"Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man."

The Growth of Oligarchy

5/21/15, 6:54 AM

One of the blogs I subscribe to in RSS is Beat the Press by Dean Baker, offered at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. While I think it may be fairly described as a somewhat left-of-center blog, I like the way the author deconstructs many of the articles in the mainstream press regarding budget and economic issues. I think it's a worthwhile perspective-check, regardless of which end of the political spectrum you happen to embrace.

This morning had a brief post on a Frank Bruni column in the NY Times. In this, somewhat rare, instance, Baker agrees with Bruni, but still adds perspective to his piece.

The topic is rise in exorbitant university president salaries. Baker points out that federal tax policy essentially helps subsidize these absurd compensation packages because contributions to nonprofit universities are tax-deductible, resulting in effectively a 40% federal subsidy on contributions from highest-income earners. Just to be clear, of every dollar nonprofit universities receive in contributions from the wealthiest taxpayers, $.40 of that would have gone to federal income tax; it is effectively a federal subsidy that nobody voted on, except in the tax legislation.

So here is another example, and there are many more, where government policy is essentially a wealth transfer mechanism whereby the government foregoes $.40 (39.6 cents, to be precise) of potential tax revenue on every $1.00 contributed to nonprofit universities, some of which is used to fund these ridiculous compensation packages. These universities also charge astronomical tuitions, many of which are paid by federally-backed student loans and Pell grants. And it's not as though many of these universities are hurting for financial resources. Here's the list of colleges and universities with endowments larger than $1B, as in billion.

The rich look after their own, at everyone else's expense.

Time On Your Side

5/20/15, 12:28 PM

This is an interesting post by Mike Monteiro, a designer. It's called The Chokehold of Calendars. This is the central thesis:

Let’s start with the premise that you have a 40 hour week. (If you just started crying you need a new job.) That’s 40 hours of time to do your job. Now look at your calendar. If your job is to spend a very large part of those 40 hours in meetings scheduled for you by other people then you’re fine. If your job is to produce things such as code, comps, analyses, flow documents, etc., then why isn’t the time to do that on your calendar?

"Then why isn't the time to do that on your calendar?"

How do you value your time?

When you're employed, "your" time isn't really your own. Employers are really buying your time. This was one of the great discontinuities in my job when I was working. I got great performance reviews, everybody loved me (well, mostly everybody), I did everything that was expected and more. I got paid a very generous salary. And I could have done all that in a dozen hours a week; but they expected me to remain seated in a cubicle for all 40 hours. That drove me nuts. It was my layoff that helped me understand how crazy it was making me. (It's also because of the crazy rules of contracting and task analysis and how much we wish to compensate people. It's literally insane. I'll also note that they valued my time enough that they found more money to bring me back.)

When I was an executive officer, I was the guy scheduling meetings. Sometimes the CO did, but mostly it was me. As a junior officer I learned to hate meetings. Most of the time they're an incredible waste of resources. I tried to make sure every meeting had an agenda and an objective, stayed on task, and terminated or sidelined extraneous discussions. I can't say I was successful all the time, but having survived several grueling endurance trials in the past, where meetings would go past ninety minutes or even two hours or more, often with nothing resolved, I kept nearly all of mine to an hour or less.

Meetings suck, but when you're working for someone else, they have the impression, not entirely inaccurate I suppose, that they're paying you for your time first, and your work product second.

What made retirement so attractive to me was the simple fact that my time was now my own.

That poses its own challenges as now many people perceive my time as utterly valueless. "You're not doing anything. You're not working." And it's sometimes hard to find a way to explain to people that time is the most valuable thing I have, and how I wish to spend it is up to me. If I was working, nobody would ask me to go do something with them during the normal "work" day, I'd be at work! But if you're retired, well, they ask. Sometimes I'll want to, sometimes I won't.

But if I don't want to, I have to make an effort not to worry about how they might feel about that. The flip side of that is, and I'm not sure that this is really noticed or appreciated either, when I offer my time and I spend it with someone, it's because I value whatever it is we're doing together.

Truthfully, this wasn't something I anticipated when I retired. It's not an unwelcome challenge, because it's interesting.

I think part of the difficulty is that, for all of our focus and attention on time, and "time management" and "time is money," we truly don't know how to value our time, or anyone else's for that matter. How does time factor into how we show respect to one another? We're all "equal" when it comes to our personal subjective time. We can't buy any more time for ourselves; though we can spend money on services so that we don't have to spend time. We can pay people to mow our lawns, so we can use that time for something else.

How do you value your time?

I don't have any answers, but it's a worthwhile question.

Don't Just Sit There! Write Something!

5/20/15, 9:58 AM

Every now and then I get the urge to write a blog post. I've also discovered that if I wait a little bit, the urge goes away.

But then, damn it, it comes back again. I ignore it some more, it goes away.

Then it's back again!

So here I am, trying to scratch this itch, and I can't even think of a title!

But, once you get started, well, you're underway, so that's good. Now to think of something to write about.

Politics is a fertile topic, but it's also depressing. It's depressing because it often seems as though most people are too inert, oblivious or cynical to vote. Of the minority that are left, the majority of them (the people who wind up choosing the people who run our government) are mostly motivated by fear and anger, which is why Republicans keep winning elections. This may be a democracy, but our leaders are chosen by a tiny minority of the population, most of whom are frightened and angry.

The challenge is to activate the inert. The problem is that most of them are inert because they've been anesthetized to civic responsibility by our consumer culture. Attention is a finite resource, you only have so much of it to use. Marketers, the people selling something, compete for our attention in order to get us to choose one of their products. That's why they create these compelling distractions like Facebook, or The Voice, and most of the other features of our modern consumer culture, to capture and hold your attention so that it can be monetized!

Dave Winer wrote a blog post yesterday, What would you do if you woke up one morning and there was no internet? It's a short post, you can go read it. I'll wait here.

I agree with him; but if I were the benevolent dictator of the world, I think I'd like to decree that one day of every seven be free of all electronic distractions, diversions, amusements, entertainment. No TV, no movies, no internet, no video games. You could read books, play board games, play sports, have a picnic, take a hike, ride a bike, talk to your neighbors, lay in the grass and watch clouds go by, whatever! Just nothing with electronic media for twenty four hours. Give your brain a rest!

I went home and visited Mom for Mothers Day. I stayed at her apartment. She lives in a normal apartment community, and it's mostly young families. I was happy to hear she's planning to move to an over-55 apartment community, where she'll be able to meet people closer to her in age and circumstances. Dad passed away almost a year ago, but life seems about the same at the apartment. The TV comes on when she gets up in the morning, and goes off when she goes to bed at night. For about sixteen hours a day, it seems, she's bombarded by these messages! Pharmaceutical ads for conditions you never heard of with endless lists of side effects that sound worse than the disease! People yelling about selling cars. News reports of death and destruction, and people trying to rip you off. There are some laughs along the way. She loves The Big Bang Theory, and she's really sharp when it comes to Wheel of Fortune. She does watch Turner Classic Movies, and the movies are mostly commercial-free, and TCM commercials are pretty benign. I actually enjoy many of them. Mostly, though, it's broadcast TV.

But it drives me nuts. I seldom have the TV on here. Movies, Game of Thrones, and an occasional video game; but never broadcast TV. No commercials.

I got home on Monday, and all I wanted was a few days of peace and quiet. Between the TV and the ordeal that is today's vision of convenient air travel, I was a bit stressed out.

But I can see why people are largely inert when it comes to voting. You're supposed to go into a little booth and make a series of choices. How do you know what choice to pick? Not by the ads on TV, or the large format postcards you get in the mail, or the ads you hear on the radio. They're all mutually contradictory. So most people, if they think about it at all, choose to stay home and let someone else who, they hope, has actually thought about the issues make the choice. And of course, the majority of that minority is mostly motivated by the feelings of fear and anger from the messages they've been receiving. So here we are.

I don't see this ever changing. I think we're all just well and truly screwed as far as this "experiment in democracy" goes.

My, wasn't that refreshing? I'm so glad I got that off my chest!

(For those of you who might suggest that the existence of my blog may be part of the very problem I'm decrying, I'll point out a few things: First, nobody reads my blog, except, possibly, you.

Second, there are no ads on my blog. I'm not really competing for your attention. I appreciate it, if you've given it to me. Thank you.

But mostly I'm just doing this to entertain myself; exercise my brain a little bit, see if I remember how to spell, that sort of thing. Only without having to endure commercial messages.

Otherwise, I could watch Wheel of Fortune like everyone else!)