I’ve Fallen, and I Can’t Get Up

Many of you may recognize the the title of this post from a television commercial from the late ’80′s by an outfit named LifeCall. While it depicted a serious situation, an elderly woman in desperate need of assistance, the acting was so bad that it was seen as humorous by almost everyone, and became the punch line of more jokes than any of us could count. But in recent years, it has become less of a joke, and more of an attitude for too many Americans.

Like Mrs. Fletcher, the woman in the commercial, many of us feel that we are helpless, our situation is beyond our control, and we need to have one of those magic buttons that will alert a voice on the other end to tell us that help is on the way. “I’ve lost my job, and I can’t find another one.” “My rent is due, and the landlord is pounding on my door.” “My kids are hungry, and I blew all the grocery money on lottery tickets.” And, of course, the reassuring words coming from the mystical pendant will be from the voice of government. And you know, believe it or not, I’m fine with that. Helping Americans in need is a legitimate function of our government. However, …

Simple Fact of Life #1: The government can’t, and shouldn’t try, to take care of every problem for every citizen.

It appears that, in more cases than there should be, people aren’t interested in having someone help them get back on their feet. It’s like they expect to be catered to right there on the bathroom floor, where they landed on their backs, next to Mrs. Fletcher, after slipping in the shower. Lost your job? How about endless unemployment benefits? Can’t afford your house payment? We can force the bank to refinance your loan, even if they have to take a loss. Frittered away your grocery money? I’m sure we can increase your food stamps. Too many folks claim to want a leg up, but they always seem to ask for it with their hand out. They seem to have convinced themselves that they’ve fallen, and they can’t get up.

I can’t say it any better than my favorite of our nation’s founders, and, in my opinion, one of the greatest minds this contenent has ever produced:

PicsArt_1372740058846franklinquote

I don’t like to see Americans living in poverty. I’m not completely heartless, and after all …

Simple Fact of Life #2: Being poor isn’t pleasant. And it shouldn’t be.

As Ben observed, when we attempt to take care of the poor without requiring personal responsibility, the end result will be that we have increased their poverty, and therefore their misery. I know this may sound harsh, but if we regard poverty as a cancer in our society, then we need to treat it like cancer. Cancer treatment usually involves surgery. Surgery is no fun. Surgery is painful. Surgery requires a long period of uncomfortable recovery. But as bad as having an operation is, not having it will be much worse. It’s not that I want people to have the opportunity to suffer, it’s that I want them to have the opportunity to thrive. But that takes a determined desire to be successful.

Okay, so now I sound like one of those greedy rich folks who just want to take stuff from the poor so we can have it all for ourselves.  You know, I really wish that were the case. But alas, I’m not a member of the “evil 1%.” Or the 5%. Or the 10%. Well, at least I’m maintaining my status in the 53%, so, in the immortal words of Joe Walsh, “I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.” But it’s not about me or my economic situation. It is about …

Simple Fact of Life #3: Declining to take something from someone who has rightfully earned it is not giving him anything.

and …

Simple Fact of Life #4: Declining to give something to someone who has not rightfully earned it is not taking anything away from him.

 Jesus said “Love thy neighbor.” I’m not a religious person, but I certainly think the man from Nazareth got that one right. But I also think that “tough love” is often the best love. We can help Mrs. Fletcher to her feet, but if we carry her on our backs for too long, she won’t recover her strength, and eventually our legs will buckle under the excess weight. Then we’ll all be pushing our LifeCall buttons, but there won’t be anyone left to send help.

Well, I’m getting tired of just complaining about stuff, so how ’bout I toss a few ideas for solutions out there for your consideration? I may even have some good news for you Big Government fans, since my ideas would require government programs, and bureaucrats to administer them. However, I do believe that the FBIR (Federal Bureau of Idiotic Regulations) currently has more than adequate staffing to handle anything that I could come up with. And I, not being a religious person, think that a little “social Darwinism,” survival of the fittest, will strengthen our nation as a whole. My ideas are intended to, by incentive and/or coercion, as Franklin said, lead or drive people out of poverty.

Unemployment benefits

It’s rough to lose one’s job and face the uncertain times ahead. I’ve been there, as have most of us at some point. Fortunately, the government administers programs that were designed to give us some security while we were struggling to get back on our feet. But these programs should be safety nets. Just something to break our fall, a little painful to land in, very uncomfortable to lay in for any length of time, and something we would want to climb out of as quickly as humanly possible. Unfortunately, some “compassionate” types seem to have outfitted the net with an overstuffed mattress, some really fluffy pillows, and a very soft and warm blanket. Not to mention a fully stocked refrigerator and a big-screen TV. Too many people seem to look at how many weeks of unemployment checks they have left, and view any extension of benefits as an extension of the time they have left before they need to start looking for a job.

So how about this: Full unemployment benefits (based on a percentage of previous income) should be paid for a very short time, say three months. After that, payments will gradually decrease, say by 10% per month. If you don’t find work soon, things will become very uncomfortable very quickly. If you can’t work it out in time, then you go on the dole at a bare (and I do mean bare) sustenance level. More on that later.

But here’s the kicker: you can continue to receive most or all of the money that you would be entitled to, if you find and take a lower paying job. You get your unemployment check (on the decreasing scale) up to the point where your pay + benefits equals the previous income on which the benefits were based. This way, it will never be less financially advantageous to work than not to work.

Housing

Every American should have a safe, sanitary place in which to live. I’ve been to countries where most of the population exists in conditions that no American would, or should, find tolerable. But a residence that has “all the comforts of home” is something that needs to be earned to be appreciated. If your government housing is too comfortable, you might just be satisfied with something less than you could have. So …

All housing assistance should be “in kind.” That is, all rent subsidies will be paid directly to the landlord. No cash for the tenant. Government assisted housing should be spartan. It should seem cramped, simply furnished, and drab. Depending on the percentage of the rent that is subsidized, the amount of luxury items should be limited. For instance, if the government is paying 100% of the rent, no more than one (rather small) TV should be allowed in the residence. Housing units must be subject to frequent inspections to ensure that the rules are being followed. We need to know how our money is being spent.

Now I don’t really want people to live like that. I want them to do better — for themselves.

Nutrition assistance (Food Stamps)

No American should be allowed to starve. But, you know, a little hunger is a great motivator. If the difference between a good meal and yet another bowl of oatmeal is taking that job that you used to think was below you, you’ll do the right thing. So, we need to completely rework the way in which we provide nutrition assistance. Did you know that KFC accepts food stamps? What’s up with that? I like fast food as much (probably more) as anybody, but I pay for it myself, with money that I earned.

So, the program, as it exists, needs to go away. It should be replaced with an in-kind system. Rather than give people a cash equivalent that they can use to buy whatever foodstuffs they like, give them vouchers for specific food items. These vouchers could only be redeemed at certified stores that have contracts with the USDA (or whatever agency administers the new program). Beneficiaries would shop online at home or at a kiosk somewhere, and could see what items are available. They would have choices, but choices of low-cost, nutritious foods. Fish sticks, yes; lobster, no. Ground round, yes; filet mignon, no. Anjou pears, yes; Asian pears, no. Vouchers would be for one week’s supply of food, and would have to be redeemed in that time frame. And you could only get a certain amount of various catagories of food. You couldn’t get only meat or only bread. You would be forced to get a balanced diet. I realize that there would still be some fraud, as some people would want to sell their grapes to buy wine, but at least let’s not make it too easy for them.

And if you like Asian pears, you can have all you want when you’ve worked yourself off of the program. Or you can go to KFC.

Just a few suggestions. You’re smarter than I am. Come up with some better ones.

It was a pleasure to help you back to your feet, Mrs. Fletcher. Time to start walking on your own.

60 to 60ish

The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.               Pink Floyd

Okay, that sounds kind of depressing, true though it may be. And for a few decades, that lyric sort of summed up my feelings about birthdays. But, as I wrote here one year ago, I’ve come to terms with getting older, and choose to concentrate on what I do in the small (hopefully not too small) amount of time left to me. And I still think it’s a clever lyric. One thing that happens when as you age is that you come to realize that there are a lot more things that you don’t know than there are things that do know. But still, you are able to fancy yourself to be more knowledgeable than those youngsters who know everything. The challenge is not to convince those kids that you’re smarter than they are, but that they are dumber than you are. A massive chalenge, to be sure. Nobody could ever convince me that I didn’t know it all. Nobody except me. Nevertheless, I, at this point in my existence, am compelled to share some of the few things that I have come to believe that I do know.

Simple Fact of Life: If you want to make a difference, you only have one lifetime in which to do so.

Okay, for Buddhists, not so simple. But for the rest of us …

What I wanted to talk about was how to make some kind of difference. Near as I can determine, the best, easiest way is to simply speak your mind. Are you happy with the way things are going? If you are, remember that there are plenty of folks who aren’t. They’re speaking up, trying to change the way things are. And if you’re not happy, well, do I really need to spell out what you should be doing? Take a stand. Make a difference.

Ah, yes. I can read your thoughts as surely as your are reading these words. “But Chief, who am I? Who will pay any attention to me? Who will I make a difference for?” The answer is, you will make a difference for you. That’s because your thoughts are important; your words matter. Simply putting them out there for the world to read will be transformational, at least for your attitude. Don’t concern yourself with how many people will know about them. You will know. That makes a diference.

But when you realize the value of your opinions, and decide it’s time to share them, please don’t be “that guy.” You know who those guys are. The people who think that they can make a difference by littering their friends’ Facebook and Twitter feeds with a constant stream of articles full of words written by other people; a steady barrage of videos containing words spoken by someone that’s not you. “That guy” is not making a difference, at least not to me, and probably not to himself. I want to read your thoughts. When I see “that guy’s” posts, I seldom look at the linked article, just the title and headline. However, I do normally read his comments. His thoughts. But, of course, lest you think that I’m being too harsh, I am willing to make an exception for those of you who want to litter the cyber-world with this article. See, I’m a nice guy, after all.

“But Chief, why should I bother? Who will read what I write?” Well, I will. Send it to me and I’ll at the very least read what you wrote. And I may even comment on how brilliant you are. Or how crazy. But I will never say that your words are worthless, no matter how much I may disagree with them. The most valuable words are the ones that tell me something that I didn’t know. But words that stroke my ego by reinforcing what I already thought are neat also. And trust me, there are plenty of others out there that think like that. You just can’t hardly go wrong when you share your own thoughts.

“But Chief, I’m not a great writer. Why would anyone want to read what I write?” Well, you may not be the best wordsmith on the planet, but that doesn’t really matter. I mean, let’s face it, this ain’t Shakespeare, but we’re now 735 words into it, and you’re still reading. Need I say more? (Don’t worry, just a couple more thoughts, and I’ll let you go.)

“But Chief, I can barely type. How can I express my thoughts? It would take forever.” Well, you don’t even want to know how long this is taking me to write. But I’m doing it. But if it’s too much for you, there are other ways to share your thoughts. Use your voice. You don’t have to sound like Don Lafontaine (1940-2008. “The Voice” from all those movie trailers), or be as eloquent as Barack Obama (with teleprompter, of course), to make your thoughts known. Don’t believe me? Just go here for proof positive of that. You can do it. You merely have to have the passion for it.

So there, I’ve expressed my thoughts. I’ve made a difference, at least to me. I feel better.

So happy birthday to me. When I get my cake, I’ll feel much better.

Take your passion, and make it happen     Irene Cara, from Flashdance

More Aquanomics?

Her name is Rio and she dances in the sand                                                     Just like that river twisting through a dusty land   Duran Duran

In my post Aquanomics?, I invited you to wade with me into the swamp that is the current state of the American economy. Well, I’d sure like to be able to say that the water was fine, so let’s dive in again, but that might be somewhat less than accurate. And I certainly don’t want to throw a wet rag on anyone’s belief that everything that you read on the internet is 100% true, so let’s just go with “Hey, I like to swim, and if the water is filled with leeches, I’ll just have to deal with it,” and leave it at that. (Economic leeches? Say it ain’t so.)

This time, I thought I would really go off the deep end, and drown in a subject that almost everyone agrees is all wet. Yes, I’m talking about trickle-down economics. In my earlier post, I said that didn’t claim to possess any mastery of grand economic theory, and that hasn’t changed. But nor do I believe that I have forgotten all of the simple facts of life that relate to how things work in the natural world. So let’s start with that.

High in the Rockies of Southern Colorado (Canby Mountain, to be precise), the winter snows melt, and cold water trickles down the slope. These drops join with other ex-snowflakes to form small streams, which combine with other rivulets and soon become what is known as the Rio Grande. (For any readers who happen to be too xenophobic to have learned a few words of simple Spanish, the words “rio grande” literally translate as “river large,” or in normal English syntax, “big river.” But then, those people have no idea what “xenophobic” means, so why do I bother to explain?) For 1,896 miles, this water flows out of Colorado, through New Mexico, between the state of Texas and the nation of Mexico, until it reaches the Gulf Coast somewhere between Brownsville and Matamoros.

Except that it doesn’t. On average, 80% of the natural water in the Rio Grande never makes it to the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the flow sometimes becomes so small that someone could walk into the United States from Mexico while keeping his feet, not to mention his back, dry. (Talk about a xenophobe’s nightmare!) So what happens to all of that water that was in the Big River? Where did it go? Did it soak into the ground? Did it just evaporate?

Simple Fact of Life: Water doesn’t trickle beyond the point where someone drinks it.

The reason that so little water reaches the mouth of the Rio Grande is that long before it gets there, most of it is used by people along the way. The melted snow from the Rocky Mountains has turned a naturally dusty part of North America into an area of abundant agricultural production. Of course, there is a price for that. The folks downstream can’t water their lawns. There’s never enough of anything for everybody to have everything they want.

So, how does this relate to supply side economics? I know what you’re thinking. Those upstream farmers who use the water are a perfect metaphor for the evil banksters and corporate greed-heads who take all of the wealth for themselves, with no regard for the plight of the thirsty masses downstream. Sure, I see your point, dead wrong though it may be. It seems to me that the farmers represent (and in fact often are) small businesses who go out and get what wealth they can, and use it to create new wealth, to the ultimate benefit of everyone. Even a nicely watered lawn is not a good place to starve. There is no good place to be hungry, which we all would be if not for the farmers.

But, you say, that doesn’t quench the thirst of the people camped next to the dry river bed. No, it doesn’t. For those poor individuals, I can offer only one simple piece of advice. Move upstream. If there is no water where you are, you need to go to where the water is. If it really bothers you that the farmers are using all the water, then you use it before it gets to them. Please, just use it wisely. But the whole point of this is: if you wait for the water to trickle down to the desert you are sitting in, you will be thirsty; if you wait for the wealth to trickle down to the sidewalk you’re occupying, or the couch where you sit with your Playstation, you will be poor. If you want more than you have, then you need to go get it. Simple fact of life.

Now, where do the banks and big businesses fit into this Waterworld? I think that they are best represented by the dams that I see on my frequent drives along the Columbia (a truly “Grande”) River. These massive structures control vast amounts of water, just as the banks control vast amounts of money. So, why are those dams there? What do they do? For one thing, the water stored behind them creates large lakes, which are a boon to local sportsmen. Sort of like the banks create large pools of cash, a boon to local bankers. But those are side effects, not the real purpose. What the dams do that is useful is to allow the water to pass through them. That does several things. First, it generates a huge amount of clean, low-cost electricity. Second, by allowing water to flow into and out of locks, rivers that contain natural areas of rapids become navigable waterways. In fact, because of those dams and locks, immense quantities of goods can be transported at low cost in large barges on the Columbia/Snake Rivers from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Lewiston, Idaho. And, of course, dams can help to keep the water flowing downriver at a more or less constant rate, lessening the chances for flooding. But for all these functions, the water does no good when gathered behind the dam, just as money does no good when sitting in a bank vault. Water only creates wealth when it is allowed to pass through the dam, and into the river. Money only creates wealth when it is allowed to pass through the bank, and into the economy.

Getting wrinkled. Time to dry off.

A Salt’s Thoughts on Assault Weapons

We must protect our children. Let’s ban assault weapons. We must protect viewers of the latest “Batman” movie. Let’s ban assault weapons. We must save ourselves from ourselves. I know, let’s just ban assault weapons. Well, sure, every sane person (and also me) wants children to be as safe as possible. And in a theater, blood and guts are fine on the screen. On my shirt, not so fine. But before we all board the bus to the land of perfect happiness and security, might I be allowed to ask (visualize raised hand) one rather silly question? What, exactly, is an assault weapon?

I suppose that if you’re one of those literate types, you could grab your dictionary and look up the words “assault” and “weapon.” You would then conclude that an assault weapon is something used as a weapon during the course of an assault. So it could be a rock, a chair, a car, or just about anything capable of being used to inflict bodily harm. But seriously, we all know that’s not what we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about assault rifles. Except that we’re not. Assault rifles, such as the M-16 and the AK-47, are military-style guns that can fire high-velocity rounds in a fully automatic mode. A more powerful version of a sub-machine gun. These sorts of weapons have been illegal since, well, for practical purposes, forever. And I don’t seem to recall hearing about even the NRA calling for that prohibition to be lifted. The so-called “assault weapons” that are at issue are guns such as the AR-15, which have some features in common with real assault rifles. Things like pistol grips, detachable magazines, and folding stocks. In other words, guns that look “scary.”

Simple Fact of Life #1: No gun looks scary when laying on a table; any gun looks scary when in the hands of an evil person.

I find it hard to believe that the M-16 was designed as it was so that it could look formidable. More likely that the appearance was the result of considerations of practical functionality. It had to be lightweight, easy to carry, simple to fire accurately, etc. You know, the same sort of considerations that go into the design of a civilian gun. Do you think maybe that’s why many sporting guns look a lot like military weapons? Because it’s a practical design? All guns are, after all, built to be used for the same purpose, to put a bullet in the intended target.

But why, you ask, would any civilian need a rifle that can rapidly fire 15 rounds without having to reload? Well, I see your point. That doesn’t seem to be very practical. Particularly if there are 16 people in that mob that’s storming your house.

Simple Fact of Life #2: The police are not responsible for your safety, you are.

It should not be up to the government to decide for you what you need to have in order to feel secure in your home. Now, I can think of a whole lot of reasons to not keep a gun in your house. I can also think of many reasons why you might want to. But that needs to be your choice. Whether to have a gun, or guns, or what type of gun. Your responsibility. Keeping those guns secure, how they are used is also your responsibility. But ask any cop what his job is. He’ll tell you that it’s to enforce the laws. Sure, he’d like to be able to protect you from all the nefarious evildoers out there, but that’s not possible. The police can’t be everywhere all the time. Would you really want them to be? The protection comes from the deterrence of crime that law enforcement provides. Just one little problem with that:

Simple Fact of Life #3: Laws don’t apply to outlaws. That’s why they’re called outlaws.

When you think about it, all compliance with all laws is strictly voluntary. If someone: a) believes he will not get caught, and can get away with breaking the law, or, b) is unconcerned with the consequences if he does get caught, then the laws simply don’t apply to that person. You see it every day. People drive a few miles per hour over the speed limit, thinking that the cops have better things to do than worry about them. And if they do happen to get pulled over, well, they’ll just pay the ticket and get on with their lives. Laws don’t apply to outlaws. While the percentage of the populace that volunteers to abide by the laws against shooting up a school is considerably higher than of those who never speed, the principle is the same. An outlaw can’t be deterred.

So what, exactly, is the point of banning those so-called assault weapons? To keep them out of the hands of those people who have volunteered to not shoot up a classroom? The bad guys aren’t going to turn in their guns. The old saying is “If you outlaw guns, then only the outlaws will have guns.” Is that what you want? To deprive law-abiding citizens of the right to defend themselves? To turn conscientious gun owners into outlaws? By-the-by, if you’re sick enough to want to waste a room full of kids, and you don’t care what happens to you, then you don’t need an assault weapon, or any gun for that matter. A jug of gasoline, a piece of tape, and a book of matches will get the job done. Evil people will find a way to be evil. Outlaws will find a way to break the law.

A final thought about deterring outlaws. The best way to do that is to not give them what they want. In the cases of these mass shooters, they didn’t seem to have a beef with the people that they shot. So they must have wanted something else. It seems that they were trying to make some kind of statement. So why let them? Every time something like this happens, what do we see? The news media reports every detail of the shooter’s life, his family history, and his possible motivation. He gets what he wanted in the first place, and, of course, he doesn’t care about the later consequences. So here’s a suggestion: the next time it happens, the coverage should consist of “Some a**h**e shot up a school.” Period. Maybe talk a little, but not too much about the victims, but make the outlaw a non-person. Take away the motivation from the next sicko. But then there’s always

Simple Fact of Life #4: That will never happen in today’s media.

Listen to Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry.”

Hail Caesar? (Part Two)

“All Gaul is divided into three parts”  Julius Caesar

In my last post, Hail Caesar?, I wrote about a phenomenon known to some as “empire building,” in which people try to increase their stature in an organization by making themselves appear to be more valuable than they really are. So what does this have to do with the geography of ancient France? Well, I don’t know about Gaul, but if you observe the would-be emperor in his glory, you will likely notice a lot of gall. You don’t like to be around him, but you’re stuck with him.

The earlier post primarily dealt with empire building as it relates to government bureaucracies, which I believe provide the most hospitable environment for that type of fungus to thrive, and I only made passing reference to the private sector. But those mushrooms can grow in any forest, and here in part two I will discuss a type of empire building that does not lend itself to civil service as well as it does to private business. If I should happen to think of a third aspect, then the title will be really easy to come up with, and I can even use the same quote at the top of the page.

At my job, I find myself having to deal with some seemingly pretty useless paperwork. I can see what the intent was in killing all those trees, but I have a hard time understanding why people expend all the energy that they do worrying about it. So I have come to the conclusion that there must be some Caesar wannabe lurking about somewhere. Not sure who he is, or how he got there, but I do have a theory. I can’t help but think that this could be a manifestation of what I call “Idiot Nephew Syndrome.” To illustrate what this is, I have, in the immortal words of Rod Serling, “Submitted for your approval:”

The Nephew

A play in (much less than) one act
by QMC, USN (Ret)

Dramatis personae:

Mark   Proconsul (for you non-Romans, that means “big shot”) at Seven Hills, Inc.

Cleo     Middle-aged younger sister of Mark

The scene:

The stage is divided into two sets, with darkness between. Stage left is a suburban kitchen. Stage right is a corporate office. As the curtain rises, Cleo is sitting at the kitchen table, phone to her ear. Mark is at the desk in the office. Mark’s phone rings, he answers it.

Mark:  Hello, this is Mark speaking.

Cleo:    Hello, Mark. This is Cleo.

Mark:   Cleo! Well hello. How’s everything going?

Cleo:    (Looking nervous) Okay, but, well, you know I hate to ask for favors, but, well, you know my son Claudius?

Mark:   (Looking annoyed) Yes, Cleo. I know Claude. What has that worthless moron done this time?

Cleo:    He hasn’t done anything. And that’s why I’m calling. You see, I’ve been wanting to turn my basement into a sewing room. But I really can’t do that as long as Claude is living there. So I was thinking … maybe … Do you think that you could give him a job so he can move out?

Mark:   Well, I don’t know. I’m just not sure what …

Cleo:    Oh please, Mark. You know he turned thirty last month, and there aren’t any liberal arts classes left at the community college that he hasn’t taken at least once. I just have to get him out of my house! Please!

Mark:   Let’s see. What if? … Maybe I could … I’m trying to think of something … Well, maybe …

Cleo:    But you know, it can’t be anything menial. I mean, I know that he doesn’t have any fancy degrees or anything, but he has more or less been going to college for the last twelve years. I don’t thing that I’ll be able to get him to crawl out of bed for some low-level thing. It needs to be something that will make him believe that he’s as important as he thinks he is.

Mark:   Yes, I was kind of thinking about that myself. Okay, wait … what if … just a second … yeah, that’s it. I can …

Cleo:    You have something for him?

Mark:   Yes, Cleo, I believe that I do. I can make him my “Executive Supervisor of Administrative Compliance.” Think Claude will go for that?

Cleo:    Ooo! That sounds important. It also sounds complicated. Do you really think that Claude can do that job?

Mark:   A chimpanzee could do that job. You see, the only thing that he would really have to do is look at a bunch of pieces of paper and make sure that there is a check mark in every box, and an initial on every line. If the paper is filled out okay, Claude gives it to a secretary who will file it away, never to be looked at again. If there’s a check mark or something missing, the paper goes back to who it came from, to be completed, sent back to Claude, and filed away, never to be looked at again. I do believe that even Claude could handle a job like that.

Cleo:    Wow! That sounds like a job for a complete idiot. It’s perfect!

Mark:   That’s what I thought. And you know, this could also be good for me. Yeah, I suppose that I’ll need to come up with a few more useless forms for Claude to look at, But that’s fine. You see, the big bosses love to know that there is lots of paperwork flying around, as long as they don’t have to read it. Gives them the illusion that something meaningful is going on. And when they see that I’m so concerned about quality control that I brought in a new expert, my standing at Seven Hills will rise. And since the job actually doesn’t mean anything, even Claude ought to have a hard time messing it up. I just have to find an office for him that’s so remote that the bosses will never be able to actually see Claude. Well, he is used to living in a basement, right?

Cleo:   Yes he is.  Okay, this is great. I’ll go downstairs and unplug Claude’s X-Box and send him to see you first thing in the morning. And while he’s gone I can find a cheap apartment to send his stuff to.

Mark:   Good. Oh, but make sure that before he shows up here, he gets those metal studs out of his face. And that purple stuff out of his hair.

Cleo:    I’ll pull those things out with pliers myself, if I have to. And hold his head in the washing machine, if that’s what it takes.

Mark:   Oh, and he’ll need a suit and tie. Does he have those?

Cleo:    Well, I’m pretty sure the the suit he wore at his high school graduation still fits. And it should be in good shape, seeing as how it hasn’t been worn in over a decade.

Mark:   That should be fine. After all, Claude only has to make it from the basement in your house to the basement in my office. So it’s settled.

Cleo:    Yes it is. Thank you so very much.

Mark:   No problem. So, you are coming over for Thanksgiving dinner, right?

Cleo:    Wouldn’t miss it.

Mark:   Wonderful! It will be great to see you. And don’t feel obligated to bring Claude with you.

Cleo:    I understand. One turkey in your house is enough.

Curtain

Followed, of course, by thunderous applause and chants of “Author, Author.” What, I can’t have a bit of a Caesar complex?

So there it is. The Proconsul has added another centurion to his legion, and made the Thanksgiving get-together a little less unpleasant. His sister has her sewing room. And young (well, not so young) Claudius has set out on a journey that will lead to … who knows? But I can tell you what he sees as he dozes at his desk, waiting for the next stack of meaningless paper to arrive. He sees himself in larger-than-life bronze, his body draped in a loose toga, the better to display his imaginary muscles. His head is adorned with golden leaves, instead of horn-rim glasses. He gazes across his empire, his jaw firmly set, his lips tight, to conceal any evidence of his buck teeth. All hail Claudius Maximus, Prince of Paperwork Perfection.

The only ones that don’t win in this situation are the plebian masses, who, upon filing, unwashed, into the Seven Hills Coliseum, daily find yet another reason to scratch their heads. Besides the fleas in their hair.

So how long will this empire stand. Beyond the next Ides of March? Oh, even after he screws up, and they hire the chimpanzee, don’t worry about Claude. He’ll be fine. He is now ensconced in the bureaucracy. They can find a place for him. I do believe that Seven Hills, Inc. has a branch office in Kabul.

Hail Caesar?

“A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!”
President Ronald Reagan

As I sit to write this, the Ides of March have come, but not gone. Not sure what that has to do with anything, and it didn’t occur to me until after the seventh time that I made a final decision as to the title of this post. But, considering all of the knives held by supposed friends of this nation, who knows? On to more substantive matters.

In my Navy days, most of my sea duty time (which was most of my Navy days) was spent serving aboard aircraft carriers. Besides being awesome weapons systems and marvels of engineering, these ships are something else. Monstrous bureaucracies. With the ship’s crew organized into over a dozen departments, most having several divisions consisting of multiple work centers, it’s hard to fathom how this huge machine can function at all. And when you throw in the Air Wing, which, if memory serves, consisted of about eight squadrons, each with their own department and division structures, the whole thing would seem to my simple mind to be quite unmanageable. It’s a tribute to the skill and dedication of our sailors that these ships can get away from the pier, much less make it across thousands of miles of ocean and put a whole lot of bombs on target.

Now, I’m not sure how it is in today’s cyber-world, but in my day, making all this happen required something besides food, fuel, bombs, and, of course, swabs. (That’s mops to you land-lubbers.) It required a humongous mountain of paper. And upon this mountain flourished an activity that evolved to thrive in the swamp of bureaucracy. A phenomenon that came to be known as empire building. Not something that’s unique to government, but that seems to be its most hospitable environment. Here’s how it works:

Our budding young Caesar wants to stand out from the plebeians, so he sets out to funnel as much activity through himself as possible. Not that much of this flurry of activity involves anything that would meet the dictionary definition of work, rather it mostly means getting his grubby fingers on as many pieces of paper as he can. Doesn’t do much with the papers, barely reads what’s on them. Just passes them off to some plebe, or some other wannabe Nero. But in an outfit run by bean-counters and paper-pushers, he quickly becomes the indispensable man, the magnificent emperor of the manila envelope. Hail Caesar!

And now our new hero has all of the benefits due to one in so exalted a position. The life of leisure in his palace of a desk. The fastest chariot on the road to promotion. But also, of course, the scorn and ridicule of those milling around the forum in their tattered togas, waiting for the next round of bread and circuses. But hey, they don’t matter, they have no power. Only the position of his thumb determines who lives and who dies. It’s amazing how much power comes from being the one to decide when that scrap of paper moves the six inches from the “in” box to the “out” box.

Now, while this sort of thing is easiest to spot in government agencies, it’s lurking everywhere. Can you think of a Caesar in the place where you work? You know that you can.

Simple Fact of Life: You can pretty much count on people to do what is in their own personal interest.

I did, somewhat grudgingly, qualify that with a “pretty much.” There are the Mosther Teresas of the world. A few truly selfless, humble people. And among our soldiers, acts of selfless valor are more common than any of us wish that they needed to be. But seriously, how many of us believe that we would want to be the guy that threw himself on that grenade? (I’ve sometimes wondered if that would really work anyway. I would think that lying on that much explosive would tend to blow someone apart. So instead of being hit by flying shrapnel, his comrades would be hit by flying shrapnel, flying bones, and flying guts. Oh well, as anyone who has ever received a Christmas gift from me has heard, “Hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?” But I digress) Me, I guess I might be that guy if the grenade just happened to land at my feet, and I saw myself as dead anyway. But if I knew where and when it was coming, I suspect that my self interest might compel me to be a little, okay, a lot, too far away to be that guy.

And so it is with the Caligulas that “work” in America’s fastest growing industry, the government paper mill. No, the feds aren’t grinding up wood pulp. You know what I mean. From HHS with the “Affordable Care Act” (Can you say that with a straight face? I didn’t think so.), to Department of Education “standards” (another laugher), to the EPA with who knows what, to … how long do you want me to go on?, there are legions or rule-writers toiling to make that paper mountain reach to the sky. And always among them are the would-be emperors who know that their nearness tho the throne is determined by quantity of production, not quality. What gets you the purple toga and laurel headgear is not the ability to come up with good ideas, but the ability to come up with, and sell, lots of ideas. That’s where they find job security and promotion.

Let’s take one recent example of this sort of thing in action. The Department of Agriculture runs the Supplemental Nutrition Program, commonly referred to as “food stamps.” Now there’s a growth industry if ever there was one. But okay, nobody, not even your blogger, “The Incredible Heartless Human,” likes the idea of hungry Americans. People need to eat. But that wasn’t good enough for the feds. So what did they do with your tax dollars? In the Appalachian region, they took out ads, and sent in people to convince the residents, many of whom were low-income, but not really hungry, that they could do better if they would take government handouts. Now these are proud, independent people, that thought that they were doing just fine without governmental interference in their affairs. So the fine folks at Agriculture got training in how to convince those “hillbillies” to get over their “mountain pride” and just put their hand out, palm up. I’ve heard some conservative cynics say that the real reason for this was to get more people under the government’s thumb, and dependent on assistance, so that they would want to vote for the liberal politicians who would promise to give them stuff. Maybe, but here’s my take. More people on assistance means more agents to administer the program, which means more supervisors, which means more opportunities for promotion, which means more chances to become the next Augustus.

Oh well, I guess all those government handouts will at least stimulate the national economy, right? Sure. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) know my thoughts on that subject. If that’s not you, and you’re interested, check out “Aquanomics?” I suppose that an industrious blogger would throw in a link somewhere around here, but that’s just too plebian for a Caesar like me. Particularly since if you scroll down a couple of inches, it’s right there, sitting in my “out” box.

What? Your mouse pointer isn’t rushing down the screen? Your finger isn’t twitching on the left button? Et tu, Brute?

Aquanomics?

“A rising tide lifts all boats.”  –President Barack Obama

OK, the President didn’t invent that saying, it’s older than he is. But even though he didn’t build that old saw, he used it as a metaphor for how his policies of economic stimulus and wealth redistribution would benefit the middle class and the nation as a whole. I am no fan of those policies, and I find that particular verbiage to be very instructive about the way that the President thinks. So let’s examine it.

I don’t claim to possess any mastery of grand economic theory, but I do know something about tides. My 20+ years in the United States Navy were mostly spent studying, practicing, and teaching the art and science of marine navigation. Anyone in that profession will quickly learn that a knowledge of tidal forces is essential, and a failure to take them into account can lead to disaster. So, on that authority, I will state with complete certainty that the old saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” is absolutely false.

Simple fact of life #1: Whenever the tide rises somewhere, it falls somewhere else.

The only way to lift all boats would be to create more water, just as the only way to lift everyone’s economic status would be to create more wealth. But, of course, tides don’t make water. They are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon, and , to a lesser degree, the sun, which draw the water toward them, making the water level rise slightly. This rise is negligible in the middle of the ocean, but as the high water nears land, it piles up along the shore, which sets up currents that flow into bays and harbors, sometimes generating a significant rise in water level. So sure, a rising tide will lift all boats in that particular harbor. But since the total amount of water hasn’t changed, as the boats in that harbor are lifted from the bottom, boats in another harbor on the other side of the world are settling into the mud. And as the Earth turns, so does the tide, lowering the boats that were raised; raising the boats that were lowered. Tides don’t really raise water level, they temporarily redistribute it.

So what does this have to do with the tides of economic activity or the flood of money being printed by the Federal Reserve? Well, there is something that the President and folks of his ilk seem to be unable to grasp.

Simple fact of life #2: Money is not wealth, it is a medium of exchange. Wealth is the things that money can buy.

Increasing the amount of dollars in circulation does nothing to increase the amount of wealth (goods and services that people are willing to pay for) that is available. Money serves as the foundation of the economy, sort of like the bed of a lake. Printing more of it would be about as effective as trying to get more water into the lake by dumping rocks into it. The level of the lake might appear to be higher, but at the bottom, there will still be the same number of places to run your boat aground. A deeper lake requires more water; a deeper economy requires more wealth.

Also, there are many on the President’s crew who believe that redistributing money will somehow create more wealth. As presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett said some time back, “People who receive that unemployment check go out and spend it and help stimulate the economy, so that’s healthy as well.” It seems to me that this is like trying to make our lake bigger by digging the sand from the shore and letting the water flow outward (spreading the wealth?). Still the same amount of water, even though the lake looks larger. But what are the other consequences of our excavation? By making the lake appear bigger, we have increased its surface area, thereby speeding the rate at which the water evaporates, and actually making the lake smaller. Remember, real wealth is constantly being both produced and consumed. When people consume more wealth than they produce, the economy will shrink. In the big picture, giving hand-outs or make-work jobs does more harm than good.

So what to do about those people whose water glass is empty? Very few of us are so heartless as to not want their thirst quenched. And there are certainly many among us that feel that it is unfair that a few can spend the summer lounging in their huge backyard swimming pool, while most of us make do with a Slip-and-Slide. But remember, the vast majority of those with “excessive” wealth have it because they were able to do something special to earn it. And the poor, whether or not through their own fault, were unable to do so. Sure, I wonder why throwing a basketball through a hoop, or reciting lines into a camera, is more valuable than driving a truck, but that’s what people are willing to pay for. That’s the economy. And that brings us to:

Simple fact of life #3: Wealth cannot be given to someone who didn’t earn it without taking it from someone who did.

What obviously needs to happen is that more people must have the opportunity to create wealth. How to make that happen? Do you really believe that our federal government has the answer? To illustrate the way the feds think, let me try one more all-wet metaphor.

Suppose that tidal forces have caused a sandbar to form at the entrance to San Diego Bay, and there is not enough water trickling into the bay to wash it away, so ships can no longer get in or out of the harbor. Some clownfish in Washington will probably say “Hey, there’s plenty of water in Galveston Bay. Let’s build a huge aqueduct to San Diego.” Well, I guess this would work, but is it really the best solution? It would, like most federal programs, be ridiculously expensive. And a lot of the water would evaporate as it passed through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, just as your tax dollars evaporate in the deserts of bureaucracy and corruption. How about we just dredge the sandbar?

The United States has plenty of oil, and getting it out of the ground will create many real jobs which will produce real wealth. But regulations make it impossible for this to happen. Instead, the government pumps your money into the aqueduct of “green energy,” where it just evaporates. How about we dredge the sandbar of regulations.

And hey, if you’re one of the 17 people who still believe Al Gore, (oh wait, Al bought a 9 million dollar mansion on the Santa Barbara beach, and sold his TV network to the oil sheiks, so I guess Al Gore doesn’t even believe Al Gore — make that 16 people) we can melt those polar icecaps, create more water, and actually lift all boats.