Sunday, September 27, 2015

Comics

Some of you may think, from reading my stuff, that I have no sense of humor.  Well, you’re RIGHT!

To amuse myself, I treat my weary brain to comics realized by the BEST comics writers who ever lived.
In alphabetical order, they are:




Lil Abner, by Al Capp

Friday, September 25, 2015

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In my book, To My Countrymen, I wrote two essays that talk about how computers threaten jobs: Productivity Rocks and The Future.  I would have written more about this hugely important disruptive technology, but it was not my intention in this book to scare you half to death.  I wrote my book to move you to join our revolution.
In any event, I picked up a book just a few days ago, called Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots, by John Markoff, New York: 2015.  It’s an examination of the progress of the twin strains of computer intelligence: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Intelligence Augmentation (IA), AI vs IA.  Over-simply stated, AI aims at machines replacing humans while IA aims at super-charging human skills.  Mars Rovers and totally automated factories are results of AI thinking, while Microsoft Office and the Internet are results of IA thinking (lest you think that IA is benign, products that empower a human to be more “productive” empower his employer to cut his labor force).

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Who is John Rawls?

My apologies to fans of Ayn Rand for stealing a favorite line of theirs ("Who is John Galt?").  I couldn't help myself.

Most of us, I think, choose our political party because of how we perceive our identity.  For example, if you’re black, you vote Democratic and you don’t have to think hard about it.  Similarly, if you are gay, Jewish, secular, poor, Latino/Latina, a Union member, a government employee or a teacher, you vote Democratic without having to think hard about it, because that is what your group does.  On the other hand, if you are wealthy, a small businessman or woman, evangelical Christian, country, a farmer, a cop or military, you vote Republican without having to give it much thought because that is what your group does.

I am not saying that voting your identity (called “identity politics”) is a bad thing, I am saying there is a better thing; and that better thing is voting for a better America.

“But when I, a black man, vote Democratic, I AM voting for a better America, an America where I am not judged because of the color of my skin.”  There is no denying the fierce logic that compels each group to vote for a better America as they see things through their group’s eyes.

However, imagine that you were not born YOU!  Imagine the moment before you were born.  All you know is that you will NOT be born as YOU.  You may be born white or black, brilliant or just average (odds are you will be born average), male or female, gay or straight, in a big city or the back country, into a rich or poor family (poor much more likely than rich), educated family or not, religious or secular.  You get the picture: you do not know the circumstances of your birth, neither your DNA nor your environment.  Now: design a government, a government that you will be OK living with no matter who you turn out to be.  For example, no way you would design a government with an all-powerful KING, because in all likelihood you would be born a serf and have to lead a life as a peasant along with everyone else you knew.  In all likelihood, you would design some kind of democracy because everyone would share power in the government.  But saying that you would design a democracy does not complete your job, because there are a million choices that a democracy makes and I want you to think about them.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

John Rawls with Theory of Justice
Ever since Plato’s Republic, one of the great questions that philosophers like to tackle is: what is justice? Or, what kind of state is a just state, what kind of government is best for human society?  John Rawls (1921 – 2002) was an academic philosopher who taught philosophy at Harvard for forty years.  Among those who studied moral philosophy or political philosophy, he is very well-known.  But he is not well-known to the American public at large.

Rawls did not attempt to answer the question before us directly; instead, he proposed a way for us to think about the question.  He asked us to put ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance” (you do not know who you will be or what your natal circumstances will be when you are born into the world), and that is what I described in my imagine moment two paragraphs ago.

Thinking this way, you would not design a society where Christian values dominated the law, because you might not be born Christian and you might be put off by the notion that you had to convert in order to take full advantage of your society’s benefits or in order to avoid spending an eternity in Hell for that matter.  You would not design a society where only heterosexuals could marry because you might be born gay.  You would not design a society with low taxes for the rich as you would probably end up having to make up the tax revenue shortfall.  You would not design a society that imprisoned drug users because you would have to pay the taxes that kept unhappy people incarcerated.  You get the picture.

Democrats like to urge voters to vote their economics, as they believe that most will vote Democratic if they do that.  Republicans like to urge voters to vote their moral values, as they believe that most will vote Republican if they do that.  John Rawls asks you to check your identity and your circumstances at the door, and to invent a better society that will benefit everyone.  What do you think?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Externalities

Externalities are economic costs not borne by the producer or the consumer.  They are external to the entire costing process, from creation through sale.  Most often, not paying for externalities benefits private corporations (and their direct customers), whereas costs of the externalities are typically borne by the public.  There are externalities that are “positive externalities” where there are external benefits rather than costs (the classical example of a positive externality is a community with an excellent public education system in place that provides a high-quality labor force for any employer who might want to headquarter there; the community pays for the education, the new employer gets a high-quality labor force free of charge).  But we are going to focus on negative externalities here.

The Fisherman and the Businessman

This is a golden oldie.  You probably know the story, the tall tale, the parable.  If not, follow along.

Mexican Fisherman Meets Harvard MBA
A vacationing American businessman standing on the pier of a quaint coastal fishing village in southern Mexico watched as a small boat with just one young Mexican fisherman pulled into the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. Enjoying the warmth of the early afternoon sun, the American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.
"How long did it take you to catch them?" the American casually asked.
"Oh, a few hours," the Mexican fisherman replied.
"Why don't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" the American businessman then asked.
The Mexican warmly replied, "With this I have more than enough to meet my family's needs."
click me to view video
The businessman then became serious, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"
Responding with a smile, the Mexican fisherman answered, "I sleep late, play with my children, watch ball games, and take siesta with my wife. Sometimes in the evenings I take a stroll into the village to see my friends, play the guitar, sing a few songs..."
The American businessman impatiently interrupted, "Look, I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you to be more profitable. You can start by fishing several hours longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat. With the additional income that larger boat will bring, before long you can buy a second boat, then a third one, and so on, until you have an entire fleet of fishing boats."
Proud of his own sharp thinking, he excitedly elaborated a grand scheme which could bring even bigger profits, "Then, instead of selling your catch to a middleman you'll be able to sell your fish directly to the processor, or even open your own cannery. Eventually, you could control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this tiny coastal village and move to Mexico City, or possibly even Los Angeles or New York City, where you could even further expand your enterprise."
Having never thought of such things, the Mexican fisherman asked, "But how long will all this take?"
After a rapid mental calculation, the Harvard MBA pronounced, "Probably about 15-20 years, maybe less if you work really hard."
"And then what, seƱor?" asked the fisherman.
"Why, that's the best part!" answered the businessman with a laugh. "When the time is right, you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions."
"Millions? Really? What would I do with it all?" asked the young fisherman in disbelief.
The businessman boasted, "Then you could happily retire with all the money you've made. You could move to a quaint coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your grandchildren, watch ball games, and take siesta with your wife. You could stroll to the village in the evenings where you could play the guitar and sing with your friends all you want."
This version was lifted verbatim from here.  But it is all over the web, just Google "the fishermen and the businessman."

OK, so the tale is a bit cheesy.  Happiness is at your feet, you don’t have to go chasing it.  Or, what this culture believes (“get an education, work hard, and you can live the American Dream”) is all wrong.  Or, the hunter-gatherers had it right all along.

But I won’t tell you what to think; all I am saying is: it is a good story and it is worth some contemplation.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Gay Marriage, Updated

U.S. District Judge David Bunning’s decision to jail Rowan County, Kentucky’s Court Clerk Kim Davis was an overreaction.  Thank God it is done with, and in only six days’ time.  Too long by six days; better he had put her on leave without pay until a resolution could be reached.  And a perfect resolution was indeed reached, in less than a week.  As long as one clerk or assistant clerk is able to fulfill the letter of the law, there is no need for Ms. Davis to be forced to betray her conscience.

Washington Post 2015/09/04, etc.
You should be clear that I am on the side of the LGBTQ community in the gay marriage argument.  For several reasons.  One, it is no skin off my back if a gay couple gets married, it costs me nothing.  Two, the argument against gay marriage is a religious one, and the first amendment prohibits the establishment of a religion (or group of religions) in the nation and in the states, and a legal ruling in favor of a religion is an “establishment” of that religion.  Third, no religious organization will be compelled to marry – or even recognize as married – any gay couples, as the Supreme Court decision only relates to civil law.  Fourth, before the Court decision, civil law sometimes distinguished between married people and single people, oftentimes advantaging married people; now gay people will be able to take advantage of those same advantages of being married.  And last, does your happiness really depend on the unhappiness of human beings who are not like you?

And the definition of marriage has not changed.  Every religion has its own sense of the institution; under civil law, however, the word “marriage” is merely a way to distinguish one group of people from another where that is legally and civilly a meaningful distinction.  You will still be entitled to say that a gay couple is not a married couple and in many ways you will be right; maybe they are not “married” in the eyes of God, but only in the eyes of the state.  But maybe YOUR church will change its mind; stranger things have happened.

FWIW (For what it is worth), a better all-around situation would be that no federal or state law concerned itself with marriage at all.  Then there is no marriage discrimination and no need for a minority community to fight for equal protection under the law.  While it is surely the case that some in the movement would like to compel churches and synagogues to marry gay couples, there is nothing in the Constitution or in the law to support such an outcome.  Many churches will liberalize, many will not.  So it goes.

For the original blog post on this issue, see Obergefell v.Hodges.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tax Reform

Republicans talk about “Tax Reform” a lot.  Democrats talk about “Tax Reform” too, but not so often.  Not a single member of either party has ever disclosed what he means by “tax reform.”  Soak the rich, soak the poor, subsidize the poor, subsidize the rich?  Doesn’t matter, they’re not talking.  But you know what they mean, don’t you?  Well, "tax reform" doesn’t mean anything, it is just a slogan that politicians think will earn them some electoral gravitas.  But when they do begin to get a little specific, you can count on all of them talking about tax cuts, as though they are not aware of our National Debt, $18 trillion and counting.


The first thing to consider in designing proper tax reform is the variety of “tax schemes.”  So, let’s talk first about tax schemes, for federal income taxes. 
·     A “progressive” or “graduated” tax is a tax scheme that is characterized by higher tax rates for higher wage brackets.  For example, the wage bracket between $50,000 and $75,000 is taxed at 25% while the wage bracket between $75,000 and $100,000 is taxed at 30%.   The man whose taxable income is $100,000 does not pay 30% (the higher tax rate) on his entire income, but only on the wages between $75,000 and $100,000.
·    The “Flat Tax” applies a single tax rate, say 23%, to every tax payer’s entire taxable income, whether that is $25,000 or $25,000,000.  The Flat Tax also has a high exemption so that the poor are not hit so hard from their first dollar of income.
·     The “Fair Tax” is a consumption tax, called a VAT (value-added tax) in Europe and a simple sales tax in the USA.  That’s right: no tax returns at all.