Saturday, April 30, 2011

Back when we cared about the Bucks

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Milwaukee Bucks' first and only NBA title, when the Bucks defeated the Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards) to sweep the 1971 NBA Finals.

The narrator of the preceding video is Eddie Doucette, the Bucks' first and most memorable announcer. (How many announcers do you know have their own dictionary?)

The Bucks were just in their third season of existence. Their first year went sufficiently badly that they were part of the coin flip for the first draft pick. The Bucks won the coin flip and selected UCLA center Lew Alcindor. (Who, I concluded a few years later from a sports book I read in third grade, was a dead ringer for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) One year later, the Bucks traded for guard Oscar Robertson, and that pair dominated the NBA in 1970–71, ending with ...

The Bucks never won an NBA title after that (they're still in the NBA, although they seem unlikely to contend for a title in my lifetime), although 1971–72 was highlighted by their beating the Los Angeles Lakers to end the Lakers' NBA-record 33-game winning streak. Two years after that, the Bucks got to the NBA Finals again, losing in seven games to Boston despite perhaps the best playoff game ever, the double-overtime sixth game.

(The CBS announcer on the preceding clip is, believe it or don't, Pat Summerall, working with Rick Barry, who was still an active player at the time.)

The Bucks originally were in the NBA's Western Conference before moving to the Eastern Conference in the 1980s. They probably should have stayed in the West. In the 1980s, with Don Nelson as coach and such players as Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson, the Bucks were widely thought of as the NBA's fourth best team. Unfortunately, two of the top three were in the same conference -- Boston (Larry Bird) and Philadelphia (Julius Erving), one of which usually ended the Bucks' season in the playoffs. (Had the Bucks been in the West, they would have had to get past one team, the Magic Johnson-led Lakers.)

Then Herb Kohl bought the Bucks, Nelson and Kohl didn't get along, Nelson left and the Bucks descended into irrelevance except for a couple years when George Karl was hired as coach, culminating in the 2000–01 season, when the Bucks lost the Eastern Conference finals to ... Philadelphia. Did you know the Bucks didn't make the playoffs this season? You're forgiven if you didn't notice.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The good and the bad of Star Trek

Earlier this week, The Volokh Conspiracy posted a podcast about the politics of Star Trek. (Find that illogical? Then stop reading. I'm a blogger, not a librarian.)

Star Trek, for those who have been stranded on Delta Vega for the past few decades (that, by the way, is three Star Trek references in four sentences), was a groundbreaking science fiction TV series during the tumultuous 1960s. Just four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it seemed as though the U.S. and Soviet Union were intent on leaving the world suitable only for cockroaches, here was a TV series that suggested that people of both sexes and all races would not merely survive, but thrive to explore “strange new worlds … to seek out new life and new civilization … to boldly go where no man* has gone before.” It also suggested a logical destination of the space race, which culminated in the 1960s with man on the Moon, continuing to, in the setting of the original series, faster-than-light-speed travel to be able explore millions of planets suitable for supporting human life.
* The word “man,” of course, referred to “mankind,” not just men. Remember that this was written in the 1960s. Later versions changed “no man” to “no one,” not the first change that was not a positive change.

Star Trek has had a huge impact on pop culture for a series that lasted just three seasons, the last of which forgettable at best. It was the first serious science fiction TV series that featured a world different from this one (“The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were usually set on present-day Earth) as its setting. The format allowed drama, action and adventure, and even comedy interspersed with metaphorical explorations of issues of the turbulent 1960s. Some of the era’s greatest science fiction writers wrote scripts for the original series.

One of the things science fiction allows you to do (similar to any setting before, or after, or away from contemporary today) is explore contemporary themes in a non-contemporary setting. The original series explored racism, bigotry, sexism, economic equality, international relations, wars and “police actions,” cold wars, big countries interfering with small countries, genocide, drugs as escape, guilt and innocence, the conflict between man and technology, and such personal traits as power, our own duality, love, obsession, vengeance and death. Or, if you like, a series like Star Trek allows you to combine, or alternate, action, drama, comedy, farce, pathos and any other dramatic forms writers like. (Although some episodes resist classification.)

The beauty of Star Trek was that, as long as the viewer was willing to suspend disbelief (which is required of all fiction — ever seen a red police car with a big white stripe in real life, or a doctor who loses a limb and then his life to a helicopter, or a TV series that lasts four times as long as the war on which it’s based?), the viewer would be presented with a message, or with 60 minutes of entertainment, or both. (Or neither, in the case of much of the original series’ third season.)

Yes, this is merely a TV series, although no other TV series spawned five spinoff series, 11 movies, hundreds of fiction and nonfiction books, and an entire subculture that started with just 79 hour-long episodes. (Not bad for a series that couldn’t beat such competition as “My Three Sons,” various movies on CBS, “The Tammy Grimes Show,” “Bewitched,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” — for those who think Star Trek is a fantasy, imagine the Marines allowing Gomer Pyle to enlist — “Hondo” and “Judd for the Defense” in the Nielsen ratings.) Many TV series have been on longer (for instance, “M*A*S*H” and “ER”), but neither have been, or will be, as long-lasting as Star Trek. (The one “M*A*S*H” spinoff, called “After MASH,” lasted 1½ seasons.) As with any entertainment set in a period different from the present, attitudes in the series do reflect, in the case of the original series, the 1960s, with, in some cases, unfortunate results.

There is also a perception that the acting style of, specifically, star William Shatner was over the top, but if you watch other TV series from the ’60s, the acting style of Star Trek actors is consistent with the ’60s TV drama standard, which was closer to stage acting than movie acting. (Shatner was a Shakespearean stage and movie actor of note when he was cast as Capt. James T. Kirk.) The byplay among Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy makes all but the worst episodes (more on that later) worth watching.

My favorite character is Kirk. (The fact that I’m a Myers–Briggs ESTJ has nothing to do with that, I think.) As portrayed in the first series, he is the fully realized man — an explorer, a fearless warrior when he needs to be, compassionate, someone who does the right thing instead of the safe or expedient thing (it’s hard to imagine the career of someone in today’s military surviving the number of head-butting incidents with higher authority), a wit (he had — will have? — good writers), willing to nuke the rulebook when appropriate, cool or hot when necessary, an idealist and an optimist, full of both guts and character, and capable of earning almost fanatic loyalty from his people. (And with an active, though exaggerated, social life.) If those sound like the qualities of a good CEO or even manager, that may not have been an accident.

My favorite episodes, in the order that they appeared: First pilot “The Cage” (which was not used as the pilot, but was turned into a two-part episode in the series’ first season), second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “Balance of Terror,” “Arena,” “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” “Court Martial,” “A Taste of Armageddon,” “Devil in the Dark,” “The Alternative Factor,” “The Changeling,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “The Doomsday Machine,” “Journey to Babel,” “Obsession,” “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “A Piece of the Action,” “The Immunity Syndrome,” “Patterns of Force,” “The Ultimate Computer,” and “The Enterprise Incident.”

(One irony is how real-life technology exceeded dramatic technology. The “communicator” the series used was the size of what now is a standard cellphone, and the “tricorder” was closer to the size of a VHS tape than today’s PDA — which, come to think of it, can do both functions. Experiments have tried to move matter from one place to another similar to the series’ transporter, which of course was created to avoid the special effects costs of having a spaceship land and take off every time a planet was to be visited.)

I watch TV and movies (sorry, “films”) and listen to music for entertainment, not usually for deeper messages. There is, however, one facet of Star Trek (other than the completely disastrous third season of the original series) that didn’t bother me when I started watching the series, but now gets my attention. It is the same quality that sinks many predictions of the future — the idea that human nature will be somehow defeated in the future.

Most characters in each iteration of the series are either Enterprise crew members, scientists, people the Enterprise meets in their explorations, or aliens. The original series (with the exception of two episodes featuring miners and one featuring a bar/trading post owner) has just two characters who could be considered businessmen, and shady ones at that — Cyrano Jones, who introduced the 23rd century to tribbles, and Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd, who didn’t let the law interfere with, for instance, human smuggling.

The next series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” goes even farther. A first-season episode features the discovery of a satellite inside which three people from the 20th century were cryogenically frozen. One of them was a Donald Trump-type who discovered that all his wealth had disappeared, but that was OK because, in the words of the captain, in the 23rd century “We have eliminated need.” That series also introduced the Ferengi, which “have a culture which is based entirely upon commerce”; more accurately, the Ferengi combine the worst stereotypical abuses of unfettered capitalism with the worst stereotypical abuses of patriarchy. Suffice it to say that it is not a positive portrait.

It would be a fair statement to say that the economics of Star Trek are clearly utopian, at least vaguely socialist, certainly based on central planning, and sufficiently redistributionist to be able to supposedly “eliminate need.” Others would go farther and claim that the Star Trek universe is a communist (note the small C) society, featuring the abolition of property rights; state control of transportation, communication and industry; the elimination of religion (or replacement of it with a religion that worships technology and humanism); a two-class system with military, politicians and scientists in one class and everyone else in the other class (just like the U.S.S.R. was); inordinate military control and influence (ditto); and “enforced social uniformity.” Other than the military part, think of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (More on the philosophy of Star Trek, which could be described as “universal humanism,” can be read here and here.)

One person actually created what he thought was the economic history of the United Federation of Planets (the 23rd century’s answer to the United Nations), based on an economic concept called “participatory economics.” As this person put it:
As far as I know, the creators and owners of Star Trek have never made specific the economic system that is used in the Star Trek universe. I doubt they have much of an idea, other than it’s not capitalism, doesn’t use “free” markets, and is probably quite just. From various quotes from movies and the TV shows, we know that they don't use money (Star Trek IV), they use “credits” (Deep Space Nine), that the encouraged point to life is self improvement, not aggrandizement by wealth (The Next Generation) …
This, of course, is where you know it’s fiction. One of the main premises of the series is that nation–states have been superseded by nation–planets, beginning with Earth. It may be a stretch to suggest that planetary unity is absolutely impossible, but consider this planet, a collection of nations, ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions, at least one of which (radical Islam) having as its goal the conversion or destruction of those who don’t adhere to that religion. World War II ended not because the Allies and the Axis agreed that their differences were not as important as their similarities; World War II ended because the Allies defeated the Axis. The Cold War ended not because the West and the Warsaw Pact had a kumbaya revelation; the Cold War ended because the West’s superior military and economic power forced the implosion of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, helped in large part to those satellite countries’ citizens figuring out that life away from Communist control was a whole lot better than life under Communist control.

You may think that’s a grim view of history. (Not as grim as Star Trek’s version, though, which includes eugenics wars during Bill Clinton’s presidency — you’d think I’d remember that from my first stint as editor of Marketplace, but somehow I don’t — and a third world war with 600 million dead and nuclear winter in the middle of this century.) It is a realistic view of history and not grim because, fortunately, the correct side — the side that values freedom and individuality — has prevailed so far. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, a unified world cannot exist half-nonfree and half-free. To have a unified world, either both sides have to have the same values, or one side has to prevail. So far, totalitarian governments and movements, whose values are certainly different from ours, have lost to governments based on freedom. And there’s that pesky link between economic freedom and political freedom (one of the personal freedoms) that keeps popping up despite the best efforts of governments to break it or claim it doesn’t exist.

The notion that enterprise and money will go away in the future is similarly dubious, requiring you to believe that resources eventually will become unlimited, but still must be administered by an all-powerful all-encompassing government. (If resources are unlimited, then why does anyone have to administer them?) Commerce goes back more than 2,000 years on this planet, starting millennia before anyone figured out theories of economics, capitalism and markets. One Web page terms “a planet-wide government that runs everything, and has abolished money” as “a veritable planetary DMV.” (That is a line I will probably appropriate to categorize any new government venture — say, nationalized health care.)

As another observer/fan puts it:
The basic problem is that Leninist workers paradises don’t work. That's why the Soviet Union early on abandoned its efforts to have a cashless society and reintroduced the use of money.
Money plays a vital role: It tells you how much somebody wants something that is in short supply. Person A wants to have something that Person B also wants to have (say, a nice fluffy tribble that has been safely neutered). Who wants it more? Money is the best way to settle that. (Fisticuffs not being a good way.) You want this tribble? How much are you willing to pay for it? Supply and demand. …
A society of humans couldn’t be more advanced than us and yet lack money. Whether cash or electronic, money is the most efficient way of settling how wants what how much and thus who gets it. It’s the best way to organize resources on a wide scale. Any other system is going to be inefficient and result in the misallocation of resources and greater human suffering.
Then there's that sticky issue of religion, which is as fundamental a flaw in the concept of Star Trek as its pseudoeconomics, as this writer points out:
NO human civilization has been able to erase the religious impulse from the minds of the majority of its people. NO human civilization has successfully combined lock-step totalitarian government with soft, fuzzy good feelings and compassion. NO human civilization has successfully combined excellence in all areas of human endeavor with collectivist, socialist economics and politics. I just can't believe it. First of all, no society in the history of the world that has been Marxist, as the Fed[eration] clearly is, has achieved anything worth a darn. The only ones that have been even close to successful are the Soviet Union (now extinct, or at least dormant) and China (which is a stable society with roots far deeper than its present government). In the Trek timeline, there was a period of horrific genocidal war in the 21st century followed by a worldwide dark age. What motive could get humanity all the way to the stars by the 23rd? What got Western civilization through the "dark age" that followed the sack of Rome? Sunny confidence in the essential goodness of human nature? A love for scientific exploration? Baloney. There are basically two motives behind all human progress: economic advancement (for either survival or profit) and religious belief. Both were absolutely essential to the successful Middle Ages that followed. Both were necessary for the birth of modern science in the Renaissance. A society must be very advanced and leisured indeed to produce philosophers that churn out anti-capitalist and anti-religious ideas and a rarefied intelligentsia that takes them seriously.
Star Trek could be, probably unintentionally, an exploration of the tension between freedom and security. Humans, Vulcans and other sentient beings in the 23rd century can have the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs satisfied by the mighty Federation, leaving them to strive toward the top three levels. That, however, sounds like a sterile and pretty uninteresting, not to mention completely self-absorbed, life. Forget about creating something; never mind about meeting the needs of others. (Oh, that’s right — there will be no need by then!) And, by the way, your choices will have been guided, if not predetermined, by the Department of All. Your freedom of choice, after all, includes your freedom to make what others might consider to be the wrong choice. President Gerald Ford, not known to be a Star Trek fan, nailed it nonetheless: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take from you everything you have.”

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who was a visionary to merely think of the concept (which he described as “Wagon Train to the stars”), fell into the utopian trap of believing that not only would things change in the future, but human nature would change. The characters of Star Trek are idealized people (not surprising given that they are staffing the flagship of their fleet), when the reality is that we flawed humans make mistakes, have always made mistakes, and will always make mistakes, some even with disastrous consequences. We have to consciously choose to do the right thing, every time we have a choice. That ability to make choices not only makes us human; it gives us reasons to get up in the morning.

In the episode “A Taste of Armageddon,” Captain Kirk has destroyed the computer that allows one planet to wage war with another without using actual weapons; their “war” is a computer game until Kirk puts a stop to it. When the planet’s ruler claims that, like humans, they are “a killer species” and thus unable to not wage war, Kirk answers:
All right — it's instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it! We can admit we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that you’re not going to kill … today. Call Vendekar [the other warring planet]; I think you’ll find them just as horrified, shocked, as appalled as you are — willing to do anything to avoid the alternative I’ve given you — peace or utter destruction. It’s up to you.
And on that note … peace. Live long and prosper.

Presty the DJ for April 29-May 1

Today's rock music history starts with the birthday of Jean "Toots" Thielemans, whose harmonica skills got noticed by Mr. William Joel:
Carl Gardner, singer for the Coasters:

Manfred Mann bassist Klaus Voorman made a major contribution to the Beatles:

Perhaps the most tragic duo in Motown history was Tammi Terrell (died of a brain tumor) and Marvin Gaye (shot to death by his father):
I wonder if Tommy James' dog Sam still eats purple flowers:
Those of us from the '80s may not know the name of Deborah Iyall, until the words "Romeo Void" are mentioned:
Saturday is the anniversary of the release of two Paul McCartney & Wings albums -- "Red Rose Speedway," best known for "My Love," and "Wings at the Speed of Sound," which included:
We don't usually do country here, but we have to note the birthdays of Johnny Horton ...

... and Willie Nelson:
Don't fall asleep listening to Santo and Johnny, because Johnny Farina's birthday is today:
May Day includes the anniversary of the release of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar":
It's also the birthday of Harry Belafonte ...

... and Judy Collins (who spoke at a Marian University commencement; she was, to put it mildly, captivating) ...

... and Rita Coolidge ...

... and Jerry Weiss of Blood Sweat & Tears ...

... and guitarist Steve Farris of Mister Mister ...

... and bassist Johnny Colt of the Black Crowes:
Today is also the anniversary of the death of one of the more unique talents in music, drummer Spike Jones:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The more things change: School finance edition

Several media outlets, including the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster (the first newspaper I worked for, back when Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush were president) and the Wisconsin State Journal, are reporting an unprecedented number of teacher retirements as the latest consequence of Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to defang public employee unions.

The Herald Independent's story (to which I can't post since the Herald Independent is not online, so you'll have to trust me) includes a number of teachers from not just my days at the Herald Independent, but from my wife's days as a Lancaster High School student. 

That is big news. It would be unprecedented big news if your memory includes only years that begin with the number 2. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and possibly before that), the state would occasionally encourage early retirements as, yes, a way to reduce spending on employee compensation, since the teachers in the classroom the longest were the highest paid given how teachers' pay is set.

In those days, the "rule of 85" applied -- if your age and years as a teacher (or other government employee, although I don't recall covering other government employee retirements) totaled 85 (for instance, you were 55 years old and you had taught for 30 years), you could retire with full benefits. The "rule of 85" appears to have been replaced by "the rule of 30" -- full retirement benefits kick in for anyone in the Wisconsin Retirement System with 30 years' service, although retiring employees younger than 57 have reduced benefits until their 57th birthday.

The difference between then and now is that early teacher retirements are being portrayed in the media as a bad thing, in which teachers (including a present and former teacher of one of my children) are being forced to retire because of evil Fuhrer Walker. In the previous era, early teacher retirements were portrayed as a way to reduce school district spending because the retiring teachers would be replaced by younger teachers who, one assumes, were making less money.

Everyone's personal finances are their own business and no one else's, of course. (Government employees' personal finances are the business of taxpayers to the extent that taxpayers have been paying their salaries for as long as they have been in government employ.) It seems a waste for someone who is still productive to be forced to retire because of their fears over what they think might happen to their retirement benefits. It also seems a waste for productive teachers to be seen essentially as a replaceable commodity, as one might have concluded back in the 20th century. (However, as long as colleges and universities continue to pump out education graduates every year, well, draw your own conclusions.)

That gets to a reality that has been lost in Walker's war with the unions. Teachers are paid on a scale on which one axis is years in the classroom and level of education is on the other. Teachers who are coaches or have other extra responsibility get a little additional pay. There is no other way for high-quality teachers to make more money other than by earning an advanced degree, other than merely showing up for work. The union environment doesn't allow for individual reward, while also protecting teachers whose level of performance means they shouldn't be teaching.

Employees, particularly teachers, should want to be judged on their own performance, because lumping them together with minimum-effort or minimum-performance employees doesn't benefit the high performers. And given that we taxpayers pay teacher salaries, that is absolutely the taxpayer's business.

Presty the DJ for April 28

Today's highlight in rock history is just this: Today in 1975, Ringo Starr appeared on CBS-TV's "The Smothers Brothers" ...

... after which John Lennon appeared on NBC-TV's "Tonight Show."

Which brings this thought to mind: On the occasions I have radio ambitions (before I sit quietly and wait for them to pass), I have had the non-original thought to have a regular contest in which the same song performed by two different artists was played, and the first correct answer for song title and artists would win two of something. I don't have two of anything to give away, but Lennon is artist number two for today's double play:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reaction vs. reaction

Madison attorney Carl Sinderbrand is not happy with the attacks on his wife, Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi, as his letter shows:

During the past several months, my family has been subjected to the worst kind of partisan demagoguery, false accusations, vulgar correspondence, and even threats — solely because my wife, Judge Maryann Sumi, has done her job as an impartial, nonpartisan judge. ...

The Wisconsin I adopted more than 35 years ago, in which I was educated, raised a family, and built a career, was known for tolerance and respect for fellow citizens. Political disputes generally have been addressed on their merits. Rhetoric has often been sharp and the “spin” usually inaccurate, but typically within the bounds of reason and personal integrity.

Political discourse in 2011 has lost its integrity, morality, and sense of honor. The language of our elected officials and their operatives has devolved to abusive and dishonorable depths.
An administration official referred to the protests as creating a “holocaust.” A legislator compared the governor’s anti-union goals to “Hitler.” Others have referred to union supporters as “thugs.” 

A judge’s efforts to enforce the public’s statutory right of access to their government is demeaned in the foulest terms. The vitriol has reached unseemly extremes, and it is undermining the important role of government in serving the public interest.

Wisconsin, we must find our way. We must return to political discourse that is reasoned, measured, and honest. We must remind our elected officials in the Capitol that we are not all red or blue, and that partisan affiliation is way down the list of how we define ourselves. We must restore personal integrity to that beautiful building, and respect for those who choose to serve the people.

Enough is enough.

First, Sinderbrand is defending his family, as he should. It's nice that he is even-handed enough to note that the term "holocaust" to describe something other than the actual Holocaust is as improper as comparing Gov. Scott Walker to the evil most responsible for said Holocaust. (We're going to have to agree to disagree about "thugs" given that that is precisely how union activists have been acting in Madison and elsewhere.)

Another point, however, comes from two comments:

I'm glad you like your wife. Just realize that most or us want our elected representatives to make the laws, not a judge who is answerable to no one or at least thinks she should be answerable to no one.

Mr are right on one thing - enough is enough. But don't lecture me and try to speak down to me with your moral discourse on what's happening to the state of Wisconsin. I, too, have lived most of my life in this great state, but I have seen it taken down by all-too powerful unions, causing many companies to leave the state. I am appalled at the level of taxes I pay here - far more than in other states that enjoy a much higher standard of living and that are actually attracting businesses that create jobs.

Both comments get to the crux of what has been happening in Madison for much of 2010 and all of 2011 so far. Sinderbrand seems to miss the blowback that has been the logical result of an electorate that believes it was ignored by the previous occupant of the Executive Residence and his Democratic, union, environmentalist and, yes, trial lawyer buddies, which completely controlled state government in the late 2000s. There is no other explanation for the Nov. 2 election results, which were the biggest election-to-election voter reversal I've ever seen in my lifetime of living in this state.

(As it happens, Sinderbrand does not seem to be a trial lawyer based on his biography, but the difference between "lawyer" and "trial lawyer" is a distinction without a difference among most non-lawyers. And Sumi is not "answerable to no one," since judges in this state, from Sumi's circuit court level to the Supreme Court, are elected by voters.)

Many people voted as they did Nov. 2 out of a belief that the regulators, attorneys and judges have been running things in this state to the detriment of us taxpayers for a long time. Sinderbrand mentions having lived in this state for 35 years; that would be the same approximate time that Wisconsin's annual per capita income growth has trailed the national average. Some people have done well; many have not, and the state has underperformed in such measures of business vitality as start-ups and incorporations and venture capital for so long that several think tanks and both nominated candidates for governor noted the state's poor business climate.

Sinderbrand is right that "Political discourse in 2011 has lost its integrity, morality, and sense of honor." That is because politics is about one thing, only one thing, and nothing but one thing: Winning. The losers do not make laws; the winners do. The previous winners raised taxes by more than $2 billion while still succeeding in creating more red ink than Wisconsin has spring flood waters. That made all of us Wisconsinites losers.

Presty the DJ for April 27

Today in rock music (which I should try to say in the sound of Casey Kasem, whose birthday is today) begins with the birthday of April Wine drummer Jerry Mercer:

Stylistics singer Herbie Murrell:

Kate Pierson of the B-52s:

Ace Frehley of Kiss:

Sheena Easton:

Adam and the Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni (which I guess makes him either an Italian beer or one of the Ants):

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Presteblog philosophy

Back in 1997, I wrote what follows as Marketplace of Ideas' guiding philosophy. Fourteen years later, I still believe these things, but not just these things.

Profit is a noble aim, and profitable businesses create a prosperous environment and lifestyle. This idea comes from Marketplace’s first editor, Jonathan Drayna. It simply means that Northeast Wisconsin wouldn’t be as good a place to live without the contributions of business. Striving for profit leads to innovations in products and services, which benefits both a business’ customers and its employees. Healthy, profitable businesses means owners — both business owners and corporate shareholders — make money, and employees stay employed and make money. There are side benefits too, but that’s best addressed in the next point …
Making profits is the number one priority of a business. Marketplace reports on businesses that have given their employees unique benefits or made valuable contributions to the community — JanSport’s child care center and Wisconsin Label Corp.’s Share the Wealth program are two examples. But no business can do anything for its employees or the community without making money. In fact, economist Herbert Stein believes the sum total of a business’ social responsibility is maximizing profits, and it can be said that the two previous examples allow those companies to attract the best and most efficient employees, thus maximizing their profits.
Big business and small business have more in common than what separates them. This point was contradicted during early 1990s health care reform proposals; the changes that were proposed benefitted big companies at the expense of small employers. But all big companies started out as small companies, and what government does affects all companies; it just affects small companies more. Government operates on trickle-down effects — anything it makes big businesses do, it eventually will make small businesses do.
Free markets, free trade, free people. Protectionism and subsidies only prop up businesses that aren’t successful enough to survive on their own. The only way markets really work is if people are free to choose what products or services they want to buy. This is why China’s economy will never reach true superpower status until political freedoms accompany economic freedoms. That also is why the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world. That also is why the Republican Party’s Pat Buchanan-directed swing toward protectionism is indefensible, and Clinton’s working for the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement may be the only business-friendly accomplishment of his entire presidency. As author Ramesh Ponnuru puts it, protectionism “invites Big Government, Big Labor and Big Business to form a coalition to socialize the economy; free trade protects ordinary citizens from all of them.” That also is why business people should be wary about government proposals to tamper with the First Amendment through, for instance, regulating the Internet, because the right to own property is certainly part of the First Amendment — freedom of expression.
This is a liberal position — a classical liberal position, that is, as opposed to the form of government-knows-best liberalism the Democratic Party espouses. Government should protect people and property from violence and theft, as the Washington Post’s James Glassman once wrote, and protect the country from overseas military threats — and then butt out: “The government should not subsidize agriculture or home ownership or scientific research by corporations. It should not run railroads or power plants; it should not promote fuel made from corn … fund art projects or own 50 percent of land in the West. It should not redistribute income (though it should provide short-term help for the indigent). It should not operate a retirement or health care system. The goals may be worthy, but they can be achieved just as well by individuals, alone or organized voluntarily.”
The top priority of elected officials is a healthy economy. Government should work on the two areas that affect the most people — taxation and inflation — and do as much as possible, such as eliminating needless regulations, to put business in position to employ more workers and make profits. That would be more helpful to employees in these days of increased economic uncertainty than politicians blathering on about how they feel your pain; economic downturns affect people on the margins first and foremost. Calvin Coolidge put it well: “After all, there is but a fixed quantity of wealth in this country at any fixed time. The only way that we can all secure more of it is to create more.”
Taxes should be used to pay for government services, not to redistribute income. The tax system should not be used to enforce social policy, either by high tax rates on the wealthy or by various kinds of tax breaks. Our federal tax system ultimately should eliminate corporate income taxes (which only contribute about 10 percent of total federal tax collections, according to the Treasury Department) and estate taxes (1 percent of tax collections), not penalize any one income group, not penalize investing or personal savings, and focus more on maximizing national income rather than tax revenue. Eliminating business taxes also would decrease the money-based political shenanigans going on in Washington; eliminating tax breaks eliminates a reason for political contributions. The fact that, according to the Tax Foundation, we pay more in taxes than we pay for food, clothing and housing is sick.
Politicians also need to realize the inverse effect between tax rates and tax collections. Annual tax collections since 1960 have totaled around 19.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, while the top income tax rate has been anywhere from 28 percent (in the good old 1980s) to 39.6 percent (the Clinton era) to 91 percent (the early 1960s). As investment analyst W. Kurt Hauser, who discovered the tax rate–tax collection nonrelationship, says, “19½ percent of a larger GDP is preferable to 19.5 percent of a smaller GDP.”
Hauser shows the difference between the target of a tax and the burden of a tax. The 1990 luxury tax on boats of $100,000 or more was targeted at wealthy boat buyers; the burden fell on those boat builders who went bankrupt and their employees who became unemployed, because the buyers either didn’t buy boats or bought them overseas. (The luxury tax also affected companies that built boats of less than $100,000 because potential boat-buyers assumed it applied to all boats; just ask Mercury Marine or Carver Boat Corp.) Capital gains taxes — which really are taxes on success, not wealth — may be targeted at the rich, but the burden of high capital gains taxes, Hauser says, falls on job seekers, because those taxes “prevent the economy from operating at its optimum level,” and on those who are “rich” in one particular year because of the sale of a home or a small business. Call it trickle-down taxation — rich people have access to tax shelters and other tax avoidance mechanisms the middle class cannot get, so if you raise taxes on the rich, you’re ultimately raising taxes on the middle class.
If the government really wants to help working people, in addition to the aforementioned economic concerns, the government needs to remove the disincentives our tax code has for working people. Besides ending the marriage penalty, the government could start by giving people the same tax advantage business has — for health insurance costs (self-employed people can deduct only part of health insurance costs, while businesses can deduct all their costs), personal investments (anyone who works for a company with a 401(k) plan can make tax-deferred contributions, but if your employer doesn’t offer 401(k)s you’re out of luck), and Social Security taxes (businesses can deduct them; individuals cannot, which makes it a highly regressive tax), to name three. The government also should remove the double taxation of capital gains (either by ending corporate taxes or by ending capital gains taxes) and the tax disincentive to save money, remembering that for individuals “savings” and “investments” really are the same thing.
Balancing the budget is important because of its benefits, not as an end to itself. The budget deficit is somewhat illusory because we are not charged the actual total cost for some government services. The national debt — the accumulation of years of deficit spending — is real, affecting interest rates and where government can spend money. As the debt grows, interest payments as a percentage of the budget grow, and the government’s continued borrowing raises interest rates, bumps other borrowers out of credit markets, and requires all other borrowers — including home buyers and business borrowers — to pay more, which in turn reduces spending on houses and business capital items, which in turn reduces business output. The deficit also means the government takes money in ways it shouldn’t — using, to name two examples, the Social Security and transportation trust funds not for their intended purposes, but to finance the government.
The deficit should be reduced because everyone’s taxes are too high and government spends money where it shouldn’t — for instance, support of the arts and humanities and business subsidies. Eliminating the deficit by raising taxes enough to cover our $300 billion in deficit spending won’t work and would be a cure worse than the deficit disease. Few politicians want to admit that the real cause of the deficit is entitlement spending, but that’s the truth. More on that in the next point.
Government should have a very small place in the market. There obviously must be ways to punish businesses that engage in illegal or fraudulent activities. Government also can get involved in community projects, like Harbor Centre in Sheboygan or brokering the Burger Boat Co. sale (“The marine phoenix,” Marketplace, April 29, 1997), which can’t be done individually by business or government. But government shouldn’t be in the business of punishing businesses for doing things some politicians don’t like — be it layoffs, buying other companies to increase their market share, failing to give employees certain benefits, paying their CEOs too much money or whatever else — or encouraging businesses to do things government does like. President Clinton and Democrats are fond of talking about how we need to “invest” in education and job training, when those programs aren’t know for spending in the right places or working very well. In fact, they don’t seem to work well anywhere in the world — European countries, which have much higher tax rates and spend much more on welfare-type programs, also have much higher unemployment ratios, higher relative deficits, and less productive economies than the U.S.
Clinton and Congress would do well if they concentrated on Social Security reform and Medicare reform and nothing else for the rest of their terms, because those two problems — not too-low taxes or spending too much money on something — will doom us to escalating budget deficits (as in $1.7 TRILLION annually by 2030, by one estimate) if nothing is done about them. Government needs to realize that no government program can make the economy better; businesses and individuals affect what happens in the economy. That runs into the next point …
The best people to run a business are that business’ owners and management — not government, either through regulations that require businesses do certain things, or tax breaks to encourage businesses to do certain things. One important reinforcement would be the bill proposed in the 1995–96 Congress by U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R–Arizona) to require Congress to vote on all regulations executive branch agencies create — no more legislation by regulation.
Protecting the environment is important, but not if it means excessive tradeoffs. Author P.J. O’Rourke points out that environmental protection is what economists would call a luxury good — countries with healthy economies can afford to preserve their environment; those with weak economies (name any former Eastern Bloc country) do not. Environmental protection, like most governmental functions, is best done at the lowest possible level. Environmental protection should be based on actual, rational science, not the hysterical pseudoscience (are you paying attention, Al “Earth in the Balance” Gore?) that infests the environmental movement today. For instance, if the Crandon mine cannot be operated without degrading the environment (which beyond question is an important facet of Wisconsin’s economy) to a scientifically significant level, it should not be allowed to open. Approval of the mine should not be denied because of some people’s dislike of mining. People also should realize Earth is more durable than some environmentalists think; the massive oil spills resulting from the Persian Gulf war in 1991 did less environmental damage and were cleaned up much quicker than some environmentalists feared.
Land use is related. To bemoan the gobbling up of pristine Wisconsin farmland for uses some people don’t approve of, such as houses and commercial development, is easy. Those people should put their money where their mouths are — if preserving farmland is so important, the way to do that is to buy farmland and preserve it, not tell farmers that they cannot determine the present or future use of their own land. If taxpayers want to preserve farmland, they should get out their checkbooks.
The most efficient governments privatize as much as possible and regionalize as much as possible. The point here is value for the tax dollar; Fox Cities residents should wonder why the cities has eight separate police departments when one covering the area from Kaukauna to Neenah would do better. (Fewer than eight now, but more than one.)
Business people should support and contribute to elected officials and political candidates who support business, and oppose and work against those who do not support business. Otherwise, people like Supreme Court candidate Walt Kelly and former state Assembly candidate Tony Palmeri, who called businesses “corporate monsters,” end up in office. As U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R–Michigan), one of the few people in Congress with an actual business background, put it in Industry Week Feb. 3, 1997, “Business has been ignoring for far too long what goes on in Washington” — and in Madison too, I might add.
Transportation spending should focus on roads first and foremost. Attempts to replace cars with mass transit — buses or commuter rail — are attempts to curtail the freedom we have to go where we please with whom we please when we please. Business cannot operate if sales or service forces are tied to the local bus schedule.
Solutions to our social problems are best found in business and the marketplace, not by creating yet another government program for every social ill. American Medical Security chairman Wally Hilliard once proposed a way to ensure that people who lose their jobs still get health insurance — tie health insurance to unemployment benefits, and increase unemployment taxes 0.75 percent to pay for the cost. The best welfare program is a job with a profitable, growing business.
■ Business owners and their employees should be able to associate and bargain with each other however they see fit. This means that private-sector employees should not be forced to join or associate with unions, or be barred from joining or associating with unions. (Note I wrote “private-sector employees”; I question whether public-sector employees should be allowed to unionize at all, since their jobs typically are protected by Civil Service anyway.)
That is what the literary types call  "foreshadowing."
Business people have a responsibility to themselves and others to do business legally and ethically. I wrote on this topic here Dec. 10, 1996. If businesses aren’t responsible, (1) all businesses suffer, and (2) government inevitably feels the need to make them be responsible.
Think regionally. The silly bickering between the Fox Cities and Green Bay over their proposed arenas spotlights the silly geographic rivalries that interfere with doing business — the Fox Cities vs. Oshkosh, Manitowoc vs. Sheboygan, Appleton vs. Grand Chute, northern Door County vs. southern Door County, Algoma vs. Kewaunee, and so on. Rivalries are good in sports, but in few other places. 
Rooting for the Green Bay Packers is a civic duty. The Packers unquestionably are the most recognizable feature of both Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin. The impact of the Packers’ Super Bowl win cannot be completely calculated, but in addition, Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin would attract much less national attention than they do now. You may not like that, but that’s the way it is. When the Packers do well, all of us do well.

Presty the DJ for April 26

Today in rock history begins with the birthday of guitarist Duane Eddy:

Maurice Williams, whose Zodiacs asked you to:

Composer Giorgio Moroder was all over the mid-'70s to early '80s:

Bobby Rydell:

Given how proficient Moroder was with synthesizers, he should have worked at some point with Gary Wright:

In a more traditional sounding vein, Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys:

Stevie Nicks:

Drummer Roger Taylor of Duran Duran: