The luxury of ownership

Being a member of the Winfield Village Cooperative, I’m technically a home owner and not a renter. In fact, more then technically: I’m actually a home owner.

On a day-to-day basis, living at Winfield Village is a lot like being a renter. I pay a monthly housing charge that feels a lot like a rent payment when I pay it. There’s an office staff that shows units to prospective new owners, and a maintenance staff to fix things (plumbing, appliances, etc.), and keep up the grounds—all very similar to what you could expect at an apartment. But there are differences, and most of the differences are luxuries.

There are a few differences that are financial. For example, I’m entitled to deduct my share of the property taxes and mortgage interest that Winfield Village pays.

One that I hadn’t thought of before was made especially apparent to me a few weeks ago, when a friend mentioned having to sign the next-year’s lease for his apartment, and I was reminded what an annoyance that always was.

Every year when we used to live at Country Fair, we’d get a call from the office asking if we wanted to renew our lease for the following year. Every year the rent went up a little, which was just to be expected.

More annoying was that every year we had to read the new lease. Most years it was the same or nearly the same—the office staff would go through and indicate changes—but we still felt like we ought to read it, because we’d still be agreeing to any changes that the office staff failed to point out. I think twice there was a complete re-drafting of the lease, so we had to read it all the more carefully.

Even years when it was still (mostly) the same, after we read it we then had to go through the whole thing with the office staff, because there were a dozen places we had to initial specific provisions, and then we had to  sign three originals.

Although it was just an off-hand comment, my friend mentioning his lease re-signing brought up a whole bunch of stressful memories, such as deciding how to deal with the provisions that were so badly drafted as to require us to do preposterous things. (One I remember was a provision intended to reduce the chance of pipes freezing that seemed to require that we leave a trickle of water running anytime the temperature was below freezing, which would basically be all winter here in lovely central Illinois.)

There are other ways in which we are owners. We can repaint. We can buy our own appliances, or make other upgrades to our kitchen. (But we don’t have to. If our stove or refrigerator fails, maintenance will come fix it, or replace it if necessary.)

Until my friend brought it up, it hadn’t occurred to me that I haven’t had to go through the whole stressful lease-signing process for three years now! Instead of a lease, I have an occupancy agreement. That agreement hasn’t changed in three years, so I haven’t needed to re-sign. The housing charge hasn’t gone up either. And because it’s a co-op, I’ll have a vote on any major changes that do come up.

Ah, the luxury of ownership.

What good is a militia anyway?

The reason that a well-regulated militia appealed to the founding fathers was that they hoped it would eliminate the need for a standing army.

If you had the whole body of young adult men armed and trained, it was hoped you could raise an army very quickly in case of need. If that were true, Congress could insist that the standing army be run down to just a cadre of specialists and officers. Then, in the event that you needed an army—because you were invaded, or needed to invade someone else—you could mobilize (i.e. draft) the militia to fill the ranks with soldiers.

The founders knew perfectly well that a government with a standing army could not be resisted by the people, even if the people were armed. A standing army was always going to be more disciplined, more highly trained, and better equipped than a militia could possibly be.

So, the purpose of the militia was to eliminate the need for a standing army. If you could make a militia work that way—quickly go from a bare cadre to a fully mobilized army simply by calling up the militia—then you’d be in a position where Congress could insist that the the army in fact be a bare cadre, meaning that neither presidents nor generals could use the army until Congress actually raised one.

It’s an appealing idea, particularly to someone like me who is very doubtful about trusting presidents or generals. Sadly, the evidence is pretty good that it doesn’t work.

This was clear even before the sorts of modern, high-tech weapons and other equipment that take extensive training to learn how to use, and then nearly constant on-going training to preserve the capability.  It took five years to go from a 16,000-man army to a 1,000,000-man army during the civil war. The ramp up for WW I was quicker but also smaller—manpower grew by 16 times in two years rather than 62 times in five years, but that was from a much larger base—basically, a smallish standing army, not merely a cadre waiting to be filled out.

The experience of the U.S., at least as far back as the civil war, is that fielding an army by mobilizing a militia simply can’t happen fast enough to respond to an enemy with a standing army. (The experiences of Switzerland mobilizing to resist a possible Nazi invasion and Finland mobilizing against the Soviet Union at around the same time are interesting, but do not I think make the contrary case.)

Given all that, I’d have to say that a militia is pretty much obsolete, and has been for a couple of centuries at least.

Voting is a constitutional right

The right to vote is a constitutional right. It should not be abridged. In this way it is like all constitutional rights.

There is one important difference between the right to vote and most other constitutional rights. Most constitutional rights apply to “the people,” while the right to vote is a right of citizens. Because of that difference, it makes sense to verify that people registering to vote are citizens. But waiting until someone is at the poll and then demanding that they prove they’re a citizen is backwards.

It is, to use another constitutional right as an example, backwards exactly the same way it would be backwards to take your property for public use, and then make you run all over town for documentation to prove that you own it before you can get it back. Instead, we have a property registry to keep track of who has ownership rights, and then a process called eminent domain whereby the government has the opportunity to present to a court evidence that there is a public need for your property according to well-established rules, and to establish fair compensation. You have the opportunity to dispute that evidence, and to argue for a different interpretation of the rules or for higher compensation.

I would suggest that as being the right model for voting rights as well: We should have a voter registry to keep track of who has the right to vote, and then a court process whereby the government has the opportunity to prove that someone on that list does not have the right to vote according to well-established rules (not a citizen, not over 18, not residing in the precinct, dead). You should have the right to appear at the hearing and dispute both the evidence and the interpretation of the rules.

Nobody should ever be struck off the voter rolls without such a hearing—to my mind it would be just as unconstitutional as taking your property without a hearing.

If that is the standard—as it should be—then there is no need to present an identity document at the polling place. All you need to do is prove that you are the person who registered, which is easily done by comparing your signature when you request a ballot to your signature when you registered to vote.

In any case: The right to vote is a fundamental right of the citizen. Denying it without due process is wrong, and there should be substantial sanctions on anyone who does so (or attempts to do so).

Wrote an article pitch policy

It won’t do any good, but I have written and posted an article pitch policy to discourage people from sending me pitches for article ideas.

In the past few of years, I seem to have gotten on mailing lists for any number of PR flacks (and others), who are constantly offering me reports from their experts on this or that aspect of the economy, results of polls that they’ve done, press releases about new upcoming books, invitations to webinars, etc. None of that stuff is ever of any interest to me.

I’ve never written an article based on anything I received in email. I’ve never linked to someone’s infographic because he sent me email suggesting that my “readers might be interested” in it. In the past I did a few times accept free copies of books for review, but (with one exception—a book by a former fellow Wise Bread writer) I quit doing that back when Wise Bread did its last big structural change.

More carbon in the air means less nutritious food

An interesting and important article about a researcher gathering data that seem to show that although more carbon in the air means plants grow faster, the result is plants with more sugar but less protein, minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients:

http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/food-nutrients-carbon-dioxide-000511

the protein content of goldenrod pollen has declined by a third since the industrial revolution—and the change closely tracks with the rise in CO2.

Reply to: One less excuse

Alexandru Bolboaca rejects the notion that software hasn’t become a proper, professional engineering discipline because it’s too young:

It recently dawned on me how often I say or hear the words “our industry is young”. There’s truth in these words. . . .

And then he goes on to explain the many reasons why “too young” is a lame excuse for a lack of professionalism in software.

But I think he misses the real issue why software is mostly written by people who lack the discipline he’d like to see: It’s because software is so easy.

It’s really hard to make a bridge that won’t fall down. It’s much harder yet to make one that not only won’t fall down but is also affordable.

Relatively speaking, software is trivially easy and very cheap. Anybody can start making small programs, just like anybody can stack one rock on top of another. But scaling up from small programs to medium-sized ones is something that actually works—anybody can do it. Scaling up from stacking one rock on top of another to building a stone bridge is another thing altogether, because relatively speaking software is so easy.

I suspect that we’re about to get a test of this notion. Pretty soon now I suspect that materials science will give us some new structural materials that are cheap, extremely strong and very easy to work with. I don’t know what it’ll be—carbon fiber, nano-assembled sapphire, resin—but it’ll be cheap enough and strong enough that any yahoo will be able to put up a structure that’s as easy to build as a lean-to but as sturdy as a house.

My prediction: Once that happens, we’ll see a partial collapse of architecture as an engineering discipline. There’ll still be real architects (because the education programs are so well established), but very quickly only large or public buildings will be designed by real architects. If you can throw up a sturdy building in a few hours for a few dollars, people will totally do that, just like they’ll currently write little programs that do something they need done, even if the programs are otherwise crappy in many ways.

Chart of the Week: Electric Takeover in Transportation

From the IMF blog, a great chart showing the rate at which motor vehicles took over from horses early in the 20th century. Putting current motor-vehicle and electric-car use on the same graph makes a pretty good visual case that we might be as little as 15 years from the cross-over point where half the vehicles on the road are electric.

Greater affordability of electric vehicles will likely steer us away from our current sources of energy for transportation, and toward more environmentally friendly technology. And that can happen sooner than you think.

Source: Chart of the Week: Electric Takeover in Transportation | IMF Blog