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A habitual technology addict and skeptic. Hopelessly addicted to politics, but without anywhere to call home. Other topics: Education, Religion, Philosophy, Freedom, Responsibility, Innovation, Literature, and anything else that strikes my fancy.

January 21, 2015

Discernment and Discrimination

Discrimination is a much maligned word. People use it most often to describe unfair or hostile treatment of broad groups of innocent people. Whole sections of our federal code address the evils of discrimination. Millions of people have been victims of discrimination when seeking employment, attending school, searching for a home, or even where they shop.

However, discrimination may not be exactly what we think it is. And, it may not be all bad. Think of a related word: Discern. What does it mean? dictionary.com say it means "to distinguish mentally; recognize as distinct or different; discriminate". There it is again. Discriminate. So what does that mean, in a dictionary sense. Again, dictionary.com says it means "to note or observe a difference; distinguish accurately". So, discrimination is when we accurately distinguish the difference between things. That doesn't sound all that bad, so where does the problem lie?

To address this, we will again go back to dictionary.com, but do another entry. It says "to make a distinction in favor of or against a person or thing on the basis of the group, class, or category to which the person or thing belongs rather than according to actual merit; show partiality;". This sounds less nice. The real problem here is the partiality, and ignoring actual merit. Our laws specifically talk about discrimination, but discrimination can be good, as long as actual merit is recognized.

We have laws that say we can't discriminate on the basis of certain group memberships. The list of groups so protected has grown, and will continue to grow. Then we have other laws saying some discrimination in favor of certain group members is required. I couldn't agree more that we should avoid discrimination against a class of people without regard to personal merit. But what about when we discriminate against that personal merit. What if we decide that the specific qualities, traits, and characteristics of a specific individual are completely unacceptable, or at least inferior to some other alternative.

I think we all must do this in some degree or another in many aspects of our life. I see this in hiring whenever I see hiring done. Companies want the best employees that they can afford. Likewise, employees want to work for the best employers. We have to make such judgement calls in many aspects of our lives. There are a few, however, that can become very controversial very quickly.

Take dealing with neighbors for example. If you live in a neighborhood, and someone moves into the neighborhood that changes the nature of this neighborhood. What if it goes from being a place you loved to live to being a place you are looking to move away from. What kind of things might this new neighbor be doing that could make such a change. What if they are dealing drugs in what previously was a very child friendly place. What if they are a hoarder that fills their yard with such massive piles of junk that you begin to have major rodent and insect infestations. What are your avenues of recourse. Do you just move away and abandon your once wonderful neighborhood and take the financial hit that comes with such circumstances.

In some places, there have been local statutes which address these issues. A common phenomenon in real estate is the use of Home Owner Associations which enforce codes, covenants, and restrictions with the ability to file leans against and foreclose on homes for behavioral problems in neighborhoods. Some cities have created neighborhood preservation services which try to regulate these problems.

But what if your neighbor is just a jerk. What do you do then. I guess you are back to moving. What if all the other neighbors feel that same way. Generally speaking they have no recourse. But perhaps they should. Now, it isn't fair to foreclose and take the property of someone just because you don't like them.

But here is a crazy idea. What if the neighbors could get together and if a high enough percentage, like, 80%, decided they wanted some other neighbor to be forced to move, they could do some kind of forced buyout? Of course, they should probably have to pay a premium for the inconvenience, like maybe 15 or 20 percent. The neighbors would have to front the cash for it. There would have to be legal protections and a very specified process to go though, but, then, the neighborhood might be able to protect itself against deterioration, even if the problem was not a health or safety issue.

Now that I have presented such a nice little fix, now lets view what are ways it could go wrong. First, lets just assume that the hated neighbor is hated only because of race or religion. Is it fair they should be kicked out of where they live just because of discrimination? Also, what about those that rent? Should they have a say? Could a landlord be forced out because of bad tenants? Should they be able to? What are the ramifications? Might we end up with completely segregated neighborhoods? Most of our neighborhoods today are quite segregated. Would it be any worse using this system? Invariably, this subject, whatever side you find yourself on, is ripe for abuse. If it were implemented somewhere, there would have to be a lot of safeguards to protect against abuse. However, by not having such a law, we do not get rid of abuse, we just make it less visible. Under such a system, perhaps, the real benefit would be bringing existing abuses and persecutions out in the open.

I am not saying I think this is the ideal system, nor am I saying I favor unmerited discrimination. I do not. I am just saying that the current system is not working. It would be interesting so see a city, or small state, or even a small country institute such a policy for a trial period and what it would result in. It might turn out bad, but it might actually turn out with less unmerited discrimination than we now have.

January 15, 2015

New Checks and Balances needed.

The US Constitution was one of the most revolutionary documents in history. Many of the ideas it enshrined may not have originated with the founders, but it was the first time they were put in place as a foundation for government. One of the most important and revolutionary ideas it put in place was the concept of checks and balances between the different branches of government. It has protected us and kept our country going, even in some of the most difficult of times. Until now. It isn't that the checks and balances are wrong, but that they have been replaced, undermined, overruled, and ignored.

The function of checks and balances serve several purposes. First and foremost, they are to keep each part of government from getting too powerful. This applies to the factions of government as well. It usually isn't a good thing to have too much power in too few hands. Checks and balances should keep power distributed. Government should be a slow process. It should be hard to create new laws, and easy to get rid of all but the most foundational of existing laws. This is the role of checks and balances. The problem is that now they seem to be broken.

Not only do they not seem to be working between the branches of the federal government, they also don't seem to be working between the federal government and the states, between states and communities, and between all the levels of government and the people. We need a renewal and fresh re-commitment to checks and balances. Not only that, we need some new checks and balances that correct the most abused places. Here are some ideas:

Federally, we need term limits all around, a line item veto, and a balanced budget amendment. And congress should get to pick undersecretaries in the departments (or something that gives them a better check on the bureaucracy). Both congress and the president need some checks on the courts, starting with term limits on all judges. The ability to overrule court declarations or to at least bring the affected laws back into the congress automatically. Also, the court should have to do their job and rule on the basic constitutionality of each law and section before it is implemented.

The states should have the ability to overrule the federal government if enough states pass the same resolutions. Also, state courts, if enough were in accordance, should be able to overrule the fed courts. State bureaucracies should have to administer any programs within the states.

Locally, the same kinds of checks that states should have on the federal government should exist between the local government and state government. Finally, all laws, policies, decisions, and so forth should be abolishable by petition of the populace, upon majority rule. The populace should be limited to eliminating existing laws, policies, and decisions, and not creating new ones.

All officers of government at any level should be subject to recall. Federal officers should be removable by those they represent. This should extend to senators in a special way, in that state government should be able to recall them, in addition to the citizenry of the state.

These ideas for new checks and balances are just off the top of my head, and perhaps the exact implementations are flawed and need to be adjusted or switched to something else, but the point is, we need to fix the checks and balances, in order to keep government of the people, for and by the people,

July 26, 2013

The Startup: Best option for retirement.

So, I am 42. I have no retirement. I had some at one point, but had some brilliant idea that if I fixed my house up (cause otherwise it would have either fallen down or been condemned) then, it would be a pretty good place for my family to live and we would have a decent amount of equity built up. So I cashed out my retirement and by the time I got the place fixed up, most of our equity evaporated in the housing meltdown, and my company which serviced the real estate and mortgage industries kind of went with it. Fortunately, we were able to sell before we lost the place, but we got a lot less out then we had put in, even though we bought a major fixer-upper and it was a pretty decent place with a little bit of key work needing to be finished on it when we sold it.

I know, long sob story. I am not the only one who lost just about everything in this downturn. We moved to Texas looking for work, which never panned out, and ate through what little we had left. We finally ended up in my parents basement and I picked up an online consulting gig. We managed to pay off all of our debt with the consulting before I got a regular job. It doesn't pay that bad, all things considered. But it doesn't have any retirement benefits, no options, no future. I should probably have opened up a IRA or something by now, but I haven't cause we have been catching up on years without insurance other things where anything that could be put off was. So, back to where I started. I am 42, and have no retirement.

Funny thing. My father was exactly at this same point when he was my age. He went and got a job with a big mega corporation, that put a decent amount into a 401k. That lasted about 10 years, and then he got laid off in his early 50s. He was able to land a similar position with a much smaller company, but it was big enough to have 401k support as well. He put in his time there and retired at 62 1/2. Turns out, what he saved wasn't enough. They have social security, and a little bit from his retirement savings, but big things keep eating into their principal. He needed at least double what he put aside, if not triple.

So, here I am in a similar situation, only no 401k. I make enough, and have no debt, but I don't have much extra. I also have no equity in a home or real estate anywhere. So, I have been figuring what I am going to need for retirement. Trying to figure out what my best options are. Where I live is very close to work, but doesn't have the lowest cost of living. The schools are good, but still have the typical problems public schools have. In any other direction from my work at the same distance, the cost of living stays about the same, but the schools are not as good and some of the neighborhoods can be quite creepy. I have 6 daughters, so, I get a little paranoid about safety sometimes. I can lower my cost of living if I go far enough away, but then the commute becomes very long, and I don't really save much.

If I were to try to get a comparable job with another company in the area, I could probably get better pay and a 401k, but when I started to do the math, I found myself looking at the same situation my father has found himself in. He worked himself nearly to the bone and when he finally retired, he doesn't have enough. So, this led me to think about what my options are, and how each of those options might affect my eventual retirement. I looked at doing contract work and freelance work. I looked at setting up my own consultancy. One option was to find a better job I could do with a much lower cost of living. There were only 2 options I came up with that had an expected outcome that exceeded my expected needs. All of the other options would use up the next 20 years of my life and leave me short of what I need.

Both of the positive options had to do with startups. First, if I were to come on as a very early founding team member or early key-hire, and the company had a successful liquidity event after 3 to 5 years, I would probably have more than enough cashable equity to cover my needs and then some. This is even more the case with the second option, where I am the founder of the startup, and it also eventually gets to a liquidity event. If it were successful, it wouldn't have to take the next 20 years either. In both cases, it is not a sure thing, but it is a big risk.

I have done startups before, but there were lots of things wrong with how the business was set up. One of which, they were primarily service oriented where I was exchanging my time for money. There is only so much you can get when you exchange your time for money. Sure, there are a few (patent lawyers?, brain surgeons?, industrial spies?, former presidents?) that can charge very high rates, but I am not one of those. While I can make a decent living doing doing service oriented work, it will never create wealth like a successful startup that has a product can.

So, since startups are not a guaranteed route to success, and the other roads are dead ends, what is to be done? Well, make sure you pay attentions to the mistakes you make, and learn from them. The thing that makes startups the best option is that, you are not limited to one. Even successful startups have a tendency to be on a short time table. A solid liquidity event often is within the first 4- 7 years. Even when it isn't, startups are very quick to adapt compared to established companies. And, then there is the whole lean iterate and pivot approach. One startup, many shots on goal. If it isn't working, take what parts do work, and try something different with them. Sounds easy right. Well, if it was, there would be tons of successful startups out there. Oh, wait, there are. Still is easier said than done. Just don't quit. Kind of a bit harder with a large young family and a day job to support them. I guess my iterations just have to move slower. But, fortunately for me, I have never been short on great ideas. I just need to get one to the point that its greatness is readily apparent.

If I can do that, I am sure I can create enough wealth and get to an adequate liquidity event. That will take care of my retirement needs. Even if my retirement looks a lot the same as what got me there. The difference, I won't be financially dependent on it's outcome, and I might just get there a lot sooner.

July 12, 2013

Self sufficiency, the global economy, and 3D printing.

For a long time, I have had a dream of being self sufficient. I would like to have my own land that is paid for, generate my own electricity, raise my own food, provide my own materials, and pretty much live without having outside expenses. Yeah, I know, that certainly does not seem practical in the current day. Especially when taking into account high technology and our interconnected economies and lives.

But, it gets me thinking about the concept of self sufficiency. Self sufficiency can apply to more than just an individual or family. It can apply to towns, counties, regions, states, and even countries. It certainly applies to our planet. If we can't get it here, we don't get it. That could change one day, but we are a long way from mining asteroids and living on other planets. On smaller scales, though, self sufficiency is largely discouraged in the world.

Historically, that hasn't always been the case. For example, not that long ago, every family who lived in the Kingdom of Tonga was required to grow a garden. They had to grow a certain amount of food to take care of themselves. Even though they still had trade, and bartered things back and forth, the policy was set to make sure that each island was able to take care of itself, which for a bunch of small islands which are prone to be hit by hurricanes, can be important. Still, the storms did come, and could sometimes destroy all their food and wipe out the population of an island, but this policy was a strong factor in avoiding famine and want. It also made sure that people were contributing to society.

Today, areas that are not self sufficient in a regional sense, are more prone to disasters and famines. They might receive help from outside, but if they don't have local resources, recovery and survival are more difficult.  True, we have lots of charity, but isn't the best charity helping others provide for themselves.

I suppose the proponents of the global economy would disagree. They want everyone specialized, and only producing their specialized goods, which are then sold the world over. Technology and the costly manufacturing plants needed for modern cars, computers, and so forth require immense investment and concentration of resources to be viable from a business perspective.

Even more so, globalism has embraced the idea that all people should be active consumers. An example of this is a recent policy from China. They want to bring the peasants into the cities and make them part of the global economy. The idea is they will have jobs and be active consumers. Currently, these people are very poor, but are marginally self sufficient. True, they have no benefit from technology and are without much that most of us in the modern economy consider essentials. On the other hand, they produce most of what they need. Might globalism be more efficient in producing what they need to survive. It might, but it will sacrifice any form of independence they have, and eliminates diversity.

The downsides of globalism exist on both the personal level, such as the loss of independence, and at the global level. If the world needs a certain commodity, and it is made too uniform, either in the place it is produced, or in what is being produced, the risk becomes much higher that it will be disrupted. A classic example is the banana blight of the 1920's. The banana that people sold was called the Big Mike. Commercial growers wanted to sell that one cause it tasted best. Unfortunately, it was a monogenetic crop, and a single fungus wiped out the global production. Fortunately, it was not a staple crop that kept large populations alive. Today, we have massive homogenization in crops, as certain seed companies seek total monopolies of major food crop seed production. Corn, wheat, oats, and to a lesser degree rice and beans are all being subject to this process. At some point, these monogenetic crops will be wiped out by some kind of disease that targets some uniform defect or weakness. Then we will have world wide famines and all the horrors that come with it. Technology is being used to create and strengthen globalism, but while it does make some very wealthy individuals, it doesn't necessarily help the poor.

However, technology might also hold the solution to these problems. It revolves around a different approach to manufacturing. Specifically, what is being called 3D printing. We are still a ways from being able to do this, but if each community had the means of manufacturing anything they can get the raw materials and the plans for, it would change the balance from massive investment into huge centralized facilities to localized production of everything but certain raw materials. Certain raw materials are by their nature scarce, and located in adequate concentrations in only a few places in the world, but the rest, the bulk of the materials could be produced locally. Sure, the designs that are used for those machines are not going to be locally produced, but if I could run down to the local 3D manufacturer and have them print up my new smart phone or kitchen appliance or perhaps even my custom fit name brand running shoes, and pay them for the goods and be on my way, my local economy would benefit. True, the designs and services like the custom fit design used for my running shoes would have to be provided elsewhere, but that is why the internet and 3D printing have to go hand in hand. And it lets product designers reach a much broader market without the manufacturing headaches. It might even help encourage people to consume more intelligently. In being closer to the source, people often appreciate it more.

When this is really available, then the local economy can be highly self sufficient, while still being part of the global economy. Local economies would still have to produce or purchase raw materials, but the overall commodities become much simpler, and with it, much more resilient to economic disruption. Not to mention, wouldn't it simplify life?

June 28, 2013

Caring for the poor. Teaching them to fish might not be enough.

We have a lot of poor people in this world. But what is meant by poor can mean a lot of different things in different places. I really don't thing anyone would disagree that a single mother in Central America that has only a piece of dirt with no electricity, running water, toilets, or even a roof overhead is poor. One of my neighbors recently went there trying to help the extremely poor, and met this woman. She has about as close to nothing as one can get. She just wanted to have enough food to keep her and her 2 year old son alive for another week. I read many articles about poor people in various parts of the world who just want food. That is truly poor.

There are other kinds of poor. We have an ongoing debate in this country on how to help the poor. Our federal government has dozens of programs to help the poor. We spend unfathomable amounts of dollars trying to address the problem of America's poor. Unfortunately, the more of these programs that get used, the fewer that do all they can to work their way up out of poverty. It doesn't seem to mater how much we give them, it doesn't raise them out of poverty.

I suspect, there are several factors involved here. The first is opportunity and it is a double edged factor. There are many in the extreme poverty that simply do not have opportunity. There are many in fact, even if they knew 'how' to fish, could not feed themselves as they have no access to the fishing waters. Before we start teaching people how to take care of themselves, we need them to have access to the means to take care of themselves. The other side of opportunity applies to those who have the opportunity to life themselves up, but who have a better opportunity to just take the hand outs and not have to work for it. I am not saying the poor in the US don't work. Many of them do, but there are those who do not. Our means testing is very imperfect, and often those who get the most help, don't need it nearly as much as those to don't get the help. I have know quite a few families over the years whose expertise covered which forms and programs to leverage to get a maximum payout from the government.

The second factor is motivation. Those extreme poor in places like Central America, Africa, an so on would do just about anything to improve their situation. They work harder than just about everybody on the planet when they have opportunity. They have motivation. They lack opportunity. They also lack skills and training. If they have the chance, the will get the skills and training. The flip side is that those with robust social programs don't seem to have the motivation to work hard to improve their situation. It isn't that they don't want better. They do. But if they get too successful and trying to improve their situation, they will reach cutoffs for the programs they are using, the their success will ultimately penalize them and leave them worse off than they were before. They are motivated, but motivated to become better at utilizing government and other programs which provide for their needs. They are motivated to avoid too much success.

It is really tragic that this dichotomy exists. We need to find a way to have programs that taper better. That don't penalize those who are finding success. And, we need to find a way to take the resources we dedicate to the problem of poverty, and use it more effectively. Whatever the solution, it should be simple to administer, and difficult to defraud. And most importantly, it should be easily copy-able by those parts of the world where the truly extreme poor and in abundance.