Archive for the “Inside My Head” Category

The Republicans could not be in a worse spot with Trump.  I am fascinated by the choice they have in front of them.

What happens when your constituents are so fed up with you they elect an outsider, non Republican (Trump)?

Well, here are the options for the Republican Party:

Option 1 – Listen to your constituency and let Trump get nominated:  

In this case you are allowing many core Republican values (Supply Side Economics, Free Trade, Neocon Foreign Policy, etc.) to get pushed aside by Trump, who is leading in a different direction.  Additionally, Trump is flat out nuts, fascist, white supremacist on immigration (can you even really put up a wall to keep Mexicans out?  Are we going to build a N. American version of the Great Wall of China…really??).  He is rabblerousing; bringing out the worst in the base.  Does the party want to listen to its constituency if the constituency is wrong (at least in the Republican view)?

Nominating Trump is the equivalent of the Republicans admitting that their voting base does not like the Republican Party platform or any of their politicians.  How can a party continue to exist under that condition?

It basically spells the death of the party in its current form.  And the form it would morph into with Trump leadership is not a kinder, gentler, more forward looking version of the current iteration of Republicanism.  It is worse.

On the bright side, the Republicans will still have the House and will perhaps keep the Senate.  Their voters don’t like them, but is that anything new?   (For years, Republicans  have bashed the government and DC, which they are part of.  Is it any wonder their voters now bash them with the same passion?  They seem to vote for them anyway.)

Trump will likely lose the general election if nominated, so the Republicans can try to recover in the intervening 4 years until they can put forward a Republican that is more “of the party” (if that person even exists) and adjust their platform to better fit their voters.

Essentially this is would be their message to voters:  “Dear voters, We loved Trump because you loved Trump, even though we hate him and you know it.  He was defeated unfortunately….though we can still rally around our common dislike of the Democrats and refuse to govern for 4 more years…which is what got us in this situation in the first place!!  Let’s forget Trump existed and get back to our roots, which you soundly rejected in the 2016 primaries by nominating Trump.”

It is nonsensical.  The party is in a bad spot.

This strategy relies on the same Jedi-mind-trick, slight of hand, factlessness that has guided the Republicans for some time.  I think the chickens have come home to roost on that approach….Trump is the culmination of it.

I would vote for a clean break, to move forward with something new and rebuild.  I think the Republicans have firm intellectual and ethical ground to build on. I think the Republicans can do better.  I reject option 1.  

Option 2 – Don’t listen to your constituency and nominate someone else:

This is the equivalent of writing a hate letter to your voters: “Dear voters, I know you all voted for Trump, but we think you’re wrong.  We aren’t going to listen to you; we know you are mad at us for not listening in the past 8 years or so, which is why you voted for Trump…but we are going to not listen again!  (All for your own good of course!)  Now please vote for this other guy no one likes and forget you don’t like us…and we’ll try to forget that we don’t listen to or like you.”

Wow.  It seems like a terrible idea when put like that.

The viability of option 2 needs two preconditions to make it a better idea: 1) an acknowledgement that the party needs to move in another direction and 2) a decent candidate to put forward that represents the new party direction.

Number 1 doesn’t exist yet:  The party lost in 2008 and 2012 and didn’t really change direction.

Number 2 doesn’t exist yet:  If that person existed, they would be winning the primaries (hopefully).

So I reject option 2.  It isn’t a good idea because the party can’t make it work.

So…in the spirit of participating, after having rejected both options because they stink:  I would pick option 1 and spend the next 4 years formulating a plan to make sure this awful situation doesn’t happen again (coincidentally this is exactly what the Republicans did when the Democrats were re-elected in 2012 and yet here we are!).

I cannot believe the Republicans got themselves into this situation!!

Which option would you choose? 

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I love this question because I often hear people talk about all the awesome uses of being smart.

I have a point of view on it for two main reasons:  a) I’ve took a bunch of standardized test in my life.  While no genius, I would generally qualify as smart and b) I’ve interacted with lots of very successful/smart people, mainly through my job in consulting, so I understand to a good degree what makes them successful.

I am defining “smart” as having a pretty high IQ.

I’ll start by saying I don’t think being smart is useful in the ways people think.  “Smartness” is often talked about in this way:  “That person is just so smart”…the implication being that “I couldn’t do that; I’m not smart like that.”.

I think smart is useful in pockets, but folks are being imprecise in their language.  What they often mean is “I don’t work hard enough to do that” or “I don’t have the experience to do that” or “I’m not detail oriented enough to do that” or “I’m not persuasive enough to do that” or “I’m not ambitious enough to do that”….I could go on, but you get the picture.

Here are some situations with my thoughts on how “smartness” might apply vs other traits:

School:

Retaining, discussing, connecting, rationalizing mostly new material/knowledge is something the intelligent do well.  School is a great fit for smart people.  I believe this is part of what makes being smart so valued:  For the first 20 or so years of your life smart is very, very useful.  It is hard to get out of that mindset and realize that, in life, it isn’t as useful as it was in school.

Relationships:

Intelligence doesn’t help that much.  I never recall the smartest being the most popular or most beautiful or most liked.  In fact, too much intelligence can be a hindrance socially.

To be successful in relationships it helps to have traits like helpfulness, positiveness, honesty, decent looks, consistency (no one likes moody), sense of humor, kindness, etc.  Those traits can make you very successful in life…little intelligence required.

Corporate America/Work:

Intelligence is probably over-rated at work (depends on your line of work admittedly).  Most jobs simply don’t require you to be clever, inventive, to “figure out” a puzzle, etc.  It doesn’t matter whether you would be a good Jeopardy participant.

Work requires you to show up on time.  This requires you to have some level of responsibility, a car, a consistent, predictable life.  I’m not sure how smart you need to be for that.

Work requires you to do what others ask you to do.  You also have to do some thinking for yourself, but generally at work the overall goals are driven by others.  Definitely no link to intelligence to be willing to work towards other’s goals.

Work requires you to be a subject matter expert.  While being smart may make you learn slightly faster than others, experience/hard work can overcome that pretty easily in the real world.  As an example, a year of experience working as a mechanic will make you smarter about fixing cars than any amount of general intelligence/IQ.  You simply have to do it to know it.

Work requires you to be diligent.  Being able to keep track of the things you have to do and actually do them in the timeframe asked will make you A LOT of money.  It won’t get you to CEO, but diligence is, in my opinion, the single greatest predictor of work success.  Show up and do it and you’ll be amazed how successful you will become.  Is there a link between diligence and intelligence?  Not much that I’ve ever seen.

Code Breaking / Playing Chess / Being a Polymath, etc.

Yes.  Being intelligent really helps.  These examples seem whimsical because I can’t think of a lot of examples of intelligence being the one, great thing that will get you there.

Being an Executive

Being an executive requires you to be a persuasive leader in group situations.  Being persuasive means being able to state/defend a position, think on your feet, choose the right words, control your emotions.  I do think there is an element of intelligence in that; however, I have seen this skill learned as well.  Once something can be learned, is it intelligence that matters or simply diligence and time?

Being an executive means having “executive presence” / polish / poise.  This is mostly practice.  It is difficult to do, but is composed mostly of preparation and experience, not intelligence.  This is something that is mentored, practiced, honed.

Being an executive means having a track record of success.  Being smart might help.  I would say diligence, and relationships matter more.

Being an executive means having others want to follow you.  Maybe there is some element of intelligence here.  I would say diligence, relationships, honesty, and empathy all matter more.

Being an executive means you have to WANT it.  I’ve rarely seen highly successful people that didn’t have a bit of ambition that peaked through no matter how humble they are practiced to be.  Motivation is very important to being successful. I would be surprised if there is a strong correlation between motivation and intelligence.  I’ve seen some pretty lazy smart people in my life and some really hard working fools.

Being an executive means being articulate.  Like persuasiveness, I think there is an element of intelligence that helps here.  But are all articulate people smart?  Take actors.  Most are very articulate.  They love to talk and are great at it.  I don’t think anyone would imagine that most of them are smart.  It is simply practice.  In many ways, they get paid to talk and so do it often.  Over time, they begin to sound more articulate.

 

So my outstanding question as I read back over what I’ve written is:  “What is the strength of the relationship between intelligence and all these other traits mentioned (e.g. diligence, honesty, empathy, motivation)?  If intelligence is strong correlated with all of them….then intelligence IS what matters.”

What research I’ve seen says there is more correlation on some of those traits than others…but, to summarize, smart is useful in pockets.  It isn’t a cure all.

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Many believe some version of the following regarding income inequality:

The current income distribution is the free market outcome; we can’t regulate ourselves out of income inequality…it is a natural outcome of our global economy.

The statement is untrue.  It is better worded as follows,

“The current income distribution is a consequence of our government labor policies.   Based on current policy, it is the outcome we have created (perhaps inadvertently, but we still did it).  If we’d like to change it, we can.”

How can we better frame the issue of income distribution?

Income can go to two main places:  a) Capital (rich people/businesses)  or c) Labor (us).  We control which of those parties has the upper hand to “negotiate” for their share of national income.

A) Capital:  These are people who earn their income through owning things, such as land (to rent), or stock (to appreciate), or banks (in effect they rent money), or factory equipment (to make things), etc.  Capital does not work; it enables others to work/produce and so capital earns its income by “renting” its capital to others.

Capital has the upper hand right now.  The rich and business owners are raking in all the gains in national income.  If we change their bargaining power, they will capture less.

b) Labor:  This is people who earn a salary by working.  This is us.  We are fairing poorly currently in bargaining for any share of the productivity gains that we are producing.  The gains are all getting captured by capital.  Labor increases productivity; capital is capturing the gains.

There are some who would point out that without capital/business there would be no labor gains for us to think about capturing (this is the whole “the rich are the job creators” argument).  This is not true.  Without consumers/labor (with money) to buy/demand products, capital would be useless.  Job creation is an ecosystem, it takes both capital and labor to succeed.

Here are some factors that have created our current income distribution, which we can reverse if we so choose.

1. Decline in Labor Unions:

We are all in labor unions, whether we know it or not.

When a union bargains a benefit, we all get it as companies will offer it to everyone so that the non-union workers are not tempted to join the union.

Unions create collective bargaining power for labor in which even non-union members benefit.  Without unions, labor is weakened as a whole.

2. Enforcement of the FLSA:

In the US, we generally work many more hours per year than the rest of the world.  The FLSA created the 40 hour work week.  By being lax on enforcing the definition of an “exempt” worker, the 40 hour work week has been effectively abolished for all but a few employee groups.

The law already exists, simply reclassify workers as non-exempt (based on an alternate legal interpretation of the classification) and labor gets a bargaining chip (overtime hours).  As exempt workers, we do not have a basis on which to start the conversation (except complaints about work/life balance).

3. Enforcement of anti-trust law:

Many industries in the US (cable, wireless, media, etc.) are oligopolies…in which a few large firms (e.g. AT&T, Verizon) dominate the industry.

As such, they are near monopoly buyers of labor, and so they do not have to pay out as much to employees in salary.

Here is an example.  If you work in cellular, you work for AT&T or Verizon mainly.  There are only two buyers of your services; you can’t really continue to leave one company for another if your current salary doesn’t suit you.  There are only two places to go, and  you can’t move across the country if needed, because the same two companies exist wherever you go.  In the past, this wasn’t true.  It was easier for labor to say “I’ll just go work for someone else”.  We COULD go work for someone else; now we can’t as easily.

Anti-trust law already exists.  The legal interpretation of it changed such that companies were allowed to get larger and capture larger market shares.  If we go back to the old interpretation, then labor gains bargaining power as very large companies lose their “monopoly buyer of labor” market position.

4. Retirement investment in stocks:

When we put our savings in stocks (generally for the purpose of retirement savings); we drive up the price of stocks (which are owned by capital).  The reason is that we input additional dollars which chase a finite supply of stock shares.  We drive up the price of stocks….which gives money to capital (not labor).

Returns to capital would be lessened if we invested less in stocks and preferred (voted) instead to take a government pension.

5.  Privatization:

Government workers have lots of rights (largely due to government unions).  When anything is privatized, those rights go away and capital captures the gains.

As an example, you privatize a utility company in a particular city, those people lose their government benefits and jobs.  The company will be reformed as private (generally with a government granted monopoly) with lower wages, benefits, and job guarantees to employees and higher prices to the public.  The excess profit from the company will leave the city as it is distributed to company leadership and shareholders (capital).  Labor loses.

Those who say “that isn’t what happens…the free market is always more efficient than government run services”; that simply isn’t true in all cases (though it is true in some).

6.  Unemployment:

High unemployment means labor has little bargaining power as employees cannot leave for other companies.  In this case Capital gains the upper hand as it can capture labor’s increased productivity for itself instead of paying some of it out in higher wages.

Unemployment itself is a choice of the government (i.e. our choice as voters) as the government could always act as an employer of last resort to keep the labor markets fully functioning (just as the Fed acts as a lender of last resort to keep the finance industry functioning).

We could have a Fed for the labor market if we so chose.  This would give labor a lot more bargaining power (the government role as employer of last resort would provide a wage floor that private industry would have to meet or beat to attract workers).

7.  Minimum wage:

Increases in the minimum wage push up the wage floor which indirectly pushes up wages for all workers.

The wage floor is our choice.  In the absence of a floor, companies will pay whatever they want…which they are currently doing:   Wal-Mart has food drives to help feed its own employees.

8. Tax law:

Warren Buffet has pointed out that he pays a lower tax rate than this secretary, because of capital gains tax rates and loopholes/deductions for the rich.  Increase the capital  gains tax rate (to more than the marginal income tax rate); close the loopholes.  They favor the rich and the rich (capital) don’t need any help right now.  They are doing fine.

9.  Free trade:

Free trade agreements put our labor in competition against labor of other countries.  NAFTA gutted the domestic textile industry (which I watched happen living in S. Carolina).

T-shirts and other textiles are now dirt cheap (for which I am appreciative, since I don’t work in the textile industry); however, I am under no illusion that these agreements are only of benefit.

There are plenty of good arguments to be made about free trade (I can make them; they are of benefit sometimes); however, at this time labor is losing and we need to shift the balance of power back to regular people…not pit us against third world workers.  This is one avenue if we choose to exercise it.

10.  Corporate law and personhood:

Corporate personhood gives corporations rights they should not have.  Corporations are not people.

Corporate law could be changed to pay out a mandated percentage of profits to workers (if a company benefits, shouldn’t the employees?), or make CEO salary related to avg employee salary (so that executives can’t be paid in excess while workers are laid off).  Even something as simple as mandating employee representation on the board of directors would be helpful to labor’s bargaining position.

11. Campaign finance:

Limit the rich’s ability to influence election through campaign finance.  Last I checked, there are lots of lobbyists for the rich…not so many protecting labor’s interests.  Get big money out of politics and it will give labor a leg up.  We need it!

12. Finance industry oversight:

If, after the mortgage meltdown, we had put all the titans of the finance industry in jail, that would limit the hubris of Capital…and thus limit their ability to capture the gains of the economy (which is happening now).

Why didn’t anyone go to jail?  Poor enforcement of current law.  We don’t even need new laws.  We just need to enforce the laws we already have.  During the S&L crisis and Enron people went to jail.  Now the laws are not being enforced because of undue influence by Capital.

13. Copyright law:

Copyrights are government granted monopolies over a certain time frame.  They are a form of Capital, which funnels profits/income to the holder of the copyright.

Without the copyright protection, more producers would be able to enter the market, which would benefit Labor (both from a cost of goods standpoint and from the standpoint of more employers in the market).

We could weaken the time frames over which copyrights are granted (less time is better for Labor) and/or we could lessen the circumstances under which we grant copyrights (Apple tried to copyright rounded corners on phones and swiping to unlock.  Really?  I guess they are at liberty to try; however, the circumstances of copyright should allow for broader market participation and less special status).

14.  Social Safety Net:

Every time the safety net (unemployment insurance, medicare, medicaid, EIC, SNAP, Social Security, FMLA, etc.) is diminished, it makes it harder for the poor to move up the economic ladder, and thus depresses the income potential of the low income earners (which indirectly affects all of us).  Strengthen the safety net and labor has more of a leg to stand on….otherwise more gain goes to Capital.

You can see that there is a literal war on the bargaining power of labor, and labor is losing (largely without realizing it is happening).

It takes both capital and labor to succeed and right now the power is out of balance.  We need the pendulum to swing back in the direction of labor.  Perhaps in 50 years we can argue why capital needs more bargaining power (hopefully).

One can see that all these laws are creating the conditions of our current inequality.  We can change them; we created them in the first place.  It is silly to say “this is the free market outcome”.  The current income inequality is a choice.  We did it; we can un-do it.

It is fair to ask the question “If we decrease income inequality, what will that mean for me?”.  Most would see an improvement; some would not.  Income inequality creates lots of relatively cheap goods/services for the rich.  The cost of the items on the low end would likely increase if we paid many of the employees that produce those items more.  Lots of poor would benefit; a few rich would not be as well off.  That is OUR choice to make (or at least should be).

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2014 is about over; here are my thoughts on the year.

1.  My life is awesome!

These are surely the “good ol’ days” for me.  I have had a great, fun life but these years will be the best when I think back (if what I hear from retired folks is true).  If I am wrong, then I can’t wait for what is next.

I love my kids so much!  People who say such things as “you can never pay your parents back for all the things they’ve done for you”….they are wrong.  My kids owe me nothing.  I owe them.  It is truly my pleasure….

I love my wife!  I never realized how many things I was not good at until I got married….and now my wife helps me with them!  She helps me find things.  She washes and folds my clothes.  She helps raise my kids.  She puts up Christmas decorations.  She shops for me at Costco.  She helps me try new things all the time that I wouldn’t have tried…and I like them sometimes.  Without her, I don’t think my life would nearly as awesome.

I can tolerate my job!!  And that is pretty awesome!  The whole “follow your passion” is not great advice, since it is difficult to implement in a helpful way.  My job is challenging (and stressful), pays my bills (but never pays enough), and I am getting skills that can’t be outsourced or automated.  That is about what you/I can hope for from work.  Those who expect a job to be meaningful:  I would suggest if your life lacks meaning…don’t look for it at work.

I make a difference!  I am surrounded by people (family, friends, job) who depend on me, watch me, need me.  I am comfortable with that responsibility; it has it’s rewards.  People who feel like they aren’t making a difference or that their life is meaningless….here is some advice:  Step up and take some more responsibility.  In my experience, people are more than willing to give it to you.

YOUR LIFE IS LIKELY AWESOME TOO!  All of our lives are beset by problems.  Everyone works hard.  All of us deal with difficult people.  No one can remember their passwords.  We would all appreciate more sleep.  Everyone has aches and pains as they age.  There is still some pretty good awesomeness tucked away in life despite those things.

2.  What are my goals?

My goal is “more of the same”!

Uninspiring?  Unfocused?  I don’t think so.

I want to raise my kids well, keep a job, and maintain my relationship with my wife.  Those are things I’m already doing, but that can change at any time, so I’m thankful it is working out right now.

I had specific goals when I was younger:  Travel, learn a second language, get an MBA, get a job in consulting.  I did those things.  I think goals are more applicable when you are young.

I believe in staying true to values:  Be helpful, work hard, stay positive, keep family first, be thankful.  If I do those things, the right opportunities will come up.

3.  Share the best of myself, not the worst.  I accept this as a responsibility.

When I was younger I thought people who were always positive and happy were fake.  That’s not true at all.

People who are positive and happy are considerate.  Of course you aren’t happy all the time, but it helps others almost all the time if you put on a good face and meet the day with a smile.  That is how you can be most helpful to them…by having a pleasant interaction with people….By putting a positive spin on the events of your life and letting others hear that example.  That kind of person is good to be around.  And as a fortunate byproduct, those kind of people tend to make their own luck.

Keeping it real is not good.  Share and say things that are helpful to others.  Keep the rest to yourself (and your closest friends if you really need help).  Sharing and saying things that are helpful to others is a practiced habit improved through years of diligence.  I work at it everyday; review my actions and words to make sure I’m interacting in the most helpful, positive ways.  Share the best of yourself, not the worst.

I think all that is my responsibility, and I accept it.  (I am not, by nature, a positive person, so this is a challenge to me.)

4.  Accept that I need help.

The more responsibility I accept, the more important and meaningful my life becomes, the more awesome my life becomes, the more help I will need to maintain it.  That is a fundamental insight.

There is far more to do than I can ever hope to get to.  I have to prioritize where I spend my time, and get help for everything else. I often pay for that help in the form of lawn care or housekeeping or daycare for the kids.  I try to pay others for everything I can afford that makes sense (for instance I can’t pay others to exercise for me or do my professional work).

I also ask my friends for lots of advice…on finances, on work, on childcare, on anything.  Seeking only my own counsel is not smart.

Receiving help from others requires me to be honest with myself about what I am good at and willing to accept my limitations (or at least acknowledge them).  I have a responsibility to make myself easy to help.

5.  Accept life is risky.

The more responsibility I accept, the more important and meaningful my life becomes, the more awesome my life becomes, the more risk my decisions bear.

It is easy to take risks as an individual because you are the only one that bears the consequences.  However, your life is limited in scope if your decisions only affect you, and so your life is not as awesome as it could be.

What I need to work on is accepting that risk and accepting that those I am responsible for (professionally, and personally) must, by default, accept some of that risk as well.  When I take on risk, they also take on risk.  And I need to be ok with that and move forward.

As a leader, I think we instinctively understand this even if it is difficult.  What is not as intuitive is that, as followers (which we all are as well), we have a responsibility to understand, and accept, the leader’s dilemma.

So, 2014 was great.  I hope 2015 will be too.

Accept responsibility.  Practice life being awesome.  We’ll likely succeed.

20141226_171206_Richtone(HDR)(1)

(Real picture I took over xmas break)

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I’ve talked about this before, and it is also discussed very well here.

The line of thought goes like this:  “Producers competing against each other benefits us all.  Free of government intervention, supply and demand sets the optimal market price.  Through open and free competition, the invisible hand of the market leads to the most efficient economic outcomes.”

The offshoot of this logic is “The free market outcome is the best and natural outcome, free from interference”.

I don’t think this is true in a practical sense.

Firstly, the government creates the market.  Always.  Look at our economy and I’ll challenge you to find one significant instance of a market that is not HEAVILY underpinned by government.  Here are some (but not even close to all) examples of the underpinnings.

Corporations:   Our modern economy is run by corporations, which are government created entities.  They are a legal invention.  There is nothing natural or free about them.

Money:  Without the government creating commonly accepted currency, I’m not sure how we’d pay for anything in our fictional free market.  Companies could issue their own currency (so could I for that matter), though I’m not sure who would accept it.

Contracts and Law:  The court system and contract law allows companies to interact and provides a baseline enforcement of trust.  I’m not sure what kind of business you’d get if there were no common contract law…because you’ll never find an instance of it.  Government creates the opportunity for the market in the first place by underpinning it with the rule of law.

Copyright:  The modern, technology enabled market is created in large part by intellectual property protection.  This is a legal creation of the government.  Name a few large companies (e.g. Apple), and you’ll find many of them are insulated from the free market by copyright protection.  There is nothing natural or free about copyrights.

Employee Education:  Every employer and market benefits from government/publicly educated employees.  Companies don’t like to train their employees; its expensive.  What if entry level employees couldn’t even read?

Roads:  There is no market if people can’t get to it.  I’m sure companies could build their own roads; not sure how many there would be though, or what kind of expensive pass you’d need to get on each company’s  special road type that only led to their store.

Secondly, it is really hard to argue in practice against a free market that only exists in theory.

You can’t “disprove” the free market, because you’ll never find a real instance of it to argue against.  Some markets are surely less regulated/governed than others, but because the government creates the conditions of the market…they are never separate and so defending the free market is like arguing over the hair color of Bigfoot:   We can come up with lots of good reasons for white or brown (depending on habitat or season)…..but since there are no actual Bigfoots, we will never arrive at a conclusion.

Thirdly, thinking that the absence of interference in the market is good, is like saying that what is natural is what is good.

That isn’t true, period.  Hume solved this for us long ago.  Dying of cold in the winter would be quite natural if we didn’t put on a jacket (something that isn’t natural).  In fact, we can owe the relative comfort of our existence, to the struggle against what is natural.  We seek to be cooler in the summer, and warmer in the winter.  We want abundant food when scarcity is natural.  We seek to be dry when it is wet, and want water when it is dry.  We want youth as we naturally age, and want to be well when we naturally fall ill.  We seek order always, when disorder is naturally all around us.

Saying that we should leave the market to itself, and that by some “invisible hand” it will produce the best outcome for us goes against all evidence.  Its like saying “I’m going to sit outside in the winter and expect an “invisible hand” to make me warm and comfortable.”  We intervene in what is natural all the time to our benefit…why would the free market be the exception to that?

Thinking that the free market, natural outcome is the best outcome leads to some odd lines of thought (quote from Robert Reich):

“By this view, if some people aren’t paid enough to live on, the market has determined they aren’t worth enough. If others rake in billions, they must be worth it.  If millions of Americans remain unemployed or their paychecks are shrinking or they work two or three part-time jobs with no idea what they’ll earn next month or next week, that’s too bad; it’s just the outcome of the market.”

To me, that sounds like we’re shirking our responsibility to ourselves.  It is as if we’ve given “the market” omniscient, god-like properties.  It “knows” what prices should be.  It “knows” how best to allocate between capital and labor.   It “knows” how many hours a week we should work.  How?  I look at a market and I see people.

The market is a metaphorical construct that can’t “know” anything at all in the traditional sense.  People know and decide.  Leaving it up to “the market” is much like leaving it up to chance…a practice which, if employed outside in the winter, will leave you frozen to death.

The bottom line is that, through government, we create the conditions of the market.  We are free to change them if we don’t like the current market outcome, because we created the current market outcome in the first place.

In light of the above, I maintain that the “free market” is, in practice, a rhetorical device used by those interested in deregulating a certain sector of their market for their own benefit.  If it were not for “their own benefit”, they would be arguing for continued or increased regulation  (For instance car dealerships are arguing Tesla’s direct sales model is illegal.).

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This PRISM spying thing is interesting for me because so many factors are at play (listed below in no particular order):

1. What motivates a whistleblower? Edward Snowden is the new Bradley Manning (and we see how that ended).  The motivation behind leaking this kind of information and the trouble it causes for you is fascinating.  Would I leak if given a similar opportunity?  Probably not; I like my life too much.  Would you?

It seems to me to be a case of self-sacrifice, where the whistleblower is potentially making the world a better place for us, while at the same time ruining their own life.  Questionable move.

2. The government has to spy on us.  The current whistleblowing, while creating a useful dialogue about freedom vs security, will not change government eavesdropping now or in the future (the program will simply move further into the shadows if shut down).  Think about it from the government’s perspective:  1) We’re already creating all the data for them (emails, phone calls, facebook, cell phone GPS, etc.) and the technology exists to gather it.  It would almost be a missed opportunity, from the government’s perspective, if they didn’t take that final step of collecting it. 2) If the US government isn’t spying on us, then some other government (or organization) will be, and the US government will not accept that kind of information asymmetry.  Would we want our government at a disadvantage?

3. It is safe to assume we are being watched all the time by multiple parties.  I would not assume the US government is the only one with this kind of program.  If they are today, they won’t always be.  Information of all kinds is being created about us at an increasing rate, and so organizations will be increasingly tempted to use it.

4. How is government spying all that different than marketers or financiers? Marketers  know what I want to buy before I do.  Financier formulas give me a credit rating that is likely more accurate at predicting my ability to service debt than even I would know if you asked me.  In short, the world of commerce not only knows most things about me already; they often know MORE than I know about myself.  And, really, how much “spying” does the government need to do?  Many people simply publish their lives on Facebook voluntarily.

5. The government is collecting 99.9% junk, and the program is a waste of time. This will be the world’s largest database of people doing regular, boring stuff that ever existed. To separate signal (some terrorist) from noise (our comings and goings) is an intellectually stimulating but largely fruitless endeavor.  I would be highly suspicious of any claim that actionable intelligence is coming out of the surveillance (although I am sure that claim will be made).

We had mountains of data about the finance system and years of effort in creating sophisticated models, and no one could predict the financial crisis or housing bust.  Do we now think we’re going to drum up some model that can find, or even significantly contribute to finding, terrorists (if that is even the program’s real/primary use)?

6. Do terrorists really carry registered cell phones, and put “I’m a terrorist!” on Facebook? Perhaps a few really crappy terrorists.  In general, it is beyond me what the government hopes to learn of significance.  I do bet they could catch a bunch of drug dealers and petty criminals who aren’t sophisticated enough to prevent leaving a digital trail.  Certainly though the government doesn’t need any more help catching drug dealers/users?  The jails are already overflowing.

7. Convenience trumps Freedom. I think most of us are OK with having our every move logged. Like I said, we are voluntarily doing it mostly anyway.  We “log” into every site or service we use and they “log” our information.  We do that because it creates something convenient for us (it is nice that Amazon saves my info and predicts my likes).  We can simply not buy cell phones if we don’t want our location constantly monitored, but most of us value the convenience of driving directions more than the freedom we give up.

8. The Internet does not promote a free and open society.  This is exactly the opposite of what we’d like to think and have been told.  Our digital universe (including the Internet) creates the most effective surveillance state that could ever be conceived.

9. Cloud Computer is inherently insecure. If we create the data and upload it centrally somewhere for a service to manage…then we are volunteering our data to the government, and likely others as well.  I think, ultimately, people value convenience over security, and so “the cloud” has a big future…it is just a big future in which privacy is marginalized and our mistakes are recorded in perpetuity.

10. Spying is being automated.  Can former spies apply for unemployment?  No longer does a spy have to sit in a cafe in Damascus and eavesdrop on conversations; the conversations are being recorded.  I guess no industry is immune to automation.

11. Who Watches the Watchers? Even though I believe this kind of surveillance is a waste of time for finding terrorists, I am strongly against it.  Even though our lives are incredibly boring and full of non-events, with this much data about our comings and goings it would not be difficult to find “other” uses for it.  There is no need for any organization to have that kind of power.

If the government would submit themselves to be watched in the same way they are watching us…then I might see a moral justification for the program.  They can have their privacy but we can’t have ours?  That seems unfair in a nation where no one is supposed to be above the law.

For those who would invoke “national security” as the justification for the information asymmetry, I submit my last comment:

12) The response to 9/11 is enormously out of line with the event. Is no one brave enough to lead with, “Despite the tragedy, it simply is not worth all this.”?  Preserving our way of life is not disrespecting the dead.  It is what the dead would have wanted for us, and thus is the highest form of respect we can pay.

2,993 people died on September 11, 2001 as a result of a terrorist attack.

4,488 US soldiers  have died in Iraq since 9/11…. Certainly we have not saved 4,488 US lives in prevented terrorism since that day? We’ve killed more of our own soldiers in response to 9/11 than died on 9/11.

Over 1 million Iraqis have died due to US military activity since 9/11.  If there wasn’t a lot of dislike of US before, there is now.  As much as some Iraqis appreciate the liberation from Saddam, if the deal is “to save us you must kill us”, I’m not sure that is a great bargain.  We’re kicking the hornets nest in the Middle East.

Here are some other sobering statistics:

Over 5,000 people per year die in the US from texting while driving accidents…44,000 per year in car accidents in general.  47,000 per year die in the US from hospital/doctor errors.  24,000 per year die of lightning strikes (globally).  No one is declaring war on any of these things….despite causing more death per year (recurring) than 9/11 (a one time event).

6,800 people die per day in the US from all causes.  4292 days have passed since 9/11/2011, so 29,185,600 people have died overall in that time period.   The tragic deaths of 9/11 account for .02% of all deaths since that day. How are the other 99.98% of deaths any less tragic? Why no passionate response for non-terrorist deaths (some of which could likely be addressed without such a draconian response)?

What is the justification for the response to 9/11?

It certainly can’t be lives saved, since we are killing more than we are saving.

It can’t be freedom, since we are giving up (in civil liberties) more than we are preserving.

It can’t be safety, since there are far better, less invasive ways to make us safer.

What is the justification?

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Retirement is a modern concept; people historically worked until they couldn’t work anymore, at least in some capacity. Regardless, like most people, I would like to retire.  The question is:  How do you get the money?

A Pension is a defined benefit; it pays a fixed amount per year until you die no matter what.  You receive/accrue your pension based on years worked (private sector pensions); you can also accrue based on amount paid in (like Social Security), or simply buy a financial instrument (annuity).

The alternative to a pension (defined benefit plan) for retirement is usually a defined contribution plan (401K), in which you don’t accrue a fixed payment, you contribute and draw against the balance in retirement.

The advantage of a pension is its simplicity:

A fixed stream of payments until you die is very predictable.  It is the best, simplest solution for the retiree.

The retiree knows how much they are accruing each year of service along the way; that is something you can plan around.  They will not run out of money if they happen to live a long time.  This is the kind of security and simplicity everyone would like in retirement.  Life is complicated; retirement shouldn’t be, no?

This is why I like pensions.

If pensions are so great, then why are they so unpopular?

The biggest reason is that companies (and even governments to a certain extent, though they can print money, which is helpful) cannot manage the risk appropriately.

Pensions (like social security) can be unfunded.  There is no social security fund.  The people that pay in (working age) are really giving money directly to retirees.  I could accomplish the same effect by simply mailing my money directly to them.  The government is facilitating a direct transfer payment.  Some risk issues here could be the value of the US Dollar, the life expectancy of retirees, and/or the total population paying into the system. These risks are hard to manage and predict over short and long term time spans. The advantage the government has is that its pension is always solvent so long as the government can issue its own currency.

Pensions that are funded (like CalPERs and other large corporate plans) receive payments from employees (or simply lower their salary, which is an indirect payment) and then manage the pool of money from which to payout the annuity revenue stream promised to retirees.

These plans have to manage even more variables than the government with a smaller population size (leading to more volatility); and they can’t print money.  They must predict how much people should contribute now, then predict a rate of return in the stock market, then make sure they don’t run a negative…and their business/industry must be healthy enough to continue to continue to exist when these people retire (avg life expectancy of a public company is less than 10 years). That is hard to do. The main issue for corporate pensions is that they have assumed a rate of return (historically 7%) for the stock market that hasn’t materialized.

So here is the crux, and why I still like pensions (preferably a government pension which can’t go bankrupt):

All the risk factors mentioned above that large companies and governments find difficult to correctly assess…..also apply to us.

We don’t know how long we will live.  We don’t know what payout amount is adequate.  We can’t predict the stock market.  We don’t know whether we will stay healthy enough to continue working.  We don’t know what the value of the dollar will be.  We are woefully unqualified to bear and assess these risks.

By switching from pensions to 401ks companies are shifting these risks from them to us.  If they have been unable to assess these risks correctly, how would we be able to?

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How we think it works:

We deposit our money at the bank and the bank then lends out that money to others, right?

How it really works:

People do make deposits, yes.  Banks also make loans, yes.

What I’m having trouble with is conceptualizing how they are connected.  Banks don’t need the deposits to make the loans. Loans are NEW money that didn’t exist before.

Banks are not taking your money (from your deposit) and then giving it to the loanee.  The bank simply says “Ok, we are giving you a loan,” and then they make a digital keystroke in the loanee’s account, and, presto, there is new money! Magic!

All those millions of bank customers (i.e. all of us) are a hassle. We aren’t very profitable.  We require banks to put branches everywhere and have tellers.  Mostly just so they can “warehouse” our money, as most of us don’t use fancy services.  We just write a few checks and add and subtract money from our account.  Those are pretty modest needs.  Why not simply stop providing depositor services and still give out loans (which is far more profitable)?

An aside here is for people to remind me that our fractional reserve banking system requires banks to keep about 10% of assets on deposit for every dollar they lend out.

This is simply a legislative requirement though (we invented it); so we could easily change it.  Also, it reminds us that banks are created legislatively by government; they wouldn’t exist otherwise…so for banks to ask government to stay out of their affairs is disingenuous.  The two are inseparable by definition.

However, even with the 10% requirement, why would the 10% need to come from us in the form of our deposits?  Why not borrow the 10% from the government or from other banks.   In essence, when we deposit, the bank is borrowing from us and paying a small interest to our account.

Why not just borrow from elsewhere and pay a small interest to them?  Then the banks wouldn’t have to deal with all the small consumer accounts, which is admittedly a lot of work for little reward from a bank profitability perspective.  In the end all money (even the money which we eventually deposit) originates from the government.  Why not just borrow directly from the government (since that is what is happening indirectly anyway)?

Indeed, why not?

I guess I’ll restate here in summary:

I’m saying consumer banking (where normal people deposit paychecks and maybe write some checks and use an ATM) is not causally related to lending. The two are associated, but you don’t need one to do the other.

Deposits wouldn’t go away entirely if lending and consumer banking were separated.  If banks provide loans, they will likely provide the ability to deposit for loanees, since banks generally deposit the amount of the loan you just asked for in an account they just created to be the repository of the loan (alternatively they could give you a suitcase of cash).  But the model of normal people depositing a paycheck and such….that just isn’t related to lending that I see.

Am I missing something?

I can think of a few reasons to keep the consumer depositor services: a) for marketing reasons (maintain the relationships for people who might need loans), and b) for public relations reasons (maintain the illusion that banks do something useful for us and so tie up the risk of our money with the risk of their investment arms which cause us to need to bail them out).

In short though, banks must have some other reason for maintaining consumer depository services; isn’t for reasons of profitability.

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We will all look back in 100 years and wonder why people ever invested in the stock market.  It will seem like such an obviously misguided and colossally bad idea; how did we ever think that could work out?

I admit that I do not understand the stock market.  It isn’t that I don’t understand how to pick stocks (I don’t but that is beside the point); it is that I don’t understand the CONCEPT of the stock market: Why pay money for stocks?  Why use a second hand swap meet of useless company baseball cards as a vehicle to save for retirement?  It is silly.

Point 1:  As in poker, you need to know which table to play at.  Put another way, inside information is the only way to consistently beat the market.

Regular folks investing in stocks is like you trying to win at the World Series of Poker.  We are like a toy boat on the ocean;  it would just be luck if we ended up where we wanted.

Along this same line, I disagree with making it illegal to trade on inside information.

Publicly the industry needs to say it is illegal to trade on inside information.  Why?  Because no idiot (meaning us) would invest in the stock market if they knew the game was rigged to benefit those with special information.  That is the democratic draw of the stock market; average people can participate and win…after all, the information is all out there, right?  WRONG.

Funds or people that beat the market consistently and trade frequently are likely cheating with inside information…period.  Mathematically it wouldn’t be hard to target any group/fund/person with consistent market beating returns that are outside a normal range….and assume they are cheating.  Start investigating them.

The reason I am for making insider trading legal instead of investigating everyone is that if you made it legal, people would hopefully stop thinking of the stock market as a vehicle for savings and start thinking about it for what it is:  A cutthroat gambling casino for the ultra-rich where the buy in is OUR money.

I don’t have a problem with the ultra-rich betting against themselves all day with their own money; if they wreck that stock market it only wrecks them.  The problem is that we give them OUR money and then they wreck that stock market and get bailed out.  In that scenario, they win if they win, and they win if we lose.  Seems like a pretty good deal for the finance folks, huh?

Point 2: How can stocks go up faster than inflation + growth?

No asset class can consistently outpace inflation + real growth over time.  People say Social Security doesn’t appreciate like stocks do; your rate of return would be better with stocks.  WRONG.  It might be better over time...but just wait until the first generation of people try to retire who have seen negative stock returns over their period of savings.  That will be the end of stocks as a retirement savings vehicle, and those people will eat potatoes and live by the wood fireplace in the winter.

It will also make us, as a nation, forever chained to the fortunes of the stock market (a very bad idea).  The government will always have to intervene if the stock market tanks because so much is tied up in it. This is a moral hazard for traders, since they know they will always be bailed out.  Additionally, their speculation is at the expense of our retirement.

This scenario of negative stock returns for retirees over the period of their career simply hasn’t happened yet. 100 years ago there was no retirement.  It is a modern concept.  Then there were pension plans (and Social Security), which were ponzi-like schemes where you always needed a larger portion of workers paying in than old people taking out to maintain them.  401K plans didn’t exist until the 1978, so basically no generation has yet retired depending on stocks.  Using stocks as a vehicle for normal people to save is a new and unproven concept.

If stocks cannot consistently outpace inflation + growth, then putting your money in the stock market is little more than gambling…and gambling against people who know a lot more about it than you.

Point 3: The miracle of compound interest only works if everyone doesn’t employ it. If stocks worked their magic for us and multiplied our money through investing, and then everyone was able to do that, would we all be rich? NO. Compounding interest can create money on paper no doubt; but it will only ever be able to buy what is available in the real world.  It would simply create inflation. I repeat:  No asset class can consistently compound faster than inflation + growth for everyone.

Point 4: Stocks don’t produce anything.  We can’t all be rent seekers.

If we were all, every single one of us, able to use stocks as a retirement vehicle to compound our money while doing nothing, then what would we be able to buy?  Other people’s stocks perhaps, but there would be nothing else to spend our money on.  In short, wealth is produced by improving stuff, by working…not by shuffling paper in a second hand market.  You can’t eat a stock certificate.

Point 5:  Traders and computers (HFT) will ruin the stock market.

The primary players (traders and computers) are not looking to invest; they are looking for arbitrage.  They don’t care about investments, or the health of the underlying economy; they are simply looking for the next trade, whether it is in pork bellies or Swiss Francs.  The larger the market gets, the more tempting it is to try to rent seek from it.  They are extracting profits from doing nothing.

~70% of trades are computers trading against other computers.  Why would we agree to participate in this?  The stock market has devolved into a computer game, and we are the losers.

As we look back in 100 years (probably less), we will realize that it was a rigged game, whose main benefit was to extract money from the dupes (us) and funnel it to the rule makers (traders).  We supplied the fuel; they extracted the profits.  In the end very little was ever financed; very little was returned, and all the financiers got rich.

I took a religion class in college and always thought it was odd that nearly all major religions single out usury/banking as evil.  Why single out one profession above others?  What is so insidious about banking that it gets a special mention above other professions?  Well, it is because they have a tendency to end up with all the money, when they don’t really do anything; it is simply fancy theft.

The stock market is the crowning achievement of fancy theft.  We will look back in 100 years and wonder how we could’ve ever thought buying stocks was a good idea…just like no one could’ve thought smoking was good idea, right?

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It is sometimes said that the cure is worse than the disease; however, sometimes the cure IS the disease.

I was working in a benefits office of a large university and there was a lady who got a customer service award.  The story was told that employees would call the benefits office frantic that the doctor told them they didn’t have coverage.  She would scramble about and get them a confirmation of coverage, contact the carriers…fix everything.  That is great customer service.  The VP of Benefits turned to me and said, “The problem is that she was the one that forgot to enroll them in the first place because she is three weeks behind.  If she’d do her job, there would be no need for her great customer service responsiveness.”

Protection and Security:

The government is spending trillions on our security.  They are fighting ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; they are wiretapping us domestically; they are tracking us on our cell phones, monitoring us on Facebook; groping us as we go through airport security; censoring/blocking website they deem inappropriate, etc., etc.

Let me simply point out who it is we need protection from (hint:  it is not terrorists):

If we look at human history, the story is rarely of the government protecting its people from some external threat.  History teaches us that the threat of tyranny comes most often from the government itself. The framers of the Constitution had this concept specifically in mind when they created our government:  Limited government (see the 10th amendment) to protect us from the government.  We have the right to bear arms so the government cannot disarm us in case we would like to overthrow the government (yes, that is what the founding fathers had in mind).

I previously mentioned that if the financial sector’s main purpose is to assess and hedge risk and they themselves are the largest risk, then the only sensible solution is to pack up and go home.  Similarly, if the government’s aim is to protect us then they would be best served by doing almost nothing….since history shows over and over that the government itself is the largest threat to our freedom.

Saving the economy, Inflation, and the Fed:

We are told the Fed needs autonomy and power to intervene in the economy to save the economy.  As President Bush said, “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free market system.”

That is a great story (and a bizarre quote).

I will ask why the economy needs saving in the first place? The Fed created easy money that fueled an asset (housing) bubble.  The government spends unfunded trillions on war that creates a budget crisis.

The government creates the economic conditions from which we need to be saved.  Indeed, they are the largest player in the economy and thus the one most able to create imbalances which cause crisis.  Very few other players have the market power to create a deep business cycle.  Very few other players could ever be considered rule makers or market movers.

Consider inflation.  Inflation is not caused by a rise in prices; it is not caused by increasing wages.  Those are symptoms, not causes.  It is caused originally by some expansion of the money supply (indeed there could be no inflation without an increase in the money supply).  The government/Fed controls the money supply.

When the government tells us it is fighting inflation, it is mainly fighting itself, since they are the party that must take the initial steps.  The government gets to create and spend money now when it is worth more and when it leaks out into the general economy as inflation we spend the money later when it is worth less.  Inflation is a tax on savings.  The tax goes to the government to spend now when the money is still worth more.

Similar to the situation with protecting us, the government is the primary cause of economic crisis and inflation, from which it then proposes to save us.

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I actually think politicians are generally well intentioned (though not always); they have their beliefs and they fight for them on a political stage (which means lots of messy compromises).  Problem is, even if you have your beliefs, you are often wrong.  Strength of belief does not equal likelihood of correctness. See the Dunning-Kruger effect.

There is simply a powerful incentive to DO SOMETHING when there is a crisis, even if you are attempting to save yourself from yourself.

My question is:  Do the politicians realize any of this? I hope they are simply poor students of history, or willfully ignorant and are just trying to help.  If they realize it (even some of them), then my view of mankind is dimmed.

What do you think?

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