Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Which way do Republicans want it?

Several Republicans are calling for more tax cuts in the "stimulus package". On the other hand, they want a strong defense. A strong defense, as currently defined, requires lots of money for all that high-tech, supersonic equipment. And it requires lots of people. Many of these people are doing harder and more dangerous work for pay that is thousands of times less than the CEOs who want tax cuts and other bailouts.

People all across the so-called political spectrum seem to want it both ways, but when it comes to money to pay for things, the Republicans really take the cake. If others are to make a sacrifice in the "war on terrorism", maybe CEOs and large corporations should be paying a larger share in taxes to support it. After all, they have for more to lose financially in a terrorist attack than many others.

Externalities and property rights

Although I have three blog ideas the muse seems to have left me. To keep my six loyal fans coming back, here is a letter to the editor of Barron's that I came across when deleting some old emails. I emailed it on January 11, 2000. At that time, I kept paper copies of any my letters that were published. Since I couldn't find a copy of this one, I presume I won't have the Wall Street Journal lawyers knocking on my door.

Thomas Donlan has it backwards when he states that "Externalities exist where there are no property rights." Externalities exist because ofproperty rights. Further, he limits the definition of an externality when he states it is a "displacement of a privately caused cost into a public expense." An externality is a cost imposed on or a benefit given to parties outside of a voluntary transaction.

The standard example he cites of a polluter dumping waste into a lake has two aspects. There is the public aspect of contaminating the fishing and drinking water of many people. There is also the private aspect of decreasing the value of lakefront property. Donlan states that "the power of property rights" gives the owners claims against the polluter. But how will these claims be settled?

Will the polluter be forced to cease operation? That takes away the "property rights" of the polluter. Will the polluter be forced to pay damages to the lakefront property owners? But that goes against one of the tenets of the "private markets" that Donlan extols so often, namely that all transactions are voluntary. If the lakefront property owners were not in the market to sell their property, why should they be forced to enter into transactions to "sell part of their property"?

Oh, if only people would live by the ideal models of Thomas Donlan on the one hand or of Karl Mark on the other, life would be so much simpler!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Was the United States built on free enterprise and capitalism?

Many argue that the United States was built on free enterprise and capitalism. But that is only part of the picture; many other factors contributed to the development of the United States.

I just finished Nothing Like It in the World, The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose. He paints a very complex picture of all the ideas and efforts that went into building the transcontinental railroad from Omaha to Sacramento. The two companies were the Central Pacific based in California and the Union Pacific based in New York.

Ambrose doesn't use the word, but I would say that the first part of the picture was imperialism. One group of people decided they had control of the land already inhabited by others. The expected result was that some of the inhabitants resisted and some worked with the outsiders. See pages 265-266 on how the Pawnees thought they had a better life as hired guards.

A second important part was government grants. Because the land was considered "unoccupied", the railroads were able to choose their routes based mostly on the terrain and the government generally let them have their choice. Further, the government granted the railroads portions of the land along the right-of-way for use or sale. Finally the government issued bonds based on the miles of track laid. This was necessary in part because the railroads could not raise sufficient funds through their own stock and bond offerings. One CP official complained "that the government subsidy had been more a detriment than a boost to the companies, because of all the conditions attached to the bonds." A UP official responded, "Mr. President of the Central Pacific: If this subsidy has been such a detriment to the building of these roads, I move you say that it be returned to the United States Government with our compliments." p. 367

Nothing would have happened without a third important part: labor. Thousands of Chinese, Irish, and Mormons built the railroad with hand tools, often without being paid on time. They were aided by black powder and nitroglycerin, sometimes with deadly results. Many died of cold, avalanches, accidents, disease, and murder. Nobody knows the exact death toll of workers.

A fourth important part was corruption, probably unavoidable in an enterprise as large as this. Congressmen were given stock in the railroads; shareholders voted themselves huge dividends while not paying the workers. Congress had six months of hearings "featuring for the most part acrimony and sensationalism, although most charges were true and would be proven." p. 373

But the most important part was vision. A transcontinental railroad was discussed by Congress before the Civil War to unite the east and west coasts. Railroads were seen as important by both sides in the war to move troops and material. Railroads were seen as a more economical and faster way of moving goods and people over animal-drawn vehicles. Railroads were necessary to supply the forts across the country as more and more people moved west. The vision of the importance of a transcontinental railroad was shared by politicians and soldiers, by businessmen and laborers, and by journalists and scholars.

Without all of these parts, the United States would not have become a unified country "from sea to shining sea".

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An old troublemaker as a peacemaker

Muammar Qaddafi has written a very interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, "The One-State Solution" for Israel and Palestine; he calls the proposed state Isratine.

He argues that there is already much co-operation between Jews and Palestinians with Arabs in politics in Israel and Israeli factories in Palestine.

Judge for yourself if he makes sense.

Why print media won't go away yet

Since I've stopped writing my Party of One Reader Weekly column and written exclusively for this blog, my readership has gone down drastically. Over the years, I've counted (not very accurately) 158 fans of my column. That is, people I've met or known who have said they enjoyed reading my columns. In sharp contrast, this blog only gets 4-6 readers a day, mostly through the feed, and none to two directly.

I've told a dozen or more people that they can read my writings here at

Some have no computer, some use their computer infrequently, and many friends that use their computers daily and liked my column don't come here.

What kind of hurts the most is that friends who liked my column are surprised to learn I no longer write for the Reader.

But even the Reader Weekly has low online readership. See

Granted, the Reader is way, way behind in posting current stuff. Granted that few readers send in letters to the editor. But after one year of being online at its current address, the forum has only eight registered users one post.

I think the cause of the disparity in readership is the convenience of the newspaper. One can pick up a newspaper at anytime anywhere and read any selection quickly. To access a newspaper online, one has to have the computer on, one has to be connected to the web, and one has to remember the address of or have a bookmark for a particular paper. Then one has to wait for the initial page to download. In some cases this may seem instantaneous, but in two many cases it can be a "long" wait. Loading 2 of 10 pages, loading 5 of 15 pages, loading 20 of 43 pages, ... loading 62 of 158 pages. One could read the entire comic page on paper while waiting.

Probably the only thing that will stop the presses is bankruptcy. See "Running government like a business, a counterexample".

P.S. You can see most of my past columns from

or do a search of "magree" and "reader weekly". With Google you will have to ask for all the results; otherwise it gives you only a sample of the articles I've posted.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Do robots have rights? The ramifications of the answer

I was intrigued by the article in the latest issue of Wired: "Do humanlike machines deserve rights?"

It briefly described the latest Fisher-Price Elmo, Elmo Live, which kids readily relate to.

The Wired article also described some of the vicious things that people do to some of these life-like toys. It posed the question that if robotic devices become more human-like, should they have rights?

One commentator said that it is not what we are doing to the machines but what are we doing to ourselves.

Long ago I read that evil is treating other people as things. Are some of our things becoming so humanlike that we have a hard time distinguishing things from people? Or are some of our things so removed from humans that we don't even consider human beings in their use.

The 9/11 terrorists treated the people in the World Trade Center as things to be obliterated for their twisted goals. Some of the people in the World Trade Center treated people as things to be manipulated in the running of large corporations. Hamas treats Israelis as things, having no idea who their rockets hit. Israel considers the residents of Gaza as things who happen to be in the way of destroying Hamas. When a bomb strikes a building, is it only the handful of "bad guys" inside that are killed, or several kids that aren't even old enough to understand politics?

Country after country wants nuclear weapons so they can easily take care of their enemies. But who is the enemy? Do the vast majority of the people who would be obliterated by a nuclear weapon have anything to do with the grievances of the attacking country?

Hillary Rodham Clinton says she would obliterate Iran if it continues to develop nuclear weapons. How many Iranians are actually developing those weapons? Even if they support the development of those weapons, do they deserve to die because another country doesn't want Iran to have nuclear weapons?

We just had an inauguration in which God's guidance and help were invoked to help us through our various crises. But those who invoked God's guidance subscribe to the teachings of Jesus. Did Jesus not say "Love thy neighbor as thyself"? This has also been interpreted as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

If we don't want others to have nuclear weapons, should we? If we don't want 500-pound bombs slamming into our houses, should we slam bombs into other people's houses?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Running government like a business, a counterexample

As I picked up the ever thinner Duluth News Tribune this morning, I thought of the phrase "running like a business".

Well, newspapers have been run more and more like businesses and have been getting smaller and smaller and even losing money. One of the problems is that few are locally owned but run by people who look more at the bottom line than the daily details of providing something interesting and even compelling to read.

See also my Reader Weekly columns:

"What if government were run like a business?"
"Let's run government like a business"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Beer budget vs. milk budget, advice for politicians

As government revenues shrink, governments are cutting budgets drastically. In one way, this makes a lot of sense. However, in their rush to cut budgets, some politicians are throwing sense out the window. These are those calling for "across the board budget cuts" or "everyone must feel the pain". I don't think they would do the same with their family budgets.

If anyone's income is cut, it is difficult to cut every item in the budget. For example, the mortgage and the real estate taxes must be paid in full. The transportation cost to get to and from work must be borne. However, there is certain "discretionary" spending that cannot be cut and certain which should be cut. For example, a family would not cut the kid's milk budget and Dad's beer and cigarette budget by the same percentage. If anything, Dad should give up beer and cigarettes so that the kids can have all the milk they need and so that the house can be kept sufficiently warm for the kids to do their homework well.

So it is with governments. Do you cut the fire department budget the same percentage as you cut the parks budget? If you cut the fire department budget will you have increased response times? If you increase response times, will the average fire damage be greater. If the average fire damage is greater, won't fire insurance premiums be higher? If fire insurance premiums are higher, won't that be an indirect tax? See "Snow, new taxes"

That is not to say that there aren't ways to reduce costs in an essential service. For example, is perfectly good equipment being replaced because its scheduled life cycle has been reached? If truck tires are being replaced every two years, maybe they should only be replaced if the tread is too low and the walls show cracking.

Another buzzword in cutting government expenses is efficiency. But efficiency in the short term may be inefficient in the long term. Suppose the fire trucks engines' run most efficiently at 25 mph. If the trucks were to run at 25 mph wouldn't that affect the response times. See above. Conversely, if the trucks engines run most efficiently at 55 mph, should they be driven at that speed? Wouldn't that increase the number of accidents involving fire trucks and thus greatly increase response times?

The buzzword should not be efficiency, but effectiveness. Unfortunately, providing effectiveness takes more work than proclaiming one is seeking efficiency.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ahead of our time seeking mind over matter

Sometime in the late 80's when the Mac was still in its original form, a software developer in Texas came up with a headband and software to graph brainwaves. I thought that it would be great to use brainwaves to control the cursor rather than using a mouse. I had already seen a video of someone using brainwaves to start, stop, and reverse a toy train.

I talked to two friends who were more hardware-oriented and we corresponded with the guy in Texas. The local three of us met several times over coffee or a meal, but we never even came close to a prototype. Besides, the headband had to be greased with something so that a good contact was made.

A couple of years later, I read that a group in England received a $25,000 grant to develop a means to control the cursor with brain waves.

Today, I read a piece in the Star Tribune called "Thinking Toys" about two gadgets that are controlled by brain waves.

Somehow I don't think it is much ahead of the toy train control. From what I understand, you can make a ball go up and down with a fan. It does have a spinning obstacle course so that you can try to get the ball through or over various obtacles. This means that you can "exert" more or less force, but for cursor control you need two co-ordinates, up-and-down and left-to-right.

Uncle Milton's Star Wars Force Trainer is more straight forward. The user makes a ball go up and down in a clear tube.

Both of these use wireless EEG technology developed by Greg Hyver of NeuroSky.

See "Toy trains 'Star War' fans to use 'The Force", USA Today, 2009-01-06 for more details.

Neither toy company appears to have any mention on its web site.

But when I searched for "NeuroSky" I found more exciting details. NeuroSky's technology is more than more or less pressure. See for more demonstrations, including two-dimensional movement.

See also NeuroSky's website for more information.

Great writing from bad news

After I finished a few tasks, I decided to take a break by reading BBC news online. One of the lead stories was about the assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader.

That is the bad news. For the great writing, see his posthumously published prediction of his murder, "And then they came for me"

At least there is hope for Sri Lanka in that I can still read his editorial two days after it was published.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Snow, new taxes!

Here are a couple of pictures taken after I spent over an hour removing snow in front of our house that was dumped on the sidewalk by snowplows.

This is after I used an ice scraper to break the packed snow up, blew the snow up over a high pile in my yard, and finished the job with a snow shovel. You can see what the neighbor has yet to do.

The clear spot farther down the street was done by a neighbor with a bigger snowblower than I have. I don't know how long it took him, but he didn't do as many lots as he does when the snow is fresh.

Here you can see how high I had to throw the snow. Granted that the yard is sloped, but the snow is at least four feet deep as you can see from the neighbors railing. Note also that the snow is not pristine white, but brown from the street slush. No way can I throw snow over this for more than a few minutes at a time. One could consider having to have a snow blower an additional tax. Let's see, I think this little guy cost $700 or so. If it lasts 14 years, then that is an additional $50 a year tax.

Let's see, if we assume $7/hour for general labor and $280/year real estate tax to the city, then I am paying an extra 2.5% tax each time the city plows move snow from the street to the side walk. If this only happens four times per season, I should be so lucky, then I am paying an extra 10% tax each winter. Add the snowblower cost, then I am paying about 28% more taxes just for snow blowing.

Thanks a lot, "No new taxes" proponents. May you have a higher snow tax than I do.

Taxes are not just in money

Too many government critics act as if we were still ruled by the government in London with no benefits from the taxes and regulations imposed from there. We now have taxation with representation, but because the representatives don't agree in lockstep with the critics, all taxation and regulations are bad.

We are in a financial fix now partly from our own profligate ways, partly from lax government oversight, and partly from insufficient taxation. The "no new taxes" proponents look on tax revenues as going to someone else, not to themselves as part of a well-functioning society.

Well, I have just come inside after spending a half-hour paying a "no new taxes" tax. Our sidewalk, previously shoveled, is now covered with three-inches of hard-packed snow plus several large snow "stones". This "new" snow is because a snowplow came through to widen the street. I managed to get a shovel width cleaned in a half-hour, partly with a brand-new "sharp" shovel and partly with an ice scraper. I'm too winded to continue for another hour or so.

Supposedly the city should clear sidewalks that the plows put a lot of snow on. I did call Duluth's "Snow shoveling hot line" yesterday about this, but nothing has happened yet. Since two neighbors on our block had already cleared their part and then some, I should make an effort.

I should also make an effort for civic reasons. I don't like walking on unshoveled sidewalks; I don't think others should. I know that one grade school kid has to pass our house to the school bus stop, that at least two middle-schoolers, probably a dozen or more have to pass our house, and there are many women and children from the women's shelter going to and from the bus stop. In the half-hour I was working outside, two women walked by in the street.

Not only is the dumped snow a tax on me as a homeowner, it is a tax on all the people who walk by.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Can you believe a market prediction if the predictor can't write properly

U.S. Global Investors, a mutual fund company, had this under "Opportunity" in its latest weekly newsletter:

Governmental efforts to inject capital into the nation’s financial system could, in time, help to restore more normal lending conditions.

This is somewhat surprising in that U.S. Global Investors generally has a conservative slant. It looks like some conservatives think government can do some good besides fight wars in far off places.

On the other hand, this is the company that sent out New Year's greetings in many languages and, according to my son, had two errors in the Japanese greeting. I shouldn't complain too much, I switched two letters when I typed it in Japanese, which meant that two characters were absolutely wrong.

I meant to type

Akimashite Omedetto Gozaimasu

but I typed

Akimashite Omedetto Goazimasu

which gave


My son said he, his wife, and her family had a good laugh over it. He wrote me that it should be

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu

which should be


Now you are probably think I'm smart in Japanese. Well, I'm not. I may know a few hundred words, but I never had strong enough incentive to study it well. What is smart is my computer, a Mac. I just pull down from the menu a languare and type away. In the case of Japanese I type the Roman characters and the computer automagically converts them into Japanese characters.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Getting rich by nibbling

Today I received an email that my Verizon Wireless online bill was ready. Before I paid it, I checked the details. There was a whopping 60 cents for text messages I never asked for from 8877 in early December. I think they were some notices from Verizon. That's like sending you a letter about something the company wants you to know but leaving the stamp off and having the recipient pay the postage due. At least the post office now returns unstamped mail.

I tried to follow the pages to block text messaging, but I got a server error. That means I have to try this again tomorrow, and maybe the day after, and the day after that, and... until I give up.

Meanwhile, 20 cents times a hundred is 20 dollars, times a thousand is 200, times a million is 200,000 dollars for doing nothing of benefit to the customers.