Budget hot tip: the President Trump dollar coin

Scrap $1 bills for a new Trump $1 coin.

The GOP wants to cut taxes, mainly for rich people and corporations, by at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years. They are quite naturally running into trouble finding compensatory cuts. “Dynamic scoring” fiddles can only go so far. Here is a modest contribution. The savings are only $5.5 billion over 30 years, but they are a sure thing according to the GAO in 2011 , and do not inconvenience anybody with a platinum card. It is quite simple:

Replace $1 bills with coins.

Argument and design suggestions below the jump.

Continue reading “Budget hot tip: the President Trump dollar coin”

Rebel Plinths

A proposal for Confederate statues: bring them down to street level.

You wouldn’t get a blog post about plinths anywhere else, would you?

Hear me out. Memorial statuary normally consists of (a) a statue and (b) a plinth. The plinth raises the statue above street level, making it more visible. It also triggers instinctive associations of height with power, dignity and respect. It works even better if you throw in a horse, as with Lee at Charlottesville and Peter the Great in St. Petersburg.

The problem with the Confederate memorials is that they make a racist statement that the Confederate rebellion should not just be remembered, but remembered with respect and admiration. The statement depends as much on the plinth as the statue itself.

So here is a suggestion for dealing with the statues of Confederate soldiers, mass-produced in Northern foundries, that dot hundreds of public spaces in the old Confederacy:

Bring them down to street level.

In the street, they become bronze fellow-citizens, and the gullibility and racism of the men they represent can become as much a part of the civic conversation as their bravery and sacrifice. If they are unpopular, they will be defaced. If they become objects of ridicule, they will sprout frat ties, silly hats and dildos. Them’s the breaks. Let’s see how it works out.

That leaves an empty plinth or two. Don’t spend a fortune taking them away. There’s an empty one in Trafalgar Square in London: it is used for temporary exhibition. Or you can hold a competition for a statue of something or somebody that everybody wants to honour. The Northern foundries will retool to supply as many versions of Martin Luther King as the South commissions.

Footnote for art wonks

There is one striking exception to the plinth norm. When Auguste Rodin cast the famous group of the Burghers of Calais, he lost a battle with the city fathers to install them at ground level. What Rodin wanted was to replace the usual historical distancing from a tragic and violent event with immediacy, shock and empathy. He was rightly confident that the quality of his work would still make the sculpture effective. There is little risk that the mediocre Confederate statuary will compensate in the same way for being brought down to earth. The Burghers have now been brought back down, and stand on a compromise mini-plinth.


The Moment You Realized That You Had Changed

I respect that one reason humanity has rituals that effectively tell people something they already know (e.g., you graduated high school!, you got married!, you retired!) is that even major life changes that were entered into consciously and with great effort do not necessarily work their way into our self-conception unless they are prominently reflected to us by others.

A friend who was a new mother told me a story of her first play group with her son, who toddled tentatively, took a tumble and then cried out “Mommy!”. She instinctively looked anxiously around wondering where on earth the child’s parent was. The women next to her said “He’s yours isn’t he?” snapping her into awareness of how her life had changed forever.

Another example I have seen repeatedly is a long-time renter who finally buys a house. The first time the boiler bursts or the sink pipe breaks, the owner reaches for the telephone feeling sorry for the miserable landlord who has to fix the problem and then realizes that they themselves are the poor sod in question.

The experience of this sort I remember most vividly happened at Stanford Hospital. As a new arrival, I went to the appropriate sub-basement office to get my photo ID. After they handed it to me, I turned the wrong way leaving the office and entered the maze that is our medical center. I finally found a staircase but it wasn’t the one I had come down and I went up too many floors to boot.

I was immediately anxious thinking “I’m lost in a hospital, I’m going to get in trouble.” I walked further and realized I was in a cancer ward…Oh Geez this is really serious now, I’m really in big trouble. I started walking faster, thinking it wasn’t visiting hours and I had no business being around these grievously sick people and I just needed to escape before someone called security and had me thrown out.

I entered a long hallway and saw exit doors, but there was a nurse’s station on the way. As I got closer I saw it was occupied! But she’s looking at her notes so maybe I can slip by, but then, oh no, she’s looking up now and looking right at me, staring at me intently in fact. I am thinking desperately what to say “I got lost! It was a mistake! I meant no harm! Please just let me go and it will never happen again!”

And then she shocked me by smiling and saying “Good morning doctor”.

I literally started to turn around to see who she was addressing and then realized she had been staring at my name tag. I mumbled a response and walked out, trying to suppress laughter at my own expense.

Ever had a moment like that? What was it?

Balkin’s Three (revised) Laws of Robotics

Balkin updates Asimov.

The eminent Yale scholar of, and blogger on, constitutional law Jack Balkin has published a very nice article updating Issac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics.


It’s a rich short essay, not a treatise; an opening shot in a new debate, not the last word. Read it and comment please.

A few takes of mine. Continue reading “Balkin’s Three (revised) Laws of Robotics”

The Economic Value of Trust

I was digging through some boxes and found an old calabash pipe and stand. It’s the sort of pipe that people think of Sherlock Holmes smoking even though in the books he didn’t (William Gillette added the calabash for a stage adaptation over a century ago and it stuck). pipe

Gourd pipes have gone out of style, being largely replaced by mahogany. That makes this calabash if not an antique at least a curio I could put in my office as a conversation piece. But the decades-old cork ring is eroded and the whole thing is smoke scarred and tobacco encrusted. What to do?

I talked to a local tobacconist who gave me the phone number of a pipe maven in Tennessee who might be able to help. I talked to said Tennessean on the telephone and he said he could probably restore the pipe, so I have mailed it to him.

What is striking about this relative to other business transactions is that this is all done on trust. I don’t know the pipe expert from Adam (not even his last name); he could keep my pipe and there would be nothing I could do about it. On his end, I didn’t send any money so he could do the work and not get paid. But I just had a feeling that I could trust him and I guess he felt the same as we didn’t even agree on the price — we will work that out later on the basis of reason and good faith, jointly applied.

No receipts, no travel to meet in person, no insurance, no contract — all of those costly things are not needed because we exist in an atmosphere of trust.

It reminded me that one of the early stamp collecting companies used to mail sets of valuable old stamps to collectors who were asked to take what they wanted, mail in a check to pay for it, and then mail the stamps directly to the next collector on a list. Anyone could have easily stolen stamps under this system, but apparently few people did because the company was highly profitable.

We spend so much money because of distrust, whether it’s locks on our doors, liability insurance, receipts in triplicate or certified mail. We accept that we can’t trust each other and endure much deadweight financial loss on that basis. We would reap enormous economic benefits if we were more trusting and trustworthy. We think of these things as virtues and they are, but they also have large economic consequences (Did you know that the Amish are so dutiful about paying back loans that banks give them extremely low interest rates?).

I could never prove it, but I think the decline in trust in the country reduces GDP as much as many other factors that are blamed for poor economic performance. Just one more reason why the coming years are not likely to be good ones for our country.

A merry Christmas 2016, or perhaps not

Thoreau was not the only Yankee to be shocked by the naked imperialism of the Mexican War. The Unitarian pastor and abolitionist Edmund Sears wrote the great hymn It came upon the midnight clear in December 1849. I won’t say it’s my favourite carol – Mary MacDonald gets my vote for her gem-like Celtic lullaby – because, being an inhibited Brit, I am embarrassed to shed tears in public.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

As a Unitarian, Sears was unconvinced by the paradoxical orthodox view that the redemption has strangely already happened, in the birth, life and legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, and in spite of his failure, martyrdom, and systematic betrayals by his followers up to our own time. Sears places his hope, as much as any Orthodox rabbi, in a remote eschatological future:

For now the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

But what if we are looking for a more immediate hope today? Savagery continues in Iraq and Syria, the Arctic melts, and another Herod moves into the White House to prepare a larger rerun of the massacre of the innocents, to the complacent plaudits of conservative Pharisees?

I give you an unlikely gold-bearing Mage in the form of investment bankers Lazards. They have been surveying levelized US electricity generating costs for years, and have just published the 10th version. It’s a fat report, but this is the key chart. (Sorry for the poor resolution, go to the report link for a better image.)


The major takeaway is that in the USA the cheapest new coal generation is no cheaper than the most expensive wind and utility solar. (Footnote 1) Continue reading “A merry Christmas 2016, or perhaps not”

The knotty problems of the G19

The G20 problems of Merkel and Trump.

One early international junket that President(!) Trump will be expected to attend is the G20 summit in Hamburg on 7-8 July 2017.

Angela Merkel has just published the draft agenda, with a cool knot logo.g20-knot-logo

The image is a reef knot, of multicoloured strands – one rope in the red-yellow-black of Germany, the other in random colours presumably for the rest of the world. The knot symbolizes interdependence. But Berlin is a long way from the sea or the Alps, and nobody told the Chancellery that the reef knot is weak. Pull hard, and it’s quite likely to come undone.

The reef knot logo is a parapraxis, a Fehlleistung (mis-performance), a Freudian slip knot. (What a pity that Ernest Jones James Strachey [update, see comments] translated Freud’s elegant and lucid German coinage into poncey fake Greek bafflegab, and it stuck.) It unintentionally reflects globalisation today only too well, with nationalist rebellions against interdependence all over the place, not just in Britain with Brexit and the USA with Trump. The ties woven since 1945 are slipping dangerously. Continue reading “The knotty problems of the G19”

Elections should be fun

Voting day should be a pleasure.

A Soviet propaganda poster.

There’s an even better Soviet picture in the Malaga satellite of the Russian State Museum in St-Petersburg, though I stupidly neglected to take a photo. It’s of an election day parade: with pretty blonde peasant girls on a cart, flowers, sun and general bonhomie. Of course these were phony elections. Still, the Russian Communists felt the need to hold them throughout their autocracy, and the voters turned out. The Communists did not dare challenge the idea of democratic choice, even while subverting it completely in practice.

Here’s Hogarth on the elections to Parliament of 18th-century England, based on the 1754 one in Oxfordshire. This is the last of a series of four, and shows the victorious Tory being chaired through the streets to celebrate. These were real elections: exceptionally corrupt and messy ones.

The common element with the pretty Soviet fraud is that both were fun. This is a virtue in elections, and worth planning for. Continue reading “Elections should be fun”

Donald Trump’s portraits

Suggestions to Trump for better portraits.

Intrepid WaPo reporter David Fahrenthold can’t find an image of the giant portrait of Donald Trump that the Trump Foundation bought for $20,000. It isn’t this:


Judging by this and other portraits Fahrenthold has located, Trump is overpaying  for hackwork.  They really won’t do for the Gold House (as it will be renamed after the do-over). Here are my tips for real class. Continue reading “Donald Trump’s portraits”

Talking to “deplorables”

Clinton should address Trump’s bigots directly, with suggestions as to how.

Where Hillary Clinton went wrong was not the analysis of Trump’s supporters, which is spot-on. Nor the description “deplorables” for the bigots, which is fair and she now owns, nor even the “half” she apologised for, which is near enough accurate. It was in talking about them in the third person. They are American citizens, whom (holding her nose) she will have to serve and protect as President.

She should address them directly. It’s a tough challenge. Suggestions below; commenters please add more.


I would like to address the part of Donald Trump’s supporters whom I described as “deplorables” : the racists, white supremacists, Islamophobes, xenophobes, homophobes, misogynists, and conspiracy theorists. You are, I’m sorry to say, my fellow American citizens. I don’t take back the label. But if and when I am elected President by the votes of other Americans, the Electoral College, and the grace of God, I will swear to serve all Americans, including you. So please hear me out.

I have made hundreds of speeches during this long campaign and will make many more. In the normal run of things, I talk to those who already support me, to encourage them to vote for me, Tim Kaine and other Democrats, and help others to vote; and to the undecided, in hopes they will come to do so on election day. Your votes I do not seek, and would treat them as a dishonour. I utterly reject your bigotry.

But, I repeat, as President I would be President of all Americans. It would be my solemn duty to protect even your constitutional rights and to “faithfully execute the laws”. I would defend your rights to assemble and peacefully express your opinions, however hateful I find them. I would protect your right to bear arms – in a well-regulated way that keeps guns out of the hands of criminals and nutcases, and sensibly limits their lethality.

The other side of the coin is that the laws will be enforced. Intimidation of others by weapons, threats to law enforcement officers, direct incitement to violence, illegal occupation of national parks and other public lands, threats to abortion clinics and attacks on their staff, discrimination against other Americans on grounds of their gender or skin colour: these and similar behaviour are crimes and it will be my duty, as that of any President, to enforce the laws against them. You have been warned.

It is far from your worst offence against decency, but one I find particularly irritating, that some of you have hijacked the lovely term of “sovereign citizen” for an absurd doctrine of self-exclusion from the rule of law, a radical Wild West anarchism. Let us claim it back. The American people are indeed “sovereign citizens”: our great Constitution has made us so, and together – together – we make the laws that govern us under it, and our children and aliens within our jurisdiction. That is the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance. “Sovereign citizens” has no singular form.

That is what I have to offer you, and it is not negotiable. Nothing you can do will make me change these views, for they are not political options or policy choices but what I see as fundamental principles of the American state. What, then, can I ask of you?

To stay home on election day. Consider this. You support Donald Trump because you think he shares your repellent values and would as President deliver on your hateful agenda. Really? When did Mr Trump deliver on any important promise? I can’t recall any occasion. His business and political career has been one shell game after another. Does he really share your values? I don’t accuse him of being a real bigot, just a perfectly hollow man without any convictions except in his own genius, an echo chamber that reshapes itself to play back exactly what his audience wants to hear.

Have you noticed his secret plans? He has a secret plan to defeat ISIS. This turns out to be ordering the Pentagon to produce one. He has a secret plan to make Mexico pay for a huge wall along our southern frontier, though the President of Mexico told him it would never do so. He has a secret plan to bring back jobs to miners and steelworkers. He has a secret plan to expel millions of illegal immigrants with criminal records on his first day of office. Ask him for details, and he changes the subject to a different secret plan. You have seen conjurors at fairs: we are taken in by misdirection, one hand flamboyantly attracts our attention while the other makes the switch unobserved. Trump is a master conjuror. He pulls one rabbit after another out of his orange top hat, then they disappear in a puff of sparkly smoke. If I were a bigot like you, I would not trust him to deliver anything. Whatever your beliefs, he just isn’t worth voting for.

I forgot. There is one other promise he made. That was to delegate the actual work of running the country. He does not expect to show up for work at 8:30 every day, but to sleep in, then swan around looking “Presidential” and providing “Leadership”, in quotes, from more top hats and white rabbits. On this one, you and I can trust him absolutely.