We are the Dead.
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a treeToward heaven still,And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fillBeside it, and there may be two or threeApples I didn’t pick upon some bough.But I am done with apple-picking now.Essence of winter sleep is on the night,The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.I cannot rub the strangeness from my sightI got from looking through a pane of glassI skimmed this morning from the drinking troughAnd held against the world of hoary grass.It melted, and I let it fall and break.But I was wellUpon my way to sleep before it fell,And I could tellWhat form my dreaming was about to take.Magnified apples appear and disappear,Stem end and blossom end,And every fleck of russet showing clear.My instep arch not only keeps the ache,It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.And I keep hearing from the cellar binThe rumbling soundOf load on load of apples coming in.For I have had too muchOf apple-picking: I am overtiredOf the great harvest I myself desired.There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.For allThat struck the earth,No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,Went surely to the cider-apple heapAs of no worth.One can see what will troubleThis sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.Were he not gone,The woodchuck could say whether it’s like hisLong sleep, as I describe its coming on,Or just some human sleep.
After Apple Picking
I was recently subjected to a lengthy debated about gun registration and “Universal Background Checks.” Briefly, a new State law had been proposed which would have required gun sales between private parties be conducted via a Federal Firearms License transfer under a variety of new circumstances. In the course of this debate, which I’m not going to get into at this time, opponents objected that laws like the proposed only affect law-abiding gun owners; Criminals will not follow the law when they obtain their guns.
The response from the pro-gun-control speaker was, “If it’s true that criminals don’t follow the law, then why do we have laws against murder?”
I was recently reading the history of Harold II of England. He was the last Saxon king of England until is defeat and death at the hands of William the Conqueror ushered in the Norman and French rule of that nation. It also began a slower replacement of the Anglo-Saxon/Norse culture with what has come to be the English tradition of law.
Among those traditions, one in particular caught my eye. In Anglo-Saxon law, one who committed of a murder was obligated to pay wergild (translated to man price). This was a value placed on each human being. That price varied depending on the social station of the victim; a slave was worth a fraction of a free man and a lord worth vastly more. In fact, while the concept has left our culture, some of the language has remained. Phrases like “A princely sum” refers to the orders of magnitude beyond that of the average man that a life of a noble might be worth. The price of a free man’s life is sometimes give as 200 schillings (a schilling being worth roughly one sheep or cow).
This concept is not too dissimilar from the earliest recorded law, the Hammurabi Code of Babylonia, which also specified the price of a man (varying by station and gender). As foreign as the concept is to our modern concept of the value of a life, historically speaking our current thinking is relatively new.
Note, also, that the wergild was paid, not to the king or lord, but to the victim’s family (or to the owner, if the victim was a slave or thrall).
What if a perpetrator was unable to pay the price? Were they subject to the death penalty? To life in prison? In fact, neither of these punishments existed in Anglo-Saxon England or the Germanic culture on which it was based. The supreme penalty to be imposed upon the unrepentant murderer was to be outlawed. This meant that the criminal was expelled from society and was no longer afforded the protection of society’s laws.
My first thought on readings this was that this doesn’t seem so bad. So you’re exiled and maybe have to try to start anew in some foreign land, but at least your head is still attached to your neck, right?
More likely, an outlawed murderer probably had a rather short life expectancy. Once the protection of society is removed, the victim’s survivors were free to extract whatever retribution they felt best. You would probably expect to forfeit not only your life, but everything else you had in the world.
It’s not for nothing that we call this part of our legal framework the “Criminal Justice System.” Once outside of the law, “justice” has no limits. Any slight, perceived or real, might be subject to whatever level of vengeance. The law, then, provides justice for the criminal, more so than the victim, by making sure that “the punishment fits the crime” and goes no further.
To get back to the title, why then is murder illegal? Making murder against the law doesn’t stop people from killing each other, so is it a failed law? Or are there other reasons for it. In some ways, the involvement of the State in punishing the murderer is about equality – that the State should advocate for the homeless victim with no family with the same process that it would advocate for the child of a powerful family. But, more than that, laws against murder set a framework for the criminal that limit his culpability through both due process and maximum sentence. We create our laws against murder and then set limits on those laws in a way that provides the victims with a sense of justice while preventing the creation of a new set of victims; victimized if we end up over-punishing the guilty.
Without laws against murder, people wouldn’t “get away with murder.” In fact, without the law, murderers (especially of victims with sufficient friends and family) might be less likely to “get away.” We as a society, however, deem it better to go a little easy on our murders so as to avoid family feuds, blood feuds, and vendettas that in the long run would be far more destabilizing to our society than the occasional murder.
Do mala prohibita (laws, such as these gun control measures, which criminalize the failure to complete paperwork) provide “criminal justice” in the same way that prohibitions against murder do? Of course not. The idea that without the requisite paperwork, society would descend into waring clans is too ridiculous to imagine.
After all the debate, the gun law in question was, appropriately I would say, defeated.
It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
Speech on the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence
July 5, 1926
I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t review it, but it’s free. That’s my review. It’s only free for 3 days, however, so download it now before it goes back to full price.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
So I’m finally catching up with 24. I was enthralled by the first season, and eagerly watched it as it came out. I recall reading at the time (don’t remember where) an interview with Keifer Sutherland where he speculated that the show could never run for more than two Seasons. While the second and third seasons kept me watching every week, I always felt a little less for having done so. Finally, by Season 4, it wasn’t important enough to set aside time to watch or record it, and I let it go.
Until now. It is one of the free shows available with Amazon Prime. And just like that, I’m back into the cycle of addiction. For some reason, year after year American deals with an existential terrorist threat and only one man, Agent Jack Bauer, can stop it. If you read it, I discussed what I called the “small world” problem in my Under the Dome review. Why the fate of the world so often depends on the doings of a handful of people within a 20-block radius in downtown Los Angeles is a puzzle I’ll leave to you, the reader.
Instead, I’ll comment on what is bothering me most about the series. It’s a minor thing, that has only reoccurred one or twice in each season. Each time I see it, though, it really irks me.
Now, much has been written about the silly portrayal of guns in Hollywood in general and in 24 in particular. I could go on and on about all the little mistakes in 24 that bug me. What really gets to me most, though, is the sounds made by empty guns. Especially machine guns. When a 24 machine gun runs out of ammunition, it makes this whirring and clicking noise – as if it were some kind of electric-powered minigun. Quite clearly, this was added in during the post-production sound editing. There are very obvious instances where a firearm is quite clearly empty and locked back, and yet it continues to make clicking noises that couldn’t possibly come from the real thing (or, for that matter, the blank-firing versions used to film the scene.)
So why does this happen? Why can’t the entertainment business include even a high-school level of physics research into their stories? Do they not know, or do and just not care? Maybe it is a little of both. It’s quite likely that an L.A.-based sound editor has no direct knowledge of what a machine gun does or, more importantly, doesn’t sound like. It is also possible that, knowing that it’s likely that most of the viewing public shares in this ignorance, the producers/directors decide to exercise a little artistic license. In reality, how does one tell the difference between a wielded machine gun that has stopped firing because it is out of ammunition as opposed to the shooter simply having stopped firing. Short of having the character mutter, “Damn, I’m out” in every scene, a little sound effect will do the trick. We all know that a double-action revolver will click-click-click when you pull the trigger (thanks Deer Hunter). So why not the same for any pistol? Similarly machine guns, but these also need some kind of a machine sound. They are “machine” guns, after all.
That’s what really annoys me. Yet, I keep watching so I guess, from Hollywood’s standpoint, it’s all OK.
An article, The Capitalist’s Dilemma from the Harvard Business Review, was sent to me with the provocative subtitle “Why capitalism is broken, and what we can do to fix it.” An excellent write-up, it certainly got me thinking. While there is much to agree with, there would be a few things that I would like to add, were I a Harvard Man myself. Read the article, as I mostly want to address the conclusions at the end.
Conclusion #1 focuses on (government) policy changes that would incentivize long-term investment. While an investor or a manager needs to look at the current situation (the abundance of cheap capital) as a given, this oversupply of money is, itself, the result of policy. This apparent over-supply of capital isn’t just a force of nature in these modern times. It is a direct result of stimulus, quantitative easing, and zero interest rate policy – not just from the government of the United States and the Federal Reserve, but as a coordinate effort around the globe. If you’re looking for a government policy “fix” for the perverse incentive of cheap money, why not look first at the cheap money policies?
Of course, I won’t try to lay out the mechanism of how a more rational interest rate and money supply would result in longer-term investment. Whereas the intended effect of something like a transaction tax may be obvious, the effects of rationalizing monetary policy are far less straightforward (unless you’re already on board). However, like long term investment itself, the elimination of the root cause of the investment problem should certainly pay off far more handsomely over the long term than reactive carrots and sticks.
Surely one of the problems in today’s investment environment is the elimination of the “safe” investment returns at 5 or 6 percent. In order to earn what most of us think of as a minimum, long-term safe rate of investment, the financial community is forced into riskier and shorter term speculation.
Looking at it another way, if we accept the premise that the current environment is artificially created by current monetary policies, and therefore look at the “cash” as disconnected from “capital,” we might assume that true “capital” is as scarce as it has ever been. The inability to make good decisions, then, is a result of being unable to evaluate the true cost of that capital in a world awash in cheap money. Returning monetary policy to the norm would be a major step in getting our systems to work properly again.
Conclusion #2, I don’t have an issue with the analysis given. However, the conclusion that the solution for all the troubles in the world should come out of the MBA curricula as a tad self-important. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising coming from the Harvard Business Review. Does anyone outside of the Business School community actually consider the organization of topics in Business School courses to be a major driver in the economy? Certainly, I would never expect a freshly-minted MBA to be ready to make the kind of complex investment decisions necessary to grow a business. Would you?
Conclusion #3 (and/or maybe #4) address changing the management style and incentives. This is the counter-balance to #1, where you do have to look at the current monetary policy environment as a given. I am struck by the description of this problem as a”dilemma” and a “paradox.” To quote Ayn Rand, “Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises.”
The article discusses the irrationality of continuing to use a 20% IRR, as was common decades ago, makes no sense in the current monetary environment. And yet everyone continues to do it. Why? Maybe because it isn’t so irrational. Certainly, the Federal Reserve and U.S. Government intend to extend easy money policy into the foreseeable future. No doubt it has been a successful gambit so far, with the result of massive currency injections being low measures of inflation coexisting with record high stock markets. Shouldn’t anyone with common sense see this as the “new normal?
Let’s set aside for the moment my off-the-wall theory about the true cost of capital being independent of currency. Is it just possible that managers actually are rational? Perhaps common sense actually suggests to them to expect a regression to the mean. If a 20% IRR has served an institution well over the long term, then that might be the most rational figure going forward. Particularly if one is trying to make long term investments, isn’t it better to evaluate those investments using the logic of the last 100 years rather than the last 8? Zero interest rates today may come close to guaranteeing low interest rates over 3 years. But should corporations bet their future on this environment being around for 10 or 20 years?
Conclusion #4, part II.
My digressions on monetary policy aside, there are some solid points made in this article that suggest that we, as a society, need to do some serious re-evaluation. The authors criticize spreadsheet-driven decisions making in investments. However, I would say this same criticism can be leveled at almost every aspect of corporate America. Hiring decisions, promotions, purchasing decisions are all done far more “procedurally” or “algorithmically” than was the norm a few years ago. Even the day-to-day needs to follow the “right” technique for project management, a process which seems to me to emphasize efficiency and regimentation over creativity and innovation. It’s the implementation, on the grand scale, of that old phrase “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” If you’re using the state-of-the-art HR/sales/project management software, it’s not really your fault when something goes wrong.
If you agree that “capitalism is broken,” then I’d see we are going to need some major disruption in the business environment before we right this ship. Those disruptions may come from the top down (e.g. another financial crisis) or it may continue to come from traditional sources, such as the innovative entrepreneur. As insightful as this article is, I don’t expect to come from the current crop of MBAs.
Finally, as a small reward (punishment?) for those who made it to the end of my post, I’ll give you the punch line. “You can always tell a Harvard man, you just can’t tell him much.”
I saw a couple of (presumably) unrelated posts on social media this morning with a theme that really struck me as meaningful.
The modern welfare state (American style) is not intended to solve poverty. Recognizing this fact goes a long way to explaining how it continues to thrive despite its apparent statistical failure. The increase in the welfare state has been matched by an increase in poverty.
Suppose instead, though, that the real beneficiaries of these programs are the ones who are paying for them. This would explain why these programs would enjoy continued support in the face of said failure. In this model, the purpose of welfare is to redirect the poor from disturbing the people who are paying for that welfare.
If I own a store, I don’t want homeless men sleeping on the sidewalk in front of it. Is it because I feel bad for the plight of those poor souls? Maybe a little. But it’s mostly about how the image of my business is affected by the appearance of my surroundings. Diverting some of the economic activity of my business into paying off those homeless men, so they go away, is a good use of my resources. Socializing that cost with other taxpayers makes a very effective use of my resources, for my specific business.
In a larger sense, affording the poor an ability to “keep up appearances” despite their circumstances allows us all to move about in a society where, outwardly, poverty no longer exists. Even when we know it does.
Viewed in this light, the war on poverty isn’t an invention of the ’60s, but a redirection of an age-old war. Society has always sought to remove the unpleasant face of poverty from our collective sight. Such was a time when the poor could be isolated, institutionalized, or even imprisoned. Our modern sensibilities no longer accept such gross violations of human rights. But as we have allowed the poor to walk among us, we are more and more left uncomfortable with their presence. Thus we support the social welfare. Modern programs are focused on maintaining the “dignity” of the recipient, which means allowing them to look an act like they aren’t actually poor. In this way we can hide them in plain sight, rather than actually having to remove them.
Of course, when I say “we” support social welfare for these reasons, I don’t really mean all of us. Some, of course, actually don’t support the welfare system. Others cling to the utopian ideal that the reason that poverty has not yet been eliminated is the lack of resolve (and, naturally, money). A more common counter from the left is that, while the “war on poverty” may fail to eliminate poverty, it does mitigate the worst of the negative impact of being poor. Surely there is some success to be seen in a definition of poverty that includes big screen TVs and smart phones? For others, seeing tax their tax money go to the poor is a form of indulgence – absolving one’s self of blame for being part of a society where such poverty exists.
The Left also has an institutional investment in the war on poverty. Throwing ever more resources into a welfare state creates jobs. Specifically, it creates public sector union jobs, populated by workers who pay union dues and vote Democrat.
As I suggested at the beginning of this article, I found this angle, personally, to be very enlightening. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the argument that the beneficiaries of welfare are so numerous, that they vote themselves “largess out of the public treasury.” Numerous they may be, but they are also too busy watching Judge Judy on their big screens to wield the political clout that those numbers might suggest. In defining a genuine benefit for “the rest of us,” this explanation makes sense of the insensible for me.
Of course, there is still a problem. While the “War On Poverty” may start to look like a success, it is an incredibly expensive one. As it grows and morphs, as it distorts those markets and structures that it is intended to preserve, it must become ever less efficient. A system intended to airbrush problems in a margin is not going to work when that margin is the majority, and has begun to assume much of what we define (the middle class) as the system itself.