Mike Kueber's Blog

September 15, 2010

Che Guevara – hero or villian?

Earlier this summer at the pool, I saw a friend wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, the famous one with a beret.  As a liberal during the 60s, that romanticized image evoked a time when many in my generation believed in working toward a more peaceful and egalitarian world, with less materialism and greed.  As I got older, however, I learned that much of the student rebellion in the 60s was misguided (see my recent post on A Patriot’s History of the Vietnam War), and I have distanced myself from the objectives and conduct of most student radicals.  Because of this distance, I thought it was inappropriate for me, especially as a potential Republican candidate, to wear a Che t-shirt (although it didn’t stop me from attending a Che play in San Antonio a couple of years ago). 

Earlier today, I mentioned my position on Che to my friend, Mike Callen, who is the most learned and astute person I know, and Mike suggested that my opinion of Che might be too harsh.  According to Mike, Che was revered in Latin America because he stood for the common man and against the oppressor.  Mike said that many families in Central America back in the day had three hanging photos in their home – Jesus, JFK, and Che.  Mike is full-blown product of a Jesuit education and has traveled extensively in Central America, so he has increased credibility on this subject.  When I mentioned to Mike that I vaguely recalled that Che was guilty on many unsavory acts, he suggested that I research that.

Many years ago, I had read a biography on Che’s life, but the details had faded, so I turned to Wikipedia.  As usual, Wiki provides an extensive description of Che’s life.  A thumbnail sketch is as follows:

He was born in 1928 into an upper-middle class Argentine family and became a doctor.  During his medical studies, however, he traveled throughout South American and became obsessed with the dismal life that most people in Latin America endured.  Eventually, he became a Marxist – i.e., someone who believes that capitalism is evil because it enables the rich (the bourgeoisie) to exploit the poor (the proletariat), and it should be replaced by socialism, which is good because it provides for collective ownership and equitable sharing (from each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs).  After bumping into the Castro brothers, he helped them in 1956-58 to win the only successful socialist revolution in Latin American history.  Then he succeeded in helping Cuba ward-off an American invasion at the Bay of Pigs, but was unsuccessful in trying to start a full-scale nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.  Following that debacle, he became loudly critical of Soviet meekness and spoke more favorably of the Chinese.  This became a political issue for Castro because he was dependent on Soviet sponsorship.  To quiet Che, Castro sent him to lead a socialist revolution in the Congo and then Bolivia.  Both efforts were unsuccessful, especially the later, during which Che was captured and executed by Bolivian authorities in 1967.

The thumbnail sketch doesn’t answer whether Che was a hero or a villain.  A closer look at the person reveals someone who was passionate about helping the less fortunate people in Latin America.  He was against materialism and wanted nothing for himself.  He made a judgment that the people of the third world would be better served under socialism than capitalism.  I remember having a similar philosophical discussion with a law-school classmate (Joe Martin) almost ten years after Che’s death and asserting that socialism was clearly a more equitable system, but it was doubtful whether people had evolved enough to thrive under socialism.  Che thought that the people were ready and, just like Bush-43, that he would be greeted by the masses as a great liberator.  Che was wrong.

Because Che believed that the establishment (the bourgeoisie) would do anything to keep their position and their property, he concluded that violent revolution was necessary.  Che’s conclusion is similar to that of many American radicals in the 60s, but contrasts with that of MLK and Gandhi, who took the route of non-violent resistance.  This comparison, however, is like apples to oranges.  MLK and Gandhi were dealing with open societies that could be enlightened; Che was dealing with authoritarian, oppressive regimes that were closed to change.  His options were more limited

The violence practiced by Che has led some to accuse him of being a murderer or a terrorist.  He had deserters, traitors, and informants executed.  Even more problematic is the violence sanctioned by Che after the Cuban revolution.  He was given responsibility to see that the correct people were executed – so-called “revolutionary justice.”  He signed off on the execution of nearly 200 individuals who were provided only minimal due process.  According to Wiki, Che had become a “hardened” man, who had no qualms about the death penalty or summary and collective trials. If the only way to “defend the revolution was to execute its enemies, he would not be swayed by humanitarian or political arguments

Ultimately, Che failed because the proletariat did not rally to his cause.  They weren’t ready for him.  And progress for proletariat eventually arrived in the form of democracy instead of socialism.  Of course, Che denied that America was a democracy because of its system of “financial oligarchy, discrimination against blacks, and outrages by the Ku Klux Klan.”  The following is a particularly well-written passage from Wiki:

Guevara’s first desired economic goal, which coincided with his aversion for wealth, was to see a nation-wide elimination of material incentives in favor of moral ones. He viewed capitalism as a “contest among wolves” where “one can only win at the cost of others,” and thus desired to see the creation of a “new man and woman.”  Guevara continually stressed that a socialist economy in itself is not “worth the effort, sacrifice, and risks of war and destruction” if it ends up encouraging “greed and individual ambition at the expense of collective spirit.  A primary goal of Guevara’s thus became to reform “individual consciousness” and values to produce better workers and citizens.  In his view, Cuba’s “new man” would be able to overcome the “egotism” and “selfishness” that he loathed and discerned was uniquely characteristic of individuals in capitalist societies.  In describing this new method of “development”, Guevara stated: “There is a great difference between free-enterprise development and revolutionary development. In one of them, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a fortunate few, the friends of the government, the best wheeler-dealers. In the other, wealth is the people’s patrimony.”

Whatever the merits or demerits of Guevara’s economic principles, his programs were unsuccessful.  Guevara’s program of “moral incentives” for workers caused a rapid drop in productivity and a rapid rise in absenteeism. In reference to the collective failings of Guevara’s vision, reporter I.F. Stone who interviewed Che twice during this time, remarked … that “in a sense he was, like some early saint, taking refuge in the desert. Only there could the purity of the faith be safeguarded from the unregenerate revisionism of human nature. 

Was Che a hero?  In 1999, Time magazine listed the 100 most influential people of the 20th century under five sub-lists – Leaders & Revolutionaries, Artists & Entertainers, Builders & Titans, Scientists and Thinkers, and Heroes & Icons.  When I didn’t see Che in the sub-list of revolutionaries, I thought he had been omitted.  But in browsing the other sub-lists, I found he was included in Heroes & Icons, along with Billy Graham, Helen Keller, Mother Teresa, Harvey Milk, Rosa Parks, Andrei Sakharov, and Bill Wilson. 

If Che is good enough for Time, he is good enough for me.  I’m going to get that t-shirt.

A Patriot’s History of the Vietnam War

When I tell friends that I am reading A Patriot’s History of the United States, they often ask how a patriot’s history is different from a non-patriot’s history.  Until recently, I have responded that, although the differences are minor, I have noticed a few instances where the two authors put a more positive spin on America’s conduct.  But those minor differences have disappeared now that I have progressed to reading about the Vietnam War.  All of a sudden, the differences have become dramatic.  

According to the authors, incompetent LBJ regularly rejected recommendations on Vietnam from his Joint Chiefs and required the military to fight the war with its hands cuffed behind its back – e.g., severely limited bombing, gradual escalation, and tolerance of cross-border sanctuaries.  Despite these handcuffs, the U.S. military won every major engagement in Vietnam, including the watershed Tet offensive in early 1968, during which enemy forces were decimated.  But victory on the ground and in the air was not enough and gradually public support began to erode. 

The erosion of public support started on radicalized campuses.  According to the authors, the baby boomers inundating America’s colleges were coming from “a background of abundance, self-centeredness, and permissiveness, combined with instability and lack of direction,” and they were greeted at the college gates by a radical, post-McCarthy faculty.  That is quite an unsubstantiated generalization.

The authors state that the agenda of the radicals was nothing short of the overthrow of America as we know it – capitalism, foreign affairs, and morality (drugs, sex).  The radicals failed because Americans ultimately became disgusted with the radicals and responded to a call for “law and order.”    

The authors portray the media as either co-conspirators or duped accomplices of the campus radicals:

A symbiotic relationship, which developed between the Chicago protestors and the news media, accelerated.  But the journalists also failed to see the adroit manipulation by the demonstrators.  Witnesses reported an absence of violence until the mobs saw television cameras, at which point they began their act….  demonstrators stepped up their activities when reporters and photographers appeared, and, worse, camera crews “on at least two occasions did stage violence and fake injuries.”

The next indication of the authors’ political bent is their description of the Vietnam War being handed over in 1969 from incompetent LBJ to Richard Nixon – “he was a remarkable man.”  According to the authors, Nixon delivered on his promise of “peace with honor” by freeing up the military to defeat the northern invaders and then Vietnamizing the war (handing over the fighting to South Vietnamese soldiers).  But the war was ultimately lost (“snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”) when Congress failed, post-Nixon, to continue providing South Vietnam with financial and air support.  Five months after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, North Vietnam invaded and conquered South Vietnam.  Despite Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, the authors noted that he made one last comeback as a “valuable resource for world leaders….  It was high irony indeed that by the time of his death, Richard Nixon had achieved broad-based respect that he had never enjoyed in life – and that he had lived long enough to make sure that five living American presidents attended his funeral and, even if unwillingly, paid homage to him.” 

I am an unrepentant fan of Richard Nixon, but I certainly don’t think such praise to be appropriate to a history book, even a patriotic one.

Did the authors have a personal stake in their story?  According to their joint website, Schweikart went to college during the Vietnam War and following graduation, became a drummer in a rock band for a few years before obtaining a graduate degree and becoming a college professor and author.  Allen served in Vietnam as a Marine before obtaining a BA, MA, and PhD and becoming a college professor and author.  These men obviously lived this part of their History first-hand.

September 14, 2010

Social mobility

A column by David Brooks in today’s NYTimes suggested that the sales pitch by the Republican Party to American voters may be effective in the short-term, but it is not a message that will result in a long-term governing coalition:

Through most of its history, the narrative begins, the United States was a limited government nation, with restrained central power and an independent citizenry. But over the years, forces have arisen that seek to change America’s essential nature. These forces would replace America’s traditional free enterprise system with a European-style cradle-to-grave social democracy. 

These statist forces are more powerful than ever in the age of Obama. So it is the duty for those who believe in the traditional American system to stand up and defend the Constitution. There is no middle ground. Every small new government program puts us on the slippery slope toward a smothering nanny state. 

Contrary to this Republican sales pitch, Brooks opines that a governing coalition must include those voters who want government to play a positive role.  This role is necessary because some problems can’t be solved by the government simply getting out of the way:

The fact is, the American story is not just the story of limited governments; it is the story of limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility.

Brooks’ use of the term “social mobility” intrigued me.  During my congressional campaign, I argued that government should work toward equal opportunity for all (but not equal results), and I wondered if “social mobility” is a more eloquent way of saying the same thing.

As usual, Wikipedia is a good starting point:

In sociology and economics, as well as in common political discourse, social mobility refers to the degree to which an individual or group’s status is able to change in terms of position in the social hierarchy.  To this extent it most commonly refers to material wealth and the ability of a person to move up the class system….  The extent to which a nation is open and meritocratic is of fundamental significance. 

Social mobility; meritocratic; equal opportunity – these are American values.  But as I further explored the concept of social mobility, I was disappointed to find that the United States was not a leader.  A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on inter-generational social mobility found:

10/02/2010 – It is easier to climb the social ladder and earn more than one’s parents in the Nordic countries, Australia and Canada than in France, Italy, Britain and the United States, according to a new OECD study. “Intergenerational Social Mobility: a family affair?” says weak social mobility can signal a lack of equal opportunities, constrain productivity and curb economic growth. 

A report generated from the OECD study opined that social mobility enhances economic growth by allocating human resources to their best use:

Removing policy-related obstacles to social mobility can be advocated on equity grounds as it should improve equality of economic opportunities, but also on efficiency grounds. The economic rationale for removing such obstacles is two-fold. First, less mobile societies are more likely to waste or misallocate human skills and talents. Second, lack of equal opportunity may affect the motivation, effort and, ultimately, the productivity of citizens, with adverse effects on the overall efficiency and the growth potential of the economy.

Although the report did not focus on policy options that would enhance mobility, it did assert that education was the key, and it concluded with the following advice:

Policies that facilitate access to education of individuals from disadvantaged family backgrounds promote intergenerational wage mobility, and are also likely to be good for economic growth. Examples include inter alia school practices that start grouping or “tracking” students only late in their educational curricula so as to encourage the social mix within schools, or government-supported loan or grant systems that reduce students’ dependence on their families for financing their post-secondary studies.  [Malcolm Gladwell also discussed the pernicious effect of early grouping/tracking in his book Outliers.] 

Class warfare is a common tactic in American politics, especially when dealing with taxation.  And there are never-ending recriminations about the shrinking middle class.  But these are zero-sum arguments that revolve around whether the government should be redistributing income.  As suggested by the OECD report, increasing social mobility would increase the size of the pie/pot to be divided and simultaneously increase equity.  That’s a win-win.

The NYTimes has produced an interesting chart that shows the intra-generational social mobility in America late in the 1990s.   The OECD study and report concerned inter-generational social mobility.  Both are worthwhile objectives, but inter-generational mobility is essential.

Hill’s & Dale’s – Week #1

Filed under: Entertainment,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 12:30 pm
Tags: ,

There were 33 players in the first week. 

Mike Shanzer won with 13 correct picks, and he only missed Texas, Washington, and Kansas City. 

Danny Wyatt, Roy McNeil, and Samantha Elliott tied for 2nd with 12 correct picks, with Danny and then Roy winning the tie-breakers for 2nd and 3rd.  Danny snuck into 2nd place by being the only player to correctly pick the last game of the week – Kansas City over San Diego.

I finished with 10 correct picks, which tied me for 12-21.  Because of the tie-breaker, I finished 16th.  I picked the favorite in every game (after switching to the Jets when Reavis stopped his hold-out).  Thus, the line was 10-6. 

The most notable fact about the first week was that the home team won 12 times.  Thus, I could have finished tied for 2nd at 12-4 if I had picked the home team every time.  I had seriously considered this strategy because it would have won 2nd place in the last season-long football pool I was in.

Kirk Buechner took up the rear guard with a 6-10 record, while Dan Jereb and Carl Nelson tied for the penultimate spot with 7-9. 

I’m not stuck on stupid and expect to do better next week.

September 13, 2010

Who is a Jew?

Joel Stein writes “The Awesome Column,” a sometime witty weekly column in Time Magazine.  A few weeks ago, he got into trouble for making fun at the expense of Indian immigrants who had taken over his hometown of Edison, NJ.  This week he made a comment about Jews that confused me.  The comment was his reaction to some advice he was given on how to persuade his wife Cassandra to have a second child:

“Then Jim Bob suggested I plan a date night once a week.  Also, that we put Jesus at the center of our marriage.  I told Jim Bob that I’m Jewish, Cassandra and I are both atheists and Cassandra is in her mid-30s.  Even the Apostle Peter couldn’t slip Jesus into our marriage in time for a second child.”

Aside from being surprised at his casual admission of atheism, I wondered (a) if an American could be a Jewish atheist and (b) why Jews didn’t have a place in their religion for Jesus.  My curiosity on this subject had already been piqued earlier in the week when I read in A Patriot’s History of the United States that Barry Goldwater, not Joe Lieberman, was the first person of Jewish ancestry to run for president or vice-president of the United States.

What do I know about Jews?  My upbringing in rural North Dakota in the middle of the 20th century didn’t expose me to any Jews.  North Dakota was populated with nothing but Germans and Norwegians, Catholics and Lutherans.  I don’t recall anyone ever discussing Jews or Judaism (the Jewish religion), but it was not uncommon back then to hear someone talked about being “jewed out of money.”  I thought that meant the same thing as being “gypped out of money” because the terms seemed to be used interchangeably.  I had no idea these were ethnic slurs until I met my first Jew while attending law school in Texas.  (Many years later, a Jew became one of my best friends and a mentor at USAA – Marv Leibowitz from Brooklyn.)

Fortunately, gaps in upbringing or education can be easily remedied in the internet age.  A simple Google search and a few minutes of reading reveal that being a Jew can refer to either nationality (citizens of Israel) or religion (Judaism).  Because Stein is an American, he must have been referring to his religion.  According to Wikipedia, people like Stein are “ethnic Jews”:

“Ethnic Jew is a term generally used to describe a person of Jewish parentage and background who does not necessarily actively practice Judaism but still identifies with Judaism or other Jews culturally and fraternally, or both.  The term is sometimes used to distinguish non-practicing from practicing (religious) Jews. Other terms include ‘non-observant Jew,’ ‘non-religious Jew,’ ‘non-practicing Jew,’ and ‘secular Jew.’  The term sometimes can refer exclusively to Jews who, for whatever reasons, do not practice the religion of Judaism, or who are so casual in their connection to that religion as to be effectively not Jews in the religious sense of adherent to Judaism. Typically, ethnic Jews are cognizant of their Jewish background, and may feel strong cultural (even if not religious) ties to Jewish traditions and to the Jewish people or nation. Like people of any other ethnicity, non-religious ethnic Jews often assimilate into a surrounding non-Jewish culture, but, especially in areas where there is a strong local Jewish culture, they may remain largely part of that culture instead.  Ethnic Jews include atheists, agnostics, non-denominational deists, Jews with only casual connections to Jewish denominations or converts to other religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam.” 

This reminds me of a phrase that Catholics used back home – “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”

My second Jewish question concerned Stein’s surprisingly firm denial of Jesus.  I have recently learned about the religion of Muslims (Islam) and was surprised to learn that they accept the Old and New Testaments in the Bible and Jesus Christ, albeit as a prophet.  Thus, three major religions in America seem situated along a continuum, with Jews abiding by the Old Testament, Christians abiding by the Old and New Testaments, and Muslims abiding by the Old and New Testaments and the Koran.  There is friction, however, because Christians reject the Koran and the Jews rejects Jesus Christ.  One particularly interesting website explained in excruciating detail why Judaism had to reject Jesus Christ.  See http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/jewsandjesus/.  This website also explains why Islam is more consistent with Judaism than is Christianity.  http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/islamjudaism/.  

The real difference between the two religions, however, lies in their basis for belief. Judaism is based on the unique historical event of a divine revelation experienced by the entire nation. Whereas Islam is based on the prophetic claims of a single individual who subsequently convinced others to follow his ways.  Talmudic tradition says that while Abraham’s son Isaac became the forefather of the Jewish people, the Islamic line is descended from Abraham’s other son Ishmael.

This is excellent reading.

Getting back to Joel Stein, he seems to have been using some literary license in his discussion of his Jewishness and Jesus.  His status as an atheist, not his status as an ethnic Jew, defines his rejection of Jesus Christ.  And by claiming status as an ethnic Jew, Stein has attempted to ameliorated his status as an atheist.  You will rarely see someone in the mainstream proclaim their atheism or admit to having an abortion.  That would be the surest way to be forced out of the mainstream.

September 11, 2010

The law is a jealous mistress and a bramble bush

Filed under: Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 8:56 pm
Tags: , , ,

Back in 1976, first-year law students at the University of Texas were taught that the law was a jealous mistress and a bramble bush.  Both of those metaphors provide insights to anyone considering an intellectually challenging career.  

The Bramble Bush was the title of 1930 book by Karl Llewellyn.  The book was intended to prepare students for the study of law.  I don’t recall if I ever read the book, but I recall being told the moral of the story – namely, the study of law was complicated and frustrating and the deeper you explored, the more frustrated you might feel.  But you should remain hopeful that in the end everything would fall into place and make sense.

The moral of The Bramble Bush is actually quite similar to the statement, “The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship.”  This statement was written in 1829 by Joseph Story, a Harvard law professor and U.S. Supreme Court justice.  The moral of this statement is that to be successful at the study of law, you need to give the subject lots of attention and not be a dilettante.

How does this relate to career planning?  I suggest that The Bramble Bush and Mistress metaphors apply not only to the studying of law, but also to any studying or occupation.  I remember giving my son Mikey some advice about how much studying to do in college while he was preparing for medical school.  My advice was that he should put as much effort into college as he was willing to put into the remainder of his working life.  If he wanted to excel in an intellectually challenging field like medicine, he must be prepared to conquer the bramble bush, and then continue devoting attention to his medicine mistress.

  • If you think of school or work as requiring 40, 50, or 60 hours a week, you need to determine how much of a commitment you are comfortable with.  If you really enjoy a field of study and the related work, then put in 60 hours to get on the fast track and stay there.  But don’t plan to put in 60 uncomfortable hours a week during college or early in your career and then expect your load will lighten because it won’t.  If you start your career on a 60-hour track, it will stay there unless you get derailed.  No one wants a derailed career.
  • Other people don’t love their field of study or the related work and may prefer to do a lot of living outside of their career.  These are the 40-hour people.  In my opinion, they should spend this much time on their education and early career.  Then, later in their career, they will be in appropriate slots for this level of commitment.

I’ve had experience with 40-, 50-, and 60-hour plans.  During college, I was so excited to be there that I studied around the clock – more than 60 hours a week.  I remember that, although I loved football, I couldn’t spare the three hours to watch Monday Night Football.  I didn’t burn out because I enjoyed it and was rewarded with excellent grades.  After three years, though, I started to buy into a lot of liberal philosophies that questioned materialism and the Protestant work ethic and that placed a higher value on having a social conscience and being noncompetitive.  My last year of college and three years of law school became a time of mediocre grades, but advanced personal development.  My years in Austin were as fun as could be.  After law school, I shifted into a mid-range 50-hour week and stayed there the remainder of my working career.  That level of commitment allowed me to do well at what I was doing and still have a significant away-from-work life.  No regrets.

So, what happened to Mikey?  He apparently took the middle road from the beginning – i.e., he studied hard, but had lots of fun attending college in Austin and medical school in St. Louis.  His studying in Austin was good enough to get him into medical school, but not good enough to get him into his preferred (less expensive public) schools.  And he is hopeful that his studying in medical school has been good enough to get him into an Emergency Medicine residency.  He picked this residency not only because it matches his grades (Emergency Medicine residencies are in the middle of the scale for ease/difficulty of obtaining), but also because it offers a lifestyle that allows a full life away from work.  So far, so good.

September 9, 2010

A book review of Grand New Party, by Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam

After hearing that Ross Douthat was named the new conservative columnist for the NYTimes, I decided to learn a little more about him.  What I learned was that he has written two books.  Douthat’s first book – Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class – was written shortly after he graduated from Harvard in 2002.  Because one of my favorite issues is meritocracy in America, I will certainly be reading this book.  (For an interesting, albeit less than favorable review, see http://www.slate.com/id/2114657/.)  Unfortunately, my library doesn’t currently carry the book, but they have requested it.

Douthat’s second book is Grand New Party, How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, published in 2008.  As suggested by the sub-title, Grand New Party describes how the Republican Party can achieve its destiny by saving America as we know it – i.e., “a nation of limited government and strong cultural solidarity, in which the goods of our national life are distributed as widely and equitably as possible, without sacrificing ownership and self-reliance in the process.”  Fortunately, my library had this book in stock.

The book begins by describing the failure of both Republican and Democrat parties to develop an enduring governing coalition in the 40 years since the demise of the Roosevelt coalition in 1968.  According to the authors, the parties have failed because neither has been able to earn the consistent allegiance of the working class – i.e., non-college educated.

Education is the defining issue of the working class because the absence of college degrees has caused them to be especially vulnerable to insecurity and immobility.  The authors postulate:

  • Public disorder, family disintegration, cultural fragmentation, and civic and religious disorder … breed downward mobility and financial strain.
  • Success is increasingly tied to education, and education is tied to stable families, and both are out of reach.
  • Left unaddressed, these problems may only grow worse.  The continued decline of the two-parent family means that more and more working-class Americans, white and Hispanic as well as black, will grow up without the familial environment that’s crucial to success in the information age.

On the current political spectrum, the populist Left proposes increased spending on failing public schools, a more generous safety net for welfare recipients, amnesty and benefits for illegal immigrants, indefinite affirmative action, and environmental regulations that will kill jobs.  The righteous Right has succeeded in exposing the differences between the cultural values of the working class and the liberal overclass, but they have failed to distinguish between pro-market and pro-business and between spending that fosters dependency and spending that fosters independence and upward mobility. 

The second part of the Grand New Party describes the programs that will earn for Republicans the permanent allegiance of the working class.  The programs can be placed into two categories:

  1. Putting families first.  Everything in America starts with strong families.  Over the past 30 years, illegitimacy and family instability breed financial anxiety, which puts further strains on the family.  To break this cycle, we need to strengthen the family:
    • Family-friendly taxes – $5,000 per-child tax credit and wage subsidies
    • Encourage sprawl because suburbs promote improved family life
    • Require universal, affordable health insurance
    • Means-test Social Security
    • Replace income and SS taxes with a consumption tax.
  2. Up from compassion.  The authors commend Bush-43 for his instincts in adopting the theme of a “compassionate conservative,” but they think his language struck the wrong tone.  America should be focused, not on its empathy, but rather on the aspirations of the poor with a drive to succeed.  Instead of feeling pity and condescension, America should facilitate self-improvement.  Examples:
    • School choice – with a weighted-student funding formula for all schools
    • Defusing the crime bomb
    • Immigration – better border control, but full-fledged citizenship and opportunity instead of guest-worker programs.

According to the authors, the Left wants to turn America into Europe, with its welfare state, and they might succeed if the working class believes that the Right wants to turn America into Latin America, with its rich and poor, but no middle class.  The authors believe that the key is to adopt Ronald Reagan’s vision of government, as articulated in his first inaugural address – he declared that his mission was not “to do away with government,” but “to make it work – work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride our back.”

This message is almost identical to one given to me by a UTSA student following a Congressional candidate forum last year.  This student suggested to me that the Republican Party would never be adopted by Hispanics as long as it considered government to be a bad thing.  I agree – we need government, not to redistribute wealth, but to foster opportunity for disadvantaged Americans.

September 8, 2010

Fair use

Filed under: Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 5:06 pm
Tags: , ,

A few weeks ago, I received an email from an individual who complained that I had used information from his copyrighted website without permission.  His article had extolled the virtues of the agriculture exemption in Texas, and I used his rationales in favor of the exemption (and cited him) to show how the exemption was really a bad idea.  I apologized and he accepted, but warned that his bulldog lawyer was prickly, so I should be more careful in the future.     

Until this incident, I was pretty cavalier about using information from the internet.  My common sense told me that a person who placed information on the internet had waived any right to control another’s use of that information.  Following the incident, I decided to confirm my common sense.     

The doctrine that controls this area of law is called “fair use.”  Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders.  Examples of “safe harbors” of fair use are commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching or scholarship. Fair use is determined under a four-factor balancing test:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work (facts and ideas can’t be copyrighted);
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The “safe harbor” examples and the four-factor test were codified into federal law in 1976.  Wikipedia lists the following common misunderstandings about fair use:

  • Any use that seems fair is fair use. In the law, the term fair use has a specific meaning that only partly overlaps the plain-English meaning of the words. While judges have much leeway in deciding how to apply fair use guidelines, not every use that is commonly considered “fair” counts as fair use under the law.
  • Fair use interpretations, once made, are static forever. Fair use is decided on a case by case basis, on the entirety of circumstances. The same act done by different means or for a different purpose can gain or lose fair use status. Even repeating an identical act at a different time can make a difference due to changing social, technological, or other surrounding circumstances.
  • It’s copyrighted, so it can’t be fair use. On the contrary, fair use applies only to copyrighted works, describing conditions under which copyrighted material may be used without permission. If a work is not copyrighted, fair use does not come into play, since public-domain works can be used for any purpose without violating copyright law.
    • Note: In some countries (including the United States of America), the mere creation of a work establishes copyright over it, and there is no legal requirement to register or declare copyright ownership[28]
  • Acknowledgment of the source makes a use fair. Giving the name of the photographer or author may help, but it is not sufficient on its own. While plagiarism and copyright violation are related matters—-both can, at times, involve failure to properly credit sources—-they are not identical. Plagiarism—using someone’s words, ideas, images, etc. without acknowledgment—is a matter of professional ethics. Copyright is a matter of law, and protects exact expression, not ideas. One can plagiarize even a work that is not protected by copyright, such as trying to pass off a line from Shakespeare as one’s own. On the other hand, citing sources generally prevents accusations of plagiarism, but is not a sufficient defense against copyright violations. For example, reprinting a copyrighted book without permission, while citing the original author, would be copyright infringement but not plagiarism.
  • Noncommercial use is invariably fair. Not true, though a judge may take the profit motive or lack thereof into account. In L.A. Times v. Free Republic, the court found that the noncommercial use of L.A. Times content by the Free Republic Web site was in fact not fair use, since it allowed the public to obtain material at no cost that they would otherwise pay for.
  • The lack of a copyright notice means the work is public domain. Not usually true. United States law in effect since March 1, 1989, has made copyright the default for newly created works. For a recent work to be in the public domain the author must specifically opt-out of copyright. For works produced between January 1, 1923 and March 1, 1989, copyright notice is required; however, registration was not required and between January 1, 1978 and March 1, 1989 lack of notice is not necessarily determinative, if attempts were made immediately to correct the lack of notice. Any American works that did not have formal registration or notice fell into the Public Domain if registration was not made in a timely fashion. For international works, the situation is even more complex. International authors who failed to provide copyright notice or register with the U.S. copyright office are given additional contemporary remedies that may restore American copyright protection given certain conditions. International authors/corporations who fail to meet these remedies forfeit their copyright.
  • It’s okay to quote up to 300 words. The 300-word limit is reported to be an unofficial agreement, now long obsolete, among permissions editors in the New York publishing houses: “I’ll let you copy 300 words from our books if you let us copy 300 words from yours.” It runs counter to the substantiality standard. As explained above, the substantiality of the copying is more important than the actual amount. For instance, copying a complete short poem is more substantial than copying a random paragraph of a novel; copying an 8.5×11-inch photo is more substantial than copying a square foot of an 8×10-foot painting. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a news article’s quotation of approximately 300 words from former President Gerald Ford’s 200,000 word memoir was sufficient to constitute an infringement of the exclusive publication right in the work.[30]
  • You can deny fair use by including a disclaimer. Fair use is a right granted to the public on all copyrighted work. Fair use rights take precedence over the author’s interest. Thus the copyright holder cannot use a non-binding disclaimer, or notification, to revoke the right of fair use on works. However, binding agreements such as contracts or license agreements may take precedence over fair use rights. 
  • If you’re copying an entire work, it’s not fair use. While copying an entire work may make it harder to justify the amount and substantiality test, it does not make it impossible that a use is fair use. For instance, in the Betamax case, it was ruled that copying a complete television show for time-shifting purposes is fair use.
  • If you’re selling for profit, it’s not fair use. While commercial copying for profit work may make it harder to qualify as fair use, it does not make it impossible. For instance, in the 2 Live Crew – Oh, Pretty Woman case, it was ruled that commercial parody can be fair use.
  • Strict adherence to fair use protects you from being sued. Fair use is an affirmative defense against an infringement suit; it does not restrain anyone from suing. The copyright holder may legitimately disagree that a given use is fair, and they have the right to have the matter decided by a court. Thus, fair use is not a deterrent to a lawsuit

As the final dot point states, there is no absolute protection against being sued, but based on my new understanding of fair use, I think it is highly likely that my use of the ag-exemption information was protected because (1) there was no profit motive on my part, (2) my use did not harm the value of the copyrighted material, and most importantly (3) my use was for commentary/criticism.  I don’t recall if I cut-and-pasted the rationales for the ag-exemption or paraphrased them, but paraphrasing them would be much more defensible.

Since this incident, I have had only one occasion where I felt it would be prudent to obtain the author’s permission.  That occasion involved a blog entry on proper blackjack strategy, and I wanted to include in my entry the simplified strategy from a comprehensive blackjack website.  So I wrote for permission, obtained it, and went forward with peace of mind.  Messing with lawyers is the last thing I want in life.

September 5, 2010

A Golden Gut and picking stocks or NFL games

Filed under: Entertainment,Investing,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 8:33 pm
Tags: , , , ,

A Golden Gut

A few weeks ago, I blogged about my younger brother’s statement that he could have achieved a 4.0 GPA in college if he had tried.  I noted that his comment had proved useful in countless philosophical conversations.  Many years ago I read about another equally useful comment in a book centered on the auto industry.  Although I’ve long since forgotten the name of the book, I still vividly remember the author’s discussion of something called a Golden Gut.  This was the ability of those who had climbed the political ladder as an executive in General Motors to make wise decisions without a full consideration of relevant data.  Instead of trying to assess the data, these self-described winners assumed that their natural intuition would suffice. 

Picking stocks

That same concept applies to everyday investors picking stocks.  Warren Buffett is well-known as the greatest stock picker of all time.  Although he sometimes disparages investing in mutual funds, he has publicly stated that indexed mutual funds are a wonderful way to invest if you don’t have the time, expertise, and judgment to evaluate individual stocks.  But who doesn’t think they have the ability to evaluate stocks?  Although people blessed with a Golden Gut may not have time or expertise to go head-to-head with the analysts on Wall Street, they think they can make up for those deficiencies because of innate intuition, wisdom, perspective, or judgment.

“A man’s got to know his limitations,” according to Dirty Harry in Magnum Force.  In my opinion, it is highly unlikely that a part-timer person sitting in San Antonio can know more about a stock than a full-timer sitting on Wall Street.  But we part-timers have one major advantage – i.e., the market is already priced to reflect the cumulative knowledge of Wall Street.  Thus, we can easily buy or sell stock at a fair price, and if our realistic objective is to equal the market, then we will heed Warren Buffet’s advice of buying into an indexed mutual fund so that we can smooth out our results.

Can you beat the market without insider knowledge?  Although I may be guilty of the Golden Gut delusion, I believe you can.  Several stock-picking advisors have suggested that individuals can apply their unique perspective of a company toward a buy/sell decision.  For example:

  • You experience a company’s new product and think it has a lot of long-term potential;
  • You become familiar with a company’s employees and are impressed, or 
  • You visit a new franchise, and it seems promising.   

This knowledge would be woefully inadequate for someone attempting to evaluate a business, but we don’t have to do that because Wall Street has already evaluated the business based on a wealth of data and information.  We are simply adding a little tweaking to that evaluation based on our unique perspective.  You wouldn’t want to invest your entire portfolio using this technique, but I think it is reasonable to invest a significant percentage of your stock portfolio this way. 

I currently have 2% each of my portfolio in Ford, Goldman Sachs, ConocoPhillips, 3% in Lifetime Fitness, and 16% in Berkshire Hathaway.  The remainder is in mutual funds.

Picking NFL games

I recently joined the Hill’s & Dale’s NFL pool.  In the H&D pool, you pick the winners of each game each week.  In other pools, you pick for or against the spread each week.  I think betting with the spread each week would be a better test of skill, but I am the most junior member of this pool, so will keep my thoughts to myself for now.  How does picking stocks compare to picking NFL games?  More than might seem obvious.

The major similarity with stock-picking and game-picking is that the market has already accurately priced both entities based on an accumulation of all available information.  If we were betting for or against the spread, each game would be virtually a 50-50 proposition and our pick would depend on our “innate intuition, wisdom, perspective, or judgment.”  Now, because we know the line before we make our pick, it makes sense to go with the line in every game except that rarity where we believe our judgment is strong and the line is weak – i.e., a spread of less than 2-3 points.

In looking at the spread for the first week, I was disappointed to see that there were only a few games with a small enough spread to allow my judgment to be considered:

  • NY Jets (at home) picked by 2 over the Baltimore
  • Atlanta picked by 2½ over Pittsburg (at Pittsburg)
  • Jacksonville (at home) by 2½ over Denver
  • Indianapolis by 2½ over Houston (at Houston)
  • Green Bay by 3 over Philadelphia (at Philly)
  • Tampa Bay (at home) by 3 over Cleveland

For the first week, I am going to primarily rely on the line because of the paucity of projected close games.  My only upset will be the smallest line – I’m going with Baltimore over the Jets because the Jets are due for a let-down after Rex Ryan’s Cinderella first year and the team’s over-exposure on HBO’s Hard Knocks.  I feel bad about forsaking the Vikings, but they are picked to lose by 4½ to the Saints.  Although I am hopeful of a victory, I am going to treat this game-picking like a business. 

If you think that personal judgment can’t be as good as the nationwide line, you might wonder whether a person who bets the line every week would do well in this pool.  Some argue that, because of the payout structure each week (60% to first, 30% to second, and 10% to third), it pays to include a few upsets in your picks.  I don’t agree with that.  If a flipped coin was designed to come up heads 60% of the time, and if you had to bet on what the results of the next ten flips would be, your bet should bet on heads for each flip instead of trying to guess when the upset would occur. 

Despite my assumption that the market is much better than individuals in evaluating stocks or NFL games, there is one a compelling reason for picking stocks and games – it is fun.  It gives me an emotional and financial reason for rooting for a company or team.  That is why I wish we were picking games by the betting line.  That way, I could pick the Vikings and Cowboys to win every week.  Now I am going to have mixed feelings.  Although I will be whole-heartedly rooting for Favre and the Vikings, a victory might cost me some money because others in the pool might be more emotionally invested in the Vikings.

September 4, 2010

An open letter to Glenn Beck re: the stock market

Dear Glenn Beck:

 I was recently listening to you being interviewed by Chris Wallace on a Sunday talk show following your big Saturday event in D.C.  During the interview, you smugly reminded Chris of your prescient prediction on the collapse of the stock market in late 2008 and early 2009.  I might say that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn, but that would unkind and unfair.  It is fair, however, to say that your prediction was a disservice to your country and your patriotic listeners.

You seem to think of the stock market as a betting place like Las Vegas – instead of betting on games, you bet on whether business is going to get better or worse.  But that is a fundamental misconception.  The stock market represents the ownership of American business, and that ownership entitles us to participate in future profits from the business.  This concept of ownership applies to both public and private companies, but ownership in public companies is much more liquid – i.e., easy to buy in or sell out. 

Liquidity is a major attraction of public stocks, but it can be a drawback, too, when prices fluctuate dramatically based on speculation about short-term earnings.  Unfortunately, speculators base their investment decisions, not on the long-term prospects for profits, but rather on the profits for the next few quarters. 

In 2008-2009, you told your listeners that the world economy was, essentially, going to hell, and therefore they should sell their ownership interest in business and place their cash in the safest place they could find.  In making this warning, you were suggesting that your listeners should act like a speculator instead of following Warren Buffett’s advice of “buy and hold.”    

Although your advice was focused on the stock market, I assume the same advice would apply to someone who had private ownership of a business.  It may not be as easy to sell private assets, but if you are jettisoning Buffett’s buy-and-hold philosophy, there is no reason for small proprietors to ride out the storm. 

Another issue with your advice – where can you safely place your money if the world economy is going to hell?  Your advice reminds me of John Denver, who was criticized for working toward energy independence while hedging his bet by installing several fully-stocked, industrial-sized fuel tanks in his back yard.  Don’t you realize that by living in fear of the future, you are exacerbating the problems that currently confront us? 

You probably aren’t old enough to remember this, but in my youth there were people who were building bomb shelters because of their fear that Russia was going to bomb us into oblivion.  These people wanted to be among the few who remained breathing the morning after.  Well, if Armageddon hits the world economy, let it be said that the Becksters followed the advice that Beck learned from his granddad:

“The people who survived the Great Depression were the ones who had money to buy when everybody else was selling.”

Some questions to ponder:

  • Do you want to plan your finances so that you will survive a financial meltdown?
  • If you put your money on the sidelines, will you be rooting (like Rush Limbaugh) for America to fail so that you can buy low later? 
  • What will happen to the American economy if everyone acts like you and decides to cash-out and go to the sidelines? 
  • Won’t the collapse of big businesses spread to small businesses and to families? 

I think your suggestion to abandon the American stock market was one of the least patriotic things you could do.

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