Friday, January 11, 2019

Ancedote Are More Salient Than Data

It is quite possible that you may know someone whose life was saved by not wearing a seat belt. Perhaps they were thrown clear in an accident and walked away.

However in the vast majority of instances, wearing a seatbelt will save your life.

The saying is that anecdotes are more salient than data. In other words, singular stories capture our imaginations better than vast quantities of stories compiled together. So don't make your decisions based on that one story you heard (anecdote). Look at the vast quantity of compiled stories (data) and make a decision that puts the odds more in your favor.

Wear your seatbelt. 

I just had a conversation with someone about immigration. We were not talking about the big metal fence, or even the best way to secure the border. We were simply discussing the fact that crime rates among immigrants, legal and illegal, are lower than crime rates among natives. (Obviously not counting immigration-related crimes here. We're talking about serious crimes).

This means that the per-capita crime rate falls when immigration happens. This is because, frankly, more future crime victims are entering the country than perpetrators. I hate thinking about it that way, but it's true. Therefore, when immigration happens, natives are safer.

But this fellow's uncle was in a car accident with "an illegal". So that's all that matters. And this fellow doesn't come across as a completely unfeeling, blind Trumpie. But seeing it this was does confirm his broader way of seeing things.

And anecdotes are more salient than data.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Here is the Spring Tomato and Pepper List for 2017

I am happy to offer seven different varieties of tomatoes for sale this year.   After growing about 30 different kinds over the last few years, these seven really stand out in terms of production, taste and vigor.

 All plants are organically raised and cost $3 a piece.  I am planting on February 15 and they will be available in early April.   Please email me at stevenstarkmusic@gmail.com  if you’d like to place an order, and I’ll plant some seeds for you! 


Kellog’s Breakfast

This producer of large orange tomatoes performed very well over the course of the season.   I didn’t really even have it in a great spot, so I’m excited to place it in a sunnier location this year to see if it does even better.  The fruits were very smooth in their flavor - perhaps a tad bit subtle, though more sun may change that, and always sweet and delicious.       

Carbon

Wow, this plant did so well last year.   The fruit production was constant and continued all the way into the Fall.  It also seemed to do well in the heat compared to other nearby plants.  Nice, big, sweet fruits with a darker coloration.  

Cherokee Purple

Similar to Carbon but with a thinner skin, this famous heirloom variety was absolutely delicious in 2016.  

Dwarf Sweet Sue

This is my all-around favorite tomato plant right now.  The medium-small yellow globes are the prettiest fruits I have grown, and the flavor is excellent - very sweet with a bit of a tang.  The foliage features thick, potato leaves that hold up well into the Fall.  Also, being bred from dwarf tomato plants, it doesn't grow quite as quickly as other varieties, so it works very well in smaller spaces.  I’m pretty sure I’ll grow this one every year.

Sungold

This is truly the “gold” standard in cherry tomatoes.   The thin skin and sweetness will cause a flavor explosion when you pop one or two of these into your mouth.


Eva Purple Ball

This wonderful heirloom produces a ton of smaller pink fruits.  They are tasty and the plant remained very healthy late into the season.   If you’re looking for yield, this one will come on strong in the mid-season and keep producing until late.

 Stump Of The World

When I got a really good one of these fruits, nothing was tastier in the garden.  There was liquid sunshine running through these large pink tomatoes.   And it yielded constantly throughout the season. 


And Peppers!

I am offering three kinds of peppers this year, because I really only had three that performed really well.   I definitely have a few new ones I’m looking forward to trying this season!


Early JalapeƱo

This plant produces an abundance of small jalapenos. By Fall, they are usually falling off the plant because of their huge numbers. I’ve also noticed that they seem to get hotter and hotter as the season progresses.  I can’t keep up. 


Emerald Giant

This plant was fantastic this year producing lots of nice, blocky sweet peppers.  If you like green peppers, these are amazing.  If you’re like me and you prefer your peppers fully ripe, then wait for them to turn red - delicious!   It’s definitely been a winner in my garden.


Lipstick Peppers

These smaller, red peppers are sweet.  I don’t think I ever cooked them or cut them up.  I just picked them and ate them, tossing the stems out in the yard. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Pull For The New Pilot?

I've read a lot of folks say that we need to root for Trump now. He's the pilot of the plane, whether you like him or not. Stuff like that.

I'll root for him if he does good things. If he appoints smart, thoughtful people to positions of authority. If he places tremendous value on science and our climate. If he is inclusive in his actions, words and attitudes towards all our citizens. If he actively promotes the American values of freedom of speech, press and religion. If he is properly wary of autocratic regimes throughout the world. If he keeps his business interests separate from his administration. If he values women's rights. If he represents America in a civil way domestically and internationally. If he seeks to subdue the ever-present danger of violence and the easy proliferation of weapons throughout our country. If he seeks to help middle and working class folks who are having trouble finding a new way in a world of free trade and automation.

If he doesn't do these things....if rather he seeks to suppress women's rights, marry his business interests with his administration, further marginalize the vulnerable, say uncivil things, appoint people who value ideology over science, act like a weak-minded bully and empower the worst among us, embarrass America internationally with his tendency to be unprepared, further enrich the entrenched wealthy and turn his back on the working poor, admire and ally with autocrats, persecute his political foes.....etc. etc.

If he does these things instead, then I hope he fails spectacularly. And I hope that we will learn to never let such a person even come close to being president again. I just hope that folks don't get hurt in the process. I really, really, really hope that folks don't get hurt.

David Brooks, who has earned a lot more of my respect through this cycle, rightly pointed out that civility and decency, a couple of the many things that Trump lacks, are not just nice things to have when you can get them. They are foundational qualities for our union. We can't get far without them.
 
So should we root for Trump? That's up to him. And it doesn't look good at all so far.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Immigration in 2016

Some thoughts in the context of listening to interviews where folks express their fears and prejudices concerning immigration. I differ with them, but I want to try to give them just the slightest bit of a sympathetic thought:

I believe in diversity as an inherently good thing, and immigration is part of the life blood of our country. However sometimes liberals have failed to adequately acknowledge that when thinking about immigration policy, it is important to keep in mind that we cannot allow certain American values to be diminished. Among those values are freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion (or the lack thereof). If immigrants do not accept these ideals, then perhaps we should not welcome them to America in great quantities. I believe in the free exchange of ideas, and I believe that exposure to American values can change the minds of those who are unaccustomed to them, but we must maintain a balance when seeking to preserve and expand those ideals.


Now I believe the vast majority of immigrants do believe in those ideals whole-heartedly, which is a big reason they want to come to America, but in our discourse sometimes liberals can go too far when combatting what they perceive (rightly, I believe) to be lots of xenophobia and racism here at home. We must acknowledge that certain American ideals are paramount and must be strongly supported by our populace to thrive.


Perhaps a SMALL part of the current Republican candidate's appeal to some has been brought about by the failure of many liberals to be properly nuanced about immigration policy. I should be clear that I support continued immigration as a moral duty and as a good thing, and even a necessary thing, for our country, but there are complexities involved.


The great irony in all this however, is that the greatest current threat to the American ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion is the very person whom those fearing immigration are turning to - this year's Republican nominee. He has continually threatened people for speaking ill of him. He has threatened protesters with violence. He has lashed out at the press when they say anything negative about him, calling them "disgusting" and filing meaningless but costly lawsuits. He has suggested a religious litmus test for entry into the United States, which renders second class status to any current resident of that religion.


And I barely mention his lack of respect for the equal personhood of women, his endorsement of sexual assault, and his dangerous flirtation with challenging America's 240 year old tradition of the peaceful transfer of power after elections.


This guy is the threat to American values. He does not serve American ideals.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

How Unmitigated Capitalism Distorts Markets

Sometime folks of my political persuasion wonder why, at times, the populist sentiment in the country seems to favor economic policies that do not help much of the populace.   There are many reasons for it, I am sure, but I believe that one reason is the belief in a “just world”.   This is the idea that everything happens for a reason and that people generally get what they deserve.   It makes sense to believe this if one is economically successful - a doctor, a financially successful business owner or one who has inherited wealth would have it in their interest to believe that they are being justly rewarded.


But why do so many of the working poor believe this?   Perhaps one reason is that believing in a just world is comforting.  Sure, I may not have the economic security that I would like, despite working two jobs, but I’d rather believe that I deserve this than that I am being cheated by the system in some way.   If I believe I deserve it, then I may not have economic security, but I have existential security.  I believe that there is a general order that is operating things correctly.  The alternative is to believe that the current state of affairs is simply made by people just like me - and that is frightening.  It’s easier to believe that things are the way they are because generally people deserve their lot in life.

The great irony here is that the view of “personal responsibility” - that I completely deserve my lot in life through my own actions - is actually an attempt to jettison personal responsibility for the way the world itself actually is.   As long as a minimum of security is met (no one is super hungry perhaps?) it’s easier to believe everything is how it should be already.  Surely things can’t really be super wrong….can they?

One way a person might justify this way of thinking, believing in a just world, in particular how it relates to economic results, is by believing in markets.   If I have a skill or a good to sell, then the principle of supply and demand should control my success.   If I am “unskilled”, then I offer less to society and can’t expect much in return.

This makes some sense.  Obviously a person who invents a great new technology or goes through the enormous amount of hoops to become a doctor should receive economic rewards that are greater than a person who has a high school degree and just wants to work for a living (although surely there is nothing wrong with that!).  I don’t think there is much of anyone these days that believes in equal outcomes in the economy, despite the rhetoric on the right.

But what if markets are not operating in an untouchable vacuum?  What if certain policies affect markets and distort them?   What then happens to the “just world” view?

Capitalism is a pretty darn good system.  By using money, a useful (but complete) fiction, we can spread goods and services across the economy, facilitating trade and investment.   Money is just dead useful that way.   A bartering system creates massive inefficiencies - can you imagine having to construct an elaborate series of trades just to obtain what you need everyday? 

So money is a fantastic idea.  It’s nothing but paper, or blips on a screen more likely these days, but it greases the wheels of the actual trade of goods and services.

But there is a fatal flaw in the system. 

If I make a product and sell it, or work, and accumulate capital (money) but I don't spend it on other goods and services - in other words, if I save - then what happens?   Everyone else in the system of exchange has less money to facilitate trade.  The baker who wants a hat can’t buy a hat - she doesn’t have the money.  And perhaps she works hard and makes excellent bread, but someone else in the chain, who wants bread, doesn’t have the money, because I didn’t spend my money.   A depressing effect begins to occur.   Saving stifles trade.  Keynes called this “the paradox of thrift.”    Financial wealth, which is created through saving, leads directly to financial poverty elsewhere in the system.

But wait! Most people who save do not put the money under the mattress, of course.  They invest it.  And this is great in many ways. They don’t want to spend right now, so they put money somewhere - the bank, stock market, etc. - and someone else ends up with the money who can spend it - on building a business, for instance.

So everything is great, right?  Not really.

The investor isn’t giving away money here.  He wants a return. He’s not trying to facilitate trade, rather he wants more money - so all the money that he invested must quantitatively grow, pulling even more capital away from other parts of the economy.   

But isn’t that money also invested?   Sort of.

When money continues to creep into fewer and fewer hands, which as you can see is an essential aspect of the way capitalism works, then the velocity of money (speed of spending) utilized on real goods and services tends to be depressed.  Imagine I buy a stock instead of spending my money on a tangible good.  I now own a stock and that money sits in someone else’s hands, the person who sold me the stock.  Then she buys a stock and the money goes to someone else’s hands, etc. etc.     The money is being traded back and forth in different savings vehicles.  The cash is sitting temporally in brokerage firms.  Yes, a lot of the money raised in stock sales is sometimes used to buy real goods and services for a company, but once again - returns are expected!   And those returns end up being traded around in savings vehicles which slows down the purchase of real goods and services in the economy. 


So when capitalism is working the way it’s designed to work, there is an upward gravity of money which has a depressing effect on the trade of real goods and services.  And this is when fiscal failures start to happen.

What is a fiscal failure?   It’s a point in the economy where something is needed, and there are people and resources ready to make it happen, but there is simply not enough money present.  But remember, money is a fiction.   The philosopher Alan Watts once made the point that saying we don’t have enough money is like saying builders don’t have enough inches to measure with, so they can’t build.  Today, some economists use the example that saying we don’t have enough money is like saying the NBA doesn’t have enough points to put on the board for the next game.  In other words, money is fiction.  But it’s the way our economy works, and when it becomes lop-sided in one part of the system, through certain policy decisions, then there is trouble.  It’s a (fiscal) failure of the system.

Say a school needs to be rebuilt.  And say there are two dozen construction workers who are unemployed.  And say there are plenty of actual resources - food, gas, building materials, etc. - in the economy for the potential workers to work with and for them to buy with their potential income.  And yet the job is not happening and the construction workers are idle, and the resources are sitting on shelves.  There is zero reason for this in terms of actual resources.  This is a fiscal failure.  It’s a failure of money!   A legitimate market is there, but through a lack of financial resources - NOT real resources (that is key) - we have a distortion to that market and it doesn’t function well.

Then what happens to other workers in the economy when multiples fiscal failure lead to fewer jobs?   The market for labor is depressed, and wages tend to go down.   Not necessarily because workers are “unskilled” and unneeded, but because they are under-valued due to market distortions caused by fiscal failures.   And because employers are having to pay less for labor, the upward gravity of capital is heightened and it creates a negative feedback loop.

So the progression is like this -  The upward gravity of capital leads to fiscal failures, which lead to market distortions, which lead to heightened inequality, which leads to more upward gravity of capital, etc.

How do we fix this?  It seems a fatal flaw in capitalism that will eventually disrupt markets completely.

Luckily there are ways to mitigate for the upward gravity of capital. 

One - a progressive tax system.  As one takes more financial resources for oneself through income, we tax that income progressively higher.

Two - We try to keep a steady rate of modest inflation in the economy, which somewhat punishes a lack of spending.  If your savings are losing value, then spending becomes more attractive.  The opposite is deflation, which tends to cripple spending.

Three - We create a minimum wage.

What else we should do:

We should raise taxes on the higher income brackets.   Remember, every person pays the same taxes on income - a lawyer earning $250,000 a year pays the same amount of taxes on her first $10,000 as a checker at Wal-Mart.  But she pays more on the amounts earned over certain thresholds.

We should raise the capital gains tax.  This is so low it’s silly.  We tax invested capital at a lower rate than labor much of the time.  The idea is that if I give you money to buy a taxi cab, I get taxed 15% on all the income.  But If I buy a taxi cab myself and drive it, I am possibly taxed much higher. 

We should get rid of the upper limit on payroll taxes (Socials Security, Medicare, etc. taxes).   A worker at McDonald’s pays a higher percentage of his income to payroll taxes than the wealthy lawyer, because one doesn’t pay payroll taxes on income over a certain amount.  This is unjust.

We should raise the minimum wage.  It should be done slowly, to mitigate for sudden shocks, but it should be done steadily.   Putting more money in the hands of spenders - and those making close to minimum wage cannot afford to save much - will increase the velocity of money in the economy.


Note that none of these issues are presented specifically in moral terms.  They are presented as economic necessities to create a capitalism that rewards hard work and creativity and that does not distort markets to the detriment of the working and middle classes.

As evidence for the points presented here, look at the Great Depression and the Great Recession.   Were either of these terrible periods of extreme economic hardship because of a problem with actual resources?  Was there a massive famine?  Did we run out of energy?  No.  It was the direct result of out of control savings vehicles increasing the upward gravity of capital, decreasing investment in the production of actual goods and resources, and eventually leading to the distortion of markets through massive fiscal failures. 

Capitalism simply must be regulated well in order for it to serve markets.  Or else markets will end up the slave to capital, and working families will suffer.   To regulate capitalism is not “anti-capitalist”, rather it is an essential aspect of preserving the innovation, hard work and freedom that quality capitalism can enhance.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Two Premieres on Tuesday, May 17!

I am thrilled that next Tuesday evening, May 17, I have the privilege of hearing two incredible orchestras premier my pieces.

At around 7:15, Belle Isle Middle School will premier Classical Rag - it's a light-hearted, jazz-oriented piece. It's my first foray into this style and definitely not my last. In fact, I think working on this piece is going to inform all my future attempts. And the kids are absolutely NAILING it! They are so good. I can't believe it's an 8th grade orchestra. They can swing, baby! Thanks to Jeremy Scott!

Then, sometime around 8:00-8:30, the Edmond Memorial High School Philharmonic will premier Wovensong No. 2 "Dust Storm". It's a longer piece drawing inspiration from the Dust Bowl and how our predecessors dealt with this terrible time. It's a tribute to the power of nature and our responsibilities to care for each other and the natural world. And once again, the young men and women playing this piece are so in tune, and so vibrant in their playing. It's phenomenal! The choir sat in and listened to them play it yesterday, and it was truly inspiring to see how well they responded to the efforts of their musical colleagues. Thanks to David Koehn

I submit that there is NOTHING more essential in education than music and arts education. In these young orchestral players, I see personal discipline, the ability to work together and support each other, and the raw appreciation of beauty that is surely the very point of life. The quality of their education hinges on developing these qualities and carrying them forward past their graduation.
My personal heroes are the music directors, but to all who support student development in this way, I salute you in these challenging times. Let's all work together to make sure that no one takes away these vital opportunities from our kids ever again.