A day of discussion

My first order of business in the morning was to prop my folding chair out in the sunlight of the motel parking lot and attend the weekly work status meeting.  It went alright, but I had less progress to report than I wanted, so I silently promised myself that I would find a way to add more downtime to the schedule.

Afterwards I started researching online, and hatched a plan to spend a bunch more days in Shattuck and use a U-Haul to get us from there to Fort Worth, rather than biking all the way.  The journey to Shattuck was the important part of the trip, and I knew from experience that rushing to cover more ground would not enhance things overall.

Once Nick was awake I suggested we ride to the cute little downtown section of Dalhart and get mochas at the coffee shop.  He was all over that, and soon we were seated at a tiny table outside the shop with our bikes parked nearby, sipping caffeine and talking animatedly about the trip, and the terrain, and politics.

Drinking mochas and discussing politics.

I found a nifty sticker at the counter, and slapped it onto Valoria:

A new sticker for the bike!

Nick and I were both impressed by the fact that we could travel so far across the country and be among people we had never met before, but still feel like we were part of the same civilization.  We did have some sense of being outsiders, but a far stronger sense that we were moving among people that shared the same national identity and would sooner fight alongside us than against us.  And vice-versa, of course.

Me:
“I wonder if there’s a geographical difference that makes for stability in this country.”
Nick:
“Totally. There’s so much land. If you don’t like what’s going on around you, you can just move to another state. And we have a lot of natural resources and technology here…”
Me:
“That’s how it is. But that doesn’t say how it got started.”
Nick:
“I think it started because everyone was leaving places that were taking away their rights and their stuff.”
Me:
“Well, we got an influx of immigrants starting a new life, working hard, lots of land for them to go play in – more or less – and an economic system with very little support structure, so they had a chance but they had to work for it or they’d just … die. And a lot of people did die. But, the threat of death is quite a motivator. Maybe that’s part of the secret sauce for this nation: If you don’t pull your weight to some degree – either by feeding yourself or by making money to buy food – you could just die.”
Nick:
“I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”
Me:
“Maybe. I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s a strong motivator, but like I said, a lot of people just died. Sometimes they screwed up, but sometimes it was just something went wrong in the economy far away and they lost their money or their land. There should be a support system. People shouldn’t starve in the streets, in a country that can make a surplus of food and water and medicine.”
Nick:
“Well, we can get rid of some of the unfairness. Level out the opportunities in our institutions at least. And then we can talk about safety nets.”
Me:
“A more level playing field would certainly help. Then people might not fall into the place where the safety net needs to be.”
Nick:
“So, maybe you set up the safety net, and then use all the money being spent on the safety net as the motivator to fix the institutions. You tell everyone, ‘Hey, if these people really had a shot, we wouldn’t need this net to be so big.'”
Me:
“That’s an interesting idea. It pushes back against the people who resent paying for any kind of safety net because they’re judging all the people who fall into it, like, ‘If you fell into the net you’re obviously just not a hard worker.'”
Nick:
“Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
Me:
“I like it — directly linking the unfairness of the system to the need for the safety net. Because yeah, paying that money to feed people who don’t have jobs or a place to stay is not ideal, but instead of blaming the people in the net, this changes the focus to all the rich people on the hill moving resources around in a way that deprives other people of opportunity. So if we want to shrink the net, we might want to march up the hill and change things for the rich people – change the rules of the economy, patch a few holes – and then the net will get smaller.”
Nick:
“Yeah, maybe something like a wealth cap would be a good idea. Like, let people earn as much as they can right up until they hit that cap, and then say, ‘Hey, good job, you won at capitalism! Well done! Now, you clearly don’t need the rest of this, so we’re gonna tax the rest off and send it directly to the social safety net.’ Or, I dunno, public schools or something.”
Me:
“Here’s a problem with that. I don’t know for certain but I’m fairly sure that all of the people these days who are super rich got rich through the increase in valuation of a company that they had a big stake in.”
Nick:
“Ah. Yeah, that’s not liquid is it. We can’t just take it.”
Me:
“Exactly. Their wealth is tied up in the valuation of this other thing, so it’s kind of fragile. Like, Jeff Bezos is the richest guy in the world because he owns 50 million shares of Amazon, but if the government told him he had to sell 190 billion dollars worth of that and hand it to a national school lunch program, what would a move like that do to the value of Amazon? That’s like 10 percent of the company. Dump that on the market and you might cause everyone else’s portfolio to slump, even day-traders who could really be hurt. So, it gets complicated. And you can’t quite work around that by saying that it should be gradually applied – that Bezos should have been selling his stock in chunks every year just to stay under the cap – because the stock market is honestly not grounded in reality. A company could do an IPO and turn a bunch of middle-class employees into multi-millionaires overnight, and then drop them back into the middle class a week later when the stock tanks, and if those people aren’t careful they could suddenly owe more money in taxes than they’ll ever be able to pay. It’s smoke and mirrors.”
Nick:
“Hm. I don’t know what to do about that. It does seems unfair. But there’s also money coming from the other direction that we can put a stop to. Like, oil companies and rocket companies are getting huge amounts of government assistance. Amazon took advantage of a bunch of grant money. That’s taxes on everybody’s wages, being used to finance the biggest companies in the world. That makes no sense.”
Me:
“Yeah, you’re right. But I’m still mostly annoyed by this valuation thing. It seems like the biggest loophole in the whole economy, that one person can ride a valuation up into billionaire-land, and thousands of other people who worked at least as hard building that company don’t get any of it.”
Nick:
“Well they still got paid. Just not with stock.”
Me:
“Sure, sure. And there are investors involved, taking risks, and so on. But it’s the relative difference that bugs me.”
Nick:
“You know, I read somewhere that Jeff Bezos is actually considered to be the “lowest class” of billionaire because he hasn’t diversified. Like, compare him to Bill Gates, who not only diversified, but now he’s actively trying to give away his wealth to good causes. Bill Gates is … really rich. He set up a lot of stuff for his descendants, and all that. He moved a lot of his money around and he’s still rich, which is hard. And then there’s the rich people who are royalty, like, the great grandsons of kings from some other country who just own huge amounts of land. It would take, like, a massive revolution for them to stop being rich.”
Me:
“Like the Saudi princes and such?”
Nick:
“Yeah, and English dukes.”
Me:
“The Earl of Poopington? Lord High Moneychunks, et cetera?”
Nick:
“Right. Or even the ones in America, like the Rockefellers, or the people whose names you don’t even know, who want to stay unknown because it’s easier for them.”
Me:
“But is there really a connection, I wonder? Between how many rich people are around, riding high on the system, and how big the social safety net needs to be to keep people from dying?”
Nick:
“Well it’s probably more complicated than a ratio. But I think more rich people brings more potential for abuse.”
Me:
“Or evidence of it. I bet Amazon is valued so highly right now exactly because of all the business it has displaced — all the other smaller stores it crushed or bought or starved out of existence.”
Nick:
“Yeah. Too bad people love getting their crap in two days so much.”

The discussion ranged on.  Nick told me a really interesting summary of the Spanish-American war, and how that led to our relationship with Cuba, and how it helped to turn Spain inward and keep them as one of the less prosperous counties in Western Europe.  It astonished me how many facts were crammed into his head that I would never have known about because we spend most of our time talking about computers, memes, video games, and flatulence.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those topics!

We rode back to the motel and quietly attended to our work and projects. Eventually we got hungry again, and decided to avoid another night of hamburgers and hit the Chinese place instead.

When we got there we discovered that the lobby was closed and there was nowhere to sit outside. Just as well since it was cold already. We walked up to an open window and submitted a giant order, then stood around waiting.

We noticed a guy standing in the middle lane of the road, next to a massive truck stacked with cylinders of cotton. Was he having engine trouble and waiting for some kind of support vehicle? As soon as we picked up our food we had the answer: He walked up to the window after us and got his own massive order, then hauled it up into his truck and merged it slowly into the traffic. In retrospect it made sense: Where the else was he going to park that massive thing? It was longer than the whole parking lot for the Chinese restaurant.

He says this is part of a stretching routine he does regularly.

Later in the evening I had a hankering for ice cream – gotta keep pouring in the calories – so we rode out again for snacks. I also grabbed a heap of home-made potato chips for the next day’s riding.

A little Star Trek while you ride? Why not.

THE QUOTABLE NICK, #5

Nick, surrounded by luggage on his bed, begins to clear it off by shoving everything onto the floor with his fists.

Nick:
“I’m using cat-style bed clearing techniques.”

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