Incentives Are Everything

A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a “This I Believe” presentation at the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls (WI) society. If you know me at all, you know that was a tough subject because I'm not much of a "believer." I found a few things that turned out to be more core to my belief system than I'd suspected and among that small list was "incentives." The study of economics has been pretty much a waste of air until the last few decades. For most of my life I've been in agreement with John Maynard Keynes who supposedly said, “Capitalism is the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.” Our current executive branch is consistently demonstrating that fact and the last four decades of American economics ought to be enough to put the last nail in most of capitalist theory. Market-driven capitalism tacks on a giant list of poorly designed incentives which work to damage democracy, decimate the ecology, limit personal liberty for all for a tiny percentage of wealthy and powerful bad actors, and promote illiteracy and ignorance in the general population. The mythical “free market” libertarians and traditional feudalists argue so irrationally for is just not a sustainable or just economic system.

What doesn’t work for business works just as badly for government. In our current irrational and poorly functioning “representative” system, unjustifiably powerful groups like the police, prison system employees, military, and government employees are isolated from their customers—the rest of us—by layers of union protection, political clout, and outright terrorism. When cops murder unarmed citizens, the only defense we have is the civil lawsuit. Convicting a cop of any crime, regardless of the evidence, is nearly impossible but getting a violent crime conviction requires all out magic. With that kind of insulation from responsibility and the soaring cost of police departments and their pension funds, cities are going broke trying to pay off the multitude of police misconduct lawsuits. “Dallas civil-rights lawyer Don Tittle says the increased availability of camera footage and shifting attitudes toward police are affecting cases. ’Up until recently, when it came to civil lawsuits, there were two groups that had a distinct advantage, where you had to knock them out to win. And that was doctors and cops. But with the advent of video, and the changing perception of society, I don’t think police are held in the same regard.’”1  Suddenly the cost of maintaining abusive police officers is turning into a major city budgeting problem.

P1-BU305A_LIABL_16U_20150715161211With the city government budgeting systems as they exist, that problem is unsolvable. For example, the Alberquerque, NM police department is the most expensive, lawsuit-wise, department in the country and has been under federal investigation and oversight often in the last few decades, but appears to be completely impossible to rein-in. New York City, between 2010 and 2014, spent $601M dollars settling police misconduct lawsuits. In 2015, New York City paid out $228M for police misconduct lawsuits. In 2017, New York paid $302M for the same kind of crap. That city’s 2018 police department budget is $5.6B or a little more than $101k per employee (~55,000 employees). Small towns aren’t immune to this kind of idiocy, either. "In Sorrento, La., for example, a newly hired cop in 2013 slammed into another car on a highway after going on a high-speed chase to catch a separate driver who was speeding. The driver who was hit sued. It was later revealed that the officer was already one of the town's most zealous issuers of speeding tickets, hundreds of which were later thrown out in court. That incident, combined with other lawsuits against the police department serving the small town of 1,500 people, prompted the city's insurer to drop its coverage. The town disbanded its police department shortly thereafter."2

The fix for this is to change the incentives, not to shield bad cops with even more anti-democratic police state Republican stupidity like the unconstitutional and anti-democratic House bill grossly misnamed the “Protect and Serve Act.” New York City covers the cost of those lawsuits out of the general budget, shifting all of the responsibility from the cops to the taxpayer. That is an example of a mindless system with no feedback loops to reinforce decent behavior or to inhibit misconduct.  The solution is to move the cost of settling these cases to the departments that caused them. If, for example, the NYPD had to pay $302M out of its budget to settle misconduct cases, that would result in roughly 3,000 fewer employees (at that $101k/employee cost). If it is true that the cops involved in misconduct cases are “a few bad apples,” the many good apples (if that turns out to be the case) would start cleaning up the department before their own jobs are on the line.

Like I said, incentives are everything. You just have to design them to serve a better purpose.

1 https://www.wsj.com/articles/cost-of-police-misconduct-cases-soars-in-big-u-s-cities-1437013834

2 http://www.governing.com/topics/finance/gov-police-misconduct-growing-financial-issue.html


How You Look at Problems Determines How You Solve (or don’t) Them

inside_the_earth_coreMy wife and I have had diametrically opposed views of how the world works for most of our 50+ years together. She is a fairly spiritual person. I’m not only not spiritual, but I dislike all forms of magical belief. For a lot of years, she was a traditional Christian followed by the Pagan/Gaia thing followed by something all her own now. I’ve been atheist my whole life, at least since I was a kid. For her, it is a motivational issue, I think. For me, it is a practical thing.

For example, we were talking about the global warming issue this morning. We somehow got into the whole “we’re killing the planet” conversation, which I do not believe is likely. Sure, if we managed to fiddle around with black holes and create one that gets out of hand (Can a black hole be “in hand?”) we might figure out how to destroy the planet. But if all we manage to do is raise the planet’s average temperature a few degrees the planet will survive just fine. Or we fire off all all 89,012 trillion tons from our 14,175 nuclear weapons, 92% of which belong to the USA and Russia, we might vaporize the atmosphere. The planet will still have a molten core and the ability to attract ice asteroids and other resources to rebuild its atmosphere. The planet will survive until something damages the core or, in about 5 billion years, the sun burns through its current supply of fuel and that calls it quits for our solar system. I think the key point in the global warming discussion should be not that we’re trying to “save the planet,” but that we’re trying to save our species. Now, I’m not a big fan of humans and absolutely believe that at least 90% of everything humans do is shit, but if humans want a target to shoot for it’s our own survival not the planet’s survival.

Ideepcarbonquf you look at this cutaway of the planet’s construction, it’s pretty obvious how little effect our fucking around will have on the life of the planet itself. We can certainly screw up that thin layer we live in, but the planet is totally unaware of our existence; let alone the universe.

My wife believes the planet is a living thing with some, or a lot, of sentience and intent. I don’t. I think the planet is just what we see it being: a rock filled with molten rock and minerals that lucked into a few ice asteroid hits providing the planet with water and an atmosphere; which has been burned off a few times by other asteroid hits and volcanic activity in the last few billion years. Likewise, my wife still clings to the idea that humans have something like an everlasting soul. I don’t. I think we’re just one of millions of life forms on this planet and in the universe that live and die and are as inconsequential as every other life form here or there. We’re as self-destructive as army ants and about as mindful of our environment and our place in it as that most destructive insect. No soul, barely sentient.

We’re both aware that our opinions on life and the universe are just that; opinions. Neither one of us is committed to the “rightness” of those opinions. So, the argument comes in whether one opinion is more useful than the other.

My kick against spiritualism comes from practical application. I think we’d be better served if we treat the planet like our life support system; like a spaceship that needs maintenance and careful resource management. If we get careless with either maintenance or resource management, we all die. If we let things go long enough, we won’t have the resources to recover and we’ll all die as a result.

The problem with spiritualism is that humans naturally take the easy, magical way out. While English political theorist Algernon Sidney wrote the words, "God helps those who help themselves", there is nothing like that in the dogma of any religion I know of. In fact, the reverse psychology appears to be more common and that allows people to pray to their deity to "fix" their messes instead of doing the work themselves. That is true to the point that when firefighters put out a forest fire, house fire, or whatever else is burning, religious people will regularly "thank God" for doing the work that they saw done right in front of their faces by other human beings. I don't know how stupid people can get, but that is damn close to impossibly stupid.

So, our argument is about which philosophy is most likely to cause humans to behave in a way that might extend our species’ lifespan and, ideally, the other species that share this planet with us. I don’t think any form of spiritualism will ever be helpful. My wife and, most likely, you will disagree, but I don’t think it will matter because we’re not a smart enough species to care either way.


Who Democrats Need to Be

"I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat." Will Rogers

I’ve used that quote to define my own politics for most of 50 years. While it’s true that most of the history of the Democratic Party is full of disorder and general stupidity, it wasn’t all like that. The Democratic Party that gave the country FDR and Henry Wallace was a lot more unified and a lot less concerned with bullshit. In 1933, Roosevelt desperately needed his Iowan farmer-intellectual Secretary of Agriculture New Deal star to bring order and discipline to the country’s collapsed and desperate agricultural economy. In 1940, Roosevelt dumped John Garner after the conservative VP opposed the attempt to stack the Supreme Court and ran against Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination. Roosevelt picked Wallace for the job and the Roosevelt/Wallace ticked won 449 Electoral College votes and won the election by 4,000,000 votes. Wallace was a practical Progressive who ran as a real Democrat along with Roosevelt’s more traditional ruling elite Democrat. The party hasn’t seen that many actual Democrats since.

That, however, is the solution to the party’s current schizophrenic lack of personality. The problem with what’s left of the Democrats is “the left.” If you read the stupid crap the DNC lists on its “mission statement,” you’d think the party’s purpose is to get anyone willing wear a DNC badge elected to any office they can afford to run for: “The DLCC's mission is to build and maintain winning, state-of-the-art campaign committees through a continuing partnership with legislative leaders, professional staff, and supporters.”

What the hell is that bullshit? The purpose of a political party is NOT to get elected, but to accomplish something useful for the country. Doing stupid, selfish, greedy, useless crap is why people elect Republicans. Democrats need to quit trying to appeal to every CEO, bankster, moderately liberal Hollywood actor or rock star, or, most importantly, any aspect of the usual crazy-assed left wing of the party. Let the progressives, LBGT’s, anarchists, BLM’s, socialists, communists, and whatever else has been swept up by the disorganized party of mostly losing candidates. If any of those groups can find a home or make one for themselves, they’ll be lucky to attract the usual 1% of the alternative vote; just like the Libertarians, Socialist, Communist, Progressive, Green, Independence, and the other responsibility-avoidance distractions.

Democrats, on the other hand, need to appeal to one group and only one group, the 91-99% of the American voter pool; working class Americans. Fuck their special interests, but everything that should matter to the 127 million working adults in this country should matter to the Democratic Party. Subtracting the 1-9% of that group who represent the faux-working bunch of executives, that leaves 126 million voters whose votes should be the exclusive property of a functioning Democratic Party.

The problem the voters have is figuring out who the actual Democrats are. Nobody, right or left, wants to vote for a Republican wearing a DNC badge. Harry Truman said, "Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for the real Republican all the time." I suspect that is true for real Democrats, too.


How Do You Resolve This?

Almost all of my life, Republican presidents have made incredible messes that they left for Democrats to clean up. The worst were Nixon, Reagan, Bush I & II, and, now, Trump. Nixon took a failing war and doubled-down on it along with making the USA a debtor nation for the first time in the country’s history. Nixon left the country divided, distrustful, more racist and more unjust than it was before he took office, and broke. Reagan was a knee-jerk reaction to a dose of reality President Carter administered to the nation and he set the country back at least two generations on so many levels it would take a book (The book I recommend is The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America by William Kleinknecht.) to detail all of his betrayals, corruption, and incompetence. Reagan tossed so many trillions into the military-industrial toilet that he made the national debt an international affair in 1983. Bush I just continued the stupid policies of his predecessor, including the amazing cast of nitwits who surrounded Reagan. There was a reason Clinton’s “it’s about the economy, stupid” resonated so soundly. Unfortunately, stupid has been breeding like rats since 1992 and they can’t even spell “economy” let alone comprehend any aspect of economics.

The only saving grace regarding that trio of idiots and traitors was that my generation was not responsible for their existence and power. Bush II changed all of that. He was the worst of my generation. Every step of his life was a train wreak: personally, ethically, and intellectually. He brought Reagan’s pack of vicious idiots back to Washington, bumbled the Katrina response, fumbled the country into two endless, multi-trillion dollar wars, and deregulated the banksters until they crashed the world’s economy. Now Trump, another of the worst from my generation, is dragging the country closer to fascism every day. He has made the country a laughing stock, which could be a good thing, and alerted our allies to how divided, incompetent, and alienated the American public has become. Trump is a waving flag telling the world, “Americans are fools, we are arrogant and incompetent, we are self-absorbed, and we are unstable and dangerous.”

In 2016, I ran for local political office; for city council. There were several excellent people running for those offices (and a couple of not-so-excellent faux-conservative wannabes), including two young Red Wing citizens with big ideas about how to move Red Wing into the 21st Century. At the national level, the election seemed surreal, with neither candidate attracting much positive attention. Our US Representative race was between a nitwit hate radio Republican, Jason Lewis, and a Democrat, a woman, who had a long history of public service and competence. While Minnesota voted for Clinton, the outstate idiots in the state went Republican for practically every office. My country and hometown voted for Trump and Jason Lewis. To that point, I had no idea where I had moved, or who my neighbors were.

I lost my election, but because I spent the last two months of the campaign being far more involved in my wife’s cancer treatment than the election results I had almost no emotional connection to that “loss.” As the years have moved us further into Trump’s world of fools and traitors, I am even less attached to or interested in what happens in Red Wing and Goodhue County or even Minnesota. That is not natural for me. I have been politically active and interested since the 1960’s. Some part of me still wants to care, if just out of habit, but I mostly don’t. For the 18 years we lived in Little Canada, Ramsey County, Minnesota were considered our house and home to be the same entity. In fact, my wife and I are very fond of our house, but we’re ambiguous about our Red Wing, Goodhue County, Minnesota home. We are constantly considering flipping the place and heading west toward civilization; if we could identify an actual civilization in this declining empire.

One of my fellow failed 2016 candidates packed up his family, his businesses, and himself and left town a year after the election. He might not publically admit that the reason he left was that he felt his Red Wing neighbors were dangerously ignorant and vicious people, but that is essentially what he admitted to me. If I were in his position, I would do the same thing. If I had young children, I would not want them anywhere near neo-Nazi Trump voters. Our old home country and city overwhelmingly voted for Democrat candidates, including Clinton. We felt like we had jumped away from the table and into the stove. The majority of our old neighbors saw through Trump and Lewis as easily as though those two con artists were fine crystal. Our new neighbors fell for the con and carefully took aim and shot off their own feet and the feet of their children.

A candidate is supposed to represent all of the people in his district and the country. Republicans don’t believe this and, like Jason Lewis, they only speak to and for “their kind,” but Democrats and any elected official of good conscience have always given voice to the concept of trying to work for everyone; even if they failed or were disingenuous. To this point in my life, that would have been my intention also, but no more. Now, after Trump and Lewis, I am clinging to the barest capacity to care what happens to Trump voters. Because of that, I don’t have the slightest inclination to submit myself to either a political campaign or the misery of weekly city council meetings if I were to “win” an election in this community. This is the time in my life where I could apply what’s left of my energy and talents to working for my country and community. I just wish I had one of those that I believed in enough to make that effort seem worthwhile.