Why does Turbo Tax want our data?

The usually helpful Geoffrey A. Fowler’s article in today’s Washington Post reveals that Turbo Tax and H&R Block want our tax data “to target you with “offers” — or, as they’re more commonly known, advertisements.” For them to take and keep these data we must agree. Mr. Fowler asks, “did you know that by clicking ‘agree’ to some of their privacy prompts, you may be letting them use you?”  “Tax Prep Privacy”  

Wow. Econ Prof Coats was immediately aroused.

Turbo Tax, like any other company, is in business to make money. It makes money by developing products we like enough to pay for. We are presumably better off as a result. In looking for tax assistance software, we can search the web for what we think would be useful. Or, if Turbo Tax has developed something they anticipate we would like but might not know about, they can advertise it in the hopes that we will be interested and try their new product. Or if they have information from our earlier tax returns that enable them to refine their list of who might benefit from their product, they can target only those specific individuals with their “ad” while sparing millions of others from getting the ads they have no interest in. Like most economic transactions, this would be win-win.

I clicked “agree.”

Independence Day Celebration

As we listen carefully to the current criticisms of America, we should see them in the context of the wonderful features of our nation that continue to attract tens of thousands of the world’s best and brightest to become Americans and thus add to the material and cultural richness of our lives. We should not lose sight of, nor stop defending, the features of our society that have made us the Land of Opportunity even as we confront and strive to deal with our shortcomings. Those motivated by making more money and those motivated by serving and doing good to others enjoy the incentives for both in our free enterprise system. We make money by serving others, by creating better things and services for the benefit of our fellow man.

Our rights to make our own decisions and speak our minds are protected by our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Our property and commitments (contracts) are protected by the Rule of Law. Indeed, our history is not without sin, far from it.  Slavery was practiced almost from the beginning of time, and our new nation shamefully participated in the practice for almost the first hundred years of its existence. Discriminatory laws and practices replaced slavery for many decades beyond the end of slavery.  Though all Americans now enjoy the equal protection of the law, the uninformed prejudices of some persevere. Our culture of mutual caring that is nurtured by our capitalist economic system and the values taught by all major religions, continue to make progress towards shrinking and isolating bigots. But we have a ways to go.  We have engaged in wars that are not justified by our defense and that are inconsistent with our values. In this area our economic incentives are perverse.

Our freedom to speak out when we see wrong and to praise what is good are critical to preserving what is good and fixing what is not.  The “cancel culture” crowd seem more intent on tearing America down than building it up by fixing its weaknesses.  The current cancerous attacks on our freedom to speak out and debate the important issues of our day in the name of political correctness risks undermining our progress:  “America’s Jacobin moment”.  This is not to say that we should not strive to address our fellow Americans politely “What is wrong with PC?”.  But if we become afraid to express our views and concerns honestly, we lose the ability to understand one another and build mutually satisfactory compromises. “Do we really need free speech?”.

So on this celebration of our Declaration of Independence and the birth of our nation let’s commit ourselves to preserving what has made us great, which includes the ability to freely criticize what is not so great, and to admit and learn from our mistakes and to work at becoming better still: freer, responsible for our own lives, and more compassionate toward others.

Goodbye 2019 (and good riddance)

As 2019 and the decade of the 20 teens comes to a close, the impeachment of Donald Trump, only the third President impeached in the history of the United States, dominates the headlines.  My hope (I am a crazy optimist) and wish for my country’s sake is for Trump’s trial in the US Senate to adopt rules that most everyone will see as fair. That means giving Trump every opportunity to state and defend his case and the opposition every opportunity to state theirs. Some Republicans have denied the evidence presented in the House investigation that Trump offered favors (White House visit and military aid) to Ukraine President Zelensky if he would investigate the activities of Trump’s political opponent’s son in Ukraine. Other Republicans, such as Congressman Will Hurd, accepted the evidence but argued that the offence was not sufficiently serious to justify impeachment. Congressman Hurd’s judgement reflects the fact, I suppose, that political standards have sunk so low that we now accept that every President lies to us and abuses his authority (see the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/documents-database/).  I think it would be a mistake to accept and normalize such behavior.

Here are some of the key issues of this year (at least those I wrote about) and a few of my blogs/articles about them:

Health care insurance

Given medical costs must be paid by someone (the recipient of the care, the tax payers, insurance premiums, etc.). Insurance shares the cost (the lucky who are well help pay for the unlucky who are sick). But how services are paid for (what and how much is covered by insurance, etc.) will also influence the services provided and their cost.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/08/01/health-care-in-america-2/

Trade war and protectionism

President Trump has torn up the rule book for negotiating freer and freer trade. The result so far has left us worse off.  Fed economists Aaron Flaaen and Justin Pierce found “that tariff increases enacted in 2018 are associated with relative reductions in manufacturing employment and relative increases in producer prices.” https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/feds/files/2019086pap.pdf

Trump pulled out of the progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), negotiated a “new” North American Free Trade Agreement (whatever he calls it) that is worse than the existing NAFTA except for the new parts taken from the TPP, worsened trade with China (so far–see Federal Reserve report above), alienated potential partners who would have happily joined us in negotiating with China, and angered the EU with whom he wants a new trade agreement. His potentially illegal uses of tariffs have introduced government protection of favored industries increasing crony capitalism. He continues to weaken the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has provided the bases of increasingly free rule-based trade since WWII. The growth in trade over the last 70 years has helped lift most peoples of the world out of dire poverty.  The number of people living in extreme poverty fell from 2.2 million in 1970 to 0.7 million in 2015.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/11/18/protecting-jobs/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/08/05/econ-101-currency-manipulation/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/06/07/the-sources-of-prosperity/

Foreign wars and policy

President Trump rightly condemned our forever wars and promised retrenchment. I agree with his assessment of our excessive military aggressions and deployments abroad, but for one reason or another he has failed to deliver. The New York Times reports that: “Under President Trump, there are now more troops in the Middle East than when he took office.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/21/world/middleeast/us-troops-deployments.html

Trump seems to act on impulse without serious consultation with his National Security Council, State Department or Pentagon, decimating our diplomacy. His periodic insults to our foreign allies haven’t helped either.  Nor have his love affairs with Putin, Kim Jon-un, and Xi Jinping (do you see a pattern here?).  Diplomacy is the alternative to military adventures for serving our national interests abroad. Trump has failed to fill important State Department positions and seems to pay little attention to his NSC and State Department briefings. Having removed two ambassadors to Ukraine in one year (this year) because his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, thought they were insufficiently loyal to Trump, the U.S. currently has no ambassador in Ukraine.  Trump’s stewardship of our international relations has been a disaster.

Then there was Trump’s intervention in Military justice: From the Military Times: “President Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency in the cases of three military members tangled in war crimes cases raises questions about whether troops are being given a green light to disobey the rules of law…

Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of three Afghans, was given a full pardon from president for the crimes. Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime, was also given a full pardon for those alleged offenses.  Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who earlier this fall was acquitted of a string of alleged war crimes while being convicted of posing with a dead Taliban member, had his rank restored to Chief Petty Officer by the president.”  “We-shouldnt-forget-what-whistleblower-seals-told-us-about-eddie-gallagher”  What is Trump thinking? What does he have in mind?

https://wcoats.blog/2019/12/14/nation-building-in-afghanistan/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/05/03/oslo-the-play/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/03/11/is-rep-ilhan-omar-anti-semitic/

Monetary policy and the international monetary system

While monetary policy has been relatively good for a floating exchange rate system, asset price bubbles and international currency flow imbalances persist and, in my view, are unavoidable. We need to adopt a hard anchor for the value of the dollar.  The shockingly large fiscal deficits (over one trillion dollars per annum in 2019) with a fully employed economy, when we should be running a budget surplus to provide room for deficits during the next downturn, are building serious risks for the not so distant future. Trump’s attacks on the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy will make managing those risks more difficult.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/01/25/central-banking-aware/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/03/24/central-banking-award/

https://wcoats.blog/2018/05/01/free-banking-in-the-digital-age/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/07/24/whither-libra/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/04/16/returning-to-currencies-with-hard-anchors/

Information and the Internet

The Internet has had a profound impact on how we live and do business. It is hard to imagine a day without our mobile phones. But like all new tools and technology it opens the door to new ways of doing harm as well. This is currently most conspicuous with the spreading of fake news and learning anew what news sources to trust and not trust.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/12/01/new-tools-require-new-rules/

Domestic politics and Trump

In my discussions of the Trump administration I have tried to focus on policies, some of which I like and some I don’t, rather than on Donald Trump himself, about whom I like nothing. The following focuses on Trump.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/12/27/a-letter-to-the-republican-party/

https://wcoats.blog/2019/11/20/to-whom-or-what-am-i-loyal/

My friend Jonathan Rauch explains the limitations of my efforts to focus on policies in an article well worth reading. “Believing is belonging,” https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/rethinking-polarization

Modern Society and its challenges

If we move away from personalities and dig deeper into our human motivations that inform policy design and choices, we can’t escape the role of incentives at the center of much of the analysis of my profession–economics. I have and will continue to explore my thoughts on human nature and the role of incentives, institutions, and customs in our search for how best to live free with others seeking their own goals in our society.

https://wcoats.blog/2019/08/10/where-does-the-desire-to-explore-come-from/

https://wcoats.blog/2016/11/22/globalization-and-nationalism-good-andor-bad/

https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/31/my-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017/

Happy New Year

 

Black Marks in our History

On October 16, I attended a meeting of the Committee for the Republic at which “Defender of Liberty Awards” where presented to Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, and Mitsuye Endo for their bravery and perseverance in defending freedom in America. These Americans of Japanese ancestry had undertaken to legally challenge their internment in concentration camps during World War II ordered by Franklin D Roosevelt four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They generally lost their legal challenges, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.  If you are not familiar with this shocking atrocity (or even if you are), I urge you to watch these short videos and weep at the depths to which racism has driven some of us in the past: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z8EHjVoN-o  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MXF2302fr8

These atrocities were not the first, nor unfortunately the last, abandonment of our principles in the name of security in times of heightened fear (think of the so called “Patriot Act” following 9/11 and President Trump’s failed efforts to ban travelers from six Muslim countries more recently). While these reactions are manifestations of racism and cowardice, it is to our credit that we (generally) ultimately acknowledge our periodic abandonments of our love of freedom and justice under the law for barbaric acts that we think will make us safer. https://wcoats.blog/2016/10/20/terrorism-security-vs-privacy/ 

The Defender of Liberty Awards to Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, and Mitsuye Endo were accepted on their behalf by their surviving children who shared with us their experiences. Several of them learned what their parents had done in school as they never mentioned or discussed the shame and hardship of their three years of internment in despicable facilities.  Growing up in California I had one Japanese classmate in grammar school. When I learned that FDR had put him and his family in a concentration camp for several years, I overcame my shock and shame to ask him about it, but he would not discuss it. It reminds me a bit of the typical reaction of rape victims.

While a cowardly public silently acquiesced to the rounding up and the imprisonment of their Japanese American neighbors, an underlying motive was the desire of some farmers to eliminate the competition of Japanese American farmers. From Wikipedia: “The deportation and incarceration were popular among many white farmers who resented the Japanese American farmers. ‘White American farmers admitted that their self-interest required removal of the Japanese.’ These individuals saw internment as a convenient means of uprooting their Japanese-American competitors. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, told the Saturday Evening Post in 1942:

‘We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It’s a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over… If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.’”   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans

Quoting again from Wikipedia: “In 1980, under mounting pressure from the Japanese American Citizens League and redress organizations, President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation to determine whether the decision to put Japanese Americans into concentration camps had been justified by the government. He appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to investigate the camps. The Commission’s report, titled Personal Justice Denied, found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and concluded that the incarceration had been the product of racism. It recommended that the government pay reparations to the internees. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 (equivalent to $42,000 in 2018) to each camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion (equivalent to $3,390,000,000 in 2018) in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.”

At the Committee for the Republic ceremony the amazingly talented Bruce Fein recited from memory the following:

Athens had Socrates.

King Henry VIII had Sir Thomas More.

And we have the Mount Rushmore of moral courage to honor this evening:  Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, And Mitsuye Endo.  They are largely unknown American heroes and heroines of World War II.  It can be said without exaggeration, seldom in the annals of liberty have so many owed so much to so few.

What is more American than fidelity to Thomas Jefferson’s injunction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to god?  Our defender of liberty award recipients resisted the racist tyranny of president Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order 9066 issued unilaterally without congress on February 19, 1942, a date that should live in infamy.  Provoked by racism in the west coast battleground states, EO 9066 summarily dispatched 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans because of their ancestry alone into internment camps.  Remember their names.  For they are first cousins of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen, Nazi concentration camps, not extermination camps like Auschwitz.  Roosevelt’s camps were ten:  Manzanar (CA), Poston (AZ), Gila River (AZ), Topaz (UT), Granada (CO), Heart Mountain (WY), Minidoka (ID), Tule Lake (CA), Jerome, (AR), and Rohwer (AR).

Risking ostracism or worse, our four award winners challenged the constitutionality of president Roosevelt’s racism.  The president and his mandarin class colleagues echoed the Orwellian bugle of general John Dewitt 80 days after pearl harbor: “the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”  I am reminded of Mark Anthony’s mocking funeral oration in Julius Caesar:  but president Roosevelt was an honorable man, so were his assistants all honorable men.

Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Endo took their cases to the United States Supreme Court with mixed success.  The high court sustained FDR’s executive order based on knowing lies about military necessity made by the Department of Justice.  Dissenting justice Robert Jackson presciently warned that the court’s decision in Korematsu v. United states would lie around like a loaded weapon ready for use by a future Caligula, Claudius, or Nero in the White House who claimed an urgent need.

But the four did not surrender.  They continued to fight over long decades for vindication and defense of the constitution both for the living and those yet to be born.  In triumph, our defender of liberty award honorees brandished the lofty principles of the greatest generation—the constitution’s architects—against its traitors. Korematsu and Hirayabahsi had their convictions overturned in coram nobis proceedings.  The civil liberties act of 1988 denounced the racism and unconstitutionality of EO 9066.  And the United States Supreme Court overruled Korematsu in Trump v. Hawaii.

Defending liberty is always unfinished work.  Tyranny knows only offense—like a football team with Tom Brady playing all positions.  We cannot escape our moral responsibility as American citizens to equal or better the instruction of American patriots Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yausi, and Endo.  It is for us, the living, to ensure that their courage was not in vain.  It is unthinkable that we fail to try.  Gordon Hirabayashi was right at the young age of 24: “it is our obligation to show forth our light in times of darkness, nay, our privilege.”

When you awaken each morning, be haunted by Edward Gibbons’ epitaph on Athens:

“in the end, more than freedom, they wanted security.  They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all—security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

It is altogether fitting that my closing lines will be delivered at this time and place [the Metropolitan Club] within shouting distance of the white house to thunder like a hammer on an anvil.  In  the eyes of the United States constitution, there is only one race, it is American; there is only one religion, it is American; there is only one ancestry, it is American; there is only one gender, it is American; there is only one sexual orientation, it is American.

E pluribus unum Out of many, one.

______________________________

Walking out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government we got: “A Republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”  I am worried.

 

Where does the desire to explore come from?

Long ago I had the pleasure of introducing a young friend to types of food he hadn’t tasted before.  He was quite comfortable with his American style hot dog and hamburger meals and wasn’t certain he wanted to try new and strange dishes.  People differ in this regard.  Some are eager to try new cuisine, see new places, and encounter new people and cultures. Some are not.  And some are even rather intimidated and reluctant to leave their familiar comfort zone. There is a lot to be said for the predictability of the familiar, perhaps similar to well-worn shoes.

After some gentle persuasion, my friend agreed to sample a few dishes.  I reassured him that nothing would be forced on him and that he might even discover some exciting new tastes.  If he found that he didn’t like a dish he would not have to finish it.  But he would never know what he might be missing if he didn’t explore a bit.  Once he started, however, it was hard to stop him.  He was pleasantly surprised at how interesting and tasty some dishes were.  He was particularly reluctant to try foie gras knowing it was goose liver, though he fell in love with it by the second bite.

As I noted earlier, people differ in their tastes for adventure.  We might just leave it at that but for two reasons.  The first is that being rich is more interesting and exciting than being poor.  I am speaking here of experience rather than money.  Seeing and engaging new and different places, meeting new and different people of different cultures, listening to new and different music can make life richer.  The core of a liberal arts education (as opposed to acquiring professional skills) is the introduction to and broadening of our understanding and appreciation of ours and other cultures. It makes our lives richer.

The second is that openness to change is a necessary aspect of economic progress.  Technical progress disrupts the established order but increases our productivity and standards of living.  Global trade not only significantly increases our material standard of living but confronts us with other people and cultures as well.  Both–technical progress and global trade often impose changes on us (such as the job skills demanded in the market) that we might otherwise not choose or want.  If people can choose to live where their opportunities are greatest and if firms are able to employ people with the skills that best fit the firms needs, economies will be more efficient and will raise the standard of living for everyone.  By allowing the disruption of innovation and trade we will have the opportunity to, or be forced to, confront and deal with strangers more often.

This can have a negative side for those who do not easily embrace adventure—those who prefer the familiar (hot dogs and hamburgers). If new neighbors come from different backgrounds and cultures, adventure lovers can enjoy the excitement of learning more about other places and people.  But those uncomfortable with strangers can be – well – uncomfortable.  Economic advances can also have negative impacts on those whose skills are no longer needed and we would be wise to develop and support government measures to soften and facilitate the needed adjustments.

A predisposition to seek and embrace adventures or to shun them is given to us by nature. However, civilization and its advance builds on nurturing more social skills and openness. Failure to teach/convince our fellow citizens of the rewards of adventure (or merely accepting and adjusting to change) can lead to disastrous results.  In extreme cases unease can turn to fear/hate as in the recent white nationalist terrorist attack in El Paso by Patrick Crusius.  As-his-environment-changed-suspect-in-el-paso-shooting-learned-to-hate.  The nature of public debate on race relations, religious freedom, globalization, etc., and the words of role models can have a profound impact on how those confronting change formulate their views on these subjects.

The world is a better, richer place when all of its people respect one another and live peaceably together. We and our education systems (school, churches, clubs, jobs) should do our best to encourage those reluctant to welcome strangers of the positive experiences it can open to them.  By learning to understand different ways of thinking and doing, we not only enrich our lives but can strengthen our own ways of doing things (our own cultures). Such interactions can show us what we like and value about our own ways and what we might adjust in light of the interesting practices of others. This is what the American melting pot is all about. It has produced a vibrant, dynamic and economically flourishing country. However, it is more friendly to the adventuresome types than to those resistant to change. We would do ourselves and our country a favor to kindly encourage those “left behind” to open up more to the wonders of our changing world.  With regard to a difference subject of misinformation Anne Applebaum explores multiple approaches to this task: Italians-decided-to-fight-a-conspiracy-theory-heres-what-happened-next?

 

Alex Jones

Alex Jones and his Infowars website have been removed and banned from YouTube, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify among the most popular social media platforms.  As of this moment, Twitter claims to be reviewing CNN claims that Jones and Infowars violate Twitter’s standards.  What should we think about this?

Jones has made many ridiculously false claims, such as the belief that Sept. 11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened and that Michelle Obama is a transgendered person with male genitalia.  “An InfoWars video posted in July 2018 falsely declared that the ‘CIA admits transgenderism is a plot to depopulate humanity.’” Twitter-Infowars-Alex Jones But accuracy and honesty haven’t been criteria for banning posts or President Trump’s tweeter account would have been closed long ago. Who is to decide whose lies can be tweeted and whose can’t?

Hate speech, which violates Twitter’s rules, is another matter, as is the promotion of violence.  Twitter’s rules state that it does “not tolerate” content “that degrades someone.”  President Trump violates this rule as well on a regular bases.

What should we do about the lies and hate that are regularly posted on the Internet?  I agree with Kimberly Ross who said that: “It is imperative that we don’t view those like Alex Jones, who peddle in fear-mongering and lies, as harmless. In fact, we should actively call out such appalling behavior….  We should never wait around for the Left to come in and clean up our side.  We should do that ourselves.  Individuals like Jones who manufacture outrage and spread falsehoods should find that the market on the Right for their wares is minuscule.”  Dont-defend-Alex-Jones-but-dont-let-the-government-get-into-censorship-either

Several important policy issues arise from this.  We should challenge what we believe to be lies and hatred ourselves.  Our First Amendment protection of free speech rightly prevents the government from deciding what is true and what is hateful and banning it.  Few of us would be happy letting Stephen Miller, a nasty minded White House Adviser, determine what could be posted on Facebook about American experience with immigrants.  Jonathan Rauch has updated his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought,in which he argues that the best defense against fake news and hateful speech is to exercise our free speech to challenge it.  Kindly-Inquisitors-Attacks-Free-Thought. See also his short essay on this subject:  “Who-will-regulate-hate-speech”.

Facebook and Twitter are private companies and should be free to set whatever policies for access that they want.  On the other hand they come close to being public utilities like telephone companies and Internet access providers who should not be allow to block access to the Alex Joneses of the world because they lie and spread hate.  This deserves further thought.

Turning to government to protect us from every unpleasantry we might encounter weakens us and takes us in the wrong direction.  Those who defend protecting us from hate speech with “safe zones” and “trigger warnings” reflect a paternalistic attitude toward the responsibilities of our government and of ourselves as citizens of a free society.  Like the well-meaning, but ultimately harmful, helicopter moms, we risk creating a society of wimps dependent on government for far more than is healthy for a free society.  Part of our training as we grow up and encounter a sometimes nasty world should be to stand up and challenge falsehood and hate when we encounter it.  Safe zones deprive us of such training.  It’s our job to counter lies and hate, not the government’s.

What is wrong with PC?

Almost five years ago I wrote about political correctness (PC, politeness and caondor): https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/pc-politeness-and-candor/. In short, I said that what would normally be considered “good manners,” — values and behavior of free individuals– was becoming a stifling imposition of expected behavior by various authorities, another manifestation of the nanny state. Given our laudable propensity to generally rebalance excesses in one direction or another, I assumed that PC would be fading by now.

In 1964 at the University of California at Berkeley, I participated with other students from the far left to the right (University Conservatives and Young Republicans– we didn’t have far right students at Berkeley) in demonstrations AGAINST the University administration’s efforts to limit our freedom of speech. This was the famous Free Speech Movement. Thus I am shocked to read that today’s students are demanding restrictions on speech by the authorities. What is going on here?

On November 9 the WSJ reported that: “On Oct. 28 Yale Dean Burgwell Howard and Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee blasted out an email advising students against ‘culturally unaware’ Halloween costumes, with self-help questions such as: ‘If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?’ Watch out for insensitivity toward ‘religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc.’ In short, everyone.

“Who knew Yale still employed anyone willing to doubt the costume wardens? But in response to the dean’s email, lecturer in early childhood education Erika Christakis mused to the student residential community she oversees with her husband, Nicholas, a Yale sociologist and physician: ‘I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns,’ but she wondered if colleges had morphed into ‘places of censure and prohibition.’

“And: Nicholas says, ‘if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.’

“Some 750 Yale students, faculty, alumni and others signed a letter saying Ms. Christakis’s ‘jarring’ email served to ‘further degrade marginalized people,’ as though someone with a Yale degree could be marginalized in America” Read the whole sickening story: http://www.wsj.com/articles/yales-little-robespierres-1447115476

It is hard for me to grasp that some Universities now carve out limited spaces within which students may freely express their opinions on controversial issues. Charles Murray’s reaction resonates with me: “Safe space. That’s the POINT of a university. To be a safe space for intellectual freedom in a world largely hostile to that concept.” FACEBOOK, Nov 10, 2015.

It is a good thing that today’s students are more sensitive to bad behavior among their peers and hopefully better behaved themselves. However, the swing from students demonstrating to defend free speech to students demonstrating to restrict it represents, in my view (as correctly noted by the brave Mr. Christakis in the above article) a swing from each or our personal responsibilities to exhibit, defend and promote good manners to a wide ranging state—big brother—to oversee and enforce all that in its wisdom we should believe and do. We will be a weaker and more subservient country as a result.

My coldest winter since Chicago

Climate change is a politically charged subject. This makes it more difficult for us layman to evaluate the arguments over what is happening and expected to happen to temperatures (i.e. to know who to trust). “Climate change” is a more neutral term than “Global Warming” reflecting, I assume, the fact that scientists who specialize in climate and weather disagree not only over the impact of increases in CO2 on temperatures, but how to measure and compare temperatures over time. Should we measure land temperatures or sea temperatures or land and sea temperatures combined. Are these temperatures the result of averaging dozens or hundreds or tens of thousands of measurements and how is each reading weighed in the average? Which methods of measuring temperature are more reliable—satellite measures, ground stations, tree rings, etc. and how is one to be adjusted and matched to others in order to compare temperatures over long periods of time.

I suspect that one reason that global warming has been changed to climate change is that the global temperature has declined over the last 17 years. Temperatures have been rising and falling for thousands of years. By some measures (I have no idea which ones) it was hotter at the time of Christ than now and again in the 1300s AD and a lot hotter seven thousand years ago. But I don’t know how we can trust estimates of temperatures seven thousand years ago with now.

One of my favorite graphs is the “reconstructed global temperature over the past 420,000 years based on the Vostok ice core from the Antarctica (Petit et al. 2001).” The little red box on the far right is the most recent 5,000 years.

VostokTemp0-420000 BP

Thus I find the temperature information provided every morning in the Washington Post quite interesting. For example, yesterday at BWI the high was 23° and the low as 2°. The record high for BWI on the same date was 74° in 1930 (85 years ago) and yesterday’s low was the record low for that date. Fifty or so miles south at Reagan National (don’t quote me on the distance) the high yesterday was 27° and the low was 14° (well it is further south) while the record high and low for that date were 75° in 1953 and 7° in 1885. If those constitute a trend we must be moving into another ice age. Though it feels like it, I doubt it. Climate change seems the right words to describe what we have observed.

A Citizen confronts the Bureaucracy

I recently concluded a contract with the National Bank of Kazakhstan to provide technical assistance in their effort to develop inflation-targeting capacity. I am working together with an American and a Czech econometrician, and thus decided it would be best to incorporate as a Limited Liability Company.

I live in Maryland and thus went to the Maryland government’s website and within half an hour had not only filled in the required application and paid the required fee, but had actually received (via email) the official, signed registration and Articles of Organization document for my company “Economic Consulting, LLC.” Sorry about the unimaginative name, I will give it more thought the next time.

Kazakhstan is a signatory of a tax treaty with the United States that requires it to deduct 20% from any payments to me under our contract unless I have provided a number of specific documents. In addition to the above Articles of Organization, I must also provide a certificate of residency for the company issued by the U.S. Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service and certified by an Apostille issued by our State Department. Rather than have 20% deducted, we agreed that the National Bank would not pay me anything until these documents were received. I was on a learning curve that I really didn’t care to be on.

Hence began what I hoped would be an equally efficient e-government interaction with the Federal government that proved to be anything but. For starters, the form 8802 to request the certificate was three complicated pages long and could not be submitted on-line. Thus the printed form and my check for $85 were sent August 27, 2014 to the IRS by U.S. mail. On September 3 my check cleared so I knew the request had been received. One worry eliminated.

A month later on October 6th I received a letter from the IRS that I assumed was the long-awaited certificate. Instead it was an acknowledgement that my request had been received on September 3rd and that the requested certificate would be sent within 30 days. And indeed in another 30 days another letter arrived, but rather than the certificate it was another letter like the last one saying that the certificate would be sent within another 30 days. Shit.

The letter provided a phone number, which I now called expecting a long wait at the end of an automated list of choices. In fact, the wait was only about 20 minutes at which point Karen answered my call. “Oh my goodness. You should not have received those letters (i.e., we should not have sent those letters). Those were the wrong letters because there was a problem with your request.” She proceeded to carefully and politely walked me through the application form to correct the one or two things I had gotten wrong. The confusion resulted from the fact that I will as always file my business expenses and income on Form C of the 1040 rather than filing separately for the LLC. Blaw, blaw, blaw.

Karen gave me her personal business fax number (yes the U.S. government still uses faxes) and said that she would process it right away. As I no longer have a fax machine, I walked down the street to a neighbor’s with a fax and sent it off receiving the normal confirmation that it had been received. Ten days passed. Calling that number had been so successful the last time that I tried it again. After a one-hour wait on hold Ms. Douglas answered my call and assured me that my fax had never been received. A short, pointless discussion followed about the earlier fax and I finally agreed to send it again, this time to her fax number. I needed the exercise anyway. She promised to call me to confirm its receipt, which in fact she did saying that it was now fine and she would process it immediately and I should receive the certificate within ten days. I was excited by the progress, but reflect nostalgically on the 30-minute start to finish, all on-line, incorporation of my company in Maryland.

Ten days passed and it hadn’t arrived so a called again, this time with only a 15 minute wait (note to self: Monday at noon is a good time to call the IRS). Jane informed me that the document had been processed by Ms. Douglas and printed and would now be ship to the Utah center for mailing to me and should arrive within ten days!!! They don’t do this every day, she explained politely. You can’t make this stuff up. I took a deep breath and struggled to keep my voice under control. I reminisced nostalgically about the 30-minute start-to-finish (including delivery to my desk) incorporation of my little company in Maryland.

Jane quickly agreed with me that it would be nice for the Federal Government to catch up with the twentieth century (I meant the 21st century—but would settle for the 20th). Unfortunately, unlike the private sector, which is continually looking for ways to do things better for less, Jane and her boss have no incentive to do anything about the ridiculous process she described to me. The state of Maryland, which seems better organized and better managed, does at least feel a bit of competitive pressure from Virginia and other states, lacking at the Federal level. I am not about to move to Mexico or some other country over this.

The certificate—a one liner confirming my address – finally arrived on December 3, 98 days after my request. Now I can learn about how to get an Apostille and hopefully get paid. I assure you that I have not made any of this up. Please pray for me.

P.S. The State Department office of Authentication informed me by phone with no wait at all that I could not get an appointment (at which time the Apostille could be given while I waited) for 15 days, but that I could drop it off and it would be ready within three days. Sounds encouraging but I am not holding my breath.

P.P.S. As instructed, this morning (December 4) I drove into town to “drop off” my document to be authenticated and was informed that the drop off is only from 8:00-9:00 am — I was too late. Back tomorrow!!!

European Vacation Musings

Following a very enjoyable river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, and three days in Prague, Ito and I are now relaxing in Munich for three weeks before traveling on the Bob Mundell’s annual gathering of economists at his home near Siena, Italy.

This afternoon, while reading my first book on an iPad (my friend Michael Lind’s new history “Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States”) in our hotel lobby, I was intrigued by overhearing the hotel manager discussing some repair work with two tradesmen in English. Obviously the workers were not German. After the manager left, I was further intrigued by the fact that the workers continued to convers with each other in English even though English was obviously not their first language. However, as is common in Europe, it was the common second language shared by them.

Several hours later a third worker joined the first two and all three conversed in English. I overcame my natural reserve and called out to one of them. “Excuse me. You are all speaking English to each but English is obviously not your first language. Where are you each from.” “I am Iranian,” the obvious leader of the group replied. “The electrician over there is from Spain, and our IT guy there is also from Iran.”

I love such things. It makes the world more interesting. But it has also made Germany, two Iranians and a Spaniard better off as well.

It reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago in Dubai with an Arab citizen. Less than twenty percent of the residents of the United Arab Emerates (UAE) are Emeratis. Over 50% are Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, and Bangladeshis, whose second language is English. “Why is it,” I asked, “that you Arabs all speak such good English.” “We have to,” he replied in his pristine white thawb. “English is the language of international business and we are businessmen. In addition, it is the only way we can talk to the help.”