Comforting Words for Democrats

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This being Massachusetts, some friends are very upset that the rest of the U.S. doesn’t see the need for a Congress controlled by Democrats. Here’s what I wrote to comfort them: “Don’t be too worried about the Republicans. Remember that they are politicians and seldom what they promise. Also once they get to D.C. they tend to become fans of big government and continuing whatever the government has been doing. On the grounds that the federal government ran no schools or universities, Reagan promised to kill the recently created Department of Education and their budget has grown every year since…”

What do folks think that Congress might do now? I would like to see them freeze the tax code for five years so that regular business people have time to read it before it changes again. Of all the stuff in my November 2008 Economic Recovery Plan I think the simplest to implement would be flexible capital expense depreciation. Currently the situation is a mess. Section 179 deduction limits were $500,000 for 2013. They are $25,000 in 2014. It makes the tax code seem arbitrary if there are huge swings like this from year to year.

I can’t see Congress wading back into the Obamacare swamp since nobody in Washington (or anywhere?) can understand the American health insurance or health care system. Most of the spending is entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and now Obamacare. Then add pensions and our war machine that even a Nobel Peace laureate could not scale back. So what could Congress actually do that would make a difference to an ordinary American?

New York City viral catcall video

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A friend showed me a video of professional actress Shoshana Roberts walking around New York City. The two-minute film was edited down from 10 hours of being out on the sidewalk, both day and night. My reaction was “Back in the 1970s if you said that you’d walked around New York for 10 hours, in various neighborhoods and at night as well as during the day, people would ask ‘How many times were you mugged?’”

60 percent of Massachusetts voters agree that Massachusetts voters deserve higher pay

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The results are in and 60 percent of Massachusetts voters agreed that Massachusetts voters should be paid for up to 80 hours of extra time each year if the voter or someone in the voter’s family is sick (see Question 4). It seems almost too easy. Ask people to vote on whether or not they should get paid more. I’m sort of surprised that we haven’t seen (and passed) ballot questions on giving ourselves 8 weeks of paid vacation annually, a company car, and other executive-level perks.

Who among us does not believe that he or she deserves a 10-percent raise?

[Separately, can sick leave as mandated by this new law function just as well as vacation days due to the fact that the employee can say "my parent was sick"? How could an employer ever verify that? After a certain amount of sick time an employer can usually ask for a doctor's note, right? But can an employer ask for a doctor's note regarding a relative of the employee?]

Mexico Pelagico: Crazy People Underwater

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I attended a screening of Mexico Pelagico this evening at Harvard. The one-hour documentary features a group of passionate Mexico City dwellers who spend their weekends over a three-year period seeing what is to be seen in the open ocean near Mexico’s coastline and islands. They are sufficiently passionate about sharks that they snorkel down to some sizable sharks that have been hooked by fishermen with buoys and free them. Essentially this is underwater dentistry where the patient is big and strong enough to kill the dentist and the dentist also can’t take a breath (no SCUBA gear for these folks most of the time).

The film is a mixture of underwater footage that you might find in an IMAX movie and interviews with the shark/ocean enthusiasts.

Recommended. (Should be available via Netflix eventually.)

Political Use of Flight Restrictions

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Ever since September 11, 2001, the government can usually justify whatever it does on the grounds of security. Sports team owners wanted banner-towing aircraft banned from overflying stadiums and thus competing with in-stadium ads. They got their wish shortly after September 11, but since the government did not want to be departing from its “airspace belongs to the public” concept, all aircraft were banned. (The restriction was just recently updated. See this page for the latest draft. Note that the restrictions are specific to stadiums where teams owned by particular organizations are playing, e.g., “NCAA Division One Football” or “Major League Baseball”.)

This didn’t get any press coverage, but an anti-media TFR put in place over Ferguson, Missouri has generated some (nytimes). It seems that everyone in the government could agree that high-res TV footage of rioting Americans was something that the world could live without. First the FAA banned aircraft from going below 5000′ above the ground and then 3000′. Arguably the TFR had some rational basis since the police wanted to fly their helicopters around. On the other hand it is smack up against the main St. Louis Airport and therefore already very tightly controlled by ATC (nobody could fly in that area without an ATC clearance anyway).

Does an iPhone 6 on T-Mobile place calls over WiFi?

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Folks:

I’ve got a Verizon Samsung Note 3 that has tortured me for months with a Contacts manager that thinks the best results when searching for “Bob” are (1) people not named Bob, (2) people for whom only an email address is available (i.e., I couldn’t call them if I wanted to). I also can’t get over the fact that voicemail is not integrated. My final verdict on the Note 3 is that it is a good tablet but a terrible phone (due purely to software; I don’t mind the size even when using it as a phone).

Separately, I am spending a lot of time in a new suburban house where the Verizon coverage is non-existent. I don’t think other carriers will be much better because this is an area where people tend to obstruct the construction of towers. However, I notice that T-Mobile phones are programmed to be able to make calls over a WiFi connection.

So I’m wondering if I can solve two problems with one purchase: a T-Mobile iPhone 6 Plus. Has anyone tried using this over WiFi on a regular basis? How well does it work? (This review is positive.)

Any other general comments from people who’ve switched from Verizon to T-Mobile?

[I did make some phone calls to Verizon. It started out with them asserting that the coverage at the house's address should be great. Then they tried to sell me a "range extender" (i.e., make the customer pay for using the network every month and also to build the network and backhaul the traffic). I asked the tech support guy what the range extender had to be plugged into and he said "nothing." The wall for power? No. An Internet router for communications? No. It could just be placed on a coffee table and would magically make the service in the house better? Yes. (As you might expect, the box actually does plug into the wall for power and into a router for Internet but it also needs a view of the sky so that it can get GPS location; VZ doesn't trust the customer to enter the home address I think.) Did the fact that the Verizon FiOS installer couldn't use his own mobile phone standing in the driveway convince them? That's a different department. Instead of taking my word for it/their own employee's word, they opened a trouble ticket and paid someone to drive out there. The person reported back to them that there was no coverage. Verizon then closed the trouble ticket without texting, emailing, or calling me. I called back a month later and they are now offering to send me a range extender at no charge but they don't have any in stock. If it works, I might be about to stay on the VZ network though I am thinking that the ability to make calls over WiFi might be useful in other folks' houses who also have poor signal.]

Massachusetts Election

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Friends have been asking what I think of some of the Massachusetts election choices this year, so I thought I would write up a blog post.

We have four ballot questions (official page):

  1. require the Legislature to vote to raise the gasoline tax instead of having it go up automatically with inflation
  2. add a container deposit to bottled water, iced tea, etc.
  3. repeal the recently enacted casino authorization
  4. require companies with eleven or more employees to be able to take 40 hours per year of paid sick time (or 80 hours if sick time had been accrued in previous years and not used)

It is tough to know what the right answer is on 1. In theory it would probably be better for our wise legislators to meet every year or two and decide on the right amount to spend on roads and the correct gasoline tax for funding it. In practice it is hard to imagine this being done with precision. So maybe it would be better to assume that the old tax was correct and just crank it up automatically as the dollar loses its purchasing power.

I’m not convinced by 2. There isn’t too much trash in Massachusetts and I don’t see more water bottles as trash compared to soda and beer cans. As for recycling I think people are motivated more by the availability of recycling bins than by getting 5 cents.

The best argument in favor of 3 is that casinos are tacky. On the other hand, we authorized a casino and people spent a lot of money developing bids. So it seems as though repealing this now would have the effect of further discouraging anyone from wanting to do business in Massachusetts.

I don’t understand how 4 would work for the business where I work.  If I am sick for 48 hours, for example, Sunday morning at 0900 through Tuesday morning at 0900, how many hours does the flight school have to pay me for? Does it depend on what the weather was like on those days and whether I would actually have flown? What customers had booked? I don’t understand the rationale for making it apply to businesses of only 11 or more people. If this is a question of basic fairness then why is it okay for a 10-person company to be unfair. The ballot question says “The Attorney General would have to prepare a multilingual notice regarding the right to earned sick time, and employers would be required to post the notice in a conspicuous location and to provide a copy to employees.” How does that work in a distributed/virtual company? Why does our flight school have to have a multilingual notice given that the FAA requires English-language proficiency as a condition of any of us having pilot or instructor certificates? Do we know that the cost to taxpayers to enforce this new law won’t be higher than any benefit to workers? Why would there be any benefit to workers overall? Wouldn’t companies just give smaller raises for a year or two as an adjustment to this new law?

The governor’s race is between a career politician, Martha Coakley, and a business executive, Charlie Baker. Coakley seems to be the one Democrat that people in Massachusetts don’t like. She was defeated for Senator in 2010 by Scott Brown, a Republican (!). The Boston Globe has endorsed Baker (editorial), citing the generally incompetent nature of the Deval Patrick administration (“Effective activist government isn’t built on good intentions.”), of which Coakley has been a part.

Given that the Legislature makes the laws and is permanently controlled by one party you might ask what difference it might make to citizens of the Commonwealth who is governor.

I think the answer is judicial appointments, especially in the Probate Court, which handles divorces, custody, and child support matters. These are almost entirely within the judge’s discretion and therefore the governor’s choice of judge, who will generally serve for life, becomes critical to children. For a book project, we looked at the record of Judge Maureen Monks, appointed by Democrat Deval Patrick (see this article regarding the controversy surrounding her appointment):

we pulled all of the cases for one judge, Maureen Monks in Middlesex County, for 2009, 2010, and 2011 (approximately 350 cases per year, though not all of them involved disputed custody). Judge Monks awarded custody via temporary order to the mother in nearly all of the cases examined except for one case where the mother was a drug addict and another where the mother was in a mental hospital (and as soon as the mother was released from the mental hospital, Judge Monks awarded custody of the children back to her). During the three-year study period no father was successful in going to trial and obtaining a 50/50 shared physical custody situation from Judge Monks in the cases that we examined.

The idea that children should nearly always be awarded to, and generate cash for, the mother has become a feminist position. If you agree with that then it would make sense to vote for Martha Coakley, identified as a feminist, because she will probably appoint more judges like Maureen Monks. If, on the other hand, you think that children should have two parents following a divorce, it would probably make more sense to vote for Charlie Baker since judges that he appoints would have the discretion and perhaps the inclination to award 50/50 shared parenting.

[Separately, in case you're wondering how being automatic custody winners and having the potential to collect $100,000 or more per year in tax-free child support became a "feminist" position, here's an excerpt from our book:

Legislators and attorneys told us that women's groups and people identifying themselves as "feminists" were proponents of laws favoring the award of sole custody of children to mothers and more profitable child support guidelines. Is that a recognizably feminist goal? For a woman to be at home with children living off a man's income? Here's how one attorney summarized 50 years of feminist progress: "In the 1960s a father might tell a daughter 'Get pregnant with a rich guy and then marry him' while in the 2010s a mother might tell a daughter 'Get pregnant with a rich guy and then collect child support.'" Why is that superior from the perspective of feminism? A professor of English at Harvard said "Because the woman collecting child support is not subject to the power and control of the man."

We interviewed Janice Fiamengo, a literature professor at the University of Ottawa and a scholar of modern feminism, about the apparent contradiction of feminists promoting stay-at-home motherhood. "It is a contradiction if you define feminism as being about equality and women's autonomy," she responded. "But feminism today can be instead about women having power and getting state support."

Why isn't there a rift in the sisterhood, with women who work full-time expressing resentment that women who met dermatologists in bars are relaxing at home with 2-4X the income? "[Child support profiteering] is kind of an underground economy. Most people just don’t know what is possible. We hear a lot from the media about deadbeat dads who don’t pay any child support and the poverty of single mothers. The media doesn’t cover women who are profiting from the system. The average person assumes that equal shared parenting is the norm and that, in cases where a man is ordered to pay child support, it will be a reasonable amount.”

How did we get to the divorce, custody, and child support system that prevails in Canada and in most U.S. states? “This is because of the amazing success of feminism,” answered Professor Fiamengo. “The movement has totally changed the sexual mores of society but held onto the basic perceptions that had always advantaged women, e.g., that a woman was purified through motherhood. Feminism did not throw out the foundations of the old order that it pretended to reject.”

What’s the practical implication of these perceptions? How do they influence the legislators writing the statutes and judges hearing cases? “People still think of the mother as the best parent, the essential parent,” said Professor Fiamengo. “And that a woman would never lie to obtain the financial benefits offered by the system. A woman would never try to profit from her child. We think of mothers as moral beings who care only about the welfare of their children. There’s a presumption that mothers don’t operate out of greed or self-interest despite the fact that all humans operate out of self-interest.”

But couldn’t it actually be true that women are purified by motherhood? That they wouldn’t lie to collect a few million dollars tax-free plus enjoy the company of their children? “Even pretty decent people would be tempted by the rewards handed out,” said Professor Fiamengo. “It is easy to justify if you no longer like the guy you had been with.”

]

The Senate race is absurdly lopsided. The incumbent Democrat, Ed Markey, is running against a Republican selectman from a small town (raises the question of why Republicans bother; wouldn’t it be better just to let Markey run unopposed so that voters are reminded that they don’t have a choice as a practical matter?).

Most of the other positions on the ballot are for jobs that voters don’t understand and, in any case, the only question is whether to vote for an incumbent Democrat running unopposed.

[Update post-election: Voters repealed the indexing of gas tax to inflation by a narrow 53/47 margin. Voters rejected expanding the bottle deposit law to water bottles, etc., by a resounding 73/27 margin. Voters rejected rejecting their own previous approval of three casinos (60:40). 60 percent of voters agreed with the idea that they were entitled to more benefits from their employers. People still hated Martha Coakley enough to elect a republican governor, Charlie Baker, by 48:47 (there were some independent candidates who soaked up 5 percent of the vote, but I can't figure out if those votes would have gone to Baker or Coakley). All of the incumbents on my ballot, all Democrats, won reelection.]

How is Haiti doing?

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I haven’t thought too much about Haiti since a 2010 trip down toward the earthquake-stricken zone. How is the country doing? I’m halfway through Haiti After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer, one of Boston’s local heroes.

So far (in the book), the news doesn’t seem to be good. Farmer describes his hostility toward companies that ran factories there in the 1980s and paid what he considered to be unfairly low wages. He had similar complaints about the tourism industry. By the time of the quake, the factories had moved to Asia and tourism had shut down, but no high-wage employers came in to replace these industries. Farmer also attributes Haiti’s poverty to “unfair trade practices” by the U.S. but doesn’t explain what these are (perhaps our tariffs on agricultural products and subsidies for domestic agriculture?).

Foreign aid doesn’t seem to work out that well for Haiti. Farmer describes food aid programs that devastate the local agricultural economy, a U.N. group that keeps massive shipping containers on a hillside before a pre-quake hurricane (they wash into a river, smash into a bridge, and bring down the bridge, thus cutting off a heavily populated portion of the country), and a U.N. group that brings cholera to Haiti. Even when foreigners show up to do something useful they tend to displace Haitians. Farmer describes American, European, and Israeli medical personnel showing up to work in Haitian hospitals and clinics after the quake. For every foreigner who shows up, a Haitian employee leaves to check up on/assist his or her family. Farmer describes the earthquake as having been devastating to Haiti’s central government, with most of their ministry buildings flattened. He complains that foreign aid goes to non-governmental organizations and/or is directly spent by foreign governments (e.g., the U.S. government paying its own military personnel) rather than being funneled through the Haitian government.

The CIA Factbook shows Haiti currently growing at a healthy 3.4 percent real rate (well above the population growth rate of 1.1 percent). Global Finance says that Haiti suffered a 5.5 percent reduction in GDP during 2010 but made it all back up in 2011. The Economist in 2013 said that things weren’t going as well as hoped. By the numbers it looks as though the earthquake resulted in two lost years of growth, which of course is bad but not nearly as bad as the number of years of growth lost in various countries that have had financial meltdowns.

Robel Phillipos guilty but government workers still get paychecks?

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This week in Boston, 21-year-old stoner Robel Phillipos was convicted of lying to the authorities a day after the last Tsarnaev  brother had been arrested (Globe story). He faces 25 years in prison. It occurred to me that his actions, due to his conversations all occurring after the relevant events, couldn’t have had any effect on the bombing or the arrest of the perpetrators. I’m wondering what happened to the government workers who could actually have prevented the attacks, e.g., by heeding the Russian security service’s warning about the brothers (see this section of Wikipedia) or by more thoroughly investigating the triple murder in Waltham, Massachusetts. Were they disciplined? Fired? Promoted?

[Separately, this New York Times article chronicles a Dominican man who was wanted for murder in New York City, never prosecuted here, and ultimately welcomed with citizenship (and a gun permit, in case he wanted to shoot some more people without violating any laws) while living under his own name in Florida. The shooting victim's daughter found the man with "an Internet search." He was freed yesterday because of the government's failure to prosecute him diligently.]

What is the best monster-sized backyard grill?

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Folks:

Who knows about really big backyard grills? I want an outdoor grill in which I could roast a turkey, cook burger, dogs, and veggies for 30 people (don’t have to all eat at once), and maybe sear steak on the fancy infrared burners that I didn’t know existed until a few weeks ago when a friend showed me his TEC grill.

Consumer Reports likes the “Napoleon Prestige” but I’ve never seen one. My default choice would be some sort of big Weber.

Does it actually work to roast a turkey in an outdoor grill using the rotisserie feature? That is my dream for Thanksgiving this year! (And use the oven in the house for baking side dishes.)

Some people are grateful for what they already have and dream of world peace; I dream of buying something new and then assaulting a dead bird in the backyard…

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