Boiling the Frog

Have We Finally Boiled the Frog?

In a previous life I was a credit officer at a bank. When loan officers wanted to justify making loan by saying that “it is almost as good as one that was recently approved” I would tell them they are boiling the frog. The idea is this: a frog is a cold-blooded creature, so as the temperature changes so does its body temperature, as opposed to warm-blooded creatures that sweat or otherwise attempt to maintain a pre-determined body temperature. Placing a frog, then, in a pot of water of water and turning up the heat would cause the frog to adapt to the higher temperature: it would feel good. Turn the temperature up a bit more and the cycle repeats: the frog adjusts and still feels good. Eventually, though, the temperature gets to the level that the frog’s blood boils and it dies. The frog felt great until the end.

Hence my headline. I live in (the Peoples Republic of) New York state. Our budget crisis is staggering on any dimension one wants to contemplate. Tax revenues are down on cyclical basis, of course, but are also down on a secular basis, too. Despite the profits at Goldman Sachs, there are fewer Wall Streeters today than a year ago and they make less. Wall Street supported the spending urges of NY state politicians to the tune of about 40% of the state’s budget. The numbers are similar for New York City. Governor Patterson has sounded the alarm about the deficit that is approaching $10 billion over the two year budget period, even though (because?) the legislature taxed anything that moved or even threatened to move. He wants the legislature to impose spending cuts since the increased income rates have caused a number of rich New Yorkers to flee the state, notably Tom Galisano. Mr. Galisano co-founded Paychex in Rochester, ran for governor three times, and owns the Buffalo Sabres, a hockey team. He changed his legal residence to Florida saving (please be seated and have smelling salts handy) over $13,000 per day in NY State income taxes! This is income that is now taxed at 0% by the State of New York. Even the most mathematically challenged amongst us knows that zero times anything is still zero.

The legislature has avoided cutting spending, instead it increased taxes on a laundry list of items, many of which the citizenry could avoid by either not buying altogether or reducing the rate of consumption. These they did with a vengeance. As such, tax collections after the imposition of the new fees have lagged even further behind than the projections estimated.   Despite this, the legislature won’t move.

Watching this train wreck unfold in slow motion over the past year I finally was struck by the realization that the legislators don’t seriously believe that anything they do in the form of raising tax rates, adding regulations ( hidden tax), or not addressing structural issues in the state’s budget will boil the frog.

If they are stupid enough to believe that what they are doing will improve the lives of New Yorkers, they need to be institutionalized. However, I believe that they know that what they are doing isn’t helpful for the greater good but it does help get them re-elected and favorable coverage in the NY Times. They don’t conceive that their actions will be the one that gets the temperature to the boiling point. A little more taxation won’t hurt; after all, this is America and New York, the Empire State, nothing can prevent us from achieving our destiny, whatever that is.

The legislators and their minions: state employee unions and do-gooders of all stripes; truly believe that even though this tax rate increase has detrimental effects, the economic prowess of New Yorkers will overcome it and grow the economy to new heights. Any discussion to the contrary is dismissed as the talk of greedy capitalists, people who don’t want to share the burden in the downturn.

The sad fact is that new business ventures don’t set up shop in NY unless the taxpayers lavish untold million in benefits on them. Our universities educate people that work in Texas, Illinois, Utah, and elsewhere, anywhere but NY. Well-to-do seniors flee to Florida to escape NY’s confiscatory income and property taxes. Many return to Canada for the summer but not to NY.

This problem has been the province of a handful of profligate state governments: NY, NJ, CA, and IL, to mention some of the worst; until recently. It has now come home to roost in DC. The US House and Senate and Administration seem to believe that no matter what program they inflict on the US economy, it will be able to shrug it off and keep increasing living standards for hundreds of millions of people here, as well as untold millions more elsewhere. How else can one rationalize deficit spending that is adding a trillion dollars per year to the national debt; or a cap and trade energy bill to correct a non-existent problem; or a health care plan that is so flawed and expensive that the house has to count part of the expenses in another part of the overall budget to make the arithmetic work?

These are not cruel people that wake up plotting the destruction of American civilization each day. Many may prefer that we were more like the Western European countries with a much larger presence of government in every decision. None, I don’t believe, want to destroy the wealth producing miracle that is the US economy. However, their actions are doing just that. They are boiling the frog, all the while thinking that “just a little bit more” won’t hurt.

My guess is that if these legislators and executive branch officials were confronted with the costs they impose on society and told if their actions worsened our lives, then it would come out of their pockets that they would be much more circumspect in their advocacy of higher taxes , more regulations, or more mandates.

Both NY state and America are rich places with many people with incredible ingenuity but even here eventually the frog will boil.



Tagging the Ump

As every baseball fan on the planet knows, Umpire Tim McClelland made one of the worst non-calls in baseball history during Game 4 of this year’s ALCS. When Angels catcher Mike Napoli tagged both Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano who were inexplicably standing near but clearly not on third base, McClelland called only Posada out. His brain cramp has led many to call for McLelland, who was man enough to face his critics after the game, to be dismissed and for Bud Selig to extend the use of instant replay. Both are bad ideas.

I might be reluctant to ask McClelland to call balls and strikes in a T-ball game but by all accounts he is a decent and competent umpire who had a very bad night in a season in which a lot of umpires’ mistakes have been exposed by the camera. Umpires are human. Let there be an investigation into the problems to surface better ways of making calls (perhaps one of the other umps probably should have offered assistance, and McClelland should have sought it.) but we’ve already gone too far down the road of injecting technology into the game on the basis of “getting it right.”

Antipathy for the men in blue runs deep and has been with us since the early days of the game. Hall of Fame Pitcher Christy Mathewson, considered one of the game’s finest gentlemen and the embodiment of virtuous fictional hero Frank Merriwell, once said  “Many baseball fans look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile.”  (Christy spoke before the EPA and Prius but the sentiment remains.) It is embedded in our finest literature:

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

(From the poem “Casey at the Bat” By Ernest Lawrence Thayer, 1888)

We need a modern day Casey to quiet the technology-worshipping crowd that confuses baseball with a video game. When I was young, Thayer’s classic passage about killing the umpire didn’t strike me as anything noteworthy. I probably thought it was just hyperbole or they were using “kill the ump” in its affectionate sense. Today, I suspect anyone calling for the execution of the umpire would be escorted out of the ballpark. In some places it might even be a crime to utter such words. But many people, especially Angel’s fans at the moment, would like to perform a virtual execution and replace more of the umpires’ duties with a camera and a committee in the suites above the field. They are wrong. Baseball is a game played by and regulated by humans, to err is human, to scream at perceived injustice is human (or should be): leave the human element in the game.

Umpires perform a difficult job in front of thousands of people most of whom have extraordinary vision and an encyclopedic understanding of the rules. It is the fans’ right to offer guidance to the umpires so long as they observe the tradition of questioning – but never obscenely – only those calls concerning balls and strikes, whether base runners are safe or out, trapped fly balls, foul balls, and balks. I think we all agree that umpires do a pretty good job on everything else.  And when they do blow a call, it almost always makes the story better and more memorable. How many will remember the outcome of the game (Yankees won 10-1) years from now compared to those who will tell their children about the call. People are still talking about Merkle’s Boner and that happened 100 years ago and helped the Cubs (sic) win a World Series.

My dad told me that the umpires’ calls were a part of the game, that their calls evened out over time, and that resistance was futile. But today you may have a conversation with your children about whether umpires are really, as Christy thought, a necessary evil. Some umpires fear that instant replay, QuesTec, radar guns and other technology are threatening to de-humanize their job and turn the men in blue into Borgs. QuesTec, derived from U.S. military technology for tracking ballistic missiles and aerial mapping is already part of the Umpire Information System (UIS) used in the major leagues to monitor umpires’ ball and strike calls and to evaluate the performance of umpires. MLB seems enthusiastic about the system  and claims it is already improving the performance of umpires.  The 2008 decision to install instant replay for close and contested home runs  is seen by some as the first step in removing the human element from umpiring the game.

Robert Adair, the Yale physicist and baseball fan who wrote the seminal work on the physics of baseball, sees as inevitable the replacement of umpires with technology.  But if that happens, who would we yell at, who would a player turn to in disgust after taking strike three, and whose shoes would the managers kick dirt on?  Even Mathewson might prefer the “necessary evil” to be a human.

The cyber-umpire could communicate calls through the scoreboard, but my guess is that the secondary but essential roles require a cyborg or android presence on the field to convey decisions, endure tantrums, and perform the “yer outa here” spin-and-point toward the showers. But a great deal will be lost. It just won’t seem the same to shout, “Ump, your optical circuit is malfunctioning!”  There is also the very real possibility, especially if it is Windows-based, that fans will hack into the software and disable or re-program the androids to favor their team. What would Casey’s fans roar – “Unplug the ump, Unplug the ump”?

It will be enough to make real fans pine for Tim McClelland.

posted by Bob

Fall rituals: a shot in the arm

Since I moved into the “vulnerable” (i.e. geezer) caste for the flu, the annual flu-shot day in the doctors’ building has become an autumn ritual. This year we have been bombarded with stories and warnings about the swine flu (H1N1) and the need to be protected. But, when I called my doctor’s office to ask the date for shots I learned that they didn’t have any H1N1 vaccine and weren’t sure when they would. Then I read an article about how the vaccine won’t be ready in time to do much good. It is not clear why but the vaccine makers are getting the blame and maybe they deserve it but the national vaccine program is a government program and one would think that the CDC people would plan for contingencies like this, especially after they did their best to whip up demand. Hmmm, if they can’t get a big national program for a highly predicted flu season right, a program which seems like something the government might have an advantage in doing, why are we about to give them control over even more of the health sector? Just curious.

P.S. I have noticed that the Purell people somehow managed to get their product out and near every entrance to a store, grocery, or rest room. I admire their zeal but wonder if, with all this chemical cleansing, we are breeding a super-bug that will catch the CDC off-balance

posted by Bob