Friday, March 29, 2019

Visiting Column # 12 -- Shall We Teach THIS, Please?

We are subjected on about a weekly basis to factual errors in economics on the part of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the "honors" graduate of Boston University in economics and, until recently, bartender, who appears to have sucked the oxygen out of contemporary political discourse.

This leaves us to determine if the biggest downer is that the people of her district in the Bronx couldn't come up with anyone better than a bartender to represent them, or for the poor Economics Department up there at BU, that gives degrees "with honors" to someone who apparently can barely count change.  Or, worse, that their degree is so useless that six years later their honors graduates are reduced to tending bar.

Or, perhaps, the Democrats, who are stuck having this ninny representing the current thinking of their party.

Either way, this all sort of led me to the thesis of this piece.  You don't have to have an economics degree, even from BU, to know that when you chase Amazon out of town and claim the tax break "can be spent elsewhere" as if it exists after chasing away the jobs it would produce, you're showing a total lack of understanding of what you are supposed to have studied.

But do we actually think that most incipient high school graduates from the class of 2019 would be able to explain why her logic is totally blank?  I don't.  I don't think so because I wasn't taught that sort of thing as a high school senior in 1969, and I'm pretty sure that the left has sufficiently drained any remaining unbiased economics training out of contemporary curricula 50 years since.

Now, I don't think that we have to mandate a full year of economics for high school students, but with the "block scheduling" more prevalent in today's high schools, featuring half-year classes, it would seem that we could provide a semester's curriculum on "handling money for life" that would not only help teach teenagers about micro-economic concepts like debt, savings and compound interest that affect their family, but perhaps some macro concepts about business, taxation and tariffs so they understand the terms.

There is one specific lesson that I believe spans both the micro and macro sides, that I think could be taught in two sessions and which would have immense benefit to every student, even if it is NEA union members doing the teaching (ugh).

That is the notion of the value of labor.

I'm on record as having espoused the notion that people should be paid not what they need, but what their value is to their employer -- within reason, of course ("reason" includes the value of longevity, the prevalence of available labor, the niceness of the employer, etc.).  That value is the fundamental driver of wages, after all, and it would be extremely helpful if children came out of high school with an understanding of that -- seeing things, albeit briefly, through the eyes of the employer.

My first professional job was for $11,000 a year as a programmer for the old Burroughs Corporation in Boston.  But before that time, I had made (in no order) $3.00 an hour behind the desk of a bowling alley, $3.00 an hour working landscaping, $2.50 an hour behind the desk of a different bowling alley, $3.00 an hour sweeping up a cabinet-maker shop, and $8,000 a year as the statistician for the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Massachusetts (which I don't regard as "professional" since I did only clerical work).

No one taught me this lesson, but I came to understand, osmotically, that the reason that I wasn't paid more than I was, was because my work wasn't really worth more to the people paying me.  I could have done a brilliant job behind the desk of that bowling alley, but it wouldn't have generated any real amount of new business for the place that I could claim credit for -- my job was to keep things going and avoid problems.  Avoiding problems was worth $3.00 an hour in 1971, and if I didn't take it, some other kid would.

What, I would ask, if today's high school graduates had at least a fundamental understanding of business accounting?  Not that they have to get the notion of debits and credits and double-entry stuff and the like, but at least to understand the difference between an income statement (or P&L) and a balance sheet.  In other words, to know what an asset or a liability is, and why having a high income doesn't mean, a priori, that you are wealthy.

If they came out knowing that "tax breaks for the wealthy" is an oxymoronic concept, since we don't really tax "wealth" except for property taxes, that might be nice.

If they came out knowing that a business can have high revenues but not be profitable, that would be nice.  Top line, bottom line ... that sort of thing.

Mainly, though, it would be great if they came out with enough understanding of how a business makes profit.  How it earns money but has to expend that money on labor, rent and operating expenses, and if anything is left, well, that's what "profit" is.  How the amount left after rent and operating expenses determines what kind of salary budget can be available, and how that becomes the real driver of wages in the private sector.

And that the private sector operates under different guidelines from the way government works, mostly.

If our next generation applies for a job with the understanding that what they will be paid stems not from how big their mortgage is, or how many kids they have, but rather what the business has available to pay employees, well, that would be a winner.

Because then they would understand that, in order to earn more, they would have to make the connection between the service they provide their employer and how that service produces more revenue or lowers costs.  If a better job brings in more revenue to the company, then it can be rewarded with a raise.

It seems so simple, but if even honors graduates from Boston University in economics don't grasp that concept, then perhaps we need to find a way to get it across in high school.

I'd love to teach it.  May I, please?  Oh, wait.  I just did.

Copyright 2019 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at www.uberthoughtsUSA.com, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at bsutton@alum.mit.edu or on Twitter at @rmosutton

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Visiting Column #11 -- Where a Third Party Could Actually Happen

If you go back to the very, very first column on this site, you will be aware that I have believed that there is no such thing as a "moderate"; that people's opinions on a variety of issues assort so readily into two poles that it is impossible for someone claiming to be "moderate" or "centrist" to have sufficiently popularly-supported opinions to have a third party congeal around him.  Or her.  Or whatever (it is 2019, after all).

Never, however, did I account in that well-reasoned position for the possibility that a third party could indeed materialize, as long as it was not in fact an attempt at some form of centrism, but actually one which planted its flag to the distal ends of the scale.

Specifically, I am observing the curious dissipation of the Democrats.  The party that was once a mishmash of union types, people between 20 and 30 whose brains hadn't yet developed, urban black voters, etc., has mishmashed itself into an odd group today.

The Democrats have always tried to represent themselves as for the "downtrodden" in society, trying to pit themselves against the Republicans, whom they portrayed as the party of big business.

Now, in order to do that, they have been continually adding new versions of "downtrodden" -- where it was once women and black people, they have been gradually adding new presumably aggrieved groups.  Those groups now include Muslims, gays and lesbians, transgender people, illegal immigrants, people with every psychiatric disorder under the sun, and the psychiatrists who keep adding newly-described disorders to that list.

Of course, that's a problem.  For example (and there are more), it's not anti-Semitic to say that Jews in the USA have voted heavily Democrat over the decades, even when it was not in their best interest to do so.  And when there were hardly any Muslims in this country to speak of, that was not an issue.  But now there are, and these two historically antagonistic groups are not cohabiting well under the idyllic tent that the 2019 Democrats claim to be, particularly when it comes to Israel.

The Democrats' response has been to try to widen the door to that tent even further, and that has furthered the bottom line argument of the left -- that Government is the source of all solutions, and if you vote Democrat and for big government, you will get taken care of.

In other words, whoever you are, we of the left will give you whatever you want -- free this, free that -- and create a socialist paradise to get there.  Rainbows.  Unicorns.  Sort of like that "Imagine" song that I always hated.

Now, that old party, the one with union types and the like, well, they know better than to believe that kind of crap, but they're also historically antagonistic to voting Republican unless it is an exceptional situation -- Ronald Reagan on the 1980s, or Donald Trump in 2016.  They might vote for Joe Biden in a primary, but they can't support Bernie Sanders, or Kamala Harris, or Spartacus, or Pocahontas, or "Beto", or pretty much the rest of the current Democrat candidates.

And it won't be Biden, an old white guy, getting the nomination of a party that is trying to find a half-black transgender Muslim female abortionist to run, as if they're trying to win a government contract by checking every preferenced group.

Every single one of those candidates is pushing further and further to the left, promising everything for free even while ignoring Constitutional guidance.  And in that drive toward socialism, what passed for mainstream in the Democrat Party is wondering what hit it, including Nancy Pelosi, who is trying in futility to run to the head of the stampede to look like she is leading it.

That is the point.  There is a fertile ground for a new party, and it is not in the fields of the old Democrats but in those of the new ones.

Here is the prediction, or at least something I thing could easily happen.  The Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders or one of that type, and get defeated in 2020 again.  This time, realizing that they can't keep trying to blame the election on Trump and going all Mueller on him, will look inside, and the split will be permanent.

One or more of the losers in the primaries, and possibly including the losing nominee, will realize that they can't stay old-time Democrat.  A New Socialist Party, further out than traditional Democrats, will be the answer.  This third party will leave the Democrats and will quickly pick up all those aggrieved groups and split them off.

They'll even win some House seats and possibly a Senate seat or two in places like California and Massachusetts, depending on what happens to the Democrats remaining.  And we will have three parties.

Except that the third party will be an extremist one as opposed to a centrist one.  I think it is not inevitable, especially given that the mainline Democrats in power today will realize that they'll lose power completely, and God knows they're only about power.  They'll fight hard.

But much as people both calling themselves "Democrats" are at a state of verbal war regarding issues like Israel, the Democrats of 2019-20 are inevitably splitting, and I believe it is the socialist wing that will be what leaves and creates its own "tent."

Let's look back in a couple years, shall we?

Copyright 2019 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at www.uberthoughtsUSA.com, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at bsutton@alum.mit.edu or on Twitter at @rmosutton

Monday, March 4, 2019

Visiting Column #10 -- What the Tax Cut Pays For

I have now done my taxes for 2018.

OK, I didn't do them myself; we have an accountant prepare them since I am a sole-proprietorship business, as a private consultant to a small number of defense contractors.  When the tax law is overhauled, you're better off ensuring that the law is being followed, especially when the IRS has already audited you once.

But inasmuch as I used to do taxes when my best girl and I owned a tax-processing business a few decades back, I always go over my return after it is prepared.  So I like to think I am astute enough to take a hard look at the changes in tax laws over the years.  In particular, I looked at the difference between what my household's income and expenses were this year under the new tax law, vs. what they would have been under the law for tax year 2017.

Well, surprise, surprise.  Had I had the same figures the previous year -- and for the record, I pretty much did -- I would have paid well over $4,000 more if President Trump had not pushed through the reform in the tax law.  In other words, had Hillary Clinton been elected, my family would have been demonstrably $4,000 poorer, and that money would have been in the hands of a rapacious Congress that would have spent it on a host of things I disagree with.

I suppose that, as a proportion of income, I am in line with most filing Americans, certainly those who are independent business types, in the improvement in my tax posture vs. the old law.  But interestingly, I wanted to put my benefit in perspective.

You see, as I wrote a number of times a few years back (including here, the most fun piece), I am still recovering from what Obamacare did to my family.  As you will read if you follow the link, we were quite comfortable with the health insurance policy we had up through 2014, when the worst aspects of Obamacare kicked in.

We were quite healthy, and therefore had a fairly low-priced, high-deductible policy that had worked well for us.  Since I did not have employer coverage (being independent), I had to go find my own policy, and did indeed obtain a family policy that worked.  In 2014, the premium was $550 a month, and it covered a 63-year-old couple.  Just as we wanted it.

In 2015, however, we were not so lucky.  Obamacare, passed a few years earlier, had finally kicked in, the Jonathan Grubers of the world having helped Obama ram through a lapdog Congress the notion that people were too stupid to decide what coverage was appropriate.

Where we had the plan we wanted in 2014, that policy was now illegal for our insurance company to offer in 2015.  We could only buy one of three offered in Fairfax County, Virginia, where we lived.  That was it.  The least expensive of the three was $1,090 per month for the two of us, that high partially because we now had to pay for coverage we neither wanted nor needed -- even Gruber would have to admit that a pair of 64-year-olds didn't need maternity coverage, and certainly not pediatric dentistry, given that at that time our younger child was 34.

But we had to pay for both, and between that extra, useless coverage and the lack of competition in our county, we had to pay through the nose until mercifully we turned 65 in 2016 and could switch to the coverage of Medicare -- which we had been already paying on since 1974, but had not yet received any benefit previously.

In just that year and a half, my wife and I paid about $9,200 more, because of the Obamacare law, than we would have had the law never been passed.  And here is the real crime in all this -- that $9,200 didn't go to the Government.  Nope -- every penny of that additional cost to my family went to the insurance company, Aetna, Inc., which happily sold me a policy for thousands more than I needed or wanted.

In case you were wondering who privately was thrilled when Obamacare was passed, you can start in Hartford, where the suits in the insurance industry was doing cartwheels.

So tax cuts.  OK, the way I look at it is this: The government cost me $9,200 in medical insurance premiums I should never have had to have paid, by passing a law that now, with the individual mandate gone, is probably unconstitutional.  I want that money back.

And now, with a different president in office and some shiny new tax laws in place that actually encourage businesses to grow and expand, and carry the economy even beyond the heights that President Trump has already brought it, well, it's my turn.  As long as Congress doesn't mess around with the tax law, somewhere around May of 2020 I will have broken even, and the tax law will have paid me back for what Obamacare took from me.

Needless to say, my individual case is being replicated nationwide.  Thank God.

Copyright 2019 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at www.uberthoughtsUSA.com, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at bsutton@alum.mit.edu or on Twitter at @rmosutton

Friday, March 1, 2019

Visiting Column #9 -- The Performing Arts and the People

OK, I haven't written for a while.  This piece has the kind of title that might get a few more people to read it, than if I titled it more in line with its topic.  But it is going to be a more interesting, or at least curious, read than a more precise titling would have suggested.

The "arts" fall into two broad categories, in one way of slicing it.  There are the -- I don't know, "productive arts", where there is a tangible product as their outcome, like a painting, a book or sculpture. People come to see the product and marvel or jeer, accordingly, but save any decay, the product lasts and is the same thing tomorrow as today.  The "artist" is the creator.

The other would be the performing arts.  That's very distinct for a key reason.  There are then two artists in play; one is the creator (and arranger) of the musical composition or play or whatever; the second is the individual or group that performs the piece.  They can be separated by centuries.  Both need to be good in order for the "art" to come forth; a great cast couldn't save an atrocious play; a top orchestra can't make "Louie, Louie" sound like music, and Beethoven's Fifth as played by a third-grade band will not sound great -- except to the parents, maybe.

For the last 35 years, my performing art of choice has been the barbershop quartet (and, to some extent, the barbershop chorus).  I performed for 25 of those years, and four times was fortunate to be part of an international championship group.  But the organization devoted to its continuation is in serious jeopardy, and losing members -- even as the best of its performers today are as good or better than anyone performing the style has ever been.

That's what I wanted to write about today.  And it's a philosophical discussion I can't solve.

Briefly -- the organization is the Barbershop Harmony Society, long known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.  It is based in Nashville, and has about 700-800 chapters in the USA and Canada, but is now under 20,000 members.

The art form itself is a style of music with four parts, a lead (melody), one part (tenor) above the melody, a bass singing foundation chord parts, and the baritone singing whatever note is left.  There are distinct rules of harmony at play, which are logical when you hear the music, but complex when written down -- so I won't.

Here's the thing.  Barbershop music is about as schizophrenic as it can get.  When it is done by a champion quartet or chorus or a high-level competitive group, it is mind-boggling how good it is.  Those rules of harmony are made to blend four sounds rapturously when done right.  They produce so many overtones, that you regularly hear five or six harmonically-pure notes per chord amidst a beautiful blended and large sound.  The story of the song is also conveyed sincerely -- that's also important -- and the musical theme is conveyed ideally.

On the other hand, when it is done poorly, as we too often hear, it is painful to listen to.  Men who are not good singers to start with, can make their offerings so unpleasant that your ears bleed, at least figuratively.  You just don't want to hear that, and it does no one any good.

So what is the problem?  Just this.  Virtually all men's barbershop is done under the auspices of the Barbershop Harmony Society, either by a BHS-chapter chorus or BHS-member quartet.  But while the very best of these performances, jaw-dropping as they can be, are spectacular, they are generally the exception.  Those who win contests are fabulous, but not in the majority.

Of those 700-800 chapters out there, the preponderance are of an average age over 55 or 60, beyond the age at which an amateur, untrained voice is at its peak.  These are the performers who, by default, are most often charged with "preserving the style", which is the formal mission of the Society.  And they generally feel that the way to preserve the style is to perform it.

They're right, of course.  At least someone has to perform it in order for those unfamiliar with it to like it enough to want to preserve it.  The problem is that these chapters get together once a week, often just 20 or so men, and spend the night singing -- mostly not very well, and mostly nothing you would regard as entertaining.  And they do shows, too, where they do this in public.

Ultimately, this is a conflict that is diminishing the membership of the Society.  As older members pass away, despite substantial efforts to bring youth into the contest venues, the numbers are not being replaced and the membership declines.

This is not a new phenomenon; we have been dealing with it for several decades.  The reason I am writing about it, and the reason I feel you might be interested in reading about it, is that it is a conflict that has analogous situations in other aspects of the arts -- the people with the responsibility for preserving the art form are singularly incapable of performing it well enough to attract others into sharing the interest, and thus preserving it.

When I was younger and far more active -- I stepped off the stage in 2009 and no longer sing, although I retain my membership -- I strongly advocated for the BHS to stop thinking of itself as a member-service organization, and to start thinking of itself as a performing-arts preservation one.  I suggested that, while we could keep the chapter structure, it no longer be the sine qua non of the organization -- that our primary goal be to have the largest possible population in North America exposed to the best we had to offer.

I still believe that, although there is always the second half of the equation to worry about.  That is, after someone has heard a champion quartet and says "I want more of that", what do we offer them?  What do we want them to do to help preserve the art form?  If the guy whose attention we get, can't really sing too well, what can he really do, and how do we leverage his interest?

That was where we kept running into the performance vs. preservation conflict; the member service organization vs. arts preservation organization conflict.  For decades, small choruses around the USA and Canada would have a show, and maybe bring in a high-quality guest quartet.  A good young singer would happen to be in the audience, and get so excited by the guest quartet that he would show up at the chapter's next Tuesday rehearsal, only to find 22 guys, 21 of them over 60, croaking out sounds not at all reminiscent of what attracted the young man in the first place.  He is never seen again.

I hate to raise all this without having an actual solution.  The best I could suggest would be for the Society to professionalize a half-dozen of its best quartets and send them on tour to every possible high school and college.  To try to overhaul the prevailing stereotyped notion of four guys in striped vests and straw hats not singing that well.  To create a ten-year plan to change the accepted notion of what barbershop is.  After all, people's impression of the "a cappella" style in general (barbershop is one subset of that style) has already been able to change through shows like Sing-Off and the work of a few dedicated individuals such as Deke Sharon.

BHS has opened its doors to female members recently, after being male-only for 80 years.  For the sake of the harmony itself, that's not a great idea (the overtones are somewhat diminished in the female range), and to be sure, I expect this had a lot more to do with legal-adjacent concerns about male-onliness, and more to do with offsetting the declining membership.  Contests at the top level will still be male only for now.

Of course, why I dislike that notion has nothing to do with the music, or genders.  Not much, anyway.

I dislike it because it is taking up a huge chunk of effort, but it has nothing to do with preserving the style and advancing the promotion of the style -- and everything to do with the notion of BHS as a membership organization.  As long as BHS thinks of itself that way, it will continue its long slide into irrelevance, no matter what gender its membership has.

I have the greatest respect for what is often called the "Joe Barbershopper", the guy in the little chapter in a small town who wants to enjoy his hobby on Tuesday nights.  He should be allowed to do so without anyone telling him not to.  I am not.

But while he may be called the "heart of the Society", to celebrate him is antagonistic to the Society's mission -- preserving an art form.  That preservation is going to be done when the nation, hungry for actual talent after years of having celebrity foisted upon them as "singing talent" (coughRodStewartcough), sees what the best of our artists can do with a great arrangement of a song suitable to the style.

Were it up to me, I would start focusing on developing and funding the performances at the highest level, and getting them in front of national audiences, even if a few bucks needs to be moved from some programs that are designed for the local chapter.  Say, this kind of performance, if you're wondering.

What happens after you listen to something like that?  Well, you want more, so you start picking through YouTube, and getting a bit more familiar with the range of music such groups can do.  And you start downloading albums.  That's "preservation by listener."  Only if you're an actual singer do you think about how to perform it, and maybe inquire into it, and maybe then check with the Society.

But if we turn into producers and promoters, as opposed to being overwhelmingly a membership organization, we add the possibility of actually perpetuating the art form as opposed to suppressing it.  If people get to where they hear "barbershop" and think -- well, more like what that video clip looks and sounds like, and less like the stereotype, less like their local 23-man group -- at that point we will have done more for preserving the greatness of the style than we'll have done in the 80 years previously.

That won't go over well internally, and this piece would greatly bother the leadership of the Society if and when they read it.  It would have to bother them; their premise is that we exist as an organization for the membership.  My premise is that we exist to preserve the style of the music.  At the moment, those two goals are in conflict.  And at the moment, the hemorrhaging rolls are indicating that we're failing.

I want to preserve the music by promulgating the best of it.  I want our focus to be getting the best performers and the best performances on stages, on line, into the public consciousness.  In no other form of music is the equivalent of Charlie's garage band put out there and try to portray that as representative of the best, as an entertaining act, as actual talent.

We can do better.

Copyright 2019 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at www.uberthoughtsUSA.com, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at bsutton@alum.mit.edu or on Twitter at @rmosutton