Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Convenience Costs

September 15, 2020

Online ordering and delivery was a Thing long before COVID-19, but I can only imagine how much more money is being poured into Internet-based shopping options instead of traditional brick and mortar stores. Correspondingly, the push for faster and faster delivery times is driving not just technology but policy as well.

Amazon has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin delivery of small (under five pounds in weight) packages to customers. It has been testing such delivery systems since 2013.

I’m curious how this might impact home designs. Could homes have designated rooftop or balcony landing spots where drones could leave packages instead of leaving them by the front door where they are more vulnerable to theft?

Food for Thought

September 14, 2020

I know there is no perfect system. But awareness of flaws in a system can help us improve it. Awareness of abuses in a system can help us fine tune it. Awareness of inefficiencies in a system can help us remember we’re likely paying for those inefficiencies, and maybe we should be more concerned about them.

Case in point.

Encouraging Community

September 7, 2020

She came in person to ask for help.

We chatted for a few minutes in the office. She was new to the area. She made a bad decision and purchased a car “as-is” from a private seller for $2000. Then she found out the car needed another $2000 in repairs. Perhaps our community could take up a collection to assist her. She had documentation she was enrolled in a city safe-parking program – she could sleep in her car in a designated lot somewhere in the city where she wouldn’t be hassled and would hopefully be safe. She was homeless, but not without resources and was open to assistance. She had applied for employment. Her area code was on the East Coast, but she declined to divulge where she was from.

I told her I’d make some calls and get back to her. I knew I wasn’t willing to try and come up with $2000 for her. But perhaps I could get her a free second opinion on the repairs, or perhaps a discounted rate on the repairs. I called a congregational member in his final year of law school to see if she might have any Lemon Law recourse in our state. I apprised my Elder of the situation to get his feedback. He thought the congregation could provide some limited assistance from a benevolence fund we have set up, but was skeptical of extensive help – and rightly so. When she called back later in the afternoon I didn’t have more information and told her I’d be in touch the next day. When asked, she was pretty confident the seller of the car wasn’t going to be of any help in defraying expenses.

The next day I had word back from the law student that her options were slim. When she called – very proactive! – I explained the situation.

I am asked for help on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes it’s by phone. Sometimes they stop by the office. Sometimes they want $20 in gas or help with food. After nearly a decade of working in the recovery community here, I’m more aware of both the myriad issues that can drive people to ask for help as well as some of the local resources available to assist them. So rather than reaching for my wallet I often refer them to one of these resources. They invariable are uninterested. Usually that’s the end of the encounter.

But I’ve also taken up the practice of suggesting they join us for worship, that they meet our community. After all, I’m convinced that the underlying issue for many people in dire need is a lack of community. For whatever reason(s), they don’t have people around them who know them and care about them and can be of help. We can try to target mental health or housing or substance abuse or any number of presenting problems for homelessness, but without a community, any solution is going to be temporary at best.

So I invited her to worship with us on Sunday and said I’d talk with her then about how we could help. At the very least I’d be willing to purchase her a bus pass so she could get around if her vehicle proved unreliable. She thanked me and said she’d be there. She remained calm and didn’t argue or protest.

She actually came on Sunday.

Forty-five minutes early, but she was there. She was greeted by various people in the congregation as she sat enjoying the sun on the hottest day of the year. She listened to the musicians warming up. I walked her out and got her a bulletin and made an introduction or two. Just a few moments before worship started there was a knock on my door. In the hallway was my wife and this woman, both smiling and talking. The woman asked again for financial assistance. She had spent the previous night making a list of her most pressing needs. She had a line on someone willing to help her out with her car repairs, and the biggest need she identified was fees to have a background check run on her and to apply for work as a home health care assistant. I told her I’d cover those expenses the next day.

I assumed she was leaving before the service started, once she had a pledge of assistance. But to my pleasant surprise she stayed through half the service. I had committed to help her and I was going to do that whether she stayed or not. But her willingness to participate at least somewhat was very heartening.

However the next day was Labor Day and her potential employer was closed.

Tuesday she was in touch again and we coordinated to meet at a notary and then at the employment office. I paid her fees for her and she thanked me. I cleared it with my wife first – who agreed it was a good thing to do and had appreciated meeting the woman on Sunday morning. I notified my Elder of what I was doing.

I don’t know if we’ll see her again. I’m hoping we will. She indicated she had some sort of church background but didn’t elaborate or explain. But she read through our statement of faith regarding Holy Communion. And she engaged me on part of it she misread as saying we needed to be worthy to receive Holy Communion. I clarified it was a warning against receiving it unworthily – presuming our deserving of God’s grace or in denial of our sinfulness. She seemed satisfied by this. She left shortly after I started my sermon, but by that time she’d been there for nearly an hour and a half, so I can’t entirely blame her.

I think people were friendly and let her know she was welcome so I hope she’ll be back. I hope she’ll appreciate that she was responded to not simply in terms of a financial need but in terms of community and a place to belong and be safe. I know the odds of this all working out are slim. That doesn’t bother me in terms of money spent. It worries me for her and her future. Because what she needs ultimately isn’t just a job or a reliable car but people around her who love her. And more deeply than that, she needs a relationship with the God who created her and loves her more deeply than anyone else ever can or will. Maybe we can be a part of that story, her return to faith or nourishment in the faith or whatever it is. I can’t control that part of her story, I can only seek to be faithful and open to whatever part in her story our congregation can fulfill.

Times are hard all over right now. We can and should be open to the needs of others, even when we’re trying to socially distance and protect one another. One of the ways we do this is through hospitality. It’s a curious word that is difficult to work with in our American culture that, even before COVID-19 struggled with hyper-individualism and a heightened level of distrust and fear of anyone beyond immediate family members.

So hospitality is complicated for us. We like the idea but frequently because we define it improperly. A seminary professor teaching on 1 Timothy 3 once glossed over hospitality as being nice. A recent article in a denominational publication mentioned ordering food via GrubHub or tipping additional when picking up food during our COVID-19 pandemic as forms of hospitality. But being nice isn’t hospitality, although a host will be nice as they are being hospitable. And being generous is not being hospitable, though a good host almost by definition is a generous one. Hospitality involves a relationship established when an outsider is invited to become an insider. Into the home or family or community. And we struggle with that as American Christians.

Yet we’re called by God to be hospitable (Isaiah 58:7, Genesis 18, Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2, Hebrews 13:2, just to name a few) both by exhortation and command as well as by example. So being of help to people isn’t necessarily just a matter of writing a check or handing out some cash. That may be part of the equation as well, but we have the opportunity to establish a relationship that goes beyond giver and recipient, beyond excess and need, and instead that crosses the chasm between insider and outsider.

It doesn’t always work and hosts can’t force people to be guests, can’t force people to receive hospitality, and can’t force people to come in from the outside. But we can and should create that opportunity when and how the Holy Spirit prompts us. Because there’s more going on than a meal or repairs for a vehicle. God the Holy Spirit is at work seeking to draw all people back to the God the Father who created them and God the Son who redeemed them. The Holy Spirit’s care and concern goes beyond the immediate to the eternal, and beyond the physical to the totality of a person’s body and spirit. And the Church and the people of God are the place where the Holy Spirit’s work should be most prominent and eminent and palpable.

My decision to help this young woman financially was practicing generosity. But the invitation to her to join us and meet more of our folks and potentially find connections that would stick and begin to form a network of support, a community, a home – that’s part of hospitality. That’s part of trusting you are a piece of someone else’s puzzle in the hands of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to bring wholeness to a broken world. And miracle of miracles, in doing so, we find that those we open ourselves to are pieces in our own puzzle.

Buyer Beware or Unaware?

August 19, 2020

One of those nagging little facts I retain for no particular reason is a phrase I learned in my high school economics class my senior year – caveat emptor. A Latin phrase which means let the buyer beware. The basic concept is that in any given transaction, the one handing over money for goods or services should beware to the best of their ability they are not being taken advantage of. This could be in purchasing a faulty product or not studying the terms of service carefully (a common problem these days when Terms and Conditions of products can be very lengthy and very small print!). If you aren’t careful about how you buy, you might be taken advantage of. Don’t simply trust blindly.

It’s an important concept, as it presumes the buyer is capable of being wary. That they have the requisite skills and understanding to make decisions regarding who they give their money to and in exchange for what. It was a fundamental, undergirding principle of our country for a long time, though I’m not so sure it is any longer.

Of course the buyer can’t possibly know everything. Laws have been created and passed to give buyers protections. Did that new big-screen TV not work out of the box like promised? The seller or the manufacturer or your credit card company – and likely all three – provide you with some level of protection from the reality that despite best intentions and through no deliberate attempt to defraud, goods and services don’t function the way they should.

That’s a far cry from assuming consumers are too stupid to know what they’re doing. But more and more, the assumption seems to be that consumers shouldn’t be held at all responsible for the decisions they make, and that experts should take that responsibility for them.

One example of this is in the field of health care and insurance. Since costs for health care and healthcare insurance continue to skyrocket (perhaps because the system is faulty?!?), and because more and more health insurance companies are covering procedures that are elective in nature and passing the costs on to others (gender change surgeries, abortions, etc.), it’s an important arena for consumers to be aware in. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of taking whatever your employer provides. Other times, you have options or choices, either through your employer or because you are self-employed. Even with your employer, there are usually various options and plans to select from a given provider, and so the consumer is still required to beware what they are purchasing or paying for is really what they want and need.

For seven years now my family has been a member of a health sharing ministry. This decision was made because of concerns of the changes in health insurance in terms of what they decided they would cover (and therefore what we would be helping to pay for), particularly in terms of abortions. We did our research, I talked with at least one person who had been a member for years already, and we read and reread the fine print. Samaritan Ministries did a good job then and now of clearly stating what we were and were not getting and what was and was not covered. We understood not everything was covered, and we understood that our membership and ability to submit needs for coverage was based on a shared set of Christian principles in terms of how we live our lives.

Had our health situations changed substantially (we’re all basically healthy), this might not have been a good option or an option we needed to leave behind. But we’ve so far not ever regretted the decision to move to Samaritan Ministries, and we genuinely feel good, knowing we are helping other Christians in their needs.

But, caveat emptor. And so when I saw this article pop up in a news feed the other day warning against such programs, I naturally read it. After all, regardless of how I feel about something, I want to be well informed.

Firstly, the article is primarily politically motivated, in opposition to a move by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to allow health sharing ministries to be considered a form of health insurance and therefore allowing participants to potentially claim their expenses as deductions on their taxes. The article perceived this as an attack on Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) since it could entice more people to leave traditional health insurance plans and participate in health sharing ministries instead. This would reduce the number of healthy people paying into insurance plans and drive up insurance costs. The goal of the author is to protect the costs of those participating in health insurance plans, rather than to honestly evaluate whether there might be viable alternatives to such plans that could – using market forces – pause or reverse some of the spiraling costs of health care and health insurance. The author’s irritation that health sharing ministries are less expensive than many health insurance plans is palpable.

One particular critique is that health sharing ministries aren’t as comprehensive in their coverage. This is very true. There are many things our membership with Samaritan Ministries don’t cover. This is part of the appeal for us, in some ways, as we don’t want to be funding abortions if we can help it. In other ways, it does serve as a reinforcement to pay attention to our membership and potential needs. If we developed a health condition not covered by our membership, we’d need to evaluate whether we could remain members or not. Likewise, when I’ve been asked by others about our experience, I’ve emphasized that while it works for us, it may not work for everyone and they need to pay attention very carefully to the fine print.

Also as our needs have changed, I’ve been proactive in asking questions of Samaritan. When our oldest son left home for an internship a few weeks ago, I needed to ensure he was still considered part of our family plan, or else we’d need to help him get his own individual plan with Samaritan (or a different insurance plan if he decided to go that route). In all such communications Samaritan has been clear and forthright and prompt. Sometimes less coverage is exactly what you want, because you know you aren’t ever going to need some of the things that aren’t covered.

Yes, this means that someone with a pre-existing condition who opts for a health sharing ministry could end up with some substantial bills they need to pay on their own. That’s why they need to read the fine print very carefully. Yes, someone could simply see the lower monthly share amount and decide it was best to switch out of traditional health insurance to save some money on a monthly basis, and because they ignored the principle of caveat emptor, they could end up hurting themselves financially when things they assumed would be covered aren’t covered. This isn’t because the health sharing ministry is being dishonest or attempting to defraud people. Rather, it’s because health sharing ministries by default and design cover fewer things than traditional health insurance does. That’s not bad (at least it doesn’t have to be) but it does require paying attention to details.

Not that this keeps people from insulting health sharing ministries and, by extension, those who find them valuable.

The Los Angeles Times ran a rather bitter column on the topic of the proposed IRS changes. “Healthcare experts” are invoked nebulously as disapproving of health sharing ministries because of “substandard coverage”, ignoring the fact some such health sharing ministries are intentionally providing less coverage for certain things deemed necessary and essential by experts, such as abortions and elective surgeries for gender reassignment.

I’ll assume the columns assertions that sometimes these plans are marketed in less than honest ways might sometimes happen. Frankly, I don’t see many advertisements for these plans out there, but still, I’m sure it could conceivably happen. That doesn’t mean the plan or ministry itself is dishonest. Unless of course they’re deliberately misleading people, in which case they should be held accountable as any provider of goods or services should be – and not simply because they’re health sharing ministries.

Nineteen state attorney generals think the proposed IRS changes are illegal because of a lack of analysis of the outcomes, and because it could be damaging to existing health insurance markets. Why is it that we are guarding against potential competition in this market? Oh yeah, that’s right. Because this is a government mandated and controlled market to some extent now, and the government apparently didn’t consider the possibility of competition messing up the amazing numbers it used to convince our lawmakers to approve it. Gee. I guess we should just stick with the status quo despite there being potentially good alternatives that give the power and decision making back to the people rather than the government.

Because people apparently aren’t capable of being wary or informed in their decision making. So let’s just eliminate options for them. Much simpler. Very American. Not.

The author asserts that my health sharing ministry is offering me junk, and I’m stupid enough to buy it. While that’s always potentially true (even of insurance companies) my experience thus far is that this is not the case. To assert otherwise in such broad brushstrokes displays the very type of willful or unavoidable ignorance the author is accusing me of possessing and seeks to protect me from.

Unfortunate.

The New York Times weighed in as well with an emotional piece about a young boy with a tragic illness. The implication in the article is that this poor family is going to be ruined because they are members of a health sharing ministry instead of an insurance company. The article has multiple compelling photos of the young boy in various stages of health, and essentially paints the picture this family is being left out to dry by their health sharing ministry – Samaritan Ministries, the same one we use.

But nowhere is that specified in the article.

Instead, the severity of the boy’s situation and treatment and the likely costs of such treatment will likely exceed the cap on per incident issues. Ignoring the fact that Samaritan negotiates with healthcare providers for reduced charges because they will be paid via cash rather than having to jump through insurance hoops hoping for reimbursement. And despite the specific fact – mentioned but lost in the shuffle in the article – that Samaritan has a program specifically to help in such extreme situations. The boy’s family hasn’t been cheated or misled or anything, and there’s no certainty yet the bills will exceed the incident cap, or that Samaritan won’t cover up to the cap, and that there may not be additional funds to help them.

But just the possibility that there could be a problem is enough to justify the attack article. Despite the fact the father defends Samaritan in terms of previous issues they’ve submitted for coverage. Still not good enough.

So, after reading these various articles, I come back to to what my high school economics teacher, Mr. Conway, taught me. Caveat emptor. Know what you’re doing to the best of your ability. But also recognize you can’t know everything, and nothing is guaranteed. The authors of these various articles all give the common impression that health insurance coverage is guaranteed, yet I’m sure we all know someone who was told their coverage wouldn’t be as extensive as they were led to believe, or who were denied coverage for a particular issue.

The New York Times article mocks the company’s exhortation for members to trust in God. But that’s just what it’s members do. Not simply a claim of Christian faith is required for membership but also reasonably verifiable evidence of regular church attendance. Members do trust God, and that’s part of the point of Samaritan Ministries – is faith not simply as a pleasant sounding mantra but something that guides the decisions we make and the money we spend and how we spend it.

I pray these authors never run up against the unpleasant truth that health insurance is not a guarantee of financial safety and security. And I pray they might reconsider whether deliberately opting for programs that don’t cover everything is the same thing as receiving “substandard” care, and whether the potential for misunderstanding is the same as duplicity.

Political Suggestion

July 27, 2020

Perhaps like you, my town is starting to be dotted with notices of businesses closing. Doors shutting for good after being forced to shut down as part of the grand social sacrifice to stop the spread of the coronavirus. I’ve heard little mention through official channels of remorse for these closures, the preliminary wave of what I expect will be a much larger wave continuing on into the years ahead of us. I’ll assume our leaders presume loan monies are adequate to sustain businesses shuttered for months on end.

The signs and notices around town tell a different story.

Of course most of our elected officials don’t have businesses to run. Their salaries as well as their premiere health benefits are guaranteed through tax dollars. They can literally weather the pandemic indefinitely, determining who closes and who opens without any serious personal risk themselves. I’m sure they know people who are affected. At least I hope they do. I hope somebody close to them has lost their business or their health insurance. Not out of vindictiveness but so our leaders have an accurate measure of the economic and psychological pain being caused through prolonged closures.

For an illness that is far less lethal than we originally feared.

In some ways I imagine it is like royalty in centuries past. While the masses of people beneath them might be struggling through catastrophe, the wealth of the aristocracy could effectively insulate them from those effects, or allow them to relocate for a period of time. Responsiveness suffers when there is sufficient buffer between the reality of the electorate and the reality of those elected.

So a suggestion.

For as long as some businesses must remain closed or at much reduced capacity, those elected leaders responsible for mandating the closures should endure a commensurate level of economic suffering as well. As long as there are businesses not allowed to reopen, all officials from the Governor down to the local elected leaders should not draw any salary. They should be entitled to unemployment benefits like everyone else, for which they must file like everyone else. They should have the same health insurance coverages – or lack thereof – of anyone else on unemployment. This situation should continue until mandatory closures are lifted and businesses can reopen.

If businesses are allowed to reopen (or continue operating) but at reduced capacity, all officials from the Governor down to locally elected leaders will only draw salary and benefits directly proportional to the reduction in capacity they are mandating for others. If restaurants can only serve half the customers, government officials should draw half salaries.

In the case of varying levels of closures or reductions in capacity mandated, government official compensation will be tied to the most restrictive mandates currently in force.

Again, this is not intended to be punitive. At least no more punitive than the existing closures and restrictions. But it is intended to lend an air of urgency to a very real and pressing catastrophe that many of our elected officials seem to be personally unaffected by. Their salaries continue as they order others into unemployment. Their benefits packages continue to operate without a blink while others are at risk of losing health coverage and any number of other benefits tied to employment and the overall economic health of an employer and the economy at large.

This would motivate our leaders to be more creative in addressing the issue than simply ordering people to stay in their homes and close down their businesses. It should motivate our leaders to be more creative than simply adding trillions of dollars to our national debt in bailout payments or destroying state budgets through loss of tax revenues.

If our leaders share our pain and our concerns, I have to believe they will be far more motivated to figure out solutions that everyone benefits from. This can’t go on indefinitely, or even through the end of the calendar year as some people (academics, government officials or others without any real skin in the game in terms of personal finances) are prone to warning us.

Thoughts?

Coronavirus Roundup

July 23, 2020

A few miscellaneous items related to the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly in the United States but also around the world as well. After all, who can escape the daily headlines with staggering infection counts and updated fatality tallies? And if these things are being reported so loudly and often, they must be important, right?

Certainly they are important. It’s not as though Coronavirus appears to be fictional. The question becomes what sort of important are they, and how do we make sense of them with other important things?

For instance, we’re being quoted daily the number of new fatalities linked to COVID-19. Certainly we don’t get daily death tallies for other illnesses, diseases, or accidents. Surely the death figures for COVID-19 must be devastatingly abnormal? Surely far more people are dying in 2020 – and primarily related to COVID-19 – than in other years?

What if that doesn’t appear to be the case? What if death rates aren’t massively higher than in other recent years? Could that tell us anything about Coronavirus or how it’s being treated or reported?

More and more I hear different industry experts and commentators talking about how they don’t anticipate any change in how things are being done right now until a safe and effective vaccine is developed. Considering vaccines aren’t necessarily discoverable on demand, this seems like a problematic place to lodge your hope. Add to that how effective or safe is defined with no long-term studies and things get further complicated. And add to that the possibility that antibodies may not last, or may not act like other antibodies and it gets even more complicated. After all it would be pretty frustrating to push (or demand) everyone get vaccinated only to find it didn’t offer long-lasting protection.

And protection is what we’re after, right? We want to know we’re being protected. That’s what our governments are there to help do, right? Protect us?

Or maybe just some of us?

Evidently some people aren’t as deserving of protection as other folks, which is disturbing to say the least. But this is an issue European nations find far less disturbing now than they did when, say, the Nazis were deciding which people merited living and which ones didn’t. At least this is Great Britain we’re talking about, rather than America.

Oh, whoops. Perhaps the problem isn’t as distant from the land of the free as we’d like to imagine.

So this COVID-19 thing has a lot of dimensions to it. But in the midst of it, don’t think that while your businesses and schools and churches might be shut down, that your legislators have stopped working on their pet projects.

AB 2218 was introduced into the California Legislature back in February of this year. In other words, a lifetime ago in Coronavirus terms. I’m sure it didn’t seem so unusual back then, wanting to take money from the general fund to specially fund and provide for transgender individuals and their very specific needs. Whatever those are, as defined by special interest groups where the president/CEO is transgender and 75% of the employees are transgender (Section 2.f.2.A-C). Doesn’t sound like a very diverse workplace, frankly.

Back then in February, it was apparently suggested that a specific amount of money be appropriated from the General Fund for these very vague purposes. Fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000). However despite the pandemic raging and society crumbling and all that, this bill was amended in Assembly not once but twice (May and June). Somewhere in those amendments the dollar amount was eliminated. Meaning there is theoretically – or literally – no limit to how much money from the General Fund could be appropriated for these purposes. After all, this Bill clearly defines the huge need. It asserts at least 218,400 Californians identify as transgender. That’s a huge number. But considering California has an estimated 40,000,000 residents (and that’s probably a low figure given our very hospitable attitude towards unregistered folks), the figure comes out somewhere in the neighborhood of .00546 percent of our overall population.

Now there are roughly double the number of Coronavirus infections (remember Coronavirus? That’s where we started this post!) in California as transgendered people. I think it’s safe to say that the Coronavirus case numbers will grow much more rapidly than the transgendered numbers. And currently most of the counties in this state are under some sort of restrictions or lockdowns due to inadequate medical facilities to handle the potential surge in need for hospital beds and ICUs and qualified medical staff.

So why in the world would our lawmakers decide that right now, in the middle of a pandemic when California is reporting more cases of COVID-19 than any other state in the country, right now we should free up unlimited funds for the support of transgender folks? Why aren’t they figuring out how to direct more funds to those areas areas with the least medical support or the highest rates of hospitalizations? Or at least I’d think they’d be working tirelessly to direct any available funding towards relief of from the Coronavirus, and providing support services for people and families who have lost their jobs and businesses and savings.

So yeah, curious times to be sure. Good to keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what you might learn.

The Forest

July 20, 2020

A very good read here. It requires that we lift our heads up above the headlines being screamed at us moment by moment to recognize the larger damage that has, is, and apparently will continue to be done.

Conclusions to be drawn, since the author does much in terms of description but very little in terms of prescription?

For starters, this should be a stark wake-up call to the inherent dangers of a professional political caste made possible by unlimited terms. It’s tragic that more publicity has been given in recent years – by both red and blue pundits – to eliminating term restrictions on the Presidency than on calls for term limitations on all elected offices and officials. Often such calls are aimed only at the legislative branch of government, but real thought should be given to considering term limitations for the judicial branch as well. I have long maintained that people with a vested stake in the real world tend to be more responsive to the needs of people they are not so different from than people who are virtually guaranteed employment for life at tax-payer expense without really needing to consider the needs of the taxpayers.

Criticism of the media for not fully reporting more nuances of the Coronavirus pandemic is necessary and warranted combined with some hard examination of why such willful exclusion of contextualized data and information continues. Much self-righteous indignation has been expressed in defense of our free press, but when the press is nearly uniform in what it says and how it says it, I suspect strongly it isn’t nearly as free as it likes to think itself, or as we need it to be.

Other conclusions?

Writing History

June 26, 2020

You wouldn’t know it from reading local news stories, but public officials are allowing mobs of people to destroy public landmarks – the costs of which are borne by taxpayers.

For instance, in San Francisco several statues were recently knocked over by mobs of people. The reports of what happened and why are fascinating. Consider this report, which begins as a fairly neutral account of what happened and some of the costs entailed, but then devolves into a virtual legitimization of the destruction due to essentially bureaucratic red tape. If only officials had moved more quickly to respond to input, the situation could have been handled properly. The writer ends the column justifying the destruction of public property as appropriate, despite the fact that some of the destruction mentioned in the article is also described as “less thought out”.

Or you could read this report, that begins with justification of the actions. Neither article describes any real effort to apprehend the vandals or stop them from destroying the statues in the first place, even though it seems likely the police could have effectively intervened. Perhaps fear of reprisals in the form of demands for disbanding or defunding the police department caused officers to hesitate to get more directly involved? Regardless of the rationale, those police officers will be directly involved in terms of their tax monies being used to pay for necessary cleaning, removal, storage, and whatever other costs the mobs incurred.

Closer to home an effort was made – perhaps half-heartedly – to destroy a statue in Ventura, California.

This report makes it seem like a rather innocuous discussion, really. A respectful exchange of ideas about the future of a statue commemorating a historical figure prominent in California history. A “rally” is described to “discuss” relocating the statue to private property.

Or you could read this account, which describes a far more volatile confrontation and a desire for more than discussion, at least by some of those present. Again, police presence is described as somewhat distant, but in this case enough to deter those bent on illegal activity from pursuing their goal.

I’m not quite clear how these events are described so casually despite the destruction of public property intended or carried out. Does the fact that someone is allegedly angry mean they are not subject to the law? Isn’t the law intended, at a very practical level, to discourage certain behavior by people who might be highly emotional and not thinking most clearly? I’d be fascinated to learn if Black Lives Matter has plans to reimburse cities for the forced redecorating (dedecorating) carried out in the movement’s name? Perhaps they’ll take up collections from people happy that the offending monuments are gone to defray the costs? Or is that really not at all something they’re concerned about? Hmmm. That’s a tough one to figure out, isn’t it?

It’s a dangerous situation when people believe they can act with impunity, destroying parts of their community without bothering to consider how others think or feel about the destruction, and expecting those other people to pick up the tab for their actions. If this is a foreshadowing of how things will operate in the future of defunded police departments, I can’t say I’m a fan of it.

Not that anybody’s asking me.

Round 2

May 18, 2020

A massive spending proposal has passed the House of Representatives.  Intended to provide further financial assistance to individuals and businesses reeling  from COVID-19 restrictions and losses, the bill still has to pass the Senate and there is considerable uncertainty whether that can, will, or should happen.  The price tag is roughly $3 trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000,000,000) on top of our current national debt which is over $25 trillion dollars.  So this package would bump up our national debt by approximately 12%.

The legislation is over 1800 pages in length.  If you have the stomach and time for it, you can read through it here.

Which Court Is the Ball In?

April 15, 2020

The Los Angeles Times today ran an editorial by journalist Michael Hiltzik claiming consumers will be the ones to dictate when the US economy goes back to work from the Coronavirus shutdown.  The pace of any return to normality will be dictated by you and me – by consumers making their own judgments about when it will be safe to resume old habits, and business owners running cost-benefit analyses on when a flow of customers will warrant reopening.

It’s a very warm and fuzzy,  we’re-all-in-this-together kind of pro-America statement one might expect to find in newspapers, or perhaps newspapers of another era.  The irony however is that his statement is blatantly false – for now.  It is not consumers or business owners who are making these decisions but rather government officials – governors and mayors and other officials who direct law enforcement to enforce edicts on what businesses are essential and non-essential.

The photo above is what this looks like.  My favorite used bookstore had this posted on their window warning them to cease operations.  As with many small businesses, they were working to figure out how to honor social distancing and other recommendations.  They set up a system where people could order books and pick them up curbside.  They also offered a bag o’ books program where people could pay a set price for a random selection of books in a bag.  Apparently that’s not good enough.  What really matters is whether the State thinks you’re essential or not.  If you aren’t essential, it doesn’t matter whether you’re following best practices to keep your employees and customers healthy. The e-mail it came in indicated there were threats of large fines if they ignored the order to shut their doors.

(This whole topic is ironic,  in that I just re-watched last night one of my all-time Favorite The Twilight Zone episodes – the second season finale The Obsolete Man)

Ideally, it should be a matter of consumers and business owners figuring this stuff out.  If consumers don’t feel safe they won’t go shopping which will drive business owners to reduce hours and do other things to compensate.  But when the government is involved in the mix in terms of dictating  not only how to do business but whether your business is essential or not, things get complicated.  Fast.  And it derails the free-market principles that otherwise (at least imperfectly and impurely) work in our economic system.

One of the fish Hiltzik is trying to fry is Trump, of course.  Trump’s spat with state governors over who controls when the US returns to work or not.  Hintzik’s real issue is to argue against Trump’s claims.

But Hiltzik also envisions a US workplace very different than a month ago.  A workplace governed by social distancing and other factors.  Are these factors mandated by the government or dictated by the free market system?  Are consumers going to demand these changes and so employers will accommodate them?  He recognizes this will increase costs – but those increased costs may not enable businesses that were viable  a month ago to remain viable.  If you operate a restaurant – an example Hiltzik mentions – reducing your seating capacity and therefore the amount of business you can bring in may make your entire business model untenable.  Who is going to be driving those changes and the attendant business closures – the government, or the free market?

But the bigger fish than Trump Hiltzik’s dealing with is capitalism itself, chastising the US for not handling aid like many other countries in the world have – by funneling money to businesses so they won’t lay off their employees even though they can’t be open for business.  He cites our unemployment issue as an “American peculiarity” not  seen in other countries because in those countries, wages are socialized for the current crisis.  He doesn’t indicate or cite whether in those other countries wages were socialized to some extent before the crisis, though the short list of examples he cites certainly have a lot of socialist economies in them.  Certainly America’s response to the crisis will be peculiar because we are – or at least once were – very peculiar indeed.  A place where the well-being of our people was dictated by the people rather than the State, with according levels of risk and reward that more directly benefited the people taking the risks.  If you were willing to innovate to find out how to create a new business opportunity when nobody else was there was the hope you could benefit financially from your risk-taking.  Now, taking risks is much harder to do because the State dictates more of what can and can’t be done – all the way down to mandating which businesses are essential and which aren’t, even if risk mitigation efforts are put into place which are acceptable practices for essential businesses.

Hiltzik clearly favors a socialist approach to things, touting calls for guaranteed paychecks for all Americans until things return to normal.  He doesn’t indicate how that massive expenditure would be paid for.   Nor does he indicate how making such a demand integrates with a government imposed shutdown.  Our governor is working on plans on how to reopen the economy in our state, though his roadmap is so vague as to literally useless.  He cites six criteria that will guide his determination of when it’s safe to go back to work, and in what fashion.  And he’s bluntly stated that neither consumers nor business owners will have much say in that – if any.  Science, rather, is what he claims will guide his decisions as he positions himself for a future presidential run by loaning out the very medical equipment he cites as one of the six criteria that must be met before reopening the economy.

Hiltzik’s idea that consumers and business owner should drive decisions is right on – even if I don’t think he really believes that’s true.  As the ones facing the predominant economic and health risks in this entire crisis, it’s patently unfair to dictate to us how we must handle the situation and then stick us with the bill for paying for it – whether we wanted it or not.  It might be a plan that works in socialist economies, but it’s a poor and dishonest fit for the free market we ought to be proud of and which continues to draw people from around the world to make America their home so they might possibly benefit from it in ways then can’t in their own economies.