Monday, January 31, 2011

Documentary Recommendations: War on Terror

Though not for the squeamish, every American adult ought to watch Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). I also recommend watching 2010's documentary, The Oath, before watching Taxi to the Dark Side.

Both documentaries present mostly unfiltered information from first-hand sources, including frontline military personnel and former Al Qaeda members, about Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib.

Update on 6/24/13: more movie recommendations here: http://willworkforjustice.blogspot.com/2009/08/best-non-famous-movies.html

Update on August 31, 2015: Check out Dirty Wars (2013).  

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mohamed ElBaradei: America's and Egypt's Best Candidate

Dear President Obama:

Mohammed ElBaradei has given you a gift--your first chance to support a new Middle Eastern leader popular both with the majority of U.S. insiders and his own people. Do not screw this up.

http://twitter.com/ElBaradei

P.S. We didn't elect you b/c we thought you were an economic or legal maven. We elected you because we hoped you'd rise up to the challenge of forging coherent, consistent, and inspirational international policies. What are you waiting for?

Bonus: http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/transcripts/2007/cr301007.html

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dwight Howard, Father

Dwight Howard on raising kids: "“My son is 3. Right now he’s getting to the age where anything he sees he reacts to it and he wants to do it. You have to be aware of everything you say, anything you watch, the people you have around because he watches all that and he learns from that."

I'm happy Dwight understands how kids learn, but the copying of adult behavior doesn't stop until kids hit their teenage years. Your kids will watch you like a hawk and will mimic your behavior until their hormones kick in. I'm just sayin'.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Quote of the Day: Free Speech

"One man's vulgarity is another man's lyric." -- Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 (1971) [Justice Harlan]

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Michael Lewis: The Big Short

“All of a sudden I’ve become this caricature,” said Burry. “I’ve always been able to study up on something and ace something really fast. I thought it was all something special about me. Now it’s like ‘Oh, a lot of Asperger’s people can do that.’ Now I was explained by a disorder.”

More here, at least as of January 2011. If the link doesn't work, check out Michael Lewis' book, The Big Short, for more.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

23andMe Results

I recently received 23andMe DNA results. There's nothing earth-shattering in the report. For example, I have a 1% chance of a heart attack over the next decade. Also, as of January 2011, my carrier statuses indicated that all of the relevant variants were absent for the selected disease categories, including--I kid you not--Maple Syrup Urine Disease Type 1B.

Basically, I'm "typical" in most categories. One category where I have a higher than average risk? Heroin addiction. Yes, it's weird and interesting at the same time, because Alexander the Great introduced opium in the Middle East and Persia. (I was born in Iran, and both my parents are Iranians with a long line of Iranian descendants.) More access to a particular drug in a particular region might skew results relating to the drug's susceptibility, so all genetic data has to be taken with a grain of salt. Below are more selected results, in case you are interested:

In addition to having higher odds of becoming a heroin addict, I am a likely sprinter (i.e., not a long distance runner), built for short bursts of speed and power; resistant to stomach "flu"; I "effectively learn to avoid errors" (although it's entirely unclear how it's possible to analyze this trait from a genetic profile); and I have reduced sensitivity to sweaty odor (Tell me if I stink, people! Apparently, I can't help it :-)

Globally, my genetic similarities most closely match peoples in Southern Europe, then Northern Europe, then the Middle East. I have some similarities with Sephardic/Spanish Jews and Lebanese (Phoenician?) people; ancestrally, 98% of my chromosomes are closely related to Europeans with 2% closely related to Asians.

On my dad's side, it looks like his profile closely matches Southern Europe as well as Iran. From his side, I have similarities with Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Crete, and Italy, as well as modern-day populations of Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, and Albania. (Note: I don't entirely understand how 23andMe matches specific religions with genes. All human beings are closely linked genetically, so if more Druze than Jews provide data to a particular genetic study, isn't it possible for the researchers to start referencing "Jewish" genes as "Druze" genes? How can a genetic study accurately classify more or fewer study participants from one race or religion than exist in the general population? In other words, isn't it possible to have skewed results if the participants providing genetic data do not match the percentages of races/religions in the actual population?)

On my mom's side, it looks like her profile closely matches Russia/Finland or Morocco (including Basques and the Saami (Lapps) of northern Scandinavia). It sounds improbable to be similar to both Finnish and Moroccan people, but the people known today as Finns apparently split up about 6,000 years ago. Some of them crossed into Morocco, while others continued to modern-day Finland. Also, the Aryans came out of India and moved throughout modern-day Europe, parts of Northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East. (Anyone from two parents and grandparents who were born near a large body of water probably has a diverse genetic mix.)

Regarding the potential link to Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, do I look like actor Hank Azaria or Oded Fehr? I'm not sure. (Note: Oded Fehr is an interesting case--both his parents are Jewish, and his father appears to be of Northern European descent (German) while his mother appears to be of Southern European descent (Spanish).) Persian, Spanish, and Northern African Jews have an interesting history--for starters, look up the Biblical story of Esther; Cordoba or Qurtuba, Spain (and compare Cordoba under Muslim rule to 400 years later, i.e., the beginning of the Catholic Spanish Inquisition); the Golden Age of Arab Rule in Iberia; Maimonides; and the Almohad conquest of Cordoba in 1148.

If I am an Iranian with genetic links to Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, it doesn't surprise me, because my Persian ancestors protected Jews during the Persian Empire. Unfortunately, you wouldn't know that important fact from all the inane rhetoric and verbal pissing contests between modern-day Israel and modern-day Iran. Seems like these days, people try to look for reasons to be different or hostile towards one another--even when the facts justify a more nuanced perspective.

Disclaimer: I do not waive my privacy rights in any way, shape, or form. I have only disclosed a small portion of my available results.

Update on 7/2/13: well, this is interesting--the site has updated my ancestry:

99.7% Middle Eastern and North African;
0.1% European; and
0.3% Unassigned

It has a new feature as well: I am 2.6% Neanderthal, which is in the 32nd percentile. [Update in 2014: this now shows as ranked in the 60th percentile.]

Update on 9/22/14: the site updated my ancestry again:


Seen another way, I'm 86.5% Middle Eastern; 2.2% Southeast Asian; 2.1% European; 0.8 Yakut; and less than 0.1% Ashkenazi.

Some interesting drug response updates: someone with my genotype 1) typically metabolizes PPIs at a rapid rate; 2) may be more sensitive to warfarin; 3) may have slightly increased sensitivity to phenytoin; and 4) and may have somewhat reduced ability to clear sulfonylurea drugs from the body.

Update on August 2017: the site has updated my ancestry again. Apparently, my ancestors from my father's side were part of the first farmers, a group that modernized agriculture. (J-M172 haplogroup, also known as J2.) The most interesting outlier continues to be my 0.8% Yakut genes.

Disclaimer: I do not waive my privacy rights in any way, shape, or form. I have only disclosed a small portion of my available results. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More Data

Data from Pew Center on American demographics:

http://pewsocialtrends.org/2008/12/17/u-s-migration-flows/

Check out California--people have been moving out. If anyone has info on jobs in San Marcos, TX or Nashville, TN, please email me.

Bonus I: Grading the States.

Bonus II: Data on Immigration (2010).

Bonus III: Data on Immigration (2007).

Bonus IV: Immigrants by State (2007). [CIS report]

Monday, January 24, 2011

Adventures in Linguistics and Listening

I attended a legal seminar on civility where a judge said something I didn't hear. Whatever the judge was saying, I hadn't heard or seen the words used in the same way before, so I wasn't able to process the words. (Most people who know me understand I am severely hearing impaired, but if you don't know that, all you can really notice is that I cannot properly elucidate a few words and have a weird accent when saying particular words.)

About three days later, completely by chance, I read an article using the phrase, Nine Scorpions in a Bottle, referring to Max Lerner's book. I was immediately able to fill in the blanks from three days ago and understand what the judge was saying. This doesn't make sense to me at all. Three days later?

Yet, I had the exact same experience when I went to court my first year. I could not hear anything. Well, I could hear people mouthing words, but my brain was unable to process any of it into comprehensible words. So I would go into court, and judges were saying words like "Case management status," "Neutral evaluation," "judicial arbitration," etc. None of these words are complex or difficult, but they are not generally used in the same order. It wasn't until about six months later that my brain was able to hear and process these words. So it's clear that when it comes to unusual words or words used in an unusual style, I have to either see or fully understand them before I can actually hear them. At the same time, I don't understand the language process at all. Does this mean I have to basically expose myself to most variations of words so I can maintain my ability to process language? Sigh.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Intuit's Annual Shareholder Meeting (2011)

(Image above was added and taken on July 12, 2012)

I attended Intuit's annual shareholder meeting on January 19, 2011. CEO Brad Smith was his usual effervescent, charismatic self and handled the informal presentation. Shareholders were treated to Peet's coffee, Odwalla juice, slices of cake, scones, and fruit as well as a complimentary Quicken 2011 or TurboTax Investments and Rental Property CD. (Unfortunately, I can't use either one because I use TurboTax and Quicken's business versions.)

Among CEO Smith's Powerpoint slides, several stood out:

1. Intuit sees the market shifting from DIY to "Do It for Me." For example, look at Quicken. It automatically downloads information for you and renders much of the accounting process automatic.

2. CEO Smith drew laughs when he said that these days, when someone asks whether you can type 60 words a minute, the answer is still yes--and he then proceeded to mimic the motion of cell phone texting. His point was that Americans are using mobile phones to replace older technology, and Intuit was ahead of the curve.

3. CEO Smith is focusing on growth in Southeast Asia and India, although Intuit does not offer tax prep services in India. Intuit's businesses in India revolve around helping small businesses advertise and acquire paying customers, especially through the use of mobile phone services.

4. One of the coolest new products is Snaptax. Taxpayers filing 1040EZ forms pay only $14.99 when filing their tax returns, which is a good return on investment if you receive any kind of substantial IRS refund. More here.

The Q&A session was interesting. One shareholder, a Mac user, explained his experience buying a Mac and Intuit's Quicken software. He patiently and intelligently explained that Intuit's latest version of Quicken for Mac was terrible--because it was a barebones version of the PC version--causing him to go back to the Apple store and demand a refund. Then, when he arrived back home, he uploaded his much older Quicken program, which had more features than the new version made specifically for Apple.

He said he was "pissed off" with the experience and wondered why Intuit was able to offer TurboTax to Apple users but not Quicken. (In a deliciously sardonic aside, he pointed to his complimentary TurboTax and Quicken CDs and referred to them as a local shareholder's "dividend." Intuit, despite its large cash reserves, does not pay a dividend.)

Mr. Smith explained that his team had chosen to focus on the PC version of Quicken after Apple's woes many years ago. Recently, however, Intuit developed a Quicken for Mac version from scratch called Quicken Essentials. This new software is only a few months old, and Mr. Smith said he hoped customers would understand the difference between Quicken for PC--which has decades' worth of improvements--and Quicken Essentials for Mac, which is a work in progress.

I asked how the government was helping Intuit and how it was hindering Intuit. Obviously, Intuit's tax software business relies on a reasonably good relationship with the government. (Page 20 of Intuit's 10K states, "[T]here have been significant new regulations and heightened focus by the government on these [tax, payroll, payments, financial services and healthcare] areas.")

Mr. Smith said that he hoped for a mutually beneficial partnership with the government. At the same time, the government can be a hindrance when it seeks to provide tax preparation directly to consumers, which is not the government's core competency. Each side should stick with what they do best, said Mr. Smith.

I also asked about improving Quicken with respect to uploading pictures of receipts and invoices. Many businesses keep their receipts and copies of invoices in shoeboxes or envelopes. Why not allow a user to take a picture of a receipt or invoice with his/her camera and upload it or email it to Quicken, which will automatically match the invoice/receipt with the appropriate line item?

One key issue would be whether the IRS will accept e-versions of receipts and invoices as sufficient evidence in case of an audit; however, even without full IRS acceptance, adding an e-receipts feature to Quicken would help small businesses stay organized. Mr. Smith said the company was working on a product called QuickReceipts.

On another note, I was really happy to get the opportunity to briefly chat with Intuit co-founder Scott Cook after the meeting. Mr. Cook, lest we forget, helped Intuit beat Microsoft during its heyday years when it tried to foist Microsoft Money on the public. In an ironic twist, Microsoft's software ventures outside of its dominant operating system software have been failures, primarily because it keeps trying to compete with other natural quasi-natural-monopolies like Intuit and Sony/Nintendo.

I mentioned to Mr. Cook that I wasn't so keen on the idea of looking for growth and profitability in India. India has a very fragmented consumer marketplace, making it very difficult for any company to establish a dominant foothold (which harms a company's ability to increase its margins; it also has poor infrastructure; and most analysts who focus on India use financial projections based on overly optimistic macro factors (i.e., multiply anything by a billion and it looks like you can make lots of money). Mr. Cook politely explained that the first step was to generate revenue, and then profits.

I always enjoy Intuit's annual meetings and encourage shareholders to attend.

Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of Intuit (INTU) shares. I participated in one paid Intuit survey in 2010.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

SCU Basketball Beats Gonzaga!

On November 6, 2010, here's what I wrote about Kevin Foster: "#21 (Kevin Foster) will be the x-factor [this season]. He is blessed with an excellent wingspan and incredible athleticism, but seems a little raw." Well, Foster was the x-factor tonight--and much more. He shredded Gonzaga and scored 36 points, including six treys.

You know the phrase, "He's on fire"? It's incredible to see it right in front of your eyes. One time, Foster was about three feet behind the three-point line but launched a shot anyway, causing me to groan. The next thing I know, the ball hits nothing but the bottom of the net, and the crowd is going wild. Every time he took a three point shot after that, we all knew it was going in.

I had a prime seat. I was sitting two rows across from Brandi Chastain, who came with her son, and I was sitting in front of the coach's mom. The coach's mom is awesome. When Foster started heating up, we had about six minutes left, and the almost capacity crowd could taste the win. But Coach Kerry Keating's mother was so anxious, whenever Foster made a three pointer, she was sitting down, wringing her hands. It wasn't till we were plenty ahead with under three minutes left that she started cheering vociferously like everyone else. You gotta love a Mom who respects the basketball gods.

After the win, almost all the students stormed the court, hugging everyone in sight and screaming "SCU!" After the frenzied celebration, I exited Leavey Center to go back to my car and passed a bunch of students who had set fire to an old couch. The fire department extinguished the small fire quickly, but the students had already had their fun.

What a game. January 20, 2011. We beat Gonzaga. And Kevin Foster had a game we will all remember for the rest of our lives.

Jason Kelly on Toxic Assets

Jason Kelly has a really interesting perspective on toxic assets--he thinks we are the most toxic asset, or more specifically, the financially illiterate amongst us:

Financially stupid people are America’s most toxic asset. They fail to see the money-trap society around them. They live in a world controlled by corporations seeking to extract as much of their wealth as possible, and the moronic masses open wide for every lure...

They trust false promises of bought-off politicians. They sit mesmerized before advertising campaigns telling them to buy trifles they don’t need using debt they can’t repay. They stumble down the path paved by big business that transfers their income to corporate coffers. They don’t realize that the way of the world is not the way they want to live, then they wonder what happened when they end up broke and hopeless.


More here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jeff Rosen's Swearing-In Ceremony: Poorly Planned

If you missed Jeff Rosen's public swearing-in ceremony on January 19, 2011, don't worry about it. The event was poorly planned, leaving many people waiting outside, unable to get in. Security guards and event personnel locked the doors while the event was happening, leaving me to try the balcony view. However, when I attempted to find a spot on the balcony, security personnel grabbed my arm  and took me outside.  

Yup, a security guard escorted me out, even after I explained I had RSVPed and even after two other people exited the balcony. He wouldn't give me his card, so I snapped a picture. Then I, along with many other people, waited downstairs and was allowed to enter after the event was over. So much for "being on the list." I hope Mr. Rosen's office publishes a transcript of his speech online. From what I understand, Mr. Rosen was very conciliatory towards his predecessor in his speech.

On the way down, I spoke with Moises "Mo" Reyes, Jr., apparently the head of security for the event. He was polite and explained that fire department regulations prevented security from letting in more people; in fact, the existing number of people inside was already over the legal limit, so even when people left, they couldn't let anyone else in. He also explained that security did not plan the event, and the event planning department was in charge. That all makes sense. I wish the guy upstairs would have told me the same thing instead of just grabbing my arm and telling me to leave.

In case you're wondering why people were able to go inside after the event was over, but not during the event, Mr. Reyes Jr. said (paraphrased) he believed fire regulations were more broad for standing room vs. sitting down.

The event wasn't a total loss. First, the food was quite good. I had coffee, fruit, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and about ten chocolate chip cookies. (I'd like to thank Santa Clara County taxpayers for my dinner tonight.) [Update: the catering and rental space cost only $6K, with half going to the City of San Jose; however, there were many county security personnel on duty, so the actual costs are probably much higher.] Second, as I will explain below, I finally learned why so many public defenders supported Mr. Rosen. I had initially intended to vote for Dolores Carr, the incumbent. I was concerned because Ms. Carr is married to a police officer, but I didn't view a personal relationship as sufficient rationale to justify removing a sitting D.A.

Moreover, the brouhaha about Carr's blanket peremptory strike--which forces a particular judge to withdraw from criminal cases--seemed overblown. If you examine the underlying facts, Carr was upset because a judge had released a child molester despite having the discretion to keep him behind bars. Rosen and Carr were in the D.A.'s office during the time the child molester was released, so I still don't understand why Carr didn't more clearly state that her office disagreed with the judge's release of a child molester and felt that the judge had gone out of her way to blame the D.A.'s office for technical violations rather than using her discretion to keep him behind bars. She could have then said she didn't believe any other judge would have released the child molester, so she didn't anticipate another use of the peremptory strike, which, by the way, is something the legislature specifically makes available to lawyers for precisely this scenario. Of course, there are at least two ways of looking at the blanket strike issue, but Carr seemed to concede fault by not highlighting the particular facts that led her to issue the blanket strike.

In any case, it really bothered me that every single public defender and criminal defense lawyer I knew supported Jeff Rosen. The day before the election, Mr. Rosen left me a message on my answering machine, asking me for my vote. What the heck, I thought. Ms. Carr hadn't seemed to do any substantial campaigning, and I had to admire Mr. Rosen's excellent campaigning skills and endorsements from numerous lawyers I personally knew.

Yet, up to tonight, I hadn't learned exactly why criminal defense lawyers seemed to favor Mr. Rosen over Ms. Carr. I ran into a classmate and defense lawyer, who explained to me that Mr. Rosen had promised an "open discovery" process, whereas Ms. Carr's office (as well as her predecessor's) seemed to have a history of not disclosing all material evidence in good faith. Under Mr. Rosen's new policy, any defense lawyer may go into the D.A.'s office and see all of his/her client's files except for work product and the usual exceptions. If anyone wants to understand why Mr. Rosen's policy makes sense, they should watch the excellent 1993 movie, In the Name of the Father. In the meantime, I hope Mr. Rosen gets used to his popularity and does a better job planning future events.

Disclaimer: unless specifically stated otherwise, no portion of this blog is commercial in nature in any fashion, nor operated for profit. The author sincerely believes that this post addresses issues of public interest. The events discussed above took place in a public government building open to the public. The picture above was taken in a public government building at an event open to the public, and the person photographed did not object to the taking of the picture at the time it was taken. [Update: picture was removed on February 14, 2012]

Playing the Fiddle, Empire Burning Down Edition

When empires fall, the signs are there, but everyone ignores them. Consider this Facebook conversation with a highly educated woman (from one of the best liberal arts colleges on the West Coast) in her mid-20's:

Teacher: [posts article titled, "Global finance ignores world's poor."]

Me: this isn't anything new--the world has always had extremely poor people, and now it's getting worse. People who favor increasing the minimum wage or increasing salaries for lower level jobs in the U.S. make it harder for us to accept poorer immigrants. For many poor immigrants. their only hope is coming to America (and working in jobs most native-born citizens don't want). The best way to assist poorer people is to lower inflation and provide better social services such as cost-effective access to healthcare and top-level education.

You may also want to think about why we've had success incorporating immigrants into our society even as France has become virulently Islamophobic; Sweden has voted in a party with Nazi origins; and the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg, Germany. If you treat poor people as unfortunate things to be helped instead of people who deserve jobs and financial independence from the government, then their existence is dependent on the majority population's benevolence and willingness to spend tax dollars. As we've seen, in recessions, majority populations tend to get conservative very, very quickly unless their minority populations contribute economically.

The greatest thing about being a naturalized American citizen who owns a small business is my independence. The corollary of that individual independence is that my country seeks my love based on voluntary, not coercive terms. My family came here, worked hard, paid taxes, helped raise property values for our neighbors, and succeeded based on merit. It's a shame that so many Americans support inflationary economic policies that make it harder for immigrants and poorer people to achieve independence based on merit rather than unstable, short-term charity.

Teacher: Money is great and wonderful and helpful, but it's still just money. If you really want to help change the lives of the poor, you have to help to empower them, help them help themselves. For example, Surin Farmer Support works with farmers here in Thailand who once were victims of the government taking advantage of them. They were given free fertilizer samples and, once used, their crops became dependent on it. In the end, they were spending just as much on fertilizer as they were yielding extra crops, except with a bunch of health issues as well. With the help of the NGO, the people of Surin have been able to learn about their issues more thoroughly and take action. Their rice is now sold in markets throughout the US.

Me:
you said: "If you really want to help change the lives of the poor, you have to help to empower them, help them help themselves."

I agree. A job that involves hard work and income based on merit empowers an individual and gives him/her money, which leads to independence.

And thank you for the article on microfinance. (Surowiecki is one of my favorite writers, BTW.) The article declares that "Microloans make poor borrowers better off. But, on their own, they often don’t do much to make poor countries richer" because the amounts loaned are too small to create a large increase in the number of available jobs. In other words, your article indicates that the problem is not enough money and not enough mid-sized to larger corporations. Do you agree that stronger corporations and more money are goals that most free market, pro-business capitalists seek to attain?

It is our ability to give people jobs that has made us one of the greatest nations in the world. When you give someone a private sector job, you allow them to save money, become independent, become a net financial contributor to society (unlike gov workers or welfare recipients), and provide a future for his/her children. No abstract social policy can provide the opportunities that come from a job; therefore, the greatest help you can give to a poor person (or any person) is a job and low inflation.

Most people get jobs through businesses and corporations, so if you're anti-corporation or anti-business, you're automatically anti-immigrant and anti-individual. Social policies often see human beings as things in need of charity from their superiors, not individuals yearning for independence. Making matters worse, many social policies require bigger government, which requires the gov to print more money, which risks higher inflation. Yet, the #1 enemy of a person's ability to save for the future and support his/her children is inflation. By supporting policies that lead to bigger government, many well-meaning people are actually hurting the people they intend to help. Unlike most social rights, economic rights and policies directly affect inflation and therefore have severe potential consequences for poor people and immigrants. For this reason, whenever anyone says economic rights are the same as social rights; that economics is just a guessing game; or that jobs are "just money," you should be very, very skeptical. Most likely, that person supports economic policies that hurt the poor despite wanting to help them.

Teacher: I think a better way than giving an individual money is to educate them in order for a group of individuals to organize themselves. For example, the scavenging community that I've worked with. Better than giving one of them money so they can buy a motorbike and increase their scavenging revenue would be to help them realize why they're having the issues they're having and ways to fix them. Maybe then they can organize as a group and fight for their rights as scavengers. Or they could find a way to raise money as a community and start to process their own recycling center and cutting out the middle man. It's not just about the individual, it's about the greater good. And the more that people work together, the more people will see a positive result.

Me: it sounds like you're saying unionization is the way to go. But unionization and organized group efforts are futile in an economy that does not create many jobs or that lacks larger businesses. How does unionizing six people help them unless the company is growing and has good growth prospects? Perhaps you mean co-ops, where a group of people pool together their resources to minimize costs and increase their ability to save. That makes more sense, but even co-ops can't do much unless they have jobs and some way to make money. Again, it all comes back to jobs, not the "greater good." The "greater good" is really the ability of a society to give its people jobs, low inflation, and money that doesn't lose its purchasing power. All of these, of course, are economic issues. (BTW, whenever I hear about the "greater good," I think of Chairman Mao :-)

Also, the goal isn't "giving an individual money" but helping him/her earn it. Big difference. Someone who thinks jobs and money are things to be "given" is someone who a) will not hesitate to use the printing press, which will lead to inflation; and b) doesn't understand the difference between gov jobs and private sector jobs. In the private sector, jobs aren't given; ideally, they are created by hard working, innovative individuals who create new products and who compete with others to ensure their products are the best on the market.

Teacher: Let me ask you this. Why is there such a big need for economic reform? And I don't mean the circumstantial things that lead to it, but the real root of it. What has caused this huge divide between the rich and poor? Why are there so many people in the world who don't have jobs? I think unless we (the world) can really understand the root of the problem, it's all just bandages.

Me: I can't provide a short answer to your question about the reasons people are so poor all over the world at 3:30AM :-) But ask yourself these four questions:

1) why is America so much more successful than most other countries when it comes to average and median levels of affluence?

2) why aren't most immigrants clamoring to go to Europe, China, Cuba, etc.?

3) why has America been more successful at assimilating immigrants than any other country in modern history?

4) Why do countries where leaders try to create their version of the "greater good" usually experience net outflows of their own people? (see China, Iran, Cuba, etc.)

Teacher: [ignores all of my questions] There isn't a short answer to my question. That's the point. I don't think you or I could answer it. It's an incredibly complex problem. And I think people, in general, are too quick to find an answer to things, leading to a misunderstanding of the question/problem they're trying to answer. I do it as well, which is one of the things I'm trying to work on in my current position. The point of my asking wasn't for you to give me an answer. The point is to try and sit with the question a bit. Really, really think about it, in a way that maybe you haven't before. Go outside of your gut reaction. It's a really big world out there and there are a lot of things we don't know. Also, I think there's a big difference between what a dictator sees as the "greater good" and a group of people working together in order to create harmony. I also don't think that average to median levels of affluence should be the goal. At least, it's not my goal. I personally think there's a lot that gets lost in the way of human connection when you're trying to attain affluence.

Me: you said, "I think there's a big difference between what a dictator sees as the 'greater good' and a group of people working together in order to create harmony."

You do realize all dictators and their henchmen sincerely believe they are working together to create their own version of harmony, right? Or do you think Hitler/Mao/Khomeni/Palin woke up each morning thinking, "Today, I will be the baddest, most evil person on the planet and destroy harmony"? :-)

See, that's what I've been trying to say--one group's version of harmony is another person's nightmare. That's the reason countries need checks and balances, respect for property and jobs, and a currency that has purchasing power. Once you lose either of those three things, lots of groups of people try to create their own version of "harmony" and people are so desperate, they will vote based on rhetoric and irrelevant factors.

Think about it: if you have a vision of harmony and a group of people stood between you and your vision, wouldn't you take out the group if you could? Of course you would--you might not kill them (initially), but if they're enough of a pain in the arse, and if you really believe they are harming your vision, they will become expendable once you attain power (assuming no checks and balances or a strong judiciary or some other way of legally stopping you from implementing your "harmony" plan).

The quest for the "greater good" has caused so much evil in the world. No one starts out thinking, "I want to be evil." But evil tends to happen when a group of people believe their vision is superior to someone else's, and their vision is based on subjective values and disrespect for property rights.

The same man who once wanted to carry out a "promise to fight for a better world, for a better life for all the poor and exploited" is the same man who later said, "The executions [without due process] by firing squads are not only a necessity for the people of Cuba, but also an imposition of the people."

Teacher: I've never been a fan of Che.

What working for the greater good of people means to me is understand the needs of others and not trying to impose your own agenda on them. It's not about gaining power and taking people out. It's about working with people and realizing that if we see the world as a bunch of individuals that we will treat each other as such and continue to f*ck everyone else over. I personally am doing the best in my life to stop thinking about myself, stop thinking about my family, stop thinking about my country, and see us all as people who are all equally important.

You don't think your vision is superior to others? Because the feeling I've gotten through these conversations is that you believe you know what's right and that everyone else who isn't doing that is acting irrationally (and therefore in an inferior way). Does that make you evil?

I work with mostly boys. But, the whole point of my job is to help them become more educated and better members of society. People who truly know themselves and are compassionate. Not people who believe that getting a job and money is the most they can get out of life. Education shouldn't just be about preparing people for the work force. It's about exploration and preparing people for life.

One of my goals in life is to continue to always increase my compassion and understand for everyone, including those I don't agree with.

I remember once watching a clip of someone from the Westboro Church talking. It's so against everything I believe in, and I can't help but see it as hate. But, at the same time, here's someone who so strongly believes what she's doing is right. That she is trying her hardest to save people she believes are going to have to infer the wrath of God. She believes these ideas in her heart just as much as I believe mine. And for that, I can understand.

Another example stems from my reaction to the documentary Stevie. It's about a man who is arrested for child molestation. But, you see his story and begin to understand the pain this man was forced to experience while growing up. His childhood was ruined and led him exactly to the place he ended up. How much of that is his fault? I can understand.

Me: I do believe my theory of economic rights is superior to other theories, but my theory is different from yours because it has inherent checks and balances and is based on logic and history, not subjective feelings. [Earlier, in a lengthy Facebook debate with multiple people] I demonstrated why economic rights are superior to non-economic rights, and the only objections I saw were that my questions and theories were "unfair" or presented "false choices"--objections based on subjective feelings, not logic. (I continue to be amazed that anyone would say that food and money are equal to abstract rights divorced from economic considerations.)

Also, as stated above, my theory of economic rights contains inherent checks and balances against overreaching and evil in its respect for individual liberty, low inflation, and property rights. Your theory, based on subjective ideas such as compassion and exploration, is exactly the opposite of mine--it has no inherent check against overreaching or coercion, and it actually seems to disrespect property rights by looking down on jobs and money instead of holding these values in the highest regard.

Any theory based on some subjective worldview and the idea that we are all equal (instead of the idea that we are unequal but should be given equal opportunities to succeed and accept the unequal results) is bound to lead to a disrespect of property rights and individual liberty.

BTW, if Thailand's economy fails to grow, the English skills you are teaching your students will make them very marketable in the black market and tourism industry. You'd better hope Thailand produces enough legit jobs for your students. If Thailand fails to prioritize its economy and instead pursues compassion, exploration, or some other subjective goal, some of your boys may grow up to be intermediaries between affluent English speakers and their own people. In other words, their destiny will be linked to outsiders. And they will have you to thank.

As I've already explained, for most poor people, economic rights take precedence over social rights. It's interesting to see relatively rich white people railing against the idea that "getting a job and money" isn't the most important thing in life and saying that "education shouldn't just be about preparing people for the work force." You almost never see any actual poor person making similar statements. Perhaps it's because poor people hate being poor and want to be (relatively) rich like us.

Teacher: I've heard poor people make statements like that. They were people fighting to preserve the right to keep their culture that was being taken away by large scale development projects. Development projects that would offer jobs, but also take away the way of life that they hold very dear. They chose culture and have been fighting the battle for over 10 years.

And, just so you know, you come off as an offensive know it all.

Me: like most Californians, you've been fed bromides through our public school system. In order for you to grasp the concepts I'm trying to impart, you must first accept that your education was incomplete. It is very, very hard for anyone to accept that s/he has an incomplete education. It's a lot easier to think the guy who disagrees with you is just an offensive a-hole. (And that's why most idealists who lack respect for property rights and who come bearing visions of harmony wipe out dissidents when they gain power.)

The problem with you and most Americans is that they have too much unjustified self-confidence and can't humble themselves long enough to learn something outside of their own field. But rather than tell themselves, "I don't understand anything about economics and should learn more," most Americans instead seek to unleash their subjective visions of harmony on the world. In doing so, they are harming the very people they seek to help.

Teacher: You are more than welcome to believe that. I'm confident in my personal assessments of my strengths and weaknesses. Have fun fighting your fight.

Me: if you really want to test your strengths and weaknesses, read Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. I know you read a lot, and this book will take you maybe three hours to read at most. Let me know if you ever do read the book.

[She later deleted me as a friend on Facebook. No word on whether she read Mr. Friedman's book.]

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Time Capsule: Facebook Debates

A typical debate on Facebook circa 2012:

Status Update: [Sign this petition to forgive all student loans!]

M: 1) Should someone who majored in sociology, knowing that job prospects would not be as bright as another field (e.g., engineering), receive the same treatment under any loan forgiveness law? 2) Would forgiving loans change the existing education-gov complex, which has created the tuition inflation you reference? 3) Would forgiving existing student loans help future generations of students, who would still be subject to increasing tuition? 4) Will future students be subject to higher interest rates as a result of loan forgiveness? 5) If you have private loans, are you aware that loan forgiveness means that American taxpayers will be giving more of their money to large banks? 6) Why should a taxpayer in Kansas, who had nothing to do with your decision to attend college, suffer a higher federal debt b/c of your voluntary decision? 7) Why not give all Americans with any kind of debt a one-time benefit of $25,000? (This is the most important question to consider, b/c it forces someone to remember that money comes from somewhere and is not infinite.) 8) Why should student loans be favored over other kinds of debt, esp credit card debt that may have been used to buy essentials for a family? 9) I believe you work for a non-profit (universities are usually non-profits). Are you aware of a federal program that allows student loans to be forgiven after 10 yrs if you work for a non-profit or the gov?

A: I would like to live in a society where multiple fields can be entered by people from diverse backgrounds, not a place where only those lucky enough to come from wealthy backgrounds can choose certain education paths. As to [the] question about whether a sociology major should get the same consideration as someone in another field, absolutely; there is no guarantee of a job in ANY field, and I know many people who have made their college choices based on supposed job prospects, only to discover upon graduation that the jobs have dried up or were never there in the first place. Also, student loan debt is treated differently than credit card debt. Student loans are treated very differently from other debt if you file for bankruptcy, and not in favor of the debtor. We hear constantly that a college education is a necessity. In many cases, taking on student debt is the only realistic way of financing that education. Now we're also told that taking on that debt is irresponsible. To me, this seems like the same thing as telling people that if they don't start out with money they don't deserve to earn it.

M: your comments seem to make several points: 1) an education is necessary for success; 2) everyone ought to be able to choose their field of study because no specific field guarantees a job, and we don't want to foreclose specific educational options based on someone's available income or wealth; 3) bankruptcy allows some forms of debt to be discharged, but not student loans; and 4) taking on debt is necessary to get ahead because college is a necessity. Yet, none of these comments address the issue of why these specific loans should be forgiven over others, or why relatively well-off people should be given preference in debt forgiveness (over a single mom with three kids and negative equity in her house, for example). Once again, money is finite, it does not grow on trees, and a dollar spent on forgiving student loans is a dollar that cannot be spent on universal healthcare, Headstart, etc. In essence, when someone asks for loan forgiveness, s/he is asking to put his/her issues ahead of everyone else's in America. (If you disagree, see previous question about why we don't just give everyone $25,000.) Some more comments: 1) the American taxpayer can't guarantee anyone a job, but it's clear that some degrees are worth more than others. Why should the American taxpayer be on the hook for someone who chooses to get a job in field A rather than field B? For example, I majored in English and Philosophy--I could not find a job with those two degrees. Should the government refund me $40,000? Why not? 2) If you want to smooth out differences in education results, what is the reason we don't guarantee everyone, upon graduation, the same salary and benefits? 3) If we don't believe all degrees are worth the same, and we do want to differentiate between fields of study, does it make sense to divert the poorest among us into more marketable fields? Does the prospect of non-dischargeable debt make it more or less likely that a poorer person will gravitate towards a more marketable field? (i.e., would you prefer that a poorer person gravitate towards a lower-paying or easier field?) 4) If college is necessary for success, is it doing a good job if graduates need to appeal to the government for assistance? What are the reasons colleges are able to produce so many graduates who have difficulties? Would forgiving loans improve, reform, or sustain colleges that do not educate their students properly or that do not have proper career placement offices? 5) What is the reason you are choosing to place the onus of student loan debt on taxpayers instead of the schools themselves? Why shouldn't the school be the primary focus rather than the general taxpayer that had nothing to do with the student debt incurred? Why should a married housewife in Kansas, who doesn't make as much as you, support a higher national debt for your benefit based on your voluntary choice? To the extent the federal government should act, why should it favor someone who has a job over someone who is unemployed? Once again, see earlier question--why don't we just decide to give everyone $25,000?

J: As a University Professor, and an indentured servant to my education, I think the Student Loan Forgiveness plan would be incredibly helpful in stimulating the economy.

M: you are correct that forgiving student loans would stimulate the economy. So would forgiving all credit card debt. Or giving everyone $25,000. So why don't we give everyone $25,000? Or forgive everyone's debts? As a college professor, what do you understand to be the downsides, if any, to loan forgiveness?

S: I'd like someone else to pay my mortgage, but I'm the one who purchased the house. Shelter, it's pretty darn necessary.

A: I'm sorry. I find this topic very upsetting. I believe that education should be available to everyone, and that it is actually to our benefit as a society to have an educated population. I don't think a college education should be confused with vocational training, but the system of student loans is predicated on the notion that it is. I think the system is broken. I think student loan forgiveness would be one step in reconfiguring the system. I believe that a society where people choose fields of study based solely on perceived employment opportunities would be a poor one to live in. Who would teach our children? Who would write our books, create our art? Who would pursue actual original research? I don't have answers, but I can recognize that there is a serious problem going on. The estimated cost of attendance for one year at my local community college is approximately $10,500 for a student living at home. In this state, skyrocketing tuition is mostly the result of state-funded schools partially offsetting draconian cuts in state funding with increases in tuition and fees. I'm glad some people have managed to get educated without landing deep in debt. They're clearly smarter, more responsible and harder working than I am.

M: if graduates are not able to use their skills and knowledge to pay back at least their student loans, then what does that tell you about the utility of the education they paid for? Also, if the issue is high tuition, shouldn't the focus be on the schools and teachers? Or do states set tuition prices arbitrarily, without regard to the costs being imposed upon them by school employees and school retirees? You are correct that there is a serious problem with education, but you're looking at effects, not causes, which means you are actually favoring the status quo for the next generation of students. Moreover, art and books existed before schools and tuition payments. Teaching existed before schools and tuition payments. Learning existed before schools and tuition payments. To the extent we've made schools and tuition payments mandatory for a good life, then the question is, "Why have so many schools and teachers been able to take so much money from taxpayers--tens of billions of dollars each year in some states--and churn out students who are not prepared to enter the workforce or pay back their loans?"

A: the college teachers I know aren't making heaps of money. We all gain by subsidizing education. I benefit from living in a society which is well-educated. Education isn't just a personal investment for the benefit of the individual student. That is why it is worth paying for at a broader level.

M: is education valuable to society at any cost to the taxpayer? For example, is it a good idea to spend 80% of a state's entire budget on colleges? Why not? Also, taxpayer money is finite, correct? A state receives x amount in revenue each year and must work within those boundaries. Because state taxpayer money is finite, what are the downsides, if any, to increasing college funding?

K: If an education was as cheap as some folks words, there wouldn't be much of a problem. An uneducated or undereducated nation will fail. The notion of an educated elite overseeing an uneducated mass is terrifying.

M: Does an education in and of itself--regardless of cost--necessarily lead to a strong nation? Or should we also analyze the content of the education; its utility relating to future employment prospects; its ability to foster innovation; and its ability to impart useful skills to its graduates, including critical thinking skills?

Rhetoric as a basis for policy--rather than prioritizing a balanced budget, property rights, rule of law, and an aversion to imperialism--often causes nations to fail. A college education--whether free or expensive--does not benefit society if graduates are unable to analyze complex issues with an eye towards certain values such as rule of law; an independent judiciary; separation of religion and state; checks and balances; a preference towards a balanced budget; property rights; an aversion towards imperialism, etc. Even if the values themselves cannot be agreed upon, education in general, to be useful, must impart critical thinking skills (e.g. logic) or useful skills that will lead to employment.

K: I guess it didn't work for you. That's too bad.

M: Just saw a friend write, "I loathe certain liberals because they're members of the American leftist culture where 'clever ideas,' credentials, left wing shibboleths, good intentions and personal contacts trump actually delivering value." Reminded me of a few people :-)

[Note: this posting has been backdated.]

Judge Kozinski and Judge Cantil-Sakauye: SCU Discussion

Judge Alex Kozinski and Judge Tani Cantil-Sakauye discussed civility at Santa Clara University on January 12, 2011.

Some quick facts: Judge Cantil-Sakauye is the current California Supreme Court Chief Justice and was appointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Judge Kozinski is the Chief Judge for the 9th Circuit. Ronald Reagan, a Republican, appointed him at the age of 35 to his first judgeship. Both judges are ethnic minorities. Both judges were appointed by Republican governors.

I think Kozinski looks like Rehnquist, but that's just my take. Maybe it's the glasses--they both seem to wear the same type of glasses. Below are some highlights from the SCU discussion:

Judge Kozinski, in response to a question about civility in discussions: judges should call it like they see it; sometimes, when people mention civility, they mean "toning it down" for people who disagree with them. [Do you see why I like this guy?]

In response to whether judges get along with each other: courts get along famously--"they keep marrying each other." [This is funny, but it also indicates that many judges are sheltered from normal society and the private sector.]

IP cases are the most contentious [cases].

On diversity: I "would not be comfortable on a court with all white guys." [Judge Cantil-Sakauye commented that she had no problems being on a court with all white guys, drawing some laughter, presumably because she has experience serving on non-diverse courts and committees. Judge Kozinski commented that when he went to law school in 1975, women already represented a significant portion of his graduating class.]

On Yale Law: at Yale, "they don't teach you law at all," he said, drawing laughter from the audience.

On televised court hearings: we've had them in my appellate court since the 1990's as part of a pilot program that eventually became permanent.

Judge Cantil-Sakauye: "My first client is the rule of law."

Criticizing opposing counsel and making personal attacks distracts from the arguments. When I see that, I flip over the page and look at the lawyer's bar number [which shows how much experience s/he has], because experienced lawyers don't do that.

She essentially confirmed that there had been a California Supreme Court judge who was senile, and his colleagues had covered up the judge's senility. However, she denied that there was a "code of silence," saying, there is a "code of respect, not silence."

On judicial elections and corporate campaign donations: bankrolling judicial candidates "makes for a suspicious foundation" and causes people to "wonder about the soundness of opinions."

On her election to the California Supreme Court during the contentious 2010 elections: she was concerned because of her unique last name (ethnic and hyphenated). She said, "Never underestimate the power of 'Mr. No'" in an election year where voters are fed up with existing political players.

On diversity: it "broadens the discussion." For example, is some behavior heinous or a product of the environment?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Is the U.S. Justice System Broken?

Fascinating discussion about whether the U.S. justice system is broken. Full transcript here.

Santa Clara Law Professor David Friedman actually manages to outwit Judge Kozinski in some places. (Go SCU!) But Kozinski still sounds pretty darn funny:

Judge Alex Kozinski [joking]: You know what I find? I find that half of the people love my opinions and half hate them. The first half is called the winners, and the other half is called the losers. I’ve never had somebody come up to me and say, you wrote a great opinion sticking it to me. Never.

Judge Kozinski on reverse condemnation:

The government makes mistakes in all sorts of ways that it does business, and if it were perfect, we would have a very different government and it would be a lot less costly. That is the nature of life that people make mistakes, and it is the nature of government that the government is making mistakes. The question is, are the costs of these mistakes internalized?...The question of whether or not you get just compensation, the question of whether something is a public use—-let me tell you what the debate is about there. The debate is about not whether it’s a public use or not. The question is: who decides? Do executive and legislative branch officials make that decision, or does it get decided by judges? Now, I like the idea that you think that judges and juries ought to make that decision, but actually I think there’s a lot to be said for saying that the decision of whether or not something is a public use gets made by the legislature.

Bonus: David Friedman:

I cannot resist my favorite quote on just this subject: “In nothing did the founders of this country so demonstrate their essential naiveté than in trying to restrain government from many of its favorite abuses and entrusting the enforcement of this restraint to judges; that is to say to men who had been lawyers; that is to say to men professionally trained in finding plausible excuses for dishonest and dishonorable acts.” Now, if someone can just find for me where Mencken said that, I can make sure I’ve got the quote right. Mine is by memory.

Congrats to David Friedman for going toe-to-toe with Judge Kozinski and walking away unscathed.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Wisdom

Wisdom from an online dater's profile:

For most of my life I thought I wanted to be an attorney until I realized that most people don't go see an attorney when things are going well in their lives. I don't want to spend the rest of my working years cleaning up other people's messes. Now I'm considering interior design or event planning.

She's only 22 years old. Very precocious if you ask me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Unions and Courts: Harming Taxpayers?

The Atlantic--generally an excellent, unbiased magazine--posted commentary from a visiting writer that defended unions. I responded with the following comment:

The writer glosses over the long-term, unpredictable, and unsustainable financial obligations bargained for by government workers over the past 10 yrs--none of which would have been possible without unions and politicians in bed together, screwing taxpayers.

The UC system is planning on having its employees contribute just 5% of their salaries for a pension in 2013 while California taxpayers contribute 10%.
This is their idea of "reform"--a measly 5% savings rate for retirement benefits that might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more on the open annuity market. (See http://universityofcalifornia.edu/youruniversity/archive/2011/january/uc-retiree-benefit-plan-to-change.html, Carolyn McMillan, "UC retiree benefit plans to change": "The changes approved require both UC and its employees to contribute more to the pension fund, with employees contributing 5 percent of pay to their pensions by July 2012 and UC contributing 10 percent.")

The problem with unions voting themselves higher benefits is the lack of usual checks and balances, which leads to corruption across all government branches. Even the court system has seemingly gotten into the act: "More than 100 new judgeships were added in the past decade, judicial pay increased almost 46 percent—to $178,789—and annual spending on trial court operations climbed to more than $3 billion."

"In 1998 the AOC's budget was about $77 million; last year it was $138.9 million—or if you include the court facilities budget, $320 million."

"The AOC's staffing has increased from 268 full-time employees in 1998 to 878 as of last March, and about a quarter of those workers are paid $100,000 a year or more."

"At the courts of appeal, for example, he says 46 percent of employees earn more than $100,000; the figure is 38 percent at the California Highway Patrol and 27 percent at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection." [California Lawyer, January 2011]

(http://www.callawyer.com/story.cfm?eid=913375&evid=1)

The judicial branch collaborating with politicians, who are themselves in bed with unions, especially unionized police officers, firefighters, and prison guards? Who will look out for the average taxpayer and small businessowner, I wonder?

Documentary Recommendation: Marcus Dupree

I highly recommend ESPN's documentary about Marcus Dupree, The Best There Never Was.

http://30for30.espn.com/film/the-best-that-never-was.html

A touching, tragic, and heartwarming story about an amazingly talented football player and his quest to play in the NFL.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Public Sector Pensions: True/False Quiz

Questions for anyone who supports public sector pensions.

1. True or false? It is ideal to make all California taxpayers personally liable for financial obligations of potentially trillions of dollars to 12% of state workers.

2. True or false? If a financial manager fails to produce 8% returns over the course of 15, 20, or 30 years, he is either incompetent or has mismanaged funds.

3. True or false? Despite the fact that CalPERs bought actual land and commodities like timber in addition to stocks, it still failed to diversify its holdings over the past ten years.

4. True or false? As fund assets increase, it is easier to produce 8% gains.

5. True or false? As fund assets reach the hundreds of billions, it becomes harder to produce consistent gains because it becomes harder to effectively invest in all types of investments.

6. True or false? Warren Buffett, Stanford University, and Chuck Reed are lying to us or are uninformed when they warn us that government pensions in their current form are unsustainable and we should switch to a two-tier pension system.

7. In your opinion, what percentage of mutual funds run by professional managers have weathered the 2008-2009 recession? What makes you believe CalPERs will be in the top group of professional money managers in the future, given their performance in 2008-2009? If Bernanke and Greenspan couldn't see the housing crisis coming, why do you think a CalPERs money manager will?

8. True or false? It is ideal to rely on professional managers--most of whom have proven themselves incompetent over the past ten years--to prevent California taxpayers from being personally liable for potentially trillions of dollars of benefits to just 12% of state workers.

9. Almost all of California's public pensions assume an 8% average annual growth rate. Somewhere, there is a mutual fund manager who can manage the state's pension money and promise 8% annual gains. Do you have your money with him or her? If so, can I have the person's contact information?

10. Have you invested at least 25K in non-401k assets over the past seven years? (The reason I ask is because you would have a better idea of how difficult it is to get 8% a year, even over the long run.)

Even the big funds chase performance and have to mix up asset allocations. That involves the potential for human error no matter what. At some point, public pension supporters are just arguing that 12% of state workers should be immune from investment mistakes while the other 88% cover their arse.

Also, note that I did not mention private unions in this thread. It is a separate discussion, b/c private corporations, unlike states, can more easily declare bankruptcy to shed themselves of any long term obligations. The issue in the corporate union realm is how to ensure proper funding of the PGGC while minimizing the cost to taxpayers and consumers.

Furthermore, the best argument against private sector unions is that they harm younger and newer workers by enacting artificial barriers to getting a job; therefore, one can argue that unions limit worker mobility and freedom, especially for younger workers and immigrants.

In addition, being pro-union (or socialist) usually means you favor restricting work for immigrants in favor of native-born citizens. This is because most union jobs go to citizens, not new immigrants. It's not inherently wrong to believe that citizens should get preference over immigrants for jobs, but it depends on what kind of society you want, i.e., a faster-growing, dynamic society--or a society that votes themselves benefits to a specific class of people at the expense of future growth. But again, that's a separate discussion, and this "quiz" was designed to apply only to public sector unions and benefits.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Movie Recommendation: Finishing the Game

If you haven't seen Finishing the Game (2007), you are missing a hilarious film. 4/5 stars. It's about a group of filmmakers who discover an unfinished Bruce Lee movie. They try to do a remake with a new actor. The search for the new actor includes a white guy who thinks he's half-Chinese; a guy named Breeze Lee; and a Korean and Colombian couple from Alabama.

Bonus: if you want to watch an excellent thriller, check out Shutter Island (2010).

Gordon Brown: Book Recommendation

I recently read Gordon Brown's book, Beyond the Crash. I am very surprised it did not generate more publicity and discussion. An excellent book, but one with very idealistic solutions.

Random Bonus: from Thomas Paine: "My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light. Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder."

As of 2011, we are still in Afghanistan and Iraq. American taxpayer dollars still support some theory of war and peace in the Middle East that is apparent to the Pentagon but not to the average citizen.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Thomas Paine on America

Thomas Paine, from The Rights of Man:

If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable; but by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and all the parts are brought into cordial unison. There the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged. Industry is not mortified by the splendid extravagance of a court rioting at its expense. Their taxes are few, because their government is just: and as there is nothing to render them wretched, there is nothing to engender riots and tumults.

More here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

John Wooden, Teacher

John Wooden was not only a great coach, but a wonderful human being. I thoroughly enjoyed this Charlie Rose interview:

http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11055

"No written word, no oral plea can teach our youth what they should be. Nor all the books on all the shelves, it’s what the teachers are themselves."

I like to say John Wooden was old school before old school, but he was also on the cutting edge:

BILL RUSSELL: He was one of the few coaches that would...let his team fast break in the ‘50s. Most of the coaches would not let their team fast break.

RIP, Coach.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pensions, New Jersey Corruption Style

I can't believe I didn't see this article when it first came out:

http://redtape.msnbc.com/2010/11/the-secret-sauce-behind-bloated-state-pensions.html#posts

Anyone who wants to defend pensions for public employees needs to click on the link above. Remember: government unions tend to have major pull with legislatures, because in some cities, the union machine puts a candidate ahead by 20% to 30% immediately. That's what happens when only about 50 to 60% of eligible voters show up on election days.

I feel sorry for New Jersey taxpayers and wish Governor Christopher Christie well.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

India: the Good Stuff

Here are some general thoughts on India after my trip:

1. The Grand New Delhi, located on Nelson Mandela Rd, New Delhi, 110070, is an amazing hotel. I've never stayed in a 5 star hotel before, but this had to be a 5 star hotel. The building is beautiful, reasonably near the airport, and customer service is consistently fantastic. Although customer service in India generally leaves much to be desired, The Grand New Delhi delivered perfect service. I highly recommend it for everyone, including disabled travelers--the hotel went out of its way to accommodate my hearing impairment (personal wake up calls, etc.). Thank you to everyone at The Grand New Delhi.

2. At the last minute, I wanted to see a dentist to get a basic checkup. I ended up at Ganga Ram Hospital, where I saw a line of people waiting to see dentists. The dentist spoke perfect English, took a look at me, and was able to answer all of my questions. When I tried to pay him for the short consultation, he refused payment.

Doctors and dentists who work in charitable hospitals are the real heroes, if you ask me. The dentist I saw probably assisted 20 to 35 people that day, either at no charge or low bono. Most dentists in India are also available if you want to hire them for something more than a checkup. Prices are much lower than in the United States, and many dentists are trained in the United States' best schools.

3. If you go to India, remember that elders are respected. I liked how everyone called older people either Auntie, Uncle, Sir, or Madam. Maybe Sidney Poiter visited India before he starred in the excellent film, To Sir, With Love.

4. India's film industry has true diversity. Almost all the Indian movies I've seen include Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. India is very diverse, and one reason the country works is because no one seems marginalized in the media.

Also, although India doesn't get along with Pakistan, its government and media do an excellent job separating Indian Muslims from Pakistani Muslims. America could learn a thing or two about fighting terrorism from India. Despite its own 9/11--the 26/11 Mumbai attacks--India's government and media have steadfastly refused to castigate its own citizens. Perhaps the 2002 Gujarat massacre of Muslims in India may have played a part in India's softer tone--I don't know.

5. India has freedom of speech and freedom of press. Newspapers in India are fantastic. Almost every issue slams government corruption. WikiLeaks was front-page news, and all the articles had substantive analysis. America's founding fathers would be proud of India's media. I am sad to say this, but India's media is clearly better than the pablum America's media passes off as "news."

6. You can feel India's energy everywhere. As Robert Kunzig wrote in National Geographic (Jan 2011), "People, people, people, people--yes. But also an overwhelming sense of energy, of striving, of aspiration."

7. Fareed Zakaria has a brother, Arshad Zakaria. I recently read Gasparino's Sellout, which mentioned Arshad. (Sellout is an excellent book, by the way.) I searched and searched for speeches by Arshad, and finally found an interesting roundtable discussion where Arshad summarizes India very well:

Let me start by giving you some of the three or four interesting things that you will see, which are different from some of the other Asian economies. The first thing you see is that the Indian culture is essentially like an occidental culture. It is a Western culture. So in simple ways, when we have investors over, they feel completely comfortable with the Indian business community and to a smaller extent with the political community, mainly because India has a large agricultural population. But you do have a culture where it's very comfortable for Westerners to fit in on a social basis.

That ties in with what I think is the second point, which is that the language of business in India is English. I think one of the big changes that’s taken place in the world is the language of the global multinational is now English. That interestingly gives India an advantage not just over other emerging markets, but over some of the European countries as well because a lot of people learned it in school to the extent where they’ve not only mastered the language but also the nuances of system and culture — it’s sort of like being in London or the United States. When you travel on roads where you may see a bull or a cow on the side of the road, you’re reminded quickly that you’re not in London, but once you get into a new building, which is being priced at New York or London prices because of this infrastructure issue, you will see from a societal basis that India has quite an advantage.

I think the other thing you focus on is the fact that India, again, is truly a democracy, where you’ve had smooth transitions of power, which allow you to see all the ups and downs of democracy. You have a free press, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. You’ve got TV channels sensationalizing everything, very much like Westerners are used to. There is very much a strong Western influence.

I'd say the biggest issue other than infrastructure that you'd find when you go there, especially if you go to northern India, is the poverty and the scale of poverty. It is, I think, incredibly telling when you look at it and it’s something that people aren’t used to. I would say that’s why there are a decent number of people who will leave feeling uncomfortable without being able to pinpoint why. It’s unlike a lot of places because the poverty sits right next to the wealth. So you’ll see the best roads in Bombay with slums right next door. The proximity of poverty with incredible wealth is something you see clearly in India, and the scale of it is tremendous. And that’s just something that, no matter what you’re expecting, tends to shock some people.


I couldn't have said it better myself.

Bonus: I wrote a five part series about my experiences in India. The first part can be found here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Judges on Judges

I attended a legal seminar, and some of the judges had several interesting comments. One said that he enjoyed being a judge because we live in a secular society, and the rule of the law binds us all together. Judges, therefore, are the physical manifestation of this common bond, and it is a privilege to be one. [Brilliant comment from a brilliant judge. I always enjoy listening to JF.]

Another judge said that he enjoyed being a lawyer because he enjoyed advocacy. He said he never went home and thought, "Yes! [fist-pump] I really issued a heck of a decision today!"

A judge said that lawyers should "keep it real" in their motions and papers. (Don't try to "sell" the judge something.) He also said we live in a TV culture today, so visual aids are important in jury trials.

Another judge indicated that lawyers should use only their best arguments and not try to include every single possible argument.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Debate on Health and Healthcare

Status Update from Lawyer/Solo Practitioner: Eff you, Kaiser. I'm not paying $352 a month for health insurance in 2011. I don't smoke, I exercise, I'm not involved in any risky activities, and I avoid liquor. You people saw me about five times in 2010 and don't even provide me with my hearing aids or dental work. Does anyone have any advice for other health insurance options?

P.S. The biggest long-term medical expenditures will be on Medicare. Do you see what I mean when I say that current American society is financially stealing from the young to benefit the old? Do you really expect us to continue to be the world's superpower when we spend ever-increasing resources--already about 50% of federal tax revenues--on senior citizens? Money is finite. One dollar spent on senior citizens--who've had their chance to save money, have families, and buy homes--is a dollar not spent on the young, who have yet to have families, buy homes, and utilize compound interest.

Rob: Do you drive a car?

Lawyer: Yes, and I have the med pay option on my car insurance.

Older people drive, too. Why not let them pay a higher share of overall insurance costs, given that they've had an additional 30 years to save up for it and have also benefited from the real estate boom--unlike most people under 35 years old? Americans don't understand that the real threat against our way of life isn't Al Qaeda, Iran, or Iraq--it's older people and government workers voting in benefits for themselves at the expense of the young and unborn.

Trent: I have great insurance. Don't use it..have a DR/Hospital phobia. Only go if injured.

Laura: I feel ur pain. I was looking to switch from Anthem BC to Kaiser but rates at Kaiser were slightly higher..

Roger: Start smoking and drinking and engaging in risky activities.

Mary: I've got to point out that I'm certain there are plenty of elderly Republicans reaping the healthcare benefits for which you hold all Democrats responsible.

Lawyer: yes, but the GOP is trying to cut universal healthcare coverage while the Dems passed it, which has caused my premiums to increase drastically over the past three years. I will now have to get a reduced benefit health insurance plan b/c of the Dems. You want me to give them a medal for passing lame, watered-down, insurance-company-friendly legislation? I'd rather cut programs Tea-Party-style if it means I save money.

BTW, isn't it lovely being in a union, where taxpayers like me pay for fed, state, and local gov employees' benefits even as our own costs increase? Ah, those Dems--looking out for their unions. You want me to support a party that doesn't care about small businesses, young people, families, or inflation? I'll take the war-loving whack-jobs over the alternative, b/c the GOP has promised to cut spending and government programs. And Obama's pay freeze on federal gov workers doesn't go far enough--he should have cut salaries by 15% for anyone making more than 75K/year, including himself.

Mary: Oh, and we opened up 3 [police] dispatcher positions today. Check out the CalOpps link on my page, I encourage you to apply.

Lawyer: Re: dispatcher positions, so the government is expanding while the private sector and consumer spending is declining? This will totally work...as long as the laws of economics and math don't apply.

Mary: we aren't expanding. We are perpetually shortstaffed. As a matter of fact, I'm finishing up day 2 of 6, with a 68 hour workweek. For lack of a more appropriate term, I am dog arsed tired... So please, apply, and encourage others to also. I'd love to have my weekends...in all seriousness. I'm thankful for job security, but this still is no cakewalk. :-(

Lawyer: no well-paying job's a cakewalk. If we keep inflation under control, have a balanced budget, and stop relying on accounting gimmicks and constant bond issues, we can hire more gov workers. The private sector is getting more squeezed than the public sector--I've never seen so many hi-tech working so hard b/c of job cuts. Many engineers I know are working 19 hour days...with no job security, pensions, or lifetime medical benefits. The real problem is that so much of our taxes are going into the pockets of retired gov workers, which leaves your department with less money to hire workers now. Why can't more people see this simple fact? Public pensions cost current jobs and are unaffordable during a recession.

Also, if the private sector economy improves, the issue of gov benefits will not be at the forefront of budget discussions. Thus, the best thing gov workers can do is help the private sector get back on its feet.

Until just recently, the Dems controlled Congress for the last four years. All I see is my costs going up and my income getting more and more unstable. In fact, I've begun representing more gov and union employees now than ever before. It's scary to think that I am getting fewer calls from private sector workers because they just aren't enough of them working anymore, and the ones who have jobs are probably not willing to rock the boat under any circumstances. Sigh.

Mary: I credit divorce :-)

Lawyer: It's all a big mess, isn't it?

Mary: So in a way we are paying your salary too then?....

Lawyer: yes, except it's completely voluntary, and if I don't perform well or provide a service better than my competition, I don't get paid. Also, my services create no long term, unpredictable costs to taxpayers, and my fees are negotiable. Oh, and I have no job security or guaranteed income stream from taxpayers. So yes, to an uninformed person, it's exactly the same thing :-)

In the gov world, if you're incompetent or if they don't like you, they tend to reduce your duties and stick you in a corner somewhere until you retire. In the real world, if you don't perform, you get fired, and I might be able to get you a severance package, perhaps between three and twelve months. (It's usually easier to get a severance if you see a lawyer before you get fired, BTW.) Unlike the gov, the effects of a bad employee in the private sector are finite and definite.

Mary: I will absolutely agree with you in that sense. It is infuriating and a slap in the face to all of us that DO come to work and give our jobs and the public our all when we see substandard employees retained and given the same pay.

FWIW, the union really doesn't do everything in the best interest of even its members. I'm fighting what seems an uphill battle on right vs wrong, negligent retention and nepotism...not to mention favoritism and inappropriate relations among ranks. The union's stance is, "well let's see how it pans out." Um, for the $1,000 I pay you each year in membership fees alone, that answer isn't gonna fly! So I applied for the job in question when it opened...my interview was yesterday.

Lawyer: Some unions do a great job protecting their workers, but some are terrible when it comes to protecting the rank and file, especially in some California county hospitals. That's why some union members come to me for advice, even though their union should be the one assisting them. (Hey union reps, you might want to return a phone call once in a while and keep your members appraised of deadlines, including the deadlines to file grievances. I'm just sayin'.)

British Citizen: I love the NHS [national healthcare system in the U.K., which is free for British citizens.]

Rick: I cannot believe I'm attempting to defend Obama, but blaming Obama and fed govt employees for the high cost of your crappy health insurance is just silly and childish. Let me get this right; G.W. Bush and the Republican policies (dragging our troops into Iraq costing us billions of dollars a year, deregulating banks and insurance companies allowing multi billion dollar profits for those companies and their CEOs at the peril of poor and middle class Americans, and more...) took this country into the worst recession in our history since the Great Depression. Now, Obama has been trying to get the country out of recession, stabilize our economy, and yet help millions of Americans who lack any type of health insurance (a very sad condition for any civilized country) and regulate those greedy bank executives. There are many wealthy corporate executives, including the ones at insurance cos, that see their corrupt money-making ways endangered, hence are raising the cost of your less than adequate health insurance to compensate for it. If there are blames to go around, it should be directed to greedy and corrupt corporate executives and their lobbyists and Republican policies, not federal govt employees and the new Health Care law.

Lawyer: it's perfectly consistent to criticize Bush II and also increased healthcare costs. My comments were directed at Congress, which has been in Democratic hands for the last four years. Bush II was a moron, but like any American president, he doesn't have much control over domestic spending. Outside of of a war situation, an American president is just the mouthpiece for his party, especially if his or her party controls Congress.

I don't think the Dems realized that insurance companies would jack up policy premiums so quickly. And I still don't see any plan on their side to deal with the increased premiums.

[Speaking of unfinished business, we also need better financial regulation--we still have not solved the "too big to fail" problem, which is actually worse than before (all the big banks got even bigger).]

With respect to health care, I remember our president saying that the expanded coverage would be paid for by cutting the fat from programs internally, especially Medicare. I supported that and continue to support anything that will cut long term, unpredictable fiscal obligations. I never heard our president say anything about me paying 10 to 15% increased premiums each year for the past three years.

I recently got a pain in a tooth. I have no dental coverage, b/c individual dental coverage plans are generally worthless. (There aren't enough individuals buying dental insurance to make the plans beneficial or worthy of consideration.) I am going to India soon. I am not sure if I should wait to go to India and get dental care there on my vacation, or just pay up here. I am going to take Advil and see what happens in the meantime. It's a bit astounding to me how our country talks so much about small businesses and entrepreneurs and yet does nothing to assist us except when it comes to retirement plans (like individual 401ks, SEPs, etc).

Rick: I completely share your sentiment re rising cost and lower quality of health and dental insurance. Our president and the Congress need to address the outrageous cost of living, including dental and health insurance costs. It's incredible that US corporations are making record breaking profits while unemployment rate and cost of living continue to rise, and the average American is hurting. And then, there are elected politicians who argue less govt and more tax breaks for the wealthy. Meanwhile our country stands in a mountain full of debt which if not properly addressed will break our back. But hey let's give the wealthy more tax breaks so they can enjoy their yachts, luxury cars, and Tiffany & Co jewels, because the rich can stimulate the economy better than average Americans. And let's deregulate big banks, insurance companies and other large corporations and let them make more profits for their executives while they treat their employees like slaves...advantages of smaller government and less regulations.

Lawyer: this post was never about "smaller government," which is a different discussion. My post was about a poorly conceived healthcare law that has caused my premiums to increase 10 to 15% annually over the last three years, when the Democrats controlled Congress. The Dems passed a healthcare law that was supposed to be paid by cutting spending, not increasing premiums. They apparently did not anticipate insurance companies increasing premiums quickly or did not pass a healthcare law properly drafted to protect the young and middle class.

Insurance companies are a necessary evil that keep healthcare costs in check. Without them, our long-term healthcare costs would be even higher. We ought to have better procedures for contesting denials of care and reimbursement, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that insurance companies prevent healthcare costs from spiraling out of control.

Democrats like to joke that Republicans want older people to die quickly, and the GOP talks about rationing and death panels, but no one is questioning the wisdom of paying billions of dollars annually to give grandma and grandpa an additional 6 months of life and all the morphine they want. How did healthcare costs increase so much in 30 years? Is it b/c we used to let older people and people with terminal illnesses die comfortably instead of doing everything we could to prolong their last six months of life? How did Americans survive 30 years ago without Xanax, Prozac, etc.? Are we a more healthy society than we were 30 years ago?

The medical doctor who helped draft the original healthcare bill knew that healthcare expenses during the last six months of a patient's life were outrageous and needed to be reduced. In other words, the Democrats did in fact try to pass a law rationing medical care, which would have been a significant achievement. But insurance and drug companies quickly realized that the original bill would cut their profits and watered down the legislation using GOP scare tactics of "death panels." Now, instead of paying for universal coverage via spending cuts, people like me, you, your children, and the middle class will be paying for it. And it's b/c Americans were too naive to understand that rationing over the last six months of a patient's life is necessary to control healthcare costs.

Rick: I agree with end result of your proposal, but the way to get there should be better articulated than to cut govt employee salaries or reduce the size of govt agencies. Now, if studies prove wasteful spending in certain areas of govt, then yes they should be cut off. Govt should be here to protect the citizens not to waste their tax money.