Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Mechanics of Money

I was considering a Bible verse the other day, where Jesus warned His disciples that the poor would always be with them. As one of those people who considers Scripture to be trustworthy, I found that statement just a bit odd. For thousands of years, people have been trying to eliminate poverty, and with good reason; moral people hate to see folks suffer, and poverty is a most cruel burden on people. Also, even those people who do not carry much love for their fellow man, understand that people enduring poverty are not able to contribute effectively to society and the commonwealth. There has been, therefore, a prolonged significant effort to raise the living conditions in almost every country. Even tyrants have come to understand that starvation and deprivation drive the people to drastic measures. Yet, for all the many ideas and programs, people continue to live in poverty in every nation on the globe. The poor, indeed, are always with us.

Modern Economics, however, is finally able to show some of why this happens. There is a minimum level for survival, consisting of a certain degree of food, shelter, clothing, hygiene, and medical care. We can call this a subsistence level. The significance of poverty is that the poverty level determined in most modern calculations is at a higher standard of living than mere subsistence. This is not due to some soft-hearted notion that luxury is a need, but rather that there is a point of means, below which a person cannot maintain provision for the future. That is, a single catastrophic event such as an accident, serious illness or natural disaster could kill this person, not to the degree of probability that a normal person would die, but at a much greater mechanism of probability. Hurricane Katrina is a good example of this effect; Hurricanes do not arrive without warning, and those people who had the means to evacuate in their own vehicles and to property in safer areas did so on their own power; the people who did not evacuate were largely those people who did not understand the threat sufficiently to plan for protection (intellectual poverty), or they lacked the means to evacuate, and had no choice but to try to ride out the storm where they were. The significance of this phenomenon, is that poverty exists as a combination of monetary limits, environmental factors, personal psychology and education. Throughout History, people who have climbed from poverty to the Middle Class and above, have done so by changing two of those planes of existence; education and psychology. Monetary limits turn out to be minor in the long-term scheme; people can and do overcome hard financial times if they have the education and the confidence, work ethic, and determination, but those who do not have those elements do not rise out of poverty, even when substantial financial support is provided, as LBJ’s “War on Poverty” proved.

For many people, the environmental factors turn out to be the wild card. Many children are optimistic and confident, and it appears that their success is simply a matter of effort and time, yet this turns out not to be true all of the time. On this point both Democrats and Republicans have the same goal, though widely different strategies for improving the opportunities for poor individuals to succeed financially. The question seems in many cases to turn on the peer groups chosen; far too many young people pursue convenience, luxury, and entertainment rather than investment and savings, and as a result they become dependent on their job for a prolonged portion of their lives, in many cases never building the foundation to start their own company or enjoy substantial returns on investments. Personal financial success in the United States often comes down to a simple equation based on a balance of savings and sound investments.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lawyer Arrogance, Snape-Sniping, and Some Thoughts on Graduate School

WARNINGThis post contains spoilers for the Harry Potter final book, so if you have not read “Deathly Hallows” and want to be surprised, this is your warning.

A number of you kind readers have asked how the lawyers at the other site where I initially created the story have responded to my question about intellectual property and posting a story for public reading. The short answer is, they have decided not to respond at all, and on reflection it makes sense, though it displays poor moral standards. You see, if the lawyers respond that they would allow me to post the story on their site while considering it my property, they would be as much as admitting that they do not have a right to ideas and creations which they had no substantive part in making, and anyone else might demand the same by equal right. The argument that anything published on their site is their property, is as flawed and arrogant as it would be for the train line which President Lincoln took on his way to Gettysburg to claim that they held the rights to his Gettysburg Address, simply because he wrote the speech while on their train. It is as silly as if CBS claimed the right to those speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, which they happened to broadcast. It’s a greedy lie and they know it, but they can hardly admit that, especially in writing. On the other hand, to publicly demand rights to something they cannot possibly prove they created or even contributed to in any real sense, is to expose themselves to well-deserved ridicule. So, what to do if you are an immoral shyster for a greedy corporation? You simply ignore anything not compelled by a court, and that’s what they did here. So, the advice from Hatman was salient and very useful, and to anyone considering expressing themselves in a way which may be personally significant, they should be wary of the greed of the host site.

I decided a few days ago, that the theme of ‘Stolen Thunder’ is ill-suited to fiction as a regular feature, and that the unfolding series story “Reditio Soteri” was not something which seemed to fit. I have decided to continue the story at an alternate site, ‘Laughing at Nemesis’, which will be linked on the ST sidebar. A complete story from 2004, “Loco Fundy Judgment Day”, is there, and “Reditio Soteri” will be published there as well. Later, probably in 2008, a third story should join the first two.

On now to Harry Potter. There is a popular site for Potter fans, which debates almost every conceivable angle to the story, and now that the last volume of the series has been published, it might be expected that the debates would subside. But people grow to love their arguments, and one of the most popular passions on that site is Snape-hating; that is, finding reasons and excuses to say nasty things about the character Severus Snape, the erstwhile Professor of Potions at Hogwarts School of Magic for Wizards and Witches. That’s understandable to a point, but the final book made clear, beyond reasonable dispute, that Severus Snape had valid reasons for his temperament, and more to the point was the bravest warrior for the cause of Good and Hope, and he was unquestionably a hero, if not the most predictable or warm-fuzzy type in the series. The Snape haters, however, have had a hard time letting go of their malice against the guy, and what’s worse, a number of the moderators have shown clear bias in the debates. One thread which discussed the relationship between Severus Snape and Lily Evans, a crucial foundation for most of the salient events of the series, was locked down when the people supporting Snape began to gain the upper hand against the lies and distortions of the Snape haters. The moderator locking down the thread claimed it was to cool down emotions, although the only posts edited or deleted were by Snape supporters, and some of what was deleted was in no way out of bounds. Snape haters, on the other hand, were allowed to post false and defamatory statements, which the moderators chose to leave posted, proving their bias and bigotry. Hey, it’s a private site, they can do what they want, but it is very intriguing to see adults act in such a dishonest and malicious manner, simply because they cannot stand to be proven wrong. I will leave that be for here, but it does occur to me to discuss some of the complexities of Severus Snape.

The interesting thing about Severus Snape is not that he is uniformly good or bad, but he is a mixture of different qualities, some are reasonable and desirable, while others are still quite nasty. His verbal bullying of students, for instance. Even with what we know now, there is really no cause for his behavior, beyond the rather lame idea that Severus had to act in character for Lord Voldemort. Severus clearly disliked children in general, he had little patience or admiration for hs colleagues at Hogwarts, and he never liked Harry Potter or his friends. That said, it is obvious that by the beginning of Harry’s years at Hogwarts, Severus had been through a lot of hardship, and he was operating under certain restrictions and conditions which could not be publicly stated to Harry. It gets trickier, when we consider the childhood and development of Severus. We have a limited number of witnesses’ statements to use, generally the untrustworthy claims made by Sirius Black, whom we know for certain intended to murder Severus Snape while at Hogwarts (which puts paid to those haughty claims that Gryffindors are always better than Slytherins, but since Wormtail was also a Gryffindor, we should have seen that coming), and Remus Lupin, also a Marauder and close friend to James Potter, now proven to have been a boor and a bully while he was at Hogwarts. I stop here to note that James and Sirius prove out that the Wizarding world, just like the one we know, is quite willing to give a pass to the handsome and the charming and the rich, but they come down hard on those who lack superficial beauty and money. Severus was handicapped from the beginning. We also have the pensieve scenes, which while brief and limited, also give us insight into the conditions and range of options available to young Severus.

Let’s start with the family home. Severus’ mother and father seem to be in constant argument, and it strongly appears that Severus was neglected. Some of that was simple poverty, but it also seems that Severus was never much loved by his parents, a critical loss which Severus felt throughout his life. We also see why he was immediately attracted to Lily from the start; any kind of regard would be amplified, and it seems that Severus shoved any emotion to extremes, you were either his best friend or worst enemy. This also explains, assuming Sirius was honest in the claim, why Severus knew so many curses and hexes by the time he got to Hogwarts – with no one protecting him, he found himself under constant attack. The condition of perpetual imminent threat is a hallmark of Severus Snape.

I also find it necessary to take Lily Evans down from her pedestal. Throughout the story, everyone seemed to love Lily Evans/Potter. Harry, of course, loved his mother, and we are told, over and over again, how smart and vivacious and beautiful she was. And in the last book we see that Severus was utterly devoted to her, so that he spent nearly the last two decades of his life trying to be worthy of her. But the Lily we discover behind the make-up is not nearly so worthy of Severus. Over and over again, in the relationship between Severus and Lily we find that she was born and raised with all kinds of advantages, which she never shared with Severus or indeed seemed to notice. We see, over and over again, Severus Snape reaching out to Lily Evans and caring for her feelings and emotions, but Lily never does as much. At their first meeting, it is Severus who steps forward and speaks, it is Severus who comforts Lily when her sister Petunia ridicules her, it is Severus on the train who cheers Lily up and reminds her about Hogwarts. Although both of the two certainly endured ridicule for their friendship from students in their respective Houses, Lily is the one who complains about it to Severus, who never even observes that he too is mocked for the friendship (unless you want to believe that a Gryffindor would be less considerate than a Slytherin). When they have a disagreement, it is always Severus who steps forward, apologizes, and tries to make amends. Lily has friends she never introduces to Severus, she is aware that James Potter attacks Severus but she never directly acts on Severus’ behalf – a careful examination of the ‘Snape’s Worst Memory’ not only shows that Lily Evans never even attempts to stop the hex attacks on Severus, nor that she smiles slightly at her “best friend” being attacked for no provocation at all, but also we see that Lily never even says directly that Severus is a friend – she could have ended the attack in an instant simply by telling the Marauders that they were attacking a friend of hers. That she chose not to do so, displays a poor character in that respect. Lily Evans was happy to take, to receive enjoyable things and love those people who suited her to know. Lily Evans knew only selfish love, never putting herself to any trouble except for people she already liked, and she was quite willing to throw away her best friend, rather than take the time to consider his needs and give him better options and hope. Only two possibilities exist; either Lily Evans never bothered to think much about why Severus Snape made the kinds of choices he did, or she never considered him worth the effort. Lazy or cruel, two moral destinations that do not speak well of the woman.

This does not excuse Severus’ own flaws and wrongs, to be sure. But on the whole, he was much ill-used and given little on which to build his life; surely he was starved of love and joy. That he could create a Patronus, speaks of a great heart, though one the world never knew.

Now on to Graduate School. I have my Summer Grades at last, but I have held off writing much about them, because just writing for the letters on the screen seems foolish. I did manage to get A’s for all three classes this semester, so the GPA is up to 3.83, though whether that is an accurate reflection or a lucky quirk after 2 semesters remains to be seen. Now that I have handled six classes, however, a pattern is becoming evident. There are differences in classes depending on the material, the professor’s style, and the time available, but in all six classes there was a Mid-term examination, a major case or paper to work on, and a certain degree of group work and board discussion. I want to emphasize that last part for online studies; nothing is more significant about taking classes online, than the two legs that you must be independently disciplined, and that your contribution to the class will be known down to the second every word of your participation. The online class will track your every comment and effort, and so slackers will do poorly in the online environment. Also, while some professors tend to back-load the grades, so that a lot of your work will receive its grade late in the semester, I have noticed that in every class where I held a strong average through the Mid-term exam grade, the rest of the semester was similarly strong, while early problems in a class make the rest of the semester more stressful and accomplishing the ‘A’ more difficult. Improvement is certainly possible; in five out of my six classes so far, my results for the second half of the semester were better than for the first half, but psychologically it is easier to work from a position of strength, and the plain fact is that a good start makes a good finish more likely to happen. So, if you want to do well in a class, get in early with readings and assignments, work the early assignments as if they will make the difference between an A and a B in the class, because it very well might be so.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

August 8 Update - Kill the Fiction

Well, writing fiction doesn't seem to be what is wanted here, so I will be writing off-line. Sorry for the two or three people who were enjoying Reditio Soteri.

Grades for the summer are finally all in. Three A's so I now have a 3.83 GPA, but I won't blog on that until I can present the results in a form which might be useful to someone.

I plan to blog on the trends from U.S. Presidential elections in the next few days, as well as some observations on Economics. Please feel free to mention anything you'd like to read about. One of the things about only having a few regular readers, is that I really do care about what you want.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Government Economics – Why Lowering Taxes Means More Revenue

The August 5 debate of Republican candidates for the office of President of the United States had a number of interesting points, but one of the most intriguing came when a reporter tried to imply to Rudy Giuliani that raising taxes was the only way to provide sufficient revenues for things like bridge repair and infrastructure maintenance. Giuliani called the question a “knee-jerk liberal response”, and explained that the key is providing revenue, not pursuing a desire tp punish success.

As an example, let’s look at fiscal 2006. The U.S. Treasury Department reports that 2.4 Trillion dollars were received for fiscal year 2006, an 11.7% increase from fiscal 2005 and a 35.9% increase from fiscal 2003. The gist of that data proves that despite lowering federal income taxes, more money has been coming in. This is a peculiar effect, but it’s been shown before, under Kennedy and Reagan before Dubya tried it again. It seems reasonable to me, to examine the function of this effect.

Let’s start with that 2.4 Trillion dollars. That’s $2,400,000,000,000. Lot of zeroes, hmm? The U.S. population just kicked over 300 million this year, so that works out to $8,000 in federal taxes for every man, woman, and child in the United States. I didn’t pay $8K in federal taxes last year, how about you? And in fact, when we consider that the actual pool of taxpayers is much smaller than the 300 million people living here, round about 132.8 million people according to the IRS, so that means our average is really about eighteen thousand dollars per taxpayer. And no, I don’ think many taxpayers actually put out that much, either. So what’s going on? It may seem at first that the high-wage taxpayers are really getting socked, and they are, but really, when it’s all sorted out, what happens at the federal level is similar to what happens at the state, county, and city levels; it’s business where a lot of that money is made, and in short, if a business is healthy and successful, it pays more in taxes. With me so far?

OK, so it’s in government’s interest for businesses in general to succeed. So how does that work, exactly? It begins with the fact that taxes can only be applied to money which is used. That is, mechanisms like Sales Tax and Excise Taxes and so on, can only be applied when money is used in commerce. Employment taxes and withholding can only be done when employees are actually hired and paid. And since so many taxes are proportional to the level of commerce, the more business a company does, the more taxes it pays.

So what does raising or lowering taxes have to do with increasing revenues? Well, where do you think the money that comes into a business is originated? It comes from the consumers, of course. If the consumers feel times are tight and uncertain, of course they will not be interested in spending money, it’s just too risky, which attitude naturally slows down the economy. And when the economy slows down, so does tax revenue. Now, when on the other hand taxes are lowered, this provides taxpayers with more money, and a lot of that gets spent, which revs up the economy … and in spite of the lower rate, increases the amount of money which comes in to the government. It’s the same reason why stores put products on sale; the lower price is made up and more by the jump in volume sales if the manager has planned it right. Basic economics, really.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The 2004 US Presidential Election – Another Look at the Numbers

I have been reading up on US Presidential elections recently – or, to be accurate, I have been trying to find articles on recent elections, but have been disappointed with the poor quality of analysis done by scholars. What has happened, not only during the Bush Administration, but the Clinton Administration before it, is that researchers have discovered that “peer review” can be a very lenient thing if your peers share the same biases you carry yourself. And no, that’s not to say that the researchers lean one direction politically, nearly so much as it seems they are always looking for hot new trends, and therefore little testing of assumptions is made. The 2004 election, therefore, has seen little serious examination, and given the present position I would argue that leaves room for a more open and productive discussion. I would be arrogant indeed if I proposed that I could write the definitive examination of that election, so I will simply attempt to add to the discussion, and for that I have simply been looking at the hardest of numbers, popular vote results. Strange as it may seem, even the most experienced of election analysts may forget that the election of the President of the United States is not one election, but is dependant on the results of 51 separate state and district elections. Consequently, while it may be more difficult to evaluate and even more so to explain, the separate results from each state and the District of Columbia must be evaluated in distinction.

One of the most obvious things from the 2004 election, was that both the Republican and Democrat candidates enjoyed more votes than their nominees enjoyed in 2000; turnout was obviously superior for the national totals. But a more interesting result occurs, when the percentage of the popular vote each candidate collected is considered for each state. Of the 51 contests, the Democrats’ candidate improved his share of the popular vote in 21 states, maintained the same proportion in 11 others, and was lower in the remaining 19 states. The Republicans’ nominee improved his share in 43 states, maintained the same proportion in 6 others, and was lower in just 2 states. This illustrates both the frustration in the Democrats’ camp, as well as their myopia; both parties were able to improve their share of the popular vote in 2004 from 2000 in 13 states, because the increased focus on partisanship reduced interest in minor-party candidates. Therefore, improvement in the share of the popular vote in a state did not necessarily mean winning more states. The Democrats failed to understand this at the time of the election.

The results of the 2006 mid-term elections show the same effect in another light; the increased partisanship meant that if one major party suffered a loss of confidence in voter support, the other major party would benefit by that margin, which is what happened. The Democrats remained focused, and voters who supported Democrats in 2004 did so again in 2006. However, demoralized Republicans failed to support GOP incumbents to the degree they did in 2004, and this was the decisive margin in many contests. The demonstrated lesson of heightened party polarity is that driving voters to the major parties by reason of a “crucial” decision, requires the same or greater effort to get out the vote in subsequent elections, and at some point the effort must invariably fail, generally at the cost of the party in control. Whether this effect is only general or will also apply to the White House contest in 2008, must be considered according to the needs of that event. The purpose of this article is to show that this effect exists; subsequent analysis may or may not display evidence for trends or prediction.