San Juan Mountains

San Juan Mountains
San Juan Mountains: Grenadier Range

Friday, June 15, 2012

Edward Bellamy And Original Sin

You have probably never heard of Edward Bellamy.  I would not have recognized his name except for the fact that I graduated from a government high school that received the "Bellamy" award for excellence.  I graduated from high school in 1975.  The school was informed by some branch of the federal government that it had received the prestigious (or so we were told) Bellamy Award because we were all so smart.  The fact that my high school was full of brilliant students was something I was already aware of (no, I was not one of them).  The school was the only high school in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  A great many of the students were children of parents who worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory.  A great many of the parents had doctoral degrees and were scientific geniuses.  Genes being what they are, we had a pretty smart graduating class. 
When we were informed that we had received the Bellamy Award we did not know what to make of the announcement.  As far as I can recall, none of us asked who this Bellamy fellow was.  Furthermore, none of us asked what the award signified.  I think we all just assumed that because we had so many National Merit Scholarship Finalists (no, I was not one of them) in our class we were being recognized by some federal government officials as a class of really sharp students.  After the graduation ceremony was over we all moved on to college and our careers.  I had completely forgotten the name of Edward Bellamy until last month when his name appeared in an article in The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).  Needless to say, I was not surprised by what I discovered about Edward Bellamy.
Harold B. Jones Jr writes in the April 2012 issue of  The Freeman that "Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward hit the bookstands in 1888 and by 1890 was selling at the rate of 10,000 copies a week.  It was the account of a man put to sleep in 1887 and awakened in 2000 to discover that everything the Progressives dreamed about had come to pass.  Early in the twentieth century the economy had been entrusted to 'a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit'.  The result was a world in which human creativity had climbed to new heights and in which there were no wars, no crime, no poverty, no political corruption, and no labor disputes.  Incomes had been equalized, competition had disappeared, and everyone enjoyed all of life's material benefits."  You can see why a  man of this stature would be the namesake for an annual award to a government school.  He embodies all of the principles of socialism that the government schools are founded upon.  Even worse, he defines the type of socialistic society that most government schools desire and envision for our future.  There are so many things wrong with this picture it is hard to know where to start.  Still, I will try.
Edward Bellamy ignores one fundamental reality about human nature.  His ignorance of this fundamental truth about all human beings makes it impossible for him to envision anything about the future accurately. Edward Bellamy ignores original sin.  For those of you who do not know what original sin is, it is the condition that all of mankind finds itself in as a result of the fall of Adam.  It means that all human beings, without exception, are immoral.  It describes the human condition perfectly.  It is a running joke around my house that "human beings are basically good".  We say it every time we see human beings being anything but basically good.  I said it twice yesterday during a five minute period just driving down the road and witnessing two different groups of drivers rage each other.  Human beings have a natural penchant for nastiness and are quite adept at showing it.  Bellamy's Utopian future, which we now live in, never came to pass because of the evil that resides in the hearts of human beings.
The biggest problem with Bellamy's disbelief in the doctrine of original sin is it leads him to the presupposition that there is a class of people who are more noble, more pure, and more moral than the rest of us.  Somehow, through a process that is never fully described, these people end up in politics.  These people are the ones who end up ruling us.  From their positions of political power they are able to order society in such a fashion that we all end up living under Utopian conditions.  Bellamy said that these leaders would use some sort of "scientific" process in order to control the economy.  With these men at the helm it was essentially guaranteed that it would only be a matter of time before we advanced to a society with no war, poverty, anger or corruption.  All the rest of us need to do is obey our superiors and the process will somehow mystically take place. 
My experience of reality is just the opposite of Bellamy's vision.  Although all people are victims of original sin, some people are more evil than others.  It seems to me that the worst members of our society are the ones who are inexorably drawn into politics.  The desire for fame, glory, public praise, and the ability to control the behavior of others inevitably brings out the worst in men.  Those who are best at manipulation, cheating, stealing and lying are those who are best fitted for public service.  Those who have no moral principles that would keep them from dedicating their lives to plundering the property of free men and women are best suited for the political life.  Is this something I have to prove or is it not the case that even a casual examination of our rulers immediately demands my conclusion about their character? 

There will be no postings to this blog during the week of June 17th.  I will return on June 25th.  I am on the Bicycle Tour of Colorado next week. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Dog Is Smarter Than Your Politician

I saw the title of this blog on a bumper sticker today and thought it was a good title for what is to follow.  I hope you agree.  I was watching Star Trek, The Next Generation last night when I had the misfortune of having to watch two political advertisements, back to back.  At first I was irritated.  As it developed, I became amused.  By the end I was amazed at the constitutional ignorance of our two candidates for the presidency of the United States. 
The two ads were from the two sides in the upcoming presidential election.  The first ad was produced by Romney.  The second ad was produced by some group that opposes Romney and, obviously, is in favor of Obama.  The first ad said that Romney is the best possible presidential candidate when it comes down to being able to get the economy going.  I was told that Romney, while Governor of Massachusetts, was able to "balance the budget" every year of his term without raising taxes.  The clear implication was that Romney had operated as Governor of Massachusetts during a time characterized by higher state revenues than expenses.  I found that interesting, wondered if it was true, and thought nothing more about it.
The second ad came on immediately after the first one.  This spot began by quoting a Boston newspaper in which it was reported that when it comes to getting the economy growing, Romney was the worst governor ever.  It went on to assert that, during Romney's tenure as Governor of Massachusetts, the state deficit grew by $2.6 billion. It asserted that the state of Massachusetts had a deficit of $16 billion in 2003 that ballooned to $18.6 billion at the end of 2006.   Now, this presents an interesting contradiction.  How can it be possible for the state to operate under a balanced budget for four straight years and, at the same time, have a net increase in the size of the state  budget deficit?  Under the generally accepted principles of accounting, both of these things cannot be true.  One thing I know for sure, at least one of these campaign advertisements must be untrue. 
Before even dealing with this contradiction between the advertisements, I must assert that I am personally offended by both of these ads.  Do you see the problem with them?  Both ads make the assumption that the executive branch of government is responsible for budgets.  Both ads make the assumption that the executive branch is responsible for both revenues and expenditures.  As anybody who did not sleep though his high school civics class is fully aware, it is the legislative branch of government that is responsible for all state revenue and expenditures.  As far as I am aware, all states are required, by law, to operate on a balanced budget.  That being the case, there is nothing for the members of the executive branch to brag about when that is accomplished.  But let's be clear on one thing....no member of the executive branch of government ever balanced any budget.  Further, no member of the executive branch of government ever created a state budget deficit.  All blame or credit for a state's budget must be placed squarely upon the shoulders of the legislative branch of state government.  That being the political truth of the matter, both television advertisements are immediately fraudulent because they grant legislative powers to the executive branch.  Please, don't insult me by assuming I am too stupid to see that truth.  My dog is smarter than that.
So, wrongly assuming that the executive position of governor actually is legally responsible for the state's budget, did Romney deliver four years of balanced budgets to the citizens of Massachusetts without raising taxes, as the ad asserts?   During his four year reign he did not raise income taxes.  According to Wikipedia and true to his word, the state budget was balanced for four straight years.  Not true to his word, state revenues were increased through a huge amalgam of hidden taxes by which state fees and charges were dramatically increased in order to make up the deficit.  So, yes, Romney did balance the budget.  And no, he did not do it without raising government revenue.
Also conveniently ignored by the ad (and pointed out by the Obama camp) is the fact that when Romney left the office of governor the state was once again looking at a $1 billion budget shortfall.  It was 2007 and we all remember what happened to the economy that year.  In fact, it needs to be pointed out that Romney was governor from 2003 through 2006.  Those four years were characterized by strong economic growth and increased government revenues.  The stock market doubled during those four years.  Those four years were sandwiched between the recessions of 2001 and 2008-09.  Bragging about balancing a budget during great economic times is like bragging about catching trout from a pond recently stocked by the division of wildlife.   Yes, you did accomplish that fact, but a child of three can do the same thing.  At best we can conclude that the Romney camp presents a half truth as a whole truth.  A pastor I once respected taught me that a half truth parading around as a whole truth is an untruth.  I think that sums up the Romney ad pretty well.
What about the claim from the Obama camp that Romney completed his four year term and left the state of Massachusetts more in debt (by $2.6 billion) than when he started? I spent a full hour scouring the Internet trying to find the source for that assertion.  I was unable to find anything other than other websites that repeated the assertion without citation of the source.  That does not mean it is not out there somewhere but I was not able to find it.  One thing I know for sure, according to generally accepted accounting principles,  it is not possible to run a budget surplus for four straight years and have the total deficit for the state increase during that same time period.   Or so I thought.  I kept looking until I came across a website called ncls.org. 
The National Conference of State Legislatures issued an Executive Summary of State Balanced Budget Requirements in 1999.  Now most of us would think that a budget consists of revenues and expenses.  If more comes in than goes out, it is balanced.  If more goes out than comes in, it is unbalanced.  Not so when it comes to government accounting.  According to the website, "it is practically impossible for revenues and expenditures to get out of balance, since expenditures are controlled by available funds.  Thus it is not surprising that the focus of 'balancing the budget' tends to be on the general fund although general fund expenditures compose only 50 percent to 60 percent of total state spending."  So there you have it.  Both ads are correct.  Or, conversely, both ads are wrong.  Either way, Romney ran balanced budgets and, at the same time, increased the state deficit since the budget does not include all of the expense items.  Government is not required to maintain accounting standards in the same fashion the rest of us are.  What a surprise.
Let me give you an example of government accounting applied to a typical family.  Let's say you made $100k last year.  You also spent $95k last year.  Accordingly, you would have spent $5k less than you earned and would have ended the year with a budget surplus of $5k.  But, you also used your credit card and ended up charging $25k worth of purchases over the course of the year.  In reality every family is well aware that it did not run a budget surplus for the year.  Simply because the expenses were paid for with a credit card does not change the fact that they were expenditures.  Our imaginary family actually ended up with a $20k deficit for the year because of the credit card usage.  No family member in his right mind would think to argue that the family had a balanced budget for the year.  But that is precisely what government accounting alleges.  That is why it is possible for a state government to have a balanced budget and increase the state deficit at the same time.  Amazing.
Expect more cherry picking of specific data points in future political ads.  Almost all data is taken out of context and distorted to prove a point that does not exist in the real world.   That is what politicians do.  They lie.  Over and over they lie.  Yes, it is true, my dog is smarter than your politician...and he does not lie.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Tale Of Two Men

There is no connection between the tales that follow about two very different men.  I just happened to be enthralled by the two tales and wanted to pass them on to you. 
The first tale is about a powerful man in the world of business.  This man presides over one of the most influential investment banks in the world.  He guided his company through the dark years of 2008-2009 with nary a scratch and emerged on the other side of the recession with a sterling reputation as a man to be at the helm during difficult times.  This man is Jamie Dimon and he is the CEO of JPMorgan.
Dimon was summoned to testify before the US Senate today.  In particular, the Senate Banking Committee subpoenaed him to appear and answer  questions about the operation of his business.  As I write this I can see him on the television, sitting before the distinguished panel of Senators who, if we could combine their economic IQs, would probably result in a negative number.  The Senators look nice in their fancy suits.  They ask questions written by their aids in a vain attempt to sound like they know what they are talking about.  Their aids are no more versed in economics than they are.  Basically the Senators want to know why JPMorgan suffered a $2 billion loss in the first quarter of 2012.  I want to know why any of this is their business.
Why should Senators inquire into the daily business of a public company?  Why should it be the business of government if an investment bank suffers a loss?  I have already written in some detail (May 14th) on the financial stability of JPMorgan.  The company is in great shape.  One person at the company made a bad business decision and a loss was suffered.  That person was fired. End of story.  Why must the CEO of that company now be required, under penalty of law, to appear before a bunch of stuffed suits and give testimony that none of them are capable of understanding?  It makes no sense.  As is always the case, I believe it relates exclusively to the desire of this particular bunch of politicians to appear highly involved in regulating banks in this country.  That is the type of behavior that can buy a lot of votes and we are in an election year.  Such noble men they are.
I bring this up because in an article released yesterday, Dimon told us in advance what he was going to do when he appeared before this group of clowns.  He told us he was going to apologize!  What?  Why?  Why should the CEO of a public company be forced to apologize to a bunch of Senators over the fact that he had a corporate loss during a quarter?  The people who have suffered in this situation are the shareholders of JPMorgan, and they have not suffered much.  I am looking at him now and he is putting on his best look of contrition.  He is deferring to the Senators with proper filial piety.  He is doing everything he can to make the Senators look good, in the hope they will not issue another round of onerous regulations designed to buy votes and destroy the banking business.  The whole situation makes me ill.  So I will go on to my second tale.
Albert Pujols is a former National League Most Valuable Player.  He was traded to the Los Angeles Angels during the off season.  He signed with them for a huge amount of money.  His contract was so detailed that it actually spelled out how much he was to be paid each time the LA club used his name in advertising promotionals.  I have never met the man but considered him to be just another money-grubbing professional sports star with an inflated view of himself. 
The Angels were in town over the weekend.  My father-in-law was at the game.  He told me a story of what happened during the game when Albert became involved with a heckler.  There is a season ticket holder who sits near my father-in-law's seats.  He always heckles the best player on the opposing team.  His heckling is restricted to one simple sentence:  So and So, you're a bum!  Whoever the star player is, is a bum.  He repeats that sentence, loudly, anytime the player is within earshot.  When Albert came up to bat he started his routine.
Albert ended up getting on base and made his way to third.  The heckler sits right beside the third base line.  He went into his routine again. This time, however, Albert began peering into the stands, trying to see who was making such a fuss about him.  He finally was able to identify the heckler.  The next batter delivered a hit and Albert scored.  While walking back to the dugout he was continually informed he was a bum.  Albert disappeared into the dugout.
The next thing that happened is the reason I am telling this tale.  Albert suddenly appeared in front of the dugout holding a bat.  It didn't look good for the heckler.  He yelled up to the fan, "Heh, do you want a bat?"  The shocked fan said nothing  He was not used to being confronted.  Albert handed the bat up to him.  On the bat was this inscription, "I love you too!"  Next time Albert came up to the plate the heckler launched in once again.  This time he said, "Heh, Albert, Thanks!"

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mitt Says: In The SDA, Politicians Are Unnecessary

I was talking with my wife last night (there was no Rockies game on the television) and I learned something new.  That is not an unusual experience as I often learn new things when I talk with my wife.  I should probably talk with my wife more often.  Somehow our discussion got around to politics (I believe we both had seen a particularly insipid political advertisement for Mitt Romney that made us ill and stimulated our conversation) and she informed me that the Republicans had prepared a response to the legitimate criticism that Mitt Romney socialized medicine in his home state of Massachusetts despite claiming that he does not believe in socialized medicine.  It is obviously a source of significant embarrassment to the Republicans whenever the Democrats point out that Romney alleged opposes Obamacare while, at the same time, supported Romneycare in his home state.  That is a glaring logical contradiction and something needs to be done about it.  Bring in the damage control experts.
My wife informed me that the best the political theorists at the Republican party could come up with was that poor old Mitt made the rational decision to subject himself to the will of the majority when he decided to socialize medicine in Massachusetts.  He didn't really want to do it.  Intellectually he opposed the idea of socialized medicine, or so his strategists tell us.  Apparently Mitt's buddies conducted a poll of the citizens of the state and were forced to come to the conclusion that 51% of them wanted socialized medicine.  Being the great statesman that he is, he decided to bend to the will of the people and give them the socialized medicine they wanted.  Mitt's handlers want us to believe that his support for socialized medicine was not based upon principles that he believes but was merely the proper way for a politician to respond to the desires of his constituency.
Now if what Mitt is telling us is true (and it most certainly is not.....he is a politician, nothing he says is true), then Mitt has just framed the philosophy of the politician/statesman in a very interesting fashion.  This is really quite an amazing admission on his part. 
Politicians will spend billions of dollars this election season telling us what they believe should be done.  Political analysts spend endless hours dissecting the various positions taken by the candidates.  The electorate is repeatedly lectured by our superiors on how it is our responsibility to be informed about the issues, as well as to know how each candidate stands on them.  Now Mitt comes along and tells us that the job of the politician is not to declare what he believes should be done.  Rather, the job of the politician is to find out what the people want and then give it to them, good and hard.  The politician is no longer a statesman who declares his convictions about fundamental truths that must be applied to his role in government.  He is no longer a defender of the republic who operates on the important principle of protecting the interests of the minority from the depredations of the majority.  No, the politician is nothing more than a highly paid pollster!  According to Mitt, the role of the politician is to conduct a poll and then make a law giving the 51% whatever they want.  If the rights of the 49% are trampled by the law, so be it.  If the property of the 49% is plundered, tough luck for them. 
Now if this belief of Mitt's is true, a very important conclusion necessarily follows.  If it is the job of elected officials to give the majority what they want, as Mitt says that it is, then it necessarily follows that in the Socialist Democracy of America (SDA) politicians are unnecessary.  All we need are some government clerks who will conduct interviews of the public to see what they want to vote about.  It could be quite simple actually.  Once a year the clerks could send out surveys to all SDA citizens and see what they want.  The surveys would be tabulated and a series of votes would be listed.  Any issue that was listed on more than 50% of the surveys would be subject to a vote.  On National Voting Day each SDA citizen would cast his vote and any issue receiving more than 50% of the votes would automatically become law. 
For example, if 50.1% of the surveys submitted to the government survey office said that my neighbor should be forced to buy me lunch once a week, at the restaurant of my choice, and spend somewhere between $20-30 on me, that would be put up for a vote.  If 50.1% of the voters agree, we have a new law.  The voice of the sovereign people has spoken.  From this point onward each person has the right to force his neighbor to buy him lunch once per week, under penalty of law for noncompliance.  What a system! What a country!
Mitt's defense of his intellectual flip-flop on socialized health care has really opened my eyes to the political realities of this country.  The majority rules.  The majority wins.  Of course, I should have already known this.  I only have to look as far as the data compiled by the IRS on who pays the income taxes each year.  We have basically come to the point where the defenseless 49% pay almost 100% of the federal income tax.  The 51% legally plunder the income of the 49%.  Now that is democracy at its finest.  Let's not confuse the issue with discussions about morality, theft and minority rights.  If you are in the minority, you lose.  Deal with it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ovation Inflation

I attended a high school production of 1776 last winter.  For a small, private high school, the event was well attended.  The production was surprisingly bad.  With the notable exception of one girl who sang a moving song about a soldier crying out for his Mother as he lay dying in a pool of his own blood, the remainder of the program was dull and listless.  When the curtain came down the audience, consisting mostly of parents and assorted relatives from what I could tell,  collectively leaped to its feet in a standing ovation.  The curtain was raised and the performers basked in the adulation.  Not wanting to convey to the performers the impression that they had just delivered a significantly above average performance, I remained in my seat.
I attended a performance of Fiddler on the Roof at the Buell Theater in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts a year or so ago.  I have seen Fiddler on several occasions so I had a pretty good idea of what was coming.  The man who was playing Tevye put a very different spin on the character.  I did not like his interpretation of the classic character.  I also did not think he had a particular powerful or expressionate voice.  When the curtain came down the audience collectively leaped to its feet in a standing ovation.  Not wanting to convey the idea to the actors that they had delivered a significantly above average performance of Fiddler, I remained seated. 
I can repeat this tale for several other performances I have attended over the past couple of years.  Phantom of the Opera (a dull and uninspired rendition of a monotonous and repetitious musical) and Lion King (aside from the enormous props and costumes, an event better off avoided) were both given standing ovations at the end of the show.  Neither of them deserved recognition for being significantly above average performances. 
Last Friday night I attended the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.  The CSO had put together an evening of music based upon the theme of Shakespeare.  I was told by the promotional flyer that I would be hearing music inspired by various musicals of Shakespearean plays.  That sounded like fun.  Unfortunately, I was severely disappointed.  The orchestra was in fine form.  The quality, talent and professionalism of the CSO is top notch.  Still, even the greatest symphony is limited by the quality of the music selected.  The CSO selected four different pieces. Two of them were written by an obscure French composer.  The first selection from this composer was dull, boring, and generally uninspired.  The second selection from this composer was an excerpt from his opera about the death of Cleopatra.  A mezzo-soprano was brought to the stage to sing the part.  After about 15 minutes of monotony I believe it is fair to say we all wanted to usher Cleopatra along to her death.  Interspersed between the musical pieces we were treated to two actors who read selections from Shakespeare.  I say "treated" facetiously.  Whenever Shakespear is read I experience the same phenomena.  I recognize that the words being spoken are English but I have no idea what is being said.  Being a Shakespearean dullard, I will shoulder the blame for finding this part of the evening dull.  Strangely, for a night dedicated to Shakespeare, the evening concluded with the orchestra basically playing a medley of the soundtrack from West Side Story (I am aware that this is considered a modern rendition of Romeo and Juliet).  I do not go to the symphony orchestra to listen to a soundtrack medley. 
Boettcher concert hall was mostly empty.  My mind began to wander and I was thinking of ways the CSO could bolster revenue and improve their performances.  While envisioning an advertising campaign and a vastly improved selection of music to be played, I noticed that several of the men sitting around me were starting to doze off.  You know the look.  The head starts to drop, then abruptly comes up again as the person catches himself falling asleep.  This went on throughout most of the final selection.  When the conductor finally dropped his hands two of the men who were almost asleep immediately leaped from their chairs in a standing ovation.  The ovation quickly swept through the hall and I believe I was the only attendee still seated.  I was dumbfounded.  Why would somebody who was scarcely able to stay awake for the performance conclude it by give a standing ovation to the performers?
Lest you think I am an old curmudgeon (which is probably true) who never has anything good to say about any artistic performance, consider that I have seen several outstanding performances in the past several years and I gave them all a standing ovation.  The performance of Les Miserables at the Denver Center was powerful.  The performance of Swan Lake by the Colorado Ballet was beautiful.  The collaboration of the pop band Guster with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was fantastic and brought me to my feet two times.  So this is not simply about being contrarian.  This is about ovation inflation.
A standing ovation has become the norm.  Just like the "B" has replaced the "C" as an average grade for coursework, the standing ovation has replaced seated applause as the response to an average performance.  I don't like that one bit.  With the performers being greeting by a standing ovation for everything that they do, how can they possibly discern when they have actually delivered an above average performance?  I fear that the standing ovation has become the norm for a combination of bad reasons.
First, parents are prone to give their children standing ovations as a means to enhance their self-esteem.  I find this very strange since most of the children that I know are in no need of self-esteem enhancement.  Quite the opposite is the case.  Perhaps the parents are fearful that representatives of the government might be in attendance and they need to honor their children with a standing ovation to avoid being charged with child abuse and having their children turned over to social services.  I don't know. All I do know is that telling children they are great when they are not is not doing them any service.  In fact, telling children they are great when they are not is setting them up for serious disappointment in the future.  It really should not be done.
Second, in the case of adults, I believe a great deal of peer pressure comes to bear in the theater.  When the performance concludes there is inevitably at least one person who believes it to be the greatest thing he has ever seen (probably a relative of one of the performers).  That person immediately jumps to his feet and applauds wildly.  This creates an awkward social situation for the people sitting next to this particular chap.  What should they do?  Should they remain seated, and appear to be non-supportive?  Or, should they give in to peer pressure and rise.  We all know what happens next.  It is like a type of theatrical critical mass.  A few more will cautiously stand.  Then, when critical mass is attained, the entire audience shoots to its feet.  This has nothing to do with the performance, of course.  It is simply about peer pressure and the insecurities of the attendees.
Third, in the case of the CSO, I believe that the patrons who immediately jumped to their feet did so more out of a sense of duty to support a dying organization.  The CSO is in severe financial straits.  The folks who attend regularly attend do so, I believe, at least partly out of a sense of duty to support the symphony.  I interpreted their standing ovation as an affirmation of the institution, not as particular praise for the performance.  Still, support the institution with a tax-deductible donation if you must.  Do not give a standing ovation for a performance that was not worthy of one.  Do not give a standing ovation for a performance that almost put you to sleep.  Unless, of course, you are an insomniac and are appreciative for the sleep aid.