A snippet.

For the first time since the elves had come to Caves of Steel, Elara felt content.  She had stripped down to a light tunic, leaving arms and legs bare. A heavy leather apron protected her body from sparks.  Scars on her arms bore mute testimony to many burns from previous forgings.

She reheated the steel in the forge then drew it and began hammering.  Folding, reshaping, she watched as its form shifted. The anguish of the steel’s voice softened, replaced with echoes of relief.  A ladle. The steel wanted very much to be a ladle.

Elara did not know how much time passed before a hand touched her shoulder.

“Highness?  It is time to dress.” Oridan stood at her side.

“But…” Elara blinked sweat away from her eyes.  She found a rag and wiped it over her face.

“It is time and past time.” Oridan held a hand out toward the door of the smithy. “You must dress for the reception.”

Oridan scowled and shook his head. “And before that, you must bathe.  You cannot greet our guests covered in soot and the smell of ash.”

“Fire and ash is a clean smell,” Elara said, “an honest smell.”

Oridan shrugged. “As you wish, Highness.  It is, nevertheless, an inappropriate smell for nobles and dignitaries of those with whom we hope to ally.”

Elara sighed and picked the half-formed ladle up with tongs.  She dunked it into the quenching trough. Steam rose from the water.  After the water stopped bubbling she continued to hold the ladle in the water to cool it enough to touch.  Once she was satisfied that it had cooled enough she withdrew it and took it into her hand. She hung the tongs on their hook by the forge.

Oridan glanced down at the partially-finished ladle in Elara’s hand. “You don’t need to…”

“It is mine,” Elara said. “I will not have the steel-deaf smith trying to turn it into something for which the steel is unsuited.  If I cannot be happy myself, I can at least make the steel happy.”

Oridan sighed. “As you wish, Highness.” He held out a hand. “This way.”

“I know the way to my rooms, Oridan.”

“Highness…”

Elara shook her head and pushed past him.  Oridan fell in at her side. As she left the smithy the two guards, who had at least had the courtesy to wait outside while she worked, joined them.

Guards, Elara thought, to protect her.  They served as well to keep her imprisoned in this place.

“Prince Farian of Lariendel will be first at the reception tonight.  He is the second son of King Torien.”

Elara started.  She had not noted Oridan talking.

“Prince Farian,” Elara said. “Lariendel.  And they are?”

“They are seafarers.  Their ships are the swiftest on the Easterern Sea.  They deal in fish and fish oils. They also make pearl jewelry of surpassing loveliness.”

Elara nodded.

“After Prince Farian, you will greet Lord Emborian, of the Dragon Isles.  He is the third son of Reigning Duke Valles.”

“Another seafaring nation?” Elara tried to keep the sneer from her voice.

“Of necessity.  They are an island nation.  Mostly, they mine gems on the flanks of their islands.  They are not skilled jewelers, so they sell the gems to others for crafting.”

“Colored stones.” Elara rolled her eyes. “Third son.  Second son. This is who they send to the Greenwood’s court?”

Oridan shrugged. “They are unlikely to inherit their father’s lands, but marriage with one will cement an alliance which can strengthen us in our wars with the orcs.”

Elara pressed her lips together to forestall the words that sprang to her lips.  After a moment, she felt safe to speak. “Continue.”

Oridan droned on, naming the various guests to the reception.

“Finally, there is Corden.” Oridan stopped at the door to Elara’s suite of rooms. “First son of Boredan, Lord of Thorgrim’s Reach.  It is a small land south of here.”

The disgust in Oridan’s tone caused Elara to pause and look up at him.

“You do not like this Corden?”

“Thorgrim’s Reach has refused our offers of protection against the orcs.  They prefer to remain, as they call it, neutral.”

“They don’t want to be involved in our wars?  Perhaps that is wise of them.”

“You cannot trust orcs,” Oridan said. “They will pretend to honor any treaties or any professions of neutrality, and then strike when it suits them.  Thorgrim’s Reach may be a small land but it’s rich, with fertile fields and productive mines of ore. Once the orcs take it they will be that much stronger.”

“I see, Regent.  Thank you. I must now prepare.  You will send an escort to the reception at the appropriate time?”

Oridan bowed. “As my queen commands.”

Elara nodded, then backed through the door.  Once the door closed on Oridan and the two guards she sighed.

“Your queen?  Your prisoner, you mean.”

“Highness?”

Elara turned to see elf maid, Tanya, who posed as her chief servant standing, wringing her hands.  Elara forced a smile.

“Forgive me my…frustrations.”

Tanya curtsied. “There is nothing to forgive, Highness.  How may I serve you?”

Elara sighed again. “I must prepare for this reception so…”

“A bath has been drawn.  If Your Highness will come this way?”

Elara smiled. “Of course, Tanya.”

Elara followed Tanya deeper into the suite.  As they passed through the bedroom Elara paused a moment to caress the hilt of the orc sword racked across the headboard of her bed.  She had forged that sword, her first, and gifted it to Buck Tooth in token of her devotion.

Elara fought back the tears.  Buck Tooth was dead, as were all the other orcs of Caves of Steel Clan.  This sword was all she could carry away, all the elves had let her carry away.

Tanya stood watching Elara.  When her eyes met Elara’s she bowed her head.

“Highness?  Are you well?”

“It is nothing, Tanya.  Please, lead on.”

Tanya bowed and opened the door to the bathing room.  Two other maids emerged from the room and approached Elara.

Standing compliant, her face schooled to expressionlessness, Elara allowed Tanya and the two other maids to undress her.  She frowned as one of the maids, a new one she had not seen before, tut tutted over Elara’s waist. Although Elara did not have the stoutness of a hard working, and therefore well-fed orc, these elves seemed to prefer reed thinness.  The other maid, Berani by name, wore her habitual scowl as she considered the thick cords of muscle that roped Elara’s arms and shoulders, the result of long hours over the forge in addition to drilling with orc weapons.

Only Tanya seemed unmoved by Elara’s failure to meet elf standards of beauty.

Steaming hot water filled the bathing pool.  Elara entered and sat on the carved marble bench.  Her maids once more converged on her. They washed body her with perfumed soap that stung in the fresh burns that sparks from the forge had left on her arms.  More perfumed soaps and fragrant oils anointed her hair.

As last, Elara emerged from the bath and the maids dried her with soft towels.

Not content with simply bathing her, Elara’s maids began the process of dressing her for the reception.  She gasped as Berani placed a wide strip of heavy cloth around Elara’s waist and began cinching up the laces.

“I can’t breathe,” Elara ground out through clenched teeth.

“If you can speak, you can breathe,” Berani said. “Many people of import will be present.  You must be presentable.”

“I…can’t…breathe.” Elara reached for the laces but Berani smacked her hand away.

“Now, now, Highness.  Propriety must be observed.” Berani gave the laces one final tug, then deftly tied them off.

With the tugging finished, Elara found that she could indeed breathe, albeit only shallowly from the very top of her chest.

Tanya held a long, split skirt for her of rich green fabric.  At least Elara would be able to walk in that and the elves did not appear to mind how much of her leg and thigh showed when she walked thus.

The new maid held a tunic of slightly lighter green, one with puffed sleeves, perhaps designed to disguise the shape of Elara’s arms and shoulders.  Elaborate embroidery of gold thread, highlighted with tiny multi-colored gemstones decorated both skirt and tunic. So attired, no one would doubt that she was a person of wealth and importance.

Elara allowed first Tanya, then the new maid to help her into her clothes.

As the new maid adjusted the hem of Elara’s tunic, Elara looked down at her.

“Your name?”

“Shirabeth, if you please, Your Highness.”

“I suppose that is your name whether I please or not.” Elara gritted her teeth then nodded once. “Thank you.”

As Berani started to approach with the next part of Elara’s attire, Elara held up a hand to forestall her.  She looked Shirabeth up and down.

“Shirabeth?  That is not an elvish name.  And there is something different about you.”

“My mother was human.” Shirabeth ducked her head, as though in shame. “As a half, I was able to choose which heritage to follow.  I chose elf but my father’s kin would have naught to do with me. So…”

“A lady in waiting to the queen is a position of high honor,” Tanya said by way of explanation. “Even without the support of family, she should be able to make a good marriage in time.”

“I see.” Elara shook her head.  The ways of elves were so strange.  It was like they were all wrapped about in chains, chains they could not see, chains they did not even know bound them.  She let the thought slide from her mind as Tanya made final adjustments to the fall of Elara’s tunic.

Once the skirt and tunic settled over Elara’s frame to suit her three maids, Berani produced a long silk scarf of brilliant scarlet and began to wind it around Elara’s waist.  This, at least, Berani did not pull tightly, not like the torture device Elara wore under the tunic. Berani knotted the scarf over Elara’s left hip allowing the two ends to hang down over the slit in the skirt.

While Berani worked on the scarf, Shirabeth took a brush to Elara’s hair.  Elara had kept her hair short in the caves. Long hair could be a hazard working with steel.  She had not been among the elves long enough for her hair to grow much. Shirabeth sighed in frustration as Elara’s hair refused to conform to her dictates, forming instead a halo around Elara’s head.

“Let it be, Shirabeth.” Tanya approached holding something in her hands that Elara could not see.

“But–” Shirabeth gave the brush one more tug in Elara’s hair. “–the fashion is…”

Tanya laughed. “She is the queen.  If she wears her hair in a cloud about her head, then that will be the fashion.  Do not doubt it.”

Elara gritted her teeth.  Fashion? Strong arms and a spirit willing to work, that was what mattered, not this colored drapery.

Tanya knelt at Elara’s feet and slipped the object in her hand into the silk sash about Elara’s waist.

“This, too, is not fashion,” Tanya said. “But it suits you in its way.”

Elara looked down at what Tanya had given her.  A dagger, a little one scarce more than a toy. Silver sheath, hilts and grip encrusted with tiny gems that sparkled in all the colors of the rainbow.  Elara took the grip in hand and slowly drew forth the blade.

Steel.  Good steel.  More, steel that was happy to be a blade.  Elara did not know if mere chance produced that result or if someone among the elves could hear the voice of the steel.  She did not think so. The Shaman had told her, many times, that steel was the gift of orcs and of dwarfs. Magic was given to elves.  And to humans were given numbers; they were so very many.

“Thank you,” Elara said, then caught herself before more words could tumble unbidden from her lips.  These three were the enemy. They were elves, the people who had destroyed her home and family. They would die, along with all the others…

…when the time was right.

On This Date: The Fall of the Berlin Wall.

25-BerlinWall-AFPGetty-v2

Thirty years ago today, the Berlin Wall finally came down heralding the then approaching reunification of Germany.

In the final days of World War 2, Soviet troops had swept through eastern Germany before meeting eastward marching forces of the other allied powers leading to the final defeat of Germany.  Italy had already fallen in 1943.  Japan would continue a few months longer, finally surrendering in September of 1945.

Prior to the final defeat of Germany, in the Yalta conference, the major allied powers agreed to divide up the responsibility for occupying Germany into various sectors, each allied power having responsibility for a sector (or two, smaller sectors, in the case of France).  The Soviet occupation zone would eventually become East Germany, with the others becoming West Germany.

Post war, the Soviet occupied areas of Europe cut off most contact with the West, closing their borders and sharply restricting visitation, immigration, emigration, and trade.  this closing was described as an “iron curtain” across the border between Soviet occupied Europe and the West.

Berlin, the capital of Germany, lay deep within the Soviet occupation area.  It, too, was divided, with railways and air travel providing access to the Western zones of the city.  In 1948, in an effort to drive the Western occupation out of West Berlin, the Soviet Union blockaded the city and closed off the railways.  All that was left was air for resupply.  This lead to the famous Berlin Airlift, a prodigious logistic effort bringing necessary supplies into the city.  In the end the Airlift was successful and the Soviets called off the blockade in 1949.

In the late 50’s and into the beginning of the 60’s the stream of refugees fleeing Soviet occupied Germany to the West through West Berlin reached epic proportions, with In June of 1961 some 19,000 people fled East Germany though Berlin.  In July, that number was 30,000.  In the first 11 days of August 16,000 people fled.  And on August 12 alone 2400 people crossed from East to West Berlin never to return.  All told, more than three million people fled East Germany, many of them skilled professionals such as doctors, teachers, and engineers.

This flow of emigrants, particularly among the educated and skilled portion of the populace, was unacceptable to Soviet Leadership.  Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev instructed the East German government (nominally an independent nation, but truthfully under the control of the Soviet Union) to close off the border for good.  They hastily set up a barbed wire and concrete block wall to close off East Berlin from the West.

Before the wall was built, travel between the two sections of the city was relatively free.  People might reside in one and be citizens of East or West Germany but they could shop or work in the other.

The wall ended that.  Once it went up, commerce between East and West Berlin almost completely halted.  Crossing of the border between the two only occurred in special circumstances.

And thus things continued for nearly three decades.  John F. Kennedy made his famous “I am a Berliner” speech but, in the end, proved to be impotent in forcing any change.

People still sought to flee from the deteriorating conditions in East Germany to the West, but now that flight was wrought with hazard.  Some few made it–about 5000 from 1961 until the wall fell in 1989.  Some died–at least 171 killed in the attempt.  But many more were deterred by the hazards presented by the wall and its guards as witness that more than three times as many people who left East Germany in those first 11 days of August 1961 as in the entire 27 years of the wall’s existence.

In time, the struggle of the Soviet Union to compete with Western economies with their freer trade and the greater responsiveness to consumer demand, led the new Premier of the Soviet Union to institute Perestroika (“change”) and Glasnost (“openness”).  Attempted to shore up the Soviet Union’s socialism, these programs, instead provided its death knell.  The process of rolling back socialism could not, in the end, be stopped and led first to the various satellite nations shaking off Soviet control and finally in the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

One of the results of that breakup was East Germany divesting itself of ties to the Soviet Union–faced with more internal problems than dealing with a recalcitrant former satellite–and tying itself more closely with its sundered brother, West Germany.  And this led, in the end, to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.  The reunification of East and West Germany into a single state of Germany followed soon after.

A whole generation and more has grown up since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Many of this younger generation has seemingly forgotten, or never learned, of the horrors that drove people to flee the socialist state of East Germany in such numbers as to drive their political masters to build a wall to keep the people in.  The guns guarding that wall were not pointed out to defend against invaders, but in, to defend against escape–a prison rather than a fortress.

And this younger generation seems bent on creating here, in the United States, not the wall itself but the conditions that led to its construction, with guns pointing in to keep people from escaping.  They can tell themselves that this time they’ll “do socialism right” but that is no more than hubris, pure and simple.  Because in the end The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.

“Never let a man stir on his road a step…” A Blast from the Past

…without his weapons of war
for unsure is the knowing when need shall arise
of a spear on the way without.

havamal

Thus said Odin to all who would heed.  The world is a dangerous place, full of predators, and while most no longer need fear those that walk on four legs, in there place we have many who walk on two.

Even the so called Prince of Peace said:

Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. (Luke 22:36)

(Yes, other translations say “cloak” but I like the King James Version and the implication that it is better to be naked than unarmed.)

The truth is, it is a dangerous world, full of predators both two legged and four.  While most people don’t consider wolves and bears and such a major threat in the modern world, I can note that I have seen coyotes in Indianapolis.  These are not generally a threat to adults, but can be to pets and small children.  In similar vein there are plenty of stray (“feral”) dogs which, while usually more timid than aggressive can still sometimes prove a threat.

There have also been both unconfirmed and a few confirmed (game cameras catching them) sightings of cougars in Indiana.  The Department of Natural Resources states that these are generally transient males “just passing through”.  There are no breeding populations in the State.

Yet.

But while the risk of four-footed predators is small for most people.  The risk of those on two feet is a different matter entirely.

Generally speaking violent crime rates are down.  This is a good thing.  But “down” is not the same as “no longer an issue”.

According to crime statistics reported by the FBI for 2016, there is approximately one violent crime (Aggravated Assault, Robbery, Rape, Murder) per every 300 people in the US.  In other words an individual’s chances of being the victim of one of these crimes is, on average about 0.3% for the year.

Sounds pretty safe, doesn’t it?

However, when you consider that over a lifetime, the impression changes.  The lifetime likelihood of being a victim of a an attempted or completed violent crime, according to a Department of Justice study, was 83%.  In about half of those cases the attempted crime would actually be completed.

I should note that things are better than this study reports:  The annual crime rates are down from those used in the lifetime likelihood of victimization study.  A quick run of the numbers suggests that the probabilities are about half what they were when the study was done.  That means that one is only, assuming current rates continue, 41% likely to be the victim of an attempted or completed violent crime.

Only.

You have to ask yourself:  are you willing to bet your life and safety on 40%?  If you are, well, it’s your life and your call to make, I suppose.  I’m not.  Because, when it happens, there’s just me.  The police?  If the police were there, most likely the violent criminal would not engage in his violent crime, choosing instead another place and time.  And until the police do arrive, there is just me.  Even the police admit that:

(Show them the phone?  Really?)

40% sometime in my life?  The odds of something happening today are minuscule.  The odds of something tomorrow, or any other given day, similarly so.  But add those days together and the odds start creeping up.  And I don’t know which, if any, of them will be “the one”.  After all, if I did, I’d simply avoid the situation of that day.

Those of us who do not go out looking for trouble do not know when it might find us on its own.  And so, as Odin would no doubt say in the modern world:

Never let a man stir on his road a step
without his weapons of self defense
for unsure is the knowing when need shall arise
of a gun on the way without.

Feeding the Active Writer: Low Carb Cream of Chicken Soup

Most soups use entirely too much starchy stuff for my taste–noodles, rice, potatoes, what have you.  I’ve done some variations, sometimes using Xantham gum rather than cornstarch of flour as a thickener.  This one worked well.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb cooked chicken, diced
  • 2 quarts chicken broth
  • 5 cups water
  • 2 cups mozzarella Cheese, shredded
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 tbsp xantham gum
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 2 tbsp ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp dried parsley flakes
  • 1 tbsp thyme
  • salt to taste

Add all the ingredients into a 5 quart slow cooker.  I like to put the chicken in first, then sprinkle the xantham gum over it, then follow with the other ingredients.  This helps keep the xantham gum from clumping.  All of the seasoning amounts are approximate and basically “to taste”.

Cook on low for 4-6 hours.  Stir.

Makes 15 cups.

One cup has:

  • 14.5 grams fat
  • 1.5 grams net carbs
  • 10.5 grams protein

I use 3 cups as a very hearty lunch.  It keeps reasonably well in the refrigerator and keeps well.  I haven’t tried freezing, but I suspect it wouln’t present any problems there either.

Enjoy.

 

Taxation vs. Theft

uncle_sam-greedy

A common theme among folk of a libertarian bent is “Taxation is theft.”  “But…but…but…” others reply, “no it isn’t.”

Well, they’re right.  Technically, it’s extortion.  The government doesn’t sneak into your house when you’re not home and grab money from your dresser.  No, instead they say “Nice little freedom you have there.  Be a shame if something happened to it.” and so you pay (or your employer in the case of withholding).

A lot of political argument comes from people trying to argue that, no, taxation really isn’t theft (or extortion).  It’s taking money from someone with or without their consent but because a bunch of people got together and decided to give a smaller group the power to make those decisions is someone magically does not become theft (extortion–and going forward, I think I’ll just say “theft”.  You folk know what I mean by now.) They’ll follow that with all sorts of things that we need the money for.  Defense.  Police.  Fire fighting.  And the ever popular “Muh roads.”

And part of that argument is actually valid.  We do need funds for certain minimum functions that allow society to function.  And yes, even for roads. And not all of those things are well managed by a market of voluntary exchanges with prices determined by supply and demand.  (Note:  roads will be built even in the absence of government.  But since part of the benefit is external–many of the folk who benefit from the road are not party to the transaction in its construction–there would be fewer than the actual demand would call for.)

This, however, is not an argument that taxation is not theft.  And the circular argument that the law demands taxation therefore making it not-theft is no better.  I’ve discussed before how “government does it” does not make something right and rights, which here I include property rights, must exist independent of government or the concept becomes meaningless.  So, it’s not an argument that taxation is not theft but perhaps it’s an argument that theft is sometimes necessary.

And that is the key, right there.  Taxation is theft and, thus, the bar on what should be funded by taxes is high indeed.  It needs to be high enough to justify that theft.

Thus, “they have more than I think they should” is not a valid argument for taking from them via taxes.  So long as they obtained what they have by voluntary exchanges without use of actual force or outright fraud (and both of those would be matters for the law and the courts themselves), then it’s their money and you have no claim on it.

Thus, “but I want it” is not a valid argument for taking from them via taxes.  I want a vintage GT40 too but that wouldn’t justify stealing one.

Thus, “but…the poor” is not a valid argument for taking from others via taxes.  Again, if they got that money via voluntary transactions without use of actual force or outright fraud, then they’ve probably done more to help “the poor” (by employing them or providing goods and services to them) than the tax money ever will.

Here’s a test you can try:  if someone “needed” money desperately for some reason and stole it from you for that purpose, would you be inclined to let it slide?  Would you be “lock him up!” or more “yeah, okay, I can see it.” Be honest.  This might require considerable self-reflection and perhaps more self-awareness than many people have.

But if you wouldn’t be okay with someone stealing from you for that purpose, then how in the world can you justify stealing from someone else for the same purpose.  If you do, then you’re a thief, pure and simple.

And in that I include every single one of you who supports taxes on the promise that someone else will have to pay them.

 

The Mental Health “Crisis”.

cuckoo's nest

Many years ago (but not so many that I don’t remember that time) a standard method of treating many of the mentally ill in the United States was by committing them to institutions–mental hospitals, sanitariums, psychiatric wards, and so forth.

I do remember one in Ohio because a church group I was with went Christmas Caroling there one year.

However, certain factors conspired to bring that practice into disrepute.  Movies such as One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest played a big roll.  But the true nail in the coffin of the practice was a study by Stanford Scientist David Rosenhan.

In this study, Rosenhan reported the results of having volunteers present themselves for examination by doctors and report certain symptoms, specifically that they heard voices that said “Thud, empty, hollow.” As a result of this all of the volunteers were diagnosed with mental illness, mostly schizophrenia.

Therein followed descriptions of the terrible conditions of mental health institutions, including that the patients eventually had to leave the institutions “against medical advice” i.e. that they were not considered well enough for release–even though they weren’t mentally ill in the first place but simply reporting specific symptoms as part of the investigation.

This study was very damning of the mental health field in general and in-patient care in particular.

The problem is that it was bad science from beginning to end.

The first of the “patients” in the study was clearly Rosenham himself.  And hospital records show that his actions did not match those claimed in his paper.  Far from simply reporting hearing voices that said “thud, empty, hollow” he had put a copper pot over his head to drown out the voices and that he had been feeling suicidal.  These are clearly more severe and more concerning issues than the simple “thud, empty, hollow.” Indeed, one form of auditory hallucinations–auditory hypnogogic hallucinations, that is hearing sounds and voices just before falling asleep–affects between 1/4 and 1/3 of the population at some time and is really nothing to worry about (although the late Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, according to his biography, talked about those at a psych eval at a draft exam not long after WWII and was disqualified from service).

Then there was the case of Harry Lando, one of the subject participants who, far from experiencing the horrid conditions that were the theme of Rosenham’s piece, instead reported a quite positive experience.  Instead of incorporating Mr. Lando’s experience and attempting to assess the range of experiences folk had, Mr. Lando was dropped from the study.  One has to wonder how many others were “dropped” in the interest of presenting Mr. Rosenham’s desired result.

Misrepresentation of the initial conditions and exclusion of data that does not fit a particular outcome are hallmarks of polemic attempting to masquerade as science.  Unfortunately, it was very successful, particularly when combined with movies like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  This led to a backlash against institutionalizing mentally ill individuals and was one of the motivators between attempting to “mainstream” mental patients into general society.  In particular, involuntary commitment became much more difficult to such an extent that when Reagan “closed the mental hospitals” it was simply because they were largely empty.

Were there problems with in-patient mental health care in the US?  Of course there were.  But by misstating the circumstances that led to in-patient care–suggesting that many, if not most, were in such care for minor issues that really did not justify hospitalization–and excluding more positive experiences in care, Rosenham’s “study” did not provide fodder for an evaluation of the system seeking improvement of the diagnosis process leading to hospitalization and improvement of the conditions of hospitals.  Instead, it was an excoriation of the system from top to bottom, an excoriation from which it still has not recovered.  This is very much a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

And, as a result, we have various other “crises”:  the homelessness crisis where many street people have issues where they should be hospitalized, the drug addiction crisis where many are either driven by mental health issues or attempts to self-medicate, and various crises involving crime (one should note that this was all part of the general rise in crime during the 70’s 80’s and early 90’s).  And before anyone objects, no, most folk with mental health issues are neither homeless, nor drug users, nor otherwise criminals.  Those who are, however, are those who should be hospitalized for their own sake and for the sake of society.

This is just one example of the damage that bad science can do when it becomes a driver for public policy.

 

 

“Saving Jobs”

supermansqaure

A perennial issue in politics on economic subjects is the idea of “saving jobs.” We need, we are told, to protect American jobs.  And most people nod their heads and agree.  After all, it’s hard on people losing their jobs to foreign competition or to folk coming in who are willing to work for less.  Disagreeing is considered heartless.

Well, at the risk of being considered heartless I’m going to say it up front:  not all jobs should be saved nor should they guarantee a certain level of remuneration if lower cost alternatives become available.

Part of this is our old friend the Fallacy of Composition, the belief that if something is good for a part (the industry in which jobs are saved) that it must be good for the whole (the economy in general) as well.  The example Thomas Sowell likes to use is being a spectator at a sporting event.  You can see better if you stand up.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone will see better if everyone stands up.  When you stand up, yes, you see better.  But in so doing you’re blocking someone else’s view.  And when everybody does it the blocking cancels out the improved views.  It’s all about the same, just…everybody’s now on their feet instead of seated.

Change, and that includes beneficial change such as economic growth, means displacement of some.  Jobs are lost in one sector and if looked at in isolation that’s a bad thing.  But it’s balanced by jobs being created in other sectors.  Consider the following comparison of jobs in the American economy in 1910 vs 2015 (a 105 year interval):

Nonfarm employment, by major industry, 1910 and 2015, using 1910 industry classifications
Industry 1910 2015
   Employment Percent of total    Employment Percent of total
Forestry and fisheries(1) 250,000 1.0 52,000 0.0
Mining 1,050,000 4.1 767,700 0.5
Manufacturing 8,230,000 32.4 12,317,000 8.7
Construction 2,300,000 9.1 6,446,000 4.5
Transportation and public utilities 3,190,000 12.6 5,403,500 3.8
Wholesale and retail trade(2) 3,370,000 13.3 32,560,700 23.0
Finance and real estate 520,000 2.0 8,124,000 5.7
Educational services 900,000 3.5 13,723,900 9.7
Other professional services(3) 770,000 3.0 41,011,800 28.9
Domestic service 2,150,000 8.5
Personal service(4) 1,520,000 6.0 1,402,100 1.0
Government not elsewhere classified(5) 540,000 2.1 11,747,800 8.3
Other(6) 600,000 2.3 8,306,500 5.9
Footnotes:
(1) For 2015, logging employment.(2) For 2015, food services and drinking places have been included in the “wholesale and retail trade” category.(3) For 2015, the “other professional services” category includes information services, professional and business services, and health care and social assistance.

(4) For 2015, the “personal service” category is personal and laundry services.

(5) The 1910 data source is not completely clear, but it appears that the 1910 government employment number does not include employment at government-owned educational establishments such as public schools and universities. To improve comparability, the 2015 government number is the sum of federal government, state government excluding education, and local government excluding education. State and local government education employment is included in educational services.

(6) For 2015, the “other” category includes leisure and hospitality (except for food services and drinking places), repair and maintenance, and membership associations and organizations.

Note: Data for 1910 are from Historical statistics of the United States, colonial times to 1957, series D 57–71 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1960), p. 74. These data are based on monographs (see pp. 68–69) that were prepared mainly with data from the decennial censuses and are not strictly comparable with the 2015 data series. Data for 2015 are preliminary 2015 annual average estimates from the establishment survey (Current Employment Statistics survey) of employees on nonfarm payrolls.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau.

Farm labor is a little harder to figure since family members generally work without being counted as “employees”.  To give an idea, though, in 1905 about 31 million of the nation’s 76 and a fraction million people lived on farms.  In recent years, something like 5 million of America’s more than 300 million people work in agriculture.

Many jobs in many sectors have been “lost” over the years.  that does not mean that we need to go back to those earlier times and bring those specific jobs back.  The jobs were “lost” as part of the process of economic growth.

Imagine if we’d “protected” farm jobs to the extent that the same fraction of people were working farms now as were in 1905.  Nearly half the country would be working farms.  But that means that far fewer people would be available to make cars, program computers, operate and manage computer networks, provide online shopping services, build and install air conditioners, perform medical research, and the million and one other things that makes life more comfortable, secure, and generally pleasant in 2019 than it was in 1910.

There is, however, one way in which jobs can be “protected” that is valid and that does not fall into the fallacy of composition:  reducing the tax and regulatory burden on employers.  When I was a teen there was a plan outlined by some of our local politicians to help certain industries remain competitive by giving them tax breaks and reduce some of the costly regulations which render it more difficult for businesses to operate and grow.  These costs make it more difficult to hire people (since money that could go into attractive salaries is being bled away by taxes and cost of regulatory compliance).  They makes the business less profitable and thus less appealing to investors.  Businesses located elsewhere not facing those costs (in other States with more favorable tax structures or even overseas) could outcompete them.  By giving these “disadvantaged firms” a break, they could remain competitive providing employment and benefiting the economy.

Even as a teen I saw the mistake in that.

You see, unlike the stadium example, where one person standing up blocks the view of someone else, giving those firms the “advantage” of lowered taxes and reduced regulatory burden does not itself disadvantage others.  They already have the disadvantage of higher taxes and regulatory burden.  If, in fact, you reduced the taxes and regulatory burden on everybody then everybody would “see better” (in the analogy).  The result would be more jobs and a larger, stronger economy.

If you want to “save jobs” in a way that helps the economy, rather than stifles it, then don’t put extra taxes on the folk who are out-competing the businesses you want to “save.” Instead cut taxes on the jobs you want to save.

And since cutting taxes on business is a good thing if you want more business (and the jobs and goods and services in the economy that go with it), then why not go ahead and cut taxes on all the businesses and “save” even more jobs as the economy booms.  And if you reduce the regulatory burden as well, not only do you reduce the compliance cost of the businesses, you also can get rid of much of the enforcement costs on the government side, thereby reducing the need for tax revenue to pay for it, and freeing up those people to do economically productive work.

It’s a win for everybody.

Conspiracy Theories?

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I’m not usually one to go in for conspiracy theories but, well, this was remarkable.

Okay, not just “remarkable.” This is scary. I was talking with Athena in the car about how maybe I should get a trenchcoat to wear with a fedora (not a Trilby bit a proper fedora). This was a face to face conversation, nothing online.  My phone was present and being used to play music through the car’s sound system.  I haven’t searched for either item online, neither through search engine nor at vendors such as Amazon. Closest I’ve come is a recent order of a tailcoat (what appears to be a nice velvet tailcoat that’s scheduled to arrive tomorrow).

So I’m scrolling through my FB feed and I’m seeing ads for trench coats.

I’m not big on conspiracy theories, anyone who follows me should know that, but, I mean, damn. I’m used to seeing ads for things I’ve searched for.  I mean, that’s one of the things “cookies” does–keep a record of searches you’ve made that vendors can use for targeted ads.  I don’t even mind that, really.  Getting ads for things I’m actually interested in is, frankly, a benefit.  Of course, sometimes when I, say, purchase a new valve for my toilet Amazon apparently thinks I am now starting a collection of toilet valves because they keep trying to sell me more.

Still, this trenchcoat thing is a remarkable coincidence if coincidence it is.

If it’s not coincidence (and other folk reporting similar things suggest that it’s not) it’s a remarkable display of technology.  First, the easy part is the microphone on the phone has to be active (with voice activated things like Siri or Google Assistant, this can be taken as given) and communicating with the remote server.  Then, speech recognition has to be working being able to find contextual clues to tell that not only that I’ve mentioned trenchcoats, but that it was in a context of buying one.  There are lots of things that I mention every day with my phone nearby that don’t show up in ads.

I wouldn’t exactly all that artificial intelligence, but it’s a pretty good expert system to be able to essentially nail that there was something I was looking to buy and provide me with the correct targeted ads offering it.

Now, as a means of pairing up stuff people want to sell with people who want to buy that stuff that’s a pretty positive thing.  But… What else could this ability be used for?  What else is it being used for.  Who has access to that information and to what extend are they putting in their own “look for this” stuff?

The potential is there for enormous abuse.  Unfortunately, I really don’t know how to possibly fix that aside from, well, if you don’t want things you say to be publicly accessible, don’t say them within “earshot” of any phone or network connected computer which has a microphone.  Ditto for cameras.

The truth is out there.  The truth is really, really out there.

My Favorite Videos, a Musical Interlude

A good song, is a good song.  But when it’s paired with an exceptional video you can really make magic happen.

This first one is literally the first music video I ever saw.  The time was back in 1981.  MTV was just starting out and, yes, the “M” actually stands for “Music” and they played music and music videos.  We happened to have cable in the dorm where I was assigned for tech training in the Air Force and MTV was part of the package.  So this one gets extra points for nostalgia:

 

I encountered this one when I was home on leave (no cable where I was stationed).  The wistful nature of the video clips interspersed within the song intertwined with things that were going on in my life (or rather not going on in my life if you know what I mean) and so this one also gets a lot of nostalgia points:

 

Another “leave time” encounter.  This one was one of the first music videos I saw that actually told a story.  It was, in effect, a movie short.  And it really changed the face of Music Video to come, setting a new standard.  It was also when Michael Jackson was at his peak before he started getting…strange.

For some time I was assigned where there was no MTV and I had essentially no TV reception, so it was some years before I could check back in.  An then there was this one.  I really liked the concept and the early use of computer animation.:

 

Later there was this one from Robert Palmer.  At the time I thought it was hot. I still find it pleasantly steamy:

 

This one was actually released quite a bit earlier than the two above but I only encountered it later (perhaps on VH1–Video Hits 1–rather than MTV).  Loved the “story” in the video.  This song also was in large part responsible for breaking me out of the musical rut I was in.  I had largely listened mostly to “soft rock”, ballads, and pop(ish) stuff.  I had far to go yet in my musical awakening but this song set me on the path:

 

And now some stuff from more recent times.  In this one I’d heard the song long before I saw the video.  The song came across as a love affair gone sour (or perhaps had always been sour but the singer was losing her illusions about it).  The video gives it a different slant and does so brilliantly.  Both interpretations work.  Again, this one fit what was going on at the time.

 

I’ve been told “many, you’ve suffered trauma after trauma after trauma in your life.” Perhaps.  I’m lucky in that I don’t suffer PTSD from that.  I’ve got other problems, but not that one.  Still, other folk I know do.  That gives me a perspective to really appreciate the video here:

 

This is a fan video combining clips from various video games, but it is so very well done and so fitting that I just had to include it.  You can also see how far computer graphics have come since the Dire Straights video above.

 

And, to close out, as one of the various “others” referred to in this one, I had to include it as well:

 

And there we are, a few of my favorite music videos as videos (as opposed to just the songs).  Hope you enjoyed them as much as I did.

If You Give a Man a Fish: A Blast from the Past

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If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, the old saw goes.  And if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

As someone who has come home empty handed often enough from a day of fishing, I’m not so sure it quite works that way, but it’s close enough to be a reasonable metaphor.

Benjamin Franklin put it this way: “I am for doing good to the poor, but…I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed…that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”

The truth is, there are some people–not everyone, perhaps not even most, but some–who, if you provide them enough for even a basic living without their having to earn it, will accept that and make no attempt to improve their lot through their own efforts.  Oh, they may complain about how hard they have it, but that complaint doesn’t motivate them to go work their way out of their situation.  If anything, it’s intended to influence you to provide more of that “basic living” they’re not having to work for.

This is not to say that there aren’t people who legitimately cannot provide for themselves but how often is that really the case?

The problem is two-fold.  Three-fold, actually.  The first is the “making them easy in poverty”.  Yeah, I can hear the howls now of how hard the poor have it.  Want to try again?  I grew up with an outhouse–having to go outside in the dead of winter to an unheated, drafty wooden building to do my business through a hole in a board.  A wood stove heated the kitchen.  Steam radiators heated the rest of the house.  Air conditioning?  What’s that?  I packed sandwiches for my lunch at school because we couldn’t afford the hot lunch.  We did have electricity–when it worked.  And we weren’t even particularly poor.  So, please, tell me again how “hard” most of the “poor” in the US have it today.   I can use the laugh.

And, no, I don’t begrudge the poor having a better life than I did.  That’s progress.  But, dammit, is it too much to ask that they appreciate what they have?  Apparently so.  Somebody else has more and that’s just too much to bear.

The second and thirds problems are closely related.  The second is that sometimes you just have more people than jobs, at least jobs that one could make a living at.  And the third is mismatch of skills required for the jobs available and skills people seeking work possess.  It doesn’t matter how great a typist you are if the job requires a welder.

So what to do?

First thing, impose the old dictate “if any of you would not work, neither shall he eat.” (And before you start “but what about…” note that word “would”.  It’s a matter of will, not ability.  If a person truly is incapable of doing anything of value that would qualify as work, then that’s a separate story.  But how many of those are there really?)

Personally, I’d like to see government welfare done away with entirely and let helping those who can’t work, or those who’ve temporarily fallen on hard times, devolve to private, mostly local charities.  I realize that such changes do not happen in an instant without causing their own problems.  Still, there’s a lot that can be done to move in that direction and the most important is a work requirement for anybody drawing any kind of government assistance.  Take away the incentive not to work to get off welfare.  You can work for your government assistance or you can work for your own money, but you’re going to work.

A related issue is that even for a person who, for whatever reason got on government assistance and now wants to get off it, can find the prospect daunting.  You find a job that pays more than that welfare check, well, and good, but now you also lose SNAP, oh, and while before you could stay home with the children, now you need to find daycare.  That costs money.  You’re actually worse off than you started.  Another perverse incentive.  Some people will push through that anyway but not everyone will.  And if our goal is to get people off welfare and on their own feet then shouldn’t the incentives work that way?  Say, reduce their total benefits from all sources one dollar for every two dollars they earn?

But in addition to removing the incentives for people to remain on welfare, we need the other side:  to make sure that there are jobs for them to take.  And to do that there’s one thing that so many people have trouble wrapping their heads around.

We.  Need.  A.  Political.  Climate.  Favorable.  To.  Business.

Whether it’s small businesses and people employing themselves, or big businesses employing thousands or even in some cases millions, businesses provide jobs.  Politicians do not provide jobs.  Governments do not provide jobs (except the jobs of government).  Businesses provide jobs.  And basic laws of economics apply.  If you make it more expensive for businesses to hire people, they will hire fewer people, or they will go where it isn’t so expensive (like, say, overseas).  If you cut off their ability to go where it isn’t so expensive, then foreign firms will take advantage of that opportunity to undercut our own businesses.  If you try to use tariffs or other trade restrictions to try to penalize the foreign companies in favor of our own, then they respond in kind and, again, our people suffer.

“But, but…big Megacorporation makes billions in profits!” And has trillions in sales.  The profits are a small fraction of the total amount of the business.  Most of that money goes to people working for the company, or people working for suppliers to the company.  Oh, and much of that profit is paid out to things like pension funds and retirement accounts that invest in things like big Megacorporation, not just to millionaires and billionaires.

“But, but…CEO compensation!” Do the math.  A company has oneCEO.  Big ones, the ones where people complain about CEO compensation, employ hundreds of thousands to millions of people.  What the CEO makes is a drop in the bucket compared to the total labor costs.

For any large company, labor costs are their biggest expense.  Increase the cost of hiring people and they hire fewer people.  That’s not just Economics 101.  That falls right out of the first day‘s lecture in Economics 101.  Practically the second thing taught (right after “wants are unlimited, resources at any given time are limited, so it’s not possible for everyone to get everything they want”):  increase the cost of “buying” something and people buy less of it.

Now labor costs are at least something that produces value to the company.  So long as the value of the labor is higher than the cost of the labor it’s possible to come to an agreement.  But there’s another factor, the regulatory cost.  Almost a quarter of our economy is eaten up in regulatory costs.  If those costs were the GDP of a country, it would be larger than Germany’s.  That’s four trillion dollars spent making sure every i is dotted and every t is crossed.

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations had the great insight that the wealth of a nation was not in specie, in gold, silver, and precious gems, it was not in paper money, and if he’d had to foresight to predict the modern age he would certainly have said it was not in electronic banking records.  It was in the amount of goods and services available to a nation.  It is not the money in my wallet and my bank account that is my wealth (such as it is).  It’s what that money can buy.  Produce and trade for more goods and services and you are wealthier as a nation, and the people within the nation are wealthier.

And everyone, rich and poor alike, benefits.  That cheap “prepaid minutes” smartphone you can pick up for $50 at Walmart?  A portable phone alone would have been a mark of wealth and prestige just 30 years ago–and one so small, unheard of.  And one with more computing power than supercomputers of the day?  With instant access to a wealth (note that word.  It has meaning) of music, movies and TV shows, to more information than all the libraries in the world held then?   How many millions would somebody have paid for that capability back then?

And it’s cheap.  A device that the wealthy of a generation past would have mortgaged their first three children for and it’s cheap.

You want to teach people to fish?  Economic growth.  And we’re wasting 25%  of our GDP not on developing and growing the economy but on regulatory burden.  Is some regulatory oversight necessary?  Probably.  But 25% of our economy?  That’s resources that could be used to make life better for all of us, frittered away on some government bureaucrats.