Sunday, December 15, 2013

Harumph (Music Today Sucks)



I'm sure many of you, if you're over the age of 40, have had the "music" argument with your kids, the one that starts with you complaining about how awful today's popular music is. I personally believe that today's pop music is mostly wretched and will be forgotten in 10-15 years. It is bland and disposable, as if written by machines. On the other hand, I believe music from, roughly, 1963 to 1979 will be studied centuries from now and will be regarded as a golden age, not unlike the late 18th century.

When was the last time someone wrote a song as ominous and threatening as  "Gimmie Shelter," as soaringly beautiful as "God Only Knows," or with the exquisite craft of “Hotel California?” If I'm missing something, please tell me, because I'd love to download something fresh.

My kids tell me that I simply like the music of my youth. This is a reasonable retort, since every generation romanticizes its teenage years. But no, I think those of us who were young in the ‘60s and ‘70s just got lucky. Musical greatness is not linear, and some periods simply stand out, while others are forgotten. Quick, name a song from the 1910s. How about one from the ‘30s? How about anything at all from the second half of the 19th century? 

I'm waiting…

A number of factors came together in the ‘60s and ‘70s that conspired to produce greatness. Technology played a part, with 4 and 8-track recording becoming available for the first time. 

A friend of mine who runs a record label says it was actually drugs, particularly LSD, that spurred creativity. While there may be something to this, it's not as if drugs have disappeared. Perhaps LSD use has waned...

The cultural backdrop of the ‘60s certainly played a role. And while the flower-power generation was grossly narcissistic, and its societal impact almost entirely negative (in my view), there's no arguing that all that social experimentation paid off in spades when it came to music. Landing on the moon after starting from scratch in 1961was no more remarkable than evolving from "The Twist" to "Sympathy for the Devil" in the same time frame.

And, of course, there's luck. Perhaps no age was as rife with musical genius, from Lennon and McCartney to Dylan to Brian Wilson to Keith Richards to Jimmy Page to Lindsay Buckingham. And more. These brilliant artists were thrown onto a canvas of experimentation, drugs, and technology, and incredible art was the result.

Then there's...today. Really, it started to go downhill in the ‘80s and seems to have accelerated ever since. The art of writing a hook has been lost, as has any ability to harmonize. I can’t remember the last time I heard an interesting chord progression. Lyrics have reverted back to treacly ‘50s simplicity or, in the case of rap, vulgar journeys through rhyming dictionaries. Nothing is implied through suggestion or imagery, it is simply said. "My Life Would Suck Without You," screeched Kelly Clarkson in her recent hit. The Righteous Brothers weep for you.

Much of it seems to just sound the same. Oddly, there's more technology than ever with which to experiment. Garage Band, which comes free with any iMac, has more technology than any studio in which the Beatles played. Any sound you can imagine, you can create. But ironically, the absence of boundaries has tempered any desire to find and smash through them. John Lennon once challenged the Beatles’ recording engineer, Geoff Emerick to make his voice sound like the "Dalai Lama shouting from a mountaintop." He did, with only the primitive tools available at the time. (The results can be listened to in the song "Tomorrow Never Knows.”) Today there's probably a button you push that says "Dalai Lama Effect." It's so easy that it's, well, boring, so why bother? The artist is not challenged so he does not challenge himself. 

I've been pondering getting this off my chest for some time, but there's a reason I'm writing about it now. It turns out there's proof that I'm right! Actual data. Michael Cembalest, a JP Morgan executive, in a published note to his son, wrote the following as his son left for college this fall:

I arrived at college in 1980 (the inception of a decade-long musical graveyard) when many people turned off the radio and instead listened to classic rock and rhythm & blues produced from 1965 to 1978. I notice you like this music as well. Now you can substantiate to today’s generation why that era’s music was objectively “better." 

The Million Song Dataset is a database of western popular music produced from 1955 to 2010. As described in Scientific Reports (affiliated with the publication Scientific American), researchers developed algorithms to see what has changed over time, focusing on three variables: timbre, pitch and loudness. Timbre is a proxy for texture and tone quality, terms which reflect the variety and richness of a given sound. Higher levels of timbre most often result from diverse instrumentation (more than one instrument playing the same note). Pitch refers to the tonal structure of a song: how the chords progress, and the diversity of transitions between chords. Since the 1960’s, timbral variety has been steadily declining, and chord transitions have become narrower and more predictable...





(Source: "Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music," Scientific Reports, Serra et al, May 2012)

The researchers also found that popular music has gotten a lot louder. The median recorded loudness value of songs by year is shown in the second chart. One illustrative example: in 2008, Metallica fans complained that the Guitar Hero version of its recent album sounded better than it did on CD. As reported in Rolling Stone, the CD version was re- mastered at too high a decibel level, part of the Loudness Wars affecting popular music. 

Overall, the researchers concluded that there has been a “progressive homogenization of the musical discourse”, a process which has resulted in music becoming blander and louder. This might seem like a reactionary point of view for an adult to write, but the data does seem to back me up on this. All of that being said, I do like that Method Man-Mary J. Blige duet.  

So there it is. We are being assaulted with loud, bland music. The scientists say so.

Excuse me, while I turn the dial on my radio back to Classic Rock…

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Earthquake for Unions in Detroit


To residents in New York, or California, Illinois or others, who wonder why their property taxes are so high, the answer isn't complicated: it's the wildly generous pensions we pay to our public employees, particularly teachers. The typical teacher where I live is able to retire at age 57 with a (present value) retirement package worth $1.6 million (see "Your Kid's Teacher, Millionaire"). Some of us have been arguing for years that this is an unsustainable tax-and-spend death spiral that will result in New York's gradual slide towards bankruptcy, like Detroit.

Not surprisingly, public unions are not particularly accommodating of this argument; after all, in many states, such as here in New York, state constitutions protect retirement benefits from ever being touched or modified in any way.

Except, no. In a remarkable ruling last week, a federal court ruled that federal bankruptcy law trumps state constitutional law, and that existing pensions in Detroit could be cut or even eliminated.

If this isn't a wake up call to public sector unions and their political enablers, I don't know what is. Your pensions are not safe, and it's a problem of your own creation. Your members, many of who don't even want to be but are forced by state law, will be the victims of your decades of overreach.

It would be nice if this could be calmly fixed before the inevitable crisis, but don't hold your breath.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Obama Ex-Presidency


You weren't thinking he'd retire to a farm and chop wood, were you?

We have a pretty well established tradition in this country of retired presidents leading quiet lives, having passed the mantle on to others. Our very first president established this tradition by relinquishing power to be a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon.

In particular, ex-presidents are expected stay out of political affairs. There's only room for one guy at the top, and that person has to be free to make their own way. George Bush has become a painter, like Churchill. In a recent rare interview, he was served up the opportunity to criticize Obama on a silver platter, but he politely demurred. (Must have been difficult, considering how much blame Obama continues heap on Bush for just about everything, but he seemed quite peaceful about it.)

Jimmy Carter was the first to break the mold, offering his acidic opinions for anyone who would listen, which fortunately is almost no one. I have to give Bill Clinton some credit, though. Irrepressible as ever, there was no way he was going to hang out all day gardening in Chappaqua. Instead, through the Clinton Global Initiative, he has found a "third" way - staying relevant on the world stage while not interfering too much politically. (Okay, he interferes, but it could be much worse.)

Normally, it would be way too soon to think about how President Obama will spend his retirement years, but Obama himself has forced the conversation by suggesting that he won't leave Washington in 2016. The last time this happened was Woodrow Wilson, and that was only because he was dying.

I will call this now: Obama will be the most meddlesome and irritating ex-president in our nation's history. For starters, he'll only be 55, and looking at another 30 years or so to fill. He will become the community organizer again, this time writ large, a roll he will arguably like better than actually being president. Think about what a community organizer actually does: disrupts, argues, and hectors, constantly jabbing at existing power structures. This is, in essence, how Obama has tried to run his presidency. The tiresome process of consensus building is something with which he has no experience, and it holds no interest for him. This has resulted in not just zero lines of communication with his opponents, but, remarkably, his allies as well. Not surprisingly, leadership as Scold-in-Chief isn't very effective, and actually being responsible for the outcome of things like Obamacare is an annoyance.

But how much fun it will be on the outside! No responsibility! No more boring meetings or stupid heads of state to meet with! The press, ever idolatrous, will provide a mic as needed. Watch out, in particular, if there's a Republican in the White House. Obama will be asked for his opinion on every policy, and he will gladly give it, even organize actively in opposition to whatever warms the hearts of the MoveOn crowd.

There will not be the slightest hesitation. This is a man who decides what laws he wants to enforce and which he doesn't, and even makes new law himself. This is a man who cheered the nuclear option last week after saying it was a fundamental threat to our democracy when he was out of power. This is a man who lied about Obamacare because, with a compliant Fourth Estate, he knew he could. This is a man who has blown off scandals that would have felled others because, again, he knew he could. To suggest that over two hundred years of tradition, starting with George Washington, will give him any pause is about as likely as Self Magazine running a cover story titled, "Get a Large Ass Just Like Michelle."

Somewhere, Saul Alinsky is smiling.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Don't Go to Law School



 "The minute you read something you can't understand, you can almost be sure that it was drawn up by a lawyer."

    - Will Rogers

All the smartest students in my college class went to law school. They didn't do it because they had the concrete notion that they actually wanted to practice law. No, it was more that they didn't know what they wanted to do, and law school was perceived as a logical extension of a liberal arts education. It was an easy way to kick the can on making a hard decision, and it didn't seem as, well, self-interested as a business degree.

Fast forward to my 10th reunion. All the long faces, those that already looked beaten down by life at age thirty-two, were the lawyers. Much to their surprise, going to law school actually results in becoming a practicing lawyer. Somehow that wasn't the plan. Heck, the plan was to change the world, but no one came to interview for that, so the job at Cravath sounded really prestigious, and their moms were really proud, but how come no one told them that being a lawyer was so bone-crunchingly tedious, a world of endless minutia and reams of time sheets?

What they were told was you could "do anything" with a law degree. In theory, there's something to this. A knowledge of the law is useful, and some do escape the confines of law firms. But here's the thing: legal training is all about risk aversion, and that's where I take issue. As a lawyer, you're been hired by others - people actually taking risks - to cover their backsides. Usually, this involves endless amounts of time considering contingencies that have less than a 1% chance of actually occurring.

Is this a necessary process? Yes.

Does it sound like fun? It's not.

Should our country's brightest minds be doing it? Absolutely not, at least not in the numbers that they are.

Seriously, if you're young, go build skyscrapers, cure diseases, start the next Google - solve some interesting problems. Fail at some stuff. Be one of the risk takers that make our country great. If, for some reason, you're hell-bent on becoming a lawyer, for God's sake, I beg you to first go get a job as a paralegal. Get inside a law firm and see what it's like for yourself. Perhaps you're the type that likes to proof read endless documents that only a handful of people will ever read. Then by all means go for it. You've done your due diligence.

Most of you will seek a different path and will be happy that you did.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ted Cruz Is Electable


Scott and Ted

Could Ted Cruz be the One? Yes.

Conventional wisdom, generated inside the Beltway and the media, says he's a crazy conservative and could never be elected to be president. John McCain called him a "wacko-bird" (a moment of immense eloquence, that). The filibuster was said to be the death sentence for the Cruz brand.

I had lunch with Cruz today and about 25 others, and I'm here to tell you it's hogwash. This guy is the real deal. For starters, he will be the smartest guy in any field. Alan Dershowitz, no conservative, called Cruz the smartest student he's ever had at Harvard Law. He was a legendary debater there, and at Princeton. Son of a Cuban immigrant who was tortured by Batista's henchmen, he memorized the U.S. constitution when he was thirteen. The left generally likes to frame conservatives as "dumb," but I don't see how that's possible here. They will go with crazy. And he most definitely isn't.

Cruz is an articulate and passionate conservative, but more than that, it turns out he's very funny, charismatic, and good on his feet. Every answer was precise and spot on, and frequently sprinkled with a great anecdote. Of course, he was speaking to a very conservative bunch, but it's clear he won't change a word of what he says to suit a different audience. This is where Romney had so much trouble; since he wasn't informed by any particular philosophy, he always had to think about his answers and they always seemed carefully calibrated to the room in which he stood.

Here's where we get into the great Republican debate about "electability." You know who was electable? Here's a list:

Gerald Ford
George H.W. Bush
Bob Dole
John McCain
Mitt Romney

So, I don't have to piece this together, do I? They all LOST. (Note: Bush 41 did win the first time when he ran as Reagan's heir. He lost the second time when it became apparent that he wasn't.)

Seriously, how many data points do Republicans need? The conventional wisdom, promulgated by consultants and dismissed by Cruz, holds that you run to the right in the primaries and then move to a spot just a smidge to the right of the Democrat in the general. Nixon first said this. The problem is, as a strategy this DOESN'T WORK, because you're not giving Republicans a real reason to turn out. What was Mitt Romney trying to sell us? I still don't know, other than he "wasn't Obama." What did he, or any of the failed candidates above, really believe in? Who knows? Liberalism light? Points of light?

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, made it clear what he was selling, and as a conservative, he was naturally written off by most as a cowboy with an IQ slightly above room temperature. Perhaps not all there. And this is what the mainstream Republicans were saying about him!

Of course, Reagan beat the establishment candidate, Bush, in the primaries, and then, not changing his tune one bit, eviscerated Jimmy Carter in the general, much to the shock of the intelligentsia everywhere. His first term was then the most conservative four years from the executive branch since Coolidge, and this resulted in winning 49 states against Mondale.

Why has it been so difficult for Republicans to follow this playbook? Well, that's a longer blog post, but one thing is clear: Cruz is following it to the letter. He is basically ignoring the media and the party elders, and he's taking his message straight to the grass roots. You need a spine of steel to do this, but from what I saw today, he's got one.

To Republicans who still think we need a moderate to win, consider this: the press will turn on our guy no matter what. You really think they'll go easy if we nominate Chris Christie? Think again, it's a set up. They played nice with Romney right up until the convention, then they turned on him like hungry sharks. When Romney was accused of being a "murderer" by the Obama campaign, where were they? Nodding their heads in agreement. It was the same with McCain, who was a "maverick" and a "war hero," right up until the general. Then he was just the enemy.

I'm not endorsing Cruz, at least not now. It's way too early for that, and the Republicans have a deep field. Scott Walker and perhaps Rand Paul look interesting. Rubio, we'll see. But I am endorsing the idea that we have to nominate a principled conservative. After the disaster of the Obama years, a very clear and different vision must be articulated by our standard bearer.

No more moderates, my friends.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Harvard - Life Inside the Cocoon


In the past, I have often made snarky comments about the political hegemony of our nation's faculty lounges. Recently, I spent a couple of days at Harvard with a friend of mine who's a fellow there, and yes, we even spent time in the faculty lounge (in Harvard's case, a faculty "club"). I went into the heart of darkness.

And what a pleasant existence it is. We audited a class (immensely entertaining, if odd, and featured on 60 minutes). A Kennedy sat behind me. We wandered over and checked out Widener Library and lunched at the business school across the Charles (excellent food). We then popped over to the Law School where there was a 40th Anniversary retrospective of the Paper Chase (great movie, if you've never seen it). And yes, we fit in coffee at the Faculty Club.

The evening was spent having fun debates over beer with a variety of students about the sort of stuff you only talk about in college. An astronomy PhD candidate and an aspiring documentary film maker hotly debated the probability of life elsewhere in our galaxy. I really got into it over tort reform and "stop and frisk" with an American Studies kid.

The coccon is more pleasant than anyone can imagine from the outside. My friend says this is not an atypical day for him. Of course, many of us get to experience it firsthand during our college years. University life is a reassuring womb, where your every need is taken care of. There's a reason we all called life after the "real world."

The days and nights are perhaps most pleasant for the professors because here's a dirty little secret: teaching is not that tough. It doesn't take much time, and once you've taught a course once or twice, you can do it in your sleep. I know this from personal experience, since I taught as an adjunct at Yale. The first time I gave the course, it took some real thought and preparation. By the next year was a piece of cake. Oh sure, you tweak here and there, but nothing that's terribly time consuming. Mostly, you get to spend your days like my friend, gliding between the faculty club, lunch with interesting people, and cultural events.

There's a vast ecosystem of professors, fellows, visiting scholars, perpetual grad students, and administrators that never venture out of the cocoon. Why would they want to? And this is a problem, I think, because they all think alike. 96% of Ivy League professors donating money in the last election gave to Obama. That kind of uniform thinking is horrible if you believe in free discourse and independent thinking.

Sadly, in places isolated from the burdens and responsibilities of the real world, one can take on irresponsible positions without consequence, and everyone around you will have your back.

The cocoon will provide.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Obama's New Idea Is Setting Insurance Companies Up for Lawsuits

One concept liberals either don't grasp or just don't care about is unintended consequences. That a 2000 page bill would be rife with them should come as no surprise. Johnston's Theorem states that unintended consequences rise with the square of the number of pages in a bill.

And now we have Obama's desperate attempt to put lipstick on the healthcare pig by saying insurance companies can continue to offer their old plans for another year. More specifically, he's saying "I know it's the law, but we won't enforce it."

Aside from how constitutionally horrific this is, something Republicans are pointing out, there is an unintended consequence no one has pondered. If an insurance company goes ahead and continues people's plans, they are breaking the law. Now, it maybe true that Obama's army of bureaucratic enforcers won't go after them, but what about lawsuits? Lawsuits around insurance companies and healthcare are as common as breathing. If I sue my insurance company, say, next March over something, the centerpiece of my suit will be that they are breaking the law. Perhaps it will be a nice juicy class action suit ginned up by a law firm that specializes in such things.

What is the insurance company going to say? Yes, we knew we were deliberately breaking the law, but the president said it was okay? Oh, and the dog ate my homework.

This will be bad.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

One More Example of How Screwed Up Obamacare Is



My brother and his wife both just had their policies dropped, policies with which they were perfectly happy. When they asked why and were informed that the policies were now "non-conforming." The new policy, which will be significantly more expensive, will be required to have things like "pediatric dental care."

They have no young children.

This hell-born law was written by a legion of congressional staffers and lobbyists, who all stuck in goodies they wanted. I doubt more than a small handful of people ever read its 2000 pages. Certainly none of the Democrats who voted for it did (remember "We have to pass the bill to find out what's in it?"), and certainly not Obama. The details didn't matter. It was a huge muscle flex, a message that Democrats could do something "big," and not the least, a major f*** you to the Republicans. We are now bearing witness to the fact that it's impossible for any good to come out of a process like that. This just may be the worst piece of legislation in U.S. history.

One wonders when the rioting will start.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

You Peons Don't Know What's Good For You


Just for laughs, I just tried to log onto the Obamacare site. I got as far as putting in my name and email, but when I tried to check if my chosen password was available, the page just hung. That little spinning wheel started going round and round. That was three hours ago. It's still spinning.

I'm not going to write yet another piece on how the website sucks. Everyone knows that. I'm not even going to write a piece about what a disaster the whole thing is, generally, and how America was sold a series of blatant lies. (As one person said, "In a couple of months, we will be nostalgic for the faulty website.") Everyone understands that at this point, too, although Democrats will never admit it.

What I want to point out is today's spin out of the DNC, etc. In a nutshell, it's this:

Sure, you might lose your healthcare plan that you liked, but you probably weren't aware that you don't really have a great plan at all. You only think you like it, but did you know it didn't cover all sorts of super things like mental health and contraception? Our plans do! You will like it much more, we promise, and you'll be happy to pay the higher premium.

Translation: we know what's best for you better than you do, so just sit back and let us take over.

This attitude is a consistent one with liberal elites. What's interesting is that you rarely hear them come out and say it. Out loud.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Decline of Our Culture

The other night I took my daughter to the movies in my nice, little, suburban town. About two minutes into the show, I notice that the guy behind me has put his feet up through the seat next to me. Normally, this wouldn't bother me out too much; I ocaissionally do the same, although never when there's someone right in front of me.

But here's the thing: he had no shoes on. Or socks. Just...feet.

I told him that I could deal with the feet being up but that he had to put on shoes. He responded by pulling his feet back, but two minutes later, there they are again. This time I'm a bit more assertive, to which he says, "Go fuck yourself."

Bear in mind, this wasn't some teenager. It was a middle age guy sitting with his wife. I fetched the manager who told him to stop. He put his feet down, but I don't think he ever put on his socks. (I doubt the floor was sticky or anything.)

The point of the story is that this person's actions don't even seem that remarkable anymore, and there's a remarkable lack of judgement going on. Behavior is expression. Civil society is becoming less civil every day.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What's Wrong With This Picture?


A friend of mine sent me a shot of this poster, which he found hanging on the wall of an exclusive Connecticut private school. I have a suspicion that it can be found in lots of classrooms across the country. Seldom has progessivism been so neatly captured.

Oh, c'mon. It's nice that the short boy can now watch the ballgame. What problem could anyone have with that? 

Well, let's imagine this was a real situation, and the boys, hoping for a better view of the game, scamper around and find three boxes. The tallest boy, realizing that his short friend still won't be able to see, gives him his box. Anything wrong here? Absolutely not. It's civil society in action, where people help others of their own volition. 

The problem is that that's not what the creators of this poster meant, not at all. The words don't read, "It's nice to help your friends." Rather, they speak of "justice," clearly meant as an imperative. You see, liberalism never trusts people to do the right thing, so the force of law is deployed to guarantee a desired outcome. Coercion is always the first and last answer, in this case spoiling the opportunity for the tall boy to do something nice for the short boy - not because he had to, but because he wanted to. The civil society is undermined.

Let's imagine further. HUD issues a federal regulation that boxes must be provided for short boys at all sporting events. Further, the boxes must meet various federal safety codes, lest a boy fall from one that was sub-standard. Come the inevitable box shortage, it happens that at some ballparks there aren't enough boxes to go around. Protests ensue, with angry demands for "fairness." Realizing they may have a federal lawsuit on their hands, but unable to procure enough compliant boxes, the ballpark owners consult their lawyers and decide to raise the fences high enough such that no one can see over them, tall or not. Problem solved.

And there is progressivism, in a nutshell. Equality created through coercion by dragging those at the top down. It never works out like the poster, where all are raised to the highest level, and it isn't supposed to. In real life it is so much easier to bring people down than raise them up. Just ask Bill de Blasio, New York's radical mayor-in-waiting.

The poster also suggests that justice and equal results are the same thing. This is a dangerous concept that has justified more tyranny, mostly of the Marxist variety, than just about anything over the last century. Looking again, the tall boy definitely has an advantage when faced with a tall fence, but what of other contexts? Perhaps the short boy is a brilliant student. What measures will be suggested then to even that score? 

Don't laugh. At a school one of my children (briefly) attended, parents were told not let their kids study anything above and beyond the curriculum, lest they get ahead and damage the self-esteem of the other, less motivated kids. Can't make this up.

Despite decades of evidence as to its disastrous effects, the intellectual left has never abandoned its Marxist longings. They won't call it by its name, of course, but the primal urge is still there, and the agenda still being pushed. Sometimes even in cute posters for our kids.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Detroit: Product of Liberalism or Just Bad People?


There is a front page story in the New York Times about how it is now coming out that one of the reasons Detroit is bankrupt is because the pension trustees just decided to give money away. For years they would just hand out extra money from the pension fund, above and beyond what contracts called for, to both retirees and active workers. When they started running out of money, they borrowed, which worked for a little while, until it...drum roll...didn't.

You can read it here.

What's really interesting is the comment section. Obviously, lots of liberals read the NYT, and since there hasn't been a Republican seen near Detroit for about half a century, it's fascinating to see their contorted rationalizations. The main one seems to be, "This isn't a story about the failure of liberalism, it's simply about some corrupt people, and corrupt people come in all political flavors."

The second part I'll agree with. My own state senator here in New York, a Republican, was sent to prison for taking bribes. But having said that, the rationale fails to acknowledge that corruption happens when it has certain preconditions, and it is liberals who are the relentless cheerleaders for these preconditions.

It is statism, in a nutshell. Big, unwieldy, states are like a petri dish for corruption. The bigger the government, the bigger the corruption. This is primarily the result of the growth of the "administrative state," which has become government's fourth branch. Its workers are almost completely unaccountable, and they have ever-growing power that can be monetized. For many, the temptation is too great, and worse, it becomes part of the accepted culture.

Look at Lois Lerner, the undeniably corrupt IRS honcho. She got a long, paid, vacation, and now a lucrative retirement (although she was corrupt for ideological reasons, not monetary).

Oftentimes, corruption happens because it feeds the state. Look at the railroad workers in New York, who for years would routinely claim disability just before retirement to enhance a lifetime of benefits. The union, the regulators, and the politicians all looked the other way because the donations were flowing.

People are people, and a certain percentage are of flawed character. Such bad actors seek out situations that can be exploited for their benefit, and what better than a growing government with ever more authority over its own people? Checks and balances are vanishing.

It's even worse in places with one-party rule, like Detroit, Chicago, and New Orleans. In such places, politicians are easily corrupted as well as bureaucrats. Normally, politicians can be held accountable by voters, but when they're not, their position becomes a sinecure, and the inevitable follows.

You can see the phenomenon elsewhere in the world, too. Places like the Philippines and Greece are highly corrupt because their governments are very large. Cuba is 100% corrupt because the state controls everything. There's hardly any corruption in Singapore or Hong Kong, though. Simply not a lot of opportunity.

Large states and corruption go hand in hand. Between liberals and conservatives, I know of only one ideology that embraces an ever-growing public sector.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Remember the Kurds?


The largest chemical attack in history on a civilian population was not in Syria, but in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein slaughtered thousands of ethnic Kurds for not being supportive of the regime. Thousands more died later of complications, disease, and birth defects.

Barack Obama was a consistent opponent of the war in Iraq, but now he wants war with Syria. What's the difference, exactly? Is it because Bush was president, so he reflexively had to oppose everything he did? Or is it because Democrats, peaceniks when out of power, are disturbingly comfortable with projecting military power when they're in charge? The operating principle just seems to be that we have no national interest, and therefore we must be acting out of the goodness of our hearts.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Republicans and the Environment


Know anyone who hates the environment? I don't. We all love pristine beaches, wooded trails, and soaring mountains. We take joy in sharing these places with our children.
And yes, even Republicans appreciate lakes and trees. And yet they are widely perceived as "anti-environment." Why is that?
It's because they are obliged to check the relentless environmental agenda of the left, which they rightly believe goes too far. This puts them in a position of always saying "no" to policies that seem just fine to our minimally informed electorate.
What could possibly be wrong, for example, with a bill called, say, the "Clean Water for Our Children Act”?  Likely plenty, if you read the details. But to the casual observer it seems as if Republicans just want slightly dirtier water.
"We are pro-environment, too, just less so," is not a coherent philosophy.  But as long as Republicans keep merely reacting to the overreach of the left, that's how it’s going to look.
What Republicans need is a positive message, a way to champion the environment, one that is understandable and consistent with conservatism, and clearly delineated from the destructive approach of the left. 
The good news is that such a philosophy already exists: it's called conservationism. Even better, it is an approach with deep roots in the Republican Party: Teddy Roosevelt, founder of our national parks system, was its first political champion.
Decades before eco- became a mischievous prefix, there was conservationism. It is a pragmatic philosophy.  It takes the view that we all benefit from nature and therefore act as its careful stewards. It acknowledges that humans and the environment are inextricably linked. A conservationist preserves a forest, but also judiciously hunts and logs. 
A conservationist says, "We have been given this tremendous gift, and it's up to us to manage it wisely."
Environmentalism, however, is a sterner affair and qualifies as an ideology, one that views man as outside nature and its mortal enemy. Progressives get certain memes in their heads—population bomb, climate change, sustainable—and turn them into religious manias. Rational thought is discarded. They talk about high-sounding goals, but never weigh the concrete results of their policies.
Yes, it would be wonderful if all our energy came from hydropower or solar, but conservatives point out the disastrous economic effects of pursuing such pristine goals in a precipitous manner. To the environmentalist, this is irrelevant.
Conservationists take a judicious "cost/benefit" view of nature, while environmentalists do not. Conservationists husband resources for both use and aesthetic pleasure, while environmentalists believe that nature has innate “rights” that supersede our own.
Nature is a blessing. It is to be respected and preserved, but for our own benefit. The cost of everything must be weighed against the benefits. One hundred years ago, Republicans had this right, and it is time to look back in order to move forward.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Market Opportunity for a College with Vision


This piece presupposes you read my last post on Why Colleges Are Doomed. If you don't have time, in it I outline why the typical liberal arts college has a business model that's about to get disrupted upside the head, and few, if any, see what's coming.

The case I made was one that projects less demand and far more supply, but I also suggested that most colleges just aren't getting the job done anymore. Come, drink beer, get a diploma. But worse, universities generally have adopted poisonous philosophies of political correctness. This hasn't caught up to them because of all multi-decade forces that have supported the higher ed model in general (again, see last post). But it will.

Let's be blunt. Universities, particularly in the Northeast, have lost their collective minds. They have allowed their curricula to be polluted with useless, angry, ideological majors such as Women's Studies, Afro-American Studies...pretty much any major that ends in the word "studies." At formerly great institutions like Bowdoin you can study important matters such as "Queer Gardens." Thirty-two  courses like that and they hand you a diploma.

And then...what? Since there's no place in the private sector anymore for people with useless majors, many "studies" grads get recycled right back into academia and become professors, teaching their bile to another generation who, just in case they didn't know they were supposed to be angry with "the system," will be now. Anger on anger, with none of the participants adding anything to society or the economy.

A great deal for 60k a year, no?

Then there's the pitiful record colleges have on free speech, which is to say they're all for it unless it's speech they don't approve of, which is to say anything conservative. Conservatives getting shouted down during campus appearances is a near weekly occurrence. University administrators routinely do nothing, further encouraging campus Maoists.

Graduation speakers? Conservatives need not apply.

I could go on (and on), but I won't, because any informed person reading this already knows about the overwhelming bias in academia. If not, spend five minutes with Google.

So, given the impending apocalypse of the higher education model, it might be time for one or two enlightened colleges to do something radical to ensure their survival, no?

To wit, I have a modest proposal: brand yourself as "conservative." Toss out every half-assed, ideologically-based major. Gladly accept the resignations of the scores of outraged professors. Establish a core curriculum with an emphasis on the Western canon. Require a course on constitutional history. Embrace the study of all cultures but not the notion that all are equally wonderful. Some of them suck.

Don't let anyone graduate without some grounding in math, hard sciences, and at least one foreign language.

Require econ majors to learn Von Hayek and Friedman. Ban Keynes and Krugman? No, that's not what this is about. This is about balance, about understanding both sides of an argument, and then learning how to reason them through on your own. That's what conservatives do. Colleges today are more about indoctrination.

Protect free speech for all, but only for those who express it with civility. Students can embrace the tenets of "Occupy," whatever those are, but they can't occupy the damn quad if it's against the rules.

Ironically, I'm describing how virtually every college in America used to be, circa anytime before around 1968, so one might brand this as "traditional," rather than conservative. But I'm not sure it describes any well-known colleges today.

So, back to the opportunity. Americans very consistently, over time, describe themselves as conservative. The percentage has remained about 40% for a very long time. This doubles the number who describe themselves as "liberal," and this is also very consistent.

Now, of the population of parents who actually foot the tuition bills, how do you suppose those percentages fall out? I'd say it was a safe assumption that north of 50% are conservative.

What if they had just one brand name option that pursued the course I described above? What if just a single college, say a Trinity or a Middlebury, embraced this very different path?

Well, here's what I think would happen. Applications would skyrocket, as would alumni giving. Their national profile would be raised. Maybe, just maybe, it will be enough to thrive through what's to come.

Oh, there would be a very brief and difficult transition, and the New York Times would weigh in disapprovingly, but it would work. You have to think of this in business terms. College is a market, driven by supply and demand. Right now, there is plenty of liberal supply and zero conservative supply, and yet we know there are more conservatives out there than liberals. Real life businesses rarely find market imbalances that are so cut and dry.

Will anyone try this? It would require an incredibly ballsy president, not to mention an iron-willed and board, one that could withstanding the collective howl of the liberal establishment. So, no, in other words.

They will go down with the ship.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Colleges Are Doomed


Know what a run-of-the-mill liberal arts college charges these days? About $60,000 a year. This number has been rising faster than just about anything else over the last couple of decades. Why? Basically, growing demand and fixed supply. Fixed supply is understandable; universities don't just pop into existence to meet growing demand, but this is about to change. Demand growth is also about to change, but first let's see what's been driving it until now:
  • Demographics - the echo boom has been applying to college in droves.
  • Internationalization - applicants from newly wealthy countries like Korea.
  • Availability of cheap student loans.
On top of this abundance, university endowments had a great, multi-decade run through 2008. It's been a very good time to be a university president. The wind has been at their backs for a long time. When this happens in the business world, though, it invariably breeds a lot of lazy and inefficient practices that get exposed when the weather changes, and it is about to change drastically indeed for the higher ed business model. Many won't survive.

Growing endowments? Gone. Demographics? Now on a declining curve. Cheap student loans? With a federal government that's essentially broke, this game won't last either (I'm not even mentioning all the government grants here). And unless our colleges want to fill their dorms entirely with the children of Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires, the internationalization game has largely been played out.

But it's worse than that, because the supply part of the equation is about to change too. Ever hear of Kahn Academy? Coursera? How about iTunes U? These are all free, online options that offer best practices education, many taught by some of our finest educators. In other words, you don't have to go to college to learn anymore. Knowledge has been liberated from ivy tower oligopoly.

The undergraduate model, in particular, is highly threatened because, frankly, most schools just don't do a very good job anymore. They are four year summer camps for kids who got trophies for showing up. Now, they get degrees for showing up. Gone are most course requirements and core curricula, in their place, useless exercises in things like race and gender studies. Studies show that the amount of homework the average college kid does has been cut in half over the last couple of decades.

So, what are colleges left with to justify their existence? Two things, as best I can tell. First, they remain desirable "brands," at least some. Google and Goldman Sachs still buy the brands, not the self-taught. But this will change, and probably sooner than we think. How? A Google or an Apple will discover that they can find good employees who have excelled at, say, Coursera, where one is graded. It will get a lot of publicity, and this will cause parents to start questioning why they are mortgaging their houses to pay for tuition when they can get it done for free.

Second, there is socialization. You make friends in college, and these friends are a lifelong asset, in both an emotional and practical sense. This advantage may be the last one on to which colleges hang. I suspect, though, society will find a solution for this. Perhaps some college somewhere will toss all its expensive, tenured, professors and throw its doors open for students to pursue collaborative learning experiences. There will be ways to meet people and make friends that don't cost 60k a year.

All this is going to go down very hard. Any institution that has thrived under a successful model for generations doesn't just sit down and reinvent itself overnight, particularly if the new model requires destroying the old one. Well, actually, some businesses do. IBM, Amazon, and Netflix come to mind, but these are extraordinary companies with courage and vision. There are far more Eastman Kodaks and Blockbuster Videos out there.

And, let's face it, universities are not run like businesses. In fact, they think it's beneath them. Does anyone think that there are frank discussions going on at the board level about any of this? The small, expensive, liberal arts colleges will get hit first and hardest. I would not want to be in charge of Bates or Ohio Wesleyan right now.

On top of all this, there is the crazy ideological direction that most schools have pursued, making them even less tenable. But in this, there is an opportunity. I will address that in my next post.


Friday, May 3, 2013

We All Be Wearing Google Glass in Five Years (or Sooner)


Google Glass is something you've probably heard of, but don't really know much about yet. Kind of like the internet in 1994. But they represent the Next Big Step. To what? To the more seamless integration of man and machine, a graying of the boundaries, of man made better by technology.

This is something I have written about here and here.

Think the idea is gimmicky? Think again, and understand what's coming. This is the internet (and then some) right in front of your eyes and in your ears. No need to fish your phone out of your pocket. Robert Scoble, a tech guru, has been trying out a pair for a few weeks, and he says he'll never again be without them. You can read about him here.

What do they do? Well, you can photograph or film anything you're looking at hands free. You can get turn by turn directions. You can ask them anything (voice recognition is built in). You can pull up the internet right in front of your eyes. It appears to hover a couple of feet in front of you, not in your direct line of sight. You can read or send emails and texts. But that's only the beginning.



For a fun video that highlights some of this, click here.

Remember, if you're old enough, back when the Apple II hit the market. It did absolutely nothing useful, but a lot of early adopters bought them anyway. Very quickly, software developers made them, and other PCs, highly useful. Suddenly, it wasn't a case of wanting something, but needing it. You were at a disadvantage without one.

Or how about in the late 90s, when cell phones started gaining popularity? Many resisted, particularly the middle aged and older, thinking it completely unnecessary - annoying, even - to always be "available." Now, there's a societal expectation that you have a phone, and that's because they have become indispensable. Of course, along the way they got "smart" and even more ingrained into everything we do. The App Store is now approaching its 50 millionth download and the iPhone hasn't even been around for six years. Apps were almost an afterthought.

All this will happen with Google Glass (and presumably an Apple competitor). The development community will flock to Glass like Michael Moore to a donut. Tens of thousands of new applications, ones we can't even dream of, will be introduced, and many of them will become integral to our daily lives. Many will do astounding things, like merge what you're seeing with virtual reality. You will be at a disadvantage going about your daily business without your Glass.

Yes, the early adopters will look like geeks, but that won't last long. If the product is priced in the $200-300 range, as is rumored, it will go viral quickly.

Portable, augmented intelligence, currently represented by the smartphone, is effectively becoming our sixth sense because it connects us directly to the entire world, wherever we are. As I've written before, history will someday be divided between the time before this and the time after. Google Glass is the Next Big Step.

P.S. This device will introduce us to a veritable tsunami of privacy issues, but that is a whole other post.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Living in History (Part 2) - Fast Forward



A reader named JPR posted an excellent comment on the last post, so much so that I will expand the conversation here.

He wrote:

Your post raises an interesting question: how will one distinguish himself from others in the future, or excel in any intellectual way? You mentioned Jeopardy.  Ken Jennings was the most amazing human contestant ever, but he bowed before his new master Watson after a solid drubbing.  How does one “get into Harvard” in a world where everyone has Google and Watson built in?

Some individuals will still be able to stand out based on physical size, strength, and athleticism.  We realize now that the popular concept from the 1960’s, that we are going to physically evolve into soft creatures with large heads to hold our enormous brains, is erroneous.  Human nature will always prize health, athleticism, and physical beauty.  There will always be some iteration of Muhammed Ali or Michael Jordan for people to marvel at.  Men and women will be attracted to attractive mates.  Unless we deliberately alter this trait, I think we know it is hardwired into the human brain.

But it has been Da Vinci and Einstein, Caesar and Churchill, Ford and Jobs who have transformed the world, not Michael Phelps.

I don’t claim to have an answer.  Will it be creativity that cannot be programmed in?  Curiosity?  Mental stamina?  Competitiveness?  Aggression?

There is no doubt we are headed in the direction you describe.  We should embrace it, not resist it.  But the prospect does raise some primal fears of a sterile, humorless, and/or tyrannical dystopia where everyone is equal in ability, not just opportunity.

I think the answer is that knowledge isn't everything, it's a tool. It's kind of like when your teacher tells you it's an open-book test. I always knew to be leery because I couldn't ace it by just memorizing a bunch of stuff - all the facts would be accessible to all. It's what you did with the facts that counted.

To me, the future - Google in your head - will be like living an open-book test. Original thought, creativity, humor, not to mention hard work - all these things are still on you. Technology will serve to turbocharge the process.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

We Are Living in History


I'm sure you've been asked that question: If you could travel back in time, what era would you choose? I've noticed this question has been asked more than once on my company's website, Wayin. Answers vary. The time of Jesus is always popular.

But there's always a concern over how one would "cope" without all the advances we have become used to. Two thousand years ago there were no easy ways to get around or communicate. Everything was labor intensive. You probably had to grow at least some of your own food, and you likely never traveled more than a few miles in your lifetime. Could you cope with that? My guess is you'd look around for a few days, check the box, and then hop back in the time machine. Gotta get a double decaf latte, stat.

Ever ponder how people 500 years from now might answer the same question? I'm guessing their answer would be right now. This- now - is the age when augmented intelligence began, when we all became connected. If you're over the age of, say, 40, you are the last generation to grow up without the internet. Your lifetime will have witnessed the single greatest transition in human history. My 500-years-from-now self wants to meet you.

The funny thing is, those visitors from the future won't want to stick around long, either. To them, connected intelligence will have been integrated into their very biology for centuries, and it will seem to the like we walk around without an additional sense, like being blind. They will be amazed how we possibly coped, especially pre, roughly, 2005, when smartphones became ubiquitous. Augmented intelligence will have made our decedents orders of magnitude smarter.



What is augmented intelligence? Well, how about being able to look up any fact in the world instantly over your smartphone? How about getting directions on-the-fly? How being able to communicate in dozens of ways with anyone, instantly, no matter where you are. I'm sure I don't need to go on. These are examples of what augmented intelligence is today. Buckle your seat belts for what it will mean even a decade from now.

There have really been three technological revolutions, if you think about it, that are the backbone of what I'm talking about. The first was when personal computing became affordable in the 80s. The second was when the internet hit an inflection point as browsers like Netscape became available in the mid-90s. The third was when the internet was freed from our computers and could go with us inside our smartphones. This last one has only happened in the last seven or eight years, and its implications dwarf the the earlier two.

Connectivity is an appendage now. Going outside without a smartphone causes anxiety in anyone under the age of 40. Connectivity is an appendage, and it is evolving from an annoying one that was mostly good for phone calls and emails, to something that is almost necessary to navigate through the world. "Almost" necessary will become "absolutely" necessary very soon. It is hard to believe that "apps" have only been with us for four years.

The smartphone will give way also. Connectivity will become more integrated than something you have to actually carry around in your pocket. Google is working on Google Glasses as we speak. Be prepared to see hipsters everywhere wearing clear glasses around and talking to themselves within a couple of years (followed by the rest of us)...


Bendable computers/smartphones are almost here as well...


Devices will literally be woven into the fabric of our lives. It doesn't stop there, though, because after that, connectivity will be integrated into our neural systems, some believe by around 2030. Google will be in your head. (Think of how you'll kick ass on Jeopardy.) Neural implants are already enabling some amputees control artificial limbs just by thinking about what they want to do.

Think of what it would be like to grow up with both the connectivity and the computational power of computers inside your head. Now imagine that, having lived your whole life with this incredible cognitive power, someone took it away. That's how the pre-millenial world will be viewed by history; a pre-enlightenment, cognitive dark age.

Finally, think how intriguing it would seem to meet people whose lives spanned the transition from one age to the other. That's us, so pay attention! History doesn't always seem remarkable when you're living it, but living it we are.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Tax Policy Enters the Twilight Zone

Reprinted with permission from one of my favorite blogs, Beeline...


 At times I think we are living in The Twilight Zone.

For those a little younger than I am, The Twilight Zone was a television series that originally aired from 1959-1964 that combined science fiction, suspense, horror or fantasy which often concluded with a macabre or unexpected twist.

The show started with a voice-over like this which was narrated by the show's creator, Rod Serling.

"This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality: you're on a through route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable...Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you're entering the wondrous dimension of imagination. Next stop....The Twilight Zone."

If you don't think we have crossed over the line to The Twilight Zone consider this AP story about Gerard Depardieu, the French actor, who recently renounced his birth citizenship because of his anger over the proposal by French President Francois Hollande to raise the income tax on earned income to 75% from the current rate of 41%. In his letter renouncing his citizenship Depardieu stated that he was leaving France because of his belief that success and talent are being punished by the current French government.

Gerard Depardieu

Where is Depardieu going to take up citizenship? Switzerland? Belgium? Austria? UK? USA?

No. This is where we enter The Twilight Zone.

Depardieu is on his way to becoming a Russian citizen as President Vladimir Putin has approved Depardieu's application for citizenship in expedited fashion.

Why would Depardieu be interested in becoming a Russian citizen?

Russia has a flat 13% tax rate. That's right, 13%! France is at 41% and wants to go to 75%. The USA has just increased the income tax rate on rich people like Depardieu to over 40% (including the Obamacare taxes) and communist Russia is at a flat 13%!

This highway has indeed led us to the shadowy tip of reality. We have found we are also on a route to the land of the different, the bizarre, and the unexplainable when a communist country has a flat tax of 13% and what have always been considered free market, capitalistic countries are close to confiscating incomes and property rather than taxing it.

I have to think that if Serling had submitted a Twilight Zone script to CBS in 1962 with a story line that Russia had a flat tax and was luring people of individual talent and achievement away from Western countries it would have been rejected as too far fetched.  Not only has Atlas Shrugged but Ayn Rand could return to her homeland and feel good about it.

Please change the channel! All of this is getting a little too scary to watch. Let's watch Leave It To Beaver instead.