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Thursday, April 28, 2016

When Grasp exceeds Reach

Imagine my amazement when, through yet another unrepeatable sequence of searches and clicked links, I found my name in the New York Times.

Since any explanation couldn't possibly replace reading the thing, go ahead, and while doing so decide for yourselves:

- The quality of this specifid NYT Op-Ed response.

- Whether there is an associated "meta"-grade.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Rough Draft: Questions About Free Trade to Don Boudreaux

Dear Don,

I've been following your blog posts regarding free (international) trade for a decade and I'm wondering what your thoughts are regarding a number of free trade subtopics. If you had time to blog about them, I'd find that interesting and think some of your other readers would too.

Definition of  Free Trade

One thing I've never been quite sure of is your definition of free trade. Here's what I get by typing "Free Trade Definition" into Google[google]:
free trade noun
noun: free trade; modifier noun: free-trade 
1. international trade left to its natural course without tariffs, quotas, or other restrictions.

Is that the definition you have in mind when discussing free trade? The rest of this letter assumes so.

Efficiency of Tariffs

According to the definition above, Free Trade and tariffs (where a tariff is a tax) are mutually exclusive. Yet domestic economic transactions are subjected a huge number and wide variety of taxes such as sales taxes, earned income taxes, real estate taxes, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, corporate taxes, health taxes, transportation taxes, and so forth. It doesn’t appear to me that tariffs are any less legitimate than any of the other myriad types of taxes.

In addition, tariffs are a fairly efficient tax in that there are a limited number of ports where goods worth a great deal can enter the country. Compare this to an income tax where a large percentage of more than 300,000,000 individuals in the United States have to file. I’m under the impression that efficiency is why the tariff was historically used to help keep the kingdom’s coffers complete.

Given that libertarians believe that at least a minarchist government is required and even a minarchist government requires some revenue, to the extent that revenues from tariffs can replace the need for other taxes, I don't see why tariffs are any more onerous for an economy and society than any of those other taxes. To me, tariffs seem at least as legitimate and at least as efficient as of the other forms of taxation.

If a majority of the American people and its resultant bureacracy prefer tariffs to other forms of tax, is that really so bad from an economic efficiency point of view?

Efficiency Versus Resilience

As a roboticist, I have almost a fetish for electric motors and actuators and the production thereof. While I’ve never visited their factory in China (Hong Kong area), some colleagues that have visited it describe Johnson Electric[johnson] as one of the most awesomely efficient motor production facilities in the world; in one end goes copper ore and other raw materials and out the other end comes millions of motors per day. It’s a shining example of economies of scale and efficiency. Their specialty is automotive electric motors (for power windows, for example) and they produce a significant fraction of all motors worldwide in that niche. If trade restrictions and tariffs were further reduced, no doubt they would have even a larger share of the market and be even more efficient and be able to produce and sell the motors at a somewhat lower cost.

I imagine that part of the appeal of free trade is that there would be many extremely efficient companies like Johnson Electric, each thriving in a specific niche with tremendous volumes, yet with enough competition from a handful of other companies to drive relentless innovation, quality improvement, and cost reduction.
However, there’s potentially a downside to such a scenario. What happens if something happens to Johnson Electric? What happens if there’s political unrest (war), a fire, or a natural disaster?

I find the answer to these questions disconcerting. Examples indicate to me that moderate natural disasters cause significant supply chain disruptions. For example, the 2007 Niigata earthquake [niigata] caused a significant supply chain disruption [farber]:

By now everyone has heard of the M6.8 earthquake up in Niigata last week, a couple of hours north of Tokyo by shinkansen.  [...]

One small company in Niigata, Riken (no relation to the research lab with a similar English name, I'm sure) makes 60% of the piston O rings used by *all* of the car manufacturers in Japan.  Their plant was badly damaged.

Japan's auto makers, of course, are famed for their "just in time" supply chain management. [...]

Toyota was forced to idle at least 27 plants, Daihatsu four, Honda and other manufacturers several each.  Toyota is still shut down, as of this writing (Monday, a week after the quake), and has an output loss of 46,000 cars or more.

A 6.8 magnitude earthquake is not a huge natural disaster, especially not for Japan. In fact, this was merely the warm up for the Tohoku quake four years later which caused the tsunami that in turn caused the well publicized Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster [fukushima]. What was less publicized was that “[l]ocated in the disaster region and adversely affected by these forces are a number of manufacturing facilities which are integral to the global motor vehicle supply chain” [canis] and that “it took three months for Toyota to recover to its pre-earthquake production level.” [matsuo]

You’d think that Toyota would learn to second source most or all of their supply chain and they do for the most part. But even those companies that are using second sources may be fooling themselves. Second sources might possibly mitigate supply chain disruptions if something catastrophic should happen to Johnson Electric, currently supplying approximately 15% of their niche. But if freer international trade enabled Johnson Electric to double their market share of their niche, it would take months for other suppliers to ramp up to cover for the shortfall due to Johnson Electric’s hypothetical absence.

In most dynamic systems, efficiency is in conflict with resilience and robustness. Redundancy leads to resilience and robustness but is antithetical to efficiency. Those economic ecosystems that utilize Johnson Electric are probably quite efficient, but there’s potentially fragility as well.

Is the fragility worth the little bit of extra efficiency? How much extra efficiency is there or would there be if trade restrictions were further reduced?

Scale and Free Trade

Clearly, trade has many benefits and limiting it too much can have serious downsides. As your co-blogger Russ Roberts seems to fond of pointing out, “[s]elf-sufficiency is the road to poverty.” [roberts]

However, it seems to me that the incremental advantages of trade diminish as the scale increases. Two people trading with each other are much better off than each doing everything for himself, 100 people are better off trading together rather than just 2 at time, a million are better off than 100, etc., but it seems that the incremental gains slow down with each increase in order of magnitude of people trading and it may even break down at some point. Sure, perhaps it's better to have 160 different brands of shampoo rather than the current 80 most popular brands [brandes], but it doesn't seem like those sorts of advantages are overwhelmingly important.

Consider the approximately half billion people in the North America Free Trade Area (NAFTA). It contains labor from first and third world countries, at least some of nearly all natural resources required for any economy, and extensive diversity of people and geography. I think that NAFTA and the trade that occurs within it is a good thing and very beneficial for the countries that are members. 


How beneficial is the additional trade with countries outside of NAFTA for those within NAFTA? Is that even quantifiable?

Chaos and Trade

As we expand beyond NAFTA, I wonder if the adverse effects of the chaotic nature of trade begin to overwhelm the benefits of specialization and economies of scale provided by trade. The chaotic nature seems to me like a waterbed with baffling: without baffling, I jump in and the waves eject my wife onto the floor; yet with baffling, the bed still readily adapts without disturbing my wife's sleep.



A description of the chaotic nature of markets is provided by Professor David Ruelle in his book Chance and Chaos[ruelle]:

A standard piece of economics wisdom is that suppressing economic barriers and establishing a free market makes everybody better off.  Suppose that country A and country B both produce toothbrushes and toothpaste for local use.  Suppose also that the climate of country A allows toothbrushes to be grown and harvested more profitably than in country B, but that country B has rich mines of excellent toothpaste.  Then, if a free market is established, country A will produce cheap toothbrushes, and country B cheap toothpaste, which they will sell to each other for everybody's benefit.  More generally, the economists show (under certain assumptions) that a free market economy will provide the producers of various commodities with an equilibrium that will somehow optimize their well-being.  But, as we have seen, the complicated system obtained by coupling together various local economies is not unlikely to have a complicated, chaotic time evolution rather than settling down to a convenient equilibrium.  (Technically, the economists allow an equilibrium to be a time-dependent state, but not to have an unpredictable future.) Coming back to countries A and B, we see that linking their economies together, and with those of countries C, D, etc., may produce wild economic oscillations that will damage the toothbrush and toothpaste industry.  And thus be responsible for countless cavities.  
A graphical example of "tipping" points in a chaotic system is shown by the bifurcations in the following graph:
The system is perfect stable for r < 3, enabling a false sense of security and ability to predict the system response for other values.  By r = 3.6, the system has become completely unstable and unpredictable with rapid further increases in instability as r increases from there.

There are many real-world physical examples of this such as turbulent versus laminar flow of a fluid in a pipe where linear increases of pump pressure lead to more-or-less linear increases in flow rate until a certain flow rate is hit, after which the flow becomes turbulent and massive increases in pump pressure give little or no increase in flow rate. Eventually the pipe will burst from the pressure.

In the economy, chaotic effects are manifested in things like shifting comparative advantages between regions leading to the collapse of whole industries and sub-economies.  Examples include: steel shifting to Asia, gutting the U.S. steel industry and leaving the badly damaged rust-belt in its wake; and accelerated devastation of Appalachia from the changing economic viability of coal and farming.  Each of these examples were exacerbated by rent-seeking unions, government and environmental regulations, less than optimal management, technological innovation, and foreign subsidies, but the chaotic nature of markets still played a significant role and these other factors are an inherent part of the chaotic global political economy.


What are the effects of chaos and complexity on Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade [kling] as scale increases?

Winners and Losers From Free Trade

In the previous sections I have questioned whether or not free trade is even beneficial in aggregate, especially when considering resilience and mitigating the risk of huge supply chain bottlenecks. There is no doubt that some people are better positioned to take advantage of, or at least weather, the effects of free trade. This subtopic is more political than economic, in fact it's a hugely contentious area in the political arena, but whatever light economics can shed on this would still be helpful.

Because it's such a contentious topic, I could compile a list of a thousand references of various politicians, bureaucrats, and even economists who lament the damage to various groups due to free trade. I'll just list a couple of recent ones.

Charles Murray describes the damage to working class men during the last half century[murray]:
During the same half-century, American corporations exported millions of manufacturing jobs, which were among the best-paying working-class jobs. They were and are predominantly men’s jobs. In both 1968 and 2015, 70% of manufacturing jobs were held by males. 
During the same half-century, the federal government allowed the immigration, legal and illegal, of tens of millions of competitors for the remaining working-class jobs. Apart from agriculture, many of those jobs involve the construction trades or crafts. They too were and are predominantly men’s jobs: 77% in 1968 and 84% in 2015.
A recent paper by Autor, Dorn, and Hanson examines the effect of large changes in trade, focusing on trade with China. Here are some excerpts [dorn]
“Employment has certainly fallen in U.S. industries more exposed to import competition. But so too has overall employment in the local labor markets in which these industries were concentrated.”

“Without question, a worker’s position in the wage distribution is indicative of her exposure to import competition. In response to a given trade shock, a lower-wage employee experiences larger proportionate reductions in annual and lifetime earnings, a diminished ability to exit a job before an adverse shock hits, and a greater likelihood of exiting the labor market, relative to her higher-wage coworker. Yet the intensity of action along other margins of adjustment means that we will misrepresent the welfare impacts of trade shocks unless we also account for a worker’s local labor market, initial industry of employment, and starting employer.”

“Labor-market adjustment to trade shocks is stunningly slow, with local labor-force participation rates remaining depressed and local unemployment rates remaining elevated for a full decade or more after a shock commences.” While damage to various people in various groups in various regions is not necessarily enough to call for restrictions on free trade, it's also not possible to ignore the political unrest, social ramifications, and potential violence caused by these effects."
There is little more dangerous to a societal order than substantial groups of people who feel that they have little left to lose. How does one trade of the aggregate economic gains (if any) of free trade with the (alleged) fact that regions and groups have been and will remain devasted? Is any of this quantifiable? In other words, can I know that the likelihood of me losing my job is at least offset by my children being better off due to free trade?

Knowledge and Free Trade

The local knowledge problem is described as follows[hayek]:

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coƶperation. We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances. To know of and put to use a machine not fully employed, or somebody's skill which could be better utilized, or to be aware of a surplus stock which can be drawn upon during an interruption of supplies, is socially quite as useful as the knowledge of better alternative techniques. And the shipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others.
At least some of the argument about need for dispersed knowledge and action thereon has to do with actual local conditions, the “place” part of “time and place.” When a great deal of production has to do with agricultural, extracting energy from the earth, mining, and even manufacturing to some extent, local knowledge is critical for both efficiency and innovation. For example, I work with lettuce growers, and they plant a different lettuce hybrid seed each week to best match the expected weather conditions for that specific 12-week growing period for that batch of lettuce in that specific field. You can't get much more "time and place" specific than that.

But with much of the United States ecomomy having evolved to services, information, and knowledge, a great deal of the “place” part has been eliminated. Knowledge can move anywhere, often not requiring people to move with it, and often nearly instantaneous.

It often seems to me that this globalization of knowledge has almost turned Hayek's knowledge problem on its head. Instead of having an advantage of local knowledge, no individual or local group is able to have an adequate grasp of the competing activities of everyone else around the world, even in a relatively small niche. As a result, no individual or small group can compete without investment risk that's enormous compared with a few decades ago.

I have personally experienced this sort of effect. I may have a high degree of confidence that I'm the only one working on a certain innovation in robotics in a given region, but I'm unable to predict the status of this innovation world wide. Investors, however, want to know if there's a chance they'll be blindsided by some competing group in India, or Israel, or Ireland, or Italy, etc. and if so, will be far less likely to invest. This is exacerbated by the fact that if I'm even nanosecond later than other groups in filing relevant patents, my investors can be out of millions of dollars with no chance to be able to recover from their losses.

As the chaotic effects due to scale increase, investment risk also increases. It's easier to get investment for a venture that can provide a positive ROI and an exit strategy in a short time frame than for ventures that have a longer time horizon. This is partly inherent in the risk assessment and its effect on the subjective discount rate used in Net Present Value calculations which penalize longer time horizons. However, a substantial part of the risk analysis takes the chaotic nature of markets into account coupled with the limited visibility into global activities.

I think that part of slowing of worldwide investment and your colleague Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation [cowen] are partly due to this sort of phenomenon. There's a lot money sitting, doing nothing, with nobody willing to pull the trigger to invest that money, because that money will be wasted if competing entities are working on the same thing. There are a huge and unlimited number of ventures that can be undertaken, but the risk of doing so due to globalization is astronomical relative to a few decades ago.

Might this new version of the knowledge problem be mitigated by reducing free trade?

Simple Alternative to Free Trade

I'm well aware that putting any sort of trade in the hands of governments and bureaucrats is not without substantial risk due to forces explained by Public Choice Theory[pct] and other factors. Nonetheless, international trade is already in the hands of governments and I think that simplifying government involvement, yet not completely freeing trade, is potentially a tenable approach.

As a result, I would propose an across the board tariff regime for goods and services coming into NAFTA. I'm not sure what the tariff rate would be and a horde of economists would need to figure that out, but for sake of argument, assume 15%. There would be no other regulations beyond security and military necessity (not allowing importation of nuclear weapons, for example).

This tariff would provide the "baffling" to dampen chaotic behavior of trade. At the same time, any area that truly has a local competitive advantage would still be able to trade with other areas and that would keep trading channels open. Industries would have companies in each of the areas to provide resilience against war and disaster. Knowledge and innovations could still be shared.

Even if none of the benefits above are true, there's not really a large economic downside. The revenue from tariffs would simply offset the revenues from other taxes and those lower other taxes would themselves lead to additional investment and innovation.

Are there other major downsides from an economic perspective? If so, what are those downsides and how big are they?

Summary

There are a number of issues in various subtopics of free trade that leave me far from convinced that global free trade is a great idea. I understand that "But Freedom!!!!" is a reply that you might respond with to any of the questions above regarding free trade, and I'm not unsympathetic to that response, but that is not an economic argument.

The main purpose of this email is to hopefully stimulate you to write about these subtopics on your blog in the future from an economic perspective. I would find it interesting and I think some of your other readers will as well.

Thanks,
Bret


References


[canis] http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41831.pdf

[cowen] http://www.amazon.com/Great-Stagnation-Low-Hanging-Eventually-eSpecial-ebook/dp/B004H0M8QS/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1461494631&sr=1-3&keywords=tyler+cowen

[dorn] http://www.ddorn.net/papers/Autor-Dorn-Hanson-ChinaShock.pdf

[farber] http://seclists.org/interesting-people/2007/Jul/123

[fukushima] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster

[google] https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=free+trade+definition

[hayek] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Local_knowledge_problem

Friedrich A. Hayek, "The Use of Knowledge", American Economic Review. XXXV, No. 4. pp. 519-30 (1945).

[johnson] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_Electric

[kling] http://arnoldkling.com/essays/papers/PSSTCap.pdf

[matsuo] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925527314002278

[niigata] http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2007/07/17/national/powerful-earthquake-slams-niigata

[pct] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_choice

[roberts] http://cafehayek.com/2009/04/gifted-in-nepal.html

[ruelle] http://www.amazon.com/Chance-Chaos-David-Ruelle/dp/0691021007/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397157389&sr=8-1&keywords=chance+and+chaos+ruelle

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Yes, he went there!

Rick Moran has the following observation on the blog at AmericanThinker:
Even the left realized the value of studying our roots as a civilization – at least the left of 45 years ago.  But the creatures who call themselves leftists today carry no such intellectual baggage.  It has been drummed into their tiny brains that Western civilization – a civilization that created the modern world with all its grevious faults and stupendous successes – isn't worth examining.

So say the overwhelming majority of students at Stanford University, who voted down a proposal to require two semesters studying our roots by a 6-1 margin.


The Barrister has his own take on the same matter at Maggie's Farm:
Well, you have to laugh. Socrates would have laughed, because these children are 100% immersed in Enlightenment Western Civ, and don't even want to know what it is or where it came from. I have seen plenty of willful ignorance in my life, but this has to take the cake. SAT-bright students, voting for ignorance of Homer,  Plato, the Old Testament, Paul, Beowulf, Augustine, Aquinas, Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo, Rousseau, Shakespeare, Newton, Adam Smith, Martin Luther, Locke. Wow.  They won't know bupkus and will not be worth a serious conversation.

And since all of modern physics, chemistry, medicine, and engineering are aspects and products of Western Civ too, perhaps they might consider eliminating those oppressive white male patriarchal things.

Ignorant kids, standing on the shoulders of giants while denying it. Fascinating phenomenon, the hubris of ignorance.

The fruit of this Western Civilization, a free and open society, is enjoyed but not understood by many people.  The best kind of inclusiveness makes these benefits available to everyone in these societies.  Talk of both white privilege and cultural appropriation are on the other hand an attempt to undermine cultural confidence as a precursor to Marxist indoctrination.  Bill Whittle is having none of that in a presentation titled appropriate this:
Well, “Cultural Appropriation” is the latest form of combat used by Social Justice Warriors: a term used by crybullies to describe themselves as fighters against prejudice and privilege. They are the first warriors in history to burst into tears and require weeks of therapy at the mere sight of an actual weapon.

There is only one area where these progressive milliennials are not only allowed but encouraged to compete, and that is the struggle to see who can be the biggest victim and win the Virtue Signaling Silver Cup by being most sensitive to racial and gender injustice.

Cultural Appropriation is the idea that White Males have stolen various elements of minority and female culture and used them for their own benefit without acknowledging or appreciating the suffering of the offended party.

As I was watching the accompanying video I envisioned another narrative and Bill went there...Oh he did.  
As a Straight White Male, I see these feminists and students of color appropriating my White Male culture every day. When I think of them walking around in blue jeans, using electricity to light their dorm rooms, or to run their microwave ovens so they can eat non-Anglo-Saxon food… well, frankly, it makes me sick. They sit there using their smart phones to write about Social Injustice and then use the internet to post it on Facebook and Twitter, and as a white male I find this incredibly offensive.

Do these racists ever give a thought to fact that they are not dying in their twenties and thirties because of immunization, pasteurization, antiseptics and antibiotics? When they go to the hospital, do they think about the suffering and back-breaking work by White Males in order to bring them laser surgery, MRI scans, artificial ventilators and all the rest? Do they give an instant’s thought to why none of them developed polio, or scores of other infectious diseases? Nope. They just culturally appropriate these things and use them inauthentically.

And he wasn't done:
And of all the things that Social Justice Warriors have culturally appropriated from White Men, the one thing I demand full recognition of is Rap.
Check it out, the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Skins weren't always so thin

When humor goes, there goes civilization. Erma Bombeck
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ermabombec131317.html
When humor goes, there goes civilization. Erma Bombeck
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ermabombec131317.html
When humor goes, there goes civilization. Erma Bombeck
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ermabombec131317.html
 
 
When humor goes, there goes civilization.  - Erma Bombeck

Instapundit linked to an interesting post at brothersjuddblog:
Sales of 'Caucasians' shirts, depicting the Cleveland Indians' team mascot as a caricature of a white person, skyrocketed one day after ESPN's Bomani Jones wore one on a show, the shirt's creator said Friday.


The conclusion at  newsbusters:
So, in other words, Bomani Jones’ stunt backfired. He wore the shirt to provoke anger on the part of white people by flipping the tables and exposing them as hypocrites for being offended by ‘Caucasians,’ while they cheer for the Redskins, Chief Wahoo, the Braves, and so on.
Except very few, if any, white people are offended by the shirt. Proving the opposite of Jones’ point. And that maybe, just maybe, it’s time for race hucksters like Bomani Jones to get a life.
As the Erma Bombeck insight makes clear, humor make life bearable...

The way to make a pluralist multiculturalism workable is demonstrated by  Sultan Knish:
When the Yankees play baseball in the Bronx and the Knicks hit the court at Madison Square Garden, the two teams may belong to different sports, but they're both part of an exchange of taunts and slurs that no one remembers or cares about anymore.


The Knicks are short for the Knickerbockers, one of the derogatory names that English New Yorkers called the Dutch New Yorkers whom they had seized the city from. And the Dutch returned the favor by calling the Anglo newcomers, John Cheese or Jan Kees, which eventually became Yankee.

The English mocked the Dutch and the Dutch mocked English and then both terms became part of the city's cultural heritage and even a point of pride. Yankee may still have a derogatory meaning in the South and in Europe, but in New York, it's on every other baseball cap and the Knicks are on every other jersey; including some of the shorts that resemble the Knickerbockers of the Dutch.

This sort of thing happens a lot in a multicultural society. What used to be a point of insult, blends into the common cultural heritage. The minority teenagers wearing Knicks shorts and Yankees caps care as little about the Dutch and English slurs that got the whole thing started as they do about the Redskins, a term that is as equally out of date and nearly as obscure. 

...
The firemen of tolerance are also the arsonists of intolerance. They start the fires and then put them out. The debate over the Redskins is a classic example of setting a fire and then declaring that they should be able to do whatever it takes to put it out.
...
Liberals nurtured on Orientalism and worries about cultural appropriation are uncomfortable with that; but that's their problem. It's perfectly normal for the old wounds to become the bonds of a new society. It's part of the healing process. It's post-racial and post-everything in a good way.
...
The common American identity was based on the integration of the good and the bad, the loves and the hates, the resentments and the joys, it combines the high and low points of culture, it mixed together aspirations and slurs, baked it together into something strange and wonderful.
...
Liberal political correctness is obsessively consumed with the destruction of any common culture not mediated by their commissars. Their divisive efforts seem calculated to break down any areas where co-existence occurs because the great threat to their political power would come from the revelation that they are not the firemen of tolerance, they are the arsonists of intolerance, setting groups at each other and then stepping in to referee the results.

Promoting the taking of offense at nearly any possible slight is very unhealthy.  Yes, we can get along if our elites stop trying to divide us for their convenience.

Living the Bern

Last month I was on a swing through the US, and stopped for a couple days at my brother's house in Palm Springs.

He is on board with Bernie.

Perhaps a little background is in order here. Until a few years ago, my brother, now 57, did CAD work, converting specifications into plans and diagrams for a company that specialized in building refineries. The company decided to move its design operation from Southern California to Texas. If he had moved, my brother could have kept his job.

Instead, he decided to retire.

He sold his condo in Monrovia, and bought a house in Palm Springs.

Then he went on unemployment, got a "free" phone, state aid for his utility bills, food stamps, and a nearly complete cessation of any tax burdens, among other things.

As it happens, my brother is gay, and therefore has none of those things -- children -- that take such great whacks at the bank account. Combined with more than decent monetary discipline, along with making a killing on his condo, my brother has plenty of money. The challenge he faces, with his financial counselor's help, is to budget his expenses so that his withdrawals to cover them don't jeopardize the flow of free stuff.

So it should come as no surprise he hates Republicans with the kind of loathing that would leave Harry speechless with admiration.

Chief among his reasons is that Republicans voted to end the perpetual extension of unemployment benefits. Not only did that reduce his flow of "free" stuff, it significantly increased the complication of funding his lifestyle while not imperiling the rest of his "free" stuff.

(Since Antonin Scalia had just died, my brother also saved some venom for him -- after all Scalia made corporations into people, and companies to not buy contraceptives for their employees. My brother is equally at home with both concepts and facts.)

Interestingly, Palm Springs is the gayest city in America. And, at least based upon my admittedly somewhat superficial experience of the place, I think there is a reason for this. The gay demographic is decidedly tilted towards the mid-fifties and up. All of whom have plenty of disposable money, do not work, and get lots of "free" stuff.

There is secondary evidence to back this up. Palm Springs is a resort community with -- unusually for a resort community -- lots of year round residents healthy and young enough to work. There is no industry to speak of. No rush hour. No traffic jams. Lots of restaurants and gyms.

My brother and his fiancee, and very likely most of the rest of the people I saw while there, are driving down the work force participation rate, while increasing "inequality", all as part of Living the Bern.

When I mentioned that other's were working to provide his "free" stuff, his response was: "Tough. I paid taxes, now it's my turn." He is certainly very personally generous with others' money.

So I guess the rest of us are feeling the Living of the Bern, too.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Right Place, Right Time

My main task yesterday was reaching the end of our national nightmare: getting rear fog lights on our car so we can register the da ... uh, thing, here in Germany.

To recap the state of play, internet research had yielded things that weren't completely true, and two dealers, the BMW mothership, and BMW North America collectively looked at me as if I was asking them to add a teleportation option to the da ... uh, thing.

I suspected the laws of physics had not, in fact, been suspended on our car. Having perused schematics and parts diagrams, the glaring lack of differences meant that it just couldn't be that hard. Fortified with this knowledge, I continued working my best Google-fu, and following a chain of searches I couldn't possibly reconstruct got from computer codes to this:


Cursory inspection immediately proved internet wisdom: it would have been easier to turn the car into a teleportation device than to have the rear fogs -- which we will almost certainly never need -- work without a damn wire.

Which is how I got to my main task yesterday. Armed with wire and connector pins, and diagrams and procedures, I headed off to our garage to finally slay a monster far more wily than St. George's dragon.

And save someone's life.

In journo-speak, I think this is called "burying the lede". Ordinarily, this is an editorial no-no, but, I hope, this will make sense later.

The garage where we park our car is difficult to describe, especially to Americans. It is down the street and around the corner from our apartment, and is really more of a closet than a garage. This picture will help:


Apartment buildings are built around the perimeter of the block, while parking facilities occupy most of the area in the center. Ours is shaped something like a two story donut, with the ramp to the second story and the exit to the street are on one side, and the admin building is in the center. Our car cubby is on the other, far less traveled, side:


As I was rooting around under the dashboard to get access to the lighting computer -- yes, really, that is a thing -- so I could add the missing wire to the light switch no one at BMW could be fussed to learn about, another guy in the third white door to my right pulled out his minivan, and drove it onto some service ramps, pretty much like these:


For those who aren't gear heads, these things are an easy, fast, and safe way to get some clearance under the car. Drive up on them, stop before going off the end, and you are good to go.

Having done that, he grabbed some wrenches and crawled underneath to do something or other, and I returned to dealing with my task at hand.

Then I heard scraping, and looked over just in time to see the ramps squirt out from under the front wheels and the minivan fall onto the guy.

He smacked the bumper with his right hand in a completely redundant effort to get my attention, then pretty much stopped moving.

That right there qualifies as an "oh shit" moment.

Having an adequate grasp on the obvious, I ran over and tried to lift the car off him.

As if.

I'm like almost every one else. I think of the thing I should have said, or done, minutes, hours, days or years after the fact. If I was as Johnny on the spot as I am in my reconstructed recollections, I'd be making a heck of a lot more money for writing than Great Guys pays me, that's for sure.

But just this once, the right thing showed up exactly when I needed it: grab one of the squirted ramps, slide it under the bumper, and use it as a lever to lift the car. It didn't get me much, only several inches, but that was enough for him to get out from under the car, breathless and face a bit banged up, but otherwise not particularly worse for wear.

Physically, anyway. I'll bet that will be a nightmare gift that will never stop giving.

I don't speak German, he doesn't speak English, so a crushing bear hug -- he out heighted and weighed me by five inches and fifty pounds -- got the message across.

A few minutes later, shaking from the adrenalin surge and practically sobbing (which I thought a strange reaction, but my wife the nurse assures me otherwise), I couldn't help but think how contingent all this was. Never mind the convoluted path that got me to DĆ¼sseldorf in the first place, had my trivial fog light solution not been so hard to find, and the dealers so incurious, and the manufacturer so ignorant about how they build their cars and even more unwilling to find out, and I wasn't on a trip that day, I wouldn't have been there to see the car fall on him.

And no one else would have, either. It could well have been many hours before someone passed that way (in the time I've spent working on the car to get it ready for inspection, I've never seen someone in that area).

It wasn't that I did anything heroic; that's a foolish thought, but rather that I was standing there, instead of all the other places I could have been, with just enough presence of mind to see a lever in a ramp.

Clarification: Nothing Copyrighted at Great Guys

Just to be clear, nothing written at Great Guys, posts or comments, no matter how amazing or erudite, is either property or copyrightable. If you wanna think you own it or a copyright of it, please don't post it here.

If you do grab writing from here, it would be nice (and I would say courteous) to give attribution and/or a link, but, as far as I'm concerned, even that's not necessary.