Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Message Game

I have been working a lot lately. This, of course, cuts into the time I spend with my wife and daughters. I was lucky enough to get home last night in time to kiss my older daughter good night and sing her a bedtime song. It is the parental equivalent of eating the icing off the cake -- enjoying the sweetest part, forgetting how good the rest is. Well, I can't say I have forgotten how good the rest is, but I am leaving it on the plate for now.

Before we went to bed, we played "The Message Game", which is what my daughter calls Yahoo Instant Messenger (YIM). I am proud to report that her hunt-and-peck typing is faster than that of my boss. Her spelling is better, as well, but I wouldn't want her running the business.

Her favorite part of the game is playing with her papa. It's nice that we can do this even when I am at work. She contacts me when she gets home from school and we sometimes play her second favorite part. We play checkers together. It will not stun you to learn that in all of the dozens of games we have played I have yet to win. The fact is, she very much enjoys winning. She tells me this every time. "I am good at checkers," she announces, "I always win. Super Red!"

Indeed she does. This serves my purpose in two ways. It allows me the opportunity to build her confidence, if not her checkers playing skill. She does not ask herself, as indeed I have not asked until today, where the name checkers came from. She does not question why she always wins, nor imagine that there is any strategy that might help to extend her winning streak. I know that such checkers strategy exists. I seem to recall that Boris Spassky, chess grandmaster of the 1970s, had a sister Irina who was a checkers champion.

In my daughter's mind, however, she wins because she is lucky, and because she has an innate talent for checkers. It will not stun you to learn that she has the same talent for tic-tac-toe, as we discovered at an Italian restaurant the other night while waiting for the food.

The other purpose for letting her win is that it shortens the game considerably. This is not because I dislike spending time with my daughter. It's just that she generally takes a good long time between moves. Hence, I leave very little to make up for that. In a timed game, I'd whip her ass. Don't for a second imagine that she is spending this time considering her next move. She is merely distracted by a dozen other things.

I see her on the webcam I mounted over the monitor at home. It has full view of the TV room. After she moves, I watch her rise and hop over to where she can view the screen. She watches Spongebob or whatever for a few minutes, then climbs up on the sofa and makes her way back to the PC by walking across the top of the sofa back. My wife deplores this, but to Polina it is as much an adventure as finding a land route to Asia (and sometimes seems to take as long).

When I think about Marco Polo, I cannot help but wonder:

  • Did he set out for profit or adventure?
  • Had anyone else gone there and back? Why did his deeds matter? Was it because he blogged about it (well, kept and later published a journal, the blog equivalent in his day)?
  • Surely there were others who tried and failed, died along the way, no?
  • What were his special talents that helped him avoid the spear and the cookpot along the way?
  • Did his father let him win at checkers?
  • Having discovered something that altered the lives of most of the rest of the planet, did he spend his later life happy to have advanced civilization and commerce, or did he die regretting that he had not fully exploited his adventure for personal gain?
  • Did he worry that by opening up trade routes that would bring species from one biological niche into another, certain species would perish? Did he not value the biological status quo?
  • Are the founders of the internet and web happy to helped most of the rest of the planet, are do they rue that others have become far wealthier than they?
  • Do the founders ever worry that by opening up new avenues of commerce certain species of business would perish? Do they not value the commercial status quo? Have they no mom? Have they no pop?

Hold on. It is my turn.

It is now her turn again. She gets a king, or, as this child of the 1970s tells her, a queen. One advantage of playing checkers on Yahoo Instant Messenger is that it enforces all the rules. If you have a jump, it is the only move it allows you to make. All other checkers are frozen in place. It also marks a checker that has made it to her opponent's home row with a crown icon. In regular checkers, of course, we would proudly say, "King me." It is a gentle humiliation of one's opponent to command him to relinquish one of the checkers he has captured.

Since YIM performs this service silently, I type a message to my daughter, "Queen!", or on those rare occasions when I reach the crownhead, "King me!".

I suppose someday someone will try to explain to my daughter that her checkers do not become queens, but rather kings. My daughter will confidently correct them. She knows that girl checkers can only become queens. Only boy checkers can be kings. She will say this with certainty. It will be impossible to dissuade her.

If I were to raise her a full feminist, I suppose, I would have to avoid any and all attributions of gender to the game token. Royal Checker. Elevated Token. Oppressor. "Oh, honey! How lucky for you. Now you get to be an oppressor".

Wait, it's my turn. Imagine that, I just lost a piece.

Thinking back on my college years, I recall how the fullest of the full feminists had a penchant for socialism and its ridiculous aim of producing an equality of outcome in a society where talent and luck are not equally distributed. I suppose they might have me teach my daughter that all checkers are inherently equal, and that no one checker should have more power than another. If one checker can move bi-directionally, then all must be allowed to.

In short, the full feminists would have me teach my daughter rules that have no relation to real life. They would raise her not to be someone who helps the rest of the planet with her special skills. They would consider such truck evil, capitalistic selfishness. In the name of empowerment, they would teach her she was a victim, and sap her of her confidence and special skills, for that is their special skill. They would destine her for the cookpot. They would scare the sense of adventure right out of her.

But as I said, she is a lucky girl. Her papa knows better.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Oxana's citizenship

Oxana had her citizenship interview today. Her application for citizenship was approved (of course). She was really nervous about the gov't questions they might have asked. As it turns out, the questions were:

  1. Who was the first US President?
  2. What was the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America?
  3. How many stars are on the US flag?

I had told her that they wanted people like her to become citizens and that they weren't going to flunk her. But she was worried they might ask her to name the thirteen original states. She had written them out and was cramming on the car ride over, along with "John G. Roberts, Jr., Charlie Crist, Mel Martinez, Bill Nelson...." She was afraid she might say, "Charlie Christ" or "Robert Johns" and they'd send her back to Ukraine.

I suppose it is still possible for something to delay her application. She has a friend who made it through the interview, but got rejected shortly thereafter when it came to light that she and her husband had temporarily separated before she had the conditions removed from her permanent status. It didn't seem to matter that she had a good reason (he had cheated on her), nor that they have since reconciled and continue to live together as man and wife. I don't know what the issue was -- perhaps that she did not disclose this. It happened after she had applied to have the conditions removed, but before the BCIS got around to processing her application. Seems unfair to me that she should reap the consequences for her husband's infidelity and bureaucratic sloth. In any case, Oxana won't have those problems.

The only problem she has is that her green card and Ukrainian passport show her name as Oksana, but I filled out her application for citizenship as Oxana. I am not sure how they will handle that. We don't really want to go to court to have the spelling of her name officially changed. Just tell us how they want it spelled and we'll work out the rest.

I don't think any entity other than a bureaucrat would try to dictate a singular spelling of one's name. I could get a credit card under the name Bob or Bobby or Rob (probably even Milkchaser, so long as my social security number was right). Same if I applied for university. Hell, Jimmy Carter took the Oath of Office as Jimmy and not James Earl. Harry Truman didn't even have a middle name (just an initial). US Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant, but got stuck as Ulysses Simpson Grant after the Congressman who nominated him wrote his name that way. Once the gov't records your name, they really don't want to change it (he preferred the initials USG to HUG anyway).

The BCIS official didn't seem to think this would delay her oath ceremony. We'll soon find out when that is. A joyous day that will be. Oxana wants to bring Polina along. Much as I'd like the two-year-old to be there as well, that might not work out. She nearly got us kicked out of the office today with all her screaming. She's not really an "office-friendly" child.

BTW, for any non-Yanks reading this post, the answers to those questions are:
  1. Who was the first US President?
    • George Washington (he's on the one-dollar bill)
  2. What was the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America?
    • The Mayflower
  3. How many stars are on the US flag?
    • Fifty. One for each state of the union.
  • John G. Roberts is the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.
  • Charlie Crist is the Governor of the state of Florida.
  • Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson are the junior and senior Senators from Florida, respectively (although, how much respect they deserve is a matter of debate).

Monday, May 07, 2007

Immigrant Friendly

I have read two articles recently that inspire me to be more immigrant friendly. Gunnar Myrdal Was Right, by James C. Capretta, noted that the fertility rate of a country tends to decline as its government's responsibility for taking care of its aged population increases. The other article (paid subscription required) sought to raise an alarm about the substandard academic performance of Latino students, noting that the recent influx of mostly Hispanic (and mostly Mexican) immigrants will make Latinos increasingly responsible for the success or failure of the economy.

For those of you who like figures, the first article noted that US fertility peaked in 1955 at around 3.5 children per couple and reached its nadir in 1975 at around 1.8 children per couple. Even though the fertility rate has risen to 2.0 in the US, we still rely on immigration to make up the slack. And even with immigration, we still have a declining ratio of workers to retirees (owing to the retirement bulge of the baby boomers -- that would include me around about 2027).

I realize, of course, that only non-Democrats are reading this as Democrats, punished by fate and genetics with a complete lack of understanding and interest in math, stopped reading at the last paragraph. However, since I began the paragraph with the phrase, "For those of you who like figures...", some may have merely skipped the paragraph. C'mon now, kids. Go back and read the paragraph. You won't understand the rest of the essay without it. And do try to stay awake.

The upshot of the fertility argument is that Social Security programs have an innate contradiction, prominently noted by economist Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s. People used to have big families because they knew that they would need their children to take care of them when they got older. More children = more people obliged to keep you from starving.

But with the advent of Social Security, reliance on one's own children declined. This seems a boon to those unlucky enough to not be able to have children. No longer would the maiden aunt be dependent on staying in the good graces of her more reproductive siblings. For that matter, one need not have as many children since one could rely on one's neighbors to populate the nation with a teeming mass of worker bees. Thus, one can conserve the resources of one's own family, no longer having to split it amongst a larger brood.

It's a kind of freeloading, in a way, although the effects of the freeloading are not apparent until quite a long ways down the road. It is not unpredictable, however, and here is where I begin to lament the inability of Democrats, who insist on forcing socialism down our throats, to grasp fairly simple math concepts. When we have fewer workers per retiree, we cannot provide the same level of benefit to retirees, or we have to place an unduly heavier burden on those workers who fund the system. It is a sad, but inevitable truth.

Of course, one way out of this is to import new workers. And owing to our wonderful way of life (secure property rights; highly functional, albeit imperfect, rule of law; mature economy; highly capitalized businesses; fairly low tax rate; not to mention a host of "quality-of-life" advantages guaranteed by the Bill of Rights), millions of people from just about every country on the planet are very eager to come here. We can import our worker bees to make up for our slacking fertility rate.

The irony, however, is that nearly every worker could easily provide for his own retirement through a forced savings program. The only thing Social Security really secures is a future where the vast majority of workers will remain poor and retire poor. It is really just a means of taxing the people so that politicians can decide how our resources are spent instead of the people themselves. If gov't in its various forms demonstrated honorable frugality, one might not begrudge this taxation. Sadly, it does not. It never has. The temptation to overspend the taxpayers' resources is irresistible to elected lawmakers. Hence, money that you might invest wisely if you were to pay it to a broker or banker instead of to FICA, is loaned without exception to the Federal Gov't at a rate that favors the big spenders and favors Social Security recipients very little. Oh, sure, it's 100% guaranteed by the full faith and bla bla of the US of A -- but it is still a crummy return on investment.

And, as stated earlier, this return is dependent on one of three outcomes:
  • a reversal of the current declining ratio of workers to retirees
  • a reduction of benefits from their current rather paltry level, or
  • an influx of highly productive workers from abroad.
And here, I come back to the second article, Boomers' Good Life Tied To Better Life for Immigrants, by Miriam Jordan. What constitutes a highly productive worker? According to this article, the children of immigrants are underperforming their "white" counterparts. Here are some more figures (and, Democrats, no cheating, no skipping).

In Georgia, for example, minorities accounted for two-thirds of the population growth between 1990 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, they represented 80% of that growth. Yet, only 12% of black fourth-grade students and 17% of Hispanic fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared with 38% of whites, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, a public policy think tank.
The first thing that strikes me about those figures is that 38% is nothing to write home about. As a proud member of the white race, I am rather embarassed that two out of three of the white children attending school with my daughters cannot read all that they are expected to read. If twice that proportion of Hispanic fourth-graders cannot read properly, I am inclined to hope that it is because they come from bi-lingual or Spanish-speaking households and that a part of their difficulty comes from confusion between English and Spanish. As for African-Americans, I don't know what their excuse is. Their ancestors have been in the country long enough to have figured out the language.

Think this is just a problem for so-called dumb Southerners in Georgia? Nope. Turns out California is even worse.

In California, already a majority minority state, 11% of African-American and 9% of Hispanic fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared with 36% of their white peers.
The striking thing about this number is that Hispanics in California score way lower than Hispanics in Georgia. I wonder what is the average per-student cost in Georgia vs. California. Less, I would think. And yet, Californian Hispanics trail way behind their Georgian counterparts. Why?

One guesses that it has something to do with California Hispanics...
  • Living amongst a larger population of Spanish speakers
  • Having spent a shorter average time in US, having immigrated later
  • Having been handicapped by a well-meaning, but misguided attempt at bi-lingual education.
As I said, these are just guesses. I would not be surprised to be contradicted. And, as before, 36% for whites and 11% for blacks! -- nothing to be proud of, folks.

The author of the second article sees this as cause for alarm, since we cannot build a great economy on the backs of people who cannot read. We need architects and doctors, not fruitpickers and construction workers, is her point.

There might be merit in that, but except for the mass migration of British Americans who replaced the indigenous population of North America, the pattern for immigrants coming to America has been to take less skilled jobs. It is the successive generations, the descendants of those immigrants, who have moved up the economic ladder. And this is a rule that has yet to fail -- except in the case of those African Americans who continue to languish, for reasons I cannot fathom, generation after generation (one can blame skin color prejudice for some failure to advance, but that explains nothing of the gap in reading proficiency -- go ahead and call me a racist, but I note this is not a substitute for an explanation).

My take on the immigration problem is that we are not taking in enough immigrants and that those we do take are not those we select. We let people slip in undetected, unselected and demonstrating their willingness to break the law. I know that they are almost universally eager to work. I covet that productivity. But that distinguishes them not a whit. Plenty of people from Russia, China, India or Iran, and a host of other countries, are willing to come in as well. We should let more of these people in and select those we want. For example, we could expand and streamline visa programs such as the H1-B that are geared to bring in highly educated people. But we could also expand the number of visas granted to family members as these people arrive with a built-in network of support.

And as for the solution to Social Security, although immigration would help, there is no reason to allow the pay-as-you-go system to continue stripping us of our savings. We should put an end to the gov't pillaging of the working people through this awful socialist program. In the retirement system, the only roles I would like gov't to take on are:

  • to take care of the indigent, who cannot care for themselves (widows, orphans, disabled),
  • to force savings so that no one is allowed to become a burden to society through a lack of planning, foresight or wisdom,
  • to regulate forced savings so that people do not get ripped off and do not invest overly foolishly, so that we can project a worst case outcome that is better than currently promised benefits.

That said, I am glad to see immigrants come in, but not to save our country from socialism. We can do that ourselves by simply abandoning it. Socialism, and Social Security in particular, is a failure so far. It will always fail. This is not news. We should not continue to pretend otherwise.

Related articles:
Making Kids Worthless: Social Security's Contribution to the Fertility Crisis, Oskari Juurikkala, Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Jan 24, 2007
Having Large Families is An 'Eco-Crime', Sarah-Kate Templeton, Times Online, May 6, 2007
The Global Baby Bust, by Philip Longman, Foreign Affairs May/June 2004