Our Racial Problem

I was watching a discussion on TV and, as is common today, the topic of race and bigotry came up. Doesn’t it seem that this is an itch that we just can’t stop scratching? Anyway, the question arose as to how to distinguish between personal preference and bigotry.

In a free society, which is at least our aspiration, surely people should be allowed their personal preferences, at least as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of others. Yet exercise of this right is often perceived as bigotry. And in fact, the simple truth is that frequently this has indeed conflicted with the excluded people’s rights in some manner. For example, suppose I only want to live among others of my own race. Fair enough, but not if I prevent some people from purchasing a nearby home by restrictive covenants or even just discourage them by social attitudes.

Voluntary association with those like you is a common occurrence, and not just by the privileged in society. Look at the dining halls in any college or a business cafeteria. You will likely see black and white tables that exist by mutual consent, and both groups would be upset if that demarcation were broken. In almost all cases, this is simply a matter of comfort.

I am coming to the unhappy conclusion that our racial problem, at least as it is currently seen, is a relatively permanent condition, though in time miscegenation might help erase it. The reason is that personal preference is a fundamental human trait and it is often inseparable and indistinguishable from some sort of bigotry. And that’s too bad.

More Real Money

money_in_toiletAs Senator Everett Dirksen sardonically remarked about profligate government spending: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” I was reminded of this when I read the following disturbing news item.

More than 6.5 million Social Security numbers exist for Americans who are 112 years or older, a new inspector general’s audit found, even though there are only 35 people known to be older than 112 in the entire world. The audit came after a man attempted to open bank accounts using active Social Security numbers from people born in 1869 and 1893. The inspector general found 70,000 active but too-old Social Security numbers were used between 2006 and 2011 to claim $3.1 billion. (NPR)

For a small fee, say $1B, I will show them how to search their records for anyone older than any specified age.

The Social Security Administration maintains a Social Security Number Verification Service that purports to keep every active SSN in a searchable database. This service primarily exists to allow employers to verify employees but it is open to anyone in the public with a valid reason to use it. Like all massive databases it probably has deficiencies, but it would probably suffice for my task.

Please don’t tell Health and Human Services about this, as that might jeopardize my fee.

An All-Clinton Ticket?

Hillary Clinton Holds Final Primary Night Event In New YorkWhat if the Democrats nominate an all-Clinton ticket? Could they nominate Hillary for President and Bill for VP? At first glance this seems almost like a dream ticket, although it is by no means obvious that Bill would be interested in playing second fiddle when he has lead the orchestra for so long. More interestingly, is it even allowed by the Constitution?

I am no legal scholar, but the situation seems unclear and would almost certainly end up in a Supreme Court case. There are three constitutional amendments involved and, as is often the case, the precise wording of these amendments leads to uncertainty.

The 22nd Amendment says that Bill can’t be elected to the Presidency again after having served twice. But can he succeed to the Presidency under the terms of the 25th Amendment? That isn’t the same thing either operationally or legally, even though the net effect is the same. The 12th Amendment compounds the confusion. It defines the eligibility rules for VP. The candidate must be eligible to hold the office of President. Note that it doesn’t speak to how he attains that office. This amendment also adds another nuance. If both candidates on the ticket are from the same state, one of them will lose the votes of the state’s electors. But that is easily overcome. Dick Cheney did that in 2000 when he moved from George W. Bush’s home state of Texas to his previous home in Wyoming.

So perhaps this intriguing ticket might pass muster legally. Politically however, it is a fascinating possibility regardless of which political party you support.

More generally, I am personally conflicted by the 22nd Amendment. Certainly we don’t want an effective monarchy but do we really want to exclude the most obviously qualified candidates? A reasonable compromise has been proposed and I like it. Ex-Presidents should become lifetime members of the U.S. Senate, thereby continuing to provide us with their knowledge and expertise. This would require yet another amendment, the wording of which would no doubt cause future scholarly dispute.

The NASA Follies

Asteroid_Redirect_Mission_boulder_pickupConsider this scenario …

A group of top NASA executives and engineers are seated around a conference table for a briefing on a proposed mission.

A young engineer summarizes the plan, somewhat nervously: “Basically, we will send a probe to capture asteroid A0176-A and insert it into a stable low Earth orbit. Then we will mount multiple scientific missions to examine its geology thoroughly.”

There was a long silence. Faces were solemn and worried glances were exchanged. Finally a senior executive spoke up: “So, you plan to transport a planet killer from the asteroid belt and insert it into Earth orbit, unlike anything we have attempted before? Now, what could go wrong with that?”

The young engineer’s boss quickly intervened: “We have analyzed an alternative option that isn’t quite as ambitious but would still have real scientific value. We could pick a boulder off the asteroid surface and put that into orbit instead. It would be far less risky if orbit insertion failed.” He looked hopefully at his colleagues.

Finally, the grizzled old NASA chief spoke up: “To be clear, you expect me to tell the President that we want to spend $1.5B to find a rock and put it into Earth orbit? Meeting over!”

Now of course this is a fictional scenario. But something like this must actually have happened. This mission is part of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. But for safety reasons, the boulder would be inserted in a Moon orbit instead. The unfortunate consequence is that scientific missions to this captured fragment of an asteroid would be too expensive. Other than demonstrating that we can do Asteroid Belt garbage collection, mostly all we will accomplish is to give our Moon a mini-Moon.

The cover story for the press is that it will be “a stepping stone to Mars.”

Personal aside: I have worked on several NASA projects and have the greatest affection and admiration for their work.

The Oracle of the Fed

yellinWell, the Fed has spoken again, and it is as obscure as always. Yellin and her fellow Governors keep moving the boundary markers for taking monetary action. I think employment has them mystified. They initially set a target of 6%, which was the classic full employment level. As employment participation dwindled, they reset to 5.6-5.7%, then 5.5%, and it is now 5.0-5.2%.

We are evolving to an economy where many who would be expected to work simply don’t seek or need full-time employment. This shows up at young ages and in older ones too, for both of which there are adequate support cushions from family and government programs. Still by all prior standards we should have had demand pressure leading to wage growth and it isn’t happening. Meanwhile inflation stubbornly keeps threatening to drop from its current anemic level. That shouldn’t coincide with our exploding federal deficits, but it is. Something fundamental has changed and the Fed — plus everyone else — doesn’t understand it yet.

Regardless, GDP growth, inflation and employment are really not what is holding back the Fed. They are scared witless of the prospects, already in progress, for a strengthening dollar. That is a bit puzzling because a strong dollar is not necessarily bad news. In a strong economy it is actually a blessing. One must conclude that the Fed is suspicious that our economy is far more fragile than the data seem to imply.

But of course, the Oracle of the Fed always speaks obscurely, so who knows what they are really thinking?

Another Civil Rights Issue

I have seen statistics that provide a far stronger case for egregious profiling than the recent targets of the Justice Department, and I don’t understand why they are not addressing it first. It involves many more people than racial profiling and it has been ongoing across the country for as long as we have been keeping records.

How could anyone have failed to notice the targeting of males by police and their unfair treatment in the criminal justice system? In every jurisdiction, more males are pulled over by police; vastly more males than females are charged with crimes; and more than 90% of our prison population is male. This is true even though less than half the population is male in almost every area. For almost all crimes, males receive more punitive sentences than females even when the crime and the circumstances are essentially the same. When a policeman sees suspicious activity and both males and females are present, the treatment of males is usually more aggressive and police shooting incidents almost always involve males. Listen surreptitiously in any police station and you will hear obviously biased statements about the criminal behavior of males.

There is no persuasive evidence that males have a more criminal nature than females. However, this is often assumed through a circular reasoning based on the above statistics. This is entirely analogous to the case for African-Americans, so that black males are doubly discriminated against.

So, don’t you think we should do something about this evil behavior that stigmatizes a vulnerable minority? Males everywhere should speak up and demand equal treatment. We shouldn’t stop until the number of males and females who are incarcerated is more consistent with their proportions in the general public.

Happy April Fool’s Day, all!

The Higher Education Myth

Abandon-HopeThis is how the story goes. Higher education has been shown to be a path to prosperity. Those with college degrees historically earn more and have more stable and productive lives. Moreover, good citizenship depends heavily upon a knowledgeable electorate. The more young people who go through this process the better and it is a worthwhile government investment to facilitate this. In particular, children from less prosperous backgrounds with no family history of college education particularly need a helping hand. If some is good, more must be better.

Doesn’t that sound reasonable? Indeed, in principle it surely is. But, as with so many ideas, the devil is in the details. One problem arises from the belief, or perhaps it is the wish, that everyone can benefit from college. If we ignore cost-benefit analysis, no doubt that is largely true. But for many the hard fact is that it just isn’t a practical investment of time and resources. Moreover, and this is the crucial point, trying to fit square pegs into round holes has already done enormous damage to the higher education process. Those who could really benefit have suffered as the process has been degraded to accommodate the unqualified and unmotivated. The elite, highly selective schools remain largely undamaged and continue to provide educational experiences unsurpassed anywhere in the world. But many colleges have become Potemkin villages, providing fake students with fake educations leading to fake degrees, if they complete the process at all.

We have confused correlation with causation. Higher education doesn’t make people successful. Successful and intelligent people are more likely to seek and complete higher education and thereby to continue their success in life. Attempting to replicate this situation for the unqualified is to imitate a Cargo Cult.