Sunday, April 16, 2017

Can Government Be Successful?

Column 2017-13 (4/17/17)

It is easy to find government's failures. Its successes are a bit harder to smoke out of their holes. I recently found one of the successes in the most unlikely of places, an op-ed from the “New York Times.”

The success story comes from Pagedale, Missouri, a community of about 3,300 near St. Louis. You know that the success has to be spectacular to get noticed far away in New York city.

Pagedale has its own court which costs about $90,000 a year. Fines and cost collected by the court exceed a quarter million dollars per year. That is nearly a 300 percent return on investment. If that isn't success, What is? If a business hauled in that kind of profit, someone would be screaming for a Congressional investigation.

The dastardly deeds that can get the city into a pagedalions pocket include not walking on the right side of crosswalks; barbecuing in the front yard, except on national holidays; and failing to have a screen on every door. It is also a violation if the enforcer does not like the look of a home owner’s drapes or if the window blinds are not neatly hung.

The Pagedale court handled 5,781 cases in 2013. That is about 1.75 cases per resident. The money collected adds up to about $75 per resident.

Policing for profit wasn't invented by Pagedale. Speed traps have been around almost as long as automobiles. Michigan still has a law enacted to cut down on speed traps. The law banned speed limits of less than 25 miles per hour. It has been amended to create a few exceptions. Still, most speeding violations are much about revenue and little about safety.

Code violations and speed traps are small potatoes in government's quest for other people's money. The big leaguers play at the asset forfeiture table. Why bother with hundreds of dollars when tens of thousands, or even millions, are there for the taking?

In civil asset forfeiture the enforcers skip over people and go straight for the loot. They file a claim that certain assets may have been involved in a crime. The next steep is seizure of the assets. The owner can attempt to get his presumed guilty assets back if he can jump through all of the right hoops.

The first hoop usually is posting bond for the privilege of trying to reclaim his own property. To its credit Michigan did eliminate this hoop. Posting bond can be a challenge when all of the owner's money and other assets have been taken from him.

The national government has developed a nasty habit of seizing bank accounts for the dastardly deed of the account owner making too many deposits of less than $10 thousand. A sheriff in Florida took cash from anyone caught in his county carrying more than a hundred dollars. He claimed that anyone carrying $100 or more must be dealing in drugs.

In most cases of civil asset forfeiture no person is even charged with a crime, leave alone convicted. Civil asset forfeiture should be abolished. A criminal conviction should be prerequisite to forfeiture. Unfortunately abolition isn't going to happen soon.

Squeezing the the profit from fines and forfeitures would greatly discourage enforcers from pursuing money instead of criminals. No one involved in collecting fines and forfeitures should be allowed to benefit from the collection.

All fines and forfeitures should be put in a separate fund where they couldn't be spent by or for government. The money could be used to reduce taxes, compensate crime victims, or some other worthy purpose. With the profit removed from fines and forfeitures, don't expect the fund to ever grow large.

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Copyright 2017
Albert D. McCallum

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Is Capitalism Good?

Column 2017-12 (4/10/17)

     Advocates for capitalism passionately defend the word. Seldom do they bother to offer a coherent definition of what they are defending. To them the definition is obvious. The definition of capitalism is also obvious to its opponents. Few stop to ask, Do the definitions in the minds of the two sides have anything in common?

     What is capitalism? Even more basic, What is capital? We work and produce to provide the things we want to use. The tools, equipment, materials, etc. used to produce consumer goods are called capital. Without capital we wouldn't be able to produce much of anything. All we would have to work with would be our bodies.

      Try to imagine people living without any capital. About as close as we can get would be naked hunter-gatherers foraging with their bare hands. Life without capital wouldn't be good. Even the most primitive tribes have at least a few tools. How can capital be a bad thing? If capital isn't bad, Why is capitalism bad? 

     Communists, socialists, fascists and just about everyone else seeks to accumulate capital. If we call them all capitalists, the word "capitalists" won't mean much of anything. What does capitalism mean?

     The advocates for capitalism probably have in mind a highly efficient, smoothly running economy based on freedom and voluntary cooperation. Unfortunately they assume that the word capitalism creates this image in everyone's mind. It doesn't.

      The advocates for capitalism commonly imply that our existing economy is capitalism. Opponents of capitalism can be forgiven if they look at our existing economy and conclude that it is what capitalism is. It is also understandable if they don't like the the crony capitalism they see.

     Those who insist on using the emotionally charged and nearly meaningless word “capitalism” are largely responsible for the confusion. Or, perhaps they really want to defend crony capitalism, If so they are battling on behalf of the indefensible.

      What kind of economy is worth defending? Adam Smith answered that question more than 240 years ago in "An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations." After considering numerous economies from various eras Smith concluded that the wealthiest nations were those where government interfered the least with the economy. In other words, freedom is essential for prosperity.

      Experience since Smith wrote further confirms that Adam Smith was right. We ignore his wisdom at our peril. Instead of quibbling over the meaning of vague words, such as "capitalism," advocates for a strong, productive economy should focus on increasing understanding of freedom in the marketplace and how that freedom works for everyone.

      Some will complain that this is too materialistic, we don't need to be more productive. This is short sighted. Those who don't want to consume more don't have to. If we increase our productivity we can produce what we now have with less effort.

       If the poet can sustain himself with 20 hours of work instead of 40 he has 20 more hours to write poems. Those who aren't into poetry can give more to the less fortunate or just relax. Much of the increase in productivity we now enjoy goes into increased leisure time. Most people no longer work 80 or more hours a week.

      Freedom in the marketplace only requires that we be free to produce, buy, and sell as we choose. Individuals wouldn't need government approval to work and produce. Government wouldn't write the specification for the vehicles, appliances, etc. that we make and use. I recently read that there are nearly 100 US government regulations on how to make furnaces and air conditioners.

      It is absurd to even suggest that we live in economic freedom. Unless we want to watch the US waste away we must bring more freedom back to the marketplace.

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Copyright 2017
Albert D. McCallum

Sunday, April 2, 2017

What Can Cyber Learning Be?

Column 2017-11 (4/3/17)

No one can provide a detailed picture of the future of cyber learning, or anything else. The future will be made through a series of changes each made in response to the changes that preceded it.

Cyber learning will evolve through time as do all new technologies. We can look through the foggy window between us and the future and see some of the features cyber learning can offer. To enjoy the full picture, we must let cyber learning happen.

The old school system is based on rigidity and conformity. Cyber learning will usher in flexibility and individuality. Each student will have a curriculum planner and personal tutor on call around the clock all year long. Say goodbye to school years, school days, and school hours, and all the conflict and controversy they generate.

The learning shop will always be open, Every student can have a personal schedule without disrupting anyone else. Plan a two week vacation in February, no problem. Take the summer or winter off, still no problem. Take a day off just because you need it, still no problem. Also, forget about snow days.

Computer programs will test and evaluate each student. The student can then proceed at a pace he is comfortable with. Goodbye busy work. As soon as the student masters a segment the computer will direct him to the next lesson. The computer will retest from time to time to see when a skill needs refreshing.

Location will be as flexible as the schedule. The full spectrum of cyber learning will be as available in a wilderness cabin as in a major city. If a student so chooses he can take his “school” on vacation with him. The potential for interaction with other students won't end at the boundaries of the classroom and the neighborhood. Interaction can reach the entire world.

Person to person assistance will be available on line. The student can have access to a vast array of instructors for assistance. If the style of one doesn't mesh, try another.

Students will need some assistance from learning coaches close at hand. This can be provided in many ways. In some cases parents or older siblings will provide the assistance as is now done by home educators. Incidentally, many of those home educators are already benefiting from using Cyber Learning 1.0.

In many respects home education has been and is leading education to its future. Traditional schools fight off the future at the peril of being cast aside.

Huge schools and school buses are unneeded and obsolete. There is no longer any good reason to congregate large numbers of students in one place. Likewise there is no reason to rigidly segregate students by age or level of achievement. They will all be learning independently. One learning coach could monitor and guide a diverse group of students.

A few things can't be learned on line, at least not yet. Learning hands on skills requires the student to have the equipment to put his hands on. If the equipment is large and expensive it won't be available everywhere. For example, shop classes will require the student to get together with a shop. On the other hand, knitting could be learned any place.

Learning rooms with learning coaches can be opened any place students can be found. Apartment buildings, mobile home parks, and subdivisions can all have their own leaning centers. Groups of parents can establish learning centers for their children.

Entrepreneurs will step in offering to provide learning centers for a fee. A variety of cyber learning programs will be available on line. Don't be surprised if some are available without charge. Only time will tell the ways creative minds find to offer learning services. The only thing certain is the future of learning won't look much like the past and present.

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Copyright 2017
Albert D. McCallum

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Future of Learning

Column 2017-10 (3/27/17)

      New ideas don't instantly catch on. Many people reject new ideas without even considering their merit. New equals bad is an old formula. Some of the most vocal opponent's of the new are individuals who have a vested interest in the old.

       The opponents of twenty-first century learning do have vested interests in our antiquated school system. Many of them are living well off the old system. They fear that a real step forward for learning would leave them behind. They are willing to sacrifice the children to sustain the obsolete district schools.

      This was on full display in Detroit last year as the Luddites of our times fought to force escaped students back into the failed district schools. More than half of the students living in Detroit have left the district schools.

     Schools should serve the students, not consume them to sustain the failed schools a bit longer. I doubt that "sacrifice the children to save the district schools" will ever be a popular rallying cry.

       Defenders of district schools whine that charter schools aren't accountable. This is a garbage claim. The accountability of charter schools could be improved. Still, they are far more accountable than district schools.

      The real complaint on behalf of district schools is that charter schools provide another choice. That choice makes district schools more accountable to those whom they serve.

      All service providers should be accountable to those they serve. Then they must serve their customers well, or close up shop. Being ruled by unaccountable bureaucrats, who often don't know or care what consumers want, is fake accountability.

      It takes extra effort for parents to have their children in charter schools. If the charter school doesn't deliver, it will lose its customers. That is real accountability. No bureaucrats needed. Of course bureaucrats hate it.

     Our present school system has its roots in the nineteenth century. It was embellished a bit during the twentieth century. Now Common Core seeks to preserve the fossil forever. The system is based on dividing students in to herds by age. Those herds are then driven through the system for 13 years. It is all about the herd, not the individual.

     Inevitably the system aims for mediocrity, and usually falls short. One size fits all doesn't fit anybody. The faster students are held back and bored. Commonly the lack of any challenge leads to bad study habits.

      The slower students are trampled by the herd and left behind. Not everyone has the same ability in all subjects. They may be bored in some classes while being left behind in others. Not all students need the same body of knowledge as others. The system doesn't care. In fifth grade, learn fifth grade stuff because you are in fifth grade.

      It is long past time to lay grade numbers to rest and build curriculum to fit students. Forget about forcing students to march through a curriculum that probably doesn't fit anyone. Cyber learning can liberate students from slavery to the rigidity of grade numbers and one size fits all lesson plans. All we need do is let it happen.

      Computers can continuously measure where the student is at and lead him to the next step. When the student masters a segment he can move on to the next one, instead of marking time with busy work. It won't matter that others are progressing at different paces. What matters is that all will be progressing. What the student learns is far more important than how fast he learns it.

        Not all students will be suited to full scale cyber learning. Most will benefit greatly from it. Next time I will endeavor to provide a thumbnail sketch of of some of the advantages of cyber learning.

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Copyright 2017
Albert D. McCallum

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why Bureaucracy?

Column 2017-9 (3/20/17)

     Most people are familiar with the word ”bureaucracy.”  
What is a bureaucracy?  Why do we have bureaucracies?  What are
bureaucracies intended to accomplish?  What do bureaucracies actually
    People free to choose work together to form many enterprises. 
These enterprises produce many things.  The consumers choose which
things they want and decide how much they are willing to pay.  To
succeed, an enterprise must be able to sell its products for more than it
costs to make them.

     To do this the enterprise must please customers.  The enterprises
that well serve their customers prosper.  Those that fail to please
customers perish.  Nothing more is needed to achieve accountability.

     Some enterprises don't sell their products to customers who are
free to buy or reject the products.  Such enterprises aren't accountable to
those they are supposed to serve.  Most such enterprises get their
income from appropriations.  The value of the product is never tested in
the marketplace.

     Most government products never face the marketplace test of
value.  Many departments in businesses share the same lack of
accountability to those they are supposed to serve.  How can
management know if the payroll or purchasing department is operating
effectively and efficiently?  Such departments don't compete for

     Businesses and some government enterprises commonly out
source services such as cleaning and payroll.  The providers of those
services then have customers to please.  This increases accountability.

     In free markets a business's final product is always subject to the
marketplace test when offered for sale.  In government the opposite is
true.  Some of government's suppliers compete in the marketplace.  The
final product is usually given away or sold to customers who have little
or no freedom to choose, such as those coerced to buy city water.

     Bureaucracy is an attempt to bring some accountability to
enterprises that escape real accountability to customers in the
marketplace.  Those who are accountable directly to their customers
don't need books full of rules about do and don't.  If they don't discover
and heed the right dos and don'ts their enterprise perishes.  That is real
and inescapable accountability..

     This accountability comes from the bottom up.  Bureaucratic
accountability is based on rules  from the top.  Bureaucrats, who at best
have some foggy idea what consumers want, make and attempt, or at
least pretend, to enforce the rules.

     Often the bureaucrats care little about what consumers want. 
Bureaucrats try to enforce the rules with slaps on the wrist and giving
more money to the worst performers.  Rules that started out as means to
an end become ends in themselves.

     Enforce the rule because it's the rule.  Never mind that the rule
frustrates the purpose for which the rule was made.  Soon the
bureaucrats and their minions lose sight of any purpose other than
survival and growth of the bureaucracy.  This process can continue for
so long as money can be squeezed from the taxpayers to pay for it.

     Attempts to reform bureaucracy will fail because human nature
and the bureaucratic environment dictate what any bureaucracy will do. 
With all its faults bureaucracy is still the best way to run an enterprise
that isn't accountable to consumers in the marketplace.  The only real
solution to the problems of bureaucracies is to replace them with
enterprises that are directly accountable to consumers in the

     Those who still complain that charter schools are less
accountable than district schools should read this column again.  
Charter schools may, or may not, have less pseudo accountability to the
bureaucracy.   They have far more real accountability to the consumers
they serve.  Charter schools must please those they serve.

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 Copyright 2017
Albert D. McCallum

Saturday, March 11, 2017

What Is Important About Sovereign States?

Column 2017-8 (3/13/17)
       When the Revolutionary War ended, the colonies didn't
automatically become one nation.  Each colony became an independent,
sovereign nation.  The leaders of the new nations realized that alone in
the world each would have a difficult time.

     The new nations banded together under The Articles of
Confederation.  Each nation retained its sovereignty, except for a few
matters delegated to the government of the federation.  The present US
Constitution was born when the convention called to propose
amendments to the Articles of Confederation instead drafted the

     The Constitution didn't end the sovereignty of the member
nations.  The Bill of Rights was added to make it clear that the states
and their citizens weren't to be ruled by the federal government but to
be served by it.  Over time, particularly at the time of the Civil War,
the federal government has morphed into a national government seeking
to rule rather than serve the states.

     In large part the states have surrendered their sovereignty in
exchange for return of some of the wealth taxed away from them by the
federal government.  There is nothing like being bought into servitude
with your own money.  That is worse than making Mexico pay for
Trump's wall.

     Many today want the states to be little more than administrative
districts of a national government.  Should all laws be uniform across
the entire country?

     If someone devises perfect laws that are best for  everyone, it
might make sense to apply them to everyone.  So far I'm waiting to see
the first such law.  Someone may say, What about a law against
murder?  My response is, when someone comes up with a definition of
murder that is agreeable to everyone, let me know.

     Not everyone wants the same lifestyle.  What gives one the right
to impose his lifestyle on another?  With different laws in different
states, we can vote with our feet for the ones we prefer. Individuals
have been voting in this election for all of history.  The colonists who
settled in the new world voted against the old world.

     Some people want to stop the voting with our feet by imposing
the same destructive laws on everyone.  Interestingly, when their
favorite laws don't win, they don't smile and accept someone else's
favorite laws.  We need no further proof of this than to observe how the
so-called progressives are melting down over Trump's election.
      I'm not all that pleased with some of Trump's ideas.  So far I have
avoided having a temper tantrum and beating my head on the floor.

     Success is the product of experimentation.  Many experiments,
probably most, don't yield good results.  Those failures are the price we
pay for progress.  The fewer people harmed by failed experiments, the
better.   That experiment called Obamacare should not have been
inflicted on the entire nation.  For one thing, it denied us the
opportunity of seeing 49 alternatives, one or two of which might
actually have worked.

     The attempt to impose one size fits all education on the all 50
states is another on going disaster.  Let 50 flowers bloom and then pull
up the ones that turn out to be weeds.

     Let state sovereignty and diversity flourish.  Then pick the
winners after they actually win.  Quit relying on politicians and
bureaucrats to pick winners from untried rookies at the beginning of
spring training.

     I'm not suggesting that more government at the state level is a
good thing.  We can at least hope that one state will give freedom a
chance.  Faced with success from freedom the other states will be
forced to get on board the freedom train, or be left behind.

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Copyright 2017
Albert D. McCallum

Saturday, March 4, 2017

How Dumb Is It?

Column 2017-7 (3/6/17)
   The year is still young.  It's not too young though for making
my first nomination for "dumb idea of the year."  I hope the idea wins
the award.  I shudder to imagine someone coming up with a dumber

     This idea makes Mr. Trump at his worst seem good.  And, that
is no small accomplishment.  At least Trump appears to have a few
good ideas to balance his ledger.

     Interestingly, the supper dumb idea is attributed to the man
alleged to be the world's richest human.  Bill Gates supposedly wants to
tax robots that take jobs from humans.  Maybe this will turn out to be
fake news, or an early April Fool's Day prank.  I certainly hope so.

     The sophomoric logic behind the proposal is that humans are
taxed on the income they produce; therefore, robots should be taxed
too.  Would the robot hire another robot to file the tax forms?  Of
course, business owners are already taxed on income produced by their

     Robots increase productivity of workers so that each produces
more.  Thus, fewer workers are needed to make the same amount of
products.  Of course, the increased productivity will lower the price of
the product creating demand for more of the product.  Will the robot get
a tax credit for the new jobs it created?

     The function of invention and innovation is to increase the
productivity of workers.  Increased productivity is the only way to
increase our standard of living.  Gates is proposing to tax away part of
the increase in our standard of living.

     Every innovation that increases productivity takes away jobs. 
Why single out robots for special treatment?  How many scribes have
lost their jobs to printing presses?  How many telephone operators have
been replaced by computers?  How many diggers lost their jobs because
of the invention of shovels?

     One of the greatest job destroyers of all times is the farm tractor. 
It has wiped out millions of jobs driving and caring for horses and
mules.  What would be a fair tax to impose on tractor owners for this
dirty deed?

     A robot is just a fancy piece of equipment.  Equipment doesn't
pay taxes.  Equipment owners will have to come up with the money
to pay the robot tax.  Businesses don't pay taxes either.

     Businesses merely collect taxes for government.  The tax money
must come from customers or employees, or else the business goes
bankrupt.  Instead of cutting prices or increasing wages, the business
will send the robot tax money to government.

     There is a third option.  Government could use the robot tax to
subsidize the businesses harmed by the robot tax.  I hope this option
doesn't make sense to anyone.

     Without the robot tax, consumers will pay lower prices for the
goods produced by robots.   This will leave consumers with money to
spend on things they couldn't buy before.  Someone will have to make
those things.  That means new jobs.

     If government levies the robot tax, then government gets to
spend the increased productivity.  Of course, if government taxes away
all the benefits from using robots, there won't be any robots to tax, or
any increased productivity to spend.

     It appears that Gates believes government will spend wealth
more wisely than will those who produce it.  That is unless the producer
is Bill Gates.  If Gates really believed in the wisdom of government, he
would donate his billions to the cause.

     The robot tax is just one more lame scheme to increase taxes on
everyone.  Government thrives on fooling people into believing
someone else is paying the taxes.

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Copyright 2017
Albert D. McCallum