Saturday, July 26, 2014

The West Virginia Meal

I don't think this dish has a name, but we call it the "West Virginia Meal" because it came to us with my West Virginia dad. You just fry a couple strips of bacon or some ham hocks in the bottom of a stockpot, add some sliced white potatoes and fry them up a little on the outside, then dump in about a pound of fresh green beans and add salt and pepper to taste. Cook on low heat, covered, for at least half an hour until the beans are just shy of mushy. You do not want California-style crispness - the beans need to be soft. You'll have to add maybe a cup of water to keep things from burning. You may need to pour off bacon grease and/or excess liquid; use your judgment. The quality of this dish is a direct function of the quality of the ingredients. Grocery-store beans are probably not going to cut it - I made this batch with a local wide bean from the Colonie Farmers' Market.

The West Virginia Meal

Tonight this went down with cornbread, corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions, and peach cobbler for dessert. That is a West Virginia meal all the way. Use good vegetables, and trust me, you won't miss the meat; the two ounces of bacon will be plenty. Fried chicken goes with it, but you really don't need it.  

This dish might be even better if made with "leather britches" - beans that you thread on a string and dry in the pods. Then you have to soak them before use. When I was really young, Dad put up leather britches in our porch one summer, but we couldn't keep the bugs off them and they never got eaten. That was as close as I've gotten to leather britches. Maybe this fall...

You Can Vote, But You Can't Run

You hear a lot of complaints that voter ID laws, inconvenient voting hours and locations, and the need to register ahead of time are unfair. Some extremists think requiring a person to show a photo ID at the time of voting is a civil rights violation.

I find it interesting that many who advocate extremely open and lax regulation of who can vote take a very different view of who should be allowed to run for office. For example, the website of the Democratic Party says voter ID laws are unnecessary and suppressive. But then I read

Democrats have turned to a lawyer who helped craft some of the state’s complex election laws to try to keep a challenger to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo from getting onto the September Democratic gubernatorial primary ballot. 

and a case where a Democratic incumbent is trying to get a Green Party challenger thrown off the ballot because of some fairly ridiculous technicalities having to do with the petitions the law requires in order to run for office.

Maybe in the days of manual voting it made sense to have primaries, runoffs and petition requirements in order to limit the number of candidates on any one ballot. But now votes are recorded electronically, and the government conducts all sorts of business online, so what's the problem with letting anyone who wants to put his name on an electronic ballot? If it turns out there are 500 candidates, so what? People manage to choose from 500 different kinds of cereal, so they can probably manage the same number of options in the voting booth.

Are the major parties afraid that the false consensus will evaporate? I know the Democrats and Republicans like us to believe that some large percentage of the electorate thinks their guy is the very best one for the office, but that is of course ridiculous. All it takes to win an election is to be better than the other idiot who managed to get onto the ballot. It doesn't mean you're any good in an absolute sense.

It's hard to look at election laws and not conclude that voting is a charade. Did you know that in Virginia, the order in which candidates are listed on the ballot is not random, but rather reserves the top two lines of the ballot to candidates of a party that polled at least 10% in a recent statewide election? In practice it means that the Democrats and Republicans always get the top two lines. This law was passed in 1996 with many Democratic votes. That's about as fair as prohibiting someone from voting in a state election until he's voted in a previous local election.

If you think it should be as easy as possible for people to participate in the political process, more power to you. But if you favor very liberal voting regulations, and also silly and obstructive laws about who can appear on the ballot, then you're acting out of self-interest, not principle. You want as many people as possible to come out and vote, but you only want them to be able to pick from the very few people who had the time and money to jump through all the ridiculous hoops you set up.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Don't Listen to Economists

I have said before that I think economists are sloppy thinkers. Here's an example.

This famous Nobel Prize-winner claims that "printing money isn’t inflationary" under certain conditions. His evidence is that lots of money was printed after the financial crisis, but inflation never shot up.

The fact that inflation didn't go up after the money-printing tells us nothing whatsoever about whether the money-printing policy in itself caused inflation. There were a lot of other things going on at the time, and from everything else we know about how money works in the economy, they must have been powerfully deflationary, so that the inflationary effects of printing money were counteracted.

The right question to ask is, what would the inflation rate have been if the money-printing policy had not been implemented? But of course we'll never know, because you can't repeat the years 2008-2012 with a different policy.

I can hear Krugman countering, "What I meant by not inflationary is that even though the inflation rate was higher than it would have been absent the money-printing, it still wouldn't have reached harmful levels, because of all those other deflationary things happening in the economy. It was important to print money to avoid harmful deflation." (He says deflation is harmful later in the same column.)

But is deflation bad or good? If it's good, then preventing it, by printing money for example, is bad. Like inflation, deflation harms some people and helps others. If someone owes you $1000, and suddenly the value of the dollar rises sharply (that's deflation), you'd be pretty happy to see deflation. On the other hand, if you're the person who owes the $1000, you might not be so happy. Economists like to say that deflation is bad for the economy as a whole, and they point to Japan as an example, but in fact the Japanese standard of living is as high as it's ever been.

Personally, I really like deflation. The fact that I can buy a computer today for $1000 that would have cost $1 million a couple of decades ago is just fine. It might make me hesitate to buy a computer today if I think I can get the same performance in a year for a lower price, but so what? If people stop buying computers, then the computer companies have less money to invest in new deflation-causing technology, so the rate of deflation is self-limiting.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Perrywood Allotment Baseball League

When I was a kid, my neighborhood friends and I set up a backyard baseball league. We called it the PWABL or PABL for Perrywood Allotment Baseball League - Perrywood was the name of our "allotment" (i.e. housing development).

Unlike in the movies, we did not have dozens of kids that we could divide up into several teams. There were only four of us, not even enough for one team. But we really did run an entire league with just four kids. Each of us picked a major league team to represent. I picked the Reds, my friend Dave picked the Indians, and the two other guys picked the Red Sox and the Brewers. I remember the other two guys well, but will omit their names because I've lost track of them. Hey, if either of you guys read this, shoot me an email.

We managed to set up a schedule where each team played each opponent a set number of times - about 50 total matchups for a season that lasted many weeks. The games went like this. You turned to the sports page and from the previous day's box scores, you read off the batting order for your team. That was the batting order you had to use. We would announce each batter: "Now up for the Red Sox, Carl Yastrzemski..." (This was during the 1978 season.) The hook was that if your guy was a righty, you batted righty, but if your guy was a lefty, you had to hit lefty. If your guy was a switch hitter (I had Pete Rose on my team), then you had to bat righty the first at-bat, lefty the second, and so on. I have no idea how we kept track of all this, but by the end of the season we had the batting orders memorized. I can still remember that Rick Burleson was hitting leadoff for the Red Sox most of that season.

With only four players, we had to use everyone for every game. The two players actually matched up batted and pitched against each other, but one extra guy was an all-time fielder and the other one was an all-time catcher/umpire.

Because there was only one person per team to bat, we had to set up an elaborate set of "ghost-man" rules. If you hit a single, you would have to say "Ghost-man on first" before you stepped off the bag to go back and bat again, or else you could be tagged out. If you then hit another single, you would say "Ghost-men on first and second". The ghost-men always advanced only one base for each base the batter made. There was no scoring from second on a single. Your ghost-men ran at exactly the same pace as the actual runner. If you had a ghost-man running to second, he could be put out if the fielder stepped on second before the actual runner reached first.

We had three fields - my back yard, the Brewers' back yard, and a strip of land next to the Indians' house that was bordered by a real home run fence - a chain-link fence enclosing a friendly dog. I must say we did not have a lot of parity. The Red Sox was about a head taller than all the other teams and he hit many home runs. Except for him, nobody else hit one, except for one I hit late in the season. The player up at the time was Dave Concepcion. Sure, I remember it. It was only 36 years ago.

This is the Indians' home field. The angled house at the bottom (you can only see the corner of it) was the Indians' house. Home base was about where the big tree in the lower center stands now, and you hit towards the top of the picture. The home run fence ran horizontally, from the end of the driveway with the two cars in it. You had to pull a ball to get it over the fence. If you hit it straight away, it would just roll across the driveway.

The fields varied wildly in dimensions and we had no bases, so you had to grab a certain tree branch or stand on a certain bare spot to get to base. It worked out OK because with only one fielder, there were very few close plays. Each field had its own weird grounds rules, like if a ball was hit under the big Christmas tree-like evergreen in my backyard and was unreachable, it was a ground rule single. Hedgerows provided the home run fences for the backyard fields. If you fouled one backwards and it cleared the hedgerow behind home plate, we called it a "Polish home run." The only statistic we kept was the total number of Polish home runs. I think the Brewers won that one. At one point, the Brewers asked the Red Sox for a nickname, and the name "K-King" was bestowed: K meaning strikeout.

We only had a few balls, so these had to be taken good care of. One of the balls was not a real baseball, but was made of some sort of rubber that if you really whacked it, it would take on an oval shape that would persist until you whacked it back into roundness.

We actually played the whole schedule as it was originally set up. I don't remember a lot of arguments about umpire calls or the very complicated set of rules. The only game I really remember ending prematurely was when the Brewers fouled off a bunt into their own teeth and had to go home for an ice-pack.

It sounds like I'm making up all these complications, but we really did play a whole season with these crazy rules. We tried to do it again the next summer, but it didn't really work out for reasons I don't remember. I think the Brewers had moved to Pennsylvania by then.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Static South

I just returned from a week's vacation to Charleston, South Carolina. One thing I really wanted to see, but was not able to because of its limited opening hours, was the recovered Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.  The best I could do was to visit the grave of its builder, Horace L. Hunley, who drowned in trying to make the damned thing work.

Grave of Horace L. Hunley, Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C.. His crew is buried around him, and every stone has a brand new Confederate flag next to it. It's like being in a foreign country.
The Hunley is one of a very few examples of technological innovation that came out of the Old South. In fact, I can't think of another one; can you? I asked my wife and kids for examples and the ones they offered were the Winchester rifle and the cotton gin. Actually, those were both invented in Connecticut!

I also visited the Manigault House of 1803 as part of my admission to the very interesting Charleston Museum. I mentioned to the lady who gave us the guided tour that what struck me was the obvious effort and expense the builders of the house went to in making it aesthetically pleasing, instead of investing in "conveniences". They had bedsteads, sideboards and chairs that would look great in any house today, but of course no indoor plumbing or kitchen.

A few minutes after we left, I realized what a dopey observation that was. They didn't have those kinds of conveniences because they never had to cook, clean or wash their own clothes. They had slaves and servants to do that. I'm sure it occurred to them that it cost money to pay servants or support slaves to do these tasks, but what didn't occur to them is the various ways the tasks could be made more efficient. You have to do the job yourself in order to come up with labor-saving ideas. But if the person paying the bills isn't doing the work, and the person doing the work isn't paying the bills, that connection never happens.

I think this explains a lot about why there was little innovation in the South. At least, it's a better explanation than the common observation that the South was conservative and suspicious of improvements. Everyone likes to save money. Those rich plantation owners didn't get that way by throwing money out the window. They just weren't in a position to see, for example, that by fireproofing the kitchen, they could bring it into the house and save hours of time lost by walking stuff to and from the outdoor oven.

It would seem that the existence of a middle class, in which people mow their own lawns, do their own laundry and change their own oil is a necessity for innovation to happen. If you were paid to mow lawns by the hour, would you be interested in a way to do it in half the time? Not likely. But if you had to mow your own lawn, you would be very interested. The rise of the middle class in Britain probably had a lot to do with why the Industrial Revolution started there. Even then, the big shots in Britain were still the idle rich. That's why being a "boffin" was (and still is) looked down on in a way we have difficulty understanding in America.

Don't leave with the impression that I dislike the South. On the contrary, it's full of fine people, and these days, the South is the only restraint on the Whiggish excesses that will ruin the country if unchecked.

Note added later: What I said above refers to the "old South." A lot has changed in the last 50 years or so. A great deal of the work that got Neil Armstrong to the moon was done in Alabama, Virginia, Texas, Mississippi and of course Florida.