South Carolina: Keep slavery; get rid of the symbol of slavery

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Facebook is alight with people saying that they are opposed to citizens of South Carolina displaying a Confederate flag. In response to one of these posts I noted that “It takes a lot of courage to advocate tearing down the flag of an army that was defeated 150 years ago.” In response to a post from a software developer who is frantically removing the flags from a catalog shopping site: “When Confederate flags are outlawed, only outlaws will have Confederate flags.”

Obviously the flags, whatever their symbolism might have been in the old days, will have to go now that they are associated with the Charleston church shooting. But reflecting back on Walter Scott (previous posting), it occurred to me that South Carolina will be getting rid of this symbol of slavery (“no longer available at Walmart”) while keeping its system of actual slavery in place.

What is the definition of “slavery” today? According to antislavery.org, “Someone is in slavery if they are: forced to work – through mental or physical threat; … physically constrained or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement.”

As in most states, South Carolina maintains a population of people who are “forced to work.” These are the losers of custody and child support lawsuits and/or alimony lawsuits. If they do not keep working and earning whatever a judge has decided they are capable of earning so that they can pay whatever a judge ordered them to pay, they are subject to the penalties listed on this South Carolina Department of Social Services site. These include “license revocation,” which would seem to fit the antislavery.org definition component of “restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement” and “passport denial,” which also fits. Penalties also include imprisonment, to which Walter Scott was subjected three times.

Who is the owner, entitled to receive the fruits of a slave’s labor, of a modern-day South Carolina slave? In some cases it is the successful child support plaintiff (child support revenue is potentially unlimited in South Carolina, but in practice it may be tough to get more than a tax-free $600,000 per year (chapter) from a single child). However, in other cases it is the government (mostly federal) that is the slave owner because whatever money can be extracted from the slave is kept by the government as a reimbursement for various welfare benefits to which the person who won custody is entitled via the “single parent with no job or low income” status.

[South Carolina law is written in a gender-neutral manner, and theoretically the opportunity to profit from possession of children is theoretically available to both men and women. However, 100 percent of the people collecting child support surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in March 2014 in South Carolina were women.]

Thus South Carolina will soon be rid of the visible symbols of slavery while having plenty of actual slaves moving in and out of its prison system and courtrooms. (How many exactly? MSNBC says that “Two surveys of county jails in the South Carolina conducted in the last decade found that at least one out of every eight incarcerated people were there because they had been held in contempt of court for not paying child support. “)

[A friend pointed out that the slavery of Walter Scott in 2015 was different from slavery circa 1815.  I think it is fair to disagree about what to call someone who, if he can’t work for whatever reason, must go to prison. But I don’t think that it is accurate to call him “free”.]

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Tim Hunt and “The Other Guys” movie

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I was chatting with some friends about Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate who lost his jobs after saying “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” I hadn’t appreciated one parallel with that masterpiece of 21st Century cinema: The Other Guys. One of the disgraced scientist’s core points was that at least some women reacted badly to criticism. To demonstrate just how wrong Hunt was, i.e., that women can in fact handle harsh words, he needed to be packed off into a quiet retirement so as to avoid the risk of any additional women being exposed to potentially upsetting statements.

Corresponding scene in the Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg movie:

  • Allen Gamble (after watching his partner dance ballet): “Hey, I didn’t know you could dance.”
  • Terry Hoitz: “We used to do those dance moves to make fun of guys when we were kids to show them how queer they were.”

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Apple Music: Good reminder not to listen to computer scientists

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The scrap between Taylor Swift and Apple Music (Variety) is an important reminder that computer scientists are often dead wrong about how technology will be used by business. People who had ARPAnet connectivity to their desktops in the 1970s and early 1980s envisioned a fully distributed business environment to go with the fully distributed network. You’d be able to buy any book, newspaper, or movie but you’d get it from the publisher’s server or perhaps the author’s. You’d be able to buy products direct from manufacturers, with retailers disintermediated. Certainly nobody predicted that a company such as Apple would be able to take 30 percent of the recording industry’s revenue because the record companies were incapable of setting up their own servers. Taylor Swift should not have been able to get into a dispute with Apple because consumers would be getting their music direct from Taylor Swift’s server, perhaps paying a Visa card-style transaction fee to a payment processor.

Technology by itself suggests Econ 101-style efficient markets with more vendors and fewer middlemen/middlewomen (is there a gender-neutral term for a rent-collecting middleman? would we want one?). And the way that Internet was rolled out to consumers has happened almost exactly as the 1970s users predicted (except that the winning protocols and standards, HTTP and HTML, turned out to be far simpler than predicted!). The real-world use of technology, however, has to a significant extent resulted in business structures that are opposite to what was predicted.

Medical “science” reverses itself on antibiotic duration

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Every time I look up something related to medicine it seems that the folks who call themselves “scientists” have reversed their previous conclusions. Americans have been told to finish every course of prescribed antibiotics, for example, contradicting the common sense idea to stop ingesting pills once you’re perfectly healthy.

Here’s a Discover Magazine article from 2014 confirming the common sense perspective and referring to published medical research papers as “science.” Here’s another one from The Guardian, reporting on a paper from Australia.

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Father-daughter flying

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A Father’s Day flying story:

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What legal euthanasia looks like on the ground

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“Letter from Belgium: The Death Treatment” is a great article by Rachel Aviv about what it looks like to have legal euthanasia. One big issue seems to be the kind of people who are attracted to work in this industry and or be customers. It turns out not to be just average physicians putting metastatic cancer victims out of their misery.

[Separately, the article does not mention any technical difficulties with euthanasia. The problems that lead to epic legal fights regarding capital punishment here in the U.S. don’t seem to occur in Belgium.]

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Good class to skip on Father’s Day

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How well do the sentimental concepts of fatherhood of 100 years ago match up to the world as currently experienced by a lot of American men?

From “The End of Men” (Hanna Rosin; Atlantic 2010)…

The role reversal that’s under way between American men and women shows up most obviously and painfully in the working class. In recent years, male support groups have sprung up throughout the Rust Belt and in other places where the postindustrial economy has turned traditional family roles upside down. Some groups help men cope with unemployment, and others help them reconnect with their alienated families. Mustafaa El-Scari, a teacher and social worker, leads some of these groups in Kansas City. El-Scari has studied the sociology of men and boys set adrift, and he considers it his special gift to get them to open up and reflect on their new condition. The day I visited one of his classes, earlier this year, he was facing a particularly resistant crowd.

None of the 30 or so men sitting in a classroom at a downtown Kansas City school have come for voluntary adult enrichment. Having failed to pay their child support, they were given the choice by a judge to go to jail or attend a weekly class on fathering, which to them seemed the better deal. This week’s lesson, from a workbook called Quenching the Father Thirst, was supposed to involve writing a letter to a hypothetical estranged 14-year-old daughter named Crystal, whose father left her when she was a baby. But El-Scari has his own idea about how to get through to this barely awake, skeptical crew, and letters to Crystal have nothing to do with it.

Like them, he explains, he grew up watching Bill Cosby living behind his metaphorical “white picket fence”—one man, one woman, and a bunch of happy kids. “Well, that check bounced a long time ago,” he says. “Let’s see,” he continues, reading from a worksheet. What are the four kinds of paternal authority? Moral, emotional, social, and physical. “But you ain’t none of those in that house. All you are is a paycheck, and now you ain’t even that. And if you try to exercise your authority, she’ll call 911. How does that make you feel? You’re supposed to be the authority, and she says, ‘Get out of the house, bitch.’ She’s calling you ‘bitch’!”

The men are black and white, their ages ranging from about 20 to 40. A couple look like they might have spent a night or two on the streets, but the rest look like they work, or used to. Now they have put down their sodas, and El-Scari has their attention, so he gets a little more philosophical. “Who’s doing what?” he asks them. “What is our role? Everyone’s telling us we’re supposed to be the head of a nuclear family, so you feel like you got robbed. It’s toxic, and poisonous, and it’s setting us up for failure.” He writes on the board: $85,000. “This is her salary.” Then: $12,000. “This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?” A murmur rises. “That’s right. She’s the man.”

Let’s hope that some of these guys are better able to enjoy the Hallmark holiday in 2015! (a successful custody plaintiff in Missouri can collect child support only through the child’s 21st birthday (Missouri chapter), though unpaid court-ordered amounts may result in litigation, imprisonment, etc. when the children in question are older)

Stats from March 2014 Census Current Population Survey: 95 percent of the people collecting child support in Missouri are women; 7.7 percent of all women age 30-40 in Missouri are collecting child support.

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Young person’s perspective on the Charleston church shooting

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I asked a young friend if he thought that America’s gun laws, including perhaps the Constitution, should be changed in response to the recent Charleston church shooting. Given the human bias towards action I was surprised that he responded “No, if you take away guns from people like that they will just find another even more destructive weapon.” A ghoulish speculation followed concerning the possibility that if Dylan Roof hadn’t a handgun he would have visited the same web sites as the Tsarnaev brothers and brought a pressure cooker bomb to a church potluck.

[Separately, this article reveals that Dylan Roof had been, in his 21 years, already supporting the twin pillars of the American legal industry: custody litigation and drug law enforcement.]

What do readers think? What, if anything, can we learn from this sad event?

Career for young people: Reserve police officer in Massachusetts

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A friend (“Bob”) decided that it would be fun to get the training to become a reserve police officer here in Massachusetts. You have to be sponsored by a local police chief (i.e., personal connections are helpful). Is that hard to get? “There were 20-year-olds in my class,” noted Bob. “It is a great job for someone who didn’t go to college.”

How long does it take and how much does it cost to become qualified? “320 hours,” Bob responded. “I added up the training costs and my uniform and driving expenses and I have $7000 into getting the credentials. It would take about 20 shifts [directing traffic] working to pay that off.”

Massachusetts is a state in which utilities almost always hire off-duty police officers any time that repair work is being done near a road. This creates a lot of opportunities to direct traffic. How much does that pay? “Depends,” said Bob. “Today was $45 but in 4-hour blocks. I worked 4.5 hours and got paid for 8, so it worked out to about $80 per hour. Weekend pay on a holiday with overtime is $150 per hour.” Is there enough work to justify doing this full-time? “There is tons of work,” responded Bob, “and I could easily do this every day, but for pure reserve it would be hard to make over $100,000 a year. But it is a good way to get a full-time police job with a pension. There are public lists of what Boston PD makes – a bunch of them make over $200,000 a year. After retirement they can collect the pension and also take these hourly jobs.”

How can a flat tax of 14.5 percent work in a country where government spends 40 percent of GDP?

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Rand Paul has proposed a flat 14.5 percent tax on personal and business income (somewhat sadly for Democracy, he chose to publish his proposal in a subscription-only article in the Wall Street Journal). Except that it isn’t truly a flat tax because he is preserving subsidies to realtors and home builders:

I devised a 21st-century tax code that would establish a 14.5% flat-rate tax applied equally to all personal income, including wages, salaries, dividends, capital gains, rents and interest. All deductions except for a mortgage and charities would be eliminated. The first $50,000 of income for a family of four would not be taxed. For low-income working families, the plan would retain the earned-income tax credit.

He adopts one of my pet ideas (see 2008 economic recovery plan): “All capital purchases would be immediately expensed, ending complicated depreciation schedules.” (I actually proposed more flexibility than this.)

Rand Paul’s idea would seem to fit Singapore very nicely. This page says “Government expenditures are equivalent to 14.4 percent of the domestic economy.” But how could it possibly work in the U.S., especially considering that Paul proposes to eliminate payroll taxes (currently themselves close to 14 percent)? Government spending is roughly 40 percent of GDP (chart). Only about half of the total is spent by the federal government, however, so in theory Rand Paul’s idea isn’t as crazy as comparing 40 percent and 14.5 percent. But comparing 20 percent and 14.5 percent still leaves a deficit of roughly 5.5 percent of GDP, no? Or even larger if you consider that Paul is preserving subsidies for housing and exempting lower-income Americans. This chart shows that the federal deficit is not typically as high as 5.5 percent.

Currently the federal government collects about $3 trillion per year in revenue (Treasury) and spends $3.5 trillion (Wikipedia), resulting in a deficit that is 3 percent of GDP ($16.77 trillion). If all of GDP were taxed at 14.5 percent there would be only $2.43 trillion in revenue. It would take a flat tax of at least 18 percent, with no housing subsidies built in and no exclusions for people earning less than $50,000 per year, to yield the current level of revenue. A tax of 21 percent would be required to collect as much in taxes as the federal government currently spends (and spending is forecast to rise from Social Security and Medicare for the elderly plus various kinds of welfare for Americans whose labor is not worth the new, higher minimum wages (see The Redistribution Recession)).

[The Feds do get some revenue from excise taxes, e.g., on alcohol, tobacco, aviation fuel, etc., (pie chart) but I don’t think these are large enough to change the analysis. These boosts have to be balanced by reductions due to fraud. Here’s an LA Times article on how Americans created 7 million fictitious children for tax purposes. Also see “History of Divorce” in which Americans in the aggregate claim to be paying more alimony than they admit to receiving.]

How could Rand Paul’s idea possibly work?

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