Converting Short Coursera Videos into Audio ( mp3 ) Files

Coursera is a great platform for online learning. The videos are intentionally short for purposes of optimizing the learning experience. However, from a review perspective, its would be really nice to have them available to listen to casually, say when one is commuting to work, exercising, or working around the house.

Sadly, downloading mp3 files of the lectures from most Coursera courses is not an option, so a little bit of work is needed. In addition, it may be useful to have one large continuous file, rather than 5-10 individual files, depending upon the capabilities of your audio player.

I use an an audio editor called Goldwave* to do mp3 conversions and consolidations of mp3 files. Unfortunately, unless one has other uses for such a program, the cost may not be justifiable. That being said, it appears one might be able to accomplish the same thing with the open source audio editor program Audacity. Alas, I have never used Audacity so I dont know for sure, but it looks possible.

The following is the procedure I use with goldwave to convert a Coursera video to mp3 for use on my audio player.

  • Download the lecture from Coursera.
  • Load the mp4 lecture file into goldwave and then using the LAME encoder, convert it to an mp3 file. Be sure to use some form of descriptive title so you can keep them in order.
  • Set the album field to the course name via editing the mp3 file tag. If your mp3 player supports playlists, you could also set the playlist tag to keep the files in order. Goldwaves tag editor is text only… and for a lot of folks thats all they need. I happen to use the Sony Sound Organizer software as its what my mp3 player is happiest with. There are a number of mp3 tag editors that could do this as well, or likely even better.
  • Upload the mp3 file to my player

The following is the procedure I use with goldwave to make one large mp3 file of the entire weeks lectures.

  • Download the entire weeks lectures from Coursera.
  • Load the mp4 lecture files into goldwave and then using the LAME encoder, save them as mp3 files. Be sure to use some form of descriptive title so you can keep them in order. Unless one has a powerful computer with a lot of ram, its best to do the mp3 conversions a single lecture at a time. **
  • At this point, you will have a weeks worth of lectures in mp3 format.
  • Next, I load each mp3 file into a goldwave starting with the 1st lecture in the series, and then cut and paste them in sequence into one large continuous track in the first lecture file. Again, unless one has a powerful computer with a lot of ram, its often best to load a sequential file, and cut and paste, and unload said file rather than trying to load all the lecture files at once.
  • At this point I now have one continuous file that comprises the entire weeks worth of lectures.
  • I then save this track with an appropriate descriptive name as one large continuous mp3 file.
  • Finally I set the album field to the course name via editing the mp3 tag. There are a number of mp3 tag editors that could do this as well, or likely even better. I then upload it to my mp3 player.

If one has an vehicle like my fifteen year old truck, you likely know you can’t play mp3 files via legacy CD players. All is not lost, its pretty easy to use Nero-Express to take your mp3 lectures, and burn them to an audio CD. Granted, you can’t put anywhere near as many lectures on an audio CD as you could with an MP3 CD, but it is an option for folks with older technology.

Lastly, one should keep in mind, that while doing any of the above should be ok for personal use, sharing said audio files, or worse selling them would be in violation of copyright law.

*Goldwave may look scary as it can do some amazing things. It does have a fairly steep learning curve to do the really cool things… but mp3 conversions are only a tiny fraction of its capabilities. After you convert the first few lecture videos to mp3 files, it gets a lot easier.

** I realize that quality can be lost by converting all the lectures to mp3 first, rather than saving them as raw audio files to connect them, only to resave the the large continuous track back to mp3. The reason I do this is to keep the load on my ancient laptop reasonable. Personally I dont even notice the difference, but folks with audiophile ears might.

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On MOOCs, Scaling, and Teaching Models #FOEMOOC #EDCMOOC

Direct instruction (DI) scales with ease, the only real limitations are imposed by the means of assessment. Ie, if one chooses essay style exams, you need a huge amount of resources to assess them, where as if you use multiple choice exams, scaling is generally pretty simple. This is one of the reasons that Khan, EdX, Coursera, have such a following amongst self directed, highly dedicated, or in general top students. Its also fairly easy on the instructors part, as its a modest investment to build and manage a course, resource requirements after the initial course development are generally low, and scaling is a no brainer for the most part.

Direct Instruction Limitations

On the other hand, direct instruction does a poor job of reaching the less than motivated student, and/or those who are motivated, but for one reason or another run into lots of trouble. I’ve often heard a figure that around 30% of a student population will do well under a DI model with minimal hand holding. I dont have stats to back this up, but it seems reasonable based upon my experience. There is also the issue of depth vs breadth. DI can cover a lot of ground quickly, but rarely reaches deep into the brains of all but the most dedicated students.

The Constructivist Answer

Thus, the focus on constructivist models of learning. If such an approach is done well, its reasonable that it can reach not just 30% of a class, but somewhere nearing triple that number. In addition, rather than just a few students reaching the higher levels of mastery and application, its likely a majority of students will be able to apply what they learned. Even more impressively, the number of folks who can apply the material well after a course of study has been completed increases multifold.

Constructivism as a whole doesnt scale

The big problem is that constructivist models of education dont scale anywhere near as well as direct instruction. A number of folks have suggested there should be an upper limit as to the number of participants, often times in the vicinity of the Dunbar number. If such is the case, then a MOOC operating under a very constructivist model is an impossibility by definition.

I dont believe there is an upper limit to constructivism, but there are parts of constructivism that are group size limited. In other words, in order for a limited form of constructivism to work, some positive attributes and/or expectations will need to be put aside. The sad part about this, is often the attributes which dont scale are often the areas which often provide the greatest benefit to the students having the greatest difficulties. If taken too far… a highly stripped down constructivist model on a large scale will have the same problems as a DI course, but with significantly less content.

Three MOOC examples

Consider DSDMOOC as a full bore direct instruction model of learning

  • New technical concepts and vocabulary can overwhelm students for whom this is their first exposure.
  • There is little wide scale collaboration. Rather the discussions are dominated by well versed highly technical individuals coming from very diverse backgrounds.
  • Experts often throw out half baked ideas as seeds for discussion, and things get frenzy. Its great as a gearhead myself, but I could see it being a bit intimidating for the novice.
  • Smaller less experienced fish occasionally throw out ideas, and they are welcomed and discussed in depth… the tendency is to go a bit too far in depth which may not be all that helpful.
  • The professor is truly a guru, he explains things quite well, and its very easy to be motivated to do more… but I understand the background well enough to get excited.
  • The focus of the discussions is very technical and gearhead oriented. Topics like the emotional responses to sound get overshadowed by technical analysis, and hw/sw issues. About half the lecture content of week 1 was on emotional response / philosophy, but you’d never see it from the discussions.

Consider EDCMOOC as using a somewhat stripped down constructivist model of learning.

  • Active participation rates are quite low in light of the massive number of folks enrolled.
  • Information overload can overwhelm students who lack experience in dealing with it.
  • The massive nature of the course results in a lot of duplicated revelations rather than the uniqueness and diversity of views and discussion of such that occurs in a much smaller environment
  • Unless you have quite a bit of confidence, or foolishness to begin with 🙂 , few want to throw out half baked ideas for further development.
  • There is no time or even tools for robust team building and/or emotional connectedness amongst peers thrown into a very busy and churning ocean.
  • Previously big fish in small ponds may feel intimidated in a vast ocean, but what happens to the smaller fish from small ponds.
  • The smaller fish encountering difficulty are often left behind to flounder.

Consider FOEMOOC as a attempt to implement a full bore constructivist model on a large scale. Rather than its failure, (it was completely pulled on day 6) consider the following utopian ideals.

  • Imagine if directed team building had worked… that 500-1000 teams of folks willing and ready to participate formed in a day or two. (I’m not idealistic enough to think that all 40.000 registered students were willing and ready to participate… real life happens.
  • Imagine if peer to peer learning was going full bore. The larger fish captured great depth as they assisted the smaller fish, and the smaller fish were not left to flounder.
  • Imagine if somehow emotional connectedness was fostered in just a few days, such that all felt they were in this together.
  • Imagine the cross pollination as the online curricula / presentations were developed.
  • Imagine developing your own online curricula that worked not only for the top students, but for the vast majority of students, even for some who were not motivated at all.

On flight training and educational theories (its not just for pilots)

Over my many years of teaching folks to fly… the ed psych stuff and models of learning dont really help a whole lot as concerns the top students. One could take almost any type of curricula / instructional model, and the best of the best will do well with it. I think of the premier aviation universities, where most of the less talented students wash out long before they engage in heavy duty flight training, and the resulting impact on the instructors that come out of those programs. They’ve never really had massive challenges in teaching like they will see should they get involved in other than another university or military operations. This might be one of the reasons instructor churn rates are so high… beyond time building that is.

Where the big challenges truly lie are with motivation in general and students who hit roadblock after road block. This is where the educational theories, laws, and models prove to be of the greatest value.

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Learn by doing??? Transformers #FOEMOOC

A common theme running through my edu focused mooc classes was greater depth of learning based upon being actively involved with the task at hand. Ie if you want to learn about something jump right in and do it, your instructor will give you some nominal direction, but the greatest depth of learning will occur between you and your peers.

A Newbie engineer needs a lot of hand holding

It makes sense, sort of… a newbie EE is often times great at mathematical modeling, but other than that narrow aspect, often requires quite a bit of hand holding and mentoring. In 5-10 years, they will likely be a decent engineer, but it is a rare engineer outside of those who become specialty modeling gurus that still possess the math skills they left the university with.

The sage on the stage models

The sage on the stage math and often science models of education work pretty well at creating a basic set of knowledge, but unless one is exposed to actual usage and repetition over time, generally doesn’t sink in very far. One of my undergrad profs used to say… “In general, you really wont understand your undergrad work until you finished your masters. You are also unlikely to really understand your masters work until you are done with your postdoc… and this same scenario will play out through out your lifetime.” Over the years, I’ve found this to be true time and time again.. albeit their are a few rare exceptions.

Transformers

As a young guy, I had a job offer at a transformer company… the idea of dealing with a single simple component with simple math, and relatively simple construction led me to turn it down. Years later, the outfit I worked for built their own transformers from raw materials. Injection molded the bobbins, stamped the steel, wound the bobbins, applied the insulation, assembled and tested them. transformer from wikipedia

 

It turns out if you want to make a few tons of transformers a year, they end up not being quite so simple anymore. In fact, a lot of the knowledge of high performance transformers is the sort of thing that is tightly held IP, and is only alluded to in EE course work. Its the sort of deal that when you read an IEEE or AES paper from academia, you often think, what were those guys smoking?

However… if one has been making power transformers for years, and then is asked to make an audio transformer, and doesn’t have the theoretical background, there might be trouble. Simply reading up on the task at hand, scanning IEEE and AES papers, and reverse engineering competitors units only goes so far. In all likelihood, once a typical manufacturing guy runs up against 100 differential equations in a AES paper, he will dismiss it. Rather, he will go to the lab with the knowledge he has gathered the best he could and start making prototypes. He might get lucky, or he might build a number of prototypes to get a design up and running. Things are good… but now that 100,000 units have been built, the last batches dont meet performance specs… and its back to the lab again. Some of the time, those IEEE and AES papers present some insights buried under boatloads of academic language. In other cases, academic research papers end up not being even close… and its really back to square one. This is the point where a theoretical EE background, in combination with research, in combination with experience often combine to present a solution.

Its not either or, its both, and it takes a long time.

A sage on a stage cant teach this, nor can a peer group with minimal guided instruction jumping in and just doing it. Its not an issue of one functionality to the exclusion of the other, it is simply a need for both, and there in lies three big problems. The first is intrinsic motivation to build the theoretical skills on the part of the experienced guru. The second is the intrinsic motivation to build the experience skills on the part of the theoretical academic guy. The third, is that either path takes quite a bit of time… and more so, most EE’s dont work with just one component, they work with hundreds if not thousands.

Over the years, there has been a push for greater learn by doing instruction in EE… it doesn’t cover anywhere near the breadth of a DI sage on the stage, but it is massively huge in depth. There is no doubt such has the potential to make it easier to bring in an entry level engineer, but will such an approach really deliver over the long haul. It will be interesting

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Rejoicing at Cutting Entitlements

Some dude was overjoyed that medicare was looking to be cut… I’m thinking ok, so you are happy that old folks are going to get their access to healthcare services cut? This same individual would probably think elderly euthansia is immoral… but thinks its ok that grandmas chemotherapy choices just shrunk in a huge way, or that Uncle Bob who should be on a $20K advanced care surface, now has to be painfully manually rotated ever 2-4 hours on a generic hospital bed, or that Aunt Sally lost her meds off the formulary, so now she has to go to the ER everytime her heart acts up.

I’ve also seen folks pretty happy that medicaid would be cut too… I think about a fellow I knew back in my uni days. He was one of those millionaires next door when he retired. He drove a pretty rusty VW bug, owned a city blocks worth of real estate free and clear, a nice pension, and based upon black Monday losses and his huge focus on diversification, he probably had a few million in the bank. In other words, he worked really hard, invested really well, and did a lot of thinks right, a low more than most folks will ever reach or even aspire too.

The thing is… like black Monday, sh*& happens. A seemingly mundane low speed vehicle crash, and all of sudden those lifetime limits on insurance start being a real problem when you need 24/7 life support. If things go on long enough, all of a sudden, even the exceedingly well prepared individual with a few million can end up needing the govt safety net.

I think about my old neighbor… he farmed up until his mid 70/s… never made much money, but did get a small nest egg when he sold the farm. It was enough to buy a house in town, and provide a modest standard of living for a few years… Alas he got cancer and heart trouble, and being this was pre medicare part-D it didnt take too long for his nest egg to be depleted.

These folks and their loss of health care options are what folks are happy about?

In fairness though, medicare is broken. Folks paid in a far less than what the real costs of benefits they recieve… the last medicare tax increase was in 86, and medical care costs have shot up in a huge way since then.

There is lots of fraud, lots of turf wars, and a ton of non-helpful overhead that does nothing to help with actual patient care. The thing is.. when you blanket cut top level, all the garbage and periphery remains entrenched, the only ones who usually suffer loss are the patients.

Medicare can and should be cut… but with a surgical knife. There should be no need for a medicare billing industrial complex, but grandma should be able to get to see her doc, to get her meds, and the safety net should remain intact. The parasite business entities that make medicare their life blood are the ones that need to go… and that requires legislative and regulatory change well before any top level budget cut.

Pastor Brandon Hudson with his “In search of empathy….” pretty much nails a lot of this… Ideology makes folks loose site of humanity, and there in lies a lot of our problems.

While many are busy bemoaning the purported loss of moral values in our society, I’m more concerned about the loss of empathy. The rise of ideologues as purported representations of the fragmented state of our people fills me with a sense of dread regarding our general human condition. I’m more concerned about losing our humanity than losing our war with culture, because we have forgotten that in the end we are all human, before we belong to any other smaller group or faction. In the season of Advent and Christmas, I think we should pause to examine the impact of God’s blessing of humanity by coming alongside us as one of us before we return to our vicious dismantling and demonizing of those with whom we disagree.

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The MN Photo ID Amendment is a bad idea

I’m voting no on the MN Photo ID amendment for a few reasons. First, it doesn’t belong in the constitution. Secondly, while it has to be freely provided to the voter, someone has to pay… and that likely means another unfunded and likely very expensive mandate from the state. Thirdly, even if it is free, the time and effort needed to acquire an ID is likely to disenfranchise some voters.  Fourth, there is no religious exemption, thus opening the door for a first amendment court fight. Fifth, its a spendy solution in search of a near non-existent problem… there are bigger fish to fry as far as election fraud goes.

There are a couple issues with making it a constitutional amendment with the first bit being the issue that photo ID’s are likely to become obsolete at some point down the road. If it were a regular statute, it would be a relative no brainer to update it as the years pass. As a constitutional amendment, it likely will be a real pain and significant cost when time forces it to be changed. Secondly, there will need to be a couple pages or more of legislation spelling out the details of how this will work, and how it will be paid for… and afaik, no one has presented anything remotely concrete in this regard. This business of trust me, it will work out just fine without detailed supporting documentation… never works out too well.

My guess is the legislature will try to play the cost shifting game so as not to raise state income taxes to cover its cost. Ie, the costs of issuing, training / recurrent training for false ID detection will be passed on to local govt.

In addition, the legislature may go so far as to try to push the 24th amendment as far as free goes, such that it will end up in court putting adding even more cost to the boondoggle. Its possible they will say the ID is free as they wont charge for printing and issuing costs… even though a voter may need to spend a couple hundred bucks to acquire and notarize the necessary documents. They likewise might not cover the costs of increased student id fees for changes of address and/or verification every time a student moves.

Of course, some might say a photo ID for voting doesn’t need to meet same criteria as does a MN state ID. Ie, it may be possible to simply have a photo book at the polls, and that said ID would not require a current address… (a utility bill etc may be ok) the question I have, is whats the whole point of photo ID, if you are not making the system robust?

As far as time, effort and cost goes… imagine an elderly person who has always banked at the same location, who quit driving 10 years ago, and has been in a nursing home for the last 5 years. This person would likely need to acquire primary and secondary ID per the MN ID requirements and verification of name change if any. Its quite unlikely for such documents to be readily at hand for an elderly person, and its likely they will require some time and expense to acquire. Next, they would need to present themselves in person at a licensing office. The needed time and effort put forth by the nursing home staff to assist said individuals would need to be paid for… and not billed as increased fees to the nursing home resident, to be in compliance with the 24th amendment.

While it is fairly rare for Amish people to vote, their hard core stance against personal photography is widely known due to their religious view that it conflicts with the graven image commandment. The amendment proposal doesn’t leave any room for a religious exemption,  thus it would seem it would get struck down as being in conflict with the establishment clause. On the other hand, legislation supporting an exemption would then be counter to this state amendment. In other words, this would be messy.

Beyond that, photo ID’s are pretty easy to fake, even the ones with so called security features can be forged without too much effort. Likewise, there are other ways in which an election can be gamed apart from photo ID. In other words, if an individual, campaign, party, or superpac is determined to commit voter fraud, they will do so irrespective of a photo ID requirement.

If photo ID is really that big a deal to folks, (one person in MN contributed over a million bucks) it belongs in the regular legislative process, not in the constitution.

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Throw Money at a Problem and Hope it Goes Away

Back when I was a Republican, this is what I accused Democrats of doing. The thing is, its not just a Democrat thing. It now seems that throwing money and crossing ones fingers is an approach of both parties. Advocating greater govt investment in higher ed without addressing the structural problems that drive costs much higher than the cost of inflation is a clear example of throwing money from the Democrat side.The proverbial cut taxes, decrease regs is likewise pretty much just throwing money at the jobs problem…

The thing is, there is an element of truth in the throwing money approach… ie, it can work, especially in the short term, but it often has longer term unintended consequences. The most blatant and recent example is QE1, QE2, and likely soon to be QE3. From a success point of view, worldwide CDS exposure has shrunk big time, banks have recapitalized, and the stock market is nearly back to where it was in spring 2008. The problem of course is that quantitative easing is a bandaid, it buys time, but eventually it comes loose… If it provides enough time for the structural problems underneath to resolve themselves, it can be a very good thing.

From a Republican perspective, cutting taxes rather than govt spending provides for greater scaling. Ie, a dollar spent privately returns much more than a dollar spent by Uncle Sam. An analysis of post WWII tax policies and GDP states that for each 1% of a GDP tax increase, GDP will decrease somewhere between 2.5% and 3%. This is one of the big motivators behind GOP economic thinking… and is often mistakenly soundbited to mean that private investment outdoes govt spending 2.5:1 or more.

One could easily counter this, by simply considering the last decade. Had it not been for govt spending, the GDP would be in the toilet, and the jobs situation would be loads worse.

The bottom line of course is that many other factors are at play… if customers dont have money, whether cash or credit, it doesnt matter how much a business invests to try to get them to buy. Likewise, if a competitor can operate at a small percentage of ones fully burdened costs, no amount of investment or efficiency gains can make up for the difference.

Lastly, there is the issue of moral hazard. Throwing money at a problem may well serve to bolster a business as usual approach with no urgency to consider, much less address underlying structural problems. We see this with the reluctance to regulate creative financial products post bank bailout. We see it in higher ed with spiraling costs and a focus on luxury dorms and boatloads of overhead all the while teaching remains stagnant and tuition shoots through the roof.

So what is the answer? Money must continued to be thrown at problems in the short term, both by govt spending and minimal if any tax increases… not doing so would crash the GDP even worse than had nothing been done in 2008. Debt reduction needs to be addressed too, but over the long term or it too will crash the GDP. Bottom line, the unintended consequences and the moral hazards of throwing money must be addressed. Continuing with business as usual while waiting for some type of positive black swan to magically appear is not the answer.

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The Pharmacy and the Bridgeport

Some years back, a friend rented out an old pharmacy on a small towns mainstreet. He chose its location as the rent was super low due to the mass exodus of retail shops common to many small towns and the fact there was no basement under the rear part of the store. In fact, the rear of the store was merely a floor over a big cement slab… in other words, pull up the floor, and its perfect for a massive bridgeport mill.4727561752

It was pretty interesting, in that he left the drugstore signage in place, and pretty much did nothing as far as facility improvements. A pharmacy could have moved back in should he leave with no problems… other than putting down a floor over the base concrete in the back.

If memory serves, he spent 3 years in the pharmacy before having a building built to contain not only the single Bridgeport he started with, but 4 very large machining centers, an EDM machine, a couple 20 ton injection molding machines and warehouse and office space. A few years after that he had some 30 employees working 2 shifts cranking out parts left and right… it ended when an out of state corporation made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Today, it seems many firms want a custom building just for them right from the get go. It also seems govt also wants to go down that path by making the financial path of new construction a lot easier than merely making do with what one can find at any number of deserted main streets. Certainly a turn key buildings makes for one less headache for a startup to deal with, and likely is vastly more energy efficient than converted retail space to say nothing of the potential headaches of small town zoning / conditional use permits. Likewise, its politically an easy sell to provide construction jobs right now, rather than a spreadsheet projecting a need for employees down the road. Yet… is this really where government gets the best bang for a buck?

Most startup firms, especially ones pushing the envelope a bit are not going to make it. Is it better to have an govt funded albatross building which may sit unused for years even though it provided short term construction jobs? It might be better for govt to provide an easier path for startup firms, ie rather than providing construction loans or even seed funding.

If the govt is really serious about new firms, perhaps they should consider providing services to comply with the myriad of govt regs? In other words, let one part of govt duke it out with other parts of government on the part of the startup. Such would leave the startup fairly free to focus on their core function rather than appeasing agency after agency and form after form? This would have the added value, that when a business transitions from $100K in sales a year to $1 million, that all their initial regulatory ducks were in a row.

Business incubator programs typically focus on real estate… when often times boatloads of unoccupied real estate just sit there. Likewise, many startups get buried before they start with regulatory compliance overhead. Imagine if their was an incentive to hire the first 5-10 employees via fee reduction, or even exemption, rather than the 50% or more overhead added to each employee’s payroll cost?

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Credentialling is Bogus

I was doing some repair work on a printer, and I came across this dudes blog where he proceeds to shoot holes in credentials and certifications. He is 100% right on the mark with this…

Credentialling and licensing is the same stupidity that state government (often with GOP sponsors) keeps pushing towards for more and more occupations all the time. For sure, no one wants a bozo changing out medical gas cylinders… but I’m not sure that a multiple choice exam followed by each and every installer paying the state $30 every year is going to amount to a hill of beans safety wise.

The thing is, if one is really concerned about the hazards of an given occupation, the answer is not certification via multiple choice exams and huge gifts to credentialling outfits and testing firms. Likewise, the answer is not X numbers of hours of education, or a gift to some educational entity by requiring mandatory training that only they can provide…

The bottom line questions are “Can Joe safely and efficiently do the work entailed by X profession?” and secondly “Can Joe continue to do so year after year, especially as the profession changes. The challenge of course is finding this out in the most efficient way possible…

As it is right now, there is no carrot other than from competition for dollars, being the chosen educational provider gets lunch for free on fine china courtesy of politicians.

One way to force the issue would be to require bonding on the part of the educational institute, such that if Joe screws up, they have to eat the cost. Likewise, rather than paying the educational provider by the hour, tie their compensation to data driven measurements of Joe’s safety efficiency prior to the class, and then the efficiency gained post class over a 1 year period… Granted, in such a high stakes environment for the provider, a significant carrot would be required for them to take on such an approach. On the other hand, the status quo of Joe’s mere memorizing trivia and paying through the nose for a piece of paper is near useless and pretty darn expensive to boot. With huge risk, and a huge carrot, competition just might drive home really efficient and cost effective education rather than politicized money distribution disguised as education.

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Lower Taxes, Decrease Regs and Magic Happenswapo.st/rkS2YW

The majority of talking points on tv I’ve picked up from the GOP is lowered taxes, decreased regs, and its like magic, gas is cheap and unemployment is 5% overnight… Um sure.

Rather, I think the above path would mean a depression worse than 1929 in short order… I am not cynical enough to think that the GOP’s intent is the intentional destruction of USA, leaving it at third world 2.0 economic status. As such, there must be some logic, and some type of plan as to how that would play out successfully for all, or at least a significant number.

Such is what I asked a conservative friend, and the answer was that feedback from the free market thru pricing signals / supply / demand etc would solve many of the problems organically.

My response was that such assumes that the system is closed, that no alternatives exist, and that wealth is unlimited. Furthermore, I do agree that price signals make sense, that is until heavy duty manipulation enters into the ball game and renders them near useless.

I came up with the following counter arguments as to the free market, price signals, and a limit on wealth.

1. A competitor will come in and counter jacked up prices, thus mitigating their effect. This could work, but only if the market lead times were short enough for such to be viable. Ie, if I start a company today to compete with current or next gen Viagra, its going to take at least ten, if not twenty years or more before I can make any money off of it.

2. Over a very long period of time, the effects of price manipulation, and/or drastically shifting import/export mixes would ebb and flow such that they would average out. The net effect of this is that world prices for goods, materials, and labor equalize. Ie, all end up on a somewhat level playing field…. the exception being if we were to compete with a Keynes based economy.

3. Wealth is very much limited, in that many potential paths have such a high risk element combined with exceedingly low payback aspects that no investor in their right mind would enter the playing field. Case in point, our nations electrical grid has been in trouble for years… and yet nothing has really been done to address such, and likely nothing will be done until a massive section crashes and burns. The financials just dont make sense, as you cant predict when the system will collapse enough on a massive scale to justify a number of quarters of horrible returns.

By the same token, the conservatives are not entirely in error… the bit about lowered taxes can work, provided the taxes are high enough. Ie back in 70’s when taxes were nearly double what they are today, lower taxes could work. Otoh, when taxes are as low as they are today, debt is as high as it is, the Laffer models fall flat. People cant work enough to generate enough taxes… unless we switch to 80-120 hour work weeks.

There is some sweet spot between where we are today tax wise, and where we were in the 70’s. I think HW Bush had things pretty much right on the mark, and thus the economy did well during the Clinton era. We even had a surplus!

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The Immoral Nature of Not Raising the Debt Ceiling

BusinessWeek has a fascinating article entitled “The Debt Debate, What About Honor”. In a nutshell, the authors premise that an intentional failure to pay ones obligations was dishonorable, and that conservatives proposing such was counter to their core beliefs. As one might expect, being that honor/purity is a key aspect of conservative values, the negative feedback was pretty intense. More than a few commentors called it idiotic, and that they were cancelling their subscription etc.

Most of the comments said something like the following… “yes, we must pay our obligations, ie what we owe to the bondholders etc, but we must stop spending. You dont give more booze to a drunken sailor.” Such is a reasonable response, but it requires one to separate loan payments, from previously made contractual obligations.

If major retailer comes to a mfgr, and says, I’m placing an order for 100,000 widgets over the next year, and I will guarantee I will take all of them, and I will pay you 1/12th every month, irrespective of sales volumes… If the retailor has a great track record of honoring its obligations, the mfgr will add staff, inventory, etc and commit to the contract. Likewise, with such a guarantee, an operating line of credit to make such happen is pretty likely. If the retailor is a startup, or has a marginal track record, and offers no guarantee, no way no how would any mfgr do so, as all the risk is on their shoulders, and likewise, it would be near impossible to secure an operating line of credit.

The US govt has long held the stance of a reliable and secure retailer in the above example. If they say they are entering into a contract, and the go ahead is given, bailing on said contracts midstream is unthinkable. States depend on fed money, govt contractors depend on fed money, etc etc. The government has stood behind its contractual obligations, short of any specific outs written into the contract. For the govt to arbitrarily say… sorry guys, we decided not to pay you, as we dont want to, is unthinkable, and will cause untold amounts of damage throughout the system.

Imagine with all the schools starting in August, how many will be in real trouble if they recieve 56% or possibly quite a bit less federal money than what they were expecting. Imagine the sticky deals where schools are mandated to do abcdef by law, and yet will not recieve any funds to do so. Imagine the ripples in agriculture if all of a sudden all the subsidies and price supports evaporate overnight just as harvest time rolls onto the scene. Imagine the morale of our military when they only receive about half of their paycheck.

The bottom line issue is this… you dont show up at the vendor at 4:59PM the day the payment is due, and then say sorry, we dont want to pay you, as we’d need to get another loan, and dont want to do that. Rather, when you write the funding bills, you cut this, or cut that, and simply dont enter into any contracts you aren’t willing to pay for. Granted, on a practical level, it’s very difficult to cut any programs when putting the budget together, but such is the job politicians are elected for. If they dont, there is always another one wanting to step into the fray.

Contractual obligations which are life safety critical (bullets for soldiers, medicare payments for life support etc) should always be held at a higher priority than loan obligations, that is, if one truly values life in actions rather than just words. Creditors recieve interest in return for a risk of not being paid… the greater the risk, the greater the interest. Yes, in the ideal world, loan obligations would be honored, but if the govt has to pick and choose who to pay as they have no money at all, human life should rank much more than financial agreements.

Then again, the argument that the govt is out of money is a bogus one… taxes are at their lowest point in 50 years, and investors are more than willing to buy more debt. Yes, debt is too high, government spending is too high, and yes the spending spree does need to be reveresed, but it can and should be done with honor during the budgeting process, not by playing a fast one, and using a crisis to intentionally bail on ones committed obligations.

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