Monday, May 29, 2017

Bathroom Stand Off


So, I'm at my college reunion, my class congregating in the magnificent courtyard you see above. Wonderful time, and we even managed to steer clear of politics, for the most part. Even when we did get into it, it was friendly and respectful, as it was when we were undergrads. These are people I am bonded with forever.

Saturday night, I excused myself from the bonhomie to visit the men's room. At this point, I need to explain that the common area restrooms are down below and shared with the next college over (we call dorms "colleges"). That was where the Class of '02 was headquartered, and their rap music competed down there with our Stones and Steely Dan. Did I mention we had better music? Anyway, as I exited, a woman of '02 was exiting the ladies room a few feet away. We both entered narrow hall, and as we approached a common door, I stepped aside and said, "after you."

She stopped dead in her tracks. "Patriarchy!" she said.

Huh? I said I merely thought I was being polite, not patriarchal. She wasn't buying, and it seemed we were at an impasse, with neither of us willing to walk through the door. We debated the point. Welcome to today's Ivy League.

A fellow from the '02 class thought this was all very funny and started filming with his phone. Perhaps it's posted somewhere in the social ether. I'd say this went on for about two or three minutes until the woman's need for another drink won out over doorway politics.

I declared victory for the Class of '82, and the way things were, as I followed her out.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Blurry Line Between Trolling and Hate




About ten years ago, a Yale fraternity - mine, as it happens -made its pledges stand outside the Women's Center and chant, "no means yes, yes means (fill in the blank)." Sorry, won't print the last word, but it was a graphic suggestion as to what consent might proffer.

It didn't go over very well.

Someone filmed the incident, it ended up as national news, and the fraternity was banned from campus for two years. Leaving aside the fact that any fraternity worth its salt gets banned at some point, what are we to make of the incident? Certainly, we know what feminists and the media thought: these were hateful misogynists who deserved any punishment coming their way, preferably expulsion. Further, it was emblematic of a deep river of misogyny running not just through society at large, but even through supposedly enlightened, liberal institutions like Yale. And, apparently, this well of hatred is everywhere...

Lately, for example, there's the uptick in swastika graffiti. Is there a deep reservoir of anti-Semitism in our country, too? And all the other "isms?" One look at the social media landscape, particularly Twitter, reveals what appears to be miasma of bias and hate. Name your "phobe," and you will find it. Homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. Are we truly a nation of "deplorables," as Hillary Clinton suggested at least half of us are? 

Maybe, or maybe it's a mixture of things. Sometimes - many times, actually - the more serious of these incidents turn out to be hoaxes perpetrated by those hoping to propel a narrative. The recent spate of bomb threats to synagogues turns out to have been perpetrated by an African-American Bernie Sanders supporter and a Jewish teenager. We all know about the UVA gang rape that never happened and same with the Duke lacrosse case. Same with many, many others...I wrote about this phenomenon here.

Then there's the people who just find it amusing to get a rise out of some other party. Please, the Yale kids were not misogynists, and they didn't mean their words literally. More accurately, they were trolls. The upperclassmen who sent those pledges on that assignment knew just what combination of words would rocket a group of feminists over the edge. Mission accomplished.

I won't accuse them of good judgment. In fact, if there's some award out there for bad judgment, this incident could be a contender. Given the political climate, particularly on campuses, the outcome of the affair was utterly predictable.

But what it was, was a troll. A troll is making a deliberately offensive or provocative comment, particularly online, with the aim of eliciting an angry response.

 
I don't condone or practice trolling, because I don't find it productive or particularly nice, but sometimes people make themselves easy targets. In a nutshell, the more self-serious you are, the more people will be tempted to give you a poke. Is there a more self-serious group than feminists? The last time one smiled was when Gloria Steinem was serving drinks at the Playboy Club...





(Okay, that was a minor troll...)

My point is, it's not always hate. As often as not, it's an idle attempt at self-amusement that comes with getting a rise out of someone else. Flame me if you want, but once in a while, I gotta admit it's kind of funny. When deeply earnest feminists picketed the Masters a few years back, some guy showed up with a sign that said, "Iron My Shirt." In the privacy of my closet, with the lights off, that made my chuckle.

Did I just say that? What I meant was, I was horrified by the man's insensitivity to the fact that women were, at that time, unable to join Augusta National. Yeah, that's what I meant.

Seriously, though, most of the time, trolling crosses lines that shouldn't be crossed. Some trollers are plain evil, plying their trade on Twitter, using the anonymity to harass others. Their malevolence stains all. This unfortunately perpetuates the false notion that we live in a country seething with undercurrents that are anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-Islam, etc., etc. I don't believe we do.

It needs to be said that we now seem to have a Troller-in-Chief:


Trump's tweets often seem precisely calibrated to make heads explode, usually among his detractors in the media. But viewed through the very contemporary lens of trolling culture, it all starts to make a bit of sense. The smartest thing anyone said during the campaign was, "The press takes Trump literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally." Salena Zito at The Atlantic said this last summer, and things haven't changed much. The media parses every 5 a.m. tweet, vigilant watchdogs for the end of civilization.

I don't quite know what to think of this, frankly. In a perfect world, our Chief Executive is above such things. The aesthetics bother me. But, we don't live in a perfect world, not currently. And the thing is, it might actually be effective. While the press and their bedfellows on the left chase every new butterfly (Russia! Taxes returns! Wire tapping!), Trump continues to go about his agenda.

Is this a conscious strategy of Trump's, or is he operating on some savant-like level? I had this very conversation with a fellow conservative recently, and damned if we knew. But we agreed it's not hate. Trump's a quintessential New Yorker, which means he has a live and let live attitude towards everyone, even if the words to express those feelings sometimes sound like just the opposite. 

I am reminded of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a generally hapless, but beloved team, whose fans expressed their affection in a uniquely New York fashion:



I know, this isn't trolling. Most New Yorkers loved the Dodgers, while I'm sure the fraternity brothers at Yale had no such affection for campus feminists. But the point is, words sometimes conceal what's truly going on in someone's head or heart. There is legitimate hate out there, but we do not live in a nation suffused with it. We do, however, seem to live in a nation of provocateurs. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Narrowing the Wealth Gap with Mandated Charitable Giving

There is a political tidal wave coming. This article is meant to provoke a conversation about how to deal with it.

To be clear, the wealth gap should not be "solved," in the sense of elimination. Eradicating the wealth gap entirely has only one outcome: Cuba. But the gap has been rising, and it will become an acute political and social problem in the coming decade. 

What, if anything, should we do about it?

We know what the liberal solution is: more taxes, more redistribution, bigger government, and perhaps even a "guaranteed minimum income."

The conservative answer has been, essentially, to say that those are bad ideas. and it's true, they are. But the fact remains that, for reasons we'll get into, the pressure to "do" something will be enormous, and it will become politically untenable for conservatives to be without viable, actionable, answers of their own.

By way of background, in the 1970s, the bottom 50% of income earners made about 20% of the overall pie, while the top 1% made about 11%. Now, those numbers have more or less flipped:



(Note this graph does not include transfer payments, so it tends to exaggerate the gap.)

What's driving this? Well, the high end is infinite, so there's no limit on how rich the upper end can get, particularly with the digital economy making it possible to scale new companies almost instantly (as opposed to the old days, when you had to physically build factories or stores). But those same technological advances have rendered many jobs obsolete, particularly ones that used to lift people into the middle class, obsolete.

Going forward, these trends will become even more acute. Some of the most common jobs in America are things like cashier and truck driver, both professions that will be vaporized by automation. Artificial Intelligence will also replace all manner of jobs, and they will never come back. At the same time, the near future will start producing trillionaires.

Mind you, I don't think there's anything morally wrong with people becoming fabulously wealthy. Good on 'em! They obviously produced something that people really wanted. Further, the very wealthy tend to give lots of money away. People like Bill Gates are re-inventing philanthropy in ways that are much more results-oriented. But such facts won't stop the wealth gap from growing as a political flash point. Indeed, Trump was elected by focusing on closing the gap from the bottom, a fine idea. The real question, though, is what future Democrats will be elected by proposing to close the gap from the top with confiscatory taxes?

  The libertarian-leaning conservative in me says, "Let the market sort things out. After all, our economy has survived countless transitions in the past..." Once, 90% of American adults were in the agricultural industry. Now, it's 2%. Not only did we survive this transition, we thrived. Same with the transition from buggy whips to cars, and many others.

But from my perch in the tech industry, I'm exposed to a lot of self-appointed futurists (a species in abundant supply), and the chorus is saying, "it's different this time." 

Is it? My old client Sir John Templeton once described those words as the five most dangerous in the English language. The futurists say, however, that AI will take over (most) everything and there will be no jobs left for the masses. Personally, I doubt this very much, but that doesn't mean the transition will be smooth, quick, or painless. It could take a very long time. Look at Lowell, Massachusetts, or Waterbury, Connecticut, towns still trying to transition from the textile age. I worry about the ramparts being stormed before the coming Great Transition sorts itself out. How do we smooth the path before some mega-"Occupy" of the future burns down the house?

Raising taxes is the wrong solution. Redistribution is rife with moral hazards and unintended consequences. It breeds dependency and complacency, precisely the wrong ways to allow people to adapt to a new economy. It bleeds our nation's soul. 

Guaranteed income, an idea beloved by Euro-socialists, is simply doubling down on the redistributive state, unless it replaces it (doubtful). The government acts as as the intermediary and administrator, and the government isn't good at particularly at running anything. Incentives are misaligned by political exigencies and cost structures inevitably spiral out of control.

Conservatives have always been right to resist the left's worst redistributionist tendencies, but how do they counter? They have been quiet, because there's nothing in the Wealth of Nations or Atlas Shrugged that quite anticipated the mind-bending pace of change that we're starting to see. Exponential growth - Moore's Law and all - is highly dislocating.

I have a thought on how to address this. My suggestion is to raise taxes but allow individuals to decide how to spend the money. Specifically, the government would mandate charitable giving.

The approach would go something like this. The government would say,  

Hey you rich people, we could just raise your taxes, say, 10% or 15%, but we're not going to...Instead, we're going to make you put that money into a charitable investment account, out of which you will give a certain percentage to certified, independently audited, charities every year.

What does this accomplish? From the Left's perspective, it knocks the rich down a couple of pegs, and in a way that's visible to their constituents. From the Right's perspective, it keeps the money out of the venal hands of the government and gives individuals a large degree of control over the destiny of their capital. 

The elements of a grand bargain are there.

I also would make the "charity tax" mandatory for almost all incomes, but highly progressive. Let's turn everyone, regardless of income or political persuasion, into a philanthropist.

The increase in charity, even if forced, would nudge us back to our civil society roots, when we solved our own problems and didn't look to the government first. 

I am reminded of how the Museum of Modern Art was founded in a single evening, in 1929, in John D. Rockefeller's living room with a handful of philanthropists who decided a showcase for this new, important style of art was needed. In France, where the government is expected to make such decisions, the first modern art museum - the Pompidou - wasn't built until the 1970s. By then, all the good stuff was taken. 

  
Let's all be like this guy, John D. Rockefeller

But it wasn't just high-end projects like museums. We looked around, saw what needed fixing or who needed help, and got on it. It was the American thing to do. There was no social safety net in the Great Depression and yet there were no mass starvations, either. People took care of each other through civic organization like mutual aid societies. It brought us together as a people. It is no coincidence that our current divisions have risen over a time period during which government programs have crowded out much civic philanthropy.



The civil society wasn't just about the Rockefellers, it was about the Joneses, and that's where we can go again. Our new citizen-philanthropists would be much better problem-solvers than the government. They are on the ground and would react in real time to issues as they arose, particularly as it related to their local communities. Being closer to the problem breeds better solutions, something that ties nicely to an idea from Catholic social doctrine called subsidiarity, which essentially says that what problems can be addressed at a lower level (e.g. families, charities, towns) should not be addressed at a higher lever (states, countries). Solutions should flow up, not down.

How does this help with the Great Transition? For one, it let's air out of the political balloon, which buys the transition some much-needed time. For another, we can assume that part of that huge pool of charitable capital would be used for things like education and re-training, two more things of which the government is a uniquely bad purveyor. If economic dislocation becomes our biggest challenge, count on private solutions to be better.

I recognize one of the problems here is that politicians would have to approve this, and that means allowing all that money to escape their collective grasp. Tough sell. And while it's hard for a conservative like me to propose anything that includes the word "mandatory," I imagine it's equally hard for liberals to let people do what they want with their money. But pressure will build either way, and someday that may be enough to make a deal.

Food for thought.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trumps Tax Plan = Equity Market Spike

Trump's plan to decrease corporate taxes from 35% to 15% should lead to a very healthy spike in the market. The math is simple, but it's amazing how few people are talking about it.

Let's go through a simple example for XYZ Corp. Right now, here's what they look like:

Current price:            $100
Pre-tax earnings:         $10
After-tax earnings:     $6.50  (assumes 35% tax)
P/E ratio:                    15.4    (100/6.50)

Under Trump's plan, the new after -tax earnings number is...

$8.50

Assuming the P/E ratio remains constant, the price of the stock must rise. Specifically...

8.50 x 15.4 = $130.77

That's almost a 31% rise, which is about what the market might rise over an average 3-4 years, except this should be more or less immediate. Capital will become cheaper to raise, and my specific hope is that it could revive the moribund IPO market.

Yes, some of this has been discounted since Trump was elected, but not much.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Permanent Protest

If it's Tuesday, it must be a march for/against (fill in the blank).

The fact is, liberals like being out of power, at least on an emotional level. They need somewhere to direct their permanent state of outrage. It was always a little odd when protests like, say, Occupy, or Black Lives Matter, railed against The Man, when The Man, was, arguably Barack Obama.

Awkward.

But for liberals, virtue signaling is as important as breathing, and taking to the streets is the quickest way to get a good selfie for your like-minded friends on Facebook and Instagram. Even during the Obama years, this impulse could not be contained. Oddly, Obama even encouraged it, as if the center of power was somewhere else.

And Obama, like any good liberal, liked to vigorously employ the levers of power. But you could tell that the hard, detailed work of governance wasn't particularly fun for him, not like the good ol' days, hanging with Bill Ayers, spreading the word about American imperialism. Saul Alinsky had lots to say about how to burn down power structures, but little to say about what to do when the power structure was yours. It's a confused dog that actually catches the bus.

But now, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, The Man has a new face:



Let the good times roll! Let's march!

One key reason libs are happier out of power is that they can just fall back on bumper sticker aphorisms...

Co-exist!

Dissent is the Highest Form of Patriotism!

Earth First!

Love Trumps Hate!

No need to flesh out any nuance or policy detail (boring!) when you're chanting at a rally.

But the sad fact is that the Left in America has lost the ability to express itself in any coherent way. They are vacuum-sealed in their insularity, and it's rendered them intellectually inert. It's certainly why they were utterly shocked by the election. 

To understand why, let's start with geography:


The left lives in a faint archipelago of densely populated urban areas that gave huge margins to Hillary Clinton.

And then there's the media...



...which skews wildly left. I don't think even libs are trying to argue otherwise anymore. Yes, there's Fox, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (sort of), but everybody else, well, let's just say that 96% of media donations went to Hillary. As a conservative, you can't avoid hearing liberal spin on just about everything. It permeates the air like oxygen. As a liberal, though, it's quite easy to avoid hearing the other side. Simply avoiding Fox and some talk radio gets the job done, for the most part, and you probably dumped your last conservative friend on Facebook a while ago.

And, of course, there are the schools...



I can only assume you've heard about "safe spaces," where students are protected from hearing viewpoints they find upsetting. They're not likely to hear them much, because conservatives at most colleges have learned to keep their mouths shut, lest they have no friends and provoke their professors' ire. Thus, debate is virtually non-existent. I've been told it would be completely impossible to hold a formal debate at Harvard these days on something like a border wall because even if you found students to take the affirmative, protests would shut the whole thing down. Visiting conservative speakers are also routinely shouted down, assuming they make it to campus in the first place.

The only open debates on campus any more are between degrees of progressivism, like the Leninists and Trotskyites of old.

All this results in a progressive movement that's not particularly good at defending itself. If you don't expose your ideas to criticism, you'll have no idea what their weaknesses are, or even their strengths. Which brings me back to...

...the permanent protest.

It's so much easier. No one calls you out in the middle of a march. No one asks for a white paper when you're busy chanting. No one asks you to explain why "dissent is the highest form of patriotism" signs only seem to come out during Republican administrations. No one throws the flag when you use your third Hitler reference of the day.


 
I'm not, for the record, suggesting liberals are stupid. Many of them are extremely intelligent, and many remain my friends. But where critical thinking and reasoned argument are concerned, they are woefully out of practice, and they do not seem inclined to address the problem. The fact is, if you live in a bubble, forever protected from hard questions, you won't ever be able to answer them when they come.

But, whatever, shut up, man. Gotta go make a sign!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Of Stinkin' Badges - Pre-Inaugural Thoughts



So, I was walking in front of Trump Tower a few days ago, where a motley collection of 200-300 protesters was chanting, "Love trumps hate!" over and over. As I walked beside them, disdain likely visible on my face, one woman yelled, "F**k you, old white guy!"

Old? I'm hurt. Did I mention they were chanting "Love trumps hate?" 

Hmm.

I haven't posted in some time. I've been too busy, in part, but also digesting. Pigs fly, hell freezes, and the American Left is having an emotional breakdown of epic proportions. It's been great fun to watch, can't lie, although it now grows tiresome.

A few months ago, I advocated voting Trump as I thought there was a slight (25%) chance of his being a good president, versus the big, fat zero chance for...what was her name, again? Well, I'm up to 75%. To be clear, I was no Trump fan, he wasn't even in my Top 10 in the GOP field. Let's face it, he's a deeply odd man, narcissistic, confrontational, tacky. His behavior towards women, while probably not as bad as Bill Clinton's, leaves much to be desired. And he can't string together a single goddamn sentence without a syntax error. C'mon, Donald, you went to Penn! What's up with that?

Regardless, I have been profoundly impressed since election night, beyond anything I could have imagined. His cabinet, in my view, is a home run, up and down the line (with the notable exception of Elaine Chao). One of my abiding concerns about Trump was his lack of a core ideology, but his cabinet is solidly conservative. (Here's wishing them luck dealing with the tens of thousands of bureaucrats who will stymie their every move.)

Then there's the deals he's been cutting with Carrier, Boeing, etc. I will go on the record as being against the sort of inside dealing that got Carrier to stay in Indiana, but wow, what a PR coup for a guy who had been president-elect for mere days. I've never seen anything like it.

Did you see his press conference the other day? What got all the headlines was Trump's (rightful) dressing down of the CNN reporter, which is no surprise given the self-absorption of the media, but the real story was elsewhere, which is to say that Trump wasn't backing down on a damn thing. 

This is quite unusual. Lots of candidates promise lots of things, but usually start hedging once elected as the difficulty of following through becomes manifest. Not so, Trump. The Wall, Obamacare, he's not backing off anything. Reality, and Congress, might conspire against him, but I'm not so sure. When the House stupidly voted to eliminate the Ethics Board, a single tweet from Trump had them scurrying away in fright, reversing their decision.

Oh, yeah, the tweeting. Get used to that. One thing that we can be sure of is that Donald Trump is going to carve a presidency like no other. The rules will all be re-written. Badges? Trump don't need no stinkin' badges. This fills many with profound dread. To them, I say: How well was it working before? 



What fills me with weariness is the near constant display of outrage from the left that I don't expect to abate anytime soon. Of course, the Left exercised perpetual outrage during every GOP presidency since Reagan's, but ironically, under eight years of Obama, a time when things were demonstrably going their way, the outrage only got worse. If it's Tuesday, it must be pipeline protest day! 

Feeling and expressing outrage is now a way of life for the American Left, like 16 year-olds when told they can't borrow the car.  Making sure the rest of us have to see these fits of pique every day has become the job of the media.

Throw a Republican president in the mix? Scream even louder. Call someone a racist! Throw Donald Trump in the mix? Holy crap, it's now the World Series and Super Bowl of outrages. Spleens are bursting in every faculty lounge.

Except, the World Series and the Super Bowl end. This won't. It will be constant, and CNN, NPR, and Vox will make sure none of us can quietly go about our lives without hearing the cacaphony. But here's the thing: while this might bother you and me, Trump doesn't give a crap. He may be the only Republican, ever, about whom you could say that. 

For years, we've witnessed a parade of Republicans who have operated under the illusion that they could get the press or, say, Congressional Democrats, to like them.


Sure, they'll pretend. The press pretended to like John McCain (He's a maverick!) right up until the point he was nominated for president. Ted Kennedy pretended to like George Bush just long enough to get No Child Left Behind passed. I could go on, it's a time-honored scam.

But Trump? He doesn't need you to be his friend. He's got a hot wife, smart kids, and he's moving his chintz to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He doesn't need your stinkin' badge.

This is going to get very interesting.



Electoral Model Follow Up: the election put my electoral model to shame, although I must say it had a pretty good run. The model had Hillary winning 302 electoral votes and in the end, Trump won 306. As you may know, the model is based on prediction markets, which, while better than polls, are still fallible. The Wisdom of the Crowds wasn't so wise this time. Still, I haven't found a better system.