Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Brown beats Coakley, the Massachusetts....whatever

Maybe the people of Massachusetts were expressing a referendum on the policies of the administration and its allies in Congress. Maybe it was just a case of a horrible candidate versus a decent candidate. Maybe they weren’t aware of the impact this election may have had on all of our futures. It doesn’t matter. The result is the same. I’m sure there are opinion pieces and articles across the web and in the media with titles like “The Boston Massacre”, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World....”Something....something....something...Boston Tea Party” and other historical references meant to evoke images of a revolutionary event in Massachusetts. It’s predicable, but in this case, not unwarranted. In fact, I’d like to see this event get a name all its own. I wont presume to provide one here, but I will give a description of what I saw. Maybe someone else can name it.

The group that took control of both houses of Congress, and the White House in 2008 was not just the Democrats. It is a particular faction of the Democrat party. Some would call them liberal or progressives, but those are labels, and labels can change. The important thing is the vision. This faction truly believes that a central authority, comprised of the best and the brightest (as determined by the best and the brightest), could better provide for everyones needs and desires than a free market. The only things standing in the way are the Constitution and the free markets.

The previous administration handed them control of the finincial industry, the auto industry and had already declared a financial disaster looming, of ?Biblical proportions. They had a blank check for both cash and legislation. They belonged to the party that had veto-proof majorities in the House and the Senate, had the majority of Governors, many major media outlets in their corner and the full support of most of Hollywood and University staff.

Then, liberal lion, Senator Ted Kennedy dies. A temporary seat warmer is appointed to save a spot for the Democrat that will be chosen by the party machinery to take Senator Kennedy’s place. The honor is given to Martha Coakley, a loyal soldier who will vote exactly as she is supposed to. It’s not as if the Republicans are going to present a challenge in Masschusetts. But alas, Coakley turns out to be a train wreck. She runs a horrible campaign and manages to verbally offend almost every interest group in the state. Her record as attorney general was less than stellar. Meanwhile, back at the Republican camp. There’s no point wasting a big name contender on this race. Republicans aren’t going to win the Kennedy seat. Go ahead and let an actual human being carry the banner. As it turned out, Scott Brown did strike a chord with real people. So much so that he breezed past the Democrat before the party knew what hit them.

The Repoblicans have not taken over Congress. But the one-party super majority is over. Republicans can’t be completely ignored and perhaps more importantly, Democrats are going to take a much closer look at the what’s going on within their own party.

What if the administration and its allies had proceeded without hinderance? The President promised to “fundamentally transform America”. We had administration officials suggesting that the media be much more tightly controlled. Chavez’s takeover of Venezuela was praised as a great achievement. Chairman Mao was quoted as a favorite philosopher. I don’t think most people pay near as much attention to these things as I do. I’m just telling you what I saw. Many new policy initiatives have been killed before they got off the ground, simply because people found out about them, and to date, we still have freedom of speech. We the people still have weapons at our disposal. The most formidable are awareness and the truth. Bad ideas are not exclusive to one party. We must pay attention and hold our elected officials accountable, regardless of party. This election was one in a series of roadblocks on the way to Utopia, and it’s a doozy. But it was close.

Government oversight of the nation’s health care industry was the holy grail. There’s an old American saying; “Your right to swing your arms stops at my nose.”. It means that if your behavior does me no harm, I have no legitimate objection. It’s a Cliff Notes version of individual rights in a free society. If you make health care a national mandate, to be provided by the government, you have provided a “legitimate objection” for just about any behavior. If everyone is being taxed to provide for everyone’s health care, than everyone’s behavior has a direct impact on the financial welfare of everyone else. It would be lawsuit heaven and a license for the government to legislate everything.

I’ve often said in my posts, although I didn’t like the way the country was headed, I remain optimistic because this country has the capacity to turn on a dime. I think we’re making that pivot. Enough people at least agreed that something is not right, that they broke party ranks and decided to pull the hand break.

This battle, that many are still unaware of, is not between Republicans and Democrats. It’s between individualists and collectivists. The collectivists are vastly outnumbered, but they had stealth going for them. The problem is, once you reach the top, you can’t operate in the shadows anymore, and ultimately, the people still rule here.

Thank you Massachusettes.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti Relief Requests Illustrate Core Capitalist Principal

Both government and private relief agencies are asking people to send aid to Haiti in the form of cash, rather than stuff. Why? Because, especially in a situation where the distribution channels are tough at best and non-existent at worst, it's far more efficient to have the end user determine what they need than to deliver goods and hope they can make use of them.

This is true of non-profits and government agencies handling a catastrophe and it's true of individuals in a free market. Keeping the focus on Haiti and natural disasters, perhaps we could see a new type of disaster relief organization emerge.

What if there were a non-profit relief agency who's mission were to enable commerce at the street level? It could provide things like safe storage for goods and currency; a safe place to buy and sell goods, where you could set up a table or a box, display your goods and not have to worry about getting beat up or shot; safe transportation; safe meeting areas, some kind of dispute resolution service and other things we often take for granted that would enable trade at an individual level. It could work closely with government and other relief agencies to police fraud and theft in its marketplace(s). Essentially, it would be a security service, but primarily focused on securing safe, free trade among individuals.

This would not take the place of other forms of relief, it would be in addition to it. Of course, you couldn't cover the whole country rapidly. But even a single, safe marketplace would enhance the efficient distribution of basic necessities and other goods.

Markets and economies are all about trade and resource distribution. Disaster relief efforts have demonstrated that the more options you put in the hands of the end user, the better the result and the more efficient the distribution. Government, non-profits and free markets all have legitimate, productive roles in a free society. We need to unleash the potential of free trade at all levels, not to the exclusion of everything else, but for the benefit of everything else.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Time to embrace proper profiling at U.S. airports

Is there any bigger prize for a Jihadist terrorist than an Isreali plane or airport? Probably not. Yet, in thirty years there has not been a successful attack on an El Al plane nor has a plane from the Tel Aviv airport been hijacked. One would think that in a post-9/11 world, we might want to consult with Isreali airport security and see if we could pick up some pointers.

However, there is a great fear of profiling here in the USA. I don’t believe it’s so much a matter of being afraid of being labelled “racist” as the fear of liability. Isreali airport security profiliing is not about race. It’s about behavior. Obviously a 22-year old from Saudi is going to attract a bit more attention than a 64-year old Irishman. But the Isreali’s don’t strip search every 20 something Arab. It’s not necessary and would only serve to alienate paying customers. What they do focus on is conversation, speech patterns, facial expressions, eye movement, body language. Security is both uniformed and covert. Agents engage people in trivial conversation. They are trained to be attentive to things that don’t make sense. Ask a similar question twice during the course of a lengthy conversation. Get two different answers. That’s a red flag. It’s similar to the type of security at major casinos. Everyone is being watched by someone, yet most aren’t conscious of it.

So why don’t we employ some of the same techniques here??Because it would necessitate the most feared thing in the American system of justice; the judgment call. Here in the most litigious society on Earth, the most dangerous thing you can do is employ logic and reason on your own. In Isreal, if you’re pulled out of line and subjected to higher scrutiny and turn out to be innocent, you get your things together and proceed to your flight. Here, you call your attorney and start preparing the lawsuit, and you’ll probably win or at least settle out of court. So, we attempt to make all security procedures a matter of uncontestable fact checking or strict adherance to detailed procedures. We confiscate shampoo, remove shoes and ban nail clippers. Furthermore, there’s no rhyme or reason to who we subject to higher scrutiny. The more random the better. We don’t want to be accused of singling somebody out. Then we’d have to explain our reasoning. Reasoning is frowned upon.

The other drawback is training. You can’t just hire somebody off the street, give them a two-week orientation and expect them to be an expert profiler. Learning to read the “tells” of a would-be terrorist takes continous and long-term training, as well as sound reasoning ability. It’s expensive and time consuming. High tech equipment is also expensive, but much easier to deploy quickly. That’s why it is favored. Also, there is less liability exposure from a false positive from a machine, than from a human being.

Another, I think lesser, factor is that there are a lot of people in America who have convinced themselves that the Jihadists only want to destroy us because they don’t really understand us. It’s an appealing prospect. It simplifies the situation considerably. All we have to do is show the Jihadists how cool we really are, and everything will be groovy. The fact is, the Jihadists see the direction that the “civilized” countries are taking the world in and they don’t like it one bit. If Mr. Rogers were our president, they’d still want to take him out. Democracy, equal rights, tolerance of opposing views and lifestyles are simply not consistent with the world they’d like to create, and they never will be. Lax security in the name of demonstrating our civility is just going to get more people killed.

We can effectively employ profiling without being racist and without turning air travel into shear torture. We need to consult with our Isreali friends, casino security experts and perhaps some of the most successful poker players in the world. Bombs don’t blow up planes. Crazy people do.

Monday, January 4, 2010

DMV Purgatory, a health care reform preview?

I decided to go register my new (used) Jeep today. I figured an hour or so, early in the afternoon, leaving plenty of time for other errands. So my son Max and I headed out. There was a line going out the door. I got number 708. They were on number 640 at the time, and there were two other, higher priority categories; military and renewals.

Before I start venting, let me be clear. This is not about the folks who work at the DMV. It's just an illustration of the nature of an operation in which customer service is of no consequence. There's no downside to frustrated customers. It's not like you can take your business elsewhere.

Anyway, after an hour and a half of waiting, I noticed the ATM machine. Why is there an ATM machine in here? These guys take in hundreds of dollars per minute. They must take plastic. I'd better ask. Nope. Only cash or checks, but don't worry, there's an ATM. It's not actually working, but if it were.... No problem. At the rate they were going I could drive to any ATM in the state and still be back before my number was called. So, off to the nearest gas station. The first one's ATM was also out of service. The second one worked. Back to the DMV. They had served exactly one more person in my category by the time I got back. Another hour and a half and my number finally got called. I felt like I'd won the lotto. That is, until the nice lady informed me that I needed to get a VIN verification first, since I bought a car with out of state plates. "Don't worry", she assured me, "we're open until 5pm". So, off to the nearest car dealership for a VIN verification. What does that entail? Well, the nice young lady copied some information from my title (the same title I had handed the lady at the DMV) onto a different piece of paper, asked me to read off my odometer numbers and charged my $20. She never so much as popped the hood. Back to the DMV. At least I didn't have to wait in line again. Just three hours and 45 minutes after my arrival, I left with my new plates. The title will arrive by mail in 6-8 weeks. Total cost, about $140 (the car is 16 years old).

How would a for-profit, competitive environment have been different? First of all, there were about 6 to 8 unmanned stations. A competitive enterprise would have done the math and figured that if each employee is taking in well over $1,000 per hour, and you have room for more employees, it's probably worth the expense. Also, how about on-site VIN verification. It's a five minute transaction at $20/pop. Mo money, mo money, mo money. These things even make sense from a political standpoint. How much productivity (and therefore tax revenue) is lost due to people spending half a workday at the DMV?

I suppose there's an upside, if we turn health care into a non-profit bureaucracy. We wont have to worry about people running to the hospital or the doctor's office every time they have the sniffles. If it's as torturous as the DMV, they'll have to drag people to their health care provider, kicking and screaming, or wait until they lose consciousness.