Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lord of the Flies

It’s pretty sad when you have to leave your own country to get away from a government that insists on intruding into your private life. There may come a day when there’s nowhere left to run, but for today I can not only say “Yeah!”, but I can say “Yeah!” to a judge.

US judge grants German homeschooling family asylum

If you’re not up to speed on homeschooling, Germany has been turning the screws on any type of education other than state education for years, hence the problem for the referenced family.

What’s really amazing are the statements in the article made from a state school representative, which range from the ridiculous to the hypocritical. It amazes me that someone could make these statements with a straight face:

"The [public] school is an embryonic democracy and will help to integrate children and young people coming from different backgrounds into the democratic culture," he said.

Embryonic democracy? Are you kidding me? It’s government approved “Lord of the Flies” in a controlled laboratory setting.

If you want an honest appraisal of the public school system, I refer you to one of my absolute favorite articles on the subject, “Why Nerds are Unpopular”, by Paul Graham.

Integration into democracy and learning to get along with those who hold opposing opinions are important skills that children cannot learn when homeschooled, Bruegelmann said, and that is especially true with highly religious parents.

WHAT!?! I’m sorry, but that really burns me, both for the “cannot” and the “especially true” parts. It is an absolute, unequivocal, 100% false statement. All you have to do is look at the “product” being pumped out of the public school system to see the fallacy of this statement.

"They should not have the right to indoctrinate their children," he said. "It's important for children, besides the experience they make at home, which is respected, to have access to other sources of understanding the world."

Ah! So here is the actual crux of the matter! The issue at hand is indoctrination – not education – and obviously, it is the state that should have the right to tell our children what to think, how to think, and when to think it.

Forgive me if I abstain.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Investing or Infesting?

According to a recent Bloomberg poll, 77% of U.S. investors see President Obama as “anti-business”. (Source)


According to the article, it’s because of his “efforts to trim bonuses and earnings, make health care his top priority over jobs and plans to tax ‘the rich or advantaged’”, and the fact that he “has been in a “constant war” with the banking system, using ‘fat-cat bankers’ and other misnomers to describe a business model which supports a large portion of America.”

Should we be concerned about the views of this 77%? Well, yes and no.

Certainly investors are essentially to capitalism. They are needed.

If, for example, I had a great business idea that I wanted to put into action, I would need money to start it, and odds are that I wouldn’t be able to come up with the money by myself. Finding someone who shared my vision and would invest some of their own money to help start it would be the only way for me to get my business off the ground.

If my enterprise is successful, the investor is rewarded for their risk by sharing in that success. If it’s a failure, they share that too. Fair enough.

The question I have to ask though, is at what point has the investor been fully compensated for their investment? Is there a point at which their investment has been repaid in full, or is the investor entitled to continue to make money from my labor in perpetuity?

If you buy a house with a 30-year mortgage, for instance, some entity has essentially “invested” in you to allow you to purchase the house. They’re taking a risk in lending you the money with your promise to pay it back. The interest that you pay is that entity’s reward for taking the risk.

As a general rule of thumb, by the time you finish paying back the loan over that 30-year period, you will have paid 3 times the actual purchase price of the house. So if your home cost $150,000, you will actually pay roughly $450,000 for it by the time the smoke clears, with $300,000 of that being free & clear profit to the lender.

I would think that tripling your money on a single investment would be more than a reasonable return, especially when you consider that the lender isn’t actually doing anything except cashing checks. Whether you consider a 3x profit to be fair or not, the point here is that there is an endpoint to the profit taking.

With Wall Street investing, however, there is no endpoint. “Investors” are invited to attach themselves like a remora to a business and ride it forever if they so choose. They add no value to the business; they do no work. They merely make a profit from the labor, ideas, and initiative of others, and in doing so they deny those same profits to the ones who have actually earned them.

Certainly the investment of their money is essential. Certainly they should be rewarded for the risk when their gambles pay off, just as they should be liable for the loss when it doesn’t.

But should their rewards be allowed to go on forever, or should there be a point where the rewards shift to the people doing the actual work instead?

I believe that this is the underlying cause of dissent from that 77% of investors – they are simply unhappy that there might be limits placed on their profit taking.

Should we care?

I don’t think so. It would only matter if they suddenly stopped investing entirely, but I don’t think they will. Like spoiled children they’ll be unhappy that they can’t make as much, but they’ll still invest, because money for nothing is still money for nothing.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Day 1

Yesterday, January 20th, was the first time in over 20 years that the earth made a complete rotation on its axis without me smoking a cigarette.

I’ve smoked for just over 30 years. There have been 2 occasions when I’ve gone a week or more without a cigarette – instances in the Navy when I found myself in situations where they were simply not accessible – but they both occurred back in the 1980’s, and both were involuntary.

When I started smoking at age 13, cigarettes were 55 cents a pack; today, they are $3 to $4 (or more) a pack. Over my lifetime, I figure I’ve given Phillip Morris & R.J. Reynolds somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000.

At 2 packs a day, I estimate I’ve smoked approximately 440,000 cigarettes. If laid end to end on the ground, that would stretch out over 20 miles.

Through the years I’ve heard countless pleas from my children to quit, and I’ve callously ignored the fear I saw in their little eyes just as many times. I’ve put unnecessary strain on my family’s finances to support my habit. I’ve made my wife endure the smell I wore daily on my clothes and on my breath.

And I’ve witnessed children die of cancer before age 10 through no fault of their own, while I arrogantly continued to pump toxins into a perfectly healthy body that they would never be able to have.

The earth has rotated 10,950 times since I started smoking. In light of that, 1 revolution doesn’t seem like very much, and it’s not. But the earth is still spinning.

Here’s going for 2.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Shot Across the Bow

Last night the people of Massachusetts – without a doubt one of the most liberal states in the country – did something that is almost unthinkable; they elected a Republican to fill the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy.

A quick perusal of Facebook shows that my “Democrat” friends are shocked, dismayed, and feeling as if the everything right in the world has suddenly gone sour. My “Republican” friends – as might be expected – are delighted, happy, and popping the corks in anticipation of even more “good news” in November.

For myself, I’m very encouraged by the results of last night’s election, but not because I’m happy that a “Republican” won; I have no more faith in the label of “Republican” than that of “Democrat”, and I don’t associate myself with either.

I’m encouraged because maybe, just maybe, the people of Massachusetts are seeing beyond the “Us” vs. “Them” mentality that our 2-party system has devolved into.

Forget about “Democrats” & “Republicans”. Back away from the “liberal” & “conservative” labels. Don’t get caught up in the political sideshow of “everything we do is right and everything they do is wrong”. None of that has anything to do with the underlying problem.

I think last night’s election was a clear message from the people of Massachusetts, not to any particular party, but to the United States government as a whole.

The message is this: “We told you we wanted things to be done differently, and you’re not listening to us.”

Nice shot, Massachusetts.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Heroes in the Mist

For the past few months, we’ve had a homeless woman living on the streets of Liberty. That may be no big deal for most cities, but for a small town like us with a population of about 1,800, it’s the exception rather than the rule.

I don’t know this woman’s story. I do know that she is from Casey County, that she graduated from high school here years ago, that she has resisted help from the community on several occasions, and that she has been arrested a couple of times, but that’s about it. I’ve heard she may have some mental problems, but I don’t know. I’m guessing that she’s in her forties or fifties.

This past Monday morning I was told that a local “Good Samaritan” had put her up in our local motel for the weekend because of the extremely cold temperatures, but that they weren’t financially capable of continuing. The woman was due to be back on the street Monday afternoon facing an entire week where the “high” temperatures weren’t expected to get out of the 20’s, and lows at night down into the low teens & single digits.

I was asked, as the director of the local Chamber of Commerce here, if I could talk with the folks at our local motel and see if they could grant a reduced rate if we could get volunteers to help "sponsor" one night each of a week's stay, which would get her past the worst of the cold spell.

This request really didn’t have anything to do with the Chamber of Commerce, and in truth, it almost slipped my mind to follow up on it, but I drove down to the motel and spoke to the manager. I explained what we were trying to do, and he agreed without hesitation to cut his daily rate by 25% if we booked a room for the whole week.

Just after lunch on Monday I wrote a brief email to the folks on my mailing list requesting help. The message was pretty simple: $30 bucks and the woman gets to sleep inside for the night. I needed 6 volunteers. (I had already decided to pick up one of the nights myself).

I pushed “send” and went to get a cup of coffee. I couldn’t have been gone 2 minutes. When I got back, over ten people had already responded, and more were coming in even as I watched.

It was like a wave:
“I’m in.”
“I have $60 for two nights.”
“Where do I send the money?”
“Put me down for a night.”
“Does she need food? Clothes?”
“Our business would like to do three nights.”

And on and on and on.

I immediately sent out another email telling everyone that we were covered for the week, but that didn’t stop people from responding. I continued to get calls and emails from people wanting to help for the rest of the day and on into Tuesday. It’s strange to find yourself in a position where you are telling people that you don’t need their help, but that’s where I was.

Some people where genuinely upset and hurt that I was telling them they couldn’t give money to help out. Others simply ignored me and sent in money anyway. Cash was dropped off anonymously at my office. One lady who had committed $30 brought in $150. Like that.

Currently, our homeless woman is booked into our local motel until next Monday. Good thing too, as it was 12 degrees this morning. Our local leaders are working to come up with a more permanent solution for her, but in the meantime, I have a surplus of cash in my desk in case we need to put her up longer.

And I know where to get more if I need it. All I have to do is ask.

You need to understand; None of these people have any obligation to take care of this woman, and Casey County is a not a rich community. I can’t think of a single person living here who drives a Lexus. Over 20% of our population lives below the poverty line, and 10% live below half of the poverty line. Not a lot of “bling” around here unless that description includes rolls of hay.

And many of the small-town rural stereotypes certainly apply to us: We gossip a good bit. We’re too nosy. We certainly can be a little backwards, simple, petty, self-righteous, opinionated, and judgmental at times. All that may be true.

But nobody’s going to freeze to death on our streets.