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Jul. 3rd, 2014

rant

So about Hobby Lobby...

Of course, the Repubs calling this a "victory for individual rights against the government" are blowing smoke: it's a victory for the individual rights of a few corporation owners against the individual rights of their hundreds or thousands of employees -- or, if you prefer, a victory for the individual rights of a corporation to have its own religious views, against the individual rights of actual human beings.

Interestingly, like so many Republican suggestions in the past five years, it would actually be fairly harmless or even good if we were in a thriving economy: "if you want your insurance to cover contraception, and Hobby Lobby doesn't cover it, get a job somewhere else."  Of course, in a depressed economy, "get a job somewhere else" is frequently not an option.  Similarly, cutting Federal spending and hiring would be harmless or even useful if those were "crowding out" private hiring, and cutting Federal deficits would be harmless or even useful if those were "crowding out" private borrowing, and raising Fed rates to restrict the money supply would be harmless or even useful if there were an inflation problem.  All of which is not happening, and hasn't been happening for five years, and won't be happening until more people are working real full-time jobs at decent pay, but Republicans don't believe there is such a thing as involuntary unemployment or business cycles, so they blithely go on prescribing what might be the right medicine for a booming economy with full employment.

Anyway, back to the SCOTUS decision.  Hobby Lobby and friends actually do have a bit of a point: if you ran (say) a small business, and the law said you had to allocate a certain fraction of your payroll to the local Baby-Seal-Clubbing Program, which you considered immoral, you would have some cause to object, even if a few of your employees inexplicably believed in clubbing baby seals.

However, the "right" answer isn't to say "because of your religion, you don't have to obey this Federal law that all of your competitors do."  The "right" answer is to get employers out of the business of providing health insurance for their employees -- that way it wouldn't MATTER much what your employer thought were legitimate health expenses -- or lifestyle choices, for that matter.  And if you lost your job, it wouldn't mean losing your health insurance at the same time.  And and and.

Jun. 29th, 2014

devil duck

mis-heard lyrics

We're all familiar with "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy," "There's a bathroom on the right," "You're a mahogany tree, babe," and the like.  This morning on our favorite folkie-singer-songwriter station was a song with a country-western vibe whose chorus tag-line seemed to be "She's a mixed up meshugginah girl".  On further listening, I concluded it was really "She's a mixed up, mixed up sugar girl," which actually makes LESS sense than the mis-heard version.
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Jun. 18th, 2014

devil duck

armchair economics

I started thinking about Say's Law, which is usually stated as "Production creates its own demand."  IIUC, the idea is that if you produce something, you now have an asset that you can trade with somebody else for his/her assets, thus creating a demand for those other assets exactly equal to the asset you produced.  The more production, the more assets, so the more demand.

One possible problem with this is that the desire for something isn't in the same place as the assets to pay for it.  Suppose you produce something that lots of people want, but most of the people who want it are producing very little -- say, they're unemployed or underemployed -- so they don't have a lot of assets to trade for what you produce.  Perhaps they can't even afford to buy it at your cost, which is the lowest price at which you're likely to want to sell it.  So you stop producing it.  Rather than production creating its own demand, we have a sort of contrapositive: the lack of demand creates a lack of production.  But presumably the reason you were producing that thing is that you're GOOD at producing it, so by switching your production to something else, you've made the whole economy less efficient.

A related problem: suppose you produce something, but you DON'T have the asset you just produced -- your employer does. Your employer now has a bunch of buying power, but isn't interested in buying the same things you want, so there is effectively no demand for the things you want, which means they won't be produced.  Indeed, your employer may be not interested in buying anything at all, which means all the assets you produced are just sitting in your employer's bank account, not creating any demand at all.

How can this happen?  Ask anybody who works at McDonald's or Wal-Mart.

What is a worker worth?

One answer says "you get paid what you're worth -- indeed, what you're worth is DEFINED (in a market economy) by what you can get through negotiation."
Another answer says "you're worth what you produce," i.e. the value added by your labor.

These answers don't necessarily match one another very closely.  In fact, if you work for a for-profit company, what workers get paid must be LESS than the value-added that they produce, or there would be nothing left to show as profit.  (For simplicity, I'll assume that all of a company's value-added -- its revenues minus its non-labor spending -- is created through labor, not through (say) buying something and holding onto it until it appreciates and can be sold for a profit.)  But that's not true for all workers, only for the AVERAGE.  Specifically, the total wages of all the workers in the company must be less than the total value-added of all the workers in the company, in order for there to be a profit.  How much less depends on the worker's bargaining position: if the worker is hard to replace and knows it, (s)he can negotiate a wage that's pretty close to his/her value-added, while a worker who's easy to replace is in a weaker bargaining position and will probably get paid considerably less than his/her value-added.

There are even circumstances in which a worker can negotiate a wage that's HIGHER than his/her value-added.  This clearly isn't in the best interest of the company, but if the worker in question happens to be in upper management, able to effectively set his/her own salary, it's in the worker's best interest to set that salary as high as possible, regardless of the best interest of the company.  Naturally, the manager in question doesn't want the company to go bankrupt, so in order to raise his/her own salary, (s)he needs to keep the AVERAGE salary below the AVERAGE value-added by lowering everybody else's salary.  But you can't do that if your workers are in a strong negotiating position, so for your own best interest (if not necessarily the company's), you need to put them in a weak negotiating position: bust the union and keep overall unemployment rates high.

I was involved with the Co-ops And Enterprises Board at my graduate school (UC San Diego).  UCSD had a thriving bunch of student-run, on-campus businesses, many of which were organized as egalitarian co-ops.  At one point there was a discussion of how to set salaries for co-op workers, and the University administrators on the board said "we can't let people set their own salaries: there's an obvious conflict of interest, people will set them too high and the co-op will go bankrupt."  The Co-op people replied "There's no problem with people setting their own salaries, because they know that if everybody in the co-op gets paid too much, the co-op will go bankrupt.  The conflict of interest arises when one person can set not only his/her own salary but other people's as well, as happens at the University bookstore: the manager can set his own salary high and the check-out clerks' low.  In a co-op, no one person's salary will be much higher than everybody else's, so this isn't a problem for a co-op."  The University administrators somehow didn't see the logic in this.

Anyway, the problem arises, predictably, whenever the people making salary decisions for a whole company are a small subset of the paid employees of that company.  If the decisions are made by a large subset, those people's salaries can't be too much higher than anybody else's, while if the decisions are made by people who aren't paid employees at all, there's no conflict of interest and the decision-makers can act in the best interest of the company.  Yet there IS a skill to management, managers DO provide a useful service to a company, so they deserve to get paid for that service.  The question is how to pay fairly for their management services without allowing their management position in the company to enable them to set their own salaries higher than their value-added.  You could try some sort of "peer" salary-setting -- I don't set my own salary, but I get to participate in setting the salaries of all the other managers at my rank -- but as long as the set of managers is a fairly small subset of all the workers, this still encourages them as a group to set their own salaries irrationally high and everybody else's low.

It's late: I'd better get to bed.

Jun. 16th, 2014

rant

Argh!

I just spent an hour and a half talking to phone-company representatives.

Several years ago we agreed to a "triple play" bundle: satellite TV through DIRECTV (but billed on the Verizon bill), land-line service through Verizon, and DSL internet through the land-line.  Ever since, I've been waiting for fiber optic to be run in our neighborhood, and this spring it finally was.  So in May, we agreed to switch to fiber for phone, internet, and TV.  On May 28 (or was it 29?) a Verizon repairman came to the house, installed the fiber-optic cable and associated hardware (e.g. set-top box), took away the DIRECTV set-top box, and congratulated me on my new service.  We were told to expect a first-month bill of $143 (including some installation charges and pro-rata charges for the previous month), second and third months of $110, and subsequently $90/month.

The first phone bill after the switchover came to $289, more than twice the estimate.  I looked through the itemization and didn't see anything especially weird, except the full month of DIRECTV service, three weeks of which were after we were disconnected from DIRECTV.  So I visited Verizon's web site and live-chatted with a call-center representative, who told me this was a DIRECTV charge so I would need to talk to DIRECTV at such-and-such number.  I called that number and got a DIRECTV call-center representative who said she would connect me to a "second-level specialist in our joint billing with Verizon".  I called that number and got a Verizon employee who said I would need to talk to a "disconnect specialist" at DIRECTV, but he would get one on the line as a conference call with both of us.  After a few lost connections and call-backs, we got the conference call working.

The guy from DIRECTV said that since we hadn't called DIRECTV to cancel our service in May, we would be billed for it through today.  I pointed out that Verizon had initially signed me up with DIRECTV, so I thought they would also UN-sign me up, and in any case I couldn't possibly be watching DIRECTV since I had no set-top box.  So I said I wouldn't pay that part of the bill; they could charge it to Verizon.  The guy from Verizon cut in to say that they have no way to refund us that money because it's a DIRECTV charge, not a Verizon charge.  The guy from DIRECTV asked why I was discontinuing service, and tried to persuade me to continue it: "we can get you a $20/month discount."
"How about you discount me $20 for the month just past, when I didn't have any service?"
"No, we can't do that; we can only give you a discount on future service, if you decide not to switch services."
"Too late: I switched services three weeks ago."
Then he explained that DIRECTV would automatically send out a shipping container in which I could return the set-top box.
"What set-top box?  The guy from Verizon took it away when he installed the FiOS box."
"If you don't have the set-top box, you'll be charged $45 for not returning it."
"No, I won't; you can charge that to Verizon, since they have the box."
"Sir, the bill will be charged to your account.  If you didn't want to pay it, you shouldn't have let the Verizon repairman take away your DIRECTV box."

It's late.  I'll try dealing with this closer to business hours tomorrow.

EDIT The next day... I called a little earlier in the day this time, and got two (2) very helpful Verizon customer-service people.  They still can't do anything about DIRECTV charging me for three weeks of service I didn't get (aside from saying "that's not a good way for them to do business"), but progress is underway on several other issues, including trying to track down the DIRECTV set-top box so I don't get charged for it.

May. 29th, 2014

devil duck

Miscellaneous photos

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I hope that was enlightening and entertaining....

May. 19th, 2014

devil duck

On the radio this morning...

... heard osewalrus being interviewed about consolidation in the telecomm market.

Apr. 14th, 2014

teacher-mode

Heartbleed

Thanks to jducoeur, this link to XKCD's explanation of the Heartbleed bug.

OMG: I didn't realize it was this simple and stupid. Reason #738 why no production code should be written in C or C++.

Apr. 4th, 2014

devil duck

Free speech and money

"The Court, in its magnificent equality, permits the poor as well as the rich to spend millions of dollars a year influencing Congressional elections and members of Congress."

So Mr. McCutcheon claims his free speech rights are being infringed when he's allowed to write multi-thousand dollar checks to only 27 Congressional candidates, not 28. SCOTUS agrees and says he should be allowed to write checks to candidates for every single seat in Congress if he wishes; that's freedom of speech. Of course, it's a freedom that's only open to the richest 0.1% of Americans, but still... the Constitution protects the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority. That's why we have the First Amendment, after all.

What did James Madison et al have in mind when they talked about freedom of speech and the press? I assume they had some notion that in a free marketplace of ideas, the best ideas will win if they're allowed to be heard. The McCutcheon and Citizens United decisions say it's not the best ideas, but the best-funded ideas, that will win, and we all know that the best-funded ideas are those that serve the interests of the already-rich, not necessarily the public.

The Court could reasonably have ruled that, even if you consider writing a check to be "speech" (which I dispute, since it has no idea content), campaign finance restrictions are regulations on "time, place, and manner," not content, and therefore permissible. But that wouldn't further this court's goal of rewarding wealth and power with more wealth and power.

Mar. 31st, 2014

rant

health care reform

So I read a blog entry and followed a link to a blog entry where there was a link to a blog entry where there was... you get the idea.  And I ran into an interesting article written by a couple of "thinking conservatives" (remember them?) entitled How to Replace Obamacare.

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devil duck

spring is here, spring is here

March 31.  There's an inch of fresh snow on the ground outside my office, and it took me an hour and twenty minutes to drive to work.  (I normally take the train, but I have to pick up shalmestere from a doctor's appointment this afternoon so I drove.)
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