On Economics

Woman Receives Sentence for Welfare Fraud

Entrepreneur Defends Price Increase of Daraprim Drug

These two stories have the same plot – “person uses economic system unethically to their own advantage.” That one of them is filed under the website directory “crime” and the other under “business” only reflects the reality – the welfare fraudster is thwarted by the rule of law, and the biotech extortionist faces “the court of public opinion,” who pursue the case only for as long as clicks generate advertising revenue.

These stories reduce our thinking about economics to something like “humans are fundamentally self interested, so the only system which will cause a society to prosper is one in which it is in everyone’s self interest to make as much as they can.” This line of reasoning only works in the abstract, however – our daily experiences are filled with good, hardworking people who hit rough patches from time to time for thousands of complicated reasons. It’s also impossible to apply with any consistency – the benefit cheat is used as proof that such programs should be stopped, and the person driving up the price of vital drugs is merely an unfortunate side effect of a system to which there is no alternative.

In various parts of the world, people are wondering if there is an alternative. The reelection of Syriza in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labor party leadership in the UK, and the pace at which Bernie Sanders’ campaign is gathering momentum are all evidence of a willingness to challenge some basic ideas which have ruled the West for decades. In response, some are just putting their hands over their ears – when challenged about the lack of affordable housing, the UK Prime Minister explained the most important strategy to solving the issue was growing the economy, not doing something practical like introducing lower down payments for people who are planning to actually live in a house rather than rent it out for twice what people can afford. In the US Republican debate recently, the only thing more certain to get a round of applause than bashing the current administration was to use the phrase “I will never support a policy which makes it more difficult to do business in America.”

I have no idea where any of this will lead over the next few years, but I’m optimistic that there could be a more reasoned debate about these things. Maybe we could lose the assumption that profit rules the world, and that all of life is figuring out how to best build a society around that reality. Maybe flawed people with huge potential for good and bad elected by other flawed people with huge potential for good and bad run the world. We need systems which fight our tendencies toward laziness and greed, and help us when our lives are impacted by others’ similar tendencies. We don’t need systems which assume one is morally wrong and the other is inevitable.

A friend and I got into a heated conversation about this issue a couple of years ago which amusingly lead him to exclaim “It’s social darwinism!” quite aggressively to a surprised server who had come to refill our water glasses. That’s not particularly relevant, but it’s good to end on a joke.

On Keeping Things on the Table

My apartment is disappointing. I know this, because everyone who has ever been inside has remarked on one of its less savory elements, like the fact that I don’t own any tables. Or curtains. Or the fact that the windows don’t open. Or the leak in the ceiling.

This was all news to me – I have remarkably little awareness of the parts of the world around me unrelated to the task at hand, which is why my shoes are always untied and I have to rely on external feedback about my breath. But now others have pointed out that my home is unlikely to attract someone to spend their life with its tenant, I have been moved from disinterest to incessant complaining. How lucky for my friends.

Whenever I start ranting about this, someone will inevitably say “why don’t you just move, then?” This is a completely reasonable question, and I don’t have a good answer. Similarly, if you’ve been around me for any length of time, you’ve either witnessed me drink too much and talk/text unending nonsense, or you’ve heard me be frustrated by my tendency to do so, and an inevitable question of the same kind arises – “why don’t you just stop, then?”

Regardless of the inventiveness of my response, the truth is that if I’m not willing to take any of the more direct steps to fix those problems, then there are some things I consider worth more than their resolution. This isn’t wrong in itself – very few things are ultimate. I consider the lack of men’s 29” length jeans available for sale FREAKING ANYWHERE to be a significant problem, for example, but I wouldn’t want to pass a law requiring stores to stock them. In so doing, it becomes clear that for all my whining, I value certain things about a free market more than I value the convenience of being able to purchase clothes that fit.

This self-awareness of the way we communicate our values is missed from the public sphere sometimes, I think. One common economic conversation goes like this:

Person A: “Corporations are amoral, so we need to obligate them to contribute to the country and pay workers fairly through taxes and wage requirements.”

Person B: “But we can’t do very much of that, because they’ll just go to another state/country, and then what would we do?”

Person B would likely not say they think corporations rather than governments are the final authority in the world, anymore than I would suggest I enjoy beer more than I hate the consequences of drinking too much of it, but the options we consider “off the table” communicate more about what’s really going on in our heads and hearts than the words we say.

When nine people were shot in Charleston ten days ago, the first reaction of several was to say “we must not use this moment to talk about gun control.” Franklin Graham said the problem was not guns, but Hollywood’s corrupting influence. Rick Perry said the problem was not guns, but drugs. Facebook was full of well thought out political discourse, such as memes which said “no one blames the car in a car crash” and “Cain killed Abel with a rock.” Would changes in gun laws have made a difference in this instance? I don’t know the facts or the potential solutions well enough. But when a person’s first/loudest response to a shooting is to protect their right to keep and arm bears, it communicates more than just opposition to gun control. It shows the things they consider less important than maintaining the current levels of access to guns.

On That Speech from That Guy

No hidden fees! No contract! No one forcing you to eat lawn clippings!

Are you interested yet? Does it matter what I’m selling, when the terms are this good? Does it even matter if I know what I’m selling? Do you want to be forced to eat lawn clippings? Those are the choices – my nebulous shadow of an idea, or everyone being forced to eat lawn clippings.

I knew you’d come around.

This is roughly the proposition Ted Cruz offered students of Liberty University last week. Cruz’ speech announcing his candidacy was the first major announcement of the 2016 campaign, and hundreds in the Liberty audience applauded his every word. Almost 40% of Republicans polled this week said they would consider voting for him, twice as many as prior to the speech. I have three questions for them/you/pronouns:

Why are the accomplishments of a leader’s family important?

Cruz’ first 10 minutes were spent describing how his mother and father rose from poverty, prison, and vice into education, entrepreneurship and Christianity. I’m sincerely pleased for them, but I’m pleased in the way I am when people talk about their March madness bracket. I’m glad you’re excited. The difference is that (with a few exceptions) people aren’t trying to get me to change my worldview based on their ability to predict basketball results.

Cruz, however, wants us to believe that his presidency will allow Americans to pull themselves up by the laces of their Converse because his parents did the same. Unfortunately, you cannot simultaneously ask people to like you because your parents were good, hardworking Christians and ask people to like your vision of America where all you need is a work ethic to succeed. I’m not discounting the contributions parents make in instilling the kinds of values needed to contribute usefully to the country, but many of us have had great parents and become total train wrecks, and vice versa. It isn’t relevant to the discussion.

Why are platitudes to which we all can agree important?

“Imagine, instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth.”
“Imagine young people coming out of school with four, five, six, job offers.”
“Imagine that every single child, regardless of race, ethnicity, wealth, or zip code has a right to a quality education.”

I’m on board with the above quotes. Everyone who runs for office in every country in the West is on board with the above quotes. Perhaps a good rule would be that if every single candidate in a given race could make a particular statement, we shouldn’t applaud it from any candidate. If it’s something that Megan Fox could say if she ran for office, it shouldn’t be enough for a prospective president to gain approval.

Why do you trust someone before they have presented any realistic plans?

Toward the end of the speech, Cruz got slightly more specific about things he would do differently than the current administration:
– Repeal the Affordable Care Act
– Abolish the IRS
– Repeal Net Neutrality
– Repeal Common Core

You might agree with Cruz’ assessment that the current administration has failed in these areas – but he didn’t provide any alternatives, and these aren’t binary issues. “No regulation of healthcare, tax, communication, or education” does not solve the problems created by those issues any more than closing Facebook would have solved the problem that people believed they could “do their part” for American Sign Language by dumping ice water on their heads.

Politicians are often cornered into saying things like “I’d rather people voted for the opposition than didn’t vote at all,” and we seem to associate some virtue with lining up for the ballot booth. I think we can raise the bar a little bit this time. As we gear up for another 18 months of mudslinging, complaining about mudslinging, and some pesky voting at the end of it, let’s make our reactions to this campaign season about specific, positive policies, not personality, platitudes, or unfocused anger with the current regime. Let’s aim to see everyone proud not just to get something that says “I Voted”, but that they cast a vote informed by the specific policies they believe will make our country a better place.

We’re going to need a bigger sticker.

Tonight's Top Story...

Longer pieces never really go well for me on stage (the below is actually long for me…), so I’ve only attempted this once, but as the relevant news story has reared it’s head again, I thought I’d post my notes in written form.

The following is a dramatic reenactment of a recent news story.

Hey Bill, isn’t it great being up here on the 493rd floor of this building?

I don’t know Johnny, I’m getting kind of worried.

Why’s that Bill? Is it because he gave us both the same voices? 

No – something even worse. I’ve heard they’re going to implode the building. 

Oh no! What should we do, Bill? Or am I Bill?

I don’t know, I’ve forgotten. I think we need to get out of here… But I’ve been here on the 493rd floor all my life, since my mother gave birth to me.

Did she had the same voice as us? 

Probably. But the point is, we need to get out of here, leave the 493rd floor before they blow up the building. Let’s go as far away as I can think of, somewhere we will be safe during the implosion… Floor 490.

Are you sure we can get there in time?

Oh yeah, we’ll be fine. Plus, when we get there, there’s a vending machine!

Perfect! Yes! If we run away as far away as we can think of to floor 490 and eat all the food in the vending machine, we’ll definitely be safe when they implode this 10,000 story building.

-That was two bison, running away from the Yellowstone volcano.

A Hasty Ill Conceived Response to the Collegian

I’m not sure if Netflix has a “shuffle” button. They didn’t the last time I used the service, but that was about a year ago, and paying for a month just for the purpose of the blog seemed like an extravagance. But imagine with me for a moment that you can, with one click, serve up a randomly selected movie from Netflix’ vast catalog. Then imagine that you watch one third of it before turning it off and writing a review of the entire Netflix service based on this abbreviated, random experience. The results would not likely be worthy of a Peabody (or even a #ghostpee-body), but this was the strategy employed by Collegian staff reporter Haleigh McGill to review the Monday night Open-Mic Comedy at Hodi’s Half Note.

Fortunately for all of us, the 45 minutes that McGill endured included the excellent Richard Kennedy, who was rightly featured in the article. The character Richard slips into on stage is not only the perfect vehicle for his great lines but also some great crowd work, and he regularly accomplishes the difficult task of making an audience laugh at something against their will. I’m glad the writer liked Richard, and he was certainly the highlight of the show up to the point McGill and her collection of friends (whom I suspect included disappointed “interviewee” Brittany Carpenter) made their exit, but I’d like to suggest for a moment that maybe Haleigh missed the point.

Erik Lindstrom said to me once that “music feels authentic, and standup actually is.” I think he’s right. The immediacy of one man and a microphone, or one woman and a womicrophone, and an audience that aren’t expecting anything specific, creates the possibility for literally anything to happen. You might hear Dan Jones recounting a drunken exploit with such confidence that he seemed determined not to learn anything from the encounter, and succeeded.  You might hear French Accent mixing every type of joke imaginable together over the same two chords at such a speed that you don’t have time to decide whether or not you like them. You might hear Ryan Nowell dropping one perfect adjective after another, making you wish he’d follow you around and narrate your day, except that you wouldn’t get anything done as you’d be laughing too hard. Miles Harmony might say 25 monotone words over five minutes and leave the audience sure it was funny but unsure exactly why. And Bob Gaudet might hold the whole night together with well crafted, perfectly timed stories and an uneasy undercurrent that is difficult to define as more homicidal or suicidal.

Space and laziness prohibit me from mentioning the many other excellent comics who may or may not drop in, and may or may not be brilliant. Certainly some nights are slow to get started, and certainly some venues provide less than ideal circumstances – how Hodi’s manages to be hotter than the outside in the summer and colder than the outside in the winter, I’ll never understand. But the joy of standup – especially open mic standup – is that at any moment one comic could grab the whole room by the attention span and transform the evening. At Hodi’s for almost four years, and at several other venues across Fort Collins, this very nearly always happens, and it definitely happened in the later part of the evening that the Collegian reporter missed. Live standup is real, raw, and unpredictable, and the knife edge separates it from watching specials on Netflix. In open mic comedy… I was going to say “the view is worth the climb,” but that sounds too fortune-cookie. Maybe to contextualize for the Collegian I could say “the finished building is worth the construction,” but that’s far less likely to be true than my actual point. The laugh is worth the uncomfortable silence. And you will laugh.