Mike Kueber's Blog

October 31, 2012

How important are small businesses to the creation of jobs?

Filed under: Business,Economics,Education — Mike Kueber @ 2:06 pm
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Politicians, especially those of the Republican stripe, like to claim that most new jobs are created by small businesses.  And according to the Small Business Administration (SBA), that claim is accurate.  The SBA reports that 65% of America’s new jobs created in the past 17 years were created by small businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees).   

I have no quarrel with the factual claim that small businesses create most new jobs, but I vigorously disagree with the significance of that fact.  My thinking is that (1) the vitality of an economy – whether local, state, or national – depends on its ability to export products, and (2) large businesses, not small businesses, produce the products that an economy exports.  This thinking is reflected in the old saying, “As GM goes, so goes the nation.” 

While visiting Steubenville, Ohio that past week, I saw what happens to a local economy when it loses its ability to export products.  For decades, Steubenville exported steel and when that industry died, so did Steubenville.  According to the US census, Steubenville lost more population than any other metropolitan area in America between 1980 and 2000.  In a sense, all of the small businesses in Steubenville existed to support the big businesses that produced the exportable products. 

When the big businesses die, the same thing will inevitably happen to the small businesses, not matter how efficient they are.

When I was living in North Dakota in the ‘80s, I remember telling people that the only reason that North Dakota existed as an economy was to produce agricultural products.  If the land wasn’t productive, the entire economy would dry up and blow away.  Today, that is not entirely accurate because, not only has North Dakota hit the jackpot with oil, but its educated workforce has attracted some technology companies that export products.

This concept of producing exportable products has wide application to the way that I think about a plethora of issues, such as:

  1. The HEB grocery chain is not nearly as significant to San Antonio’s economy as it appears to be.  If HEB didn’t exist, some other grocer would take its place in selling groceries.  HEB merely cuts up the pie of available money in San Antonio’s economy; it doesn’t grow the pie. 
  2. By contrast, military installations grow San Antonio’s economic pie, which can then feed hundreds of small businesses that live directly off the military or indirectly off its employees.
  3. Corporations that create exportable products are critical to a thriving economy, and that is why Toyota (or Rackspace, Valero, et al.) is so important to San Antonio.  .
  4. Good colleges are important, not only by attracting students from other economies, but also by getting your young people to stay in San Antonio instead of taking their money somewhere else.  Reducing imports is just as effective as increasing exports.  
  5. Although small businesses do not generally create exportable products (or bring in money from other economies), they are important in the sense that if they are run poorly, their inflated costs are passed on to their customers.  If their customer is a big business, that business will be less able to produce competitive, exportable products, and if their customer is an individual consumer, that consumer will have a diminished quality of life.   

When San Antonio gives a tax incentive for a business to locate here, I hope the incentives go to businesses that enlarge the pie (i.e., a manufacturer with 50 employees), not those that merely cut up the pie (a big restaurant with 200 employers).  One might argue that attracting a sports team falls in the category of merely cutting up the pie of San Antonio’s entertainment dollars.  But others would counter that a sports team, like a symphony, affects a city’s quality of life and, thereby, its ability to attract big companies that will produce exportable products. 

Bottom line – human capital is critical to San Antonio’s long-term success, and that means having smart, hard-working people.  Sometimes that means attracting such people to move here, but ideally we should be growing our own.  And let’s hope San Antonio and America don’t follow GM’s path.

June 12, 2012

Should North Dakota eliminate its property tax?

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 10:06 pm
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An article in USA Today reports that voters today in my home state of North Dakota are going to decide whether to eliminate its property tax – so-called Measure 2.  Apparently the state’s economy is so booming that the tax is felt by some (but not the business and political establishment) to be unnecessary. 

North Dakota, like Texas and most other states, uses the property tax to pay for local government – cities, counties, and schools – but the article fails to say where the funding of these government entities will come from.  Instead, the measure simply instructs the state government to pay local governments an equivalent amount of cash.  The state currently gets most of its money from income and sales taxes, so the obvious solution would be to increase those taxes. 

Coincidentally, I blogged earlier today about the Texas GOP’s new platform, which calls for the elimination of the national income tax, property tax, estate tax, and capital-gains tax.  That doesn’t leave many sources of revenue other than a sales tax.  Even if Measure 2 passes, North Dakota will actually have more flexibility than Texas because ND still has an income tax, and Texas doesn’t.  I shudder to think what Texas voters would do if they had the authority to act directly through the Initiative process.  I would bet the family farm that state legislators would no longer have the gold-plated pension that they currently have.

My objection to Measure #2 is that I don’t want the rich to be able to avoid paying taxes, and by placing too much reliance on a sales tax, the rich can control their tax exposure by controlling when and where and what they buy.  By contrast, a property tax, a capital-gains tax, and an estate tax ensure that the rich contribute toward the funding of government as they sit on their estate acquired by some distant ancestor.  I do, however, like that transparency and simplicity of a sales tax.

June 13, 2011

June hiatus/sojourn

Filed under: Entertainment — Mike Kueber @ 9:09 pm
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I’m leaving tomorrow for my annual trip to North Dakota for Aneta’s annual Turkey Bar-B-Que, so my blog will be on hiatus for a week or so.

June 6, 2011

Open-container laws – a primer

In cars

Ever since moving to Texas in 1987, I have been fascinated by open-container laws.  Life in Texas seemed so refreshingly open after spending my first 22 years in straight-laced North Dakota, where a person would go to a liquor store to buy alcohol.  And don’t even consider looking for alcohol on a Sunday.  By contrast, Texas allowed you to buy beer at a grocery store and even on Sunday if you waited until noon.  For a libertarian like me, Texas was heaven on earth.

But then big government stuck their nose into our affairs and said that states would be denied their highway money if they continued to allow open containers in cars.  This law was called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), and it was passed by Congress in 1998.
I still remember hearing a senator from my home state of North Dakota reporting to his incredulous voters that he could legally drive from
Washington, D.C. to Texas with beer in his car.  My first thought was, “So what?”  My second thought was, “What’s it to you?”

Because Texas was unwilling to buck the federal government and lose all that highway money (actually the money would be redirected toward an alcohol-awareness campaign), Texas capitulated and made open containers illegal.  Fortunately, TEA-21 expired in 2003, and open-containers laws are in retreat.  Currently one state (Mississippi) allows a driver and passengers to have an open container and eight others (Arkansas,
Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia) allow passengers to have an open container.

Driving while under the influence is America’s problem; not driving while drinking.

Come on Texas; what are you waiting for?

On the streets

I had never experienced open-containers on public streets until I traveled to Progresso, a Mexican border town in the Valley.  The experience was wonderful – I loved to shop the markets while drinking a frozen strawberry margarita.  Of course, that aspect of the trip made it seem all the more exotic.

Then a few years ago, I made my first trip to New Orleans and discovered that hurricanes and frozen margaritas were allowed on the streets there, too.  Once again, the experience was wonderful and it left me with the sense of having visiting an exotic location.

A couple of weeks ago in St. Louis, my son Mikey was telling me about a trip that he took to Memphis, and he reported that he had a great time on Beale Street, partly because he was able to walk around with a drink.  That sounded so interesting that I almost detoured to Memphis on my way back to San Antonio, and I am much more likely to visit there in the future.

For future reference, I decided to find out whether there are any other cities like Memphis or New Orleans.  According to Wikipedia, all but seven states prohibit open-containers on streets – the lucky seven are Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  Unfortunately, nearly all of the cities in those states outlaw open-containers.  But there are a few exceptions – in addition to Memphis and New Orleans, there is Las Vegas, NV; Butte, MT; Power & Light District of Kansas City, MO; the Savannah Historic District in Savanna, GA; and the Main Street Shopping District of Fredericksburg, TX.

Come on, San Antonio; what are you waiting for?

May 31, 2011

Doctors are trending Democratic

I remember reading many years ago prescient, influential book by Kevin Phillips book called The Emerging Republican Majority.  Although Phillips is now a scathing critic of the Republican Party (he recently wrote American Theocracy), he was at the time a Nixon strategist.  The main point that I took from the book was that the Upper Midwest, including my home state of North Dakota, was trending Democratic because so many farmers were staying in business by sucking on the government teat.  Sure enough, over the next few years, North Dakota switched from a state with strong Republican congressional representation to a state with exclusively Democratic congressional representation (although it continued to vote Republican in presidential elections).

In 2010, the trend that Phillips detected in 1969 was finally reversed.  North Dakota elected a Republican senator (long-serving Senator Dorgan retired) and turned out its lone, long-serving Congressman Earl Pomeroy (who graduated with me at UND in 1975).  In 2012, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad will be voluntarily stepping down, and a Republican is expected to take the seat.  So in the space of two years, North Dakota is likely to go from all Democrats in Congress to all Republicans. That suggests that farmers are no longer looking to Washington, D.C. to take care of them.

The same cannot be said for doctors. According to an article in the NY Times today, doctors are trending Democratic.  I believe this analogous to ND farmers in the 1960s.  Young, female, salaried doctors see that their future is going to be controlled, not by themselves, but by the
federal government.  And if you want to influence the direction of big government, you get involved in the Democratic (big D) process.

March 12, 2011

Sunday book review #19 – Roger Maris by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary

Roger Maris is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read.  Despite its imposing 393 pages, the book was easy to pick up and hard to put down.  When reading other imposing books, I occasionally find myself skimming some paragraphs.  Not so with the Maris book.

In his glory days with the Yankees in the early 60s, Roger was part of the famous M&M duo – Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.  I just finished reading (and blogging on) a biography on Mantle – The Last Boy – that won awards for its author Jane Leavy, but I much preferred the Maris book.  Disclosure – I am from North Dakota and so was Roger, and that is an elite, exclusive fraternity.    

While the Mantle biography was organized around 20 watershed days in his life, the Maris book was organized as a traditional, meticulously detailed chronology.  The authors seem to have read everything and talked to everyone who ever knew Maris, including Jim Adelson, the CBS sports anchor in Fargo when I was growing up and whose autograph was the first I ever snared.  I was surprised to read that Adelson was a major source for the book in describing Maris’s athletic achievements and celebrity in Fargo. 

The glaring deficiency with the sourcing of this book is that, of the hundreds of listed sources, none have the last name of Maris.  Although the authors make no note of this, I infer that the family wasn’t willing to participate in this project

Until reading the Maris book, I wasn’t aware that Roger was born in Hibbing, MN, a poor mining town in northeastern Minnesota filled with Croatian immigrants like Roger’s family.  Roger’s dad Rudy was a career railroad laborer for Burlington Northern, and he moved his family to Grand Forks, ND when Roger was seven and to Fargo a couple of years later.  According to the author, these moves were prompted by Rudy attempting to get his wife Connie away from the latest of her serial boyfriends.  Coincidentally, while Roger moved away from Hibbing at age seven, a few years later folksinger Bob Dylan moved to Hibbing at age seven.  Neither ever had anything good to say about the place.  

In addition to learning that Roger lived in Hibbing and Grand Forks before Fargo, I also learned that his last name was Maras (pronounced Morris) until he was a minor leaguer.  Although the book is exceptionally well-researched, the authors never provided a solid explanation for the name change other than to suggest that Roger’s mother Connie was estranged from her husband’s family in Hibbing, and she might have effected the name change to spite them.  That is also the authors’ explanation for why Roger forever claimed Fargo as his hometown and shunned Hibbing.

There seem to be two overarching themes to Roger Maris, the book:

  1. Personality and character.  He had a prickly personality when dealing with people who wanted to be stroked (especially people in the media and baseball management), but he was essentially a decent person of outstanding character who had excellent relations with and was admired by virtually all of his colleagues.
  2. Baseball skills.  He was one of the most under-rated players of his time and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.  In addition to hitting with power, he was a clutch player who could run and throw, and he did the little things to help his team win.  He was a key player who participated in seven World Series in twelve years and won two MVP awards.  Oh yeah, and he hit 61 home runs in 1961.    

Despite Maris’s accomplishments, the sportswriters on NY’s eleven daily newspapers suddenly decided in 1961 that athletes should no longer be idolized.  So they demonized Maris and lionized Mantle.  This was a classic case of being the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The book shifts back and forth from describing Roger’s work (playing baseball) and his personal life, but the most attention is paid to his work.  Key games and key streaks are reported in detail.  I especially enjoyed reading about the old days in baseball when players didn’t have agents and didn’t make much more than ordinary people.  They hoped to play as long as they could before having to get a regular job.  Maris was considered a business genius for leveraging his last year with the St. Louis Cardinals (owners of Budweiser) into obtaining a job running a beer distributorship in Gainesville, FL.

I was especially impressed with Roger’s love of the Midwest and Fargo.  He bought his family a house in Kansas City when he played there early in his career, and he refused to move when he was traded to the Yankees.  Roger and his wife Pat had six kids, and they wanted to raise them in the same Midwest that they grew up in. 

Then, after he retired, Roger and Pat lived in Gainesville for almost 20 years until he died of lymphoma in 1985.  Although his parents Rudy and Connie and his only sibling Rudy Jr. also lived in Gainesville, and although Roger hadn’t lived in Fargo for years, Pat said there was never any question that he was going to be buried in Fargo – “This is our home and these are our people.  We moved away in 1957, but our hearts were always here.”

The Roger Maris Museum can be found in the West Acres Mall in Fargo, right off Interstate 29.  I drive by the Mall every summer, but haven’t stopped in for a few years.  I think I will this summer.

December 27, 2010

Great movitational speeches – from Patton to Payton

After nearly 30 years in corporate life, I’ve heard my share of motivational speeches, but none of them matches George C. Scott’s in the 1970 movie, Patton.  As a matter of historical fact, the actual (unrecorded) speech was given by General Patton to the Third Army on June 5, 1944, which was D-Day minus one.  

Part of my fascination with the speech was the coarse language that this North Dakota farmboy was not used to hearing.  My dad had said the word “damn” only once in my presence during my entire life.  Back in North Dakota, we were politically correct before it became mandatory.  I remember being required in 1971 to submit the text of my high-school salutatorian address for review by the high school principal, and then having her instruct me that in urging our generation to work for peace, I needed to be careful to not imply that previous generations weren’t similarly committed.  Huh?

Some of the more colorful phrases used in the Patton speech were “shoveling shit in Louisiana” and “we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose.”  To get the boys fighting made, Patton said, “When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do.”  To get his boys to stop thinking about themselves, he said, “Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating.”  In the actual speech, Patton said “fucking” instead of “fornicating,” but according to Wikipedia, to avoid an “R” rating, some editing was required to lines like, “We’re not going to just shoot the sons-of-bitches, we’re going to rip out their living Goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks.”

But the most memorable line of all was the first sentence in the Scott’s speech:

  • “Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

Ironically, I thought of that line this Christmas when listening to the G-rated, best country-music video of the year – Kenny Chesney’s Boys of Fall.  (I assume the song’s title is a play on words with the title of Roger Kahn’s great book about the Brooklyn Dodgers – The Boys of Autumn.  The video is an attempt by Chesney to pay homage to something that he and millions of Americans love – high school football.  The video begins with a motivational pre-game speech given by New Orleans NFL Coach Sean Payton to the kids at his high school alma mater – Naperville Central outside of Chicago.  The last line in Payton’s speech evoked George C. Scott’s famous speech:

  • They’re a faceless opponent.  They just happened to draw the short straw tonight.  Now get your asses ready to playWin on three.”

That may not sound like much on paper, but a football coach can bring it to life.  This is but one line of many in the video that will bring goose bumps to you.  If you’re drawn to Rudy-esque stories and don’t mind tearing up, you’ll love this 8-minute video.  Give it a listen

After Payton’s motivational speech and Chesney’s nearly as good song, the video concludes with several rousing pre-game clips from nameless high-school coaches and some nostalgic wisdom from a few Southern football gods – Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Mack Brown, and Joe Namath – and Minnesotan John Madden.  Last, but not least, watch for Bear Bryant to close it out.  What a remarkable guy!

Are motivational speeches effective?  Payton’s alma mater trailed cross-town rival trailed 17-0 at halftime before rallying dramatically to win 21-17. 

But — my son Jimmy played football for Clark High School, and he said his coaches played this video before every game.  Although it made the kids ready to run through walls, we suspect that the kids on the other teams were probably watching the same video.

October 8, 2010

My Kueber heritage in North Dakota

Filed under: History — Mike Kueber @ 4:03 am
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In Texas, a person has a claim to fame if his family immigrated to Texas before it became a state in 1846.  After studying my Kueber heritage in North Dakota, I am proud to say that my ancestors started farming in Rugh Township, North Dakota before it became a state in 1889, and Kuebers are still farming there today.     

The first Kueber in America was my great-great-grandfather John George Kueber (ne Johann Georg Kuber), and he apparently squeezed a lot of living in his life.  John was born on New Years Eve 1833 in Rieneck, Bavaria, Germany, and he emigrated to NYC on May 12, 1877 on the German Steam Ship Rhein.  He brought with him his wife Maria and five children, including my great-grandfather Jacob Kueber (ne Jakob Kuber), who was five-years old at the time.  John was a baker in Rieneck (as was his father Andreas and grandfather Georg), and in America he became a farmer.  He also had three more kids with his first Maria, who died during childbirth in 1883. 

Because women were in short supply in Minnesota, John looked to Germany for a replacement wife.  According to some reports, he went to Germany and returned with a second wife, Ottilia.  According to other reports, he wrote for a wife and used a photo of his oldest, 21-year-old son Aloysius Luis (Louie) to hide the fact that he was almost 50 years old.  In any event, Ottilia arrived in Minnesota and married John, while Louie left home in a huff and never talked to his dad again.  Ottilia graced John with eight more children. 

John homesteaded twice in Minnesota, but was unsuccessful and he lost his land by foreclosure in 1892.  After the bankruptcy, he took his younger, second family to Oregon and later Washington, while the older, first family stayed in the Minnesota area.  John had financial difficulties in Washington, too, and shortly before he died of a heart attack in 1900, he wrote to Louie for money, and Louie refused. 

Louie had moved to Rugh Township, ND in 1885 as soon as the territory was opened to homesteading.  (The Scandinavians in the area were moving into Ora Township to the south, while the Germans and Pennsylvania Dutch settled in Rugh Township.)   Louie’s younger brother, my great-grandfather Jacob, followed Louie to Rugh Township and married Marie Catherine Bichler in 1898.  Jacob farmed in Rugh Township his entire (albeit abbreviated) life and died of stomach cancer on June 2, 1912.  He and Marie had six children, and their oldest son was my grandfather Aloysius John Kueber. 

Grandpa Kueber’s age was always easy to remember because he was born on December 3, 1900.  My dad’s mom was Caroline Hillesland, born June 30, 1905, and she died August 27, 1932.  Caroline and Al were married in 1927 and had two children – my dad and Uncle Jerry.  (I think Caroline died while in childbirth for my namesake uncle, Alyn Jerome.)  After Caroline’s death, Grandpa Kueber (with two small kids) quickly married Agnes Lian on September 2, 1933, and they had five more kids – Don, Dick, Mary Ann, Robert, and Alice.  Grandpa and Grandma Kueber farmed in Rugh Township until they retired in 1964 and moved to the West Coast, where four of their seven kids had already moved. 

Uncle Dick led the migration to California.  He was the quintessential entrepreneur and after his discharge from the Marines at Camp Pendleton, he started a gas station and a misc.-rental company in the tri-city area – Oceanside, Carlsbad, and Vista.  Both businesses thrived, and soon two brothers and a brother-in-law moved to CA and started similar businesses in the area.  Grandpa and Grandma bought a house with a swimming pool in Oceanside, CA, and I still remember them telling glamorous stories about highways in CA where, if you missed your exit, you had to drive for ten miles to find your next exit.  They also told of star-sightings, like Wishbone from Rawhide fame, who lived close by.  The streets weren’t paved with gold, but California sounded mighty inviting.

My dad, Bernard James (Sunny) Kueber, was the only Kueber kid who still stayed back in North Dakota (other than Aunt Alice, who was still a senior in high school), so he got first dibs to take over the farm.  Dad had enlisted in the Army right out of high school and served in Japan in 1946-47.  After his discharge, he worked on Grandpa’s farm and then married my mom, Esther Fern Sotvik, on November 21, 1951.  In 1955, Dad moved his young family of three boys to town (Aneta, population @400) and took a job as Chief of the city’s one-man police force.  The job paid $100 a week, and Dad rented a nice house in a nice neighborhood in Aneta from Mom’s parents for $100 a month.  In 1964, with Grandpa’s retirement, Dad gave up this career with limited growth potential and moved his family, now with four young boys, to the Kueber family farm. 

What was the Kueber farm like when we moved there in 1964?  Well, the 800-farm comprised one full section (1 square mile) and an adjoining quarter (one-half mile squared).  There were about 500 tillable acres, 100 acres of pasture, 170 acres of slough, and 30 acres of creek.  It was situated right in the middle of four small towns – Aneta, McVille, Northwood, and Petersburg.  And these small towns were situated right in the middle of four ND regional metropolises – Grand Forks, Fargo, Devils Lake, and Jamestown.  As we commonly said back then, “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.” 

Dad got a loan from the Federal Land Bank and bought the farm for $80,000, or $100 an acre.  I thought that was the market price, but one of my uncles later told me that that was the maximum amount that the Land Bank would loan on the land.  The land came with an old one and a half story house, a nice small barn, a chicken coop, a three-stall garage, a shop (previously a one-room school house), a tractor shed, a wooden granary, and two steel bins.

Dad also got a loan to buy farm equipment and livestock, most of which he bought at my grandpa’s auction sale.  That sale is my first recollection of being on the farm.  I remember Dad having a friend bid on the one item that Dad wanted more than any other – Grandpa’s 4010 John Deere tractor.  The rationale for the substitute bidder was that Dad bidding on the tractor would unfairly suppress the price because many farmers would not want to bid against a popular young farmer just starting out.  I think Dad eventually got the tractor for about $4,000.  To save money, Dad didn’t buy a combine or a baler.  Instead, he would have custom combiners/balers perform those tasks every year.  [November 7, 2010 edit – I just recalled that the Kueber farm used low-tech hay stacking the first few years on the farm, with us kids walking on the hay in the stack-frame to stomp it down.  Only later did we shift to labor-intensive rectangular bales and eventually to minimal-labor round bales.] 

Dad liked to diversify and rotate the 500-acre grain operation.  Although the most profitable crop was durum wheat (which is made into pasta), the federal government usually limited the number acres that could be planted to wheat.  The remaining acres were planted to oats, barley, and flax (later sunflowers, corn, and sugar beets).  Flax was an exotic, pricey crop, but was vulnerable to frost; whereas oats and barely weren’t worth much, but could be use to feed the animals, too.

Yes, we had animals on the farm.  The barn was set up for 12 milking cows, plus an area for their calves.  The milk was immediately separated into cream and skim milk, and then every few days we would bring the cream to Aneta’s creamery, where it would be converted into butter.  The skim milk was considered to be almost a waste product, which was given to calves and pigs.  The calves were born in the spring and sold the next spring.  Because we rarely raised a calf to slaughtering size and always had slaughter-ready pigs, our family lived off pork instead of beef.  Just about every Sunday Mom would make a pork roast.  (I never understood why one was called pork roast and the other reversed the words and was called roast beef.)  We also raised chickens, primary for eggs, but I occasionally remember seeing Dad chop off the heads of chickens for eating.  Once I even saw someone wring a chicken’s neck, but I still don’t understand how that works.

We had two decorative livestock on the farm – horses and geese.  Dad grew up when kids would daily ride a horse to the township school, and he never lost his love for horses.  While he was Aneta’s top cop, he stabled a beautiful Palomino at a place on the outskirts of town, and I remember seeing Dad and his Palomino compete in a bunch of horse shows.  I don’t know what happened to the Palomino, but when we moved to the farm, Dad bought Grandpa’s team of two matching horses, and there was a special place in the barn for them.  Grandpa would use the team occasionally (like at Christmas, when he drove them to town with a sled and pretended to be Santa Claus and his sleigh for the kids), but I don’t recall Dad using the team.  For a few years, we had a Shetland pony, too.

The geese weren’t necessarily decorative, but we rarely ate them.  I’m sure the area foxes ate twice as many as we did.  To scare us kids from bothering the geese, Mom and Dad told us that the flapping wings of a goose were so powerful that they could break a person’s arm, and we believed them.

The only livestock we were missing were sheep.  A neighboring relative (George Bothen) had sheep, and I recall that we had some for a while, but I suspect my dad had a Texan’s prejudice against them.  Although Dad had never been to Texas, he had seen enough John Wayne movies to become an honorary Texan.         

And of course we had dogs and more cats than you could count.  We brought one dog from the city, but the black lab called Pal didn’t survive the transition.  He didn’t understand that baby pigs weren’t big rats that needed to be killed.  One morning we went to the barn and found that he had killed all twelve baby pigs.  The sad day got sadder because Dad had to shoot Pal.     

As you can imagine, there was always a lot of work to do on the farm.  The work included plowing and cultivating the tillable land, picking rocks, fixing fence, milking cows, cleaning the barn gutters (i.e., shoveling shit), mowing and raking hay, and hauling hay bales.  And my dad was brought up to believe that it was his responsibility to keep his four boys busy even if there wasn’t any work to do.  The make-work included sweeping the garage and shop whenever we ran out of work real work.  I was the only boy who worked at home all through high school; my three brothers each worked occasionally as hired hands for neighbors. 

After working the farm for almost 20 years later, in 1983, Mom and Dad moved to town, and my brother Greg and his wife Janis moved to the Kueber farm.  As of 2010, Greg and Janis are still there.  That has been no mean feat considering the difficult times that have afflicted the farming business.  It’s sad to think about all the family farmers who were forced to get jobs in the cities, but such is life.  As Margaret Mitchell said, the family farms are gone with the wind.   

P.S., much of my family history was gleaned from an incredible website maintained by Gary Kueber of New Orleans, LA.  Please see http://www.kueber.us/index.htm.

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.

August 11, 2010

A Blackjack Primer

Gambling destinations have become some of the most popular places to vacation in America.  Although these destinations have expanded their range of attractions to include shows, food, golf, water activities, and amusement parks, their core competency is still gambling, and it doesn’t seem right to go to Vegas without spending some time gambling.  If you are undecided about what form of gambling you want to do, I suggest that you consider blackjack (also known as twenty-one). 

I prefer blackjack for two primary reasons:

  1. Your odds of winning, if you play properly, are the highest of any form of gambling – i.e., over 49% – although bad players can win as few as 40% of their hands.
  2. Playing properly requires mental acuity and provides mental stimulation.

I am assuming you know the rules to blackjack.  If you don’t, you can find an excellent description of them at the bottom of this entry.  Beyond knowing the rules, the key to improving your chances of winning a blackjack hand from as low as 40% to over 49% is to employ the correct strategy. 

Every hand begins with the dealer showing one card and the player showing two cards.  Thus, the dealer has ten possible values (2-10 and ace), and the player has 30 possible values, including hard hands (without an ace), soft hands (with an ace), and pairs.    

Blackjack experts have used mathematical models and billions of computerized game simulations to determine the correct strategy for each variation.  The problem is that if you create a matrix with ten columns for the dealer’s possible values and 30 rows for the player’s possible values, you will end up with a 300-cell matrix that tells you whether to hit, hold, split, double-down, or surrender (if allowed).  You can see an example of a 300-cell matrix at http://www.blackjackinfo.com/bjbse.php.  

Most players aren’t willing to devote the mental energy to remember each of the 300 plays.  To help these non-obsessed players, there are a variety of blackjack strategies that simplify and generalize the correct strategy without significantly reducing your chance of winning.  My favorite is called the Wizard’s Strategy, by the Wizard of Odds.  His simplified strategy consists of only 21 cells (two columns for dealer values and eleven rows for player values), and he claims it causes only .14% in incorrect moves.  He previously published a Simple Strategy with only seven rules, but that system cost .53% in incorrect moves.  You can see the Wizard’s Strategy in matrix form at http://wizardofodds.com/blackjack.

I have converted the Wizard’s Strategy to an alternative format that I think is easier to memorize.  The format is from the perspective of what the dealer’s cards are, whereas the Wizard’s matrix format is from the perspective of what the player’s cards are.  

Alternative Format for Wizard’s Strategy – the dealer’s cards

If the dealer has 2 to 6:

  • Stop when you reach 12
  • If you have an ace, stop when you reach 19
  • If you have a hard 9, a soft 16-18, or a 10-11 with more than dealer – double down
  • If you have two 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, or A – split

If the dealer has 7 to A:

  • Stop when you reach 17
  • If you have an ace, stop when you reach 19
  • If you have a 10-11 with more than dealer – double down
  • If you have an 8 or A – split

Surrender only at 16 to 10

Never take insurance

Although I previously indicated that the correct blackjack strategy for each of the 300 variations has been definitively determined by computer simulations and mathematical modeling, that is not exactly true.  I have compared the 300-cell matrices on various websites, and they invariably contain a few differences.  I suspect the mathematical modeling or computer simulations aren’t as precise as the gurus implies.

Card-counting

You may have heard of card-counting in blackjack.  What that means is that some players have the mental acuity to remember not only the 300 different plays, but also the cards that have been previously played from the deck.  When the cards in the deck remaining to be played are favorable to card-counting players, they dramatically increase their bet; when the remaining cards are unfavorable, they decrease their bet.  Casinos don’t allow card-counting because these people can actually have more than a 50% chance of winning.  Thus, successful card-counters are routinely and unceremoniously ejected by casinos if detected. 

Most card-counters don’t actually keep track of each card played.  Instead, they keep a running tally of whether more high cards (9-A) have been played relative to low cards (2-8).  If there is high ratio of high cards remaining to be played, that is good for the player because those high cards are likely to cause the dealer to break.  The ultimate card-counter might also alter his 300-cell strategy depending on knowledge of which cards remain to be played.  Casinos minimize the effectiveness of card counting by playing with several decks at once and then re-shuffling often.  You are probably better off learning the full, 300-cell strategy before attempting to pull some useful information from counting cards.

North Dakota legalized limited charitable gambling in the early 80s, and it was limited to pull tabs and blackjack.  I can’t remember what prompted me to first play, but I became enamored and started studying the blackjack strategies in books and then spending several hours playing (if my $20 didn’t run out sooner).  Blackjack and I connected emotionally and intellectually because (1) it favors consistent, steady play instead of big risks, and (2) it keeps your mind working, as opposed to the mind-numbing playing of one-arm bandits.   

If you haven’t played blackjack with a strategy based on math instead of intuition, give it a try.  You may be surprised how much fun you have, how quickly time passes, and how long your money lasts.

 

The Rules of Blackjack, as described by WizardofOdds.com (http://wizardofodds.com/blackjack)

Blackjack can be played with one to eight ordinary decks of cards. Cards of rank 2 through 10 are scored according to their face value. All face cards are 10 points. Aces are semi-wild and can be worth either 1 or 11 points. The highest hand in blackjack is an ace and any 10-point card and is called a blackjack. A winning blackjack pays 3 to 2. If both player and dealer have a blackjack the bet is a push. Aside from a blackjack, a winning hand pays even money. The player wins if his hand has more points than the dealer, without going over 21. Thus, a 21-point hand is the highest and is why the game is sometimes called 21. If either the player or dealer go over 21 it is called a break or bust and a busted hand automatically loses. If both the player and the dealer bust the player loses, where lies the house advantage. If the player and the dealer tie, the bet is a push.

A round of blackjack begins with each player placing a bet in the circle or logo directly in front of him. Then the dealer will give each player and himself two cards. Player cards are usually dealt face up. One dealer card is dealt face up (the up card) and the other face down (the hole card). If the dealer has a ten or an ace as the up card it is possible he has a blackjack, in which case all player hands will lose except those with another blackjack. In the U.S. the dealer will check for blackjack immediately, if one is possible, and will collect all losing bets immediately if he does have a blackjack.

In the event the dealer has an ace as the up card he will allow the players to insure their hands against a blackjack. This is much like any insurance policy in which you are betting something bad will happen. The insurance bet in blackjack pays 2:1 if the dealer has a blackjack. If the dealer has an ace showing and a player has a blackjack the dealer may ask “even money?” This is because if the player has a blackjack the net result of both the blackjack and the insurance bet will be an even money win regardless of whether the dealer has a blackjack. After all players have had a chance to accept or decline insurance the dealer will check the hole card.

After it has been established that the dealer does not have a blackjack the players in turn may play their hands. The following options are available.

Stand: If the player is satisfied with his hand as-is he may stand pat. To signify you wish to stand, wave your hand as if to wave the dealer away. In a single deck game, tuck your cards face down under your bet.

Hit: If the player wishes to take another card he may continue to do so until he either stands or busts. To signify you wish to hit, tap the table with your finger. In a single deck game, scrape your cards lightly against the felt.

Double: If the player feels he needs one and only one more card then he may double his bet and be dealt one more card, good or bad. This option is only offered on the first two cards, and sometimes on the first two cards after splitting. To signify you wish to double, place another wager next to your original wager of equal value. In single deck, place your cards face up by your bet.

Split: If the player’s first two cards are of equal point value he may split them into two hands. In this event each card is the first card of a new hand. The player must also make another wager, of equal value to the first wager, for the second hand. Splitting after splitting is allowed; however, resplitting aces is often an exception. The player may usually split up to 2 or 3 times if another splitting opportunity arises. Doubling after splitting is usually but not always allowed. To signify you wish to split put the additional wager next to the original wager. In single deck, place your cards face up by your bet.

Surrender: Finally, some casinos offer the player the option to surrender on the first two cards. If the player does not like his prospects he may forfeit half the bet as well as his cards. If the dealer has a ten or ace showing, and the dealer peeks at his hole card for a blackjack before the first player’s turn, then the option is called “late surrender.” If the dealer does not check for blackjack, or does not take a hole card at all, then the option is called “early surrender.” Early surrender is much better for the player, because of the protection against a dealer blackjack.

After all players have played their hands, from the dealer’s left to right, the dealer will play his hand. The dealer has no free will but must always play by certain house rules. Usually the rule is that the dealer must hit until he reaches a score of 17 or more. Some casinos stipulate that if the dealer has a soft 17, an ace and any number of cards totaling 6, he must also hit. If the dealer busts, all players that did not bust automatically win.

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