Friday, August 29, 2014

Labor Day rolls around in a Right to Work state

We are about to enjoy a nice Labor Day weekend, something that came about as a result of union activism and representation. Unions have done more for the working class than any other social movement, with gifts like the 40 hour week, overtime, and observed holidays, you know, like Labor Day.

I find this ironic since I live in a "Right To Work" state. A right to work state is one where I have a right to work any place I want to work so long as I have an agreement with the employer. The right to work includes the right to work in a union shop, with all union negotiated benefits, without having to pay for them if I don't want to pay for them.

Many states, such as Utah, have so-called "Right to Work" laws. Upon reading the laws for this state, I see that the state has declared activities such as boycotts, work stoppages and picketing to be illegal if they are used to compel anyone to violate the Right to Work law. Essentially, the government has intervened in the market in favor of employers to weaken bargaining rights of employees.

To put it differently, when men and women assemble to form a union and act in concert to negotiate for better working conditions or higher pay, any act they do in concert is illegal. Picketing is a peaceful activity to the extent that no violence is perpetrated and people are allowed to pass through, but the state declares picketing to be illegal. Boycotts are peaceful actions in and of themselves, but the state declares that to be illegal, too. Work stoppages are peaceful and workers are not expecting to get paid for that time off, and that is illegal as well. Yet, the government intervenes to prevent any of this from happening so that employers can enjoy a bargaining advantage over their employees.

In the same context, when a business joins an association, and the members of that business act in concert to limit the bargaining power of employees, that's OK. Conservatives will tell you that business are free to join together and act in concert in a free market. But they won't tell you that employees are not free, by law, to do the same.

The right to work laws are government intervention in the marketplace, but that is not how conservatives paint it. They want us to believe that the right to work laws create freedom in the marketplace, when the reality is, they are design to discourage collective bargaining. Collective bargaining concerns the right to contract for hire, but on a group level, rather than an individual level. Collective bargaining is a logical response to the efforts of those who own capital to marginalize the labor that makes capital productive. Did someone say, "Divide and conquer"?

Economist Dean Baker has thoroughly documented the hypocrisy of the conservative agenda. "The right gets to be portrayed as the champions of hard work and innovation, while progressives are seen as the champions of the slothful and incompetent. It should not be surprising who has been winning this game."

Until we reframe the debate to include how government intervenes in the marketplace on behalf of conservative interests, it will be very difficult for progressives to be heard and understood. This is what I will be considering the next time I vote.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No big deal - it's just an inversion

Taxes are collected for the benefit of the people who pay them. This is a golden rule of taxation that is ignored by any government at their own peril. The best example is the gas tax. The gas tax is collected to support the maintenance of the roads we drive on every day. When governments raid the coffers for some other purpose, they are violating this rule.

So it should come as no surprise when people find that their tax money is being spent for the benefit of other people who didn't pay the tax. I speak of corporations, the group of taxpayers who now make up about 9% of federal revenue, down from 35% they used to pay back in the 1950s. Yes, it's been a long, long slide down to the current revenue scheme, but we're here.

Unfortunately, 9% is still too much for some of the biggest corporations, and I mean this with absolutely no sympathy. What we have seen during this transition is a shift in tax burden from corporations to the individuals who buy from them and work for them. The trend is continuing as corporations become global and find even more ways to mitigate their tax liability.

This is ironic considering all of the benefits they receive from US residency. They enjoy protection from a military force that is second to none in the world, around the world, 24/7. They enjoy access to one of the largest consumer markets in the world. They enjoy copyright and patent protection that is second to none. For some of the largest corporations, their employees dine on food received through government assistance programs to subsidize low, low wages for low, low prices at the checkstand. Let us not forget a skilled labor pool built on government subsidies in education, research and development.

Now comes corporate inversion, the latest fad. Yes, with corporate inversion, corporations can renounce their citizenship and finally doff the last remaining tax burden off on the middle class in what amounts to 100% pure contempt. There is no altruism here, that's for sure.

Given the slide in corporation tax payments over the last 60 years, we would expect wages to rise, but they didn't. In fact, over the last 30 years, they have either gone sideways or fallen when adjusted for inflation. It seems that with every tax cut, shareholders would rather take profits than invest in employees. Oh, wait. They could make capital investments that reduce their need for employees. So there's a temporary boost to the economy, but that won't help wages, you know, for the people who actually buy things.

This kind of behavior by bad actors like Burger King, the most recent applicant for inversion, has not gone unnoticed. There is legislation pending that would exclude "inverted" corporations from consideration in lucrative federal contracts. Proponents of this legislation say that the people who benefit from government programs should pay the taxes that support them. Inverted corporations intend to extract government benefits without paying for them. With public, legislative and legal scrutiny, we can stop the inversions or at the very least, make the process embarrassing or to expensive to pursue.

Consumers can do their part by shopping somewhere else. Just ask Walgreens.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Reagan the false idol

I grew up with Ronald Reagan for president. I remember the hope, the optimism and the charges against the liberals. I was conservative then. I really believed that Reagan was going to clean things up. But then there was the Savings and Loan Scandal. People got killed over that, but you didn't see that in the mainstream news. To learn about that, you had to read a book. There was Iran-Contra and many more. Reagan even put the unions on a slide to oblivion, a move that was disastrous for the middle class. So Reagan was far from perfect and maybe he was starting to slide into dementia towards the end of his term. But there are some on the right who want to idolize him. I don't.

Some say that we experienced the greatest economic boom ever under Reagan. Actually, we didn't. Reagan wasn't the greatest job creator. That was Clinton. Even President Carter was a better job creator than Reagan. Obama is having a tough time, but that is because he has a Tea Party faction in Congress that is defying him at every opportunity rather than working with him. Why? They idolize Reagan.

They sincerely believe that Reagan was the bomb, that Reagan did for our country what no other president could do. But they refuse to admit the truth: the conservative agenda is not about free markets. It's about economic policy that drives money up to the top, rather than allowing everyone to participate in a prosperous economy.

Economists are going over the history and they are seeing the failure of neoliberalism, the economic policies that support the wealthy and leave everyone else out to dry. Under Carter and Clinton, we were creating jobs. Historians and economists have documented an interesting trend: Democrat presidents are far better at creating jobs than Republicans. This has held true pretty much since the Great Depression.

Why is this? I see the Republican Party, as of now, as the party of the wealthy. Wealthy people hold capital and capital does not like labor. Labor is expensive because they're humans and employees need insurance. But if assets can be rented, borrowed, consumed, well, capital loves that. Much of that borrowing and using can be tracked by computers, and all we really need is customer service, right?

A look at the fastest growing jobs shows that there is very little building going on and lots of service. God forbid us from investing in infrastructure say the Republicans in Congress (In my state, at least, Republicans believe in infrastructure). We have crumbling bridges and roads all over our country and yet, hardly anyone in Congress is talking about rebuilding our bridges and roads. Remember Hurricane Katrina? Most of the damage was caused by inadequate care of the levees. Had the levees been maintained properly under Bush, New Orleans would not have been flooded.

See the difference in priorities? Conservatives are very busy taking profits out of the country and will put profits before infrastructure. They seem more concerned with what has been taken away in taxes than with what they have been given by work, luck and circumstance.

Reagan was not a god, and much of what is said about him and his policies is myth, unsupported by a thorough economic analysis. Remember that the next time you are confronted with the prospect of voting for a candidate who idolizes Reagan.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Smooth English

As an impressionable young boy, I had the good fortune to be exposed to the Schoolhouse Rock videos that were prominently featured on the ABC television network. I can remember titles like "My Hero Zero" a story about the powers of ten, "I'm Just a Bill" a civics lesson and "Interjections!". But the one video that made the greatest impression on me was Conjunction Junction, the story of conjunctions. Looking back, I'm surprised that any television network would air such high order thinking in front of kids. I mean, who needs critical thinking skills when you're trying to sell something?

What are conjunctions? They are just some of the little words between other words, phrases and clauses. As the video "Conjunction Junction" shows us, words like "but", "or", and "and" allow us to string words together to communicate a thought. As I write or speak, I look for places where they are needed to make sure that what I say is clear, so that I'm properly understood.

This article is wider in scope than just conjunctions. I think of all the 1, 2, 3 and even 4 letter words that I tend to find missing in articles I read on the internet. Words like "a", "is", "that", "was", "be", and of course, "the". Those little words are the grease in what I write and what I read.

When I write a complex sentence, I read it aloud in my head to make sure that it flows nicely, just like they taught me in school. I want you to be able to read my prose without stopping to think, "Hey! You're missing a word! Now I have to fill it in for myself!" See? The preceding quoted passage had a few more of those itty-bitty words.

As you can see, there are lots of ways to make a sentence flow better in text. But what about speech? I used to be a member of Toastmasters and there, I became acquainted with the "Ah counter". In Toastmasters, I became painfully aware of the dreaded Ahs, Ums and Hmms, in speech. Whenever I did that during a speech, I heard someone dropping a coin in a can to remind me of what I just did.

Those sounds are not words, but we use them to pause our speech and give us more time to access memory or formulate new thoughts while keeping our hands on the virtual podium before us while we talk to our friends and family. I call that behavior, "holding the floor". That one exercise in Toastmasters created discipline in my speech that has never left me since. Even in casual conversation, you won't hear me saying any of that because I want every word to count.

Just as I speak, when I write, I want every word to count, too. I want every passage to be smooth and unbroken in your mind as you read them. If you're correcting my grammar in your mind while you read my words, you won't enjoy the article quite as without correcting me. So look for those little words the next time you read or write anything, anywhere. You'll find that those little words make every passage a little easier to traverse.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Fiction: Awake in a clean world again, Part 1

Jack wakes up to a bright, clean room. Soft white light fills the room as sunlight bounces from wall to wall. The scene is eerie, almost as if Jack is in heaven, but he's not really sure.

As he squints from the bright sunlight, Jack scans the room for anything familiar. Although he has memories of his home in Carmel, California, he doesn't see any sign of his comfortable abode off Pacific Coast Highway. The sheets, the blanket, the walls, even the bed frame are all white. Jack is the only color in the room save for a screen showing what appears to be his pulse. He smells what seems to be iodine wafting into the room. That smells like a hospital and another memory stirs in his mind.

He has a faint memory of cancer. It was advanced and during his last waking hours, before the big sleep, he had a conversation.

"What do you mean I have cancer?" he asks, hardly containing his shock, his grief, as all of the ramifications that come with the diagnosis filled his mind. He ate well, he exercised, no drinking no smoking, nothing, really. Except maybe some aging.

"Jack, we've gone over everything 3 times just to be sure. We caught it early, but it's aggressive and at this point in time, there is no cure." Dr. Klugman was firm in his resolve to help Jack recover from the shock of the diagnosis, but unable to do more than play messenger. Another day, another diagnosis, and it was wearing thin on him. "We'll do what we can to extend your life, but I'm sorry, Jack. There isn't much we can do."

Jack had the means and the determination to beat this. He had spent months doing his own research to see if there was a way out. There was none. Except time.

Jack had heard about cryogenics and searched for weeks to find the right outfit to do the job. He just wanted to stay alive long enough to find a cure. He had seen his friends go through the same trial. Diagnosis, surgery, chemo. They all lived seemingly happy lives thereafter with no recurrence, no complications. But when his turn came up, well, it just wasn't that simple.

He met with his family and put all of his affairs in order. His wife Theresa cried and knew that this was the end, at least for him. She begged him not to do it, not to go in the deep freeze, but he was undeterred. They were still fairly young and Jack figured that cryogenics would slow the cancer long enough for someone to find a cure.

What he had depended on was odds, long odds, with a fervent hope that he wouldn't be waiting that long to find a cure. He remembered going under, but after being awake for awhile, still unsure how long he had been under. There were no calendars in the room, only clocks. It was 9:30 in the morning and the day felt young. His eyes had adjusted to the light and looked out the window. No landscape, but there, the was bluer than he could remember. So where is everybody....?

The door to his room was ajar, he began to notice that he could hear activity outside, voices, footsteps, clattering of hardware and bottles, doors sliding open and shut. The scope of his attention was starting to expand as he sized up his surroundings again with better vision. Suddenly, a sharp pang hit his gut. He was hungry. Surely someone must have noticed that he's awake with all this gear taped to him.

He could now clearly see the tiny screens showing his heartbeat, his breathing, his blood pressure. It was all green and he was glad. There was water in a glass on the table nearby. He reached for it, grasped it and failed to retrieve it as it tumbled to the floor in a crash.

A nurse stepped in. "Good morning, Jack. Are you OK?"

"I'm fine, thanks. Just a bit groggy. Hungry. Thirsty. Can I have a glass of water?"

The nurse was attentive and reviewed the screens as she poured another glass of water for Jack. She handed it to Jack and this time, Jack got a firm grip on the glass and started with sips. Then glugs and in a few swigs, finished the glass off with a sigh. "This water tastes almost sweet. It's like I haven't had water in a long, long time. What's in it?"

"Just water, but you really didn't need it. You've been on an IV since we revived you." The nurse had a curious expression. Jack knew he was under observation, but was not entirely sure what she was looking for. She was slim from walking room to room every day, but she looked a bit tired. Jack thought that maybe she was burdened with the fatigue of seeing so many people die in these rooms.

"Your charts look good, Jack. How do you feel?"

"Oh, I'm OK, I guess. I just feel a little weird in this room. Kind of like I don't really belong here. Where am I?"

The nurse drew a breath through her lips and looked at him carefully. "You're in Missoula, Montana."

Missoula, Missoula, Missoula, he wondered to himself. Now just how did he get here again? He tried to scavenge his memory but all he remembered was talking about cryogenics.

A lot has changed since he went to sleep that fateful day. As the nurse disconnects the IV, she notes his vital signs and smiles at him. "We've notified a doctor that you're awake. He should be here in about 20 minutes. Would you like something to read, or maybe to watch TV?"

Jack considered the options for a moment and settled on something to read. "Sure, if you have a few magazines, I'd like to browse while I'm waiting."

The nurse left the room and came back with a tablet. Now Jack was curious because this was no ordinary tablet, to him, anyway. It was thin and flexible, like a sheet of mylar. But sure enough it had a display and responded to his touch. The nurse slipped away as Jack absorbed himself in the tablet.

The tablet was intuitive and responded well to his touch. He had used tablets before and was comfortable using his fingers to navigate. "The date. What's the date today?" That's what he wanted to know.

He found that he could browse the web. He looked for a familiar news source. "Where the hell is Google!?! I can't find Google!" But he did manage to find Time Magazine. He found a story, the byline and the date. It was...

Friday, August 22, 2014

A tiny town in Maine takes on Time-Warner Cable and wins

Rockport, Maine isn't a very big town. With 3300 people, it hardly counts as a blip in a nation of 300 million. Struggling to get decent speeds from the government-protected, local private monopoly ISP, Time-Warner, the citizens of Rockport took matters into their own hands and built the network they wanted despite Time-Warner Cable.

In order to finance the construction of the network, they raised their own taxes. They voted twice to get the laws just right. Then they worked with a private firm to do the engineering and get it right. The total cost was about $60k, and it will only service 70 homes on a 1.2 mile network. But now they have a foundation to build upon should they decide to expand.

I've read about many other networks on a much larger scale, the most famous of which is the network built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by the Electric Power Board (EPB). Such networks are becoming more common. Unfortunately, the bigger networks meet with all kinds of resistance from the incumbents. From legislation to litigation, community broadband gets hammered by private interests seeking to extend or maintain their private monopolies - that local governments protect through franchise agreements.

So I am surprised to see that this very small town was able to see their network through to completion. Perhaps it was easier because, if TWC didn't see enough money to build a decent network there, in Rockport, then perhaps it wasn't worth the fight to stop them, either. Rockport now has a network that provides symmetrical gigabit access for only $70 a month - far outperforming the TWC network that the carrier was unwilling to improve.

It might be cliche to say that the community broadband movement is the nightmare incumbent carriers were hoping to avoid, but it's here, that nightmare. Let's not forget that incumbent carriers were handed the monopolies they have, on a silver platter, more than 20 years ago. It was a gift that just kept on giving. But the cable and telco monopolies refused to give back. Worse, they refused to keep up with the rest of the world.

To add insult to injury, Comcast and Verizon throttled big internet players like Netflix and asked for more money to keep Netflix customers happy. The foot-dragging and anti-competitive practices of the incumbent carriers is very well documented. But we don't have to put up with it much longer.

Yes, they can file lawsuits, but they always lose. No community broadband project has ever been completely defeated by litigation. Oh, that'll slow them down, but eventually, they come back.

Yes, they can work with ALEC to write and pass legislation that stifles community broadband efforts at the state level, but look at what incumbent carriers like Comcast and Verizon are fighting: jobs, economic progress, better access to the worldwide community, a voice in government. Yes, Comcast would prefer its profits over a better economy.

In Missoula, Montana, they are also pursuing a fiber project. At the same time, Google Fiber has been investigating setting up shop there, too. But people local to the area are beginning to question the wisdom of getting involved with Google Fiber. Maybe they heard about Provo, and how Provo sold it's network to Google Fiber for a dollar and still has to pay off a mountain of debt left over from a failed network effort by Utopia. Had they waited, they might have had a chance to work with Macquarie Capital in a much better deal.

Community broadband isn't a fad. It is a rational response to incumbent service providers that have taken the public trust for granted. When citizens have been shorted by companies like Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner and AT&T, those same citizens have every right to pool their resources in their local government to build a better network. Just like they did in Rockport, Maine.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reading upon sight

I remember my first reading classes. I was one of the early birds and got into the early reading groups in 1st grade. I don't remember the process of learning to read so well, other than that we read in groups and that I started to get into it with enthusiasm. I can remember at some point, starting to alter my voice for humor, something my teacher, Mrs. Sweeney, seemed to frown upon.

I also remember the I Can Read Book Club. Books like "Johnny the Firecat" would come in the mail with my name on it. I had no idea that Mom had set up a subscription for me, but I loved getting those books in the mail.

There is something that I noticed about reading, around the time that Dad decided that in order to take a nap, I needed to sit in the corner when I made any noise that happened to disturb his sleep. There were items nearby with words on them, words that I could read. I was bored, so I just kept reading them over and over again.

What was significant about this experience is that I discovered that I could not look at a word without reading it. Reading was automatic for me and anytime I saw a word, I read it and could hear the voice in my head go off with the sound of the word, whatever that might be. No word passes my eyes without reading it. Unless it's advertising. Then I find ways to avoid reading or to focus somewhere else.

It is estimated that there are 3 billion people on the planet who do not know how to read. That suggests that reading is not something we're necessarily evolved to do. We've adapted to reading for communication and education. Honestly, I could not imagine what life would be like without reading, other than, it would be be like grinding dirt all day. Hard, manual labor, for no particular purpose other than just survival. I'd be alive, but not living.

I've known some who were functionally illiterate when they graduated high school, but somehow they made it. Not knowing how to read today is worse than not knowing how to type. I took typing just to meet girls in school, with a voice in the back of my head saying that someday, I may need to know how to type. Today, I work as a writer, well not really a writer, but my job requires me to read and write emails, service request logs and other forms of communication.

Technology requires us to read in order to use it. Just to get started, we have to read instructions to know how to use it, too. Despite the criticism pointed at the internet, many have recognized that the internet, the world wide web, and the proliferation of free software with all the coding required to create it and maintain it, has fostered a sort of revolution or renaissance of literacy. The internet is, as one researcher put it, "saturated in text", and only the most literate societies can enjoy it. The US is one of those societies.

The implications of this reading revolution are profound and few if any of us will know all of the implications for quite some time. People read the internet in a way that is different than print. I like to read the internet because it feels more alive than print. Even printed books converted to PDF that can be read on a screen are not quite as appealing as reading a website with a recent article. Like today.

Without this "second nature" of reading that I experience when I do read, I could not really enjoy the internet in all of its permutations. Sure, I could watch video, listen to music or voice, and maybe even play games. But my mind wanders and wants to know more.

I've found that although I can watch video and learn something from it, reading offers a special experience that I can't get from video. For one, I am hard of hearing, so I never miss a word when I read. Second, when I hear the words as I read them, in my own voice, I'm asking questions that I could not ask while listening to someone else talk. Comprehension is a very big part of taking in new information, and I find that comprehension is far easier while reading than while listening.

So when you're in a waiting room, or standing in line somewhere, try to look at a sign without reading it. If you can't help but hear the words you see in your mind, you have a gift that will never stop giving. If you have kids, you can give it to them, too. It's automatic once you learn how to do it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Media consolidation - just another reason for community broadband

There is no question that media consolidation has been a problem in this country, no less the world. Media consolidation is very well documented and estimates indicate that we have consolidated 50 companies in the 1980s to 7 now. In other words, every major news outlet that we can find can be traced to a parent company in that group of 7. Media consolidation is covered in depth at the FreePress website.

Some say that nothing in politics happens by accident. Then it might not be an accident that we have experienced so much media consolidation. Remember, when there is consolidation in an industry, there is much less competition. Perchance, I found myself watching the morning news on the weekend with my wife. I found that there wasn't very much news. Mostly, it was a sort of variety show with two very happy anchors sharing banter and jokes with their correspondents around town. What was on the screen reminded me very much of watching open-access cable TV, you know, like Wayne's World.

That kind of attitude about TV by the people on the set suggests that there really isn't that much competition between television networks. Checking the listings, the next program was a paid advertising program, that is a 1-hour show that is nothing but paid advertising. The channel lineup has many more paid advertising channels than I can remember. Those paid advertising channels are the Shopping Channel, QVC, and so on. That's a very different landscape than what I remember as a young man, or as a kid.

Two of the big 7, Comcast and Time-Warner are not just media companies, they are internet service providers as well. They are in a position to dictate terms to their customers given the vast size of their monopoly. In recent months, Comcast and Time-Warner have even proposed a merger of two titans into one company. The guys at TechDirt have run the numbers and estimate that Comcast/Time-Warner would have 47% of the high-speed internet market, and that is a very conservative estimate. Comcast has already admitted that Verizon is it's only real competitor, and it's worth nothing that both of them are protected by government franchise agreements with cities all over the country. They are not just private monopolies, they are government protected private monopolies.

These same two companies have already been found to be slowing traffic from Netflix in order to get more money from Netflix. Who knows what else they are doing in order to tip the scales in their favor. We know that they have very powerful lobbies in Congress and in state legislatures, too.

As an example, take a look at DNS, the Domain Name Service, on the internet. DNS converts the domain name that you enter into a browser into an Internet Protocol address. For example, translates to - this is what is returned by the ping command. Comcast could alter the DNS service so that a website they don't want you to see doesn't exist as far as they are concerned.

Now I have no proof that they are doing that, but I would not be surprised if that is what they are doing. I don't use the DNS of any internet service providers anymore because I'm suspicious of their drive for complete and total monopoly power. I use Google DNS ( or OpenDNS ( I've been using one of those two for years.

Currently, there is a fight brewing over a relatively recent development: community broadband. For a few years, under the radar, cities that could not get high speed service began to build their own networks after years of begging the incumbents to provide better service. Companies like AT&T, Time-Warner, Comcast and Verizon, refused to do so with impunity and with local monopoly power.

The most notable example of community broadband is in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they built their own community owned network with the local power utility, EPB. By 2010, they had 100mbs, roughly 33 times faster than surrounding areas. Now they have gigabit speeds, 300 times faster than the surrounding areas for $70 a month. Residents nearby have made numerous requests for the same service, only to be told that a state law prevents them from expanding service. Who wrote these laws? The cable and phone companies, completely mortified at the thought of competition, through their favorite proxy, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

This sort of legislation was cooked up by conservatives under the guise of, "Incompetent governments should not be competing with private enterprise with our tax dollars". Yet, time and time again, people willingly vote for higher taxes to pay for a community network. I know I would. Whatever it takes to get away from Comcast and Centurylink, I will do.

As it stands now, more than 400 cities and towns have built their own networks to get that freedom from the incumbent carriers. What I find really interesting is that private enterprise is afraid to compete with an incompetent government in the broadband market. This fear seems very disproportionate in areas where there is limited to zero service and no competition. What is it that the cable company fears when citizens raise their own taxes to build their own network? After all, the cable and telcos had what they wanted handed to them: a competition free service area with a captured audience. Disintermediation.

In many communities with community broadband, internet access is considered a utility. Let's compare Comcast to a water utility just for a thought experiment. When build a new home, I go to the city to make sure that I get water service, and I get it, right? If I want to use more water, I can get it, right?

But when I want internet access, I have to go to Comcast, the only carrier in town. Oh, sure, I could use Centurylink, but Comcast and Centurylink already have an implicit agreement on territories, so if I want faster service, I have to go to Comcast. But what if a board of directors in New York has decided on a policy that identifies my part of town as a low value neighborhood? What if when I get to the counter at the local Comcast offices, they tell me not only that I can't get their service, but that they have no plans to offer service at my address? Where do I go to get service?

Oh, that's right. I can go to Centurylink and get 5mbs - but no more than that. But then I discover that Centurylink offers crappy service and there is no alternative. This is what community broadband is all about. It's not about competing with cable or telephone companies. Community broadband is about providing a service, that incumbents are unwilling to provide.

On my street, I have Comcast and Centurylink. Centurylink only offers 5mbs and of that, they only guarantee 80%, which is effectively, 4mbs. With Comcast, I had to wait a year and half to get service with periodic phone calls and emails. It was only when I found someone up to the challenge of getting me hooked up did I get service from Comcast. Above 5mbs, Comcast has no competition on my street.

So when Marsha Blackburn offers an amendment that excludes funding for any action on the part of the FCC that would pre-empt state laws that limit or prohibit community broadband, and every House Republican votes in favor of that, we know where they stand. In the pockets of incumbent carriers. Sure, they could paint this as a states rights issue, but really, for them, it is an incumbent carrier rights issue.

In every case where community broadband has been deployed, the deployment agency has done well, customers are happy, incumbents have improved service and dropped their prices, and jobs have been created. Marsha Blackburn and everyone who voted for her amendment, including my own Democrat representative, Jim Matheson, vote against community choice. They apparently don't want communities to decide for themselves how to get access to the internet. They don't want to see better broadband service creating jobs, helping communities to compete in a global economy.

When communities cannot get the high speed internet access they need to create jobs, grow their economies and compete with the world, they have every right to build their own networks with their own money. That is what the incumbent providers like Comcast are set against.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Where's the accountability with GMOs?

I've participated in many, many debates on the pros and cons of GMOs. I'm a skeptic. I'm not totally convinced that GMOs are safe and I believe that they need to be labeled, clearly, with references so that every shopper can make up their own minds about consumption. I also believe that the patent protection should be removed and that strict liability should be applied to their producers and distributors and even the farmers. Yes, the farmers. Once everyone involved is clear about liability and where it points when someone gets hurt, either directly or indirectly, I doubt very seriously that many would want to sell them for fear of ginormous lawsuits.

Proponents of GMOs believe that it's a grand idea to shoot isolated genes into foreign genomes, get a patent on the seed for some novel benefit that has yet to be proven, and collect royalties from anyone who grows seeds with the same genes, even if by accident downwind. Injecting isolated genes into a foreign cell is just one way to do it. They use viruses to insert a desired gene into a foreign cell's DNA, too.

First, let's dispense with the notion that these novel "inventions" deserve any patent protection at all. The means and methods used to transplant foreign genes are not so novel. It turns out that gene migration is quite common in nature. Genes migrate from one species to another through many vectors, including viruses. GMO scientists are doing nothing new that hasn't already been done by nature.

If ADM were truly feeding the world with their toxic chemical laden agriculture, we would not see reports from the UN, supposed bastion of commercial power and protection, reminding us that small scale, organic farming is the best way to feed the world. There is even mounting evidence that organic farming can help to reverse global warming through carbon sequestration. Note that most pesticides and herbicides come from petroleum bases and that comes from oil, and the oil, mostly comes from the middle east. Buying organic reduces our dependence on foreign oil.

Let's not forget that the sole purpose of the gene, any gene, is to replicate. Every genome in every animal has one prime directive that rises above all other causes: replication. Genes replicate by design and will find every practical means to replicate. We know that humans will make any excuse to replicate, and that arises from the power of genes.

Since genes by their very nature replicate, there is no reason to think that patents are required to spread the benefits of the so-called inventions from the likes of Monsanto, ADM and Dow. Once created, replication will take over. Besides, whatever research such companies do has already been paid for by tax dollars, that by happy coincidence, come from average people like you and me. Only 9% of federal revenue is from corporations. You know who pays the rest.

The sole reason for the existence of the patent system is to advance the sciences and the arts. The people who advocated for the patent system when this country was born believed that innovations would proliferate with patent protection. Unfortunately, even highly respected authorities have trouble showing anything more than "common sense" to support the maintenance of a patent system. For some reason, it's really hard to find empirical evidence to show that patent protection actually increases the rate of innovation. Two authors of a report from the Federal Reserve Bank find that the evidence in support of a patent system is so unconvincing, that they recommend the abolition of patents. All of them. I agree with them.

In any case, the gene patents at stake in soy and corn (to name two) not only fail to advance the sciences and the arts, they are giving rise to seed monopolies that place control of our food supplies in the hands of a very few, very powerful interests. That set does not include average Americans.

The use of these GMO seeds is concurrent with increasing use of weed killers, particularly, glyphosphate, a product from Monsanto. Dow Chemical is offering seeds that protect against Agent Orange. They want to use Agent Orange to kill weeds within our crops?

Few if any of the GMO apologists are talking about the superweeds that are created when the weeds finally develop resistance to the weed killers. Funny how they didn't mention that in the face of adversity, life adapts. Who will pay to deal with the invasive species that arise from over use of toxic weed killers? The chemical companies? I doubt it. Remember, they don't want the food labeled. That means they don't want to assume any liability whatsoever for the potential damage from GMO consumption. It would follow that they don't want to assume liability for their weed killers, too.

The monoculture that arises from very large scale farming is the reason we are led to believe that we need GMOs. The monoculture creates a big fat target for pests and viruses. You know, like Windows. Windows holds a 95% share of desktops in computers. Windows is more widely studied by criminals than any other operating system because it's everywhere. The monoculture of Windows has made it easy to hack for fun and profit.

The same has become true of the giant farms and their monoculture crops. Large scale agriculture has given rise to acres of farmland where all the food has essentially the same genes. This makes for real fun for viruses, which can spread quickly on that farmland because everything growing there has the same genes. In the wild, viruses can't spread that quickly because of the diversity of the genes out there. The monoculture farms we have now are not natural.

Small scale organic farming would create biodiversity in our farmland. Small scale farming would also spread out the risk of farming failures from a few really big farms to millions of little farms everywhere. The concentration of farming is not only bad for business, it's bad for national security. Millions of little neighborhood farms everywhere mitigates the risk of large scale farm failures in the event of a terrorist attack on them, something we need to do if we're really serious about limiting terrorism.

Despite all this, big business has a really hard time taking responsibility for the damage they create as they pursue the big bucks. Once power is accumulated among the chosen few, they will fight any effort to redistribute that power with all their might. The primary purpose of large scale farming isn't about feeding people. It's about power over people.

It's worth nothing that this isn't just a problem with newfangled tech like GMOs. This seeming lack of responsibility is duly noted in the oil industry, too. BP had to be wrestled to the ground by the Obama administration before they became willing to put any money into cleanup and reparations for the Deepwater oil spill. If there were no public outcry, I doubt anything would have been done.

When asked about safety, Monsanto will promptly point to their lap dog, the Food and Drug Administration and say, "See that little puppy over there? They're responsible for making sure our food supply is safe. Why don't you talk to them?" Monsanto can count on their captured regulatory agency for protection from liability for their own products. All they have to do is hold out the promise of a cushy job in a corner office somewhere to a hapless regulator and they get their wish.

I've been around long enough to see that the Reagan Revolution, after 30 years, has brought us monopoly capitalism. Monopoly capitalism means that the corporations don't have to listen to the people for their protection comes from the government. It is only when governments and corporations are reminded by the people where the real power comes from, that they listen.

Every state constitution will tell you that all power resides in The People - its usually right in the preamble, you know, at the beginning, so it must be really important. The People have to remind the leaders about this from time to time. Howard Zinn says that protest is what we see when the institutions that are supposed to serve us, courts, legislatures and administrations are insufficient to respond to grievances. We're seeing this over and over, from the World Trade Organization whenever they have a meeting somewhere to Ferguson, Missouri. We saw hundreds of thousands of people gather in protest of the Iraq War, a war over oil. The same oil that is the base stock for the pesticides used on our farms, for crops that require special genes to survive the pesticide.

I can't remember where I saw it, but I saw a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson where he said "we should not become tyrants of the land". Genetically modified organisms and their corresponding chemical pesticides are the ultimate expression of the tyranny that Jefferson warned us about. With that tyranny comes zero accountability from the people who impose that tyranny upon others.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What is the motivation for the police state?

We live in a police state. There is no doubt about it. The police have bulked up on surplus military hardware like tanks and cannons and have been doing so since the 1990s. They look more like an army that a bunch of scared police with pea shooters in all of the pictures I've seen lately. This is particularly true of Ferguson, Missouri.

What happened in Ferguson is that an unarmed black teen was shot to death by the police. Since we weren't there, we can't say exactly what happened. Witnesses on both sides have different accounts of what happened. But one thing is for sure, the police are not very happy with the protests and seem intent on putting it down, as if we should all go home and relax, have a beer and watch anther episode of How I Met Your Mother.

I surmise that the police state has grown out of fear, mostly, paranoia. Who, exactly is paranoid? Well, let's see. As I mentioned yesterday, the top 1% now own more wealth than the bottom 70%. The bottom 40% are scraping by on just 0.2% of the wealth of the nation. I'd say that the 1% must be really, really paranoid right about now. They're pretty busy buying laws that make it easier to make more money and to put other people in jail, too. Yeah, that's pretty paranoid.

There is no way to say for sure that they earned the money, either. Yes, there may be some who did earn very large sums of money for their efforts. But among those one percent, how many bear a direct relationship between their effort and their wealth? How much of it is plunder and how much of it is blunder? Who knows?

In the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008, banks were bailed out while many people lost their homes due to rising costs everywhere, with no rise in wages. Wages for most of us actually fell during and after the crisis and had actually remained very flat compared with the 1% for the previous 30 years. But every banker who got a bailout from the federal government kept their jobs and they got bonuses. No one went to jail. Not yet, anyway. Bankers are probably pretty paranoid right now. Perhaps they feel some guilt, perhaps not. Is their compensation connected to their performance? Probably not.

I surmise that a similar situation exists for the carbon based businesses like oil, gas and coal. The war in Iraq cost us more than one $1 trillion. Since corporate taxation now makes up about 9% of federal taxes collected (compared to 35% in 1955), I think we can safely say that the rest of us paid for that war.

There have been plenty of spills, too. The damage from the Deeepwater Oil Spill is still being documented. The cleanup isn't even remotely complete and some ecosystems are just not coming back. A $20 billion trust fund has been established to compensate victims for losses incurred. But that is just for what people owned and lost. 

What about the damage to property that nobody owns? You know, like the ocean? As I've said before, capitalism cannot assign value to that which cannot be owned. In terms of BP's finances, this is just lunch money, and that gives us a sense of the power BP, a foreign corporation, holds in our government. Given the unfairness of the outcome, I'd say more than a few very wealthy people are paranoid.

I could go on with other examples, but there is only so much time in the world and I don't want to bore you. The point I want to make is this: the middle class didn't wake up one day and wish for a police state. But we're paying for it, directly and indirectly, and I must say, quite dearly.

Fortunately, people in New York and in Ferguson are very busy reminding the 1% that all power resides in the people. All of it. With all of us. There are no exceptions. No society has ever survived ignorance of that one simple fact. If you find one that did, let us know. We could learn a lot from that one so that it doesn't happen again.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Means testing Congressional pay and pensions

The Constitution of the United States says that Congress can set it's own rules, and determine its own pay. Seems like the pay of members of Congress has gone up while the number of days spent actually working has gone down. Worse, nearly all the members of Congress are multimillionaires.

Do these people represent you and me? Recent statistics show that the bottom 40% of the population owns about 0.2% of all wealth in the United States. Seems to me that the bottom 40% have little to no representation in the Congress. But that same chart linked to above, shows that the top 1% owns 34% of all the wealth. To put it differently, the top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 70% combined. This condition is not sustainable in any democracy.

Truth be told, at least one study says that we no longer have a monopoly, we now have an oligarchy. What else can you say about a country that allows the wealthy to buy the laws they want for themselves and then claim that they earned all that money with their itty-bitty hands - by their own efforts?

In the days of the Reagan Administration, there was a constant debate over means testing for public benefit programs like welfare and Social Security. Men and women on public assistance now have to find work and prove that they're working to get on the dole, as it was called. It has been well documented that millions of WalMart employees receive public assistance, some even call WalMart the biggest welfare queen in America.

We now have a nearly permanent underclass of working poor. Men and women who, seemingly by design, are there to make the wealthy feel better about themselves. What good is it to be on vacation if everyone else can go on vacation, too? Shouldn't everyone else be working? Isn't it better for democracy if people are too busy with work to protest in the streets? That would make those one-percenters feel a lot better now, wouldn't it?

I can remember the talk of means testing in the Clinton administration. I remember the "workfare" programs. The jobs bills with amendments that would require welfare recipients to work. The pressure for means testing was constant, unrelenting and eventually, permanent. Now we have it. Everyone who asks for help must demonstrate that they have no other means to earn the money they need to live. Seems reasonable, right?

Members of Congress now earn about $174k a year, have a plush health plan and get a pension for life. Historical records show that there have been only a few pay cuts: 1874, 1932, 1933, and 1991, but even that, was temporary. After every cut, pay eventually marched up again.

Even the pensions are pretty plush, with average pension payments in 2002 ranging between $41,000 and $55,000. And get this, they vest after 5 years of service. How cool is that? Well, not that cool. If you only served 6 years, the pension would amount to about $17k a year. Still, that would add nicely to any Social Security check you might receive upon retirement.

Since Congressional pay and pensions are public benefits, I propose the following:

  1. All members of Congress must submit to drug testing, just like any other job. If you're snorting coke first thing in the morning, you probably shouldn't be in Congress anyway.
  2. All members of Congress must submit to means testing to receive that plush salary. If you're middle class and own a home in Podunk, Ill., you'll qualify. But if you're a member of the board of directors in several corporations in the same industry, no, you won't qualify.
  3. All members must submit to means testing for that plush pension. If you're already rolling in the dough, you won't miss the pension. The proceeds can go into the Social Security trust fund for everyone else.
Every member of Congress says that they are patriots. With means testing, they can prove it. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Will computers replace writers? Nah, that's crazy.

IBM has created a new chip called the syNAPSE, a chip with more than 5 billion transistors, that models the human brain. For number crunching, this computer is slow. But for data pattern matching, like vision, sound and movement, this chip is built for the task.

Over the years, I've seen articles about attempts to replace writers with computers. This is, of course, a natural concern for anyone who wants to be a writer. So many industries are facing a competitive threat from computers. Even as I write this, a startup is preparing a machine to replace the fast food cook.

I saw this threat first hand in the sheet metal industry as I helped to inaugurate one of the first computer control plasma cutters in the HVAC industry. We had the first machine on the west coast and it was a wonder to behold as it cut metal with carbon dioxide, nitrogen gas and electricity. My supervisor became a river of unhappiness about the appearance of this machine and how many people it would put out of work. But I don't think that ever happened. When workers are displaced by automation, they find something else to do, often better than what they were doing before. Besides, someone has to tend to these machines until they can take care of themselves.

The Atlantic has an interesting story about a program that can take a set of data and turn it into a story - a readable, somewhat enjoyable story - if you're a sports fan. This reminds me of the Turing Test, a test suggested by the great Alan Turing. The Turing test says that at some point in time, we will create machines that can have a conversation with us and fool us into thinking we're talking to a human. You know, like the HAL9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Before I started writing this article, I spent some time over the last few days considering what a thinking, living, breathing human being puts into an article that a machine will never have to offer. The first thing to come to mind is instinct. Humans have a drive to live, they are self-aware and no matter what they do, self-preservation comes first. That is one very intense drive considering all the threats present on the planet.

There is something else that humans have that computers don't have: sensory perception. A computer will never see a sunrise in quite the same way that a human can. Computers are not born. They don't have any opportunity to gaze into Mom's eyes and identify with someone else. They can't have relationships with people because, no matter what anyone says, humans and computers will never be peers. There is nothing in our brains that will allow a computer to be a peer.

The last thing I want to bring up, and I think this is important, is this: quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics (QM) is a set of rules we use to predict the behavior of the very small. It is also the best set of rules we have for predicting the way electrons behave in a circuit. QM is so accurate, we can use it to create chips that run our computers, crunch Pi to the billionth decimal place and beyond, and help us find our way in Google Maps.

Over the years, I've seen articles that document how life uses QM to live. The process of photosynthesis is well documented and shows how plants use QM to power life. All forms of metabolism use the rules of QM to work. I say this because it's easy to forget that what we see in a lab under controlled circumstances is something that is happening everywhere, all the time. The lab allows us to create conditions that make it possible to see this stuff happening. 

You might have heard of the famous double slit experiment. This experiment allows us to see light as a wave and particle. This experiment was created in a lab to show how light behaves in very controlled circumstances. Light acts as a wave and a particle all the time, but our senses are not built to notice that, at least not on a conscious level. The particle/wave duality of light is simply not germane to survival.

I think there is very good reason to believe that all life uses QM to live. I also think that QM is what makes our brains work and work well. Most of the time. We can still make mistakes and if we live past the mistake, we can learn from it. Maybe.

Until we can replicate what biology has done to make the brain, we will not be able to make a computer do what the brain does. The brains that we have now are the result of a billion years of trial and error, a direct result of the will to live. It's going to be a long, long time before we figure that part out. We might get close in the near term, but, at least in our lifetime, I don't think we'll ever know for sure how to make robots or computers self-aware. I'm not so sure we want to, either.

So for now, I think the writing profession is relatively safe from automation.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Happiness is temporary unless you work at it

In social media, a very popular method of conveying a message is the meme. A meme consists of a picture, maybe a composite of more than one picture, with text overlaid. I a few weeks ago, saw this meme. It said:

"Happiness isn't about getting what you want all the time. It's about loving what you have and being grateful for it."

Here is one example of the above sentence in a meme:

There is very real evidence to support this fact, some of it is subjective and some of it is easy to observe in others. First, let's go way back, sort of. Anyone here remember the movie, Jurassic Park? One of the observations made in the movie is that dinosaurs don't notice you're there if you freeze. The theory is that their eyes are sensitive to motion and if you move, they think you're alive and therefore, food. So hold still for a moment and you live to see another day, at least in that movie.

This is probably true of any predator. But looking at the evolution of mammals, we can see that there is a clear evolution of mammals from reptiles around 320 million years ago. It is worth noting that humans have something called the "R-Complex", a part of the human brain thought to be the reptilian brain kept from the evolution of one line of dinosaurs to mammals.

To put it simply, humans, like reptiles, are sensitive to changes in their environments. While it is not clear that reptiles can be "happy" like humans, they notice changes in their environment, like movement, changes in lighting and changes in composition. If you move furniture in a room that is familiar to someone else, if the change is subtle, the change might not be noticed. But if you make a large change, such as moving a couch from one side of the room to another, you may create a pleasant surprise for others.

But after awhile, despite our pleasure experienced with the new arrangement, we get "used to it". As we get older, we might even become "set in our ways", rarely if ever moving our furniture.

This pattern of behavior isn't confined to furniture. You get a new TV that seems novel for awhile and a few weeks later, you're used to it. You get a new phone and you get used to it. Get a new car? You get used to that, too. New home? That becomes very familiar once you start doing maintenance. Everything in life becomes familiar and when it becomes familiar, no longer does it give us the pleasure or excitement of something new.

Take a look at print advertising and you will see happy, smiling people, just adoring that new product. I remember seeing a cell phone ad with a woman smiling with glee at the new phone in her hand. Honestly, I've never been that happy about a new phone. I've been pleased, no doubt, but gleeful?

Kids are a wonderful example of how we get used to things. Months ago, we got this new toy for our daughter, Emily. The first day she played with that toy, she could hardly bear to go to sleep that night without more time to play with that new toy. It was quite a show of drama to see how she insisted on playing with that toy the first day. Today? She hardly notices that toy, unless one of the parents plays with that toy, too. But the attachment that she had to that toy is no longer there.

Our economy is built in large part on the notion that we can keep buying a succession of novel do-dads and gadgets to keep us happy. Every commercial on TV is built on the assumption that if we have this new product, that we will be happy. But no matter what we buy, where we live, what we own, we get "used to it".

Because of the way our brains are built, there is simply no way to buy enough to be happy all the time. Sure, you can have a higher standard of living through prudent purchases, but you will not get high and stay high for long. Some possessions like a house, a car or a bed, can bring a greater sense of comfort and stability, but they don't bring happiness. If you've ever had buyers remorse, you know what I'm talking about.

Someone once suggested the following to me, long ago: "Imagine your life on a heart monitor in a hospital. The line goes up and it goes down when your heart beats. Life is like that. But when that line goes flat, you're dead."

No matter our possessions, our status, our location, or the people in our lives, no matter how wondrous the gifts we have received, we might still find ourselves sitting on the floor after 30 minutes of unwrapping our gifts on Christmas morning only to say, "Is that it?"

Happiness is not caused by money, external circumstances, or a new possession or even a new relationship. It is a decision we make moment to moment. We have to constantly ask ourselves to be happy with what we have now. To find what we are grateful for right now. To find contentment in the room where we are, right now. This is the real work of living and it requires determined effort and introspection, for the unexamined life is not worth living.

To do anything else is to miss the point of life.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The right to be forgotten vs the right to remember

In Europe, Google is getting their clocks cleaned by a government trying to impose the right to be forgotten upon them. The European Commission appears to be trying to balance this right with other rights, but one thing should remain clear: Everything you do on the internet is permanent. Everything.

Everything is cached somewhere. Data is archived, often in multiple places. Want to put a selfie up on Facebook with you posed nude in a lampshade at a party? In a few months, your friends will forget. Pinterest? Stumbled-upon? Twitter? They never forget. There is also the Internet Archive. At least you had a lampshade on.

I think that the right to be forgotten needs to be balanced with the right to have the facts correct. I have the right to ensure that the information posted about me is accurate, timely and relevant. That's it. There is no right to be forgotten. There never was because this isn't just the internet. The internet is where human culture lives, worldwide, forever, as long as there is electricity, storage and processing power, there will be the internet.

Remove yourself from the internet and the culture dies a little. We all have a right to be a part of that culture. We also have a right to remember you, with all of your faults and defects of character, as well as your strengths and gifts. The right to be forgotten does not outweigh the right for the rest of us to remember you.

For the young people out there who think they're immortal, hey, you might be immortal, but the internet will outlive you. The internet will change, it will grow, it will morph, but it will still be a worldwide network with a long-lived memory. Whatever you do, say, or record, if it gets on the internet, it stays on the internet until everyone who has a copy decides to pull it down.

Who has a copy? Who knows? How many? There is no way to know. Just ask Barbara Streisand about that gorgeous shot of her house, you know, the one she wanted removed from the internet? Yeah, that one.

This is why I never put something up on the internet unless I'm absolutely sure I want it there. Everyone needs to think this way. It's not about having something to hide, rather, it's about acknowledging that there is a balance to strike between privacy and publicity. Every human needs privacy. If we look hard enough, we can find it. If we're lucky, we have friends and family who respect our right to privacy by not putting stuff up on the internet that we don't want on there.

But the second we put something up there, countless servers are ready to store that information, and transfer it, worldwide as the case may be, everywhere. Whether you like it or not, the internet has become a repository of human consciousness for everyone connected. What you put into it and get out of it is your choice.

Like any powerful tool, you must use it with care and respect for both edges.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The cost of doing business: maintaining a middle class

Billionaires in this country have noticed a problem. Money is relative. They're beginning to notice that they can no longer suck money out of the economy to float their egos. While it is true that banks can create credit on demand through computer programming, they do so at the risk of running up inflation. Even if your firm can sit at the trough to get at all that new wealth first, inflation can still be a problem. This creates real, tangible limits on the money supply, because you know, we wouldn't want inflation eating our savings.

What to do, what to do? Why, let's concentrate our resources on limiting the ability of other people to make money. First, we'll cut education funding. Why? It's easy to find people who want to send their kids to religious private schools and also object to paying property taxes that support public schools. By reducing funding for education, we make education far more expensive and that reduces the number of kids going to college. Bingo! We lower our labor costs because fewer kids entering the workforce will have the kind of credentials that demand higher wages!

Oh, but it gets better. I want my kids to have a better education than other kids. I kill two birds with one stone when I cut funding for education. Not only do I relieve myself of the burden of educating the middle class, I get to ensure my kids have exclusive access to the best education money can buy. I feel much better now.

Wait. I'm not done yet. I need to ensure that when my kids enter the professional class, that they won't have to deal with pesky international competition. If my kid becomes a doctor, what good is that if they have to compete with doctors from India? Thailand? Vietnam? God, no. We can't have that!

So for the last 30 years, I've been working on "free trade" agreements that put the manufacturing classes out to compete with the world. Why yes, my workforce isn't efficient enough, so I need to give them some encouragement by making it easy for me to buy what they make in developing countries. That way I can energize my workforce and lower my costs at the same time. I want them to know that their job is next if they don't hop to.

Now I've got the middle class exactly where I want them. Too busy and too poor to get the education they need to advance, too scared to be in the streets protesting my austerity measures intended to "build character". This is way cool. I can just see the look on their faces now when they see that I've removed all their options. Now I can buy the laws I want to ensure a safe retirement for myself and a cushy life for my family with little or no opposition.

Hmm. I think I better get some patents and copyrights and make those laws stronger just to make sure there isn't enough in the public domain for the middle class to work with, you know, to create stuff they might sell. Yeah, that would cap it off nicely.

Unfortunately, that mindset creates policies that are unsustainable. Even Goldman Sachs is starting to notice that inequality is hurting their bottom line. "What is this? I have to maintain a middle class, too?" Yes, if you want to live. Or you can face the pitchforks for all your rent-seeking.

Get along with the middle class or stay in your gated community. It's your choice.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Central planning doesn't work in capitalism, either.

I remember how we used to laugh at Communist Russia. Whatever they could do, we could do better. Long lines for commodities. Shortages of commodities. No competition. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

We see a similar situation with broadband. We pay more for broadband than all the other industrialized countries, yet we rank something like 17th in speeds and quality of service compared with other industrialized countries. The industry is dominated by just a few really big players who face zero competition in their respective domains. There is even evidence to suggest that they are colluding to decide who gets what territories. With data caps and data prioritization, they are even engineering shortages to make more money.

We have a similar situation in health care. People spend a lot of time in waiting rooms, and then wait some more in the treatment room. Many people apply for coverage of their injury or illness only to find that even after paying a premium every month for years with just regular checkups, they still have a hefty bill to pay. Fortunately for the health care system, they have a government that doesn't mind thrusting the middle class out to compete with the rest of the world, while protecting itself in free trade agreements. Did you hear about how the AMA engineers shortages of doctors through Congress? That would be a planned shortage, right?...nah, that's absurd in a capitalist country.

The events leading up to the meltdown of 2008 included bond ratings agencies basically accepting bribes for their ratings because there were only 3 agencies doing all the work. There was very little oversight and zero competition. Why? The ratings agencies were more concerned about making money than doing a good job. So far, no one has gone to jail for any of the misdeeds of the bond ratings agencies. I guess a few regulators landed some plush jobs at the bond rating agencies.

In all three examples above, we have seen monopolies become established and entrenched in their respective industries. Monopolies, as we have seen, are slow to move and slow to respond to customers but they are quick to raise rates when they can find a way to justify it, unless there is oversight. You know, regulation.

You know what's worse than a government monopoly? A private monopoly.  At least with a government monopoly you have some hope of change with the next election. Not so with private monopolies. Not only are they large corporations that can capture their regulators with the hope of a lush job, corporations can live on indefinitely through succession. Who's next when the CEO leaves? His best bud and long-time business associate.

Fortunately for us puny humans, we can learn from our mistakes. Communities are taking matters into their own hands to remove distant bean counters from their decision making process.

The big telecom companies are facing competition from community broadband. The healthcare industry is now facing a stunning reversal in health care spending. And the bond ratings agencies? Well, they didn't learn from the last time they took down the economy just yet. Any day now, they might get it, but they may need more repetitions before they figure this out. Maybe a few more lawsuits will do it.

So the next time you find yourself genuflecting on the good ol' days when we were better than the Russians, remember that there are still a few central planners running amok, you know, monopolists. They're harder to find now because they don't sit in a government office in DC, they sit in a corner office in New York City.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Heavy Traffic

For much of my life, I've been able to position myself such that I avoid the rush hour traffic. I was able to time shift, get short commutes or simply avoid the beaten path. My shortest commute was 8 minutes. That was a cool commute, but that was in Utah, not in Southern California.

In SoCal, everything is spread out. In 2007, I bought a new car and in that first year alone, I put 24,000 miles on my car. Long commutes, grilling in traffic, running errands, visiting family. It all adds up.

I used to commute from Costa Mesa to Carson, California, every work day. It sucked. From Costa Mesa to Seal Beach, everything was fine. Pass the 605 and then I join the line of people going to a county where the Board of Supervisors admitted that for the previous twenty years, they had no coherent plan for transportation. And it showed.

Sitting in traffic is boring so when I'm there, looking at the next car, my mind is looking for something to do. So I play this guessing game, pretending that I'm using my intuition to figure out which lane will go faster. I was commuting alone so I smiled with glee when the diamond lane got clogged. But when that was clear as the sky, I got busy guessing lanes.

I was a lane changer in heavy or slow traffic. I did this to pass the time. Eventually I got to my destination, but it really was a slow moving detention. It wasn't made any better by listening to NPR, or what I like to call, "resentment radio". I call it resentment radio because they talk about the stock market as if most people own stocks. Here? In America? Not really. And if we do, our 401k is going sideways.

Then NPR goes on and on about American foreign policy. Every day, they're talking about Israel as if Israel is always right. What about us? Why aren't they reporting on US? Well, they are. They're talking about who just got appointed to that plush job with the FCC in DC. What is the Fed going to do next? Who cares? But if I want to hear about us, I will have to wait for This American Life.

Anyway, I'm sitting in traffic and guessing lanes and feeling the frustration. Then for what seemed like an eternity, I'm in lane 3 and I'm stopped while watching 30 or 40 cars go by in lanes 2 and 4. What is going on up there? Did someone drop a quarter and stop to pick it up? I was furious that I could not get out of the lane that was stopped!

Then something clicked in my head. I don't know exactly what happened, but I heard a voice or something like that say, "This isn't working. Let's try something else."

So I took a few deep breaths to decide what to do. This is important. The brain uses 10 times more oxygen than any other organ in the body. When under stress, remember to breathe, everything follows.

Then I said the following words: "I accept everything exactly as it is right now." 
And again.
And again.

I started repeating that sentence over and over, like a mantra. A few minutes later, I forgot what I was pissed about. Traffic started flowing again. I could see my exit. I was done.

There is something about acceptance that calms the mind. Once we can accept our circumstances, we can do something about them. Until we accept them, we can do nothing but bitch and complain. But once we accept it, well, then the brain goes to work, meaningful work.

The brain operates in two modes. The first one, the one we're really familiar with is the left side, the side of judgement. Left and right, right and wrong, black and white. The left side uses logic and words to make sense of reality. There is no grey area.

The right side is that gray area, with more than fifty shades. The right side is a continuously adjusting targeting system. You pick a target, a goal, and the right side will get you there. Did you miss? Don't worry, the right side doesn't get upset about missing. The right side will adjust and try again until the target or goal is achieved.

My goal was to stop the torture in traffic. The left side was too busy judging the situation and the right side was listening to music. Neither side was fully engaged in reality until I said those magic words, "I accept everything exactly as it is right now." Once I accepted reality, I became fully engaged in my existence. I didn't even have to click my heels.

Now I could make some meaningful choices. I could change how I think about my situation. I could change my behavior. Funny thing about changing behavior, other people tend to change in response to that behavior. It's not like they have a choice about it. Input and output are related. Change the stimulus and you will change the response.

Whatever change you want to make in your life, it must start with acceptance of everything in your life exactly as it is. You don't have to like it, acceptance is all that is needed. From that point on, harmony with the world around you is a lot easier to find. Even when sitting in traffic.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Community broadband is the future

Most of us are familiar with Cable internet access and DSL from our phone company. I have a choice of both, but how much of a choice is it, really? The phone company, Centurylink, says that it can provide no more than 5 megabits per second. And of that, they only guarantee 80%. I tried it and it was really horrible. I spent a lot of time rebooting the modem, babysitting it, and calling the phone company for better service. Eventually, I gave up.

I also have Comcast. Comcast provides much better service, but it's more expensive. What is very interesting to me is that the double-play plans between the two, cost roughly the same, but Comcast offers 25mbs and up for about the same price that Centurylink charges. On this side of the street, Comcast has no competition at speeds greater than 5mbs. This is not really a choice in the market and it seems to me that Centurylink has ceded the market to Comcast on this side of the street.

I struggled for a year and a half to get Comcast to connect to my home after I moved here. Long after I got that connection, Centurylink sales boys would come by my house trying to sell their service. All they had to do was say that the max speed for their service was 5mbs and I was done. They say that they're going to roll out fiber, but I don't see that happening here. I live in a low value neighborhood. Curiously, Centurylink just announced Gigabit fiber for 16 cities, including Salt Lake City, but I'm not holding my breath.

I think that the pressure for better service has been mounting due to a few very well publicized events. Many of us have already heard about Google Fiber - gigabit service, up and down, for about $70 a month in the cities where it is being deployed. This has been a kick in the pants for the incumbents where it has been deployed. Instead of milking profits and taking their sweet time, incumbent carriers now have to compete with Google in a few select cities.

The really big news is community broadband. You won't see much about it in the mainstream press because, well, Comcast and other big telecom companies hold very large if not controlling interests in the major media companies. They understand that in order to maintain their market share while keeping profits high, they must control the media. Having a monopoly on internet access just isn't enough these days. They need control of the media to hang on to that monopoly.

With more than 400 communities running their own networks, in defiance of the incumbents that failed to meet their needs, the cat is out of the bag. Cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina are using existing public utility infrastructure to hang their gigabit fiber on. These utilities provide better service to what would be Comcast or Verizon customers. They don't have any of the rent seekers skulking around in the board rooms, trying to milk money from Netflix or Google, either. Community broadband is all about net neutrality.

Here in West Valley City, the local government is moving step by step to recharge the Utopia network in partnership with Macquarie, a world class construction financier. Macquarie has the money and the experience to build fiber out to every home and business in this city and provide gigabit service to us at a very reasonable cost. This is a very big deal in the sense that if approved, it's not a question of if, but when. The proposed agreement requires that everyone is hooked up within 30 months, so no matter where you live in West Valley City, you'll get connected in 30 months.

Many smaller towns are operating that way, too. With private telecoms, it's a guessing game as to when your house will be hooked up. Calling, checking, calling again - yeah, that was me. I did that on a periodic basis to see if Comcast was ever going to come to my house. It wasn't until I met a very enterprising sales person in Comcast that I finally got it. Without my persistence, I'd still be bitching about Centurylink. Luckily, I found someone interested in the challenge of getting me hooked up.

One of the early initiatives of the Obama Administration was the National Broadband Map. This map has been built to give us an idea of what to expect in our future or present neighborhood in terms of availability and speed. This effort was fiercely opposed by the incumbent service providers. They said that such a map would compromise proprietary information - their customer base. The reality is that they don't like exposure, I mean, transparency. It's not fair if consumers can choose their residence based on the availability of high speed internet access, it seems.

More than 400 cities across the nation have figured out a way around the incumbent providers. They have community broadband systems that not only do the job, they do it well. Some are public, some are public/private, but the vast majority of those consumers are quite happy with their service and are pleased that they no longer have to wait on a Wall Street bean counter to get better speeds and service in their neighborhood.

Community broadband is inevitable. As more and people see internet access as a utility, just like electricity and water, the justification for privately owned monopolies like Comcast and Verizon will make less sense. Someday, we'll look back and wonder what we were thinking.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The quest for monopoly power is antithetical to free markets

Microsoft, Comcast and Monsanto all have one thing in common: a desire to systematically eliminate all competition by whatever means necessary, at any cost. There is a problem with this philosophy. First, These three are just a few very good examples, the desire to own or corner markets is a common attribute of American businesses today. Second, once you've eliminated any and all meaningful competition, consumers have no choice but to use your product. This is antithetical to the goal of a free market.

Microsoft rose to prominence through deceit, clever licensing techniques and copyright protection. Their tactics are very well documented. From exclusive software licensing that excludes other operating systems, to partnerships that eventually kill off their partners, Microsoft has deployed a plethora of tricks to keep their competitors at bay. Between the marketplace and the courts, Microsoft has used contracts, threats of litigation and litigation to clear the market of competition. Some memorable opponents include BeOS, Amiga and Netscape - all of them no longer operating. All of them are choices that we no longer have thanks to Microsoft tactics.

In order to avoid further anti-trust action, Microsoft made investments to save Apple in the early 1990s that are now haunting them. But even so, Microsoft and Apple do not a free market make. Many choices in operating systems were lost due to Microsoft and their monopoly power led to entrenchment and collusion between Microsoft and the government.

It wasn't until the free software movement came into being that Microsoft saw a real competitive threat. Here was Linux, a free operating system, growing better by the day through worldwide collaboration, a collection of software that no one could own, but everyone could use, so long as they adhered to the license. And Microsoft could not buy it out to snuff it.

Comcast has taken a different approach. Through intense lobbying, Comcast has been able to hobble the Baby Bells so that they could not compete in the sphere of ISPs. Comcast was able to avoid the designation of common carriers where the phone companies could not. Long after the damage was done, Congress and the state legislatures finally came to the rescue of the incumbent Baby Bells, but by then, Comcast and Time-Warner, with greater investments and higher speeds, established majority market shares at the expense of the phone companies. Once again, the duopolies of cable and phone companies for internet access do not a free market make.

More than a decade ago, small communities, unable to get competitive service for internet access from either the cable companies or the phone companies, began to work on their own projects. They rolled their networks to get world class speeds for internet access at the same cost or less than what the incumbents were willing to offer. This is community broadband.

The cable companies and the phone companies were and are mortified by this competitive threat. How dare those locals build their own choice! How dare they go around us to get great service at a great price! We can't even buy them out to snuff out the competition! Looks like we'll have to get the state legislature to do our bidding. And they did. 20 states have passed laws limiting or prohibiting cities and towns from rolling their own networks.

The FCC is becoming keen to this tactic and has pointed out that cities and towns should have local authority to make their own decisions about internet access. Ironically, some in Congress don't want the FCC meddling in state affairs, even if the state governments are meddling in local affairs.

Finally, there is Monsanto, the whipping boy of the GMO opponents, and rightly so. Monsanto has used their patents and clever licensing to grow a 90% share of the corn and soy bean market. GMO products are everywhere and very difficult to avoid. Their hope, like any other monopolist is that we will just give up and let them get their patents and let them decide what food is best for us.

I'm not kidding about their brand of hope. But there are states in this Union that are rebelling. Take Vermont and Washington. Vermont has a law on the books that requires GMOs to be labeled and is the target of massive litigation on the part of the GMO industry. Washington has at least one county that has banned GMOs. There is huge fight over GMOs in Hawaii, too. Better than 90% of Americans will tell you that GMOs should be labeled. But in the press, there is very little discussion of how Europe requires GMOs to be labeled. Many GMO crops are banned there.

In all three examples above, we see monopolies rise to rule the markets. Each monopoly eliminates or limits consumer choices in the market place. Choice in the marketplace is only restored after citizens rise up to claim their freedoms once again. Constitutions, laws and courts can do little to keep our freedoms while good men stand idle. It is only when we protest, when we show up, do the leaders of our civilization remember who is in charge.