Friday, May 06, 2016

Book 33: Who gets chosen, or, should Superman just stand around pushing a lever?

So much of life is random chance.

In Isle Of View, a character is introduced to Xanth: Jenny the Elf. She's one of the "Elfquest" elves who winds up in Xanth through a hole in the... something... that quickly gets plugged after two monsters briefly come through.

In the author's note, Piers Anthony explains that "Jenny The Elf" is based on Jenny Gildwarg, who in the late 80s was hit by a drunk driver and ended up in a coma when she was about 12. Her parents thought it might help if she got a note from Piers Anthony, since she was a Xanth fan. He wrote her and asked if she would like to be a character in his next book, and if so, would she prefer to be an elf or an ogre?  Jenny reacted and said Yes and then using her eyes said she wanted to be an elf.

So Anthony wrote her into the book, and later said he went to meet her at a convention.  He later published some of his letters to her into a book Letters To Jenny and is said to have donated 10% of her profits to her.

After I finished Isle Of View (which wraps up the Dolph-is-engaged-to-two-people storyline by having Dolph fall in love after all with the girl who would otherwise die if he didn't marry her) I googled around and tried to find out what ever happened to Jenny Gildwarg.  (Google, by the way, is terrible for stuff like that. Google returns the most popular results, and in a world where Piers Anthony has written hundreds of books and is famous, and two of those or so mentioned Jenny Gildwarg, you will get dozens of pages of results talking about the book and how it came to be written, but no follow ups (if they exist) on the girl herself because (presumably) those are not as popular.)

I wasn't able to determine whether she is still alive -- she'd be about 40 now -- but the book made me think about how some people get chosen and others do not.

It's a terrible thing that Jenny Gildwarg was hit by a drunk driver and paralyzed and in a coma.  But Jenny had a famous(ish) author visit her, write her into a book, and pay some of her expenses, which is more than the 24,999 other people injured or killed in drunk-driving accidents that year got.

In May, 1988, a drunk driver in a pickup truck smashed into a bus, causing a gas fire. 27 people died; 34 more were injured. I wasn't able to find any celebrity help for them.

In 2010, Teagan Marti, a 12-year-old, fell from a ride in the Wisconsin Dells and was paralyzed.  Charlie Sheen paid for a therapy dog for her (those cost about $25,000, depending on what training is needed.)  In Texas the other day, a 16-year old girl was killed when a carnival ride flung her off. As of yet, no celebrities have stepped forward to help her out.

A few years back, the "Ice Bucket Challenge" raised all kinds of money for ALS, which is still a disease that every few years makes the news with another possible cure, each of which has yet to pan out.  That 'challenge' raised $100,000,000 for ALS research.  That's a lot of money. Meanwhile, the United States uses a lottery system to determine who gets "Section 8" rental assistance vouchers (intended to help families who on average make $13,000 a year obtain housing.)

I'm not saying that these people did not deserve help; it's not that Teagan Marti was more or less deserving of assistance than the Texas girl (whose friend was injured, also, in the same accident.)  What is obvious though, is that we make poor choices about how best to help people.

I asked Middle Daughter this the other day on our commute from work.  Suppose, I said, that God told you you could pick out one charity in the world, any charity, and God would cure the thing that charity was trying to help. Which one would you pick to do the most good?

"Autism," she said.

To do the most good, I reminded her, and she said yeah but her brothers have autism.

When we think about what will do the most good, we often make decisions that are based on the wrong criteria.  50 Cent the other day posted a video making fun of a janitor with autism; he said the guy was drunk or high.  When he learned the man had autism, he apologized and donated $100,000 to autism research.  I said He should have given that guy $100,000, and then thought: but which would do the most good?

It's entirely possible that Superman's best use would be to generate clean power for people so that the pollution and costs of the way we generate power now would be used to solve other problems. (This, of course, assumes that we would use those resources to solve problems, when in reality we would simply allow them to be redirected to the 1%, making Superman the greatest wealth-generating machine in history.)

Leaving aside whether that would make for a good comic book, how many people, given superpowers, would think I should definitely use these to irrigate drought-ravaged regions? 

The way we decide to help people is based almost entirely on random chance, prejudices, who can afford better advertising budgets, and what is the most exciting.  That's a great way to generate sympathetic news articles and good publicity, and keep life interesting. But it's a pretty awful way to run society.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016


Don't fret: either way Wall Street's gonna be fine and you're going to continue to worry about everything.

So it looks like Trump vs. Hillary, and right now Real Clear Politics has the "spread" at 6.2 because politics is just a game right? It is, and like every other major sporting event, the presidential election goes on too long and has zero impact on real life because every president is just like every other president and the middle class continues to get squeezed.

If you think campaign contributions foreordain policies, as I do -- and I am coming around to rethinking my political contributions stance -- Hillary is bad news. While her top contributor right now is Emily's List, a PAC that helps elect women politicians, Hillary's other top 10 are a rogue's gallery of Too Big To Fail Banks: Citigroup, JPMorganChase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, among them.Those banks, with DLA Piper, a multinational law firm, are the top 5 after Emily's List.

DLA Piper's average profit per equity partner last year was $1,400,000. Per partner.  Just thought I'd mention that before going on to the list of banks bailed out and subsequently contributing to Hillary.

Morgan Stanley got $10,000,000,000 in the fall of 2008, in the form of a government stock purchase. The government eventually received that money back, in June 2009, and it seems the deal will net the government about $1,100,000,000 in profits (through dividends paid; dividends are paid when a company is profitable and shares those profits with stockholders.)  JPMorgan got $25,000,000,000, paid it back and made the government $1,753,000,000.

Government bailouts are good business, for government, a unique situation engineered under a Republican congress and a supposedly-liberal president. Government bailouts mostly happen to big businesses. Over the last five years, the government has loaned a total of $83,000,000,000 to small businesses. Of course, not only is that number less than the big banks got in six months in 2008-9, but most of it comes from smaller banks and lenders, not the government. Under SBA loans, banks make the loans and the government guarantees a percentage (usually 85%) of the loan if the business doesn't pay it back. The banks still have some risk so those loans are tough to get.

Meanwhile, over the past 24 years there have been 16 years of Democrat presidents and 8 of Republican, with Congress about roughly divided in control (although now solidly in Republican hands and likely to stay that way as Hillary monopolizes money meant to help elect state and congressional Dems).

In 1993 the median household income (1/2 of America earned more, 1/2 earned less) was $50,421. That climbed steadily to a high of $57,843 in 2000, where it stayed until roughly 2008, when it began dropping each year until 2013. It rose slightly in 2014, and the last measure was that it was $53,657.

While Hillary and the Dems will no doubt take credit for the 1993-2000 rise, the Democrats were in charge of Congress for much of the Bush era and income was stagnant for that period.

Not only that, but because the cost of living rose faster than incomes, an income of $57,000 in 2000 was equal to an income of $46,000 in 1992: A person whose income actually tracked the national averages, going from $50,000 a year in 1992 to $57,000 a year in 2000, would be worse off despite earning $7000 more. ($50k to $57k is, after all, a net increase of only 3.5% over 7 years.)

AND, in 1994, under Clinton 1.0, the government loosened restrictions and regulations over banks and allowed Fannie Mae to begin buying "subprime" mortgages. Clinton and the GOP congress then eliminated capital gains taxes on sales of expensive homes ($250,000-$500,000),  and allowed the process of securitization of mortgage loans (remember that? It was once talked about and now has been banished to the recesses of the public consciousness, but is happening with auto loans right now.)

In 1998 the Clinton-led government bailed out "Long Term Capital Management", a hedge fund (hedge funds are ripoffs, according to Business Insider) and Clinton's administration helped broker a bailout by private banks including many that would just 9 years later get their own bailouts. Also in 1999 Fannie Mae helped Countrywide (remember them?) get a deal to make it the biggest lender in the history of America, with a system that encouraged Countrywide and other lenders to pay no attention to whether a borrower could pay a loan; and the Clinton Adminstration helped pass "Gramm-Leach-Bliley" - note that government largesse bills never have catchy names like "PATRIOT act"-- a bill that allowed banks to become 'too big to fail.'

Got all that? Clinton 1.0 set the stage for the crash, allowing banks to become overleveraged, deregulating mortgage lending, and normalizing government bailouts. Mortgage fraud began increasing in 1997, 5 years into Clinton 1.0.

Hillary's plans are short on specifics. She wants to offer a $2,500 tax cut to help students afford college. The average cost of a semester at a state college is $4700 for in-state students. The average cost of college on a whole has almost doubled, from $9700 in 1992 to $17000 in 2013, the last year averages are available. Her plans for student loans would save, on average, $200 per year -- less than a dollar a day-- for most lenders. She wants to invest $350,000,000 to help students attend college in their home state without borrowing to pay tuition, but this plan requires families to "do their part" to contribute. Remember, 'kids' who attend college are 'adults' everywhere else in the world, and can marry, join the army, vote, and own property. So Hillary will lower costs for college, for the 'kids' by expecting the parents to pay more.

So we can all enjoy another 8 years of stagnant wages, higher costs of living, irrational student, auto, and housing loan policies, difficult credit, lowered support for social services and infrastructure, and eventually another economic collapse.

The good news?

For me personally, I make my living defending people against debt collectors, big banks, and corporations. When those companies act illegally, people get to pay me rather than them. Over the past 14 years 100% of my income has been earned by money which was required or allowed to be paid to me because companies violated the law. So long as they don't entirely legislate me out of existence, as there are sporadic attempts to do, consumer protection attorneys will survive, if not thrive.  (It's hard to thrive when your clients can't make enough to pay their own expenses, and you have to fight for years to get companies to pay up, but it's worth doing anyway.)

For the country? The last time we had a series of sustained booms and busts it led to the Great Depression and a change of attitudes that helped move us towards a more fair country that actually cared about people, at least for a little while.  Before that, demagogues and the rich who demonstrated callous indifference to the poor were beheaded.

So we can dream.

Monday, May 02, 2016

The Verona (WI) library is pretty awesome

On rainy days, we go to new libraries.

This week it was to Verona, one town over. Did you know that if you type "library" into Google maps it'll find you nearby libraries? I love living in the future.

  This is the great hall (that's how I think of it.)

That picture above was taken while I was standing right in the main angle of the giant window below. You can see this window from a nearby park, which is how we learned years ago that Verona had a great library. This was the first time we've been to it, though.

This looked like it was a tree with some toy dinosaurs
but it turns out that the "Gingko Biloba" is
the oldest tree in the world. 

Hence the dinosaurs.

I once had an idea for a "toy library." You could join -- like how video rental stores used to be -- and then check out toys, like board games or puzzles or action figures or something, then bring them back when you were bored with them and get a new toy.

Real libraries feature a lot more toys these days. That's good. Libraries are becoming more community centers than book repositories. 

 Mr F does not like libraries.
He was pretty good at this one despite this entire day being not
really his cup of tea.

He mumbles and sings to himself, but he can get kind of loud sometimes. There was a 
little girl who came into the castle and was 
sitting in one of the alcoves trying to read, but she kept looking
worriedly at Mr F.

I finally said "Is he bothering you?"

She said "He's kind of loud."

I said "He doesn't mean to be, but would it help if we left the castle while you read?"

She nodded.

We went and hung out by Mr Bunches.  About twenty minutes later she came and found us and said that we could go back to the castle and thanked us.

I feel very strongly that people should not mind when kids like Mr F get a bit loud or upset in public.

I feel equally strongly that we should not deliberately upset people, and keep in mind that having special needs doesn't mean you can do whatever you want.

Both Mr Bunches and Mr F sat in that slide for a while. I think the slight enclosure made them feel safer because it's a big library and there were lots of people there.

Whenever a little kid came by I made the boys vacate the slide for a while.  (See above.)

They had these cool (possibly papier-mache) sculptures all over the kids' section.
When I was little, the kids section of the library was just a little sort of cordoned-off area
where there were kids books. These new libraries are incredible.

They had just a treasure trove of books for Mr Bunches. Mr Bunches likes ABC books, and books about concepts (colors, numbers, etc.) They had those in spades. And they set them out by subject, which is good. We went to one library once where they had kids' books sorted by author. Who knows the author of an ABC book?

There was a sort of stuffed dragon in the castle and Mr Bunches was playing knight with it for a while.

It was kind of neat: even though everyone was being sort of library-hushed, there was enough background chatter and kids and stuff that you didn't feel like you were in church. You could be quiet but didn't have to whisper.  Libraries are fun again!

Book haul!

I want to live there. I want to be like those kids in the Basil E Frankweiler book and hide out in ("how do you hide out in something?") the library.