Sunday, July 2, 2017

I am having an identity crisis

No, not the ever popular gender identity type but the civil liberty, privacy type.  It kicked off with the voter fraud commission request to the states to provide a whole bunch of current and historical information on voters including the last four digits of their social security identification numbers.  I had an unnerved reaction like I was supposed to be paying attention to something here maybe.  [Aside:  a favorite science fiction book on where society might be going is John Brunner's "The Sheep Look Up."]

This reminded me of the onerous burden of proving you are who you say you are in order to get a driver's license in the state of New Jersey, which was a complete and utter shock when I moved here from Seattle and went like a good citizen to transfer my license from Washington State.  NJ uses something called 6 point ID whenever you apply for a new license, renew your license, move from another state, do a change of address, change your name because you married or divorced, etc.  The address proof is difficult for someone who just moves into state and the name change requirements can be hard for someone married several times.  Also, there is this special little check at the end of your social security number.  Silly me, I thought driver's licenses where to make sure drivers knew the rules of the road and had the necessary skills for good driving as proved by a road test. 

I needed a license right away because I needed to buy a car and lucky for me, I had already been paying real estate taxes and a water utility bill before I moved here otherwise I would have needed to wait at least a month to get proof of address.  I was  not happy and considered why should I even be a good citizen and transfer my license at all.  Darn that rule following streak, I went back to the licensing bureau with something that worked.

I thought this onerous process was just some mickey mouse that NJ makes one go through but it turns out that it can be worse in other states as in Kentucky where you need to show your Social Security card as well as other things.  I have no idea where my social security card is and haven't seen it much after I got it in my teens many years ago.  So, how many hoops would I need to go through to get a new one???

My sister, who worked at a small bank in NJ for many years says this whole process in NJ is to protect banks from the oodles and oodles of fraud and identity theft that was happening. Of course, I can not find any data to say it worked one way or another.  Maybe it did and the small banks are safer.    Maybe it didn't and that will be the new scandal coming from the US bank system.  What I do know is that I can not open any bank account or purchase a small CD at any bank without providing a social security number or a federal ID number    That bothers me because I don't think it safeguards the bank or me from any type of fraud or crime.  If I were fraud or criminal minded, I would create a corporation (which is easy and relatively inexpensive) and get a federal ID number for it and wash all the ill-gotten money I wanted through as many accounts as I needed.  No wonder someone invented Bitcoin.

I know intellectually that the Internet has made it so that anyone can know every thing about anyone but I still had this romantic notion that the USA was still a place where you could shake off past failures and re-invent yourself as better.  That might have meant you moved to a new state, chose a different name, learned some new skills, improved yourself, whatever but no longer.  Now, even our civic and financial institutions squeeze us into this little box created when you were born and labeled it with a social security number.  When did it happen that when you are born your parents have to get you a social security number right away?

So,  basically, many of our government institutions can track our whole lives from birth to now with just that one social security number.  I know many people live their lives out on social media through photographs and all without worry about privacy but not me.  It bothers me at some very fundamental level.  In my thirties I went from Margie to Maggie because I was opening a new chapter in my life.  Not a big change, I admit and did nothing to my legal identity.  I just wanted my family and friends to stop thinking of me as my little Margie, a label I really had come to abhor.  It worked though older family members found it hard to remember.  Some people need an even bigger change in their lives, but it certainly has gotten much, much harder.

Baa, I say, baa.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

There it is again

In a report from NPR this morning, a Trump supporter says, "I think this country really needs to be run more like a business at this point."  Yikes. So what does this mean to run the country more like a business?  This particular Trump supporter is particularly worrying about the growing federal deficit but sees other serious problems.  So let's see if we can take a casual definition of a business and tease out what people might mean by this notion of running government like a business.

Let's define a business as an entity that provides goods and services in return for money or other considerations.  The usual goal of a business is to obtain more money for its good and services - a profit - than it puts out to provide those goods and services.  So the business owner makes a budget, forecasting what it will cost to provision itself and advertise, etc and forecasting what units of service and goods it can reasonably expect to sell/barter, and thus sets a price for the individual goods and services that should return a profit.

Notice the verb "forecasting".  This means the owner guesses.  The forecasts are for a specific length of time and are usually updated periodically, since costs and actual sales rarely meet their forecasts exactly.  A business may "run in the red" (run a deficit)  over a course of a year but the business will fail if it never makes a profit.  So, in a business sense, running a deficit for a long period of time is the road to failure.

Governments are not out to make a profit from the goods and services they provide.  A well-run government breaks even.  Still, a deficit is red flag that there is something wrong and should be addressed.  For the years 2007 up till now, the government purposely ran in the red because if it didn't the people it serves would not have been able to buy from the businesses existing in the US.  The deficit avoided plunging the US into another Great Depression.

The US seems to have climbed out of its steep recession, at least as far as the Fed believes, since it raised rates recently.  So, may be it is time to reduce the deficit.  A business would seek to raise profits in several ways:

  1. Lower costs:
    • Find cheaper sources.
    • Lower quality of what is offered.
    • Lower amount of goods in a unit offered.
    • Cut out unprofitable goods and services.
  2. Increase revenues/make more sales by:
    • Add additional goods and services.
    • Revise goods and services to be more responsive to buyers' needs and wants.
    • Expand geographic range of where business finds buyers.
A business that just lowers costs in order to up its profits will eventually find itself back in the red unless it increases revenues because costs beyond the business's control will go up.  Likewise, a government will find itself back in the red if all it does is lower costs.  A government has only one way to raise revenues - raise the taxes it imposes on its citizens.  The Trump campaign wanted to lower taxes.  So does that Trump supporter want his taxes to do the opposite and go up so the government can reduce its deficit?  Is that what is meant by running the government more like a business?

The real question is how to raise taxes so the raises don't hurt the people the services are meant for.  The American Health Care Act strives to "lower costs" and it cuts taxes yet its effect is to raise costs on the persons it is meant to serve. A bad bargain so don't buy it.  

And, please stop thinking that if the government was run as a business we would be better off.  Some people might but I bet those would be the people who need government services the least.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Two of the notions really bothering me today

The first notion really bothering me today as I follow the news is that if we just run the government as if it is a business,  there will be a better outcome.  Pick your favorite - less taxes, less corruption, better national security, or whatever.  This notion has been around for years yet every time I encounter it, I shudder.  Now, with the Trump Administration have installed successful CEOs in positions of great power and responsibility, that notion is being tested in real time with big stakes. 

Failures are happening big and small, but especially on the global stage.  A small one was the media flap about Rex Tillerson being too fatigued to dine with South Korean officials, which was false.  It was reported widely in Asian countries before the US State Department corrected it.  Why it became a flap is because Tillerson made a judgment as if he was a CEO that he did not need a press contingent to accompany him on his diplomatic journey to Asia.  Well, Tillerson is not a CEO but a diplomat.  In fact, he is the top US diplomat.  He needs the press to accompany him so that the facts are reported, not speculation by observing media who have their own biases to push.  

Companies and corporations, whether they are domestic or global in scale, can put out press releases that carefully detail and/or limit what news they want released that fits their image.  Media can, in turn, put out reports that may distort or paint of very different picture of that company or corporation. But, if those reports do not report facts but are fabrications, the company or corporation can sue.  Governments can not do this; all they can do is counter with press reports of their own. 

Governments are not businesses nor should they be run as such. 

The second notion really bothering me is that government assistance whether in healthcare or education or foreign aid or whatever is a zero sum game.  I have read many articles about the "forgotten", who voted for Trump.  Too many of them seem to have chosen Trump because "someone else" was getting government assistance and they weren't and the best solution was to take that help away from the "someone else,", whether by deporting them or repealing the programs giving that government assistance, or building a wall or whatever stops the "offending" help.

Yes, the Democratic campaign waged by Hillary Clinton made many US citizens feel neglected and ignored.  Yes, there a vast portions of the US economy that have not recovered from the 2008 recession nor are they on a path towards recovery.  These are valid reasons for wanting change and recognition of the need for change.  But change doesn't mean you take something away from those who have the least.  Change can mean something like a universal health care system (not universal health care insurance) that might have spotted the opioid abuse trend before it because a US health problem.  Or, as some European countries have implemented, an education system that puts individuals preferences and aptitudes towards either helping them choose an appropriate secondary level of education and helping them afford it, without crushing debt.

If you believe government assistance is a zero sum game, let's figure out a different set of rules where we are all winners in that game.  However, I can't make life fair.

Further, I really believe that the reason the majority of job descriptions out there ask for a college degree is that they really want someone familiar with computer applications.  If our high schools are not teaching basic notions of computer science on an equal footing with math, that is a crime easily fixed.   Even a plumber or a mechanic or a salesman should be able to write a letter, do a simple Google search,  or enter and understand simplified checking account software.  With the advent of smart phones, many of the current generation have already mastered these skills long before they encounter such teaching in high school.  

Yes, these are "socialistic" notions.  Yes, I am "privileged."  Yes, I am an ardent "feminist."  Do I think universal health care and universal public education are rights of every individual?  Yes, I do.    Am I a member of some elite?  Yes, everyone has some skill or quality or ability that very few (relatively) share.  Am I an "elitist?"  Gosh, I hope not.