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Back from vacation

My fading memory was that I had stopped writing here just before the 2012 election with a final wish for a decisive outcome.  Last week when I took my first look in several years, I was surprised to find several subsequent posts; some not too bad.

We’re coming to the end of a very difficult 2016 Presidential Election campaign. Despite President Obama’s promises of “hope and change” our political, economic and generational divisions have grown.

For those like me who want something better, it’s probably time to get back to work.

The Curious Task

duck-grass-issue

The problem we had…

The putting green is the most sensitive part of a golf course. Millions of blades of tiny fragile “bent grass”; mowed every morning to 2 or 3/64th’s of an inch and then rolled to make them even smoother. Great greens make the course fun.

Right in the center of the left photo is a budding invasive species called “duck grass”. We’ve had a recent invasion.

Our greenskeeper (the person that leads the maintenance crew) tried a recommended herbicide that was supposed to kill off the invader without harming the good stuff.

 

duck-grass-result

Now it’s gotten worse!

As the second photo clearly shows, the got the opposite result; the good grass now dead as a doornail and the invader, having survived the attack, stronger than ever.

It’s funny how when you try to push living things around… they fight back.

Why is this story in an blog about political economy?  It reminded me of a favorite quotation from the Nobel Prize winning economist F. A. Hayek.

 

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

F. A. Hayak – Austrian Economist

When government tries to run an economy with central planners unintended consequences (like mutant duck grass) frequently result.

Three Thoughts on Election Day

There will be plenty written on the big picture; I had three small thoughts.

To outsmart everyone, I arrived at my polling place at 11:10 am to a long line. Someone leaving said he’d only been there ten minutes so I lined up. Fifteen minutes later the line had only gotten longer when an officer called out “E through K and S through Z”.  A big group followed him out of the line and directly into the building.  The rest of us got to wait some more.  

My first thought:  At forty minutes I thought about how often government treats us poorly. Our county has an $800 million budget so why can’t they do this better? We only have one election day a year?

After falling for the classic Disney trick, the line entered the building only to find more line doubled up and down the hall. At the one hour mark an election worker called “L through R” and another large group moved ahead of us.  

At an hour and ten minutes I became the sixth person in the final “A-D” line. The registration books had been divided equally so each line should move at about the same rate. In fact “E-K” had no one, “S-Z” one person ,”L-R” a few and our six… plus fifty more in the hall and who knows how many more outside! A closer inspection revealed the sweetest (but oldest) volunteers working the A-D table. They were happy, smiled at everyone and took the time to chat with their many friends. My wife has done this job in other elections so I know these people get paid almost nothing for a very long day.  

My second thought:  What keeps the other volunteers from helping out the “A-D” crew? Half the tables were empty and everyone could see the line of people slowly getting angrier as others behind them were moved in front. Seriously… if the “A-D” line had been waiting to check out at Publix, how long before something happened?

At an hour and thirty minutes I got my ballot. With many judicial races and and second page just Amendments, it was complicated. Apparently our tiny Alabama town can’t change the trash pickup date without a Constitutional Amendment. Somehow, at one hour and forty minutes, I was done. I walked outside ready to trade barbs with the voters still on line.

The lines were gone! People were walking straight from their cars to the registration tables. Not just the lucky ones, even the “A-D’s”.

My third thought:  America just completed a long, bitter and unpleasant Presidential Election campaign. Both candidates did an outstanding job of getting their supporters angry at their opponent. As turnout was low this year the nasty campaign may have turned many people off.  Maybe all the mad people just showed up at the same time!

Only the smart ones were able to beat the crowds and wait an hour and forty minutes in the “A-D” line.

Engineering: financial and otherwise

I’ve used Apple products for 30 years. They’ve always been expensive but worked well. The introduction of the revolutionairy iPhone (with AT&T subsidies that magically transformed a $600 micro-computer into a $199 consumer product for only $70 a month on a 24 month contract!) moved Apple products into the mainstream. Three years later, the $500 iPad revolutionized the idea of a computer and gave Apple their first-ever price story to sell.

While it’s never been hard to use Apple’s products, it’s been tough to be a stockholder over the past six months. After a meteoric rise following the introduction of the iPad, Apple’s stock dropped from over $700 to near $420 a share in the last six months. If you’ve owned the stock for years and your basis is $80 a share…no worries!  If you got in last summer at $650… not so much.

I had a flash of clairty when I ran across this delicious quote from Howard Lindzon:

Apple’s problem is that it can’t dance to what Wall Street wants.

Apple’s in the engineering business.  Any fool can imagine a wearable wristwatch computer. Hell, Dick Tracy had one 75 years ago. Apparently the challenge is in acutally designing, manufacturing and delivering millions of copies of a working device, all over the world, within a few days of the launch. Then upgrading the software month after month and year after year so that the thing keeps working (and even gets better) the longer you own it. A year later you introduce a new model that has real improvements yet doesn’t destroy the value of the original. Obiously, if you could do this, you’d have a great business and Wall Street would love you (and make tons of money off you).

Today Wall Street practically demands the next big thing, an iTV, an iWatch, an iAnything that would cause the iStock to iDouble.

One thing we should have learned in the past decade is this… financial engineering is easy; actual engineering is hard.

Immigration Squabbles

My wife and I had one of our squabbles driving home last night. The subject was immigration. She says I’m not empathetic enough to the plight of America’s undocumented immigrants, especially the children who’ve done nothing wrong but suffer the consequences nonetheless.  She may be right.

What I clearly have no empathy for is our current immigration laws and the policies they are supposedly supporting.  I find them both wrong-headed and ineffective. If the point of immigration law is to make our nation safer, stronger and more prosperous these laws must be significantly loosened or eliminated. Here are a few of mine. Feel free to add or subtract yours as you see fit in the comments.

  • America Wins: If we had a system that allowed nearly unlimited immigration of hard-working ambitious people we’d end up with a hard-working, ambitious (and prosperous) country.  Before the 1920’s, when millions of immigrants arrived here every year (including most of our ancestors), we had this system. How’d that work out for us?

I’m OK with laws which deny legal entry to criminals, people with contagious diseases and people who present a threat to our nation.  I get that they’re hard and won’t work very well, but we can at least try to keep some bad people out.

Read more…

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day is our democracy’s ultimate test. The winners get to promise, gloat and preen. The losers, if wise, try to lay low and wait for a more opportune time to present differing views. Since the passage of the Twentieth Amendment, Inauguration Day is January 20th. This year, as January 20th fell on a Sunday, the public ceremonies were held on Monday. Here’s the history:

The first time an Inauguration fell on a Sunday was in 1821 for President Monroe’s second swearing-in. Monroe decided, after consulting the Supreme Court, to hold the public ceremony on Monday since “courts and other public institutions were not open on Sunday.”

January 20th in Washington, DC is the depth of winter… but sometimes the cold, crisp air and boundless blues skies are invigorating. I remember JFK’s Inauguration Day that way, as was President Obama’s first Inauguration four years ago.  My wife was there. She says it was empowering and uplifting, but freezing.

The power of the day began with our first President, George Washington. After leading the rebel troops to victory in the revolution, Washington served the first two Presidential terms of our new nation. As a revered figure, the “Father of our Country” could have stayed on, perhaps even turned himself into our first King. What he chose to do was go home and peacefully turn over the power of the government to his successor, Thomas Jefferson.

Every four years we have an increasingly expensive Presidential campaign. Each side spends a year or more choosing their nominee followed by an intense six month’s battle between the cantidates. When we’re lucky, Election Day settles the issue and the winner gets busy assembling a new administration.

All over the world, governments violently rise and fall. Administrations often end with a bullet. I think the majesty of our Inauguration Day depends on the losers. They believed in their arguments as much as the victors. They fought hard and wanted, hoped, even expected to win. But when they didn’t, they too went “home to Mt. Vernon” and supported the peaceful transition of power. Let it ever be thus.

Soon enough…

I’m working on a number of complicated posts and I’m struggling trying to make them simpler so, in the mean time, here’s a link to the Interloper whose posts are always fascinating and unlike any other I follow.

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