Monday, December 10, 2012

Adjustable Taxes on Investment Income and Sales

When we in the democratic capitalist countries want to encourage or discourage certain behaviors we use either taxes or subsidies to influence peoples' choices. Smoking is one example, another is borrowing money to purchase a home. The former is discouraged by being taxed, the latter is encouraged by means of a tax break or subsidy.

But we Americans are going to have to revise our tax code if we intend to stave off fiscal insolvency in the near future. Below is an idea that may take some revision but seems like it would be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Self Driving Cars

Whether called "driverless cars" or "robo-cars" the, "auto" mobiles are coming. And although like all new technologies they will bring with them a new set of yet unknown problems, they are being developed  to solve an existing set of problems most of us would like to eliminate.

There has been a lot written about robotic cars and the reader can spend an afternoon reading about the success of, for example the Google car.

While a completely machine-driven vehicle is not on the market today, there are several developments in recent years where sensors and microprocessors already adjust the operation of a vehicle without the driver knowing about it. Anti-lock brakes is one example, as is the parking-assist feature that uses a rear-bumper sensor and other automation technologies.

Many say that once the market is saturated with autonomous vehicles, there will be a reduction in personal ownership of cars in favor of hiring them on demand. After all, a fleet of robot vehicles could easily contain the technology to drive themselves to a person's home when he calls for one via computer. After taking the passenger to the directed location, the vehicle would leave the scene and park itself (perhaps with other idle vehicles) so as to take up as little surface street/lot area as possible.

The system of robots for hire would have a number of ramifications, many of which no doubt I have not thought of yet. But one of them would be to ultimately reduce the competitive nature of car ownership that seems to have dominated the auto culture since the 1950s.

The commodification of cars as suggested by automated cars-for-hire has implications for the physical care and condition that private ownership has in the past addressed. For example, what happens when a renter of these auto-mobiles on demand uses one and leaves trash strewn about the interior or otherwise stains and leaves the interior dirty? The anonymity of the usage of this kind of automobile means that people might be more likely to leave their empties or not clean up after themselves like they would in a public place such as a  bus or subway car staffed by the mass transit operator.

For this reason it may be that driverless cars that we don't own but rather hire on demand will have to look a lot different from the comfortable compartments we know today. For example, they will likely  not have cloth seats but rather hard plastic seats and floors in much the same way that many subway and bus systems.

Like the technological change to sports officiating (see other post) the new driverless cars are certainly feasible within a short time but the test will be whether the public and government (law enforcement, etc.) will accept them. I'm afraid that a lot of people are emotionally attached to owning their own car, one with comfortable cloth seats and carpets and that are bigger, faster and shinier than their neighbors'. This may be the primary obstacle to adoption.

The Boundary Between Man and Machine

Noted futurist, Ray Kurzweil has said that human immortality is probably less than 20 years away. Actually, I didn't hear him say this or even read his exact words. But I read the newspaper headline and that's more than most people do.

I strongly suspect that Kurzweil is predicting the marriage of biomedicine and computer technology so that it will be possible to revive failed anatomical systems (e.g. respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive) and/or replace human organs beyond those that are currently possible (e.g. heart, kidney, lungs). And that therefore it is possible to keep an individual alive indefinitely. Or at least this is what immortality will look like in the beginning.

Some might argue that (if my assumptions are correct) replacing so many parts means that the resulting individual can hardly be considered the same person. I suppose the argument might be made that if I have a 40 year old car and over its life I have replaced the engine, front and rear axles, suspension, interior and enough other components that it really is a misnomer to say I have the same car today that I had all these years.

But no matter, I think that we humans will one day soon have components implanted in our bodies that are intelligent and that are custom designed to respond to circumstances enough so that instead of wearing out over the years, they improve with time. We already have artificial joints and organs so this is not that far off. The big difference is that we will now move into supplementing or replacing our thinking and memory functions in addition to our motor skills, circulation or respiration.This may one day make humans and machines virtually indistinguishable. Or at least humans and synthetic organisms and/or biological parts.

Furthermore on boundary blurring . . .

It seems that boundaries are disappearing everywhere. There is a border between the U.S. and Canada, but aside from a different form of currency, you wouldn't know you're in another country were you to walk across it. I would say the same thing about the boundary between Texas and Mexico; there is very little noticeable difference on either side.

In media, the boundary between the program and the advertisement has been eroding for years. Product placement has been growing in Hollywood film and television programming so that it is not clearly defined which part of the broadcast is paid for by the sponsor and which is part of the creative work.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Effectiveness of Deficit or Stimulus Spending

Conventional wisdom holds that an industrialized nation facing an economic slide should spend government funds to get money into the hands of those who can spend it on goods and services. This in turn puts other workers back on the payroll and creates a virtuous cycle. This idea is attributed to John Maynard Keynes, although it was undoubtedly bandied about by earlier theorists (just as the idea of evolutionary biology was considered by scientists earlier than Charles Darwin).

Deficit spending worked well in the 1930s but it was actually wartime production (financed by deficit) that ended the Great Depression more than domestic works projects. But if the economic stimulus helped during that period, unfortunately the effectiveness of this kind of measure has been diluted in subsequent recessions. It was used in the early 1980s, the early 1990s and the early 2000s with dubious success. The United States pulled out of each of those recessions but the degree to which we can attribute the recovery to deficit spending is questionable. 

However having said that, I must admit that it is one of very few tools available to government to get us out of the current predicament. The others are so ludicrous that I mention them only to demonstrated the inevitability of the Keynesian approach: printing money and soaking the rich.

The former would only exchange one problem for another. The second is also a non-starter since the rich run our country. I should point out that president Obama advocates increasing taxes on the wealthy and although I agree with his position, the increased income for the Treasury wouldn’t come close to solving our fiscal deficit.

Friday, October 26, 2012

New Business Model

Much of my professional life over the past 5 years has been in studying the changes to the way that scholarly publishers do business and collect revenue. I don't have time to go into detail now, but will only say that it is inevitable that the service which academic journals provide will soon be paid for by a different group than has done so in the past. We call it a "new business model," and it basically means that author-scientists benefit more from these journals than reader-scientists and that therefore the costs will shift from library subscribers to manuscript submission or publication fees.

I can't help but think about a new business model that the American political establishment chooses to ignore. It goes like this: every American president, member of Congress and most other elected officials see one of their primary duties as the creation of jobs or at least of economic conditions that favor increased production and growth which would favor a greater number of employment opportunities. But what this ignores is that increased economic production and growth necessarily means greater consumption but nobody will say this out loud.

The reason is that consumption, although used as an economic term, has negative connotations. Consumerism is bad, we've learned in the past few decades both because it generally means an increase in consumption of natural resources or in a psycho-social degradation of the society we became so proud of in the mid-20th century. Producing more goods and services means that more of the earth will be plowed, mined, resurfaced or paved and that more automobiles, airplanes and ships will burn more fossil fuels and deposit more residue in our air and oceans ultimately affecting the ability of our earth to sustain us 7 billion.

But nobody wants to say that.

The old business model has our elected officials falling all over themselves to get a certain industry or corporation to move operations to the home jurisdiction. Some years ago the state of Maryland extended all sorts of perks and incentives to  the Marriott Corporation to convince them to keep their headquarters in Montgomery County rather than moving across the Potomac river to Fairfax, Virginia.

This kind of thing happens everywhere and although most of us citizens generally object to the notion of giving tax breaks or building roads and infrastructure purely for these mammoth corporations, we as workers generally like it when it happens specifically to us. We rail against corrupt politicians who will only vote on a sensible piece of legislation if it contains a provision for some government spending or economic development in his or her legislative district. But if we happen to live in that district--and we need a job--we tend to soften our opposition.

In order to reverse the degradation of our natural resources, we have not to prohibit certain consumer behaviors or undertake a concerted and long-term campaign of public service announcements trying to change behavior. Rather we need to price a livable earth with all its components (clean air and water or undisturbed forests, for example) so that any economic products that detract from those components have to bear the cost. Therefore the price of most everything would go up and we would consume less. Our earth would be more livable, but our personal "standards of living" (as defined narrowly in popular culture) would decline.

Such a new business model is inevitable if we want to avoid a biological catastrophe.

But nobody wants to say that.

Except maybe Al Gore.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Man Versus Boy Address

Please read my original post on Basketball and Race so as to avoid any hard feelings or confusion.

I once played pickup basketball in a game with a teenager who seemed to be pretty good and clearly had been coached previously. My experience playing with teenagers mostly showed that they had a lot of energy and they could jump and knife through the defense easily but like many teens they just didn't think. They would try to dribble their way out of double or triple team defense and fail to see team members who were wide open next to the basket. Un-coached teenagers didn't play defense or follow every shot taken in hopes of grabbing a rebound. (Many high school coaches tell their players to assume that every shot is off the mark and to go after the rebound before you see whether the shot was accurate or not).

But this one kid who I played with seemed to have been to basketball camp or played on his freshman high school team or something since he seemed to know what he was doing and where to stand, how to hold his hands on defense and a lot of other things that one doesn't often see in kids his age.

After one particularly sharp play from him, we ran back down the floor on defense and I turned to him and said, "Man, how old are you?" I was impressed at the skills of what appeared to be to be a 14 or 15 year old. I forgot what his answer was, but I quoted exactly what I because I want to point out that he was not a man but rather still a boy. I referred to him as, "Man" almost absent-mindedly like I do with a lot of ball players but he still had a ways to go before adulthood.

However later I thought about it and remembered that my culture and upbringing told me not to say for example, "Boy, how old are you?" I was taught all my life that a white man does not call a black man, "Boy." I suppose this particular kid didn't have any notion of the taboo with whites using that term to refer to black males, but still my instinct prevented me from saying it.

As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, the use of such a term of endearment can be tricky when crossing racial lines.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Sports Fan Grows Up

When I was a kid, I was a big reader. And I often read biographies of famous men throughout history. But I noticed that I usually lost interest in the story after the subject of the biography reached my age. As a pre-teen, I couldn't really relate to things that happened to adults so I often dropped the book and never finished. As soon as Benjamin Franklin turned 12 or 13, I stopped reading his autobiography (although I'm told it's one of the best ever written). This continued throughout my teen years as I kept interest in the person later and later in his life until today when I can pretty much keep focused on the person throughout the story of their life.

Well, something similar has happened to me and my interest in professional sports.

At age 9 or 10, I was fascinated with the spectacle of professional sports, especially the flashiest and most controversial players. Those players with funny nicknames or off-the-field antics that the media loved to present to me (in order to get me hooked, I suppose). Those that immediately come to mind are "Hollywood" Henderson, Mark "The Bird" Fydrich or Darryl Dawkins. They weren't the best in the league, but they were in the news a lot for breaking backboards or talking to the ball or otherwise providing highlight reel material and that was all I cared about.

Then as I became a teenager, I began to notice how championships were won and who the most valuable players were and like everyone else, I became interested in these all stars. This would include Julius Erving or Franco Harris, among many others. These players weren't very loud or boastful but they put up Hall of Fame numbers over the years and I knew these were the guys that sports history would remember better than the colorful characters that the TV broadcasts spotlighted during halftime.

I watched all 3 major sports as a teenager and twenty-something. But into my thirties I started to develop other interests and didn't have time to watch 6 hours of football on Sundays or to attend  multiple baseball games (although in 1989, I lived a few blocks from Baltimore's Memorial stadium and along with my roommate, made an appearance at over 50 home games.) As I matured I saw even the best players developing a sour attitude toward money, competing for the largest contracts and engaging  in some disgraceful off-the-field activities. And although I understand that the professional sports industrial complex is an abusive system and frequently drives overgrown but still immature young men to do foolish things with drugs or weapons or their girlfriends, I lost my boyish enthusiasm for most players. Besides I was older than most of them, anyway.

Rather, I began to become more interested in the coaches. I knew where many basketball coaches had played when they were in the league, where they had coached previously and under whose mentor-ship they were assistants and their coaching style was influenced. I began to believe that championships are won by coaches more than I had ever previously considered. I knew about Coach K. and working for Bobby Knight and Joe Gibbs being an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys, for example. I guess when my own body started to slow down and I began to be responsible, I started to admire strategy and leadership among pro sports figures.

One of the real tragedies (among many) in the professional sports industrial complex is that when a team is losing badly, it is frequently due to players poor performance. But unfortunately the vast majority of teams respond by firing the manager or coach. (The Washington Wizards did this twice in the past 6-7 years).

So as I aged further and I held a job for more than a summer and I bought a car on credit and eventually a home, I started to understand more about commerce and economics. Naturally my continuously shrinking concern with the professional sports world turned mostly to the general managers who were *really* the ones (I soon decided) who won the championships. Not the most valuable players or the team captain or the coach; it was the GM or whatever they called themselves.

These were the guys, mostly in the 40s or older, who scouted personnel, made draft and trade decisions. When a team started winning and  it wasn't because they traded for the MVP or hired the best coach, it was because of the older guys upstairs.

Clearly my opinions are biased since my reasoning for a winning team has advanced up the age scale as I have aged myself.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Product Competition and U.S. Politics

I have been thinking in recent years about marketing consumer goods and politics. My theory says that competing products on the consumer marketplace which are most similar and which differ very little in quality or substance are the very products that are marketed most aggressively. Ad campaigns for things like soft drinks, local auto dealerships or domestic beers for example are presented in a way to make the consumer believe that one of these products is far superior and beyond comparison to the other product of its type. Coke and Pepsi come to mind. They are practically indistinguishable from one another, made of largely identical ingredients. Yet based on the intensity of their marketing efforts, either company would have us believe that the other product tastes radically different and is entirely inferior.

There is no shortage of examples of this. Auto dealerships for example are merciless on the local news broadcasts of most major metropolitan areas. To hear them tell it, buying a Toyota at ABC dealer is a recipe for disaster and you're going to save hundreds if not thousands at XYZ Toyota showroom on the other side of town. But the truth is both businesses are working from the same supplier and paying the same price to the manufacturer. Their labor market and overhead are nearly identical, being in the same metro area so there can't be any discernible difference between the price you get at one rather than the other besides a difference based on random chance.

And there are other products whose peddlers spend what must be tens of millions a year to get us to buy a different brand but nearly identical product. The truth is, these extensively and incessantly marketed goods are extremely limited in the variety of choice they can offer the consumer. In addition to centralization and uniform manufacturing processes, there are state regulations on what can and cannot go into a product, what it can be called, etc. that force competitors to offer a product under different brands that are essentially no different from one another.

But perhaps the most exaggerated example is with American politics. In recent years the Democratic and Republican parties have been trying to sell themselves to voters as radically different in their philosophies and budget priorities and attitudes toward everything from health care to crime and immigration.

But the truth is, rhetoric aside neither of them has instituted any policies that are much different from the other. Neither of them, for example will drastically reduce entitlement spending. They may quibble about miniscule government spending on the margins such as educational or job training programs but these arguments are meaningless when viewed against the real threat to American fiscal health: Social Security and the Medicare/Medicaid programs.

As an example, welfare payments to the poor were curtailed under Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Conversely, medicare payments were expanded under Republican, George W. Bush. Yet both the Democratic and Republican parties would have you believe that only the opposing party would do something like that.

Both parties have their outliers, of course. But I suspect that if we took a random sample of legislation and asked American voters to identify which party sponsored or initiated the law, very few of us could (beyond blind chance) determine whether it was a Democrat or a Republican who was behind the bill. Yet they would have us believe that like Coke and Pepsi, the difference between themselves and those across the aisle is night and day.

I call politics the most exaggerated example, less because one person's policies exactly replicates another, but more due to the lengths to which these people will go to distinguish themselves from others whose policies might differ slightly but which in the end support the status quo.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shift of Allegiance from State to Corporation

I have written about the corporate takeover of our lives but ought to elaborate here. For more information, see the book with the B-Movie title, "When Corporations Rule the World" by David Korten.

We owe support and allegiance less and less to our government and more and more to corporations. Most Americans today know much more about consumption than citizenship.

Among other things is our attitude toward the central collection of personal information. Many of us resist vehemently a national database run by the government of information such as our names, addresses, habits, political affiliations, employers, income, debts, preferences for books and movies, etc. It reminds us of George Orwell's novel, "1984."

But while we resist the collection and maintenance of a file or dossier on our personal lives by government for fear of a dictatorial state, we actively participate in this data collection when we create online identities. In other words, we don't seem to care that collects this information or that EquiFax does. At least, it doesn't stop us from buying products online or participating in the system that allows this data to be accumulated and maintained.

I read a book recently (Life, Inc.) which had a variation on the Toynbee quote that I posted earlier ( . This one went something like this:

in the past 500 years, since the inception of state-chartered corporations, people have gone from subjects to citizens, from citizens to workers and most recently, from workers to consumers.
In the 1940s and 50s, the United States experienced a wave of paranoia due to anti-communist sentiments in Washington. A U.S. Senator held hearings recklessly accusing public figures of being communist sympathizers and it ruined several careers. It was common in those days to call a communist an enemy of the state.

But today that label would have to be revised. Given that the U.S. Congress and the White House of either party feels that it is their job to keep America employed, the stock market rising and corporations earning a profit, they would likely consider any threat to those efforts anti-American. But today we have a growing simplicity movement which advocates consuming less among other things. And policy makers in Washington, although they may not admit it openly, would consider the voluntary simplicity movement an enemy of the state in that its end result is to reduce consumption and therefore production, employment and investment.

So it will probably become clear in a short time to everyone that we owe our allegiance not to the U.S. government but to the U.S. industrial state which provides us with much more than Uncle Sam does.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Alternative Advertising

Advertising is one of my pet-hates, primarily because so many ads seem to treat the viewer/reader as an idiot. Automobiles with names like 'The Magnum' or the 'XKE325' apparently try to appeal to the base emotions that might be more abundant in a nine year old than a grown man.

Of course there are some television commercials which are innovative and humorous, but unfortunately after the first 200-300 views, anything gets rather old.

And some ads are aimed not at buyers of a certain product or service, but at a different audience.

Potential employees is one example. Several years ago Wal Mart ran a television ad that featured several senior-citizen employees who spoke about the variety of activity in their particular Wal Mart and that you never knew what you were going to see at a Wal Mart. The ad didn't mention any of the products or prices or discounts but really featured the working life of a retired and presumably part-time Wal Mart greeter or cashier. It seemed to me at the time that the object of the commercial was not to get people to come in to buy stuff but to get people to come in and apply for a job.

And they were particularly targeting the elderly, part-time, bored, newly retired types who might find it a way to spice things up if they spent 12-20 hours a week earning an hourly wage down at the local outlet. I can only guess that Wal Mart likes these senior citizen, part time workers since they do not require health insurance since the law does not require health coverage for part-timers and that presumably those older than 62 qualify for medicare at some level.

Other advertisements are directed at cultivating investment in a particular company. These tend to be for products or services that don't have a retail market or that appear in media aimed at an adult audience for whom the product might not be appropriate.

Still others feature a corporation's good works and citizenship by highlighting charitable activities and such. Nothing mentioned about the product or the sale or benefits of buying their wares. Only that we're good guys for helping out the disadvantaged in your community or for our activities to restore environmental quality, etc.

In the area of public policy, particularly in the Washington D.C. area there are ads which run during the political commentary Sunday fare by large corporations trolling for government contracts or legislation to protect a certain company's business model. Northrop Grumman and Archer Daniels Midland come most immediately to mind. Almost nobody watching any television show is going to buy a fighter jet except someone who holds a high position at the Pentagon or who reviews military procurement in Congress.

It is said that taxes are an economic inefficiency because that money would be better allocated in the hands of consumers or the private sector generally; governments do just about everything less efficiently than consumers or private enterprise. If that's true I would say the same thing about expenditures on advertisements. Embedded in the price of every product or service, along with the raw materials, labor, insurance, licensing, delivery, warehousing and such is the cost of marketing the thing. And it seems that more and more resources are devoted to this attempt at persuasion which is widely recognized as deception. I'd say that's an inefficient allocation of capital.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Just a Label

[Note: I will use a certain term below which is offensive to many blacks. Of course, I don't mean  to inflame any negative emotions or to taunt anyone but I merely use this term to illustrate an odd situation that  happened to me playing basketball one day. I mention it because I would like to lessen the severity of the objectionable term and hope that this may contribute to that end. If the reader wishes to avoid seeing this term, which is a mutation of the Spanish and French terms for black, negra, then they are urged to discontinue reading now. I have italicized this term in the same way that foreign language terms are italicized under normal editorial guidelines.]

One day in Baltimore I was involved in a game with nine other black guys; in other words, I was the only white guy on either team. And on this particular day, it so happened that I was having a fantastic game. It's something that at some point happens to just about everyone who has a hobby or other game they enjoy wherein practically everything happens exactly as it is supposed to. Almost everyone experiences this: golfers and bowlers and probably bridge players, too and it's nothing more than dumb luck. I am by no means a better player than the nine other guys in that particular game in Baltimore that day, but it just happened that every one of my shots hit the mark--even the most awkward and off-balance of them.

Call Me Al

In 1986 Paul Simon release a song called, "Call me Al." It has special meaning to me because although few people use that nickname for me today, some of those dearest to my heart call me Al. I had a geography teacher in 8th grade who called me Al and in that class was a person with whom I would form a lifelong friendship and whose family would eventually come to call me one of their own.

They call me "Al".

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Term of Endearment on the Basketball Court

You may want to refer to another post on basketball and race, which I wrote as a kind of introduction to these kinds of things.

Back in the 1980s, I was playing a lot of basketball and as always, I noticed a few language trends. One of them was the use of the familiar term, "cuz" by one player toward another. I assume it is a short form for "cousin" but that didn't mean the players had a common grandparent. It was for lack of a better description, a term of endearment. I suppose it could be compared to the 1970s use of the terms, brother or bro. It sounds corny today but people did talk that way back then.

One day I was playing at a particular playground and remember one particular player referred to almost everyone as cuz. He didn't seem to have any discretion or sense of over-usage of slang or maybe he had just learned the term himself earlier that week and couldn't get it out of his head. In any case, I was the only white guy there and waiting for the next game, which I had called. This cousin-of-everyone was in the current game and while I waited for next, I watched and listened out of curiosity to find out that he referred to every player (teammate and opponent) with that term. He offered direction to other players by saying things like, "I'm open, cuz," or "over here, cuz," or "this way, cuz," to everyone in the game.

My experience at that particular court had been that pickup games were normally played until 13 points so when one of the teams scored the 13th basket, I stepped on to claim next game. But they kept playing and the extended-family-guy pointed out to me that the local custom was that the first game to kick off the evening was usually played until 16 points. He said to me, "Game goess to 16, Chief." I wondered briefly why he didn't call me cuz, but it made sense. There was no way we shared any immediate relatives--at least as far as he was concerned.

Friday, March 30, 2012