Saturday, October 31, 2015

Free the Law: Democracy requires open court decisions

It is heartening to see that someone has noticed how most of our court documents and decisions are locked up behind a paywall and is willing to do something about it. For example, most federal court decisions and documents are locked up behind PACER, an electronic access system for the federal courts. As Brian W. Carver notes at the Free Law Project, The fees for use of PACER are high and not easy to predict during use, the user interface is very difficult to use and there is no accountability with the people who run PACER. In his words, there is no meaningful access to court documents for the average person.

Techdirt also brings word that Harvard University has recognized the problem of paywalled decisions online and has started a project, Free the Law (not to be confused with the Free Law Project mentioned above - similar goal, different people), to do something about it. Their goal? Make every U.S. and state court decision available online for free to anyone who wants it. Considering that we've had the internet around for so long, I'm surprised it took this long for someone, anyone, to make this a priority.

The Free Law Project, is set on making every document from these court cases in PACER available free to the public. The Free Law Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to "Providing free access to primary legal materials, developing legal research tools and supporting academic research on legal corpora", as their website attests.

If you're wondering why open court records are so important, consider the case of SCO v IBM. In 2003, SCO filed suit against IBM for copying UNIX code into Linux. Linux is a free and open source operating system which, as SCO put it, was for hobbyists until IBM came along and copied UNIX code into Linux, making that UNIX it freely available to anyone who wants to use it.

What does Linux have to do with you? If you're browsing the web, you're most likely accessing a server running Linux. If you have a cell phone, it's most likely running Linux. Got a smart TV? Linux. I use Linux at home for my computers. Most of the Fortune 500 uses Linux.

SCO saw this immense market building up on the use of Linux and wanted to charge $700 per server for commercial use of Linux at the start. IBM wanted to protect its reputation and fought the lawsuit with everything they had at their disposal and prevailed.

The lawsuit gave rise to the website, by far one of my favorite blogs when it was running (it is still there, and it's still a very useful resource). Pamela Jones was the creator of Groklaw and she brought news of the lawsuit every time SCO or IBM made a move. The lawsuit so enraged the Linux community that a small army of men and women worked together to get every document, every filing, anything that came out of the proceedings and put it online for anyone to see.

Groklaw brought intense scrutiny to the players in the lawsuit. Much analysis was brought forth as to the motives for the lawsuit, the most probable being that SCO wanted IBM to buy the company out and make them go away, but that didn't happen. SCO declared bankruptcy before IBM could get to their counterclaims against SCO. In the end, the amount of code found to be copied was so small as to be trifling, and it turned out that SCO didn't even own the copyrights to the code that was the source of their complaint. If not for Groklaw, we all might be paying much more to use Linux rather than getting a copy free if we wanted it. We might even be using Windows instead of Linux if Microsoft had their way.

We wouldn't know much of this without public access to court documents. Public access to the court documents made it easy to spread the word about what was happening. Public access also makes it easy to allow others to analyze the proceedings and to ensure that the proceedings were fair. But none of it was free. Everyone who contributed at Groklaw went down to the courthouse to get the documents, scan them, transcribe them to text and make it available online. It all took time, money and effort.

While the story of Groklaw concerns the documents, and the Free the Law project concerns the opinions produced by the courts, the point is the same. Free and open access to the law, from docket to opinion, is essential for democracy to function.

If the goals of the Harvard Free the Law project and the Free Law Project becomes a reality, anyone anywhere can look up a court case, get the opinion and the case file, and use it as they need to. Just about every city, every state and the federal government, make their laws and regulations freely available online. It's about time we made every court document and decision available online for free, too.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Musings on the upgrade experience with Windows 10 vs Ubuntu

I note with interest this article on The Register about Microsoft's rollout of Windows 10. Apparently, Microsoft has gone all out to get people on Windows 10 whether they like it or not. Well, they're trying to save face by saying that you have a choice, but they're not very upfront about that choice.

I have a relative who was faced with this choice on her machine. I'm her IT guy and I help her when prompted to help. So when I was visiting I booted up her computer and had her login. Then, down in the bottom right-hand corner, I saw a message saying Windows 10 has been installed. After working on her computer to fix some other problem, I see a window that says, "Reboot to complete the installation of Windows 10".

My relative is not a techie by any means. She never consented to this upgrade and never received any warning that any upgrade would be forced upon her. I just didn't see any way out of the upgrade, so we rebooted.

This is the experience that millions of Windows users are being treated to. But it's an interesting contrast to what life used to be like with Microsoft. I remember the days when Microsoft would make us pay for the next version of Windows. Oh how they loved to plot together with hardware makers for a fat and slow Windows that would only load and run faster on new hardware. I guess those days are gone.

I also note with interest that Microsoft does give you an option to go back to the old system if you choose to do so, but you must do so within 30 days of the upgrade or it's gone forever. Apparently, they save the entire OS on disk before the upgrade in case you want to go back. But, they ask, why would you? Windows 10 is the latest and greatest. It does everything you want it to do, faster, simpler, easier and did I mention, "safer"? This time, they've slimmed it down to work on existing hardware instead of making you shop for a faster new box.

That rollback option never appeared for my hapless relative and I'm surprised to read about it at The Register. BTW, if you like to follow tech news with snark, The Register is the place to go. They're good with humorous conundrums and ironies as well the occasional example of stupidity in the tech news. Plus, they're great with giving us factual, informative and useful news about the tech industry.

Some of you may know that I'm a Linux man. I hate Apple for their silly patent wars and I detest Microsoft for their antics with open standards like OOXML as well as their shell game with The SCO Group. Interestingly, I love what both of them have built into their graphic user interface designs. I love Apple aesthetics and I love how there is a shortcut keyboard combination for nearly everything on Windows.

But I must confess, since I switched to Linux in the summer of 2007, I have never looked back. I enjoy my Linux system so much that I shudder to consider what life would be like confined to Windows again. Worse, to be stuck using the mouse for just about every move on a Mac.

Better yet, I've never endured the kind of forced upgrade that Microsoft has impaled their users with. I'm a big Ubuntu fan and I enjoy the Long-Term Support version of their operating system. Now the LTS versions of Ubuntu go on for five years with support. Even if support expires, you can still use it, but I would recommend upgrading to the next LTS version. That means 5 long years of stable support for bug fixes and improvements.

I note also that Microsoft is claiming numerous innovations like virtual desktops. Sorry,Microsoft. Linux has had virtual desktops since about 1994. I also love how they copied the lock screen from Gnome, too. Here's the lock screen from the Linux Gnome Desktop:

And here is the lock screen from Windows 10:

I had to laugh when I saw this.

So Microsoft is flattering the Gnome community by "borrowing" this idea. Really, I take no offense, but it would be nice if Microsoft would share with the world where they get some of their ideas.

Granted, I know Linux is not for everyone. Some people really like Microsoft and some people really like Apple's iOS and I won't begrudge them. But I do feel for them and the abuses they sustain at the hands of their respective operating system developers. I encourage them and anyone else who wants to try Linux to do so. You can always go back if you want to.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How health care costs can depress the economy

It's open enrollment season for employees with health insurance. As usual, we're all seeing a noticeable bump in costs. Year over year, I'm seeing a 12% increase in health insurance costs personally, probably due to age and to the addition of a new little one. My health care insurance costs alone amount to 26% of total compensation. That is a huge chunk of change.

Of course, the costs are much lower for most younger workers. The BLS reports that health insurance alone costs on average about 8-11% of total compensation. And you might recall that this health insurance cost is rising on average about 8% a year with minimal braking due to the quasi-monopoly status that the health care industry enjoys.

These costs act an enormous brake on hourly rate increases even in the face of inflation. Employers will be unable to justify an hourly rate increase if health care costs increase faster than inflation. Therefore, health care costs damp the economy, even when it should be doing well. If there is any growth at all, we can count on health care to be there to capture much if not all of the growth before a typical employee will see it.

It's well documented that the US pays 17-18% of GDP for health care with outcomes that are no better or even worse than countries that pay half that. Most industrialized countries pay half of what we pay and still have better outcomes.

It's also well documented that in terms of international trade, the healthcare industry is very well protected. They have a Congress willing to maintain and even extend limits on how many doctors can get into school. A Congress that will limit the number of doctors that can come here to practice medicine, even though many doctors would like to live here. The healthcare industry understands supply and demand.

This is why a single payer plan can be effective. First, it removes the economic incentives that the insurance industry enjoys to consolidate and remove competition. With a single payer plan, there is no other competitor and what is left is an organization run by appointed directors, but those appointees are accountable to elected officials. Single payer plans have worked well in other industrialized countries. The UK for example, must have loved their health care system when they hosted the "summer" olympics having devoted a huge part of the opening ceremonies to it.

Better yet, with a single payer plan, there is one benefit that doesn't get much air: databases. The myriad of companies that sell health care insurance all use databases to maintain their information. There is no single standard for such information and they don't share much with the government. This is one reason why there is so much money in health insurance coding. A single payer plan can ensure that all the data is in one database making it easy to compare costs and outcomes. A single payer database can be built on open standards making it easy to run analysis.

And finally, a single payer database can make negotiations far more interesting for doctors bent on maintaining their quasi-monopoly. If there is only one payer, that payer knows what everyone else is getting paid.

Obviously, our health care system is still in need of reform. We need greater international competition to help control costs. We need greater transparency so that we know where the money is going and why it's going that way. We need to control the costs of drug patents by allowing negotiations between public health care providers and insurers and private drug producers.

Unfortunately, none of the reforms we need can happen when doctors and health care insurance executives earning better than $300,000 a year can dole out campaign contributions to the right people at the right time just to prevent reform. This is why we need to get big money out of politics. Doctors and insurance company executives alike have an interest in the status quo. Everyone else does not.

Meaningful campaign finance reform isn't just about limiting the amount that can be given to a campaign or political action committee. It's also about having an anti-corruption act that applies to everyone and has real teeth and claws. Teeth for sending offenders to prison. Claws to claw back the money.

Quid pro quo runs the healthcare industry and depresses the economy. It's up to us to change it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

If Volkswagen can program cars to cheat on smog tests, guess who can flip the vote?

For some of you that follow me on Twitter, you might recall the following tweet:

Then, not too long someone retweeted my tweet as follows:

This is the beauty of social media. Social media allows for the immediate sharing and distribution of ideas and concepts in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

Holly has made an interesting point. Volkswagen has been deceiving governments and the public about their efforts to defeat smog checks for years and no one noticed until a few short months ago.

If just one auto manufacturers are brave enough to defy the emissions testing regime in this country, and perhaps a few more, how far does the rabbit hole go?

Likewise, we must ask the same question of our voting machines and their manufacturers. We participate in elections to determine our collective fate, to craft and refine our social contract. If people in power want more power, it is tempting, very tempting indeed, for them to work with industry to circumvent the safeguards in place to prevent tampering with voting machines.

No matter which party you are with, both major parties, any party in power, can succumb to the temptation to interfere with elections to get the outcome they want.

It is interesting then to see that the Librarian of Congress, empowered to review DMCA restrictions and safe harbors, has expanded the exemptions in the law so as to permit circumvention of the locks that keep people out of car electronics. Of course, digital media is still protected. You can tinker with your car electronics so long as you avoid messing with anything that might interact with copyright protected content.

While it would seem obvious that we need the same protection to verify the security and proper functioning of our voting machines, we already know there are problems with them and have known about those problems for a long time. Giving people the power to tinker is nice, but that doesn't really solve the problem. Many states have considered abandoning electronic voting machines, and apparently, many have.

As we get closer to one of the most important elections of our time, an election that's basically a race between the people and the billionaires, we need to know for sure that our voting machines are working as designed. We need to know that they work for the people.

We can do this, from top to bottom. From the voting machines on the front lines to the machines that collect and tabulate the results, we can create open source systems that run on open source hardware that anyone can view to verify their functioning. Every bit of code can be verified with file verification through encryption algorithms.

Sure, it would take years to develop, but at least it could go a long way towards ensuring fair elections. If we can send a man to the moon, we can develop and implement a completely verified, open source voting system for us and the world. There is nothing to stop us from trying.

Oh, wait. There is. Big money in politics. If Bernie Sanders is right, then we may need a peaceful political revolution to institute the reforms our country so desperately needs.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

If higher wages kill jobs, explain Gravity Payments

In April of this year, we were treated to a story about a CEO who raised the minimum wage at his company to $70k a year. That CEO was Dan Price, founder of Gravity Payments and you can read all the cool details about his decision at Inc's website. I love this story for so many reasons and a few of them aren't even discussed in most of the articles I've seen covering it. So today, I want to bring forth some of the subtext for the story.

I first wrote about the story back on April 19th of this year. In that piece, I did more of an ideological perspective on the event. In the following months, there were doom and gloom articles about how the plan would fail because, well, "socialism just doesn't work". Never mind that France has a 32 hour work week and some of the most productive employees in the world by any measure.

I encourage you read the piece at Inc because it brings to light the details and backstory that were missing from the initial reporting. For example, the Inc piece discusses the genesis of Dan Price's decision. He had an interaction with one of his employees where he was confronted with a problem: Price was paying the employee the market rate, but the market rate was not enough. Price was bothered by this for weeks and gave it much thought.

Price and the unfortunate employee noticed together that the market is rigged. Just as Elizabeth Warren has noticed. Just as the courts have noticed, too. In May of this year, a judge approved a $415m payout to employees that suffered economic harm due to a "no-poaching agreement". Apple and Google had agreed not to poach employees from each other to avoid wage escalation due to competition for talent. This is how large companies can collude to set market rates for compensation and the no poaching agreement is very likely the tip of the iceberg.

Consider that there are many business associations like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Construction Contractors Association and the National Mining Association. Pick an industry and you'll find a way for so-called competitors to meet and collude...I mean, collaborate...on setting national and local policies that promote their respective businesses. They're sort of like a union, aren't they?

When power is consolidated in business associations, then setting public policy and rigging the market to suppress wages becomes much easier. An added bonus is the ability to write and pass laws that suppress union membership in the market.

Back to the story at Gravity Payments. The company is reporting that since the minimum wage increase, profits have soared, customer retention has increased and turnover has decreased. Price has noticed that morale is better, employees stopped worrying about the money and got focused on the work resulting in a productivity increase of 40%. The mainstream media would have us believe that a $70k minimum wage is not sustainable. But the numbers prove that it actually pays for itself. 

Another interesting facet of Price's decision to raise the minimum wage is this:
"I began wondering what my friend would have to make so she wouldn't have to worry about a $200 rent hike," says Price. He recalled a 2010 study by Princeton behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman finding that, while people did not feel happier on a daily basis as their income rose above $75,000, they were decidedly unhappier the less they earned below $75,000. At Gravity, new hires made $35,000 a year.
I read about that study, too. I even wrote an article that touched upon it. But here's the kicker. The mainstream media would have us believe that higher wages are not supported by economics even though Gravity Payments is proving otherwise. The Inc article notes that a couple customers went elsewhere because they didn't support the political statement implied by the $70k minimum wage. Another was worried that the news would somehow force their company to raise their own wages.

But if the economics support the increase in wages, then there must be something else going on. The mainstream conservative justification for wage austerity is that it "builds character" and that it makes people more willing to compete in the market. In other words, if you gave them a guaranteed income like unemployment insurance and/or welfare, they won't be willing to work for a low wage. Take that away and bingo!, people get really interested in work.

But that's not what the numbers tell us. The numbers tell us that if you raise wages, people stop worrying about the money and get really interested in work. I think the motive is a bit more grim as noted by Timothy Noah at Slate:
"Living conditions improve over time. But people do not experience life as an interesting moment in the evolution of human societies. They experience it in the present and weigh their own experience against that of the living. Brooks cites (even though it contradicts his argument) a famous 1998 study by economists Sara Solnick (then at the University of Miami, now at the University of Vermont) and David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health. Subjects were asked which they'd prefer: to earn $50,000 while knowing everyone else earned $25,000, or to earn $100,000 while knowing everyone else earned $200,000. Objectively speaking, $100,000 is twice as much as $50,000. Even so, 56 percent chose $50,000 if it meant that would put them on top rather than at the bottom. We are social creatures and establish our expectations relative to others."
I think that the top 1% are in a race to the top. They all want to be the highest earner. But the only way to support that race is to suppress wages for everyone else. That's because there is only so much money in the economy and it has to go somewhere. To keep escalating non-wage income at the top, wage income, capital allocated to labor, must go down.

The problem is that none of this race is making anyone happier. Happiness is a choice, not a number. Dan Price has recognized this problem and put a solution into practice and profited from it. The only reason I can think of to keep the charade going is that conservatives just want to save face.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Power struggles from childhood to adulthood and the quest for world peace

When I was a young man, I tried therapy, support groups and many books. I was in a lot of pain and can remember a therapist telling me that his impression of me is "that of a man who wants to jump out of his skin". It was then that I began the journey of self-discovery. I was anxious, resentful and terrified of people.

The first step after therapy was books. I read a lot of books like The Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child rearing and the roots of violence and Making Sense of Suffering. I had suffered at the hands of an alcoholic parent as a child and needed to figure out how to undo it as a young adult. I spent much of my adult life working out my identity and learning how be comfortable with myself.

Back then, I just wanted a relationship, but I realize now that what I wanted was so much more. I wanted peace, relief from the obsessions that plagued me. I found it through lots of hard work, writing, self-help groups and, much later, just getting married, for we learn more about ourselves in relations with others than without.

A few days ago, I read a fantastic article about kids, "10 Alternatives To 'Consequences' When Your Child Isn't Cooperating". This article talks about power struggles. Hmmm. "Power Struggles"? I've read about that before. I read about them here not too long ago, at the Lives In the Balance website. But I also read about it many years ago while working with Paul and Layne Cutright. I had enrolled in a 60 hour course in conflict resolution at the request of a roommate. I had time and nothing to lose, so I decided to do it.

I spent a whole week in a seminar in San Diego, California, learning about relationships in sort of a boot camp with compassion. The Cutrights have a great book called "Straight From the Heart", a tool for building intimacy with the people we love. It was, to say the least, an enormously liberating experience.

At the seminar in San Diego, they talked about power struggles in the adult context. I learned that a power struggle is really a request for greater commitment. So in my relations with my wife, when there is a disagreement, I see it as a request for greater commitment. I do not see it as "my way or the highway". When people get to the "my way or the highway" point, that is where the relationship ends. I never let it get to that point for me. I'm just committed and there is nothing more to it.

That article I read a few days ago on dealing with kids when they don't cooperate also talks about power struggles. I had read the phrase "power struggles" in that article and just passed it by, like I already knew what it was about. But a few days ago, I realized that they were talking about the same thing.

Every conflict I ever had with my dad was a power struggle. But here's the thing about power struggles: they are more about "my way or the highway" than about love. My dad was almost always in "my way or the highway" mode (I think he still is). There was no compromise, there were no exceptions. If he didn't get his way, then everyone else learned what the "consequences" were. At that point, it becomes clear that might is right around him.

Most parents in the 60's, 70's and 80s, were very concerned with "consequences". They wanted their children to behave, so there were consequences for unwanted behavior. All of the consequences like spanking, grounding, loss of possessions, privileges and the like, were conjured up by the parents because they had no other tools to work with. There was very little recognition of natural consequences.

That article at Aha! Parenting makes a case in point:
"I'm not suggesting that you move heaven and earth to protect your child from the natural outcome of his choices. We all need to learn lessons, and if your child can do so without too much damage, life is a great teacher. (Meaning, you won't let him get a concussion to teach him to wear his bike helmet.) But you'll want to make sure these are actually "natural" consequences that your child doesn't perceive as punishment so they don't trigger all the negative effects of punishment. What's more, you'll want to be sure that your child is convinced that you aren't orchestrating the consequence and are firmly on his side, so you don't undermine your relationship with him."
Life is a great teacher. When kids learn from natural consequences, they become better able to assess risk and make their own choices. To put it differently, I would rather have my own kids learn to behave on their own without me regulating them. If I create the "consequence" then they look to me for regulation. If they experience the consequences of their actions as a natural outcome, then they begin to observe the world without me getting involved and make better choices. They learn to regulate themselves. I know, interesting concept, but it works.

When I got into power struggles with my dad as a kid, I saw my dad as forcing his will upon me without really understanding what I wanted. Kids are great problem solvers. When faced with a problem that they can't solve, they may cry, act out or withdraw. When they act out, it's unwanted behavior. Parents who were spanked will spank their kids. Parents who were yelled at will yell at their kids. Parents who treated with the opportunity to talk about and solve the problem, will help their kids.

I was grounded, spanked, yelled at, and had to deal with a difficult, hard to predict contrarian that was my dad. This isn't to say my dad was or is evil. Just a bit confused. He could have helped me instead of punishing me. That's the point I want to make.

My mom? She was pretty simple about it. She was generally very compassionate and helped us to solve our problems. She talked with us. The difference is this: dad was uncomfortable with the feelings he experienced during our "unwanted" behavior. Mom wanted to talk it out. She wanted to help.

When those feelings came up for my parents it was like night and day. My dad punished for relief from the feelings of being powerless over the kids. Mom would always talk with us.

The message I got from each parent was different. With my dad, the message was, "Getting you to do things my way is more important than the love I have for you".With mom, the message was, "It's more important to talk about it and solve it together than to punish you for your behavior".

These power struggles are carried within us through adulthood. And as Alice Miller notes in many of her books, many of the most brutal dictators in history carried the same power struggles to positions of enormous power. Once seated in a position of power, the leader with unresolved issues with his parents will impose the fate of his childhood upon the people subject to his power. Miller found this with Hitler, Nicolae CeauČ™escu, and a few others which don't readily come to mind now, because those are the two that I remember the best.

Hitler was savagely beaten by his father every day. He once confided in his sister that he had learned not to cry when spanked and even learned to count the beatings. Nicolae CeauČ™escu was raised by an alcoholic father. His parents were forced to have more children than they wanted, so as an adult leader, he imposed the same fate upon the nation he led.

Humankind faces enormous problems: global warming, overpopulation, ocean acidification and that's just what we know about. At this juncture, we are faced with a choice: we can punish our kids or teach them how to solve problems. We can now look at every dictator to see where the inspiration for their abuse comes from: their parents. We can also be the problem solving inspiration for our children so that they grow up to be problem solvers rather than dictators. We do this by giving our kids the problem solving skills they need to cope with the demands of their environment.

We can either be ruled by problem solvers or by dictators. Nurturing and protecting our children will almost certainly save the human race before any dictator has a chance to rise to power. I can't think of a better way to leave the world for our kids.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Finding serenity in piano music on YouTube

Months ago, we got an electronic keyboard for our daughters. Neither my wife and I play music so we don't really set a good example for our kids. I'm thinking that I will take lessons when my daughter takes lessons, but that is still quite some time in the future. Then one day, my aunt comes to the house and it turns out that she knows how to play. So she plays and my oldest daughter is enthused.

Weeks go by and I'm just watching my kids play in the living room. They touch on the piano again and it hits me. I bring up YouTube on my phone and start looking for piano music, something to show my kids what to do with it. My daughter is captivated for a few moments and then walks over to the keyboard to play along.

I started with something like Bugs Bunny playing Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt, but Warner-Bros has done a very thorough job of gutting every decent video from YouTube. The only one I could find has Spanish dubbing. Isn't it interesting that we can find tons of stuff from the Beatles, but Warner Bros? Good luck. At least we know who really cares about culture.

So I found some Debussy, played by professionals and cast it to my TV. Great production value, very well done. I was moved. Emily, my daughter, went to the keyboard to play along. I could see that she was interested, but was overwhelmed since she's only two. Then I found "how to play" videos. Old MacDonald, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star - stuff like that. She really liked that.

After that, I started to watch more piano videos on my computer with the headset. I've long had a penchant for Chopin's Nocturnes and I have one old CD full of them. There are a few tunes that I really like and spent some time watching them being played rather than just listening to the music. I found Claire de Lune by Debussy and his Arabesque songs. I enjoyed watching all of them.

There is one video of a much older fellow playing. I recall his serenity before starting and while playing. It's just him in his home, playing a song he loves, peacefully. As he plays, I can see in his face that he's lost himself in the music. While he plays, there is nothing else to think of, there is nothing he'd rather be doing.

A few seconds after he finishes the last note, he raises his head upright and his eyes grow a bit wider, as if waking from a dream. He's back, among us, as if he had traveled to a far away land and had been transported back, instantaneously.

Lately, I've been finding serenity in watching my favorite songs being played. I'd look at my music catalog in Rhythmbox and search for Debussy and Chopin, my two favorites. I like Strauss, but I really like the Blue Danube and that just doesn't work for me on piano. Anyway, whatever I found on YouTube, I found that I preferred performances before a live audience.

As I watched each succeeding video, sometimes repeating one that I had seen the night before or the day before that, I began to take note of the hands and the arms. I noticed how fluid and smooth the hands moved. I noticed the difference between the soft and the hard strokes of the keys. I love how they tickle the keys in high notes the nocturnes.

Since these songs were often performed before an audience, I also noticed that the entire theater was at peace. While the music played, everyone was quiet. The performers each lost themselves in the music, in full concentration of their performance. For a moment, it seemed that everyone had lost any thought of their troubles, their worries, their concerns. There was only the music.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Safe seats hinder broadband development on a national scale

Community Broadband News has this very interesting development about a man who worked from home and was planning to move to a new location where he would build his own house. He did the due diligence by checking with both incumbent broadband providers to see if they could provide internet access at his location. Both confirmed that they could.

So the man built his house and moved only to find that both ISPs would charge many thousands of dollars to connect his house to their networks. From the article:
"When Marshall completed construction and contacted Charter, the cable company offered to provide the service only if he paid $117,000 to extend their network to his home. And Frontier? Frontier mislead him too, pricing the job at $42,000 to bring him the 24 Mbps service they’d promised they could provide."
That homeowner could not find the service he needed once he had his home built and had to depend on a much slower service to get his work done. This article is yet another example of how incumbent ISPs can determine whether or not a community can get decent access speeds. The homeowner in the article is not the only one dissatisfied with incumbent ISP service. The entire town is unhappy with their service.

An interesting question that comes to mind is how we got to this point. This is a problem that could easily be fixed by allowing local control of the situation. In this example, the city was so unhappy with service provided by the incumbents that they recently passed a resolution to build a municipal network to provide better service to their residents. They are following the same path blazed by more than 450 cities that have enjoyed higher access speeds and the prosperity that goes along with it.

The cavalier attitude of the incumbent carriers is demonstrative of their sense of confidence. Motherboard has noticed 21 laws in as many states which seek to hinder or prohibit municipal broadband. Apparently the industry got to the Wisconsin legislature in 2003 to prevent the city from asserting local control with this law. The law does allow room to get through, but only with a costly effort.

The influence of incumbent ISPs on statehouse action could be resolved with national policy. But at the national policy, ISP influence is even stronger and provides ample support to swing votes in their favor. This is another way of saying that Congress will not move to allow local control without campaign finance reform.

Local control means, allowing cities and counties to decide for themselves how to provide access to the Internet. It was the cities that decided to set up franchise agreements with the local providers, setting up a de facto monopoly to those same providers. It should be up to the cities if they want to alter or cancel those agreements if service demands are not met, and then build their own networks.

When the ISPs realized that the cities would seek to change the status quo, they went to the legislatures at the state and national level for protection. They backed up that protection at the national level to ensure that they would not be usurped. This nation needs urgent reform of our broadband policy to allow cities to build their own networks without worry of reprisal from the legislatures that represent them.

But we can't have that reform until we get on the same page at the national level. And as many of you may already know, Congress is broken. The only way we're going to fix Congress is by removing all of the safe seats in Congress (about 60% are safe). The only way to make elections competitive again in those safe seats is by removing big money from elections. Then and only then, can we have the national discussion we need to have about competition in the broadband space and make real progress.

Friday, October 23, 2015

It doesn't matter what Exxon knew about global warming. What matters is our response.

I see in the news a ton of reporting about what Exxon executives knew about climate change in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Liberals at The Nation charge that Exxon, it's executives and its partners conspired to hide the evidence that they already knew. Some are calling for the Department of Justice to investigate. At the Breitbart News, they're saying that Exxon was just being responsibly cautious for their shareholders.

Like many of us, I have been reading about climate change for a long, long time. I remember reading decades ago in Car and Driver Magazine that a few volcanoes have burped up more C02 than the entirety of human history. I would agree with them and I know that there are going to be more volcanoes doing the same thing. The next big one could go off in Yellowstone National Park in our lifetime. That's just how the earth works. But I also agree that we shouldn't tempt fate by adding to the problem, and at the rate we're going, we're adding to the problem.

Lately, I've been getting into lawn care and went to my local Intermountain Farmers Association store to learn more about how to care for lawns. I have a nice home and want to keep the lawn in good shape.

While talking with one of the salespeople there, we discussed the timing of lawn care. He pointed out that in years past, there would always be a hard freeze in the middle of October. He says we haven't had that for two years in a row now, and we're already into late October without a hard freeze. I'm relatively new to Utah and while talking to people who've been here for a long time, they say they can remember more than 30 years ago how there used to always be snow on the ground in the winter. Not so much anymore. The evidence is clear that the climate is changing.

Unfortunately, there are still some people who want to debate the point about whether or not it's caused by man or not. Even if much of the work was done by a few volcanoes, there are plenty of other reasons we should avoid carbon. For example, there are many reports of ocean acidification, health issues with carbon extraction in the oil, coal and gas industries. Even if the "alarmists" are wrong, why tempt fate? But they're not wrong. There is a 97% consensus of more than 12,000 published papers supported by a global scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans.

My perspective in general has changed as a result of what I'm seeing. For example, I no longer have any desire for a sports car. I mean, how can I enjoy the car when it's farting CO2 everywhere, adding to the possibility that my girls are going to see winters in their lifetimes where there will be no snow here? Even in my little economy car, I feel a certain sense of guilt as I commute to work. I feather the pedals to conserve energy on my daily trek.

By analogy, I have a hard time understanding how salesmen and corporate executives can work in a company, any company, that sells carbon for money without losing sleep at night. How do they sleep knowing that the planet just isn't going to be the same as it was when they started? That the planet will have less snow and more superstorms near the equator? That ocean levels will rise devastating the low lying areas around the world?

Much of the prosperity we've seen up to this point has come at the cost of the climate since most of our energy is supplied by carbon in the form of coal and natural gas. That is starting to change and the pace is accelerating. I just hope it's not too little too late. While I can understand the need to seek justice and prosecute the people responsible for climate change, I think we had better keep our eyes on the ball and work towards cleaning up the planet for the next generation to enjoy.

I see the shiny new TVs every time I go to Costco. There are gizmos everywhere to distract us from while the earth heats up. Phones, tablets, video game consoles and tiny little computers for the geeks among us. How can I enjoy all these wonders without guilt? Solar power. Wind. Thorium. Conservation. Population control through education. This is how we reduce demand for the products sold by Exxon.

If we're lucky, we can avoid the runaway greenhouse process that could happen if we don't change course soon enough. We can do it. All it takes is a little bit of mindful action every day.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bernie Sanders proposes postal banking and it makes sense

I love it. I'm a big fan of public banking, so when Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to empower the Post Office to run a public banking system for the very poor, this makes him even more appealing as president. Of course, the private banks would be furious if this ever got a chance to become reality. A public banking system run by the post office would make them an unassailable competitor. But it would go far to eliminate the predatory practices that the private banking system has been escalating on the poor for decades.

Sanders says that big banks don't want the poor. So the poor have to go to payday loan businesses to get their basic banking done. They get their checks cashed but pay a stiff fee to do it. If they want a loan, they see very high interest rates, but they get their loans. I know, I've seen them. We have them in Utah like California has liquor stores. There is a payday loan place on just about every corner of Redwood Road and State Street. Except near the capital. That's too close to home.

The Atlantic is running a great article on the concept and rightly notes that "postal banking" is popular around the world. The only reason we don't do it here is that our Congress is regulated by the banks. See, the private banks are run by shareholders and hey, don't you know that 50% of the outstanding securities like stocks are owned by the 1%? They're driving the high costs of banking in their quest for profits. But the Atlantic article notes that the Post Office can run banking services at cost, and that might actually make private banks more honest. Now there's a concept.

There is a conservative wing of Congress that has been doing everything in their power to make the Post Office go broke. They're big fans of something called "privatization". Here's how it works. First they cut funding gradually over time.Then they point to how the agency is failing to perform it's mission. Then they propose to eliminate it entirely and let private enterprise do it.

Unfortunately for the arch-enemies of the Post Office, there is a Constitutional mandate for a post office and post roads. Even the framers of the Constitution recognized a need for a mail delivery service that is not owned by private, profit seeking individuals. Now it's clear that the Constitution grants the power to establish a post office and roads, but it doesn't require Congress to do it. I'm sure there is some Conservative member of Congress hanging on this observation in his quest to hand over all of our mail delivery services to UPS and FedEx. You know, just in case they might want to contribute to his campaign fund.

Congress has been doing everything to show how inefficient and lazy the Post Office is, when in fact, they're doing just fine. So if they can't defund it to the point of breaking it, then they lard it up with burdens they'd never impose upon private businesses. The most interesting example is the benefit funding requirement. The Post Office is required to fund it's health care benefits out to 75 years. Nobody in the la-la land of private banking has to do that, much less the rest of the world. As the inspector general of the post office notes, they've got it covered and they will finish the job soon. But that requirement is putting the post office in debt.

If the post office can managed to sock away more than $330 billion just to meet pension funding mandates, then surely they can operate a postal banking system. The best part about this health care fund is that it won't be robbed by someone like Mitt Romney because the post office can't be bought in a leveraged buyout. The health care benefit funding mandate makes the case that the post office is here to stay, and is secure enough to provide postal banking services for everyone who wants to use them. Indefinitely.

Bernie's proposal not only makes sense, it would save the Post Office, giving it new purpose and meaning, and it would help us catch up with the rest of the world.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Kubb - the game most of us have never heard of

Not too long ago, I was invited to a local church gathering, a Halloween party. I went there with my wife and kids and we had a great time. While it was an enjoyable evening, I will not soon forget my first chance to play Kubb.

It's an interesting game and I must admit that the next game to come to mind when I saw other people playing Kubb was Curling. You know, that game where grownups push around smooth orbs with handles on ice to knock other smooth orbs around? Yeah, that game.

I had no idea what I was doing there, in that room with tape in a line at each end of the room and five short stumpy sticks at regular intervals along the baseline and one much taller stick in the center. They gave me and my wife little sticks to throw at the stumpy sticks at the other end of the room. My wife and I played while my kids and a growing peanut gallery looked on. I just took direction from the people who set up the game and did my best. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but we managed to win our first game on the first try. Beginner's luck, I guess.

You can find the rules and history of the game here, on the Wikipedia site. Here is a picture of a game in play:

I found a great video of the game here:

in the video, the host explains the game very well, but he's got it wrong on the history of the game as it was never really played by the Vikings. The Wikipedia article explains that the earliest historical reference to the game dates to the early 20th century. In any case, this is the top rated video to learn how to play the game.

Surprisingly, there is a national organization in the US and they hold championship events every year since about 1995. Here is a video of the 2013 championship game:

As you can see, the game is still gaining traction in the US, so it's early days. But I found the game fascinating in several respects. The fact that it's even played at all in a time where electronics dominate everywhere is a surprise all by itself. 

I enjoyed the game because it's not electronic, because its so visceral. You know, it's not a video game. There are *other people* around and you get to see them and talk to them. You might even socialize with them while you play. I know, heavy concept.

The game can be played indoors or outdoors, on sand, grass, snow and ice. The Swedes have been identified as the inventors of the game, and that sounds about right. Hey, if it's really cold outside, what else are you going to do to pass the time? Read a book?

So if you should happen upon a game of Kubb in the park after a good snow, stick around and check it out. You might even get a chance to play and make a new friend.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The issue of campaign finance reform should be the primary issue

Larry Lessig is back in the news. Larry who?

Larry Lessig is the man behind, a website and a political movement, with one and only one objective in mind: campaign finance reform. Larry is running for president. When he started his campaign his premise was simple. He would run for president on the single issue of campaign finance reform, and then, if elected, work towards making campaign finance reform a reality. Once that job is done, he would resign and step aside. I learned today that he's dropping that last part and will stay on as president even if campaign finance reform is implemented as law.

It's a pity that he wasn't invited to the debates. Having him there, on screen, with 5 other "normal" candidates would be a game changer. I can imagine how the conversation might go on stage:

Moderator: How would you address income inequality?
Lessig: Well, we can't fix the overwhelming inequality problem until we initiate real campaign finance reform.
Moderator: How would you address climate change?
Lessig: Climate change is a serious problem that threatens our generation and every generation that follows. But there isn't anything we can do about it until we institute meaningful and lasting campaign finance reform.
Moderator: Would you increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans?
Lessig: Again, we can't attain real reform for any problems that can be addressed by public policy, unless we solve the problem of campaign finance reform.
Moderator: You mean to say that no matter what we'd like to reform, we can't fix it until we fix campaign finance?
Lessig: Exactly. We can talk all day about public policy, but nothing is going to change until we change the way elections are financed.

I'm a big fan of Larry Lessig. I don't think he has a real chance of being elected, but I think he can help to bring campaign finance reform to center stage. I've read one of his books, many of his articles, and reviewed and I find that he has a compelling argument when it comes to campaign finance reform. Nothing is going to change until we change the way we elect our legislators in Congress and our statehouses.

I watched the debate with Larry's words in mind and no matter what anyone said about the changes they'd make to public policy, campaign finance reform was there, making an end run in my mind. Of all the candidates, only Bernie Sanders made direct observations about the impact of campaign finance reform, but none of them made this simple statement: Unless we implement campaign finance reform, nothing is going to change.

Without campaign finance reform, the 99% will never recover the right of nomination. The right of nomination is one of the most important rights, but nominees are not selected by the people. Larry observes that the right of nomination has been secured by the top 0.5% just by making large and selective campaign contributions, either directly or indirectly through super PACs. is the SuperPAC created and designed by Larry Lessig to only support candidates who make a promise to work towards implementing meanginful campaign finance reform. In his words, "it is the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs". This is why I like Larry Lessig. He's identified the single most important issue of our time and is running for president on it.

Unfortunately, he doesn't have the publicity that Sanders has, so he's not really a contender, but he's running as a Democrat and I'd love to see him in the debates, even if only to change the scope of the debate. I think he'd make a great vice presidential running mate if Bernie Sanders were nominated.

So when I watch any debates, this is what I'm thinking. No matter what the candidates say about public policy in any part of American life, making those changes will be very difficult if not impossible, until we institute meaningful campaign finance reform.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

If you want to prevent abortions, educate the girls

In my article Hope for humanity, I wrote about one of the trends I see as hope for a sustainable future for the human race. That trend is a slowing of the growth in population. People who track population trends have noticed that it took 13 years for humans to add the 7th billion, longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6th billion. In other words, we've reached peak population growth rates and now that rate is declining, slowing down. This is good news and came to us more than two years ago.

Researchers also asked what could cause this trend. It wasn't war or disease or an increasing trend in disasters. The decline in the human population is caused by education. As girls and young women get educated, they figure out that they too can have a career. They're delaying child rearing to get planted in a career. They also learn sex education and learn how they can get pregnant and how to avoid it until they're good and ready. They begin to realize, for the first time in human history, that they have rights just like men.

So if girls and young women are educated, they learn to avoid unwanted pregnancies and they learn to delay gratification for that "right guy". If they're lucky, they find him and go on to have a happy family life and a career. Hopefully, they learn to live a more sustainable life.

I find all of this in contrast to what we hear from religious conservatives. In our own Congress, they want to cut education funding, particularly for sex education. In that same Congress, those same men seek to regulate reproductive rights for women. They want to make it harder for women to acquire birth control medication and abortion services.

Around certain parts of the world, particularly where religions play a big part in government, we see the same thing. There is a concerted effort among Islamic and Christian conservatives to limit female access to information and education. Isn't it interesting that both of them are Abrahamic religions, coming from the same parent theology?

It's almost like they know that if we educate girls and women, they will stop procreating and that could mean the end of the human race. I don't think that is going to happen. But I must say, that the following meme seems appropriate to show you at this point:

Would religious conservatives ever admit that education is the best way to prevent abortions? Seems to me that an ounce of education is worth much more than a pound of cure. Let's hope that someday, they get the courage to admit that they know the solution so that we can get on with the business of building a sustainable future.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Keep the debates free

CNN seems to think they own the debates of 2015. This does not bode well for our democracy. Some may say that we had to pay to see the debates of October 13th, 2015. But I was lucky enough to be able to stream the debates live for free, even though I have no subscription TV service. Unfortunately, I could not watch it to the end as Daddy Duty called. So I stopped watching figuring that I could check it out later on CNN's website.

Prior to the debate, I did some research to see how best to watch the debates and found that CNN was making it available for free to all from their website. When I found the link for the debate on their website, I could not help but notice that "This is a temporary preview of CNNgo" displayed prominently at the top. Once the debate was done, there was no longer any free access to the debate.

After the debate, I searched for debate video on YouTube only to find many clips rather than the whole debate. I did find one nice HD version (720p) and even that was taken down by CNN copyright claims. I have checked the YouTube page for CNN and found nothing but highlights of the debate - the entire debate is simply not available. This despite the fact that by uploading the full debate to YouTube, CNN externalizes the streaming costs and could even generate advertising revenue for that content.

I then went back to the CNN site to find the debate, but it was only available to CNNgo subscribers. How does CNNgo work? To use it, you must identify your service provider, be it satellite or cable. Then you must login to prove that you're "entitled" to see the debates "for free". This is a clear play to bring cord cutters back into the fold.

Presidential debates are a part of American culture, politics and discourse. They are used to inform people about the candidates running for president. So, CNN would have us believe that we must subscribe to a television provider in order to gain access to public discourse. After a generation of such behavior, everyone will believe that we must pay to see what our politicians are planning to do in office before voting for them, right? Well, they are the Cable News Network, so I guess this is to be expected.

Truthout rightly calls this behavior the privatization of democracy. Once political information becomes the province of the highest bidder, then only the people with money have access to the information they need to figure out who is really working for their interests. This is not democracy being practiced by CNN. It is oligarchy.

I think it's time to set down some simple rules for public discourse. These rules should apply at every level of government, regardless of the branch (you know, executive, judicial and legislative). What our politicians and civil servants say should never be privatized in the same way that CNN has done. I hereby propose the following rules (feel free to chip if you want) for capture and dissemination of political discourse:

1. Everything that an elected official or candidate for office has to say is public domain from the moment it leaves his or her lips, spokesperson or website. It doesn't matter if it's captured as video, audio, or text. It's all public domain. If they write a book, that's different, but if they're playing to the peanut gallery, it's fair game.

2. From rule 1, it then follows that all political debates by politicians are public domain.

3. No single entity shall have the right of recording and/or broadcast of political debates. If more than one entity wishes to carry the debates on air, then a pool of cameras and audio recording equipment will be used for recording and distribution.

4. All media generated by any politician as candidate or elected or appointed official will be captured and maintained by the agency best suited for such purpose. I'm thinking Federal Election Commission or the Library of Congress at the federal level. At the state and local level, each municipality will designate their own agencies for such purpose, but they must capture all debates and make them freely available for viewing or listening for the citizens they serve.

5. The public domain shall receive the most favorable light in all judicial proceedings with regard to media generated by sitting officials or candidates for office.

This is just what comes to the top of my head, but I think it's a good start. In a way what I'm proposing here is a sort of public utility for politics. Once we can accept the idea that all political discourse is in the public domain, it becomes a lot easier to challenge attempts to privatize democracy.

Political discourse is not a privilege, it's a right to be enjoyed by all. Let's keep it that way by reminding CNN (and others like them) of their public duty as good corporate citizens to keep the citizens they serve well informed. Further, let's remind major media that when they privatize democracy, they betray the public trust so generously given to them.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A review of The First Democratic National Debate

I've been watching Democratic Debates. I tried to watch it live that night, but Daddy Duty called and I could not stick with it. So I've been searching for and streaming the version available on YouTube, which you can find here (unfortunately, that video was taken down by Time Warner CNN). Ironically, it was posted by DonaldTrumpTV and happens to be the best version that I can find.  I ended my viewing of the debates by watching a blurry, lower resolution video here.

I note with interest that CNN is not promoting the viewing of the debate after the debate. I searched their website and could not find it. I would expect to see a good version of it prominently displayed on their home page, but did not see it. I didn't see the GOP debate, either. I just checked again this morning. I found if you click on their Videos link from the home page, they do prominently display links to videos from the debate.

Interestingly, they do have clips that are easily viewed. But unless you have a cable or satellite subscription, you will not be able to watch the entire debate. I don't have satellite and I don't have cable. So, I'm outta luck. Apparently, as far as CNN is concerned, public discourse is a commercial business, not a vital exercise of a democracy. That would make sense coming from the Cable News Network.

I also want to report the sense of betrayal I feel by the major media. They've given the debate the same treatment as the GOP debate hosted by CNN previously. To put it very bluntly, the major media have turned our debates into a spectacle like American Idol. Don't get me wrong, American Idol is great for musically talented contestants seeking a $1 million recording contract with a major label. It doesn't work for the solemn duty we have as citizens, to select our next president.

To get an idea of what I mean, compare this latest debate with the debate between President Jimmy Carter and candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. There is no music, no dramatic lighting, no cross talk, and the audience is quiet during the debate. No applause, no whooping and yelling in support of your candidate. That was the way we used to do them. It was all about the issues then. Now it's bread and circuses.

While listening to the opening remarks of the candidates, O'Malley, Chafee and Webb all try to be polished and upbeat. Clinton is as polished as ever having been the wife of one of the best speakers as president ever, Bill Clinton. Let's face it, he was amazing as a speaker. All of them sound like people who are going to deliver like Santa Claus. If you're looking for fire, look to Sanders. Sanders is the only candidate on stage with real emotion about his cause.

I note with interest the nearly complete lack of discussion of two really big topics: Campaign finance reform and the trade deficit. No direct question was ever asked about the issue of campaign finance reform, though there was plenty of discussion of it in vague terms. Despite all the talk, there was only one candidate that would talk about it vigorously and bluntly. Sanders made it clear that no matter how good the ideas being discussed on stage are, nothing is going to change unless we reform campaign finance and get big money out of politics. This is the point that Larry Lessig, had he been invited, would have used in every response.

Then there is the trade deficit. No direct question was asked about how to deal with the trade deficit. Oh sure, everyone talked about how they would create jobs, but none addressed the trade deficit directly. The trade deficit sucks more than $500 billion of demand every year from our economy, with the 1% taking their cut while leaving the middle class with nothing. I posted a question on the CNN Facebook page regarding the trade deficit, but few viewer questions were actually posed to the contestants in the debate.

I want to close on the disconnect between social media and major media. Where major media insists that Hilary won the debate, social media disagrees. An article at the USUncut website gives examples of the major media gushing over Hilary and then proceeds to show that by every available measure, Bernie won the debates in social media. The meme floating around for months now is that "the revolution is real, but it won't be televised".

To underscore the point of how Bernie won the debate in social media, Forbes is running an article to show that Bernie Sanders added 35,000 new followers on Twitter during the debate. That is nearly 12,000 more than all of the other candidates, combined. Sanders on social media has translated into $1.3 million in contributions from 37,000 people averaging about $34 each just from one debate.

This is just one of six debates and many wish there could be more, but it's a start. The fire is finally in the Democrats, mostly in Sanders, but it is hopeful that these debates will drive voter turnout for the next election.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Finally, a debate worth watching

Months ago, I watched part of the GOP debate held by Fox News (I could not stomach the entire debate after eating dinner). I found it resembled a high school debate for class president rather than president of the United States. So I am pleased to learn that the Democrats are going to have a debate tonight, and I write this post to encourage all of you to watch it.

At 8:30 EDT today, CNN will air a 2 hour debate among the Democrat candidates running for president. According to CNN, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee will all be on stage for the debate. Most of us know only about Clinton and Sanders. so we will have a chance to learn about the other candidates, but I suspect that most of us want to see Bernie or Hilary in action.

I'm excited about the debate because I'll see, for the first time in a long time, a real Democrat on air, in a debate. What I mean by that is that Bernie Sanders is the kind of Democrat that Jimmy Carter was. Carter was a true liberal, not a neo-liberal. Since the 70s, the Democrats have moved far to the right, so much so, that even our most liberal mainstream Democrats look positively conservative by 1980 standards.

I've made no secret that I'm a Sanders fan on this blog. Sanders is the only Democrat running for office that can go into a conservative den and get not only a warm reception, but applause, whoops and even a few standing ovations. One example here is where we see him speaking at Liberty University, a private school founded by television evangelist Jerry Falwell.

Sure, not everyone is enthused to see Bernie at Liberty University, but the house is packed and he does get frequent responses from his audience. You can even hear the crickets here and there. But he's there. He's willing to speak to people who may not agree with him on every issue.

That is the point of politics. We learn more by engaging in discourse with adversaries, opponents or even neutral people who are not familiar with our positions than we do by preaching to choir.

That is why I encourage you all to watch this debate. Even if you are not a Democrat, you just might find common ground. Finding that common ground is the basis for all politics. Enjoy the debate.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A private and protected health care monopoly has costs that rise faster than inflation

Not too long ago, I was at an open enrollment meeting for my employer. I sat there aghast as I learned that health costs rose at about 8% a year for the last year, while my employer has been working hard to hold costs down to around 6% for their employees. Projections for the next year are no better.

What's wrong with this picture? The Federal Reserve has a target rate of inflation of less than 2%. According to the US Inflation Rate Calculator, the latest calculation for inflation is around 0.2% annually. I've checked a few sites and there is a consensus of about 0.2% inflation in the most recent monthly tabulation.

So if inflation is so low, how is it that the health care industry can continue their torrid pace of price escalation? They're a private and protected monopoly. There is no other way to explain it.

To put this in perspective, at a time where trade barriers are low all around us, costs have been declining or holding steady in most industries. But not health care. Health care costs continue to rise despite the low cost of imports, and the low inflation. That's because health care is protected from international competition. This is well documented by one of my favorite economists, Dean Baker.

The high cost of health care acts as an effective brake on rising wages. Combine that with a trade deficit that sucks $600 billion a year from our economy and you have a nearly complete ceiling on wages. But, if you're a C-class executive, you can make all the money you want and stash it off shore. Just ask Apple. In a nutshell, most of us are competing with third world countries for work while professional finance types remain free to find ways to extract more money from the economy and take it out of circulation. I guess that's why inflation is so low around here.

There are two problems to solve for this dilemma. First there is the protection, then there is enforcement. The first problem is the trade protection health care receives from our government. Remove the trade protection and suddenly, the health care industry gets serious about competition and keeping prices low to attract business. How do we do that?

We place our health care industry in direct competition with their peers in other countries with more efficient health care systems in other countries. See, Americans pay twice the GDP in health care as other mature and developed countries like Canada and the UK. Even countries like Norway, Sweden and Germany outperform the US in terms of costs and outcomes.

By establishing health care trade agreements that allow for health care tourism, foreign exchange and taxation to support them, we can put our doctors in direct competition with doctors from the G20 and poorer countries like Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea. Again, my favorite economist Dean Baker has outlined a plan for breaching the wall between our health care system and the world. It's called globalizing health care.

The other part of the plan is to enforce it. We have governments because we recognize that granting a private entity exclusive power to use force hasn't worked out so well in the past. So we grant that power to a democratically elected government. I know, it's not perfect, but trust me, the alternative is pretty grim.

The government is our best hope for creating a level playing field for our health care system. This means data, big data. When there is a single payer plan, all of the medical information goes into one database. Then it becomes easy to compare costs between providers. Checking outcomes for treatment plans is simple, just run an SQL query and boom!, you got your results.

There is a growing consensus for a single payer plan here in the US. It's basically medicare for all of us. The Physicians for a National Health Care Plan have outlined how it could be done. And they aren't the only group around to propose the idea. Bernie Sanders has the same idea in his platform for his campaign for president. Hilary Clinton proposed it two decades ago.

There is one final part that needs to be in place. A tax incentive. See, we know our costs are nearly double those of other well developed countries. So now we provide a tax incentive based on performance. When health care costs are high relative to other countries, the tax on health care profits should be high. Drop the costs of health care and the tax goes down, too.

Once a single payer plan is established, everyone pays in and no exceptions are provided. So when health care provider CEOs look at the rates they charge for service, they're going to look at their tax returns, too. This is their incentive: if they hurt us, they hurt themselves, too. We're all in it together.

Most developed countries pay about 7-9% of their GDP in health care. We're closer to 18%. This is clear evidence of preferential treatment of our health care industry. The fact that health care costs are rising faster than inflation is the other clear sign. We're suckers for abuse, aren't we?

We don't have to flail ourselves with a sadistic health care industry anymore. All it takes is an organized and mobilized majority to agree to stop the abuse and create a better plan. We can make health care a right for everyone. This is the great equalizer we need, a level playing field between consumer and provider. Once health care becomes a right, then health care becomes a utility rather than a profit center.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Hope for humanity

Like anyone else who reads the news, I just have to roll my eyes at how over the top things have been lately. For example, In two days, I saw two articles describing how two 11-year old boys got their father's guns and shot and killed some other kid with it. That is really depressing.

So I wanted to share with you something positive, fun and interesting. Three things actually, that give me hope for humanity.

The birth rate is slowing and eventually will start to drop. While following links to see where they will lead, you know, serendipity, I found a really cool article about world population growth on Slate. The article goes into some real depth exploring the trends of our population growth. The most interesting finding is this nugget here:
A somewhat more arcane milestone, meanwhile, generated no media coverage at all: It took humankind 13 years to add its 7 billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6 billionth—the first time in human history that interval had grown. (The 2 billionth, 3 billionth, 4 billionth, and 5 billionth took 123, 33, 14, and 13 years, respectively.) In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.
The growth of the world population is slowing. Eventually it will stop growing and go in reverse. Birthrates around the world are already shrinking. By 2200, the world population is projected to fall by half. The biggest and most breathtaking cause of this decline in birth rates? Education.

Educate girls and they get interested in careers, delaying childbearing until they are planted in their careers. As the world becomes more educated, girls grow up into women with a job and a family, but it's a smaller family.

A great example of this education comes from MTV show, 16 and Pregnant. CNN has documented how birth rates declined by simply showing adolescents what life is like 16 and pregnant. And that is just one example. The more we educate our kids, the better choices they will make for themselves and the planet.

Why is this so important? Because human habitation of the earth has done more damage to it than the worst nuclear power plant accident. With a smaller population we can leave a better world for our kids.

Solar City just introduced solar panels with 22% efficiency. And they're not the only company to introduce greater efficiencies in solar panels. Industry wide, solar power efficiencies have been on an inexorable trend towards lower costs, greater efficiencies and better access for a decade. Trends all around solar power are positive.

Cost per watt of installed capacity are falling below $3. Panel efficiencies are rising. Inverter manufacturers are taking notice and building capacity to meet demand and increase efficiencies. Inverters allow your home to accept the DC power from the solar panels and converts the current to AC power at rough 95% efficiencies.

Banks are taking notice, too. They are working to capture the solar power loan market and all the subsidies that go with solar power installations. This market is already taking off. Solar power went from rare to occasional. In a decade or less, solar power will be a requirement, not an option when choosing a home to buy, so sellers get ready.

The internet.

Never before have we seen a technology bring the world together. The internet has fomented a literacy revolution. More people are reading today than ever before. Kids are learning to type just to be able to use the internet. I took a typing class in high school and thought I'd be a sheet metal worker, never thinking I'd need to know how to type. Now I'm glad I got it. Kids are reading, typing and learning on the internet.

It's not just the kids, too. Adults are finding work that uses the internet. I myself have a job where I use the internet everyday to connect to customers and assist them with their computers. It is actually becoming difficult to find a job that does not require use of email, a browser and a network. Unless you want to do landscaping. Well, even then, if you run a landscaping business, you need the internet to promote it.

We have witnessed an explosion of content, sharing of information and discourse like we've never seen before, too. 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Here is a page of stats on the internet. We've gone from just a few users in 1995 (I got started in 1993), to 3.2 billion today.

Everything on the internet has an IP address. That is, an Internet Protocol address. There are two versions of IP in use today, IPv4 and IPv6. IPv4 is a 32-bit addressing system that provides for more than 4 billion addresses. We've run out of the address space that's been allocated to the United States. Other countries are bound to report the same thing soon.

So the engineers came up with IPv6, a 128-bit addressing system. How many addresses are available with that? According to Wikipedia, approximately 3.4×1038 addresses, or more than 7.9×1028 times as many as IPv4. With IPv6, we're not going to run out of addresses for the foreseeable future.

The internet allows for everything to be connected, for people to communicate, share, participate in political discourse. The internet has been a bonding force for humanity like no other. It has no borders, no owner, no end.

A connected world, with a smaller, more educated population, using solar power for all the energy we could ever want. That gives me hope for humanity.