something special about the bowl. The bowl would keep filling up from the bottom as the students ate the soup. Another group ate from a different bowl that did not fill up. But they ate until the soup was gone. The conclusion of the study is that most people eat until the food is gone, and won't stop even if they feel full.

These two conditions, portion sizes and the tendency to eat beyond the point where we need no more, could easily explain obesity in America.

I know this tendency in myself. I will eat until the food is gone. So at home, I make sure that the portions are small. If I need more, I can get more later. My wife is like my Mom, they both cook more than we need and often, there are leftovers. No big deal. I don't like the feeling of my stomach working late into the night to digest food. I actually like a little hunger pang so that I know my stomach is getting a rest.

You see, the stomach is a muscle, and it has to work hard to digest food. This takes energy away from other processes that the body will perform to assimilate and rebuild. I make sure that my stomach has time to rest every day. You wouldn't want to do situps all day now, would you? But if you snack all day, your stomach is working all day.

Cooked food also leads to another form of work: enzyme production. Raw food is packed with enzymes that digest food for us. This is what causes fresh food to decay if we leave it out of the refrigerator. Animals use these enzymes to assist with digestion of the food they eat. There is significant documentation on the subject of enzymes, but most of what I know comes from two sources: Enzyme Nutrition, a book by Dr. Edward Howell, and the Wheatgrass Book, by Ann Wigmore. Both of these books are a huge influence in the choices I make when it comes to food.

The easiest food to digest is raw food. Salads, fruits, even raw vegetables, they're all there, ready to eat. Meat is much harder to digest, even when cooked because the enzymes are dead by then. Enzymes are at work in our bodies, 24/7, and they do almost all of the work of keeping us alive. Enzymes mediate every step of metabolism in our bodies. Food that comes with living enzymes makes for light work for our bodies.

You might have heard of caloric restriction as a way to increase lifespan. I think it is a good practice and practice it myself. I eat when I'm hungry and I don't eat when I'm not hungry. Eating is not a sport, it is not recreation. It is something I do to live and live well. You just won't see me in a pie eating contest.

The reason caloric restriction works is not fewer calories consumed, its because your body is not producing enzymes to digest cooked food. As your body produces enzymes, that effort takes away energy for other work that the body needs to do to stay healthy and young.

The next time I go to the Cheesecake Factory, I will probably split the entree with my wife for better sleep. I will also rest easier knowing that my stomach will get some rest before the next meal.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Chromecast review - the media revolution

I finally got one. After weeks of patient and quiet negotiation with my wife, Alice, I got a Chromecast. My wife was worried that, like the Rasberry Pi before it, I would have to buy accessories that would bring the total price up to $100. I won't have to this time.

Chromecast is like a thumbdrive, but it's bigger than that. Chromecast plugs into an HDMI port on your TV and connects to your wireless network to bring your favorite media to your TV.

I had been reading about it for the last few months and my curiosity grew by leaps and bounds over the last few weeks as I learned of an ecosystem that Google is cultivating. The number of applications for Chromecast is growing quickly because Google has created a software development kit to help developers make use of it. This is a revolution in the way we view and listen to media.

Chromecast is a $35 HMDI dongle - for lack of a better word - that turns your TV, any HDMI TV, into a smart TV. It's a little computer that fits in the palm of your hand. I found one for $30 on sale at BestBuy, in the store and there were plenty in stock for sale.

Setting it up is a dream and you do not have to be a nerd to get it done. first, plug it into an open HDMI port. The Chromecast needs power and comes with a USB cable that provides power to it. What is really cool about this is that you can use a power outlet with the provided power adapter, or you can plug the USB cable back into an available USB port on the TV for power.

Then bring up the TV and select the source HDMI port for viewing the Chromecast. If nothing else is powered on, the TV will automatically select the right input. If you have a cable box or a DVD player that is already on, you will have to manually select the right port to view Chromecast.

Once you have Chromecast in view, find any Android phone, tablet or ChromeOS computer and install the Chromecast app. Follow the prompts on the TV to connect to the Chromecast with your device and connect the Chromecast to your wireless network. Once connected, the Chromecast will get the latest updates and reboot. Then you're ready for your first cast.

I started with YouTube and played a few videos just to see how it works. It works well.

I started to get excited about this because I know I can do the same thing with my Samsung DVD player. Yeah. The slow to boot, slow to move anywhere DVD player. Before I got the Chromecast, I could "cast" videos to my DVD player. This was nice because moving around in the DVD player was slow and clunky. I hated it. Using the phone gave me much more freedom and latitude to get to where I wanted to go. The phone is the remote control for the Chromecast. Or you could use a tablet to do the same thing.

But there is another problem with the DVD player, and this applies with almost any DVD player that has some smarts built in. The DVD player manufacturers are in the hardware business, not the software business. They have little incentive to keep their devices up to date. They can use slower hardware and still get the job done, but maybe not as fast as consumers would like.

Google is in the search business. They want people to use their products because when people use Google, advertisers find customers. Google uses software to make the search business work. But Google isn't content with just the PC, and they know who rules the PC for now: Microsoft. So Google went around Microsft and put Android on phones and tablets that could connect to media, cause you know, people like to watch media on any screen they can find. Android is the locomotive that punched a massive hole right through Microsoft's business.

Google has every incentive to make their hardware fast. The Chromecast boots up fast. It found updates on the first boot on my TV. The Chromecast is just getting going and I expect it to evolve quickly into the tool of choice for accessing media on big screens.

So far, I've used Chromecast for Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, Google Play (to access my own music collection in the cloud) and my pictures. In each case, my user experience faster and easier than using the DVD player. Notice that I didn't mention Hulu yet. I won't bother with Hulu because the amount of advertising shown for a "one hour" episode is beyond irritating, it's nauseating. So far, the top 4 remain a great experience and they're even better on Chromecast.

Pandora has made their Chromecast version easy to read, easy to navigate, easy to listen to. Netflix runs pretty much the same way as the DVD player runs, but the phone is the remote control, so it's easier to find movies you want to watch, but maybe a bit more effort to pause, play, and so on. Note that with all media, when the screen is locked on the phone, you can still pause or play without unlocking the phone. Very cool.

I can already see very interesting uses for Google Chromecast. Here's an example. I'm on vacation in a hotel. I'd like to take some downtime after some fun on the slopes and watch the videos we made today with the kids. Why watch videos on a laptop or an itty-bitty phone screen when we have Chromecast? We can use the hotel TV to see what we want to see. We don't have to be content with the advertising laden content provided by the hotel.

When I'm visiting with Mom in California, I can use Chromecast to send pictures of of our kids to her TV while we are there. I can play videos on the TV without any other cables. We can put on Pandora while we're there. Chromecast can go anywhere there is an HDMI TV.

There is even a business case for using Chromecast. You want to make a presentation in your client's boardroom? No problem. You can use Chromecast to receive a presentation of slides from your phone, tablet or Chromebook. You could even use Chrome on your windows machine to make the presentation. But do you really want to risk a blue screen of death in front of a big customer?

These are early days, but I can see the momentum building for Chromecast. Chromecast will make cable TV irrelevant. Chromecast makes TV personal, portable and convenient. The revolution has begun, so grab a bag of popcorn, sit back and watch.