Rain Rain Don’t Go Away Stay Around Another Day

RaindropsI loved the rain when I was a kid. It caused my parents some consternation that I loved most to play in the rain. The rain is almost magical. And growing up, it created a certain discord in me because I loved the rain but I knew that my father, a building contractor, could not work when it rained. And this was a problem because my father’s business acumen was very similar to that of Bob Belcher on Bob’s Burgers. That is: we were always living on the edge but proud of the quality of dad’s workmanship.

But there was something deeper about my love of rain. As I know I’ve explained before, I’ve always been highly skeptical of gravity. It’s like electricity. In college, the only course I had trouble with was electronics. I wanted to know why electrons went to ground. And my professors would always give me the same lame answer, “Where else would they go?” I don’t know! These people have such confidence in the universe. It was probably a mistake for someone with such a strong mystical and metaphysical orientation to go into physics. It’s like a Jew joining the Klan. But I did it and it was doubtless good for me.

This last month has been interesting in that we’ve had a lot of storms, but they come through and drop a quarter or a half inch of rain and that’s it.

But I still don’t trust gravity. I am a master of mechanics. I understand all the theory that explains why the Moon doesn’t fall on my head and why I don’t float away from the surface of the Earth. But when I see a big blue sky, I still think that all my years of experience being pressed to the surface of the Earth is just a great big bluff and that God is going to flip a switch and I’m going to go floating away. For millennia, people have been searching for the meaning of existence. But that’s what it is: God’s practical joke on Frank. Oh, how he will laugh!

Up until about 8 years ago, I was skinny. Painfully skinny. And my grandmother used to tell me all he time, “One day a wind will come up and blow you away!” But what was I supposed to do? Drink the milk she served that came from a cow? I knew there was something very wrong with all that and so I was always skeptical of food that didn’t come from inside a well designed box. And by the way: my grandmother was very small too, so I don’t know what she was complaining about.

Rain Rain Go AwayThis image of my body being blown away has never left me. But I don’t imagine wind. I just imagine gravity not working. And let’s face it: it could happen. It’s not like we have a contract. Remember Bertrand Russell’s example of the chicken: every day is great and then one day they cut your head off. Now, for the record, if gravity stopped, the atmosphere would immediately vanish, and we would suffocate if we weren’t first destroyed by high energy particles. But the fact remains that we would die — and fast.

Somehow, cloud cover and even nighttime makes me feel less exposed. And rain is even better because it is falling — a sure sign that gravity is still working as advertised and that God hasn’t sprung his little practical joke. But all this is just the result of my having a fanciful imagination. I understand that. There are very real feelings that go along with it, but I know intellectually that there is nothing to fear. The problem is that now there is a related fear that is very real indeed.

For the purpose of rainfall totals, the season starts on 1 July. And here in my hometown of Santa Rosa, we have an average rainfall total by the end of December of 11.4 inches. And last year, we had a very wet December with roughly 12 inches in that month along, but a total of over 17 inches for the season to that point. It looked great. It looked like our drought was over. But it wasn’t.

Normally, the first three months of the year have rainfall totals: 6.0, 5.2, and 3.6. But last year, we got: 0.9, 0.4, and 1.9. This year, we should normally have a total rainfall of 11.4 inches. Instead, we have 6.7 or 7.5, depending upon the source. It’s depressing.

But there is El Niño. This year, it is a very big one. But we haven’t seen much of it. This last month has been interesting in that we’ve had a lot of storms, but they come through and drop a quarter or a half inch of rain and that’s it. We are getting snow in the Sierras, and that is very good indeed. But not as much as we might hope. Still, El Niño is not supposed to really hit until later: January, February, and March. But currently, there is no sign of rain until 5 January at the earliest. And the promised rain has disappointed again and again in the past.

If things don’t change soon, people will float away — not into the sky, but to other areas that haven’t turned into deserts.

The Bunk of the Economic Uncertainty Crowd

UncertaintyNoah Smith is one of those super smart guys who also often annoys me. On Tuesday, he wrote, Don’t Blame Uncertainty for the Slow Recovery. Now, I am in complete agreement with him on this issue. But it bugs me when people take clearly silly ideas far too seriously. And this is one of those cases, although I’m glad that Smith is out there setting the record straight for all the fools who believe such hogwash.

The “uncertainty” hypothesis is that businesses have not invested since the financial crisis because they are afraid of the uncertainty of government policy. By this silly idea, businesses were frozen in terror, not knowing if they should buy new equipment for fear that the top marginal tax rate might go up. So companies were just sitting on piles of case waiting until they were absolutely certain what the future would be. If this sounds absurd, that’s because it is.

There are a lot of economists who I greatly admire. And even the ones I disagree with are brilliant in their way. But most of them don’t have much of a clue what it is like to run an actual business. Growing up, my parents owned a gas stations then a convenience store and finally a construction company. In addition, I’ve had micro-businesses all my life. And I spent a year working a business at the San Jose full-time flea market — the closest you will ever come to a perfectly free market. All of these experiences have colored the way I see business.

Rule number one in business is that it is all about uncertainty. Running a business is a matter of dealing with uncertainty. If you are fretting about how quickly you will be able to depreciate a piece of equipment that you buy next year, you have too much time on your hands. Actual business people generally won’t buy anything or hire anyone unless they absolutely, positively have no other choice. And they certainly don’t think in terms of the taxes they will pay on profits they haven’t made yet. And it isn’t just little old me saying this. I’ve heard the same things from Nick Hanauer and Warren Buffett.

If business were about certainty, then wouldn’t everyone have a business? And it doesn’t get any less absurd if you focus on political uncertainty. We live in a democracy. Because of the way elections are staggered, we get changes every year. Even at the federal level, we get different congresses every two years and potentially new presidents every four years. Change is a given. What those who have spent the last seven years run around complaining about uncertainty are really talking about is that they don’t like the policies on offer. It wasn’t uncertainty that they were unhappy about. Obamacare was gradually put into place and it was very clear exactly what was going to happen and when. The real complaint was that the policy was going to destroy business, because they didn’t like that policy.

We all know why this recovery has been so slow. Paul Krugman put together the following graph that explains everything we need to know. It compares the number of government jobs that were created after the last two recessions: one under George W Bush and the other under Obama. Every other recession looks just like Bush, but under Obama — because of Republican intransigence — the government has made the recession worse. This is really an amazing graph. (Note: the spike is temporary workers for the Constitutionally required 2010 census.)

Government Jobs After Recessions

So I’m glad to see that there is actual data that shows that uncertainty is the hogwash it always obviously was. But the original work was only taken seriously because there were people who wanted to push the idea for ideological reasons. And this new paper won’t stop those people from continuing to claim that the problem is Obama and all his newfangled ideas.

Morning Music: A Boy Named Sue

Boy Named Sue and His Other Country SongsShel Silverstein’s most famous song is probably “A Boy Named Sue.” It was a huge hit for Johnny Cash and it works well for him. But he makes the song too serious. You get the impression that it was the right thing to do to name the boy Sue. As a result, the denouement where the singer says that he will name his own son anything but Sue doesn’t work all that well.

Silverstein’s version of “A Boy Named Sue” off Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs fully embraces its silliness. And at the end, he goes crazy and shows that he wouldn’t just name his son something different, but that he still hates his father because it was terrible to have named him Sue. There might have been an upside to the name but it didn’t make up for the downside.

About a decade later, Silverstein wrote a followup, The Father of a Boy Named Sue off his album, Songs and Stories. Whereas “A Boy Named Sue” is a fun song, the followup is deeply disturbing. It claims that Sue lied in his song and that actually he’s a transvestite. After the fight, they reconcile and the father moves in with the son who takes care of him better than any daughter ever could. And the song ends with more than the implication of incest. Shockingly, when Johnny Cash covered the song, he kept the lyrics in, although he sings them so forthright that it doesn’t come off as creepy as it does when Shel Silverstein delivers when in a barely audible squeal.

Anniversary Post: Four Year Marshall Plan Ends

Marshall PlanOn this day in 1951, the Marshall Plan ended. It had distributed over $13 billion to rebuild Europe after World War II. That represents over $130 billion in today’s money. And you have to think about it relative to government spending at the time. Federal spending at that time was roughly $45 billion. The Marshall Plan lasted for four years. So that’s something more than 7% of our federal budget. This is probably why people today think we spend so much money on foreign aid.

In fact, we only spend upwards of 1% on foreign aid. What’s more, most of it is military aid, which is hard to claim is us giving out of the goodness of our hearts. Furthermore, by far the biggest recipients of our aid are Afghanistan and Israel. Those are countries that most people think we ought to be giving money to — at least by the people most concerned that we are too nice to the other countries of the world. The UK gives over half as much in foreign aid than we do, even though our economy is six times the size. The entire European Union has the same size economy as we do, but gives almost three times as much in foreign aid. Think what you want to about the US, but we are a stingy country.

In a poll earlier this year, the average American thought that 26% of the federal budget went to foreign aid. No wonder Americans think we are exceptional! We are exceptional: in our minds. Americans have been convinced that all the money they pay in taxes goes to help unworthy others. They think this even while they get their Medicare and live in houses they own thanks to the mortgage interest deduction. They are totally unaware of just what a hellscape America would be without the government.

The thing about the Marshall Plan is that the money we spent didn’t just help Europe. It helped the whole world and arguably the United States most of all. But somewhere along the line, Americans got the idea that we were just too nice. And as a result, we’ve suffered for it. Now we are very clearly an empire in decline. Since I was a little boy, I’ve watched as our policies have shifted more and more away from forward looking innovation and toward backward looking efforts to hang onto the power that we once had.

The Marshall Plan was one of the shining achievements of this country. And it is one that we would never be able to accomplish now. That’s because we are weak minded people who only think of ourselves and only on the shortest of timescales.