Thursday, February 28, 2013

Give and Take

Where tax money gets spent by government matters.  Some states take in  more dollars in federal spending than their citizens pay out in taxes.

Good citizens pay their taxes to the federal government. Other citizens in greater need  receive distributions from  central treasuries.  Taxes are also spent on more generic services like  highways, military, and science research benefiting us all.  

Being a curious sort of fellow, I decided to go look at raw data and see who was taking and who was giving.  Below are documented the results of my quest.

Top 10's

The top 10 states that give more than they take from our common coffers are largely Democratic states.  Nebraska and Texas are the only two Republican leaning states in the top 10 whose citizens are net givers to other states. 

The division between those states who take the most per person does not fall into party lines.  Taker states seem to be largely rural, poor, or remote.

Total Contributions

When the total contributions by Republican and Democratic states is added together and average, there are some startling results.

The data shows that, in total, Democratic states give more in taxes than they receive in benefits.  

States that are Republican controlled states take much more benefits all together than they pay in taxes.  

Neutral states are those that have less than a 25% majority Democrat or Republican.  These states are also net takers, but less so than Republican states.

Democratic states tend to be more populous than Republican states, thus the bars are not identical in size.

Nationally, Democrats gave each spent $1,114 more in taxes than they received in benefits and services.  Republicans took $1,540 each on average.  States with Neutral party affiliation took an extra $1,467 per person.

States that Lean Heavily Democratic
Democrats Divisions

Heavily Democratic states are a mixed bag of givers and takers.  

I could find no clear trend in the most Democratic states were takers rather than givers when considered along party lines.  

The data indicates there is a broader trend for states leaning Democratic to pay more even though the most Democratic states do not always give more.

States that Lean Heavily Republican
Republican Takers

Heavily Republican states were much more likely to take more from the taxes than they gave in.  

These states are often rural or poor.  Of course not all rural and poor states are Republican. 

These taker states tend to be in the south and west.  

It is telling that there is a lack of major east and west coast states from the taker lists.  

Givers and Takers

In the chart below, the states are ranked by how much they contribute or take from the general federal taxes by large green and red bars.  The thin blue (Democratic) and thin red (Republican) bars indicated the strength of the part in each state.  Clicking on the graphic will provide an expanded view.


Pundits have been saying that Democrats are a nation of 'takers' while Republicans are 'givers' whom Democrats take from.  Even Presidential candidates have used this idea as campaign strategy.  

The Givers and takers argument has become a center of our economic debate.  It now seems common wisdom that some people give more and other people take more and that they can be divided upon party lines.  

The facts, however, disagree.  It turns out that on average Democrats give more taxes per person and Republicans take more benefits per person.  Perhaps it is time to change the common wisdom?

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Methods and Sources

First came taxes and spending divided by how many people are in each state.  This yielded an average giving or taking by person allowing apples-to-apples comparisons.  

Next was counting the political parties of state and federally elected officials, including Governors.   Averaging Democrats and Republicans Congressmen at a state and federal level gave a % Party Factor. A reasonable means to indicate if a state leaned heavily to one party or another.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Endlessly Unique

Are you unique?  Perhaps there copies of you existing out there, somewhere in the universe?  If the universe is infinite then there are infinite copies of you.  What is morality if there is an infinity of  you?

What is Infinity?

Infinity  (∞)  is a tough concept to wrap one’s head around.  Definitions like “without any limit”, “unbounded”, or “endless” allow labels, but not understanding.   

Our mind tends to think of a large number that keeps getting bigger.  We can not really imagine infinity directly, only stand close to it and pretend we grasp the immensity.

Is there really such a thing as infinity?  

Some say that infinity is only an imaginary idea, like Spock in Star Trek.  

Others say a circle is infinitely long, going round and round and round.  

No one knows for sure, despite centuries of thought and experiment.  We may never be able know if infinity is real or imagined.

We can prove infinity comes in different sizesGeorg Cantor showed how not long after the U.S. Civil War.  

You in a bounded universe.
We can prove that infinity comes in different shapes.  One-third goes 3.33333333... While Pi (Π) starts 3.14159265358…  Both infinite, both different.

These thoughts are only logic based on guesses.  Tricks our minds can play with symbols.  Infinity is an imagined reality.  Let us see what other magic our mind can hold.

Always Repeating

One thing infinities share is local repetition.  If you divide a piece of infinity you’ll find it again and again.  In the one-third number this is obvious.  There are many, many “3” pieces in 3.33333333...  

Repetition is true inside the Pi number too. The pattern “62” is repeated several times in just this short piece of Pi:


If you go far enough, you will find infinite copies of  any piece inside an infinity.

The larger the pattern, the rarer our piece becomes.  Rare is only a relative thing.  Like with the odd numbers and whole numbers, there can be infinite copies of any piece in infinity.

A big enough universe
for several copies of you.
Repeating Universe

We have come to know our universe is very large.  Is our universe infinite? Does it have a limit, bound, or end?  Some have guessed at the answer, but there is no proof yet.  We do know it is much larger than we can directly observe.  What facts we do have suggest it's edge would be vast beyond our comprehension.

Atoms and sub-atomic particles can be compared to numbers.  There are limited types of these parts, just as there are limited numbers we count with.  Both are pieces, divisions of an infinity.

There are only so many ways you can combine particles together.  It may be a big number of possible ways particles can be mixed together, but not an infinite numbers of ways. 

Particles and numbers are organized into patterns.  Bits of matter that form little copies over and over again through out the universe. 

If you look far enough you find that patterns repeat.  Patterns of matter behave as the “62” in Pi.  The larger the pattern, the farther you may have to look, but it will eventually be there.

Copies of You

If the universe is infinite then you are but one of infinite copies of you.  Every variation of your life exists repeatedly.

If the universe is large enough, but still has an end, then there may copies of you somewhere far away.

If the universe is small enough, there may be only one you. You may be unique.

An infinite number of you in an infinite  universe.

A Moral Mess

I am not sure if I like these ideas; one of me, many of me, an infinity of me.

If there are infinite me’s, then I am irrelevant to the universe.  Every mistake I could make would be made. Every good thing I could do has been done.  My choices then are only my experience of life and have meaning only to me.

If I am the only me, unique and special, then the pressure for morality in the universe overwhelms me.  Any mistake I make has consequences on the universe, limiting or expanding its potential.  Although my impacts are small, they are permanent and of unimaginable consequence.

Perhaps it is better if there are many copies of me.  My mistakes might be overcome by another copy.  I may be able to do better than the other copy.  There is room to still find the potential of what the universe could be, without the pressure of being it's only hope.

It may be best if I have no meaning at all to the universe.  Then one, many or infinity, the universe will go on it's merry way no matter what I do.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Go Away Kitty!

Is my time so precious that I should not share it with simpler forms of mind? Or is beauty of living so enriched to make time communing with pets a better use of a finite existence?

Stop sucking face and pet me dammit!
Learning is one of my habits. From rising until bed, gathering information seems to dominate my desire. From listening to a podcast to reading a book. Searching science papers for the latest discovery. Re-reading old philosophy texts to see if I can glean just a little more wisdom. Watching nature to see what patterns are present or changing. Every moment of discovery brings new joy and better understanding.

Life seems shorter as it moves on. With less and less of my finite time to unfold, each moment becomes more precious. As a child life seemed long and death so far away. Now I see cessations shadow and know an end of me draws nearer.

Cuddling cat nap.
My cats however take joy in naps. Sleep occupies more time than wakefulness. To them their grooming seems to be as much a pleasure as my learning to me. The hours of their lives go by, each one lived in the moment that it is.

Cats need attention. They are social animals more than we often admit. Petting, cuddling, and closeness are a part of what makes them feline. My cats have come to expect and even demand a consistent sensual bonding of touch.

Reading upon the couch or working at computer, the cats often come to sit on my lap. I don't mind it much, as long as claws stay in paws. Warmth in winter from their ample fur is nice. I am calmed by their touch and enjoy the closeness of another being in a quiet house.

Come play with me!
Sometimes my mind is deep in material at hand. The cat is a distraction from my purpose. I think I do not have time for them, their needs and wants. My heart goes to the place where I see intruders, needy and demanding upon my limited time resource. I growl, make fast gestures, or loud noises to let them know this is not time or place for communion.

Being simple creatures, they are often confused by my rejection, protestations only a momentary inconvenience for their purpose. The cat will wait a minute and return gently demanding my lap, hand and attention.

When not mindful, I can chase them away until they stay away. My own ambition being pursued, theirs is thwarted. I am the higher mind, the better thinker, the wiser knower of purpose and they must relent to my superior objectives. Their emotional pain is brief and other diversions or places of comfort soon found.

How many hours have I robbed from their desire for my own? In a decade of sharing nests, what is the count of my obstructions to their need? Is my project more important than theirs? 

 In a hundred years no one will remember their name or mine, their time or mine, their joy or mine.

Have I lost the opportunity to being in moments of shared contentment? Is not even this most basic of loves while alive a blessing in itself?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sequester the Future

The looming sequester is a cynical political game. Shrinking government is hard to do. Across the board cuts will bring pain and trauma. After them Congress will make itself to be our heroic saviors as they put band-aids on the most bloody parts of the spending cuts.

It is common wisdom that governments fund boondoggles. Examples are given that can make some of us angry. We do not always like the ways our government spends our taxes. Fury and fist shaking abound as we feel that our money is misspent. Obsolete programs, misunderstood research, and failed institutions are paid for with tax money and borrowing.

The Budget

A huge chunk of our federal spending is on social programs. Medicare, Medicaid and safety net programs like unemployment compensation, food stamps and housing assistance make up the majority of expenditures.

United States Federal Spending
Defense is our single largest category of spending. 

Our military budget is larger than China, Russia, England, France and the next ten countries combined.

The 'everything else' part of the chart includes the rest of government.  It counts education, science, NASA, energy, natural resources, Justice, agriculture, FBI, FDA, border security, National Parks, Coast Guard, highways and all the many programs the federal government has.

The interest on the debt is large, but not yet unmanageable.  Its growth is still relatively small compared to the size of the budgetary pie.

Election Fight

Last August, Congress decided to wait until after the election to deal with budget issues. They gave themselves a 'fiscal cliff' so they would not run over it like lemmings. The 8% shrinking of military spending and 5% across the board cuts to all other kinds has become known as 'sequestration'.

Sequestration Cuts
The sequestration idea was to make across the board cuts to most government spending if no other law was enacted. The theory was that if they made the alternative really bad, a compromise would be found.

The Republicans were convinced they would win the Presidency and control the government. They reasoned that after winning they would be able act as they wished. Having lost the election, they found themselves unable to work their will.

The Democrats pressed their electoral advantage. The Republicans feeling their back against the wall are standing firm to not let the Democrats have their way. So here, my friends, comes the austerity!

Immediate Consequences

Funding for many programs we depend upon will be arbitrarily cut. Spending on wildfire fighting to aircraft carrier maintenance is effected. Air travel will be disrupted by less controllers being available and less guards on duty to process passengers through security. Inspection of the food and drug supply will slow down.

There will be less prison guards on duty. Over half a million women and children will lose nutrition assistance. The disabled will be receive less support, financial and otherwise.

Furloughs will happen to FBI agents, Defense Department employees, and Border Patrol agents. U.S. Attorneys will take 2,600 few cases. Training for veterans, small business loans, National Parks, and Nuclear cleanup will all suffer.

Cynical Congress

Some pundits taking the Chicken Little view saying the sky is falling. Others are being Pollyanna about the cuts thinking all will be wonderful.

It is clear that there will be pain for some, especially the most needy. Most will at least be inconvenienced by lack of or slower services. All will be threatened by a weaker military.

After the cuts, the federal government will be in the position of having to spend money to fill in the holes left by the sequestration. Those places where the most pain is felt, or at least that have the squeakiest wheels, will have new funds made available.

I want to be your hero!
It is always easier to add new spending than to cut. This is just human nature. Our system of constant elections makes politicians aware that they must bring home the bacon for their local districts. Cutting the bacon is bad for their re-election chances.

Fixing what Congress broke will allow them to make believe they are heroes, come to save the day from the previous Congress. Spending money to strengthen ailing systems will look good in the press. The fact they are mostly the ones who broke it in the first place will be forgotten in two years when election time comes.

Austerity Is Bad Idea

I am not convinced that this is the right time for austerity. The world wide global recession has been going for almost five years now and no end is in sight. Cutting government spending means shrinking the economy in the short run. Spending less money slows the economy.

There will be no savings to taxes, so no more money will be spent by other sectors like business or consumers. Cutting government spending will shrink the economy, not grow it.

A strong middle class could
help pay down the debt.
Those countries that have cut their spending are hurting worse than those who have not. Austerity, budget cut backs, are going to hurt us.

Government spending does need to be cut in the long term. The level of spending is unsustainable.

We must find ways to get our middle class wages growing again. The engine of the U.S. economy is consumer spending by the middle class. These tax payers are hurting. Less middle class income means less middle class taxes. Cutting government spending will not help the middle class.

Many citizens confuse their personal experience of microeconomics with societies practice of macroeconomics. The rules for these two spheres of economy are different. Balanced budgets are good for microeconomics but not as wise in macroeconomics.

Deficit spending in recessions has a long track record of being beneficial in the long run.

Austerity in recessions has a long track record of being disastrous in the short run.

Given Congress's current direction to make austerity real, we are in for a bumpy ride.

Numbers for the charts were gathered from the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

After the Big "O"

If you want to restrict or permit abortions, you need to move to a state that begins with the letter "O".  The most restrictive and least restrictive states both start with this capital letter: Oklahoma and Oregon.

The chart shows the total number of abortion regulations by state, color-coded by the category of regulation.

If Roe v. Wade were to be overturned by the Supreme Court those states with the light blue markings would have immediate abortion bans due to previously passed, but currently unconstitutional laws.

The state rankings for abortion regulations fall along social ideological lines of Conservative and Liberal political views.

According Elizabeth Nash, 92 new state restrictions on abortion were enacted in 2011 and 43 more in 2012. According to her research, one-third of women in 2000 lived in a state that was openly hostile to abortion. By 2011, that figure had jumped to half.

Nash said. "The kinds of restrictions we see being passed are meant to make it more difficult for providers to perform abortions and more emotionally difficult for women to choose them."

Click on the graphic to expand it for a closer view.

Original data source was Guttmacher Institute and Center for Reproductive Rights
Remapping Debate created the original graphic.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Equal Elite?

In every society, there is a group of people who lead it. There may be a king, a parliament or a even a democracy. The reality is that only a few people have the power to make things happen. Let's call these people 'the elite'.  They are not a conspiracy, rather a group of people, often men, who have the reigns.

The Kennedy brothers had special advantages.
The great political theorists of history, Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, and even Lenin, acknowledged that society has elites of one kind or another. The United States is no different from any other human society that has existed.

Launching Point

Before World War II, Ivy league schools (Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Columbia, etc.) publicly admitted that their students were largely from the New England elites. Names of graduates from these schools fill positions of power through out our society, (Kennedy, Bush, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, Murdoch, Clinton, Adams, Proctor, Gates, Merck, Dole, Heinz, du Pont, Sachs) reading like a who's who of power and wealth in the country.

Poison "Ivy League"?
Probably not.
Before the world war, chiefly the old family elite were permitted entrance to the training that would give them positions of power. After the war, this started to change and a new kind of merit admittance started. The path has remained the same, but the pool of eligibility has gradually widened.  It is still highly limited, not many gain access to the pathways to power.

We all know the story, go to a top school secure a job in one of a few companies and rise up to the crest of society. Rarely do we see the people who take positions of power not come from the Ivy League.  These schools are the 'elite manufacturing centers' of our nation. Tuition is high and access to the education provided is controlled. Opportunities abound for only a few.

Web of Power

Some of these people are truly the best and brightest. Many others are there by family or fortune. Building networks amongst people with power is more important than excelling at a field through brilliance of mind, action, or will.

Belonging to the same fraternities and societies within these schools like the Skull and Bones, the Scroll and Key, or Wolf's Head, gives one access to families and people already in power.

Kerry and Bush both belonged to the
Skull and Bones society.
The elites fill the ranks of both political parties, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative alike. The top non-elected positions in government, from the Cabinet level on down, are populated with these elites.  The Federal Reserve, the top military brass, the Supreme Court and more come from these same institutions.

Sitting on the boards of long established corporations or even leading them is another path taken by the elites. Many hold multiple seats as directors on Fortune 500 companies. They are a web of familiar faces that make decisions across industries and borders. The median is that single person will be a director for 7 different Fortune 500 firms.  A small number of elites control the wealth of the nation.

Conspiracies are fun to imagine,
but too complex to pull off.
Not a Conspiracy

Having similar educations, these members of the elites tend to think alike. There is a homogeneity to what they are exposed to and therefore who they can become.

Human nature is to seek out people like ourselves. Those who think like us and act like us, attract us.

There need be no secret conspiracy of power for an elite to form. It is just the way humans are.

Leveraging family, contacts and existing wealth by individuals tend to build a cadre of elites.  If you could, wouldn't you give your children this opportunity by tilting the scales of opportunity in their favor?

Ethical Entitlement

Rockefeller boys with their father.
All inherited great wealth.
The Untied States envisions itself as a place where you can rise to the top though hard work. This Protestant Work Ethic tells us that frugality and effort will lead us to prosperity. Some even think it is a sign of God's blessing when we achieve success in this way.

This ethic also tells us that once you have 'made it' you deserve to be there. Your wealth and power are an indication of your personal superiority. The people who did not make it, failed due to their own personal limitations.

Any head start you may have been given is taken as inconsequential. There are very, very few who make it own their own, yet they are held up as the examples of all of those in power. There many more who came from a few families in these groups of power than those who made it on their own. Yet we take people like Abe Lincoln or Steve Jobs as the standard by which all climb to powerful positions.

Surrounding themselves with people like themselves, they live in an echo chamber that reflects back their own merit and entitlement to their power. The elite tend to not understand the issues, struggles or inequalities suffered by 'the little people'. These failed little people are thought simply not good enough to make the 'big time'.


Look around at the people you know. We each could name a dozen or more people that have worked hard, been frugal, and have done their best. We can also name several who did not work hard, were lazy and failed.

Hard worker with
little opportunity.
The non-elites are the ones who design the software, work in the factory, administer the medicine, and coach the little league team. They are good people who do the best they can with what they have.

The difference between the elite and those we know who worked hard is not one of effort. The difference is the resource of opportunity. Most of the elite do not start off poor. Most of the elite do not come from broken homes. Most of the elite do not have to work two jobs to support an ailing family member or face unemployment when the local factory shuts down.

The non-elite do not attend private schools with great educations. They pay off student loans over 20 years. The non-elite do not get inside knowledge on the next big economic opportunity, they are at the whim of the big company's plans. The non-elite can not martial the capital, resources, lawyers, or political power to realize their potential and accomplish their goals.

The difference between the 'little guy' who works hard and the 'little guy' who is lazy pales in comparison to the lazy and hard-working elite. The elite have huge advantages in money, education, and resources. These advantages are the true source of their power, generation after generation.

The people who call themselves the 'job creators' are actually often the elite in a new mask. Believing they 'know better' they demand a greater share of the common resources, pay less taxes, and make decisions that effect all our lives with out our input.


We will always have an elite in our society. It's just the way things are.

The elite should not forget their advantage and spread the knowledge and resources so that more have opportunity.  

More people of merit should be allowed to become elites, especially by non-traditional means.

The non-elite need to setup infrastructure and institutions that will enable more of the little people to rise to positions of power.

If both the elite and non-elite fail at these tasks, in a few generations we will all become weaker.

Ranking States by Race

When we think of racial issues in the United States, we often focus on certain parts of the country.  This is more about our conditioning than reality.


Most diverse states.
Hawaii has the fewest "Caucaoids" (as a friend calls those of mostly northern European or white origin).  Growing Hispanic populations push the other four states into the top five most diverse list.  All four of them are in the southwest.

Least diverse states

Four out of the five least diverse states are in the north sharing borders with Canada.  Most of the least diverse states are rural with large farming, ranching or wilderness areas.

None of these homogeneous states is from the rebellious southern states, although two (West Virginia and Kentucky) were border states with shifting allegiance during the U.S. Civil War.

Black Heritage

Most self-identified black states

States with the largest percentage of self-identified African or Black heritages are largely on the Confederate side of the U.S. Civil War, with Delaware being the lone stand out.

Self Identified Other
Top 10  other states

Strong concentrations of native people make up the "Other" racial category.  The concentration of indigenous peoples in the Indian Wars led to several of these states falling into this category.

New York, Washington, California, and Hawaii also have large populations of Asian descent.

This data was complied from our latest census.  Below, sorted by density of whites  is the state-by-state rankings.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wham BAM Thank You, Man!

We now have the technology to make a digital model of the human brain. We need but to will it to happen. If we do not, someone else will. Sooner than you may think. Scientists have devised a practical plan to do accomplish this amazing feat. We must fund them.

From humble beginnings in 1987, scientists began to model the human genome. They wanted to make map of the entire sequence of genes that make a human being. With government funding starting in 1990, the project was expected to take 15 years. They accomplished the project in 2003 with international assistance from scientists in the Europe and Asia.

Calling the project Brain Activity Map (BAM) the scientists propose to step-by-step build models of the human brain using software. They would start with a simple worm brain and work up through increasingly complex creatures until they can model a human brain. Brain mapping is sometimes also know by the term “connectome”.

The Science

Imaging techniques would be used to see what is happening with individual molecules in the brain's cells. This imaging technology already exists. Computer manufactures believe they can continue their decades long exponential growth in machine processing power using Moore's Law. This means the hardware to run the imaged brain models will be available before the brain model is completed.

Existing technology to image the brain at the molecular level

The well understood C. Elegans
The plan involves five major stages. Each stage attempts a more complex brain. The plan allows five years for each stage in order to image and model larger and larger brains. Several “brain observatories” would be constructed to allow for competition between research teams.

The first phase would start with C.Elegans, a simple worm that has already been under study for decades. The worm has 302 neurons with about 7,000 connections between them.

The humble Fruit Fly
Scaling up from the worm brain model, the scientists would then attempt a Fruit Fly (Drosophila) next. The Fruit brain has about 135,000 neurons. Current computer hardware is capable of this feat already, the scientists need only do the imaging to make the model.

Depending upon what is learned with the first two phases, the third phase would attempt either the common home aquarium zebrafish brain, a section of the human brain called the hippocampus or perhaps both. Both of these brains have just under a million neurons to image, model, and put into software.

The fourth stage would be to model the entire brain of an awake mouse. This would provide a brain model that could be tested in real time against live beings. Then the project would go on to the fifth stage to map and model an entire, working human brain. The 25 year estimate to finish this entire project is very conservative.  If structured smartly, competition could work for like it did for the human genome project and results could be achieved even sooner.


The plan calls for a mix of private and public funding in the order of about $300 million a year. Over the proposed 20 years of of the project it would cost about $6 billion to accomplish. This is on the same scale as was the Human Genome project. Even if the real costs double, it will be cheap at the price.

A billion dollars seems like a lot. To understand the scale of this investment, consider that just to build a single aircraft carrier costs almost $27 billion. We have 11 of these ships. The Transportation Security Administration has a budget of $8 billion annually. The Hubble Space Telescope costs $10 billion over its lifetime.

Putting in the Golden Spike
The Payoff

The human genome project has had staggering economic benefits. The under $4 billion invested over 13 years on research returned $796 billion in economic activity. The genome investment generated 310,000 jobs. It also launched a revolution in the bio-sciences that will be felt for generations to come.

The return on investment for mapping the human brain could be much, much greater. There is no accurate way to predict just how many jobs or how much new economic activity this project could generate. Even if the Brain Activity Mapping project were to only break-even in financial terms, the benefits to our knowledge, medicine, and computers will be far reaching.

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.
Knowledge of how the brain works will have many impacts we know about and more we can only guess at. Understanding how mental illness works. Scientists believe that they can model the effects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and autism in the brain leading to better treatments and perhaps even cures.

Advances in artificial intelligence could boost our information processing capabilities. Understanding how consciousness emerges from the brain would allow to understand what we humans are even better. We may even be able to build our own new kinds of minds.

Just Do It

As when we decided to put a man on the moon, connect the Pacific Atlantic oceans by rail, and build the interstate system; this project must be done. The benefits to our country and mankind are too great to turn away from.

Already the European Union is funding similar research in Switzerland. We should not give up on this research like we did with the Superconducting Super Collider.  We should lead the world, not follow it into this new frontier.

We should ensure our children and grandchildren benefit. It is a small investment. We should fund this now.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

No Congress Left Behind

We test our students to see if they are knowledgeable enough to become citizens.  We should test the members of our Congress to see if they are fit for duty.  A basic understanding of law, economics, military arts, and science should be required in order to govern.  Those that can not pass such a basic skills and knowledge test should either be given remedial instruction, or be denied office.

A broken institution?
We Think They Stink

In the House of Representatives, our 112th Congress read the U.S. Constitution aloud.  It was a symbolic way to show the people that Congress was aware of the rules they governed under.  It was a statement that we are a nation of laws, not men.

In the reading, they claimed they would not fall short.  They claimed they would not kick the can down the road.  They claimed they would end business as usual and carry out the people's instructions.  Most of us think they failed. Miserably.

Congress has an abysmal rating among citizens.  82% of us think they are doing a rotten job.  Maybe if we had more knowledgeable people in Congress, we could get their approval rating to a stellar high of 50%?  You need about a 65% rating to graduate from high school.  Our standards for Congress have sunk so low.

Congress's behind is the butt of jokes.
No Child Left Behind

In 2001 Geo. Bush the junior signed his proposed bill into law called “No Child Left Behind Act”.  This law required states to test children in order to receive federal funding for schools.  Each state was to create and administer an annual test to its students. Each year the students must do better than the year before on their tests.

The goal of “No Child Left Behind” was to increase accountability of schools.  Since most of us do not think our government is being held accountable, perhaps a dose of their own medicine would help Congress be better?

What To Test?

How many of today's Congress people
could measure up to these standards?
The issues that confront us today require leaders who know the details.  Not all of Senators and Representatives need to be experts in every subject.  There should be some minimal baseline of knowledge that each and every member has.

Knowledge of the Constitution is a starting point.  Being able to identify the various governmental departments, their budgets and mission would be another.  An understanding of the law would not hurt.  I'm not as worried about this part of the test as about a 40% of them are lawyers.

A basic understanding of the scientific method is crucial in this modern age.  Some questions on basic biology, chemistry and physics wouldn't be bad either.  How can we have leaders able to cope with our high tech world if they don't understand the fundamentals that make it up?  Among the 435 members of the House there is one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, six engineers and nearly two dozen representatives with medical training.

Economics is another area that seems lacking in today's Congress.  An understanding of basic accounting, micro and macro economics seems essential to having good government.  We may not need Nobel laureates, but the basic understanding that budgets have to balance would be nice.  Each and every member should know that the government has to pay its bills on time or we all lose our credit rating.

How many leaders have even been
on an aircraft carrier?
In high school, I was required to know all 50 states and capitals by heart.  Perhaps our Congress people should know all 200+ countries, their leaders, location, capitals, and basic political structures?  As the leaders of the world, our Congress should be very knowledgeable about it.

Few who join the armed services want to let loose the dogs of war.  Veterans tend to be more cautious with use of military force.  Perhaps we should require all Congress people to go through basic training?   Baring that step, they should at least have a good understanding of military doctrine, weapon systems, and the weaknesses our military has.

There are more things we could test for, but these might make a good start.

Time out for ignorance.
Expect More

There are of course details to work out.  Who would write the test?  Who would administer it?  Should we test before they can declare candidacy?  What if they fail the test after they are in office?  These kinds of questions did not stop us from expecting more from our schools.  They should not stop us from expecting more from Congress.

Perhaps the Supreme Court can create the test?  Perhaps the President can administer it?  Perhaps states that keep electing people who fail the test should be put on probation like college athletic programs when they have scandals?

I will acknowledge my intent is a bit satirical.  There may, however, be some grain of wisdom in the idea that we need to objectively measure Congress's performance.  Starting off with measuring individual members might not be a bad way to begin.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Model, Market, and Monopoly

Markets are rarely, if ever free. Truly free markets are a theoretical concepts like zero or infinity. We can imagine them, but they may not actually exist. Monopolies form. Government interferes. Supply can be cut off. New technologies can violently disrupt society. Imbalances in other markets can interrupt distribution.

Markets occur whenever we sell a product or a service. 

Markets are many and diverse. Markets can be found in the parking lot swap meet or a professional trading floor.

Free markets are thought to find the optimal price and best distribution of goods and services.

Free markets are uncontrolled by government.

Free markets have no monopolies. 

Mark the monopolist wanna-be
Managing Markets

I once was manager of products and services in markets. My job was to find out what people's wants and needs were, find a solution, then deliver it to them. For several years I specialized in the real estate industry providing technology and processes. The real estate markets spanned multiple countries and cultures.

I worked for corporations. Corporations are a legal tool owned by people. I was labor. I worked for other people. Someone else owned the capital and resources. If I did well at my job, owners made millions in profits. If I failed, owners lost millions. A salary was my compensation for pieces of my life's time.

We built databases of properties for sale. We had databases of transactions. We created and maintained records of government property tax roles. Marketing materials to help sellers find buyers. Catalogs to help buyers find sellers. Accounting software to optimize costs. Estimating software to predict individual transactions, local markets and national trends. Tools and training to automate business processes. Information about the market and where the best deals where. Software to help local governments predict revenue.

Modeling market data
Finding out what peoples wants and needs are is the hard part. What people say they need and what they actually need often don't match up. Of course I would listen to what people said and ask many questions. I also followed people, watching them. Observing their behavior and taking notes often revealed unexpressed needs. Watching closely provided deeper insight to the nature of their activity. I studied their suppliers and customers. I followed the paths of their resources from creation to destruction.  I came to understand the structure and flows of each market I competed in.

Designing solutions is more my suit. Doing studies and creating graphs. Designing structure and process .  Long arguments in front of white boards building models of market behavior.  Taking those models “out into the field” for testing to see if they worked. Revising and editing the models until the product or service became as profitable as they could be.

Controlling local supply  of resources
Building Monopolies

Designing a product is by definition an anti-free-market activity. One must engage in thinking like a socialist dictator in order to control a market. Every day I tried to figure out how we could monopolize markets. Corporations want high, steady income. Getting a monopoly on a market is the best way to ensure that.

Finding a resource to control helped build a monopoly. If you can control a fundamental resource in one market, you can monopolize many markets. Being the entry point for the supply of a resource is a common method. Data about the market is one of the best resources to conquer.

Dreams of monopoly
We spent a lot of effort making the best data entry systems possible. The easier it was to put data in our system, the more the market did it. The more data they gave us, the greater the control we had in the market. At one point, well over half of the U.S. property market came into systems we controlled.

My labor was not in a free market. I had signed away my right to compete with the owners. They wanted my labor as a steady, high resource. The corporation had a monopoly on my labor. Luckily the market for my labor was made free. I could wait a year and the contractual provision would expire. Signing a new contract with a competitor was a good move for my income. It still cost me a year of my life to buy that market freedom.

Monopolies typically maximize their profit. A corporation with a monopoly wants to produce fewer goods and selling them at higher prices. Monopolies destroy free markets.

In a free labor market
children are a resource
The Real "Monopoly"

Real estate brokers have taken control the market data since I left the industry. Real estate brokers are “middle-men” standing between the buyer and the seller. They have an effective monopoly on the information about the supply of goods in that industry. Claiming they provide a better service, they have built up barrier to entry requiring you to belong to their trust (monopoly). You must sign away your free market rights to be able to participate in the property market.

It is possible to use For Sale By Owner (FSBO) methods to sell or buy houses. This is a small niche of the market however. Individual experience may vary, but it is generally more difficult to sell your house. Real estate brokers will typically not work with FSBO. Real estate brokers work hard at keeping FSBO to a minimum through laws and the control of information.

A home is the single largest purchase most people make in their life times. Most middle class citizens buy two or three homes in their lifetimes. Typically we buy a home when our children are born or we retire.  Most real estate market transactions go through the broker's monopoly. One group or another has monopolized the real estate data market for so long, we accept the monopoly as normal and are unaware of how much it costs us.

Cheating unbalances markets
Free Market Myth

The idea that we can just “free” our markets and they will we will all prosper runs against my experienced in business. Free markets are often more myth than reality. Many of our markets are operated by or as monopolies.

Disruptive technologies like the printing or the internet have broken information monopolies. A wise owner looks for such technologies and tries to monopolize them before they disrupt the market. With the financial power coming from the monopoly, this happens frequently and the monopoly continues on.

Trade associations are often used for groups of owners to control markets. The National Association of Realtors is a very powerful organization that does this for real estate. They have been actively involved in keeping control of the data about real estate for over a century now.

Government is One Answer

We can use our government to break up monopolies. The power of government is used to force those who would control a market to let go of it.  Government is often the proper tool to keep markets free from monopoly.  

Teddy is still rock solid
Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive Republican who had his face put on Mount Rushmore because he broke up monopolies. Teddy was known as the “trust buster”. He offered a “Square Deal” that regulated the business practices of monopolies to guide markets toward more freedom. He facilitated negotiations between labor and owners to break up monopolies on labor.

There are those among us today who think “markets should be free”. They operate under the idea that perfect competition can exist. My experience of reality indicates this is not so. The people who want this may well just be trying to monopolize markets. I can not prove that all business people want to have a monopoly. I have met enough of them to believe many do.