Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mo-Money, Movember

Mo Money, Mo Problems, unless you're talking about raising money for men's health issues.

We men are pretty awesome, according to those of us at the Loop and the Lou. We do seem to lag behind the fairer sex when it comes to talking about our health, though. We'd rather tough it out until we drop... but it doesn't have to be that way.

A Loop and The Lou Founding Member, Coovo, is raising awareness and money for men's health through a great program called Movember. This group enlists Mo-Bros to shave their face clean on November 1, and grow out their mustaches the rest of the month to raise awareness and show a little solidarity. In Australia, they call their stache's "Mo"s, hence the name "Movember". Clever Ausssies.

Help Coovo out by donating your next cup of coffee. If you didn't know that prostate cancer was the most common non-skin cancer in the U.S., then maybe you should take a second and throw down. Seriously, 5 bucks can really help. Click here to do it. And if we're lucky, Coovo might post a pic of his 30-day stache when Movember ends.

Monday, November 17, 2008

¡El Hombre!

Not to interrupt the great discussions we've had on the blog in the past couple weeks, but there is some important news coming out of The Lou.

Albert Pujols (aka Prince Albert aka Phat Albert aka The Machine aka El Hombre) has been named the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2008. Albert received 18 of the 32 first place votes, his 369 total points in the ballot edging out Ryan Howard's 308. That Pujols did not receive the other 14 first place votes is incomprehensible, and can only be explained by a federal redistribution of first place votes.

Pujols finished the season with a .357 Batting Average, a .462 On Base Percentage and a .653 Slugging Percentage. Amazingly, only the OBP was a career high. Despite missing 14 games, Pujols still managed to clobber 37 HR, drive in 116 and touch the plate 100 times. His 1.92 ratio of BB/K (104/54) was nearly the inverse of the MLB average (0.48). Albert Pujols' career can perhaps be characterized by two words: dominance and consistency. His 99 Runs in 2007 marked the only time in his career he failed to reach the 30/100/100 HR, R, RBI mark. And oh yeah, he's known for his work ethic in the field, too.

The question that invariably comes up is, can he really be only 28? Whatever his age is, his consistency throughout his career leads one to believe that we could expect many more years like those which he has already put up. A statement like this should of course be followed up by a list of disclaimers about health and his "age" and dead-ball eras and performance enhancing jock-straps, but let's just have some fun with this. After 8 years of watching this guy mash year in and year out (the nickname The Machine is so fitting), it's OK to speculate about Albert finishing among the game's greats (with absolute reverence, of course).

I'm one to argue that the rate stats such as OBP and SLG are better ways to evaluate a player than the typical HR and RBI, but when trying to place someone amongst the billions of players to have played this game, one inevitably turns to the counting stats. (And just so it's noted, Albert's career BA is .334 (23rd All-Time), OBP is .425 (13th All-Time), and SLG is .624 (4th(!) All-Time).

Albert's current HR, R and RBI totals are 319, 947 and 977, respectively. Let's say he doubles those totals. He finishes with 638 HR (good for 5th All-Time), 1894 R (good for 10th All-Time (just behind Stan)) and 1954 RBI (good for 6th All-Time (just ahead of Stan)). Of course these are against the current totals, which will be slightly more crowded with some of today's stars...

Nevertheless, doubling Pujols' stats is not inconceivable. It's not even outlandish to think he could do better. (I've knocked on wood about 18 times while writing this post.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Coercive Brutality

In the previous post, I used "coercive brutality" to describe the trend in our federal tax system. I thought this would generate more 'yuks', but in either case, there was more in this light that I wanted to share. This post will be a little more organized. Three parts only, 1) philosophy, 2) history, 3) current day story.

Philosophy. Coercion is a tricky thing. On one hand, we all need a "kick in the pants" from time to time. On the other hand, it's easy to point a gun on someone and get them to change -- know that as soon as you lower your gun, that person will go right back to doing the same old thing. This is not a literal statement, but a figurative one and is the cornerstone of libertarian philosophy. No coercion. It is easy to bring most libertarians to their knees, though, with such simple philosophies alone. What is there then to rein in the appetites of men?

The Declaration of Independence seeks to rein in the otherwise hedonistic-like qualities of Libertarianism. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (which is often used interchangeably with private property) are ordered in that way on purpose. In other words, your right to pursue happiness is called into question when it impinges my right to liberty, etc. Certainly, our culture has lost these original values. We do not value life as we should, and we have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world (consisting about half of non-violent drug offenders).

But what happens when we consolidate these passions into the political whims of the day? We get a coercive system of taxation to fund stuff that we don't all believe in; yet we all pay for. That is the basic argument for limiting the size of the federal government. It will become coercive over time, even in the name of good.

History. Remember the Stamp Act of 1765? I did by name only. I certainly remembered the slogan "no taxation without representation." Well, even if we get representation in the form of a politician, does the collage of federal programs represent, even generally, something I believe in? Personally, no it doesn't. The revolt against the Stamp Act was not really even a statement about the level of taxation on the citizens (our current politicians make the same mistaken assumptions, which is why I laughed when people sited Obama's tax plan as a reform or as being different than McCain's). It was about the complexity of taxation and the necessary brutality it took to enforce such complexity.

English soldiers were given the green light to break down doors at will and ransack houses in a sort of visceral audit. This is why people got pissed off. Most people willingly and happily pay taxes and even risk their lives to defend their country. But when the tax code becomes coercive and brutal then we start to say enough is enough. Am I stuck in the past? Are we so arrogant and proud now to say that we would never dare repeat history?

A current day story. My girlfriend hosted some of her friends last weekend, and one of them told me a story that happened to her friend in CA. Now, this girl, based both on her personality and the fact that she manages 80 people who research and assemble heart-rhythm implant devices does not mince words or exaggerate reality. Her friend, a CA native, comes from a family who has made their share of money over time. Hard work by three successive generations, savings, and plenty of blessings have made them a wealthy family. One day, her grandfather, a widower, died.

The very next day, the state of California swarmed his house with agents from the department of revenue. Their legally-backed mission? To itemize every single thing in the house, not just the house itself, to ascertain value and record it all so as to ensure all taxes would be paid upon the honest man's death. The girl, who in her sadness, thought of her grandfather and sought out a single physical remnant of his existence -- a leather pig he kept in his den -- had to approach the state of California to inquire about the price tag. Yes, she had to write out a check to the state of California for $150 for the leather pig.

California is held up by many elites in our country to be some progressive bastion of thought, philosophy and action. It is rather, an upside down place, which currently faces a $15 billion state government shortfall. To what extent will the government acquire what it considers theirs? You've just heard, for sure, one extent. If California is our future, and the Stamp Act is our past, what exactly are we doing to ourselves?

Often, well-meaning liberals scoff at the quaintness of many midwesterners who see the horizon rushing at them. They patronize us with their thin knowledge of trivial facts, global and national visions of U.S. domination in the name of outcome equality, and their cosmopolitan understandings of culture. Well not everyone wants to live in such a world or such a country.

Is it a wonder that gun sales are skyrocketing?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

National Free Market Socialism

Free markets. Socialism. VooDoo Economics. Demand Side Economics. Bailouts. Bankruptcy. Capitalism. Invisible Hands. Austrian School of Economics. John Maynard Keynes. It's a confusing mess. And I definitely don't claim to understand it all.

But I have learned a lot about some of these things over time, studying them in college, reading about them afterwards, and paying attention to the way people use these words. I think it's important to come to a better understanding of what these things mean so we can then form our opinions and debate our positions.

What kind of economic system do we have now? I think that's debatable. It's some form of free market capitalism with twists of subisidized capitalism and socialism. Already, I'm confused.

First, capitalism, as I understand it is a system that benefits from people putting their capital at risk by investing it, lending it, starting businesses, etc, and then recouping a reward for that risk. Essential to that notion is the concept of private property. This means just that you own stuff and the law is set up to help you protect it. This would contrast to Socialism, where private property does not exist. In other words, no one owns anything individually, everything is owned by the group or State.

Free markets might seem like a complex or magical thing, but really they are extremely simple and organic. Adam Smith thought, wrote and talked about free markets a lot. Obviously, free markets go hand and hand with private property, although I'm sure some could make obscure arguments that free markets could exist in a Socialist concept. A major dynamic (or result) in free markets was described by Mr. Smith as "the invisible hand." By letting prices rise and fall because of lots of unfettered transactions, they would come to reflect the actual economic value of something. Socialism, by contrast, fixes prices from the point of view of central planning. Yes, this means a lot more committee meetings, and we know how well committees work after they finish dealing with the thing that scared them into being.

The closest thing to a free market that we have in the USA might be the technologies associated with the internet or personal computing. I'm sure Noam Chomsky could tell me how naive I am to believe this, but I don't care (Noam, if you're reading, leave a comment). Wall Street should be a free market, purely driven by supply and demand, but it is not -- it is heavily regulated and implicitly insured. Wink wink.

Recently, though, with all the economic hardships in our country, a lot of nasty words are flying around. Obama's a Socialist. Free Trade caused all this. Don't bailout the rich guys, bailout the poor guys, etc. A coworker of mine who hails from Switzerland recently started chuckling about an article he was reading about McCain. I turned around and asked him what was funny? He said, Doesn't everyone know that they are picking between a small Socialist and a big one?

Wait a minute, McCain's a Socialist now?

Here are some of the elements, as I see it, that need to be in place for a free market to exist. First, consumers need to make decisions on their own behalf with their own money. A great example of where this isn't taking place is in the health insurance industry. The health insurance industry is in a pretty bad state right now, as is the healthcare industry in many ways. Rarely do consumers make the decision of which health insurance to buy. Such insurance is often "provided" by employers, although that is the wrong word. We are still providing it, it's just that our employers get to decide which is right for us. This causes a tremendous amount of inefficiency. I have at times used the auto-insurance industry as a contrast, not because buying auto insurance is anything like buying health insurance, but because almost all of us do make the decision with our own money to buy our own auto insurance.

Many states have laws that require you to buy auto insurance. This is a great example of how a free market could still exist underneath a regulation -- a good regulation. The main problem when consumers do not make their own decisions is that firms are shielded from competing for these consumers. Competition is the name of the game if we are concerned about lowering cost and increasing quality. Imagine what might happen to this industry if health insurance companies were forced to compete for customers (other than large, corporate customers) the same way restaurants are forced to compete for diners. We would all know where to go to buy the cheapest insurance, and we would all know where to go to get the best food. Mmmmmm, delicious insurance.

I saw a presentation by an economist who said "We are with Adam Smith for the trend, but then we jump to Keynes for the correction." This is probably the best one sentence description of our economy. The Austrian School of Economics is a school that is built upon the principles of free market economics. Of course, I paid a lot of money to learn about Keynesian economics as an undergrad -- this is what all the guys who run our economy (literally) now use to get elected and manage their legacies. Keynes economics is the use of mathematics to model and therefore predict and manage economies. This model is how I learned, in all seriousness, that because of the multiplier effect, a dollar taken out of the economy by taxation was worth 4 dollars, but a dollar spent by the government was worth 5 dollars. I asked my professor how it could be that a model would suggest we can tax and spend our way into wealth, and he said I needed to go to grad school to find out.

So there are two main problems with our current system that are causing the mess we're in today. One problem is the idea that the government is an agent for economic outcome justice (this attacks our personal responsibility for charity and local definitions of community). The other is that no politician wants to be in office when a free market goes through a downturn. The result is that generation after generation of elected official increases the complexity and the coercive brutality of the tax code to enact some noble cause of the day. And when the eventual collapse of these antiquated regulations happen (which we falsely scapegoat the free market with), no politician wants to be in office for the downturn, so they bail out the bad decision makers. What do you think is going to happen when the Baby Boomers start to retire and collect the $40-50 TRILLION in Social Security that our government does not have?

I'm really glad I'm clearing this up. But Social Security is often touted by Keynesian and Political Do-Gooders as a "success". Like any governmental agency that is a success, just give it time.

I will try to end this rather philosophical post with a specific example. In a capitalist system, when a business person lends out some money or risks their capital, they are the ones taking the risk. Clearly. They might lose their money if they guy they give it to flees the country or if there's an earthquake. The person accepting the loan does not accept the risk, although they do bear the brunt of the law if they default for some reason and they hurt their ability to borrow in the future.

This should make it clear that although as people, we often fault individuals for taking on too much debt (which they may have been told they could manage just to close the government-backed deal), it is the lender who is assuming the risk. Therefore, all of this bailout is going directly to the lenders. Even if we gave the money to the people, whom do they owe? Exactly, they would simply pay their mortgages rather than default (at least until the bailout dries up), the money would go to the banks, and the person would still eventually lose their house.

This is also why so many really rich people push towards Socialism. Socialism in practice needs really rich people to tax just enough in order to throw bones to the poor slaves who devour just enough to keep producing for the rich guys. Free markets devour rich guys.

And the bigger problem with economic outcome redistribution (socialism) "solutions" is that you then, over time, take the real risk out of the equation for the capitalists. You send them the clear signal -- as we have sent to Wall Street now for about 30 years -- that no matter what you do, we will pay you back with taxpayer money. That is how we wind up with the national free market socialism that we have today, where we privatize the gains and socialize the losses.

For the free market to work, greed drives profits and enables competition and risk taking; fear of losing one's hard earned money alone tempers that greed. If we continue to vote for people (like Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain) who remove fear from the markets, we continue to put our tax dollars back into the pockets of those capitlists who should be eating their own medicine and going out of business.

It's a complicated world America, try to keep it simple. Uhhhhhhhh, yeah.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The New Prez

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new President of the United States. In what was not a very surprising result, Barack Hussein Obama was elected to be the 44th President. Some states remain too close to call still. But the electoral college result was clear enough to all the folks in Grant Park, Chicago last night.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

First the Good. I haven't read any numbers yet, but many states were predicting 80-90% voter turnout. That is an incredible accomplishment, and I give a lot of that credit to the Obama campaign. Again, this alone is a great thing for our country and sends a message to the rest of the world, which is still largely undemocratic.

Also good is the symbolism involved with electing the first black American to become President. The race card still looms large in the minds of many, many people in this country. Many older whites are probably shocked by this day, as are many older blacks. Did you see the tears in Jesse Jackson's face? And for many in our parents' generation and ours, the majority of race consciousness is not about bigotry but more about white-guilt. I truly hope our nation is purged of both types of this foolishness.

Having watched some video feeds from Harlem, I can say I have never seen so many truly joyous black faces in our country ever. The tremendous impact of even a fraction of formerly disenfranchised blacks stepping up, plugging in and making a difference could be enough alone to carry this country for another 100 years. This too sends a message to the rest of the world, which is largely still made up of racially homogenous countries (and therefore don't have to deal with things like racial issues) or regions that are still embattled by racial or religious divides. Hopefully, the angry remnants of the once proud civil rights movement in our country has been left for dead.

The Bad part of this election is that the Democrats have gained sweeping control over the entire federal government. Although they were not able to acquire a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the gains made by the Dems in back-to-back elections are near historic. Not since the Great Depression have they picked up more than 25 seats in the house in consecutive elections.

What does this mean? Is this a mandate for Obama and the Democrats to do whatever they want? Or is this just a fearful, angry reaction via rejection of the many gross failures of the GOP? (NB: By the way, many conservatives are secretly over-joyed at this result. The stranglehold the neocons have had over the GOP has been plied loose and a chance for a more commons sense form of conservatism to reassert itself has now emerged. Also, many in the media got it wrong. Sarah Pallin did not cost the GOP the election, it was the failed policies of the Neocons and John McCain himself that cost the GOP the election, if it was ever even his to lose.)

Is the country trending more liberal anyway? The election results might make people think so, but if one takes a slightly closer look at some of the more specific issues on various state-wide ballots, the trend is not as clear. Or maybe it is that things are not as clearly red or blue as the two main parties would have us believe. Voters in California (of all places), Florida, Arkansas and Arizona all amended their state constitutions to ban gay marriage. Similar amendments already were on the books due to recent efforts in 27 other states. In what may have been an anticipation of an Obama presidency, gun purchases are up 10% this year nation-wide.

In other flashpoint issues, Colorado and South Dakota rejected measures that would have severly if not entirely eliminated abortion on demand. Michigan and Massachusetts also passed laws decriminalizing certain aspects of pot. Getting caught with an ounce or less of weed in MA is now a $100 fine/misdemeanor with no court involvement. MI will allow severely sick people to grow or buy weed for personal use. It's hard to say if these measures indidicate a strangle-hold, new wave of "liberalism" or just are prudent rejections of otherwise radically forceful laws/proposals.

So we will see how liberal the results are of this new Democratic leadership. Although the big dogs in the party are on the far left, the majority of Dems are still either Southern Blue Dogs or leftover Neocons like Hillary, who generally favor shreds of common sense.

The Ugly.
Who is Barack Obama? I mean, really. This giant baby wants to know. The mainstream press, with the exception of Fox News and Conservative talk radio, did their absolute best to help the Obama campaign. But nothing was as shocking to me as the hyperfocus on the "lack of experience" of Sarah Pallin to become Vice-President. The main duties of the Vice-President include breaking rare ties in the Senate and attending funerals of foreign leaders. I'm pretty sure she could handle that. Believe me, she deserved her share of scrutiny, but people need to be honest and just come out and say it: You don't agree with her, and you think she's stupid.

If it were really about experience, then the press should have also turned on Barack Obama, whose only real experience was one year in the Senate. The importance of this is not to demonize the press -- which just cannot help itself -- nor to defend the overall quality of Sarah Pallin, which would be tough to do. But, it is to acknowledge the fact that Barack Obama is a fresh face and a clean slate. He got elected based on his charisma and on the fact you could see anything in him you wanted to. After out-flanking to the left his comparatively conservative opponent in Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama's campaign became extremely simple: Vote for Change, and I'll give a couple hundred bucks back to you in the middle class in exchange. There wasn't much else to it, except some rousing speeches. Is that liberal? Is that mainstream? Who knows what he really wants to do? His past (e.g., his brief voting record, early speeches, stances on abortion and guns, his 2 books, his long-term associations) indicates he's a raging liberal. His recent present indicates not that he is mainstream so much as he is able and willing to change any aspect of himself to suit his circumstances. Will he continue down his very liberal, partisan path, or will he be forced to reach out to those around the country still "bitterly clinging to guns and religion"?

His first test may come soon, as even he, Joe Biden and Colin Powell have warned. I think his hands are largely tied over the economy and the middle east. We have already signed an agreement with the Iraqi government to remove troops by 2011, and I don't see any advantage to speeding that up. The economy is in for a long slow chill.

But Russia announced today, probably not by coincidence a day after the election, that she plans to put missiles near her border with Poland. This is direct retalliation to the neocon Bush's plan to put missiles in Poland by their border with Russia. Barack Obama talked a very big game early on about how he was against the Iraq war in principle and favored a more relaxed foreign policy. However, to move to the middle so as not to appear "weak", he came out against Russia in the recent situation in Georgia. We shall see what he really thinks, as this situation is not going away. Let us find out what the new guy sees when he looks deep into Putin's eyes.
May God bless America and our new President-elect.