US Culture

How to become a billionaire

Posted by Deepish Thinker on June 24, 2012
Current Events, Economics, US Culture, US Politics / 1 Comment

Interesting insight on how people become billionaires in different parts of the world.

Many Americans appear to believe that they are the victims of a hopelessly corrupt economic system run by and for 1% oligarchs.  Before buying this narrative it might be a good idea to look at countries that actually have hopelessly corrupt economic systems run by and for oligarchs.

Now look at Russia, where one hundred billionaires control fortunes worth an astonishing 20 percent of national GDP. Russia has nearly as many billionaires as China but they control twice as much total wealth in an economy one-fourth the size. Just as striking, Russia is missing not only a middle class but also a millionaire class; according to Boston Consulting Group, China ranks third in the world for number of millionaires, while Russia is not even in the top 15 for millionaires.

The growing business influence of the state is reflected in the fact that 69 of those billionaires live in Moscow, the largest concentration for any city in the world. Protected by their patrons, the richest face little competition. Eight of the top 10 are holdovers from 2006. More than 80 percent of the wealth of Russian billionaires comes from non-productive industries like real estate, construction and especially commodities, namely oil and gas, in which political ties can sustain fortunes indefinitely. In no other developing nation is this share greater than 35 percent. Even in Brazil, a commodity economy at the same income level as Russia, the non-productive share of billionaires’ wealth is just 12 percent.


Conspiracies, vast and imaginary

Posted by Deepish Thinker on September 28, 2009
US Culture, US Politics / 10 Comments

Bill Clinton apparently believes that the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that undermined his presidency (Did Republicans smuggle buxom interns into the White house?) is diminished but not dead.

This vast right-wing conspiracy theory is just as dopey as the vast left-wing conspiracy theory that remains very popular on Fox News.

Isn’t it about time that America’s leaders came to to accept that some people will inevitably oppose their policies, dislike them personally, or find some other reason to make their lives as difficult as possible?  It is a mystery to me why American politicians feel that they ought to be handled with kid gloves.

In the UK (also New Zealand, Australia, Canada and India)  the Prime Minister is required to front up in parliament on a weekly basis and answer the best verbal assault that the opposition parties can muster.  This forces the leaders of these countries to develop nice thick skins.  It also removes any illusions they might have about entitlement to deferential treatment.

By contrast, American leaders, who generally avoid unscripted situations whenever possible, are complete wusses.  Perhaps weekly ‘President’s Questions’ in Congress might toughen up the denizens of the White House so they don’t feel the need to cry like little girls when people don’t treat them nice.

The Rich Get Richer

Posted by Deepish Thinker on August 04, 2009
Economics, Football, US Culture / No Comments

Sports Illustrated columnist Andy Staples is very concerned that a down economy plus a trend towards big revenue TV deals for the major conferences means that the ‘haves’ in college sports will be increasing their edge over the ‘have nots’.

On Monday, Florida coach Urban Meyer agreed to a six-year contract that will pay him $4 million a year. Earlier this year, the Alabama state university system’s trustees approved earlier a $80.6 million project that will expand Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium to accommodate more than 101,000 fans. Meanwhile, on the other end of the Football Bowl Subdivision food chain, Hawaii athletic director Jim Donovan last week took a voluntary seven percent pay cut to help offset a projected $2.6 million deficit for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

I’m actually a little skeptical of this argument.  College football royalty like Florida already get the best coaches, the best facilities and (most importantly) its choice of the best players.  So it is far from certain that an increased budget will generate any better results.  Will Urban Meyer be a better football coach because his salary went up by $750K per year?

Like most human endeavors, college football is subject to diminishing returns.  Beyond a certain point adding resources to a football program like Florida’s is really just padding costs.  Where the increasing big school revenue advantage is likely to pay off is the non-revenue sports.  The excess revenue generated by the football and basketball programs can buy those big money schools a lot of wins in soccer, tennis, track and swimming.

One Small Step For Man . . .

Posted by Deepish Thinker on July 21, 2009
Economics, Space, US Culture, US Politics / No Comments

Megan McCardle is rather disappointed with lack of followup to the moon landing.

What happened to the dream?  Government mismanagement, yes, but something more than that, too, some failure of imagination and will.

There are a couple of problems with this sentiment.  Foremost is the fundamental misunderstanding of what the Apollo program was really all about.  The United States didn’t go to the moon because of some insatiable human desire to “boldly go where no man has gone before”.  That is retrospective romanticism.

The United States really went to the moon out of fear.  Specifically the fear of Soviet domination of space.  President Kennedy launched the Apollo project based on the advice of NASA deputy director Hugh Dryden’s advice that a lunar landing was a sufficiently long term goal that NASA would have a chance to catch up with the Soviet’s technological lead and actually get there first*.

By the time Neil Armstrong made his famous footprint, the fear of  Soviet owned space had been thoroughly dispelled, and with it the driving force for human space exploration was lost.

There are many legitimate reasons to criticize NASA’s activities since the end of the Apollo program.  However, exploring the rest of the moon, or putting a man on Mars, were not realistically achievable goals.  The moon landing was a crash program put together in response to a perceived national emergency.  That level of effort was simply not sustainable indefinitely.  Adventurous spirit and scientific curiosity have never been enough to get political support for the kind of expenditures required to take further leaps into deep space.

It thus isn’t really accurate to call the lack of progress since 1969 a failure of imagination and will.  The last forty years have reflected the normal, frustratingly erratic,  progression of most human endeavors.  The 1960’s was the aberration.

My other issue is with the, “What happened to the dream?” question.  The idea seems to be that, in the absence of leadership from Washington, humanity’s future in space has been put on indefinite hold.

In truth, the dream is in very rude health.  The last decade has seen the birth of space tourism, the first private space flights and a burst of entrepreneurial enthusiasm.   If you really care about space exploration you would do well to keep an eye on the development of the private sector rather than NASA press releases.  If there is an economic return to be generated from commercial activities in space people will go there, even without government help.

We may very well see NASA astronauts back on the moon.  NASA planing says ‘yes’, a realistic assessment of the federal budget outlook says ‘not likely’.  Even if NASA never makes it back I’m pretty sure somebody will.  What’s more, we may all have the opportunity to participate, not by paying taxes, but by buying stock.

As an aside, we could pay $100-$150 billion (optimistically) for NASA to put a base on the moon sometime after 2020, or we could put aside say $50 billion as a kind of super X prize to be awarded to the first organization to sustain a human presence there for 12 months.  I know which alternative makes more fiscal sense for our cash strapped government.

* There are many non-fiction accounts of the 60’s space program.  However, perhaps the best way to capture the feeling of the time is to read Tom Wolfe’s famous novel The Right Stuff.  Or you can check out his recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times

Running Up The Score

Posted by Deepish Thinker on October 31, 2007
Football, US Culture / No Comments

The current scandal of the week in the NFL is the “poor sportsmanship” shown by New England Patriots when they continued to play aggressively against the Washington Redskins long after the result of the game was beyond doubt (a Google news search on “running up the score” this afternoon yielded over 600 hits).

Sportsmanship aside, there are practical reasons for taking your foot off the gas in these situations. Taking key players out of the game eliminates the risk of injury to those players and also allows their backups to gain valuable game experience. While this is a perfectly valid argument, there are several equally practical considerations that may have led Bill Bellicheck to keep the starters on:

  1. It is difficult for the starters to prepare for a 60 minute grudge match against a good team, like for example the Colts (their next opponent), sitting on the sideline. As bad as the Redskins proved to be, there is no substitute for game time.
  2. It appears that Bellicheck is trying to foster a play full throttle for 60 minutes mentality, which is just the kind of mindset that you would want a team with superbowl aspirations to have.
  3. Absolutely walloping the Redskins, who were considered to have a solid defense, is the kind of thing that puts fear in the minds of the Patriots future opposition and gives them an advantage every time they step on the field.
  4. It was a home game and the home fans did not buy their expensive tickets to see the second string come on in the third quarter and run out the clock. They came to see Tom Brady score touchdowns, which is exactly what they got.

Considering the sportsmanship aspect, it seems incredible that playing hard play hard till the final whistle could possibly be considered incompatible with sporting values. This attitude is certainly not prevalent in other sports. In soccer it is considered insulting to the opposition to substitute in second string players regardless of the score. While in rugby, kicking for points (rather than attempting to score tries) while sitting on a big lead is liable to get a team vigorously booed.

From my own experience of being on the short end of sporting blowouts, there is nothing worse than a team that lets up on you. There is a particularly hollow feeling that comes from not being worthy of an opponent’s best effort and little to no satisfaction in consolation points scored against a team that isn’t really trying to stop you.

Regardless of what you believe to be sporting, calling the game early is not what fans pay to see and is definitely not what professional athletes are very well paid to do.

Against the Death Penalty

Posted by Deepish Thinker on August 16, 2007
Current Events, US Culture, US Politics / No Comments

It recently came to light that everybody’s least favorite Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, has acquired new powers to “fast track” death penalty cases in federal courts. While the headline may play well with the Republican base, which remains infatuated with the death penalty, the measure itself is extremely limited and probably won’t make all that much difference to the rate at which death row inmates meet their ends.

The death penalty itself remains intensely controversial and thus politically useful. Support for the death penalty is the tough, god fearing, law upholding, capital “C” conservative candidate’s favorite way of distinguishing himself from all those namby-pamby, soft on crime Democrats who like nothing more than pandering to criminals and recklessly compromising the safety of honest Americans.

Not being particularly enamored with the culture wars, I would like to propose a solidly conservative argument for dispensing with the death penalty and it’s accompanying political, legal and media circus. My hypothetical pragmatic Republican candidate might make an argument something like this:

“I have not one single shred of sympathy for the inmates on death row. They are undoubtedly the vilest of criminals and thoroughly deserve to be put to death.

Nevertheless I oppose the death penalty, not because it is cruel, but because it is far too kind.

Consider what happens when a convict is placed on death row. For a start he is handled with extraordinary care by his jailers least some incident provide grounds for appeal, or the psychological stress of his situation render him medically unfit to be executed.

Once comfortably installed on death row the convict is practically overrun with sympathetic media types and bleeding-heart liberal lawyers, who explain to the convict, in the most understanding tones, how he is really the victim.

This wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the glacial pace of the legal system. Our laudable desire to ensure that no innocent citizen is ever put to death has resulted in a near endless menu of legal avenues by which liberal lawyers can seek to delay or subvert the course of justice.

On being convicted of a capital crime the criminal knows two things. He will enjoy at least 15 years (probably many more) of the most comfortable accommodation the prison system can provide while the appeals process plays out. He will also receive attention, understanding and sympathy that he absolutely doesn’t deserve and may even achieve a measure of celebrity. What is absolutely not certain is whether he will ever be executed.

Is it any wonder that the death penalty isn’t much of a deterrent?

The people who really suffer in a capital case are the victims. Ignored in the outpouring of concern for the criminal, the victims are deprived of any sense of finality or justice. Through the years, as appeal follows appeal, the victims can be called back any number of times to reiterate their testimony, always knowing that one slip in testimony or error in memory may be enough to allow their attackers to escape punishment.

For the sake of justice, for the sake of the victims, I call on all true conservatives everywhere to write to the president and ask that he commute the sentences of every death row inmate to life with hard labor and no possibility of parole. We may not be able to make the death penalty work, but we can sure as heck make our worst offenders wish they were dead.”

Repubilcan Evolution

Posted by Deepish Thinker on May 29, 2007
US Culture, US Politics / No Comments

Recently 3 out of 10 Republican candidates proudly proclaimed their disbelief in evolution. While this public exhibition of willful ignorance was undoubtedly disturbing, it did at least offer a fantastic opportunity for satire.

The End of Imus

Posted by Deepish Thinker on April 12, 2007
Current Events, US Culture / No Comments

Yesterday the “Imus in the Morning” show was canceled after a prolonged and entirely predictable insensitive comment scandal. The well known ‘as long as you don’t offend anyone’ clause of the first amendment was invoked and formerly popular radio host Don Imus lost his job. Chalk up another victory for over the top moral outrage.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t care, but this particular case got me thinking, how should the Rutgers basketball team have responded to Mr Imus’ mortal insult?

This is the news conference I would like to have seen:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, on behalf of the Rutgers women’s basketball team I would like to formally respond to the comments made by Mr Imus.

I believe I speak for the team, the coaches and the fans when I say that nobody at Rutgers gives a damn what that cantankerous old fool has to say. We are too busy celebrating a fantastic run in the NCAA championship to spare even a moment’s consideration for the asinine opinions of a washed up radio hack.

This is a free country, which means that Mr Imus is perfectly entitled to hold and express any dumb ass opinion he likes.

And we are free to treat that opinion with the contempt it so obviously deserves.

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but the moronic ramblings of aging radio shock jocks will never hurt us.

While we would like to thank Jesse Jackson for his interest, he can take his moral outrage dog and pony show somewhere else. We are not fragile little flowers in need of his protection. Rutgers University takes pride in turning out strong confident young women who aren’t going to wilt in the face of a few unkind words.

If Mr Jackson is really interested in supporting the team he is more than welcome to purchase season tickets.

Regarding Mr Imus’ specific comments about the appearance of our team we will make one comment only. They were somewhat ironic, coming as they did from someone who has, to be brutally frank, a great face for radio.

I will now take questions about basketball.”