Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 8): Culture, Immigration, and Culture

Immigrants, Language and Income

The culture of their country of origin immigrants carry with them may have consequences for the speed of their integration and for their ability to assimilate. In turn, immigrants may cause a variety of changes in American culture. Language is central to both types of cultural effects.

Current immigrants frequently have inferior earning capabilities because they are less educated on the average than are the native born. This is not the only disability they bring with them. Often, usually, their command of the English language is limited. This linguistic deficiency has consequences beyond the economic sphere. The continued poverty language incompetence fosters also retards their assimilation.

Many on the right declare themselves concerned with immigrants’ eroding influence on wages. Most of us are interested in the speed with which immigrants assimilate. Both phenomena depend to a large extent on immigrants’ competence in the English language. Linguistic competence influences the ease and speed of immigrants’ assimilation in the long run. In the short and middle run, it’s a direct determinant of income. Immigrants vary widely on a continuum of this crucial variable, from a superior command English, to no English at all.

The English language is special. Much of the world has English as a first language or as normal language of instruction in schools. A second tier includes English as a second language in its schools or, more often, in some of its schools. English is the first second language in the world. Middle class people everywhere learn English. In many countries though most people have no systematic interaction with the English language. The disadvantages of not knowing the common language of the country where one lives are so great that it’s a sort of miracle that so many even try to ignore those by moving to the US equipped with no knowledge of English. It makes sense then mentally to divide immigrants into the US in two broad categories according to their mastery of English as they land.

Silicon Valley is teeming with prosperous Indians, many of whom are actual immigrants. (There is a kind of optical illusions at work here though: Many Indians are on temporary, H-1B and F-1 visas. Indian immigrants who are not successful just go home, soon to be replaced by others. They leave little trace.) The Indian real immigrants can themselves be subdivided in two economic classes. Some spread all over the US where they utilize family connections to manage hotels and retail businesses. The Indians in Silicon Valley belong largely to another breed. Almost all are graduates from two dozen elite Indian engineering and management schools of higher learning. They are solidly middle class by upbringing although many arrive poor because of the steep income gradient between India and the US. My Indian wife – who knows I know not how, but who does know – assures me that all, or nearly all of the latter, belong to the lofty Brahman caste. (This is a case where class and caste correspond, far from a universal given.) They are people who could aspire to a good job back home in India where, however, their economic futures and their horizons would remain limited because India keeps being India. They all seem to arrive, amazingly, with a strong work ethic and with excellent work habits.

I think I taught between 200 and 300 Indian immigrants in my MBA career. Not one contradicted this generalization. Of course, this is not a generalization about Indians, but about the self-selected subgroup of Indians that shows up in central and northern California after having been admitted to and survived gruelingly selective schools back home. A couple who self-designated to me, their MBA instructor, as “lazy” would have been considered veritable Heroes of Labor in the old Soviet Union.

All the Indians from this second group are educated in English from an early age. They are used, via reading, movies and the internet, to American English (and to American culture) before they land. Outwardly, their adaptation is seamless. Digression: Except possibly that they may suffer a high rate of failed marriages. They engage in arranged marriages in India, bring their brides to America. Here, the young brides, utterly deprived of the usual Indian female support network and also, I am guessing, with a lesser mastery of English, become terribly unhappy. For this reason alone, I am guessing that Indian immigrants are less well-adjusted overall than are Mexicans who tend to bring everyone who matters with them. This is just a plausible redundant impression I gathered over 25 years. I have no figures in support.

These educated Indians obtain good jobs and they work diligently and intelligently. They are able to progress at work in good part because they express themselves with a clarity seldom achieved by other kinds of immigrants. (This, in spite of some peculiarities of Indian English: “You will go there, is it?”) They are thrifty at first, helped by the shock of finding out that a pound of lentils costs three times more in San Jose than in Kolkatta (personal research – an email to my sister-in-law there). So, they achieve a modest level of prosperity in a relatively short few years. The quick emergence of Indians in other walks of American life unconnected to high technology or to business, including medicine, the law and even journalism, testifies anew to those widespread virtues but all of this success would hardly be possible absent initial fluency in English.

Immigrants of many other different origins also make their way to Silicon Valley in response to the constant demand for high-tech specialists. The Chinese among them are numerous and conspicuous. I had them in my MBA classes for twenty-five years, right alongside the Indians. They gave me the impression of being about as excellently trained as the Indians. My intuition suggests that they were more entrepreneurial, on the whole, or maybe just more individualistic, but they nearly all struggled with English. (“Nearly;” one young Chinese woman had the cheek to correct my mistakes of syntax in class on several occasions.) If your native language does not use verb forms to distinguish between present and past, you can learn to say, “I did it,” instead of “I do it yesterday,” but it must be like a herd of potholes on the road you are traveling.

I suspect that many of the young Chinese immigrants I knew, star students back home, lived lives of frustration in the US because of the language barrier. The frustration runs deeper than a relative inability to get things done. (Though the latter counts too. I can mention it  now because there is probably a statute of limitation: Forty-plus years ago, I wrote a Chinese student’s entire doctoral dissertation; it was very good both in content and in form. Also, the student cooked well.) If you express yourself at the level of a native-born ten-year-old, the unsophisticated foreign language virginal natives treat you like a fairly-gifted ten-year-old. This is pretty conjectural, of course. I would bet on it though! I have discussed this several times over steamed mussels with some favorite Chinese students with whom I had picked and prepared the shellfish; they had no reason to lie to me, not then, anyway.

It’s difficult to generalize about the few visually inconspicuous Europeans who also make it to Silicon Valley. Those who attended my classes were as competent in English as foreigners for whom it is a second language can be. I am guessing they were competent enough to be engineers. For some reason, Russians shone among them. Reminder: I am not indulging here in a devious comparative survey of different national educational systems. Immigration to America dips into different pools in different countries. Perhaps, smart Russians always go to America if they can while equally smart French engineers would rather stay home to continue their leisurely dégustation of blanquette de veau façon Normande.

It’s certain that mastery of English plays a big part in determining immigrants’ incomes as well as their economic contributions to American society. It’s also easy to miss the competence and the high character of those who don’t understand English well. And, as I have said, nothing sounds more like a ten-year-old than a bright foreigner whose English is struggling to reach the second grade level. With a low competence in English, even if it be only spoken English, the best jobs elude you although you would be capable of performing them, language notwithstanding. I believe that millions of immigrants are employed much below their maximum earning capacity solely because of their low linguistic competence. So, while the actual economic contribution of those immigrants is correctly assessed as low, their potential contribution is systematically underrated. This is a problem capable of solutions that are rarely discussed. A merit-based system would easily incorporate such solutions. So would a system of conditional admission linked to progress in English.

Anecdote: About twenty years ago, there was a tacit agreement among Anglo employers of casual Mexican labor that Mexicans were hard working and knew how to follow simple orders, but that was it. They were automatically treated as unskilled labor. Myself, with my good Spanish, I never had any trouble finding a tile layer, a carpenter, even an electrician among the day laborers gathering outside Home Depot every morning. The specialized workers I located were not slow to point out that the work I requested was skilled work and must be paid accordingly.

We must thus remember that linguistic disability must keep the wages of non-English speaking immigrants lower than they would otherwise be at a given level of occupational competence and personal ability. Language incompetence must thus also contribute to lower prices although at some cost to productivity.  (Yes, here is the paradox: Each produces little but there are many of them. In the end, we pay less than if they were not here.) The situation of Mexican immigrant entrepreneurs, specifically, tests this idea. Entrepreneurs need to possess at least a fair command of English, if nothing else, to round up customers. The language disability is thus removed or lessened in their case, allowing for a more straight comparison of income with Anglos. It seems to me that immigrant contractors do not bid especially low, or not much lower than their Anglo counterparts. At least, when you ask for bids on a previously described job, you couldn’t guess by bid amounts who is a Hispanic immigrant. It may also be thought that such immigrants  provide a better quality/cost ratio. I don’t know if this intuitive idea, based largely on my private experience, has been examined rigorously anywhere. It’s backed by the likelihood that the self-selected immigrant group possesses some traits of character superior to those found among natural groups, including among members of the host population. I develop this idea in “Why Immigrants are Superior” (referenced elsewhere).

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 7]

Government Wisdom and Collectivism Revisited

This is a political science essay about public toilets.

Family obligations as well as my inclination cause me to spend four hours each weekday afternoon on a well known Santa Cruz beach. It’s Cowell Beach about which I wrote about a year ago on the occasion of another (fake) pollution scare. Four hours is a long time, even if I read there and swim quite a bit while I wait. (I would show you a picture of me in my Speedo but I don’t want you distracted from the serious point of my story.) I am practically forced to eavesdrop on young mothers and I can’t help seeing them. (Of which more another day, probably.) They spend a lot of time planning the logistics of taking one of two kids to the toilet for 20 minutes. (Who will take care of the one who does not need to go?)

There are two toilets on the edge of that beach, two. On a nice afternoon, there are hundreds of people on that small beach. (There are two other public toilets nearby but they belong to another, even more crowded beach.) In the middle of a nice afternoon when school is out like now, the lines to the two toilets are ten-deep. Once, it was fully sixteen deep. It’s enraging; it makes people furious; it ruins their day at the beach; it’s inhumane toward older people.

Here is a detour. The dearth of toilets does not pose much of a problem for local children though, to those who are used to the beach. You can spot them in the water to their waist, with the satisfied and relieved look of anyone doing Number One well at ease. Of course, for the many skittish, ill-informed, Apocalypse-minded citizens of Santa Cruz, it’s one more reason to worry about pollution. They already believe that torrents of human feces come down the hills on a small river unto that beach. That’s completely false, completely wrong. They worry about duck shit and seabird shit in the water. That’s not so wrong. And then, of course, the hundred-plus resident sea lions must contribute something once in a while. They are not all so fastidious as to go do it away from the beach, especially the teenagers. (One to three in sea lion years.)

The unpleasant toilet situation at Cowell Beach has lasted as long as I remember, fifteen years, at least. Now, I tell myself that if that beach were administered as a private, profit-making concession, within a year or two, there would be a ten or twelve toilets block near the edge of the beach. But then, I realize that the relevant city administration is probably neither deliberately malfeasant nor stupid. The most likely explanation for the lack of sufficient toilets near Cowell Beach is that the relevant city department is itself caught in a web of rules and regulations, most of which are of its own making. The accumulation of permits to build something as potentially polluting in such sensitive an area as a beach must discourage even the best disposed bureaucrats. “This can wait; let’s move on to another problem,” they must think. I am only betting here on the universal human propensity to classify problem by order of ease of resolution. Note that I am not denouncing some sort of bureaucratic perverseness or an especially iniquitous feature of tyranny. It’s just the nature of things: Weave a net; get caught in it.

I can’t think of another solution that having the beach be made completely private. Then, the owner will build sufficient numbers of toilets by spending as much as necessary to circumvent or beat in court the regulations that are the obstacle. But the remedy seems worse than the problem. Nearby Silicon Valley has several, or many billionaires who could buy the beach outright and close it to the public forever. One did just this at popular Martin’s Beach, south of Half-Moon Bay. I think the case been in court for several years, long enough for a generation of California to grow up without even seeing this wonderful, very special beach where I used to catch smelts by net from the sand.

I don’t know the solution to this real libertarian conundrum. I hope a better informed or purer libertarian than I am will develop a likely solution here.

California Times Six

I live in California. It’s a great state. Too great.

A proposition to split California into six states may be on the ballot in 2016. “Six Californias” has announced that it has collected sufficient signatures. Why six? California’s population of over 38 million is six times lager than the US state average. The ruling powers may find a way to block the proposal, as some opponents claim that the signature gathering was unlawful. If “Six Californias” does get on the 2016 ballot, in my judgment, this will be a rare chance for fundamental reforms.

Many Californians have said that the state is too big to govern effectively. But the governance problem is not size, but structure. After the property-tax limiting Proposition 13 was adopted in 1978, taxes and political power shifted from the counties and cities to the state government. California could be governed well if decentralized, but the concentration of fiscal power to the state has made the state among the highest taxed and worst regulated in the USA.

There have been many attempts to reform the lengthy California constitution, but they have all failed. Attempts to replace the Proposition 13 have gone nowhere. The best option is to start over. Creating new states would provide six fresh starts.

Critics of the six-state plan say that the wealth of the new Californias would be unequal. The Silicon Valley state would include the high-tech wealthy counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara, among others. The promoter of this initiative, Timothy Drapers, happens to be a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

But the current 50 US states are also unequal in wealth. The income inequality problem is a national and global problem. Income can become more equal without hurting production by collecting the land rent and distributing it equally among the population. Since the critics of Six Californias are not proposing or even discussing this most effective way to equalize income, their complaints should be dismissed as irrelevant, immaterial, and incompetent.

US states have been split in the past. Maine was split off from Massachusetts in 1820, and West Virginia was carved out of Virginia in 1863.

If the initiative passes, a board of commissioners would draw up a plan to divide the state’s assets and liabilities among the six new states. A good way to do this would be to divide the value of the assets by population, but to divide the liabilities (including both the official debt and the unfunded liabilities such as promised pensions) by the wealth of each state. That would go a ways to deal with the inequality problem.

California’s complex water rights could be simplified by eliminating subsidies, instead charging all users the market price of water. There could continue to be a unified water system with a water commission with representatives from the six state.

If this measure is approved by the voters and by Congress, each state will design a constitution. The new constitutions should be brief, like the US Constitution, in contrast to the lengthy current California constitution that contains many provisions best left to statute law.

The new constitutions should retain the declaration of rights in the current state constitution, including Article I, Section 24: “This declaration of rights may not be construed to impair or deny others retained by the people.” This wording, similar to the US 9th Amendment, recognizes the existence of natural and common-law rights. This text should be strengthened with something like this: “These rights of the people include the natural right to do anything which does not coercively invade the properties and bodies of others, notwithstanding any state interest or police power.”

These new constitutions will be an opportunity to replace California’s market-hampering tax system with economy-enhancing levies on pollution and land value. There should be a parallel initiative stating that if Six Californias passes, the states will collect all the land rent within their jurisdictions and distribute the rent to all six states based on their populations. A tax on land value is by itself market enhancing, better than neutral, because it promotes an efficient use of land, it reduces housing costs for lower-income folks, and eliminates real-estate bubbles. Combined with the elimination of taxes on wages, business profits, and goods, the prosperity tax shift would raise wages and make California the best place in the world for labor and business.

This is all a dream, but the past dreams of abolishing slavery, having equal rights for women, and eliminating forced segregation all came true. This proposition will at least provide a platform for discussing such fundamental reforms.
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This article was first published at http://www.progress.org/views/editorials/california-times-six/

Irrationality, Self-indulgence, Childishness, Bizarre Beliefs, and Innovation: From the Belly of the Beast

I have lived for many years the People’s Socialist Green Republic of Santa Cruz in California, right in the Belly of the Beast. That’s not its real name actually, just the name it deserves. It’s a university town of about 50,000. A large campus of the University of California sits on the hills overlooking the town. The campus has several distinguished university departments, including Marine Biology and Astronomy. However, many more of it undergraduates believe in Astrology than know anything at all about Astronomy.

It’s a Bobo-land where LUGs prosper and the boys are quiet, timid, retiring, sweet, and too frightened to do the job that Mother Nature commanded for them. (LUG= Lesbian Until Graduation. I swear I have known several, young apparent lesbians who showed up a couple of years after school with a husband, a male husband, I mean. There is a logic to it: Lesbianism is the highest degree of feminism. It brings you a great deal of political prestige on campus. But then, soon, nature and convention re-assert themselves and everything returns pretty much to what the young woman’s parents always wished for, a dual income family, children, etc. Note that I have said nothing about or against lesbians by natural inclination.) The University of California at Santa Cruz has a healthy “Department of Feminist Studies,” not “Women’s Studies,” not “Feminine Studies, ” “Feminist,” with an “ist” indicating perhaps a certain lack of scholarly detachment!

Savvy faculty members of 70s vintage (like me) with more or less phony doctorates they invented have used this mass of ignorant, semi-literate, easily revolted, sometimes revolting, overwhelmingly middle-class young people to take over the running of the city. (Note for overseas readers: In California, you can pretty much register to vote anywhere where you have lived for I don’t know how long. I couldn’t even find it on the Internet. No identification is required or even permitted to actually vote. )

Picture it: a mass of voters who have no permanent stake in the city, whose parents in many cases pay their very indirect property taxes (via rent) determine who shall rule the city. When these voters graduate or go on Spring Break, permanent residents like me are left to live with their preferences. I hasten to say that their preferences are not always objectionable even when they are debatable. One example of the latter is covering the city hall parking lot with solar panels, an operation unlikely to be ever audited. I mean that I am not dead-set against such an experiment. I would just like to know how much it cost and how much power it actually produces. If it cost $500 per permanent resident of the city and it generates just enough power to light the city hall for three months, I am against it, dead-set against it. If it cost $50 per resident, anything goes, I think. Well, I will probably never know.

I will never really get old in Santa Cruz because I live here in a time warp. It’s still the sixties here and maybe the seventies. The radical professors go back to my time in graduate school. Some are young enough to have been “trained” by my graduate school colleagues when the latter became professors. They rule, often with the help of wealthy downtown businessmen who used to be hippies or Trostkysts, or both. The climate is a retro-mixture of the simplistic vulgar Marxism of those who have not read a single page of Marx, and of old New Age unexamined beliefs. There was a small demonstration downtown, just yesterday with signs reading: “Capitalism must die so we may live,” and also, “Four days work for five days pay.” (Why as many as four days, I wonder, why not three, or two?) What percentage of the young demonstrators could give definition of capitalism that’s not a mere slogan, I ask myself? (The answer is in Jacques Delacroix’s “Capitalism.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing. Vol. 2, Malden, Mass. 2006.) I would bet the answer is close to 0%, or even less!

In Santa Cruz, there is a brisk local trade in chunks of quartz, loved for their esoteric properties. Their properties are so esoteric, no one is able to explain to me what they are. Earth Day is celebrate here in a lively way. If anyone ventured to declare that one of the two original Earth Day founders, Ira Einhorn, beat his girlfriend to death and left her to dry in a trunk in a closet, he would be accused of slander so absurd as to prove madness, my madness. Incidentally, Einhorn, who had fled to France for fifteen-plus years, was defended to the end against extradition by the French Green Party. Does it show that greenies have a criminal bent? No, it indicates that they lack ordinary criticality. By the way, I knew the other founder, Dennis Hayes, when we were both undergraduates. I am sure he did not murder his girlfriend. That’s half of the founding team. We can’t all be perfect.

Here, in Santa Cruz, I am surrounded by irrationalisms of several categories. They range from otherwise dead varieties of communism, varieties dead everywhere else on earth, including North Korea, to environmentalist cults, through a large number of diet fads the least of which is veganism. Often, I think that my wife, my daughter, my toddler granddaughter, myself, and a handful of friends are the only rational and fact-bound people around.

Why do you live there, JD if you are so critical, if it’s so painful, they ask? Several answers. First, Santa Cruz maybe the only place on earth with beautiful, uncrowded beaches within a forty-five minute drive of Silicon Valley, a strong engine of economic development, of jobs, of technical innovation (perhaps, the strongest engine anywhere in the world). Second, it’s a very beautiful location (Big Sur is next door). Third, there are fish in the ocean only one mile from my house.

Fourth, the stranglehold of the university on the town is not all bad for me personally. It creates a kind of modern serfdom all to my advantage as a mature consumer. There is an inexhaustible local supply of young people who need a job but who are not about to go pick strawberries two miles away, as everyone knows. As a result, hardly anybody here earns more than ten dollars an hour. This basic economic fact makes for well-staffed bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants. Santa Cruz is better endowed with those attractions than any town of its size that would rely on seasonal tourism of non-elite variety. (My town’s main tourist attraction is the Boardwalk, a permanent carnival -a “Luna Park”- attracting blue-collar families and recent immigrants from poor countries who live in and near Silicon Valley.) There is presence of a permanent middle class of professors determined to live la vida loca even and especially if they are ardent Marxist. This fact helps  Santa Cruz  support restaurants that would probably not be found here without them. The movie theaters are better than average for the same reason. We actually also have three brick-and-mortar bookstores, one of which, Bookshop Santa Cruz, is downright lavish. I am often annoyed in this town; I am seldom in excruciating mental pain.

Fifth, with a median age that must hover next to 25 (I did not bother to check,) there is a fantastic music scene around me. I am of an age where I am wont to doddle to sleep in front of the TV fairly early but I like to know that there is good music to be had should it strike my fancy to remain awake. In fact, the rich night musical scene often bleeds into the day time, within my reach.

In general, if you have an open mind however, it’s not always easy to dismiss the other airheads, I find.

On the rare occasions when I go to one of the several “natural” stores in town, I wonder at the sight of paper-thin, shabbily dressed young women clutching three dollars to pay for what looks like an equal number of organic, sustainably and locally grown salad leaves. I snicker secretly of course. Yet, yet, there is good scientific evidence that rats fed a starvation diet live longer than their brethren fed a normal diet. The young women may just be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

It’s unavoidable that I have friends who partake more or less fully of the local culture, of course. For one thing, I spend time in coffee shops. They don’t have coffee shops for old conservative curmudgeons, it turns out. If there were, I would probably not patronize them. There is a difference between being one and liking others of the same kind. Besides, old men in public places often try shamelessly to recruit you into their mutual misery clubs: Let me tell you about my arthritis, I will listen about your shingles. Second, I am a writer of sorts. That fact entails a need for services not always provided by narrow rationalists like me. (By God, even my car mechanic is a spiritualist!) So, for example, the person who will adeptly lay out my stories for printing is a friend who will also try to persuade me of the merits of various herbal medicines. (I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography is live in the Kindle Store)

Leave me alone, I protest, I go by science alone. I don’t think I have any choice on this. It’s science or it’s superstition from the days when life expectancy was about fifty. Of course, tea made from a flower in Asia the name of which I cannot pronounce is “natural,” but so is cobra venom; why don’t you try an injection of it, I ask my friend venomously? It’s sovereign against almost all ills and pains.

And then, I read an article in a trusted newspaper (the Wall Street Journal 5/3/5/14). The author, Nina Teichloz, argues rather persuasively that the health-based rejection of animal fats, going back to the fifties, is founded on pseudo-science, on almost-science, on exaggerated amplification of sparse research result, and on monstrous career ambitions. It may well turn out that bacon fat is good for you, and canola oil bad, she argues. It’s turning out, as I speak, that foods that tend to replace the banned animal fats in enlightened Americans’ diets, all based on carbohydrates, have recognizable, well- demonstrated noxious effects on health.

Wait a minute, I think, I am one of those enlightened Americans though reared in France! All my adult life, I have been what doctors call a compliant patient. They don’t have to tell me the dos and don’ts twice. Also most of my adult life, I have deprived myself of pâté, rillettes, terrine of this and terrine of that, cheese, marbled steak, etc. For a long time, I was even on a fairly stern macrobiotic diet involving a great deal of grain, several kinds of grain, three times a day. I have Type II diabetes although I am only moderately overweight. My four unenlightened French siblings – who share 50% of my genes – have no trace of diabetes. One is enormous. All ate everything they wanted on the extravagantly fat French menu all their lives. (But three out of four don’t eat much at all.) Did I get severely punished for my well-informed science-based rationalism, I wonder? (But to be fair, I have to remember that beer too is rich in carbohydrates, not just whole bulgur wheat.)*

I had smelled a rat for a long time anyway because French men, who do all the wrong things but one, persisted in not dying.

Anger wells up in me when I see a young father bicycling blithely in traffic with a his toddler in handlebar seat as if the kid were a bumper against oncoming cars. He is obviously trying to save the planet from “climate change” (formerly “global warming”). Yet, the child will most likely survive. Seeing the world from Dad’ bike at an early age may cause him to become a natural cyclist when he grows up. This may be enough to compensate for his relentless, ceaseless small screen habits, for his sedentariness, health-wise and with respect to the development of his imagination.

In the end, it may well be that my annoying town is a boon to the wider society, in the manner of a natural laboratory. If it’ turns out, for example, that a diet based largely on raw carrots causes cancer, the local vegans will be the last ones to know. Yet, they will constitute a valuable sample on which to run a serious epidemiological study, a real one. If it’s a fact that ten joints of cannabis a day is an effective remedy against aging, there is an excellent chance the discovery will be made in Santa Cruz. Also, this town fairly drips with bad artists. Many are mere artistry pimps, living at public expense for little in return. Some try but don’t succeed. But art may be like the Olympics: You need a broad base of practitioners of varying merits for a chance of a handful of medals.

Silliness and sometimes downright madness may just be the price we pay for a reasonably inventive society. In the other society I know best, France, there is far less mediocrity on all kinds on display than I see in the US and in Santa Cruz. In France, in the past thirty years, there is also little new to hear or to see, I believe. The main recent French artistic achievement is an original and pleasant way to light up he Eiffel Tower. (I am not contemptuous, I like it.) The French industrial achievements likewise have been modest and largely the result of precise engineering rather than of innovation.

In America, they say, “Far out; by all means try it!” even if it has only one wing to one side, and a motor made of twisted rubber bands. Our nonjudgmentalism is often exasperating. In France, they will tell you, “It will never fly” even if the article in question is a complete WWII jet. Accordingly, the first men to fly in a controlled flight were Americans and former bicycles repairmen, failed businessmen, as well as high school dropouts. Unlikely it would have ever happened in France. There, the Wright brothers would have been admonished to stay in school until age 23 or 24, earn a couple of proper engineering degrees first and then, ridiculed until they returned to serious business of building bikes.

Every time I grate my teeth at the irrationality, the childishness, the self-indulgence around me in Santa Cruz, California, I make myself repeat the obvious to myself: America invented live radio broadcasting, the Internet, the Windsurfer, country music as well as jazz, and the giant double roll of toilet paper in public accommodations. Irritation is a small price to pay, perhaps.

Still rock-solid among my beliefs: 1 Children should be vaccinated; 2 Almost every service the government provides could be better supplied by the market, private contracts, and insurance schemes. (It’s “Almost” because I have not seen my way yet to defense being outsourced to mercenary outfits. Libertarians hardly ever discuss this central issue.)

* full disclosure: I have been on the Paleolithic Diet – with some systematic cheating – for over a year. My diabetes number have never been so good in fifteen years. My doctor is speechless because he does not want inadvertently to promote another diet fad. I am not making any other claim except that I am rarely hungry. The cheating is this: I drink coffee and wine or beer every day. None is really part of that diet. It’s just good for my soul.

La France et Apple

Les réserves financières

de la France: 30 milliards de dollars
de la Russie: 400 milliards de dollars
d’Apple: 159 milliards de dollars.

J’ai enseigné pendant vingt-cinq ans au beau milieu de Silicon Valley. J’y ai gardé des copains, bien sur. De plus, j’habite à Santa Cruz, Silicon Valley-Plage pour ainsi dire.

Il y a de plus en plus de jeune Français bien diplômés à Silicon Valley. Je n’en n’ai pas fait le rescencement. J’en entend parler et je les reconcontre par hasard. Il me semble qu’
on pense beaucoup de bien d’eux ici, de leur niveau de compétence, de leurs habitudes de travail.

On est bien obligé de se demander pourquoi ils ne sont pas en France ou la charcuterie est très supérieure et les vacances beaucoup plus longues qu’aux Etats-Unis.

Vu d’ici, on dirait que c’est la débandade de la formidable et radieuse colonie de vacances que se sont octroée les Français vers 1970. Je suis ce que je peux depuis ici de l’actualité politique française. J’ai l’impression qu on n’aborde jamais le grand problème de fond: l’état nounou n’est pas viable. On ne discute que telle ou telle reformette, telle ou telle diminution des telle out telle prestation sociale.

Le président de la grande banque d’investissement Lazare frères présentait l’autre jour son livre sur les réformes à l’émission que j’estime assez, “On n’est pas couché.” Une de premières choses qu’il dit c’ est qu’il est  “de gauche”. Qu’est-ce que cela veut dire?

On se croirait en 1946, comme si personne n’avait rien appris en soixante-huit ans. Misère!

Le capitalisme marche très bien quand on le laisse. C’est une vraie machine à fabriquer des emplois. Quand on l’empêche de faire son boulot, les gens fuient, à commencer par les meilleurs, comme on pourrait s’y attendre si on s’autorisait à y penser.

Bad Idea of the Year: Raise the Minimum Wage

Who can live on $8 per hour these days? Surely, in a country as rich as ours, no one who is willing and able to work should suffer the indignity of such paltry wages. The solution is simple and obvious: pass a law. If you work, you get at least $10 per hour, period.  Anything less is downright indecent. And so we have a ballot initiative to make this happen in San Jose, California.

It’s anything but simple and obvious if we stop and look and think about what’s happening in the real world. Today I went to a small family-owned sandwich shop near my house. They are very popular and so four young workers, probably students from the nearby college, were jammed in the tiny shop with the two owners. The sandwiches are great but I also enjoy watching them hustle at lunch time. I’m quite certain the helpers were all earning minimum wage but had other sources of income or support. Far more important than their wages, which will quickly be spent, is the work experience that will last them a lifetime – and the confidence that comes from knowing they are earning their money by doing a job in the very best way they can.

The McDonald’s near me employs a few senior citizens, likely at or near minimum wage. They almost certainly have other income. Just being active and involved in productive activity gives their lives meaning and may well enhance their health and longevity.

The sandwich shop operates on thin margins which are being squeezed by rising food prices. If they had to pay their young helpers $2 more per hour they would probably close. But the nearby Safeway store, which has a sandwich bar, would very likely absorb part of the wage increase and pass the rest on to customers, which would be easier to do with their family-owned competitor knocked out. Continue reading

A Better Way to San Jose

Today I’m going to pick on the California High Speed Rail (HSR) project.  But that’s almost too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel.  So I’ll be brief and then propose a better alternative.

In case you don’t know, California voters passed an initiative in 2008 authorizing sales of bonds to finance a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles with branches to Sacramento on the north end and Anaheim on the south end.  Ten billion in state bond funds were to be matched by Federal and private funds.  The initiative also specified the running time and the fare to be charged.  (How many voters, who might balk at tax increases, understand that bonds have to be paid back with interest using tax revenue?)

Sure as God made green apples, the budget estimates have skyrocketed, the project scope has shrunk, and completion dates have stretched far out over the horizon.  In addition, citizens and local politicians along the route through the San Francisco Peninsula have risen up as one in response to the destruction and disruption that would accompany the construction and operation of the line through their back yards.  These are people in places like Palo Alto, many of them wealthy, articulate, and well-connected.  They appear to have succeeded in getting the Peninsula segment scaled down to a “blended system” where Caltrain and HSR trains share two tracks through most of the Peninsula rather than expanding to four tracks and wiping out hundreds of homes and businesses in the process.  There will likely be an initiative on the November ballot to kill the whole project and polls favor its passage.

For the record, I’m a rail fan.  I enjoy riding Caltrain to work, volunteering at the Western Railway Museum, and studying railroad history.  I’m fascinated by construction projects and still hold a license to practice civil engineering.  So if anything I should be biased in favor of the project but I hate it.

My alternative involves electric cars.  I know, they’ve been a flop so far (Obamacars?), mainly because the usable energy per kilogram of gasoline is about 35 times that of a lithium-ion battery!  A lot of smart people have been working on better energy storage devices and techniques with scant progress to date.

I propose that inductive pickup devices be added to electric cars and perhaps hybrids.  Induction coils would be buried in roadways like Interstate 5, the main SF-LA freeway.  This should make it easy to complete a long distance journey without stopping for a charge-up.  You would leave the freeway fully charged, probably with enough energy to complete your trip on conventional roads.

The payment for energy could be combined with a toll charge.  Tolls are a long overdue idea for roads like I-5 because they not only impose costs directly on beneficiaries but also because they enable congestion pricing – a toll that rises in times of heavy traffic and falls at other times.  This idea has already been implemented on a few California roads but on a very limited scale.  It has the potential to reduce congestion drastically, something carpool lanes have not accomplished.

A major advantage of this system over HSR is that it could be rolled out incrementally.  As soon as a few thousand cars were equipped with pickup devices and a few hundred miles of roadway fitted with induction coils, the benefits would begin.  In contrast, HSR won’t be much good until it’s completed all the way from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles.  A good estimate for that time is: never.  There’s a real chance that HSR will be abandoned after a lonely segment has been built through Central Valley farmland.

Another advantage of the roadway proposal is that cabling could be included with the induction coils for future automated operation.  Under this longer-range scenario control of your car would be taken by an automated system soon after you entered I-5.  You would be accelerated to 120 or 150 MPH and safely guided to your exit.  This is not so far-fetched given that Google has been running driverless cars around city streets with great success, though perhaps not on freeways as yet.

Now let’s compare two ways of getting a family from San Jose to Disneyland as an example.  First is high speed rail.  You pack the family into the car and head for the downtown station, where you pay a hefty fee for five days’ parking.  You buy tickets for all, get on your train, and arrive in Anaheim, or downtown LA if the Anaheim branch hasn’t been built.  You rent a car and away you go.  Cost?  You figure it out, surely several hundred.  Elapsed time, several hours in all.

I’ve already laid out the induction-drive car scenario.  You come and go when and where you want at a much lower cost and close to the same elapsed time with automated operation.

So there you have it.  Sure, the devil is in the details.  I’ve given only the barest outline, and yet I guarantee you that no matter how solid a case might be built up for a proposal like mine and no matter how preposterous HSR is shown to be, some will not be swayed.  I’m not thinking of those who are merely dazzled by renderings of sleek trains.  I’m thinking of people ranging from busybodies to downright sociopaths who, to one degree or another, hate the freedom that comes with car ownership and want to herd people into public transportation.  In such people we find the root of the HSR boondoggle and so many other social problems.