Thursday, November 19, 2015

Politics 101: Why Some Positions Are "Can't Lose" For Politicians

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday the 13th of November, a hue and cry has been raised in the United States aimed at President Obama's plan to give shelter to 10,000 refugees of the Syrian civil war. Some people seem to fear that among the refugees will be secret ISIS terrorists who could mount an attack inside our borders, while others seem to be unhappy at what they deem Presidential overreach (which is not an unusual complaint in year 7 of a Presidency). 

Many sober commentators have pointed out that it is contrary to American's stated values to close our doors to people in need. This editorial in the New York Times, for instance points out that "Refugees from War Aren't The Enemy", and describes the detailed background investigations that can take up to two years before someone is granted refugee status by the US. In a related article, Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristof notes that "They Are Us",  pointing out that his father was a refugee from the Soviets in the 1950s, and detailing the shameful story of American refusal to shelter Jewish refugees of Hitler's Germany in 1939, over two hundred of whom died in the Holocaust after having to return to Europe

On the other hand, politicians have been eager to go on the record on the issue of Syrian immigrants, and the results have been resounding. CNN reports that "More Than Half the Nation's Governors Say Syrian Refugees Not Welcome", and Presidential candidate Senator Cruz of Texas (whose father was a refugee of Cuba) has introduced a bill banning entry of Muslim refugees from countries controlled by terrorist organizations, though he would allow Christians from those countries to come to America. Fellow candidate former Florida Governor Bush would also focus only on Christian Syrians, which is pretty ironic considering the role his grandfather played in bankrolling Hitler, but as Charlie Pierce often says, self-awareness is not just a river in Egypt.

While I deplore these politicians' statements as a human being, as an observer of politics and teacher of history, I applaud them for their deep understanding of human nature. The best politicians know that the surest appeals to voters are to their "lizard brains". Even more than a threat to a voter's pocketbook, something that invokes a "fight or flight" fear based response is sure to get someone's attention (which in politics often means that people want to be protected). And here is why any politician who doesn't oppose the Syrian refugee entry to America is making a bad political decision (though their moral decision is correct):

Anyone who can read the Constitution should be able to see this quite plainly. In fact, Kristof's article referenced above makes the argument even more obviously bogus with the following thought experiment:
Yes, security is critical, but I’ve known people who have gone through the refugee vetting process, and it’s a painstaking ordeal that lasts two years or more. It’s incomparably more rigorous than other pathways to the United States.  
If the Islamic State wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, it wouldn’t ask a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at, say, Indiana University. Hey, governors, are you going to keep out foreign university students?  
Or the Islamic State could simply send fighters who are French or Belgian citizens (like some of those behind the Paris attacks) to the U.S. as tourists, no visa required. Governors, are you planning to ban foreign tourists, too?
But here's why politicians would be crazy not to oppose the refugees resettlement--they can't be blamed for anything!

Politicians love any opportunity to avoid blame. Laws and policies are not "automatically" unconstitutional, they only become so after a court ruling. This is a fundamental part of our system--Congress could immediately pass a law banning freedom of the press (for instance), or taking away everyone's guns (ha!), and it would still be the law until it was reviewed by a court. If a court rules against the Governors, they can blame activist judges, or an imperial Presidency, and still claim that they were trying to protect their constituents. This is why Presidential candidates talk so freely about Constitutional amendments--since the President plays no role in sending an Amendment to the states, he cannot be blamed for any outcome. If you were running for office, and you knew that you could say something that (while immoral and unconstitutional) was going to be universally popular and would enable you to shift blame to your opponents you'd be crazy not to.

Friends of mine are upset that New Hampshire Governor Hassan (a member of the Democratic Party) has urged the blocking of Syrian refugees. But here's the thing: as upset as they are, what is their alternative? Would they vote for a Republican? The point is that Hassan can't lose by appealing to intolerance and fear at this time. That said, other politicians, such as Washington Governor Inslee (also a Democrat), have doubled down in support of helping the refugees. This, to me, is a display of political courage, because he is deliberately doing the right thing, even though it is unpopular. Time will tell which option the voters like better.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

My Back Pages: A Look at Guitar Player Magazine Back Issues #1--Thoughts on the economics of guitar building

I've been playing guitar pretty seriously since 1986, and for almost all of that time I have subscribed to guitar magazines. I have a collection of just about every Guitar Player magazine from 1987-2010, at which point I got so frustrated with their poor editing and lack of substance that I abandoned my subscription and replaced it with one for Premier Guitar magazine. That said, I frequently go back and reread the old issues, and thus this occasional series was born. 

Back in the old days (the 1980's and very early 1990's), Guitar Player wrote long, informative articles about the state of the guitar manufacturing industry. These articles were deeply fascinating to me, but what stands out most starkly now, decades later, is just how totally wrong they were when predicting the future of the industry.

I remember reading articles after the fall of the Iron Curtain that warned that vacuum tubes (which power most old, and many expensive new instrument amplifiers) would rapidly become unavailable due to the environmental problems related to their manufacture. The theory was that the Soviet bloc countries needed them for their tanks and radar systems, but the modern West would move on. Well, here we are in 2015 and not only are tube amps still considered to be the default for pros and aspirational objects for amateurs, but the price of tube amps is actually falling. In the December 1990 issue of Guitar Player ("Special Issue: Amps in the '90s") they review the Peavey Classic 50 (a retro style guitar amplifier modeled after the Fender Bassman which was used by bluesmen and early rockers in the 1950's and became the basis of the first Marshall amps in the 1960's. At the time, the guitar retailed for $699.95, which (according to the inflation calculator) would be the equivalent of $1248 now. But when I looked at leading online retailers, I found that the amplifier actually costs only $999, which is about 20% less

How is this possible? The amplifier is still made in Meridian, Mississippi, but Peavey doubtless takes advantage of computer based manufacturing processes and most significantly, inventory control to reduce their costs. The tubes and some other electronic components are doubtless imported, but they are still able to pay American workers to make the same amp for less than the cost 25 years ago in constant dollars. It's times like this that I wish I was an economist so I could understand this better!

Some time after the  amplifier article, Guitar Player devoted the April 1992 issue to the then-popular "unplugged" phenomenon ("Special Issue: Unplugged! The Acoustic Revolution"). The editors convened a "roundtable" of leading luthiers (guitar makers), many of whom are still leaders in the industry today, such as Jean Larrivee, Bill Collings, Chris Martin, and Bob Taylor. All of these makers (and many others) have been in the forefront of trying to make "sustainable" instruments, but they are faced with a market that will pay a premium for traditional tonewoods like rosewood, mahogany and spruce.

Many guitars are made with laminated tops, backs and sides (or at least backs and sides)--these instruments sound fine, but the common perception is that they will not "open up" over time and improve in their tone. All-solid wood guitars, on the other hand, will often sound "better" to many people as the wood ages and it gets used to the tension of the strings and the frequencies of commonly played string vibrations. 

In the April, 1992 Guitar Player, members of the panel lamented the future of solid wood acoustic guitars. Bill Collings observed "It is getting harder and harder to find quality materials". Chris Martin,whose family founded the most famous guitar company in the world in the 19th century fretted (see what I did there?):
"In the long-term future, solid wood, non-laminated guitars are going to become phenomenally expensive. Laminates and synthetics are going to be used for all but the high-priced instruments. People will say "I really want a solid wood guitar, but I can't afford $5,000 or $10,000. Okay, I'll buy the best laminate."

I do not pretend to know even one-hundredth of  what these expert luthiers know about wood, but I do know something about the costs of guitars. It just so happens, that over the past couple of years, I have purchased two all solid wood (spruce tops, mahogany back, sides and necks) acoustic guitars that are modeled after the Martin 000 model. Both guitars were made in China, shipped by sea to the United States, and wound up in my hands for under $300. The guitars are well made, visually attractive, and sound lovely. There is no question that the manufacturers economized to save wood (such as by utilizing a stacked heel design and a spliced headstock in my latest acquisition (visible in the picture at right), but these designs can actually provide a stronger neck than a more traditional one-piece neck. 

The bigger question to me is, what did the experts get wrong 23 years ago? Spruce and mahogany reforestation is not underway at such a large scale to make a difference. Skilled labor costs in China are much lower than in the U.S. (though they are compressing, as Chinese wages have seen double digit increases for many years, while American workers' incomes have been largely stagnant), but someone still has to cut the wood, store it to dry, ship it to China, turn it into guitars, and then ship it around the world again. How can this be done for such a low price? My guitar pictured on this page cost me $200, which is 4% or 2% of the cost that Chris Martin predicted so many years ago.

Again, I wish I understood the dismal science of economics better. Right now, though, it is hard not to think that we are living in a golden age for guitar buyers, which is a much more optimistic view than I was expecting to have based on my careful reading of Guitar Player in the 1990's. I welcome any comments from readers who have their own experiences or theories to share.