The Electric Commentary

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chicago Tribune Advice

The Chicago Tribune has some advice for those who will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday:

Don't stop taking heart medication on game day.

Yes, you know that medicine that you take so that you don't die? You can't stop taking it just because there will be a football game on TV.

You also still need to wear a seatbelt, use condoms, and breathe.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

George W. Bush, Tax Raiser

It is gospel among conservatives that "the Bush tax cuts stimulated the economy." The problem is that the President has actually raised our taxes quite a bit. Here's Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek:

Government's share of the pie has grown dramatically under Bush II. You can argue it was worthwhile. You can argue that he had no choice. (I think you'd be wrong on both counts, but never mind.) But you can't argue that Bush has cut our taxes. Our taxes are higher and they've been shifted into the future via debt.

Notice also that government's share fell during the Clinton years. Yes, I know that's partly because of the Republican Congress. Partly. But it reinforces my view that partisanship is overrated.

George Bush likes to say that he gave us back "our" money because we could spend it more wisely. While I agree with the premise, it was an illusion. There weren't any tax cuts in 2001, 2002 and 2003 that supposedly stimulated the economy or that let us spend the money more wisely than the government. The government spent more of our money, not less.

Roberts has numbers to back up his claim.

Will Tax Rebates Stimulate The Economy?

Probably not.

To understand why we have to think about incentives. This tax rebate is being proposed in an attempt to turn around a slowing economy. (Or, if you're more cynical, because it is an election year.) By giving out this tax rebate, the government is acknowledging that it is concerned about the state of the economy. Your average Joe will probably agree, having been berated about stagnant wages, health care costs, inflation, and the "sub-prime crisis." (Note, by the way, that tax cuts alone do not cause inflation as those dollars were backed by production when they were earned. Tax cuts can, however, lead to inflation. We'll get to that in a bit.)

Since we're dealing with macro here, let's stipulate that people will act rationally, in their own self interest. People have been told that the economy is bad, and the government believes this so much that they actually sent out a check. People also are at least vaguely aware that government spending has skyrocketed under this administration, and that the size of the debt has skyrocketed along with it.

You are essentially telling people that unemployment might go up. This is an incentive to save. Since this tax cut will increase the size of the deficit, you are telling them that there will either be a tax increase or inflation in the future, as these are the only two means available to the government to pay back their debts. This is an incentive to save. Actions like this make people nervous, and when people are nervous, they buy fewer plasma TVs. They do not stimulate the economy.

The government claims that it wants people to spend this rebate to stimulate the economy, however, the government has created incentives for people to save this money. There is nothing wrong with saving, of course, but saving is unlikely to have the desired effect.

For the record, I am not against tax cutting, however, if the government does not cut a corresponding chunk of spending, a tax cut is simply a deferred tax increase. George W. Bush has increased taxes more than almost any other president. He is simply going to leave the messy bit to one of his successors.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Fun Friday: Bo Dances

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Loving Tribute To A Shitty Grocery Store

Today the Chicago Tribune eulogized the Hyde Park Co-op Grocery store. They talk all about the "ideals' embodied by the grocery store, as if you should care about the politics of the place where you buy food. (And as if "ideals" could overcome a complete lack of fresh produce, slow service, and high prices.) This needs to be taken apart line by line:

To the beat of a snare drum and blaring horns, the Hyde Park Co-op was laid to rest Sunday beside the dream that gave it birth 75 years ago.

A grocery store more likely opens than closes with a fanfare. But this one, a longtime linchpin of the Hyde Park neighborhood, was a supermarket of ideas no less than canned goods.

I lived in Hyde Park for two years and the Co-op was the only grocery store in the neighborhood. They enjoyed a virtual monopoly because of the harsh zoning and licensing requirements in force in the area, and no store would have benefited more from a bit of competition. The only thing I would disagree with in these first two paragraphs is that while their canned good selection was lacking in variety and quality, and was overpriced, the ideals of the co-op were still much much worse.

"We're here to celebrate the life of the co-op," said Winston Kennedy, 81, addressing several hundred former customers and shareholders who assembled in the produce department a few hours before its doors closed for good. A group of musicians had just played "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," the traditional anthem of a New Orleans jazz funeral.

I sort of understand when people get upset about historic buildings closing down, but the neighborhood's affection for the co-op is baffling. Did I mention that in addition to being poorly run that the place is also ugly? And dirty inside?

Former 5th Ward Ald. Leon Despres, a founding member, recalled how the co-op was founded during the Great Depression from a vision that a better society could be built from the bottom up. It would not only sell groceries, but also spread the word that cooperation between human beings was better than cutthroat competition. It stood for honesty in an age of shady business practices.

Mr. Despres is probably at least partially responsible for the co-op's protected status in the neighborhood as he is clearly against competition. Ironically, the Co-op is a terrific lesson in what happens when businesses do not face any competition. Despite being a lousy grocery store, the co-op did enjoy a monopoly, and was generally very crowded. They also charged high prices for inferior goods. The place should have been a gold-mine, however, the store ended up millions of dollars in debt somehow.

But I'm sure that shady business practices had nothing to do with it.

"The co-op took the butcher's hand off the scale," said Despres, 99.

Here we have the notion that no member of a co-op would ever try and cheat anyone because being in a cooperative situation magically changes human nature so that we're all altruistic Care Bears.

Have you been to a deli at a major grocery store lately? You will notice that the scales that they use to measure your meat and cheese are actually on top of the display cases in plain site of all of the customers. This is done to ensure that the customer knows that he is not being cheated because if your local Jewel is cheating you, or even if you just think it is cheating you, you can go to the Dominick's, or Whole Foods, or Cub, or Treasure Island, or Trader Joe's, or one of the other stores that exists in areas that allow competition.

If the butcher had his thumb on the scale at the co-op, you didn't have much of a choice in the matter. But I'm sure he would never do anything like that because he's probably a nice guy.

Yet some in the neighborhood believed the store's quality had slipped badly in recent years, despite a new manager brought in to update the offerings.

These people are correct. Most of the produce was bruised, rotting, or misshapen. The Co-op was on the University of Chicago campus, and yet was always out of Diet Coke. They did not have much variety of any product. Buying beer or liquor required a trip to a separate, downstairs store (which is not the case at any Chicago grocery chain). Their parking lot was too small. The workers were not helpful, and generally surly. One of their baggers smelled like he had not showered in months.

To casual shoppers, the Hyde Park Co-op would seem no different from any other supermarket. But to members, it was an enterprise of which they were the owners. A small fee entitled them an annual rebate for purchases made. Profits went to member-owners as dividends.

The first sentence in this paragraph is a complete lie. Even very basic chain grocery stores are far more pleasant than the Co-op.

Joining the Co-op entailed that you pay a small fee. I do not remember what the fee was, but I remember thinking that it was surprisingly high. I do remember that most of the "special deals" that you were entitled to as a member involved large quantities of bad produce that you could not possibly eat before they spoiled. Membership paid no better than a typical grocery store's "savings card" program, none of which charge you any money to join. Because that would be an insane business practice.

But you got dividends, right? Well, keep in mind that the store is closing because it was millions of dollars in debt.

Decisions were made by a show of hands rather than by officials at some distant corporate headquarters -- a form of neighborhood democracy that inspired loyalty to the very end.

As it turns out, skilled people with advanced degrees sitting in distant board rooms are better at running a grocery store than random neighborhood locals.

Who knew?

Most of the musicians who played Sunday were paid professionals. But bassist Andrew Basa, who lives nearby, brought his bass fiddle to join in.

"I loved the co-op and hate to see it go," said Basa, whose wife, Rhea, also played a few choruses on her violin.

The co-op traced its ideological roots to 19th Century England, where textile workers opened their own commissary as an alternative to the factory owners' company stores. From there, the cooperative movement spread to the U.S.

The first co-ops existed to provide competition to the company store. This co-op existed free from competition. It was the company store.

Kale Williams told the crowd how it was natural for him to become a Hyde Park Co-op member when he came to Chicago in 1966.

"I grew up in rural Kansas, where farmers joined together in grain cooperatives," said Williams, 82.

In the last few months, however, as the co-op reached the end of its days, the membership's discussions were acrimonious. To the very end, some thought the institution could be saved. Others thought the red ink on its books insoluble.

Notice how the supporters never mention any actual good qualities of the store itself. They just focus on the cooperative aspect and how it reminds them of old times.

If you're a curious sort you are probably wondering how a monopoly with high prices and low quality merchandise managed to get itself into so much debt. Well...

In recent years, some customers were turned away by the store's appearance. There were complaints about product quality.

Its decline was quickened by the corporate giantism it was founded to combat. It opened a satellite store on 47th Street in Kenwood, a neighborhood once in decline but gentrifying.

Just so you have some perspective on this, the Co-op sits on the corner of 55th St. and Lake Park Ave. It opened another, full grocery store on the corner of 47th and Lake Park Ave.

That's right, they opened another store just 8 blocks away. They paid all new rent. They hired all new butchers, cashiers, managers, and security. They, at the very least, doubled their operating costs. And who did they compete with by doing this?


They cut into their own market share. They stole their own business. And they doubled their cost to do it. Brilliant. And somehow the paper blames this move on "corporate giantism" as if a real grocery store would ever open a new store next to one of their old stores.

But the timing was off.

Yes, you don't want to open a store 8 blocks away from your other store too soon.

Opening before there was a local constituency for its peculiar blend of upscale products and social vision, it failed, leaving the parent co-op stuck with a million-dollar lease.

To be fair to the 47th street Co-op, it was much more pleasant than the 55th street
Co-op, but I still wouldn't describe their offerings as upscale. They had, mostly, the same inferior products. But apparently the store only failed because a bunch of progressive-minded people did not move into Kenwood en masse. I can't believe that business model did not pan out.

Members finally voted to accept an offer from the University of Chicago, landlord for the original store, to pick up most of the co-op's debt. The space will soon be occupied by Treasure Island, a supermarket chain with branches in trendy neighborhoods.

I have a Treasure Island near me. It is not my favorite grocery store, but it is a good store. It is a bit upscale, however the Co-op was so overpriced that I suspect Treasure Island will actually be cheaper for most shoppers. Treasure Island has a very nice deli, fairly good produce, and an international section to rival any specialty store. It describes itself as a "European style" grocery store, and that is probably about right. It will be a major, major upgrade over the Co-op.

Yet even at the end, some in Sunday's crowd couldn't accept the co-op's demise.

"I hate to see them leave," said Dorothy Horton, 83. "Do you think they will ever open again?"

You people are insane. Honestly, who gets nostalgic for a grocery store?

Good riddance. This is creative destruction at its finest.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Chicago Transit Doomsday, Part 4,004,876

We recently had another CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) doomsday. This happens about twice a year. During a doomsday, the trains and buses of Chicago make announcements every 30 seconds or so at a very high volume telling you that on x date (x = January 20th, in this case), if they do not get more state funding, y routes will be cut (in this case, y = 81), and fares will go up.

Eventually, the state always caves, but it's always just a band-aid, and we get another doomsday in a few months.

This time, the state and the CTA have allegedly found a permanent funding solution, and this is where he story gets interesting.

It will not shock you to learn that, rather than cut costs and fire a few Strogers, they chose to raise taxes:

The measure solves public transit funding for now, with a price tag of $530 million. On April 1, the sales tax will increase by a quarter-cent per dollar in Cook County and twice that in the suburbs. And Chicagoans are expected to face higher taxes on home sales.

The Governor of Illinois is Rod Blagojevich (pronounced Bla-goy-a-vich), and when he ran for reelection recently he pledged to not raise taxes. As he chose to break that promise and raise taxes to fund the CTA, he felt that it was necessary to do something else to distract from his promise-breaking ways.

Now, what could you do to deflect criticism...let's see. I know! Old people! Do you like old people? I know that I like old people. I know! Let's give old people free rides on the CTA! Everyone will like that!

The final votes came after Blagojevich, seeking to beat back the political fallout from breaking his long-held vow to veto a sales-tax increase, added a provision offering seniors free rides. The change nearly derailed the legislation over concerns that other deserving groups, such as the disabled, should get the same perk, and that rich seniors shouldn't qualify.

"All's well that ends well," Blagojevich said. "I think the wait was well worth it because the result is very, I think, significant for the people in the Chicagoland area as well as for our senior citizens all across Illinois who are going to see an improvement in their quality of life."

Rod has been appearing with an entourage of old people everywhere he goes. This is probably some of the worst pandering I've ever seen. He basically is trying to bribe his voters with a policy that has to make the size of the tax increase - which is the reaon for the bribe - bigger. Nice. Well played.

As the old saying goes, when you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on the support of Paul. Of course, the baby-boom generation will shortly be retiring and entering the age where they can ride CTA for free because of this act of political cowardice. At that point, they will face a true CTA doomsday.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lambeau Pics

Three friends and I were forunate enough to go to the Packer-Seahawk game on Saturday. Here are a few pics.

Quote Of The Day

From Mike Huckabee:

I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution," Huckabee told a Michigan audience on Monday. "But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.

Hurray for theocracy!

Hat tip, Ed Brayton.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hanker For A Hunk Of Cheese

Remember the good old days when, instead of addressing the dangers of smoking or drugs, public service announcements sought to raise cheese awareness?

Good times. And the lesson really stuck with me.

Update: Take a look at the comments section, where Mitch has left an outstanding link.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Fun Friday

I was playing a board game last night called Sequence, by Jax Games. On the side of the Sequence box is a list of all of the games made by Jax. This one cracked me up.

Some of these games just aren't very creative.

And this one seems a bit totalitarian.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Who will win the nominations?

It doesn't matter.

Fun Friday: Tecmo Bowl

If you want to know who will win in the NFL Playoffs this weekend, just click here.

Paul Proves Deism

Disclaimer: The following is an exercise in philosotainment, and does not in any way reflect the beliefs of the author. It is also filled with logical errors. Mainly he just thought he was being clever.

Deism is the idea that something created the universe, set the rules, and then retired to Florida. The odds are that Deism is true. Why?

Moore's Law states that computer processing power is increasing exponentially, doubling roughly every two years. It is the reason that the computer you are reading this on became obsolete recently. It also means that there is no end in sight as to what we can accomplish with computers.

Currently we have interactive online games like Second Life and Everquest. These on-line worlds are so sophisticated that they even have their own money and real estate (which is worth "real" money). These worlds will only become more sophisticated as time goes on.

We will also eventually create computers which pass the "Turing Test," that is, computers that are indistinguishable from humans.

So, eventually we will be able to create intelligent life, as well as other worlds for that life to exist in. Assuming that we can eventually find a cheap source of renewable energy (solar would be ideal) there is no practical limit to the number of fake worlds and fake people that we could create.

Ergo, for every one real world there are an infinite number of fake worlds that are likely to be created. Moreover, the creation and operation of these fake worlds is likely to fit the definition of "Deist."

So, for any given person, it is almost a certainty (infinity/1) that you exist in a fake computer generated world, and should therefore, be a Deist.

Mormons Really Are Nice People

Earlier today I was approached by a few Latter Day Saints who attempted to convert me. I really enjoy this. As an added bonus, I'm currently reading Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven."

I wasn't mean or dismissive, but I did ask if they had read the book, and to my surprise, they had. I asked them if they had any criticisms.

One of them said that it was actually fairly accurate, but that in his experience people are unwilling to separate the true LDS church from the splinter groups which are really the focus of the book. He said there were inflammatory parts, but that you could write such a book about almost any religion, and that he was not surprised or offended that such a thing had been written about Mormonism.

I was impressed by their maturity. Most people get angry when their core beliefs are challenged, but they both just accepted that this would happen as a fact of life.

I wonder how deeply Mormons really believe their own religion, or if they're just in it for the routine.

There is a part of Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" where one of the Waterhouse's (Randy, I believe) is reflecting on the religiosity of a couple he knows. (I would find the exact quote, but it's a really long book.) He doesn't personally subscribe to believing things without evidence, however he admires the way in which religion functions in their lives. There are certain things that you just know because of your religion, and you act accordingly. These things are right, these things are wrong, you go to church on Sunday. Randy equates this to an operating system. It's a bunch of rules that takes some of the work and worry out of life, just as an operating system saves people from having to deal with all of those pesky ones and zeros. (Incidentally, this idea leads to more disastrous results in his cyber-punk novel "Snow Crash.")

I suspect that Mormonism's appeal lies more in its functionality than it's mythology. It must be, as it is easy to find flaws in its mythology. I wonder which religions have the most "functional" appeal and which have the most "story" appeal.

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