The Truth About the Ultra Rich

They’re very different one from another. Too often, people paint them with a broad brush.

The Buffets, Gates, Bloombergs, Allens are intent on contributing to the common good. Big time. In the case of the Gates Foundation, they seek to enhance global healthcare and reduce extreme poverty, and in America, to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology.

Then there’s the oil billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Read what motivates them, in “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country“.

“The Kochs’ opposition to transit spending stems from their longstanding free-market, libertarian philosophy. It also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways.

One of the mainstay companies of Koch Industries, the Kochs’ conglomerate, is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts. Even as Americans for Prosperity opposes public investment in transit, it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.

‘Stopping higher taxes is their rallying cry,’ said Ashley Robbins, a researcher at Virginia Tech who follows transportation funding. ‘But at the end of the day, fuel consumption helps them.'”

The Koch brothers oppose whatever slows their fortune from growing ever larger. Things like low income people gaining mobility and conserving natural resources.

David Koch’s networth is between $50 and $60 billion. How much is enough? Based on his actions, no amount.

The Decline of the United States of America

One of a series.

I drive under the bridge that the Amtrak train tragically jumped the track on in Dupont, Washington over 300 times a year. A considerable part of the coverage was surprise at how fast the train was going. “Even faster than the freeway traffic.” Turns out it was maxing out at 80mph or 129kph. The train lacked the “smart” self-stopping brakes that are de rigueur on trains in other developed countries.

Here’s some perspective for the globally challenged.

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At 320-350 kilometers an hour, Seattle to Portland would take about 50 minutes. Once up and running again, our new, ten minute faster train, will still take over three hours. Plain and simple, we’re getting our ass kicked.

Friday Assorted Links

1A. Running While Female. Male runners may be shocked to learn how often women must endure on-the-run harassment. Many female runners have come to just expect it.

“43 percent of women at least sometimes experience harassment on the run. . . compared with just 4 percent of men. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not life-threatening. But it is pervasive, and it’s upsetting, and it’s most likely happening to. . . someone you know.

A man will look a woman up and down as she runs past. A driver will shout a come-on, laughing with his friends as they speed away. A person on a bike or in a car will follow a woman, and she might dart down a side street to escape. Even if nothing like this happens most days, knowing that it (or something worse) could happen causes stress. As the recent national dialogue surrounding Donald Trump’s sexist comments and alleged assaults brought to light, almost all women—runners or not—have endured unwanted sexual attention. And no matter how swift a woman’s pace, it’s impossible to outrun harassment.”

1B. Male athletes at Garfield High mentored on how to interact with women.

“‘There was things. . . that I noticed that I’ve done in the past . . . I just realized I should change,’ said Ramari, a football player.”

Imagine that, coaches looking past scoreboards.

2. Why America’s roads are in tatters.

“Brickyard is among the roads that the Muskegon County Road Commission has slated to be turned to gravel, twenty-eight miles in all.”

We are a nation in decline.

“Each American driver pays about $450 per year toward roads, according to the Journal of Infrastructure Systems. Europeans fork over on average 2 to 3.5 times as much — the difference is largely in fuel taxes. Americans have always resisted giving such financial support for infrastructure projects. . . . The federal gas tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, was last raised in 1993 and has since lost more than one third of its purchasing power. Only three states currently index their gas tax to inflation.”

You get what you don’t pay for.

3. How long must Seattle teachers save for house down payment?

“Teachers with five years of experience, and a master’s degree would pay about 28 percent of their annual salary on rent for a one-bedroom in Seattle, according to the NCTQ data.

“Are you giving people enough money to buy a house or even rent a modest apartment? If you aren’t doing that, you’re sort of depriving a profession of what makes it a profession.'”

4. Fuck, I Totally Forgot to Fight for Women’s Rights and Promote Sustainability.

“You know how it is, though.”

Sentence to Ponder

From an article on Jeb Bush’s taxes in today’s WSJ.

“The average rate for middle-income households was projected to be 12% in 2013, the latest available data.”

The top 1% of earners, who do 99% of the complaining about tax rates, pays an average of 33%.

What percentage of people in developed countries would sign on to pay 12%? Trick question. Somewhat less than all because some (many?) would not want to accept the trade-offs of minimal taxes including worsening infrastructure, expensive health care, and tens of million in poverty.

Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.