Shocked and Persuaded

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Separating Fact From Fiction

Fun and Games Fueling Education

So I haven’t been posting in a while as I am looking for a job and working on a book. Anyway I have been playing around with what I am calling a “War Games Tax” that I describe below and it is one that if anyone reads this post I would love for you to pass it on to your congressional delegation. After reading it you are welcome to comment and I would be happy to share my data with anyone interested in this idea that I don’t think to many people could argue with. Cheers and I hope you enjoy the read!

I have been working some calculations trying to get at how much general education revenue could be conceivably generated if we taxed what I will broadly call “war games”, which include at this point “Call of Duty: Black Ops (PS3 & X360)”, “Halo: Reach (X360)”, and “God of War III/God of War Collection (PS3). All of these are top sellers for Activision (Call of Duty), Microsoft (Halo), and Sony Computers (God of War). Their average annual revenues are in toto $1.23 billion with “Halo” at $686 million leading the way and “God of War Collection” bringing up the rear at $29 million annually (Fig. 1).

wargamestax_2

Not a bad profit margin don’t you think? More importantly I was thinking that if there are so many people with the bravado to fight wars via their video consoles they wouldn’t have a problem paying a heavy tax on those games, which could be used to fund educational programs throughout the country. So I went about trying to gather up as much high-quality data as I could get on dollar sales, weekly units, and in order to come up with a progressive “War Games Tax” I used iCasualties data on a per 100,000 person basis across all fifty states+Washington, DC (no US territories due to high concentration of troops stationed there). I then used the per capita data – with Vermont being the highest (2.568) and Utah the lowest (0.486 per 100,000) – summed those values and converted them into percentages. I then multiplied the $1.23 billion figure across tax rates of 35%, 25%, 10%, and 5%, with the per 100,000 percentage conversions used to multiply across tax rate scenarios. If you do that the numbers are pretty staggering.
Lets just focus on Vermont for a second as a teaser for what we could extract from this pseudo-war profiteering that doesn’t get nearly the coverage that the explicit profiteers do. Vermont would be able to rely on an annual tax revenue of (Fig. 2):
1. 22.4 million at 35%, 14.9% of FY 2011 budget deficit
2. 16.0 million at 20%, 10.7% of FY 2011 budget deficit
3. 6.4 million at 10%, 4.3% of FY 2011 budget deficit
Or
4. 3.2 million at 5%, 2.1% of FY 2011 budget deficit
wargamestax
While none of these numbers is eye watering they are not trivial either, with the top rate accounting for nearly 15% of the FY 2011 budget deficit. This is not a progressive or regressive tax idea, rather it is an anti-predatory tax idea with the folks that so flippantly turn on their video consoles to play the latest virtual War On Terror paying the heaviest price. What is wrong with that? New England alone would generate:
1. 55.3 million at 35%, average of 3.5% of FY 2011 budget deficit
2. 39.5 million at 20%
3. 15.8 million at 10%
Or
4. 7.9 million at 5%

So as you can see this is not a panacea but is a step in the right direction AND unlike the much maligned soda-tax proposed by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson in NY I would argue that there should be less resistance to a tax that takes money from people that like to play video games about war but wouldn’t be caught dead signing up to go to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, etc etc and puts that money in to the educational infrastructure of this country. I would like to see someone rail against this idea in public with the lights and cameras on.

Microphone Checka…1, 2 Checka!

Re: a recent (and largely awesome) editorial in The Times by Brent Staples addressing the phenomena of cutting and pasting senior theses.

Mr. Staples should have stopped while he was ahead. I was thoroughly enjoying his piece on the wrote nature of higher education these days and the lack of any type of synthetic analysis, with students swallowing and spitting up information in no particular order and with zero continuity. However, upon arriving at the closing of this piece I was amazed to see the author distill rap musicians (his analogy) down robots “sampling” “…beats and refrains from the works of others.” Tell that to some of the great wordsmiths this country has ever produced like Q-Tip & Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, Rakim of Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr’s Guru, or my personal favorites EPMD. If Mr. Staples meant to say that DJs sampled beats and refrains he should have said so. The greatest rap MCs are true American treasures and deserve the respect we afford our favorite rock n’ rollers, jazz musicians, and country stars. CHECK YOURSELF MR. Staples!

Good With The Bad

So I have not entered the cellphoneisphere at this point and I don’t have a Facebook or Myspace or Twitter account. This blog is as close as I have gotten to such exhibitionism. However, it is our right to engage in all these activities even if the 30-35minutes on average US citizens spend on their Facebook or is it MySpace? Whatever same difference. Anyway even if this 30-35 minutes a day or 7.6 days annually is a complete waste of time, energy, and cloud space (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/weekinreview/12helft.html?scp=3&sq=cloud%20computer&st=cse) we have the right to waste this time as we see fit right? Right.

Well the other component of this continuous digital footprint is the idea that some in law enforcement would like to use this data to find, construct, and prosecute criminal behavior across the board. Okay well that is a complete and utter violation of our privacy as citizens of this country BUT lets say it isn’t and lets for the sake of argument Hallelujah to this ancillary benefit of the web, smartphone technology, and GPS. Well wouldn’t the logical extension be that if a citizen witnesses a crime and happens to have a cellphone/smartphone with a camera or video recorder that individual would be obligated to capture said crime with said device? NOPE!! Not according to the Boston police and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in a 4-2 ruling (http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/01/12/police_fight_cellphone_recordings/).

The court stated in it’s majority opinion “”Secret tape recording by private individuals has been unequivocally banned, and, unless and until the Legislature changes the statute, what was done here cannot be done lawfully”

However, in a dissenting and what appears to be more rational take on the case Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote “Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals when they seek to hold government officials responsible by recording, secretly recording on occasion, an interaction between a citizen and a police officer.'”

I have always been very concerned about the personal and more recently digital privacy we have bequeathed to large and remote multinational corporations as well as law enforcement. Now I am even more worried because it appears that what is good for the goose is not good for the gander! Do as I say not as I do! And this from a supposedly progressive and erudite state like Massachusetts…I can’t wait to see what happens when folks like Rick Perry or Bobby Jindal here about this. Maybe we aren’t all Socialist America haters up here after all.

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, and……..1+1 = 3!

The SPADE Defense Index

So I just finished an amazing book by Naomi Klein called “The Shock Doctrine”, which basically chronicles the dark side of capitalism via the actions and thinking of folks like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Eugene Fama, and Jeffrey Sachs. Anyway the book is revealing and pokes lots of holes in the Efficient Market hypothesis of Fama and Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”. Ms. Klein mentions in passing the SPADE Defense Index, which according to www.amex.com

“…is a modified market capitalization weighted index, comprised of publicly traded companies that seeks to measure the performance of securities in the defense, homeland security, and space marketplace.”

For those that deny the existence of the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) described by Dwight D. Eisenhower as he left the oval office I think I can prove empirically that the SPADE Index demonstrates the naivete of such a view (See Figure).

spade-defense-index

Between the end of 1997 and September 10th 2001 the SPADE rose by 107%, but between 9-11 and 9-14-2009 it more than doubled (205%). Overall the SPADE has grown by 233% since it’s origination in December of 1997. So whats so important about these data? Well looking at the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), S & P 500, and NASDAQ we see that they grew by 103%, 99%, and 90% respectively between December of 1997 and 9-11. These trends are well alligned with what I described for the SPADE during the same time period. Heres the rub these indices only grew by 111%, 103%, and 142%. It is understandable that the NASDAQ would outpace the DJIA and S & P 500 as it was operating from a lower base. We are seeing that this country is relying more on the financial services and war profiteering industry 2 nefarious and wealth concentrating sectors of our economy. I must wonder where the outrage is? We have been conditioned to believe that all of us can have a big piece of the pie when infact the folks that pull the strings of these industries would in no way allow such an event to occur. It would be called wealth redistribution and we know what the neoconservatives and evangelical right-wingers think about such a prospect. The SPADE provides concrete evidence that we are moving towards a society that embraces Frederick the Great’s belief that “Diplomacy without war, is like music without instruments.” For those that think that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield, et al’s fingerprints have been removed from the dialectic I call your attention to the Supreme Court and the SPADE’s trajectory.

A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.

This is a quote used more now than everything sans “Green Shoots” right now and it is purported to have been spoken by former Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, although there is no question as to whether he ever said or wrote such words. Regardless of whether Mr. Dirksen did or did not construct this phase it seems an interesting thought given that the Obama administration is now discussing upping US food and agricultural aid to nations around the world to $5 billion annually.  Under the Bush administration this figure was about $2.3-2.7 billion. Now given the quote attributed to the late senator from Illinois this sum should real $$.

I and others contend that no where is this statement more false than with respect to international aid. Should we look to solve all the developing world’s problems, whether they be health or technology? Absolutely not these folks need to stand on their own 2 feet and it is time to clip their wings with respect to funding for weapons and war related infrastructure. However, the figures mentioned above account for 0.0181-0.0335% of our GDP ($14.93 Trillion FY 2008). At the ultra-macro level the US donates about 0.2-0.4% of GDP in toto (http://www.globalissues.org/article/35/us-and-foreign-aid-assistance#ForeignAidNumbersinChartsandGraphs).This is markedly less than the 0.7% of GDP agreed to by rich nations at the UN General Assembly……..in 1970! Yes it is true we donated $25 billion in 2008 as Official Development Assistance (ODA), which is Germany and the UK combined and realistically dwarfing every nation on an absolute scale. However, as any economist or pragmatic person would admit absolute values don’t say much, while relative figures say a ton.  The US ranks dead last among the 22 rich nations as a % of GDP. Pekka Hirvonen called this Stingy Samaritanism. The only nations that exceed the 0.7% target are Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands (0.8-0.99% of GDP)……………..Damn Socialists!

Lets just quickly contrast this with Defense spending, which was 4.7% of GDP last year and has a 45yr average of 5.3% ($702-792 billion annually) (http://www.heritage.org/research/features/budgetchartbook/obama-budget-would-return-defense-spending-to-pre-911-levels.aspx). So, why don’t we just take 0.4% of defense and transfer it to international aid. This would still leave 3.73-4.33% of GDP for making tons of bombs, guns, missiles, tanks, etc. allowing us to continue to engage in mismanaged, ill-conceived, spineless, and pointless wars. How can you argue with that Bush, Cheney, et al?

defense-gdp

Further folks like Peter Orzag the Director of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget has noted that if we don’t get healthcare under control it will mushroom from 5% in 1960 to 20% of GDP sometime between 2020 and 2040. If we were to actually shear some of the fat from this beast we could give more generously, but that might actually require a national healthcare option that would apparantly run private industry out of business. However, this is hard to reconcile given that most in the private sector feel the US government would do a horrible job if they got in the business of healthcare. If this is so than what’s the problem?

We have a TRUE Axis of Evil in this country  Defense, Banks, and Healthcare/Big Pharmaceutical. Cutting these folks down to size even if that meant a 5-10% decrease in their nefarious profits, would permit the US government to cut taxes for Joe the Plumber (ie The Common Man and Woman!) and permit more giving to those around the world in desperate need of real aid. Not food in boxes or finished product but rather the tools and knowledge to make their own stuff and feed themselves by themselves.

I must admit rather reluctantly that I did a rough calculation of how much I gave in aid/donations last year and it came out to approximately 1-2% of my income. That is a figure that I really don’t know how to square with others as the data for individual households in this country is scant with respect to charitable donations.

So, it seems to me that a billion here, a billion there does not equal real money when it comes to international aid. This country owes it to the world to stop exporting so much defense related technology and get going on the stuff that makes countries function in the interim. That includes alternative NRG, agriculture, smart-growth, etc. and the myriad skill-sets they need to stop relying on external aid. Its the least we could do.

Legalize It!

Well I just finished reading a couple of disturbing articles on the drug industry in this country (ie The illegal portion!) (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/opinion/14kristof.html?scp=2&sq=Kristof%20marijuana&st=cse; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/12/us/12pot.html?scp=1&sq=marijuana%20prison&st=cse). It got me thinking about the age old question (at least here in Burlington and on Phish tour!!) about whether to legalize marijuana and I thought it would be good to do some quick back of the envelopes as to what else could be done with the money used to enforce the War on Marijuana!

It turns out of the 2.31 million in prison here in the US – a number 4-6 times the world average depending on state – 485,306 are in for various drug related crimes. Of those approximately 47.4% (230,036) could be estimated as Marijuana related. Before I go further it is worth noting, according the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) (2006nov_factsheet_incarceration), the “US has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the world’s incarcerated people.” Why is this notable? Well this 5:1 ratio is the same one attributed to our use of the world’s 83.4 million barrels of oil daily and it also happens to be our consumption:production of goods ratio. What is it with 5:1 and the US? According to the NCCD if the rest of the world followed our lead the global prison population would jump from 9.2 to 47.6 million people. According to Mauer (2003; inc_comparative_intl) the 3-fold increase in our prison population from 1980-1996 was largely (88%) a function of changes in sentencing policy , with changes in crime explaining on 12%. This is scary because like regressive taxation the minorities and women are paying a disproportionate toll. Blumstein and Beck (1999; http://www.jstor.org/pss/1147683) demonstrated that incarceration rose 364% for women between 1980 and 1996, 184 and 235 for African Americans and Hispanics, respectively, while male incarceration rose 195% and that of whites grew 164%. Overlay the increasing privatization of our prison system (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/12/26/us/1227_DETAIN.html) and all the negatives associated with that and you have a trend that needs immediate reversal. Otherwise we will have Wall Street’s “best and brightest” sticking their noses where they don’t belong, unless of course we were to prosecute them for the myriad offenses they have perpetrated in the past 20 years.

Anyway getting back my point if we assume it costs about $23,876 per year to house these dangerous criminals than we are spending $5.49 trillion annually to keep these vermin locked up. Now what if instead of locking up petty marijuana users and distributors we put that money towards something worthwhile…something like Oh I don’t know healthcare? Well the Medical Industrial Complex (MIC) currently accounts for 15.2% of GDP or $2.10 trillion and is projected to rise to 20.9% by 2020 an astounding $3.35 trillion right? Well actually wrong if we used this “marijuana war” money we would still conservatively have a surplus of 3.39 currently or 2.14 in 2020 to do other stuff. Like what? Well this surplus as it were would pay for about 4% of all college student transportation or book and supply costs presumably lowering student loan amounts by a similar amount. Oh yeah or we could say sayonara to China and their $1.2 trillion in foreign exchange AND their 25% ownership of our national debt. Sounds like a plan to me.

Okay so your not into protectionism, nationalism, recidivism, any other -ism, or education? That is totally cool. How about the electricity you use to turn on your lights, watch your flatscreen, or make a milkshake? Ah I see I got your attention now.

Was it the flatscreen or the milkshake?

Makes no difference if we take the surplus “marijuana war” cash and invest it in alternative energy, lets use for example wind as it is one of my favorites (I hear the cows love it as well!) we could buy outright or subsidize the purchase of 790,310 2 Mega Watt (MW) turbines, which translates to, now hold onto your hat……….. 1,580,621 MW! Alright so what does this mean in terms of capacity? Well the DOE estimates there are 330,000 MW along the Mid-Atlantic Bight, the region of coastline stretching from Massachusetts to North Carolina. Now if that doesn’t get your mouth watering more than the thought of that milkshake how bout the fact that the DOE estimates there are 900,000 MW of wind capacity nationwide, which roughly translates to $2.34 trillion in revenue annually. So, we would have about 680,621 MW worth of spare turbines to dump into the global market.

Is that such a bad thing? I think not and it would all flow from the decriminalization of a weed that gives people the munchies and causes them to have a prediliction for really long songs!

An Ode to the Blackboard

What you may ask is too important to fail? Well the answer is lots of things like publication education, local and national newspapers, true democracy, and the NFL. Just kidding! Seriously I would argue one object that is too important to fail is the blackboard. The blackboard you ask who the heck cares if it goes by the way of the 8-track or VHS or basic discourse? Again just kidding about the last one…..I think! The blackboard was at one time a pallet for instructors at every level of education to convey an idea and then another and another, while all the while retaining on the board that initial concept for students to…Now don’t jump out of your seat….actually learn to synthesize to make those nuanced connections that only a young brain receptive to all types of input can manage. We have turned in recent years to Microsoft Powerpoint an all to evil invention of an otherwise seminal corporation. This wonder of the folks in Washington has facilitated an abrupt transition to rote and overly simplified learning. I would argue that what is occurring in high school and college classrooms where Powerpoint is present is far from learning, rather we get respective questions and comments from students like “Is this going to be on the test?” or “I that wasn’t exactly what your Powerpoint handout said!”

I once tried an experiment when giving a guest lecture I waited till everyone was in the room and proceeded to give a lame excuse for why I wouldn’t be using my Powerpoint presentation that morning and instead would turn to the blackboard. Immediately I had students asking how I was going to decide what would and would not be on the test and if I didn’t write something on the blackboard I couldn’t put it on the test. Well I chuckled and said you know let’s just give this a shot and I proceeded to go through the lecture on the board starting at the top-left and ending at the bottom right of two adjacent blackboards, repeating this process twice in the span of 70 minutes. However, half way through I turned to the class and asked if it was all making sense what with them being used to Dr. Evil (i.e. Powerpoint) and all. The response was an emphatic yes and even better they said what they really loved about the blackboard was that it all flowed and they could go back and see the connections right there on the board, which they said facilitated more informed and directed questioning. They said that with Powerpoint it was a race against the next slide, while with the blackboard the pace was slowed down as was the learning, which facilitated true absorption of the information, questioning, and debate that followed. I couldn’t help but ask why they had never voiced these issues with other instructors and they were basically under the impression that the ship had left the dock and they better get with the times or risk the consequences.

This is not how learning is supposed to happen especially with the fact that, as Tamar Lewin reported a while back in The New York Times, college tuition fees and median family incomes between 1982-2007 increased by 439 and 147%. If we are going to send our kids to college and people like myself are going to truly teach rather than talk at them we need to be equipped with the best tools and believe me when I tell you those fancy classrooms with overhead projectors, speakers, etc may look great but we’re not going on tour with Pink Floyd here we’re trying to foster thinking and discourse, neither of which are facilitated under the conforming pressures of Powerpoint and “Is this going to be on the test?” lines of questioning. We have really smart kids in this country that will at some point be handed the baton. I for one want to make sure they are equipped to think holistically and are not in the business of having information spoon fed to them. Powerpoint doesn’t just squash synthesized learning and curiosity it makes students and I would imagine many in the workplace apathetic, lazy, and stupid. Yeah I had to say it because it is true. If we continue to mechanize and desensitize the classroom we won’t produce graduates but rather robots. This planet doesn’t have the luxury of deciding its fate, but we do and I would trust flesh and blood over a robot any day.