Thursday, March 26, 2015

Arriving as soon as I leave

I was noting a trip to the Twin Cities on my calendar.  To verify the times, I asked my wife, “We want to leave at 12 and arrive at noon.”  I meant to say “leave at 9 and arrive at noon.”  I think my eyes were focused on the second time on the calendar item, and so I blurted out that number.

Corporations and governments: can’t have one without the other

Considering some of the shouting, one might think that politics has divided into two camps: government is bad and corporations are for the common good, or corporations are greedy and government is for the common good.

As too often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

First, let’s look at the similarities.

Corporations and governments are organized by people for a large number of reasons.  The people who organize these entities do so to provide goods and services, to make money, to be famous, or to push certain views, both altruistic and selfish.  Neither type of organization is any better than the people who run the organization.  Success depends more on the leadership and the resources available than on the form.  Success also depends on the circumstances of the time.  If a large segment of the population is not interested in an idea, it will take a lot of effort to promote the idea, whether a new product or a new law.  On the other hand, if a very large segment of the population is interested in an idea, somebody in corporations or government will be working overtime to fulfill the population’s wishes.

The big difference is that the corporations are run by the few and governments are run by the many, if the many show up and vote.

As many misinterpret Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, many misinterpret Milton Friedman’s the only purpose of a corporation is to “increase profits”.

“[t]here is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."  - Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”, The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970

Many interpret this as the only purpose of a corporation is to increase shareholder value.  Unfortunately, they ignore “rules of the game” and “without deception or fraud”.  But what is shareholder value?  Is it a continued gain in stock price?  Is it a continuous stream of increasing dividends?  Or could it be the long-term provision of a good or service?  For example, do investors want to create a product that could take years to bring to market?  Do investors want to insure that medical services can be provided to a community for decades rather than maximize profits for the short-term and destroy the community long-term?

Many point to the problems of MNSure and ObamaCare as examples of government inefficiency.  But guess who provided the computers and software for these health insurance programs?  Private companies!

And private companies have not been known for efficient, trouble-free rollouts of new products.  How many auto recalls are there every year?  Has every computer program or system you purchased or downloaded been free of bugs?  It seems every time I get a notice of an app update, the description includes “bug fixes”.

In the “bad old days” of mainframes, it was really a major milestone when a computer ran a whole day without a crash.  Now things are much better.  My laptop, which is more powerful than any mainframe I worked on, might go a whole week without some kind of frustrating error, including freezes.

MNSure and Obamacare are massive systems requiring massive co-ordination of many pieces.  As we don’t give up on our computers, we shouldn’t give up on massive projects that don’t work perfectly on the first day.

"I'm as confident of this as I would be that when the first cars didn't work well, it wasn't time to return to horses and buggies; it was time to improve the cars. This is the new technology; there are kinks to it and it's going to take some time to work them out.”
Joel Ario, quoted in “Contractor’s report slams MNsure weaknesses, readiness”, Elizabeth Stawicki, MPRNews, 2014-06-18

Are you collecting Social Security?  Is your check posted to your bank account on the promised day every month?  But it was not always so.  Like getting computers to not crash, the rollout of Social Security was not without glitches or without critics who claimed dire consequences.  Like “nationalization of wheat fields would soon follow” and Americans would be reduced to passive servility.  It would take forty years of tinkering to have ninety percent of Americans covered by Social Security.

See “What about Social Security’s rollout?” Bruce J. Schulman, 2013-10-29, Reuters

An interesting contrast to the call for less regulation and taxes is the call by some of the same people for government subsidy.  How many stadiums for billionaires have been built without government subsidies?  How many companies have chased after the best subsidies and tax breaks to determine the location of a new office or factory?  Are these the same people who say government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers?

Consider the big howl from Congress when Solyndra collapsed.  But nothing was said about the success of Tesla.  Both received start-up subsidies from the Federal government.  Tesla paid its loans back!  Also among those who received subsidies were Compaq, Intel, and Apple.  Now Apple is the largest company in the world in capitalization!  And looking for ways to avoid paying back its benefactor through taxes.

For a lot more on how government has fostered many other successful innovations, see “The Innovative State: Governments Should Make Markets, Not Just Fix Them”, Mariana Mazzucato, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2015.

- Mel wishes a few far-sighted Republicans and Democrats would start a Pragmatic Party.

This was also published in the Duluth Reader, 2015-03-26 at 2015/03/26/5005_corporations_and_governments_cant_have_one_without

Sunday, March 22, 2015

I found “around here someplace”.

Whenever my wife or I can’t find something that we know should be in plain sight she often says “It will turn up” or “It’s around here someplace”.

A few weeks ago while we were at our cabin, my carabiner of keys attached to a belt loop was no longer on my belt loop.  Fortunately, I was at our cabin with my wife who also had a set of keys.  I searched all the obvious places, including aiming a flashlight down the outhouse.  At the time we had about eight inches of snow on the ground, and so the keys could have dropped anywhere.

So we had a new set of keys made and I bought another carabiner to hold them.

Yesterday, I was heating up the sauna to wash up later.  As I walked out the door, I scanned the area for my missing keys.  Lo and behold, there in the snow was a metallic orange device; it was my missing carabiner and keys.  The snow had melted enough to unhide them.

So, now I know “around here someplace” is just outside our sauna:)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hubris is ruinous

Hubris is overreaching pride and arrogance.  Many Greek tragedies have the gods punishing those like Oedipus.  Shakespeare tragedies have circumstances punishing those like MacBeth and Othello.  It seems that rarely do the electorates punish those with overreaching pride and arrogance.  They do it by not voting and those with hubris never count the non-voters.

Scott Walker is one who is showing overreaching pride and arrogance in his abilities.

He touts his electoral success but ignores that he won with a low turn-out.  Many other newly-elected Republican governors won with higher vote counts (of those who bother to vote). Those who signed the petition to recall Walker but then didn’t show up to vote were also arrogant.

He talks about the “invisible hand of the free market”, but ignores Adam Smith’s admonition of trusting those who live by profit.

He is proud to have passed a “right to fire” law, but ignores Smith noting that the masters could organize to keep wages down but it was illegal for the workers to organize to raise wages.  If workers can refuse to pay union dues, is there a complimentary law that businesses can be part of Chambers of Commerce without paying dues?

He thinks that facing down demonstrators qualifies him to take on the likes of ISIS.  Facing demonstrators armed with pizzas is not same as facing a few thousand jihadists armed with AK-47s, rocket launchers and more.  Also, he ignores the history of meddling in the Middle East; it has always backfired, maybe not right away, but within a few years.

I only have my keyboard against Scott Walker’s many microphones.  If you are a Wisconsin voter who didn’t show up in one of more of Walker’s election “landslides”, please show up the next time.

Many politicians other than Walker cite their belief in American exceptionalism.  Sorry, but many people in other countries, well-governed or not, believe their countries are exceptional.  The difference is that many of these people don’t think their exceptionalism gives them the right to tell other countries how to conduct their own affairs.  Those who believe in American “exceptionalism” refuse to see how often the “gods” have punished this hubris: Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and more.  The proponents of the “domino theory” seemed to have ignored that a game of dominos can go off in unexpected directions.

The hubris of the jihadists of ISIS and other terror groups make the hubris of American politicians look like a parlor game.  The jihadists claim they are doing Allah’s will, but how do they know this other than repeating it to each other?  Where is their forgiveness to others that Allah gives them?  And if they believe “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”), can’t Allah right these “wrongs”.

If God could flood the entire world, killing thousands of pregnant women and their unborn children, couldn't God send a lightning bolt to strike “blasphemers” dead?  If God could destroy the tower of Babel, built out of bricks, couldn’t God bring down the skyscrapers of steel in all the cities of the non-believers?  If God could destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because the residents were sinful, couldn’t God destroy all the much larger cities of today where there is much “sin” according to purists who believe in an Almighty God?

The greatest hubris of all is that of countries with nuclear weapons.  They want to prevent other countries from having any capacity to build nuclear weapons, but they seem very disinclined to reduce the number of their own nuclear weapons.  These nuclear countries are ready at a moment’s notice to cause more death and destruction than the God of the Old Testament did from the beginning of the world.

Mel wishes the pen were mightier than the sword far more often than it has been.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Do you reflect your god or does your god reflect you?

George Washington and others have stated that we cannot have morality without religion.  On the other hand, how often do we have religion without morality?

Too many people who proclaim adherence to one religion or another have no morality; that is, they think it is perfectly all right to kill those who do not believe as they do: from the Inquisition to ISIS.  And the lack of morality seems to be worse the more these people claim they have the “true religion”!  Morality is basically do unto other as you would have them do to you.

I just read in Sharon Shinn’s “Dark Moon Defender” the following:

“The goddess abhors mystics.  The goddess demands of her faithful followers that they eradicate magic from the land.”

“Any goddess who demands wicked behavior is wicked herself.  Why would you choose to serve a deity like that?”

Shinn’s book was published in 2006.  I wonder if she had any particular groups in mind that want to kill those who don’t believe as they do.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

George Washington: Ignored Father of his Country

The United States Senate reads “George Washington’s Farewell Address” every year, alternating between the two parties.  It was read by John Hoeven, R-ND on February 23, 2015.  The House of Representatives last read it publicly in 1984.  You can find a copy at

Whether Congress listens to the reading or not, I think they often forget what George Washington wrote, maybe within hours of the reading.

Washington warned again and again about faction.  One example is:

“[The obstructions of constituted authorities] serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests.” [page 14]

He went on about how unprincipled men could actually take over the government, subverting the will of the people.

In the same month that a Republican Senator read “Washington’s Farewell Address”, the Republicans went right back to factionalism, finding all kinds of fault with President Obama and pushing a corporate agenda.

As General of the Continental Army, Washington provided lessons that we have not learned about wars but “insurgents” in many countries know only to well.

Washington and the Continental Army knew the country; the British did not.  Boxed in several times, Washington managed to escape with his army.  For example, he was in Manhattan and Brooklyn when the British invaded Long Island.  He commandeered every boat he could and took all his men, cannon, horses, and more to Manhattan on a foggy night and then on to White Plains..

"I am well convinced myself, that the enemy long ere this, are perfectly satisfied that the possession of our towns while we have an army in the field will avail them little.”  Think Baghdad, Kabul.

He predated by almost two centuries Mao Zedong: “enemy advances, we retreat; enemy retreats, we pursue.”

George Washington also stuck to the task from 1775 until the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.  What is the average tour of duty of a general in Iraq or Afghanistan?  And of course, every general has a different idea of what to do.  Oh, yes!  Washington would let himself be outvoted by his officers.

As President, George Washington was for efficient government, not necessarily for limited government: “for the efficient management of your common interests in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable…  It is indeed little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.” [pages 15-16]

“[The spirit of party] opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.” [pages 17-18]  Does this apply to the Congressional invitation for the prime minister of Israel to speak before it?

“And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” [page 20]  Note that he doesn’t specify what religion, one of the numerous Christian sects or one of the many non-Christian sects.

Washington wrote a section on the need for public credit and to use it sparingly by “cultivating peace”.  If war is necessary, the burden should not be put on future generations.  “[Y]ou should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes…”  He followed this with a discourse about the problem of selecting what to tax.  I wonder what he would think of all the highways that we demand, the degree of safety oversight we want, and the research we want.

He wrote a couple pages about the necessity of treating all nations the same. “The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, in is some degree a slave.”  What would Washington say about our relations with Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt?  All of them manipulate us more than we manipulate them.  George Washington considered those who resist these entanglements as the “real patriots”.

He also extended this view to commerce: “our commercial policy should hold an equal hand: neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences…” [page 28]

As much as we have put Washington on a pedestal, he is more modest: “I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors.”

He looked forward to enjoying “the benign influence of good laws under a free government…”

Sorry, Mr. President, but fools have rushed in where heroes fear to tread.  We have many bad laws under a bought government.

Mel votes in almost every election, mostly in the hope of avoiding really bad laws.

Also published in the Reader Weekly, 2015-03-05 at

Government efficiency

I am working on my taxes and wanted to find the Minnesota state forms online.  The main page had a link for business taxes but not individual taxes.  I sent a message to the help desk and received a response within two hours.

I had a problem with some commercial software about ten days ago.  I received an acknowledgment within two hours, but I have yet to receive anything further.  Sometimes I receive a good response from companies; sometimes I receive inadequate responses; and sometimes I receive no response.  Ditto government offices.

Efficiency does not depend on the form of the organization; it depends on the leadership of the organization.

See also "Excessive Corporate Inefficiency".

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Party that wants government to live within its means doesn’t?

Republican consulting firm demands Minn. GOP repay overdue bills”, Patrick Condon, Star Tribune, 2014-03-02

It took a call from the founder and chairman of Arena Communications to get the Minnesota Republican Party to promise to pay immediately for work done on political campaigns last year.  The party had claimed "[w]e were able to support our endorsed candidates through the Primary and with a statewide victory program, while simultaneously meeting our financial obligations and paying down debt."

See also “Mills advisor: GOP activists ‘have been misled about party’s debt”, Michael Brodkorb.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Proof that Muslims do speak out

The Huffington Post has a blog by Sophia Jones, “’SNL’ Has Nothing On the Way The Middle East Mocks ISIS”.  See  Many of the YouTube videos use the music from ISIS videos to mock ISIS.

Oh, yes, many are not anonymous.  The poster’s name and picture accompany the YouTube snippet.

See also “Muslims do speak out.  Are you listening?