Nothing to Envy

We just read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.  It is a worthwhile read because rather than reciting the awful statistics about North Korea, Ms. Demick takes at in depth look at six individuals from the northeast of North Korea that escaped to South Korea.  It covers their trials and tribulations in the South as well as the North.

The individual stories are well narrated and worth reading.  The failure of centralized economies has been well documented but it has rarely been identified in such detail.  As the TV ad says, “Everyone knows that,” but it is nice to see it in memorable stories that have an impact on us rather than the depressing aggregate statistics.  Because we already knew the statistics, we found the most interesting part of the book to be the ability of markets to flourish in such an inhospitable environment.  The total breakdown of the North Korean command economy meant that if you played by the rules you died unless you had a significant position in the Party.  Markets gave the ordinary lives in the book the opportunity to engage in forbidden acts like selling cookies to avoid starvation.  Ordinary people that accepted the Party line died.  Illegal market opportunities saved the lives of millions of people in North Korea.

IRS Behavior and Funding

Some folks had argued that reducing IRS funding was a bad idea because it would hurt the deficit.  The argument goes that the average IRS employee collects X dollars and reducing funding reduces employees by Y so the deficit is increased by product of X and Y.  There is an economic problem and a strategy problem with this thinking.  The strategy issue becomes more clear each day as information on IRS  behavior becomes public.

The economic problem is marginal versus average.  The first IRS auditor is in a target rich environment.  The last auditor has more challenges in creating returns.  The marginal return of the last auditor is probably positive but less than the first so the product of X and Y as the cost is a substantial overstatement.

The strategy problem is the big problem.  As recent stories (here and here) indicate that the IRS can most charitably be described as an uncooperative agency.  Maintaining the funding for the IRS will not improve their behavior.  Cutting their budget is not sufficient to bring the IRS under control but it is a necessary step.  Legal reforms to reduce the ubiquity of the IRS would be helpful too.  Streamlining the rules for not-for-profit organizations, tax reform, and eliminating Obamacare would help reduce the mission creep at the IRS.

Selling Babe Ruth

AJ Cassavell at Sports on Earth has a nice piece on the Ten Best MLB Players Traded Before Age 25.  The comments identify some possible omissions and argue about the word trade for the Ruth deal.  Is it an important distinction that Ruth was sold.  We would like to focus on what AJ got mostly right, the price for Ruth.

First off, he got the price, $100,000 right.  To be precise, it was $25,000 in cash and the rest in interest bearing notes.  It has been commonly reported as $125,000 and other numbers.  Then there is the phantom loan between an unspecified party and Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner.  The Yankee owners may or may not have make a loan to Frazee with, perhaps, Fenway Park as collateral.  Nobody has come up with a rationale for why the Yankees would not pay cash for Ruth but somebody connected with the Yankees would lend a large amount of to Harry Frazee.  Perhaps Jacob Ruppert did.  Unless we know the terms, however, there is no way to know who benefited from the purported loan.  We do know that the Red Sox paid part of Ruth’s salary during his initial contract with the Yankees.  No doubt it was an epically bad transaction for the Red Sox.  Folks that want to include the loan as part of the deal have no evidence to support them.

New Mantra?

The Cincinnati Bengals habit of losing big games came to a stop last night with a gutty victory over the Broncos.  Why is this relevant to a handball blog?  Because when the games get tough and the bounces go badly our manta is, “don’t be the Bengals.”  It carries more meaning than don’t than don’t give up.  Now what?  It seems you can’t count on anything in sports.  Perhaps Unbroken will hep.

Free Speech Again

We were in a waiting room this morning while a TV showed dueling talking heads discussing the left and the assassination of the two Brooklyn police officers.  The right head head argued that the rhetoric contributed to the deaths while the left head put forth the issue of free speech.

Free speech is a straw-man in this discussion.  As we have said before free speech is useful because it identifies folks.  In this case, we know who are the blame the cops first folks.  In light of recent events they may want to tone down their rhetoric.  Such a statement might be a good start to a nationwide conversation.

The assassin killed the cops.  The blame the cops folks did not pull the trigger.  Those folks have, however, put themselves in a politically difficult position because of the the juxtaposition of events.  Harold Macmillian may not have said it but it is a useful insight that events drive politics.  Clinton capitalized on the Oklahoma City bombing.  The left will lose capital because of their rhetoric prior to the Brooklyn shootings.

Bad Clock Management

The Minnesota Vikings made us forget about the current administration for a few moments this afternoon.  The game was tied 35-35 and the Vikings had the ball on their own 13 with 1:05 left.  The Vikings have three time outs and the Dolphins have one.  The Vikings are in a tough spot if they don’t move the ball.  Figuring a 35 yard net, the Dolphins get the ball at midfield.  So the first rule is don’t lose the game.  The Vikings need to move the ball 45 or more yards to have a field goal attempt.  Since the Dolphins have only one time out there is no danger that Miami can force a punt.  The mistake was when the Vikings ran for two on first down and then they called time out.  They should have hurried up and tried to make a first down.  Call time out after the first time out.  Instead, an incomplete pass, a sack, and a Dolphins time out leads to a Vikings’ punt.

Oh, there is another bad thing that can happen on punts.  It should have gone to overtime.

Academic Embarassment

Katherine Timpf at NRO revealed that a professor at the University of Michigan wrote an article entitled We Can’t All Just Get Along that starts out, “I hate Republicans.” and goes downhill from there.  Of importance, this is an article in an online magazine so it is not part of class and it would not seem to be classified under research.  The article is more personal than university related although the author’s affiliation is noted in the article.

Somebody said that the joy of the First Amendment is that it identifies folks.  It is certainly true.  The problem is that it keeps identifying academics and there is rarely an academic response.  The author does not lose any First Amendment rights but the author is not shielded from criticism either.  When we fail to criticize these screeds we seem to be saying that they represent an acceptable level of academic discourse.  As a result, academics lose the battle of public opinion and state institutions lose the funding battle.  We should treat ourselves better.  We enforce standards for our students and academic publishing.  Why can’t we find anyone to comment on such behavior?  A simple, “It is not very professional,” will do.  It is not a thousand other things.  To name a few, it is not a fireable offense, it is not illegal, it is not immoral but it is not up to our standards.

A Cromnibus Dilemma

Norman Ornstein at AEI points out an interesting issue with the continuing resolution to fund the federal government:

[T]he successful move by Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Ander Crenshaw, to cut $350 million from the IRS budget, following other cuts this year totaling $1 billion or more that have forced the IRS to cut 13,000 employees while it faces a much heavier workload from 7 million additional taxpayers.

The problem is that the IRS is a profit center for the federal government.

Here is the reality. Cutting the Internal Revenue Service will result in a serious drop in revenue—fewer audits, less oversight, with many studies showing that additional funding for the agency has always resulted in a sixfold or greater increase in federal revenues without changing the law to increase taxes. That will worsen our federal budget deficits.

The dilemma is that the IRS often acts badly.  Their antipathy towards conservative groups and individuals is well documented.  The issue is the impact of the multiplayer game.  Will the IRS react to cuts with the common government approach of shutting down the Washington Monument or will they cut out the excesses, improve their processes, and reduce harassment of individuals and groups.  Put simply, is there a way to make the IRS better?  Ornstein’s approach suggests that he is pessimistic.  We are not overly optimistic.  It is hard to reform an out-of-control entity like the IRS.  Tax reform and eliminating Obamacare would be really helpful in helping to reform the IRS.  We think the budget cuts to the IRS are worth the risk even though success is not certain.  The other approach means it is certain that the IRS will not be reformed.

Desert Island Discs Two

Previously we outlined the rules for Desert Island Discs.  We have a handball court, or at least the handballs, and an atlas.  Now we need eight songs to get us through a lifetime.  As Derb said, most musical tastes are set early so there isn’t much new here.  Only one might be from the current century.  One that we will comment on is a new version in the current century.  Also, I’m with Derb that a song needs words.    The list was easy to create.  Here it is:

Wednesday Morning 3 AM, Simon and Garfunkel
Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin
Total Eclipse of the Heart, Bonnie Tyler
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Willie Nelson
Me and Bobbi McGee, Janis Joplin
Come Dancing, Kinks
Bell Bottom Blues, Derek and the Dominoes
Connection, Keith Richards and the Xpensive Winos

It was easy to create in that we can live with it.  If it was created two years ago or two years hence it would be slightly different.  In different times, there could be eight Janis Joplin tunes.  As Dave Barry often says, Big Brother and the Holding Company would be a great name for a rock band.  Too bad it is already taken.

So Janis’ voice and Kris Kristofferson’s lyrics means that Me and Bobby McGee would be on every permutation of this list.  It isn’t personal.  It just an iconic song.  Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose isn’t a critique of conservatism.  Freedom as in lack of attachment to other humans is a different thing from the freedom we cherish.

Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain is another step towards country from Bobbie McGee.  Willie is a personal connection from seeing him and from my daughter “losing” the Red Headed Stranger when it played too much in the van on family vacations.

Wednesday Morning, 3 AM is a song of youth.  Many times there is “a scene badly written in which I must play.”  Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme was the great album but the title song of the first album, Wednesday Morning 3 AM, presaged it.

Bell Bottom Blues is the last of end of the tragedies (to use the Shakespeare classification) in the list. It has taken time but we are close to concluding that Derek and the Dominoes was Clapton’s best work.  As we age, “And if I could choose a place to die it would be in your arms” is a real vision for life and death.

So does that mean that Stairway to Heaven is a comedy?  On this list it is.  We are not a big Zeppelin fan but this is a great song.  It is worth listening to because it is restraint by a group known for not being restrained.  Restraint is a great virtue (see The Tempest) even if some folks think it is plagiarized.

Total Eclipse of the Heart is widely panned especially for the video at the link.  But we still feel sometimes like we are living in a powder keg giving off sparks.  Perhaps the object of our affection will turn around.

Come Dancing does double duty in representing the Kinks and family connections.  As we get older we either drift away from our siblings or drift towards them.  We have made an effort towards the latter and have found it rewarding.  If we don’t see them on the desert isle, the Kinks will help us connect with siblings and their offspring.

Connection is another connection.  The album was a gift from our son.  He was right that it was a better album then we first thought.  Now that he is gone and Connection is the connection.

Desert Island Discs One

John Derbyshire has identified his responses on for the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs. You get eight songs (not discs), a book, and a luxury. The Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare are provided. Derb picked eight songs from different genres, a handbook of math functions, and a telescope.

We are going to start with the luxury and the book. The discs come in the next post.  For a luxury we would take the obvious: a four-wall handball court. Here are some serious four-wall players if you are not familiar with the game.  If you are stuck on a desert island and you don’t play handball then you should learn. If you are stuck on a desert island and you do play handball then it would be crucial to maintaining sanity to be able to play. Some might describe needing to play as feeding an addiction.  The latter might be a more explicit explanation.

We recognize that it would be even nicer to have an opponent but that doesn’t seem to be the point of being on a desert island.  Also, don’t bother trying to train any of the local fauna to play.  Apes can’t throw.  If you were younger you might embark on an evolutionary experiment.  It is possible that a handball court is too big a luxury. If it is then we will take a case of balls and start building the court after we land on the island.  We should have time.

We really appreciate Shakespeare.  In particular, we may start at the end chronologically because The Tempest is one of the few works of art that move us.  Reading it at leisurely pace instead of the intense pace of the stage will be a joy.

The other book is a hard choice because you get only one. A Douglas Adams anthology would be an excellent choice because his books are so intensely funny that they can be read over and over again. They stood the test of time because the books were funny as we read them over the years. The TV shows were funny. The movies were funny, although as the review notes if you didn’t read the book you might be confused.  We might say if you didn’t pay attention to the movie you might be confused but that might be our cynical version. There was even a radio show.  We missed that but our money is that it is funny.  We, however, agree with Derb that you want something that can help you learn and expand your horizons. We pick a world atlas. In particular, we go with the British theme and choose Times Atlas of the World.

The next post will have the songs.