Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone! Celebrate as you please! Newton's birthday (by the old Julian calendar)! Hanukkah (or however you spell it)! It's the Winter Solstice, a time when celebration is needed to ease the gloom of winter.

There are two classes of people I do not tolerate very well, sorry.

One is the anti-religion nerd-grinch who refuses to celebrate Christmas because it's the mythical birthday of an imaginary man-god that no sane and rational person could ever believe in.

The other is the religion spastic who bleats, "Put Christ back into Christmas," which is really double-speak code for, "Shove everything else out of Christmas."

Our winter solstice holiday season, complete with the make-believe man-god's mythical birthday, is believed to have dated to the 23-rd century BC if not indeed earlier, if certain ancient Sumerian and Elamite writings eventually prove to be genuine. With a tradition like that, no person in their right mind would refuse to celebrate.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bailing Out the Auto Industry

Cars, the most hopelessly inefficient form of transportation ever invented, have done wonderful things for us.

Car ownership has enabled people to live in the outer suburbs, far from their jobs, stores, schools, and places of social life. This makes outer suburban land more potentially useful and therefore more expensive, thus feeding the forces of land speculation.

As a byproduct, this car dependence has required large parking lots in inner cities, thus requiring stores, industries, schools, etc. to acquire more land for these parking lots. This feeds the forces of speculation in inner city land.

So now that we've become so totally dependent on cars for all our transportation needs, our dependence appears to justify propping up the car industry when they begin falling victim to the very same land speculation that they, themselves, encouraged.

Perhaps we might change our perspective a bit. Maybe we could go ahead and let the car companies fail. Then many people will become unemployed and many dwellers of outer suburbia will be stranded in their remote luxury mansions without cars.

That would be horrible! But look! There's an obvious solution! Modify our tax structure to increase the location component of property taxes and decrease taxes on buildings, incomes, sales, and everything else.

This would cause land usage patterns to become more dynamic, enabling people to move closer to their work, stores, schools, etc. so that walking and bicycling would become practical for more of their transportation, thus decreasing their need for cars. The more dynamic land usage patterns would also permit the establishment of business forms that are more relevant to people's actual needs, thus re-employing the workers displaced by the failure of the car companies.

This tax shift, described in the nineteenth-century book Progress and Poverty by Henry George, looks like it would be very easily implementable within almost any reasonable governmental form. When I receive my property tax bill every September, the location value and building value are already separated out and re-added back together again, so implementing the tax shift looks like it would involve leaving a step out rather than adding a step. And if the income tax could be eliminated, yet another burdensome administration could be eliminated.

Hey, don't tell me it can't be done!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Seeds of Destruction

Back when world communism was alive and well, the communists taunted us and warned us that capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction. Their observation is true, of course, but they failed to notice that communism also sows the seeds of its own destruction, the very same seeds, in fact, and by pure chance their seeds germinated first.

So what are these seeds of destruction?

Every elementary economics textbook begins by explaining that all wealth is made from land, labor, and capital. When an entrepreneur first establishes a business, he spends his initial investment on land and capital, then hires employees to perform the labor.

This initial investment lumps land and capital together and refers to the composite as the Means of Production. Capitalism places the Means of Production under corporate control and communism places the Means of Production under government control. Is one inherently better than the other? Should we care?

The need for the entrepreneur to lump land and capital together for investment purposes leads to the error of failing to see the fundamental difference between land and capital. Land is part of the universe. No human being, alive or dead, made it. It's a Gift of God (if you're a believer) or a Fact of Nature (if you're a non-believer). Capital is made by living people, and the quantity of it is a product of human decisions, thus capital bears a much closer kinship to labor than to land.

And therein lies the Seeds of Destruction. Whenever land and capital are treated identically for taxation and administrative purposes, land becomes subject to uncontrollable price inflation that eventually renders land such a large percentage of the corporate assets that it becomes more profitable to cut back production instead of increasing production. Downsizing happens. People lose their jobs. Newly unemployed homeowners default on their mortgages and banks are left holding the bag with properties that can't be sold for the amount of the outstanding balance.

In short, we have a depression.

Is the current economic downturn a mere recession that will soon turn back up again? Are we headed for a depression that will take years to pull back out of? Is this the depression that will cause total collapse of the entire world order as we know it? I'm not going to make a prediction, and I'm not going to believe any prediction anybody else makes, either.

Whatever the next presidential administration tries to do to fix our economy, it's doomed to fail unless something is done to rein in land speculation. The land value tax suggested in the nineteenth-century book Progress and Poverty by Henry George would be a very good place to start.

Now, if we do finally get wise and find a way to stop uncontrollable land-price bubbles, should the government own and administer major capital investments, as recommended by communists and socialists? In some cases, perhaps yes, but in other cases it won't make any difference.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Uncaused First Cause

Everything must have a cause, therefore there must be an uncaused first cause, which must be God. Right?

First flaw: Many alternatives are possible, which the promoters of this proof commonly either handwavingly dismiss without an adequate explanation or leave entirely unexplored.

Second flaw: In order for something to be uncaused, it must be part of the primordial realm of the uncaused, consisting of only things that exist only because their nonexistence does not exist. I've never seen any description of what sort of God might be plausibly included in this realm.

Third flaw: In order for something to be a cause, it must have causative powers. I've never seen anything in our theology that explicitly credits God with any specific causative powers beyond the hand-waving statement that God is omnipotent, which is meaningless.

The primordial realm of the uncaused might plausibly include such things as the validity of logic, the truth of the axioms, the workability of mathematical patterns, the feasibility of certain dimensionalities, and many other things which, if true, would have precisely the sorts of causative powers needed to cause at least some of the features of our universe, but theologians have unexplainably omitted these attributes from their various concepts of God.

Theologians, you've got a lot of work yet to do!

Friday, October 31, 2008

An Open Letter to Our Next President

Dear Next President, whoever may win this election:
Prepare ye this day for the monumental challenge of the century, our economy.  For this, I have two suggestions.
First, converse with a few real estate salespeople.  Take note of the many times they recite the ever-popular real estate mantra, "The three most important things about a location are location, location, and location."
Next, read the nineteenth-century book Progress and Poverty by Henry George, which explains what all this location business is all about.
You see, all human activities, without exception, have one thing in common, that is they require a location.  At a minimum, in order to do anything you have to be someplace while you are doing it.  Some locations are better than others for certain activities.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that all meaningful investments contain a major component consisting of the market value of their location.  The influence of land speculation artificially jacks up this location value component, making the entire investment appear more valuable than it really is, thus we end up with investment "bubbles" of various sorts.
When the location value component reaches a certain point, land usage patterns become less dynamic because of the greater amount of money that needs to be borrowed for a land sale, thus decreasing the efficiency of industry and leading to economic stagnation.
Mr. McCain, your party has traditionally believed that the Invisible Hand envisioned by Adam Smith will, if government simply butts out, magically cause more wealth to be created.  How do you expect this to happen if the Invisible Hand is chained to the dungeon wall of land speculation?
Mr. Obama, your party has traditionally believed that there's plenty of wealth and all that's needed is equitable distribution.  If you redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, how do you propose to prevent the forces of land speculation from re-redistributing it back to the rich?

Mr. Next President, whichever of you should win, you've got your work cut out for you!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Same-sex Marriage

It's time for me to present my opinion of same-sex marriage, a topic of which I know nothing, so I'll freely admit that my own opinion is total hogwash.
I know nothing about gay people, so I have no idea whether the institution of marriage is right for them.  That's for them to decide.  I'm not qualified to deny them something that might or might not work for them.
All arguments I've ever seen against same-sex marriage appear to fall into three categories: first, it's not the way we imagine marriage was done a thousand years ago therefore we can't do it now; second, somebody's religion says homosexuality is an Abomination Unto The Lord (or some such theological jibberish); and third, extending marriage to a new category of people will destroy it in some vaporously unfathomable way.  I consider all these arguments utterly spurious.
Now I'll admit that same-sex marriage is quite a jolt to my concept of what's usual, but I see no material harm in it.  Now I realize that the institution of marriage has been custome-fine-tuned for the benefit of opposite-sex couples, but whether or not it would be workable for same-sex couples is something only gay people can decide.  If we let them try it, and if they try it, and if they find it doesn't work for them, then fine, they'll at least have the opportunity to find out for themselves whether they can make it work.
I suspect it'll be quite a few years before Maryland considers legalizing same-sex marriage, but if it ever does come up for a vote during my lifetime I'll vote for it.  I'm not qualified to vote against it.
Now, whether same-sex couples should have children either by adoption or by donor insemination depends on how the children will be raised.  That's a topic for sociologists to examine scientifically, and that's outside of my field of expertise.  I'll abstain from presenting any opinion.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Terrorism or Religion?

Suppose a headline reads, "Hoodlums smear bloody gang symbol on government property!"
Wouldn't we be outraged?
Well, what if the "hoodlums" are nuns and the "gang symbol" is a cross?  Here's the story.
It appears that religion is receiving a special privilege here.  Tax exemption is another special privilege.  The right to ring those out-of-tune gongs in church steeples on Sunday morning without getting arrested for excessive noise is another special privilege.
And in my community, every year at noon on Good Friday, a group of Episcopal and Catholic priests and parishioners block traffic for a cross-carrying parade without bothering to get a parade permit.  They've never been arrested.
The first of the rights promised in the First Amendment is freedom of religion.  To me, that means freedom to practice your religion, not freedom to annoy other people with your religion.
Now, what do you make of our religious politicians?  It doesn't bother me a bit for politicians to be religious.  What bothers me is that they fall all over each other trying to prove how religious they are in order to get votes.  That's not a reflection on the politicians' integrities, it's a reflection on the moronic mentality of the American public.
If an atheist, or a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a believer in Zorb the Sacred Crocodile were to run for public office, he'd barely get a vote, no matter what the superiority of his qualifications may be.
Now, I'm all for freedom of religion.  But I'm not for special privileges for religion.

Monday, October 6, 2008


When sane and rational people try to bail out a sinking boat, they bail the water out.  When our fine government economists get in on the act, they bail more water into the boat.
Here's what appears to be happening.  Banks loan money to homeowners to buy houses and the land the houses are sitting on, and to businesses to buy business equipment and the land to locate it on.
When the forces of land speculation raise the prices of land, more of the money loaned goes to buy the land instead of the houses and business equipment.  It becomes more expensive to become a homeowner or home renter, and more expensive for a business to start up, expand, or relocate.
So land speculation becomes a sort of Ponzi scheme which can only go so far.  There comes a point at which home ownership becomes impossible for most people, and at which businesses can no longer be profitable, and whoever has bought a piece of land at the latest price, expecting to make a profit when the price goes even higher, is left holding the bag.  If the landowner defaults on the payments, the bank is left holding the bag.
Now, business stock prices are based, in part, on the business's total assets, including land.  If land prices get to the point where further rise is impossible, stock prices tumble, leaving the current investors holding the bag.
So, along comes Big Daddy Government with seven hundred billion dollars to buoy up the banks so they can stay in business to loan even more money and enable land speculation pressures to jack the price of land up even higher, thus imposing even greater burdens on homeowners, home renters, and businesses.
Nobody seems to be noticing that the only people profiting are the financial institutions loaning money to land speculators, and to those few land speculators lucky enough to sell before the Ponzi scheme crashes.
You'd think we ought to bail water out of the sinking boat by taxing the location component of land values, not pouring more water in by funding increased land speculation.  Such a tax, gradually imposed, could eventually replace portions of our current taxes on income, sales, imports, and property imporovements.
I'm not sure any of our current leading presidential candidates ever heard of such a thing.  Well, maybe Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader, but they seem to be out of the running at the moment.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

How do you shake a hole?

When radio was first invented, radio hams noticed that the laws of physics describing how radio works appear to be mathematically similar to the laws of physics describing many other topics in physics. Several years later a Nobel Prize winning physics professor named Richard Feynman wrote a set of physics lectures based on the mathematical analogies among all the laws of physics.
Here’s just one example of how the laws of physics appear to be mathematically analogous across many topics in physics.
Several years ago a tornado ripped through my back yard and took out one of my 90-foot-tall spruce trees. By some astonishing miracle, the house, garage, and both cars parked outside, were untouched. The fence on the far side of the property had one 8-foot section smashed out by the tree falling on it, and that was easily repaired.
Getting rid of the tree was easy. I simply spread the word round and about the community that there was a vast quantity of firewood available to anyone who could cut it up and haul it away. A few days later, a caravan of pickup trucks and chain saws rolled up the driveway and into the back yard and within a few hours the tree was gone.
But how do you get rid of a stump? Well, I suppose you dig. So I dug, thus giving me a five-foot-deep ten-foot-diameter hole with a 1000 or 1500 pound stump sitting at the bottom of it. But now, how do you get a stump out of a hole?
When you shake a can full of rocks, marbles, wood chips, and other random objects, the lowest-density things rise to the top, and, within a density range, the largest things rise to the top. I had all the dirt that was dug out of the hole, and I had a large quantity of chips of old concrete and fragments of old bricks that I’d just love to get rid of. There was certainly plenty of stuff to fill the hole if I could just pour it all in and just shake the hole somehow.
So I began putting just a few concrete and brick fragments and shovelfuls of dirt at a time into the hole, and using my digging bar as a pry-bar to rock the stump back and forth. With each rocking action, the stump was lifted a bit higher, just a fraction of an inch at a time. In about two hours, the stump was sitting on top of level ground, ready to be rolled over to wherever I wanted it.
Now I realize this example doesn’t prove much, but I was led to the method by the realization that there are many similarities between seemingly different things. Any conjecture I might make about metaphysics or theology needs to take into account the observation that the universe appears to have some sort of dimensional unity and is unlikely to be the result of some sort of God making separate decisions about how to design the different parts of the universe.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

How Green I Am (not)

I really ought to insist that my family become more environmentally gentle.  Our lifestyle is simply too gluttonously wasteful.
First of all, our house is much larger than we really need.  Although it has full insulation and storm windows, it's a very old house and still has many leaks and cracks.  We heat with conventional air-source heat pumps, more efficient than most other heating systems, but less efficient than ground-source heat pumps.  We keep our house temperature in the low-to-mid sixties in the winter, and mid-to-upper seventies in the summer.  We try to tip off visitors in advance that it would behoove them to dress for the season.  At least we manage without heat for the garage.
We've replaced some of our light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, but several of our fixtures require candelabra base bulbs, for which wattages sufficient for our needs are not yet available in compact fluorescents.
We have five widely separated water-using zones: kitchen, laundry, and three bathrooms, all served by a single water heater, thus requiring lengthy water-running before the hot water comes.  Attempts to insulate the hot water pipes have proven futile because of the high population of mice, groundhogs, and opossums, all of whom just love the delectable flavor of water-pipe insulation.
We own two cars, neither of which gets particularly great gas mileage.  At least with careful driving we're getting about ten to fifteen percent better gas mileage than the EPA estimates.
We've been trying to do most of our shopping using canvas shopping bags brought from home to minimize getting plastic bags at the stores, but some stores simply insist that we must take their plastic bags instead.  For the most part, we don't argue much.
We make some modest effort to sort out the trash that our local landfill defines as "recyclable" and put it in the recycle bins, but I'm not sure they really recycle it.  I think they just weigh it to determine some arbitrary "percentage of trash recycled" for eligibility for some sort of federal funding, and then just throw it back together with the general trash.
We compost rottable kitchen garbage.  So far, the neighbors haven't complained.

So, are we doing our part?  Basically, no.  Better than some people perhaps, but still not enough.  Somehow, we need to improve.