fighting the lack of good ideas

coolidge by amity shlaes

Calvin Coolidge is my favorite president. Has been for a long time.

So when I saw Coolidge at my local bookstore recently, I was very excited to grab a copy and read Amity Shlaes rendition of his life.

In just the first 18 pages is enough to inspire anyone to love the man we call our 30th President.

Some choice excerpts form the introduction and first chapter:

Under Coolidge, the federal debt fell. Under Coolidge the top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent, or even 3 percent. Under Coolidge, Americans wired their homes for electricity and bought their first cars or household appliances on credit. Under Coolidge, the economy grew strongly, even as the federal government shrank. Under Coolidge, the rates of patent applications and patents granted increased dramatically… Under Coolidge, a man from a town without a railroad station, Americans moved from the road and into the air… Under Coolidge, wages rose and interest rates came down so that the poor might borrow more easily.

Coolidge kept government out of the way of commerce.

Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism.

It was Washington whom Coolidge emulated in his deliberate decision not to seek reelection in 1928.

Without knowing Coolidge, Americans cannot know the 1920s.

Most presidents place faith in action; the modern presidency is perpetual motion. Coolidge made virtue of inaction… “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he wrote… In politics as in business, it is often harder, after all, not to do, to delegate, than to do. Coolidge is our great refrainer.

“The Coolidge family recipe collection contained instructions for ‘Scripture Cake’:

One cup of butter. Judges 5:25
Three and one half cups flour. 1 Kings 4:22
Two cups sugar. Jeremiah 6:20
Two cups raisins. 1 Samuel 30:12
One cup of water. Genesis 24:17
Two cups figs. 1 Samuel 30:12
Two cups almonds. Genesis 43:11
Six eggs. Isaiah 10:14
One tablespoonful honey. Exodus 16:31
A pinch of salt. Leviticus 2:13
Spices to taste. 1 Kings 10:2
Two tablespoonfuls baking pow. 1 Cor 5:6
Follow Solomon’s advice for making good boys (Proverb 23:14), and you will have good cake.
Bake in a loaf and ice.

Calvin wrote to his grandmother in 1887 while at boarding school,

“I am in first rate health and I am having a good time but having a good time is not everything to think about in this world.”

I pity anyone who does not appreciate Coolidge, and anyone who believes that emulating the leader of our most successful decade is a poor idea.

If only every president lead like Coolidge did.

kingmakers by karl ernest meyer and shareen blair brysac

Karl Ernest Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac present what should be a fascinating history of the modern Middle East in their recent book Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East.

I have been interested in Middle Eastern history (ancient and modern) for many years, and so was excited to see this book as I was browsing my local library recently. A couple years ago I read Gideon’s Spies. And I have read various articles, books, and treatises that either focus on the Middle East, or reference it in less-than-passing ways over the years.

Sadly, like so many other books I’ve read in the recent past, Kingmakers stays too academic to read comfortably. I couldn’t get through more than a couple chapters before deciding I would learn more about Middle Eastern history from Al Jazeera and Wikipedia than from this book.

why nations fail by daron acemoglu and james a robinson

I first came across Why Nations Fail at my local Half Price Books. After seeing it on the shelves a couple times, but still being unsure about whether I really wanted to read it or not, I reserved it at my local library.

Now I wish I had bought it (and likely will) – Daron Acemoglu & James A Robinson, while sometimes slipping into an academic, journalistic tone, present a fantastic historical, economic, cultural, and international view into the similarities, and differences, of “national” failures around the world over the last several centuries.

They spend a great deal of time expounding on the differences of countries that succeed and those that don’t – and offer insights into how failing nations could, potentially, turn themselves around.

Interestingly, the factors that play-into national success and failure are similar throughout history – critical junctures, inclusive/pluralistic political and economic environments vs extractive/exclusive political and economic structures, empowered citizenries, overbearing rulers, literacy, economic incentives (positive and negative), etc.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy:

the overthrow of a regime presiding over extractive institutions heralds the arrival of a new set of masters to exploit the same set of pernicious extractive institutions (p366)

My recommendation? Buy it. Read it. Share it. The background and conclusions this book presents and reaches should be required reading for anyone who wants to see their nation “do better” – politicians, businessmen, citizens, NGOs: all would benefit from applying what is demonstrated in this excellent work.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Quality of content: 4.5/5
  • Historicity: 5/5
  • Educational value 4.5/5
  • Overall: 4.5/5

redecentralizing school

I have a very longterm interest in education.

As I look at the current public education “system” in the US, I can see a variety of major problems.

The biggest problem, endemic of any system built around the premise that the only people who should be together all day long should all be “similar”. Somewhere along the way, we decided it would be a Good Ideaâ„¢ to split children into monocultures of more-or-less indentically-aged groups called “grades”, and then batch them into groups of 20-30 and herd them through a variety of subjects every day.

We have lost the concept of learning as exemplified throughout history in the “apprentice” or “disciple” model.

Before the monoculturification of schooling, whole (but small) groups of children were taught together – it’s how my dad’s uncle was taught. From 1st (or K) through 12th all in one room. At any given moment, all ages were either being reminded of earlier work, or hearing about later work, or doing their own work.

This model is still used by the large segment of the population that homeschools (presuming, of course, they have more than one child).

What if we re-adopted this approach to school in the public system? What if, instead of having schools which housed hundreds of students in just a couple grades, we had schools in every neighborhood that had a few dozen students that represent all the grades of the community?

What if schools became “migratory” – in the sense that as the demographics of the community change, the location of the school ‘building’ can shift. Perhaps, for example, in a suburban community the school could be usage of a development community center – but if and when the community has fewer or no children, the school locale could be removed or shifted to a new young demographic area.

Some of the myriad benefits I can envision in such a scenario:

  • reduced overhead for any given school in terms of hiring, maintenance, etc
  • reduced school board / district overhead – elimination of now-unneeded positions
  • increased teacher-to-student engagement
  • lower student-to-teacher ratios
  • increased student retention as they are continually being reminded of old concepts
  • teachers becoming more generalized, rather than [potentially] myopic in their teaching
  • team teaching – cutting across disciplines and seeing an integrated view of the world
  • improved teaching flexibility
  • reduced union strength
  • improved connections between teachers and the community they serve
  • more well-rounded graduates
  • reduced / eliminated busing
  • decreased prevalence of bullying
  • increased likelihood of teachers living near/in the communities they serve

Some of the antibenefits I could envision:

  • loss of school sporting teams
  • forced generalization of teachers
  • more complex IT support infrastructure (if managed by a central authority such as the board or district)

I eagerly anticipate your feedback – what do you think?

more irrational gun maneuvering – president obama living up to [my] expectations

I was harshly criticized a few years ago when I pointed-out Mr Obama’s anti-gun stances. While several good things for gun owners did happen in his first term, irrational exuberance over the recent shooting in Connecticut has led Vice President Biden to say the following:

“The president is going go act,” said Biden, who is conducting meetings all week on gun control. “There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet, but we’re compiling it all.”

“I want to make clear that we’re not going to get caught up in the notion that, unless we can do everything, we’re going to do nothing,” Biden said. “It’s critically important we act.”

why the electoral college matters

This year’s election results seem to – again – be confusing a LOT of people.

The incumbent presidential candidate, Mr Obama, won ~51% of the popular vote. His main opponent, Mr Romney, won ~48% of the  popular vote.

However, when you look at the electoral votes (the only ones that really matter), you see a different picture: 332 vs 206, which puts Mr Obama’s electoral victory at 61% of the Electoral College, and Mr Romney at 39%.

For some reason, and I have my personal theories on this, civics and American History is no longer actually taught in schools. No one today knows what the Connecticut Compromise was about. Let’s do a little history lesson to bring everyone up to speed.

In 1787 there was no “United States of America” – folks were still trying to figure out what to do with the nascent country that just won its independence from the British Empire. Virginia representatives proposed having a two-house structure for Congress (the Senate and House). However, they wanted both houses of Congress to be apportioned based on population – at the time, that would’ve meant a disproportionate level of influence from the more populous states over lower-populated ones (irony: New Jersey in 1787 was one of the smallest states by population while Virginia was one of the largest: NJ has almost a million more people today than does VA). For obvious reasons, the smaller states felt this was a Bad Ideaâ„¢ – their voice would never be heard.

The Compromise brought the ideas that New Jersey wanted (a unicameral representation based on the concept of one vote per state) and the one Virginia was lobbying for (bicameral, but both houses based on population) into the system we have today: a bicameral Congress with one house based [loosely] on population*, and the second a flat number per state (ie, our House of Representatives and Senate).

With Congress out of the way, let’s look at how the President is actually elected. Article II of the Constitution covers this (along with Amendment 12). This is where things get interesting: to help mitigate the disproportionate effect of large states on small ones, each state votes for Electors who will then “really” vote later for the President (and Vice President).

Why is this important?

First, it is an evidence of the fact that we do not live in democracy – we live in a representative republic.

Second, it allows every state to have at least minimum voice in an election – which means that it views every state as important.

Third, it means that pure favoritism shouldn’t be the exclusive basis for why any given candidate becomes President. Being President isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest in the way a beauty pageant is, it is supposed to be a race to determine the best leader for the country (of course, “best” is subjective, and few actually seem to campaign because they want to ‘lead’ – they seem more to run for the thrill of being “in charge” .. but that’s another post entirely).

How are electors apportioned? Most states distribute electors in a winner-take-all form: if a candidate receives a simple majority of the popular vote in the state, they get all the electors of the state (eg a 51% win in CA gets all 55 electors even though 18.4 million of the state’s population of the state may disagree with the 18.6 that elected a given candidate). Hypothetically this shows that the States are joining together to vote for the President rather than merely the populace.

Not all states follow that model, however – Nebraska is a notable exception which awards Electors based on the vote percentages of its population.

Some argue that this system inherently creates “swing states” which lead to disproportionate campaign expenditures and focus instead of spending approximately-equal time in every state.

Personally, I think this is a fantastic system because pure democracies devolve into anarchy and/or split into multiple groups upon reaching a given size.

The Founders of our country were a lot smarter and forward-thinking than most are willing to give credit for. Were they perfect? No. Did they have flaws in the initial proposals? Absolutely. But this is one artifact of our founding that needs to stay.

*“The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand” – Article I, Section 2. If we followed this minimum today, we would have >10,000 representatives in Congress (2012 US population ~310,000,000)

taxation as a solution to the “gay marriage” issue

While I have some pretty strong personal views on the issue of “gay marriage”, I have a possible solution that not only gets it away from being a societal problem, but also gets the government out of being involved in our personal lives a little more. There is a side benefit of being able to return the entire concept of “marriage” back to the individuals involved in the marriage itself.

Instead of looking at this through the [valid] lens of religion (of any kind), let’s look at it through the lens of economics.

Instead of having the government be in the business of certifying and approving marriages, let’s put them back to the role they should have – which is overseeing contracts. And instead of tax, inheritance, health, and benefits laws being tied to whom you marry, let’s tie them to those you economically support and/or with whom you enter into a contract of mutual support.

No more marriage licenses. No more weddings before a magistrate or justice of the peace. Weddings can go back to being the religious ceremonies they have been for centuries, and for those who prefer a non-religious ceremony, a contract of mutual support can be granted.

How could this look from a taxation perspective?

First, let’s throw-out the different type of filing, and simplify:

  • Single taxpayer
  • Taxpayer with dependents (where a “dependent” is defined as someone who receives at least 51% of their core sustenance (housing, food, clothing) from the non-dependent)
    • Minor (under 18) Dependents
    • Other Dependents
      • Primary Dependent
        • An individual who has entered a contract of mutual support with the Single Taxpayer and who resides at the same address, or
        • The only dependent over 18 in the Household
      • Secondary Dependents
        • Other members of the Household who reside at the same address

I am simplifying, but will also give the option annually to change your filing status if it gives a more advantageous overall benefit to your family / living arrangement.

Untaxable Income (or, the prebate):

  • Single Taxpayer
    • $6000 annually
  • Single Taxpayer with Dependents (ie Household)
    • $6000 plus
      • $3600 per Minor Dependent (under 18)
      • $6000 for the Primary Dependent (over 18)
      • $5400 per Secondary Dependent (over 18)
    • if a Dependent earns more than the Single Taxpayer Untaxable Income Level ($6000), they may file as a Single Taxpayer or contribute their income to the Household and only a file a Contributor income tax return

Tax rates:

  • 20% on income per Taxpayer after Untaxable Income is eliminated
  • 3% federal sales tax on all first-time, end-use purchases from a business (ie not purchased for resale by a business and not resold in a secondary market such as a garage sale or eBay)


  • Contract of Mutual Support
    • A legally-binding document of either a permanent or time-limited nature in which two adults enter to establish a Household
  • Dependent
    • Any resident of the same Household whom receives more than 51% of their core sustenance (housing, food, clothing) from the Single Taxpayer
  • Household
    • A single taxable unit or those related to each other (either by blood, adoption, religious marriage, or Contract of Mutual Support), residing at the same address and combining their incomes and together for the betterment of the group
  • Income
    • Any money earned via any legal or illegal means including but not limited to:
      • Bonus
      • Capital Gains
      • Dividends
      • Gifts/Inheritance from outside the United States
      • Interest
      • Rent
      • Salary
    • Exclusions to taxable Income are all sources of money earned via secondary markets or personal gifts, including but not limited to:
      • Garage sale proceeds
      • Personal services on an ad hoc basis (eg mowing a neighbor’s lawn)
      • Gift/Inheritance from inside the United States from a Taxpayer
  • Single Taxpayer
    • Any person who has earned Income in the United States or has received a Gift/Inheritance from outside the US while residing in and earning Income in the US
  • Untaxable Income
    • A subsistence-level income needed for basic living


  • Single Taxpayer earning $50000/yr Salary only
    • Subtract $6000 as Untaxable Income
    • 20% * $44000 pays $8800
  • Single Taxpayer earning $50000/yr Salary and $500/mo Rent
    • Subtract $6000 as Untaxable Income
    • 20% * ($44000 Salary + $6000 Rent) pays $10000
  • Single Taxpayer with Primary Dependent earning $50000/yr total
    • Subtract $12000 Untaxable Income
    • 20% * $38000 pays $7600
  • Single Taxpayer with 1 Minor Dependent earning $50000/yr
    • Subtract $9600 Untaxable Income
    • 20% * $40400 pays $8080
  • Household with Primary Dependent and 2 Minor Dependents earning $50000/yr
    • Subtract $19200 Untaxable Income
    • 20% * $30800 pays $6160
  • Household with Primary Dependent, Secondary Dependent, and 2 Minor Dependents earning $50000/yr
    • Subtract $24600 Untaxable Income
    • 20% * $25400 pays $5080

Further examples left as an exercise to the reader