Black folks have no savings (poor whites too)

The wealth of the mean American household has dropped significantly since 2007, a result of the general de-industrialization of America. It’s not that America has gotten poorer, but in the last 8 years we’ve increased the economic divide, enriching the richest few percent while leaving behind the working and bourgeoise classes. We are beginning to come back, but a particularly nasty legacy remains, especially among black families. Some 47% of black families have no liquid savings  — a far greater fraction than in 2007. The lack of savings also appears in white families (19%), and Hispanics (41%), but it’s most desperate among blacks.

College graduation rates have increased among black students, and along with the increase there has been an increase in salaries, but savings have declined. As of 2015, 22.5% of black students and 15.5% of Hispanic students had completed four years of college. This compares to 36.2% of white students, an inequality, but not a horrible one. By 2013, the average salary of a black college grad was somewhat over $1000/week, somewhat less than the average for whites, but enviable compared to the world as whole. The problem is that black workers manage to save very little compared to other ethnic groups, and compared to previous savings rates as shown by the graphic below. By 2013, the net worth of the median black family (savings, plus paid-off part of home and car) was a mere $11,000 (Pew Research Data, below), down from $19,200 six years earlier, and much lower than the net worth of white families (also down since 2007). Liquid savings among blacks are much lower — near zero — and this is just the mean. Half of all black families are doing worse.

Net worth disparity 2007 - 2011. Black folks are doing poorly and it's getting worse.

Net worth disparity 2007 – 2011. Black folks are doing poorly and it’s getting worse.

The combination of low savings and low net worth puts black folks at a distinct disadvantage to their condition six years earlier. Without savings, it is near-impossible to weather the loss of a job, or even to fix a car or pay a ticket, Surviving through a disease is basically a one-way ticket to the welfare office. Six years ago, when people saved more and prices were lower, problems like these were major annoyances. Now, a job loss or a major repair is a family disaster.

The growth of check-cashing services in black neighborhoods is a symptom, I suspect, of the lack of liquidity. A person without savings will not have a checking account. As such, he or she will not have a credit card or check cashing privileges.  The only way to cash a check will be via a for-fee service, and these tend to come at a steep cost (2-5%). People with savings accounts can cash checks essentially for free, and can usually borrow money by way of a credit card. People without savings can’t get approved. Black people and poor whites tend to use debit cards instead. They look and work like credit cards, but they incur fees upon use, and do not provide instant loans. When black folks and poor whites need quick cash, their options are the loan-shark or the pawn shop: high-cost options that take a giant toll on the family.

As mentioned above, black individuals and families have lower incomes than whites at all education levels. While racism, no-doubt plays a role, as best I can tell, the largest single cause seems to be family stability. Employed, college-educated blacks earn, on average, 95% as much as employed, college-educated whites — not great, but not bad. The real problem with black income is that black unemployment rates are higher, black education rates are lower, and single-parent families are significantly more common among blacks than among whites and Orientals. Roughly 40% of black families are single-mother, or mother+grandparent households compared to “only” 26% in the population generally. In both populations, the number of single parent households have increased dramatically in the last few years, a result I suspect of the government’s desire to help. The government gives more aid to a split-up couple than to one that stays together, but the aid brings with it long-term damage to net worth. A family with one parent will naturally have a lower-income and savings rate than a family with two. The lack of stability and savings that comes from having a single parent family, I suspect, has contributed to crime, births out-of-wedlock, and the tendency of blacks to drop out of college.

Black families don't benefit as much from college --in part a result of the choice of courses.

Black families don’t benefit much from college –in part a result of course choices, in part the result of borrowing. (Forbes, 2015).

One finds that do-gooders in the white communities want to eliminate check cashing businesses and pawn shops in a misguided desire to help the low-income neighborhoods, but the success of these companies tell me that they are needed. Though check services and pawn brokers take a nasty bite, urban life would be much worse without them, I suspect.

Another so-called solution of the do-gooders, is to tax savings and transfer the wealth to the poor. This form of wealth redistribution has been a cornerstone of the Democratic party for the last century. The idea of the tax is that it will transfer “idle wealth” from rich savers to poor folks who will spend it immediately. The problem is that great swathes of the nation don’t save at all currently; net worth is down all across the US — among white and black families both. Taxing savings will almost-certainly reduce the savings rate even further. Besides, savings are the stuff of self-determination and dreams — far more than spending, it is savings that allows a person to start a new business. One does not provide for the dreams of one group by taking them from another — particularly another group chosen to be immediate spenders. That is a route to community disaster, is seen by looking at Detroit.

As it is, many poor, inner city children do not see a path out via education. Detroit school attendance hovers around 50%, and business startups are lacking. As best inner city people can tell, the only ways out are sports, music, prostitution, crime, and the church. With higher savings rates and higher family stability, folks could start businesses, and/or take advantage of job opportunities that come along. People seem to think that wealth redistribution should help, but it just seems to reduce savings and family stability. Every effort to increase wealth redistribution only seems to make things worse in Detroit.  It sometimes seems that the only businesses in Detroit are check cashing, pawn brokers, churches, hair-salons, fast food, and medical marijuana — businesses that require little investment, but provide little community return too. Detroit has lost its manufacturing center, and now has more medical marijuana providers than groceries — a sad state of affairs.

The Check cashing services of south-eastern MI are concentrated in poor black and white neighborhoods.

The Check cashing services of south-eastern MI are concentrated in poor black and white neighborhoods.

In 2016, both presidential candidates touted major infrastructure projects, highways and the like, to help the inner city poor. In principle this can help, but I have my doubts. One basis of doubt: inner city youth do not have the training to build roads and bridges — they have barely the training to work at McDonald’s. For another thing, if the project itself isn’t needed, it becomes another form of income redistribution. There tends to be a lack of pride in doing it well, and the benefits are basically nothing. A major war could provide jobs, of course, but most sane people prefer peace. Trump has made the case for tariffs (closing off free trade) as a way to rebuild the industrial center of cities like Detroit. It’s an approach that I think has merit. He’s also suggested closing the border to low-wage, Mexican workers, and recently signed a bill that raised the minimum wage for foreign workers. This is expected to raise the price of California lettuce and NY hotel stays, but is likely to increase employment among low-skill Americans — blacks and poor whites. Small steps, I think, to solving a serious national problem.

Robert E. Buxbaum, April 21, 2017. I ran for water commissioner 2016 (Republican). I lost. I also have some infrastructure suggestions, including daylighting some rivers and adding weirs to improve water quality and stop flooding. If you like my ideas (or don’t) please provide comments.

pee in the shower and other water savers

Do you want to save the planet and save money at the same time? Here are some simple tips:

The first money and planet saver, is to pee in the shower. For those who don’t have a lawn, or who don’t water, your single biggest water cost is likely the toilet. Each person in your household will use it several times per day, at roughly 1.6 gallons per flush. In Oak Park, Michigan the cost of water is 1.5¢/gallon, so each flush costs you, roughly 2.5¢. If you pee in the shower every morning, you’ll save yourself about one flush per day, or 2.5¢. Over the course of a year you’ll have used about 500 gallons less, and will have saved yourself somewhere between $5 and $10. Feel good about yourself every morning; the effort involved is truly minimal.

Related to peeing in the shower, I should mention that many toilets leak. A significant part of your water bill can often be cut by replacing the “flapper valve on the inside of your toilet tank, and/or by cleaning the needle fill valve. To see if you need this sort of help, put a few drops of food dye in the toilet when you leave in the morning. If the color is largely gone by the time you get back, the toilet is leaking the equivalent of a few volumes per day, that is at least as much water as is flushed. If the color goes faster, or you hear the tank refill when no one used it, you’re leaking more. Check the flapper and replace it if it’s worn — it’ll cost about $3 — and check the needle-fill valve. They don’t work forever. Cleanliness is near godliness.

Mulch is good, this is too much concentrated by the tree trunk. Use only 2 inches and spread it out to save water and weeding.

Mulch is good, this is too much concentrated by the tree trunk. Use only 2-3 inches and spread it out from the trunk to save water and weeding without attracting bugs.

If your valve is leaking and you decide to replace it, you may want to replace with a variable flush valve. Typically, there are two options: a big vale for big flush (1.6 gal) and a small valve for small flush (1 gal or less). These are widely used in Europe. You can make up for this cost rather quickly at 1.5¢/gallon.

The next big issue is lawn-care. If you water your lawn and flowers daily, you’ve likely noticed that you pay about $300/month for water in the summer: a lot more than in the winter, or than your lazes-faire neighbor in the summer. Every $150 of summer-excess, water bill you pay represents about 10,000 gallons applied to your lawn. That’s a cubic foot, or 1¢ to 2¢ of water applied per ft2 per month for typical watering. While many sites advise that you can save by adding a rain barrel, I disagree. Rain barrels are costly, ugly, and are a lot of work ago plumb in. And each barrel only holds 55 gallons of water, 82¢ worth when full. You do a lot better, IMHO by putting down an inch or two of mulch around your flowers and vegetables. This mulch requires no work and will keep you from needing to water these areas for the 3-4 days after every rainfall. A layer of 1″ to 2″ will help your soil hold 0.5 to 1 gallon of water per square foot. At typical prices of mulch and water, this will pay for itself in 1-2 years and will help you avoid weeding. Mulch is a far better return than the rain-barrels that are often touted, and there’s far less effort involved. Buy the mulch, not the barrel, but don’t put down too more than 2″ on flowers and vegetable. Trees can take 3 -4″; don’t use more. Avoid a mulch mountain right next to a tree, it causes the roots to grow weird, and provides a home for bugs and undesirable anaerobic molds.

A little more work than the above is to add a complete rain garden or bioswale. Build it at the bottom of any large incline on your property, where the water runs off (It’s likely a soggy swamp already). Dig the area deeper and put, at the bottom of the hole, a several-inch layer of mulch and gravel. Top it off with the soil you just removed, ideally raising the top high enough that, if the rain garden should fill, the water will run off to the street. Plant in the soil at the top long-rooted grasses, or flowers, vegetables, or water-tolerant trees. You may want to direct the water from your home’s sump pump here too (It can help to put a porous pipe at the bottom to distribute this water). If you do this right, you’ll get vegetables or trees and you won’t have to water the garden, ever. Also, you’ll add value to your property by removing the swampy eyesore. You’ll protect your home too, since a major part of home flooding comes from the water surge of sump water to the sanitary sewer.

Robert E. Buxbaum, April 14, 2017. I ran for water commissioner, Oakland County, MI, Nov. 2016. Among my other thoughts: increased retention to avoid flooding, daylighting rivers, and separating the sanitary from the storm sewers. As things stand, the best way to save money on water– get the same deal the state gave to Nestle/ Absopure: they pay only $200/year to pump 200 gal/minute. That is, they pay only 1/3000 of what you and I pay. It helps to have friends in government.

Taxes and accounting jokes

A friend called the other day asking about a financial matter. It seems his wife bought some pictures for  pictures a few days ago for $2000, and after having them apprised, she finds they’re worth $2,000,000.

I started talking about un-realized profits, and mentioned that I never imagined that his wife had such an eye for art. He said, they’re not art pictures, exactly; they’re of you discussing business with the Russians. (It’s a joke — I thought you-all might depreciate it).taxation with representation

—————

When I started my business, I found that you could deduct medical costs. I called the IRS and asked if I could deduct birth control. They told me: “only if it doesn’t work.”

—————

I’m glad I learned about parallelograms in school, instead something mundane, like taxes. It’s really come in handy this parallelogram season.

—————–

I got a robo-call asking me to press “1” to hear about a government program for those who wanted to avoid paying back taxes. I did, and a voice said “Leavenworth.”   It wasn’t much of a program, more of a sentence.

—————-

Robert E. Buxbaum, April 5, 2017.  For jokes on other topics, click the jokes tag, here.

The argument for free trade is half sound

In 1900, the average tariff on imported goods was 27.4% and there was no income tax. Import tariffs provided all the money to run the US government and there was no minimum wage law. The high tariffs kept wage rates from falling to match those in the 3rd world. Currently, the average tariff is near-zero: 1.3%. There is a sizable income tax and a government income deficit; minimum wage laws are used to prop up salaries. Most economists claim we are doing things right now, and that the protective tariffs of the past were a mistake. Donald Trump claimed otherwise in his 2016 campaign. Academic economists are appalled, and generally claim he’s a fool, or worse. The argument they use to support low tariffs was made originally by Adam Smith (1776): “It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy…. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry.” As a family benefits from low cost products, a country must too. Why pay more?  How stupid would you have to be to think otherwise?

A cartoon from Puck 1911. Do you cut tariffs, and if so how much. High tariffs provide high wages and expensive prices for the consumer. Low tariffs lead to cheap products and low wages. Uncle Sam is confused.

A cartoon from Puck, 1911. Should tariffs be cut, and if so, how much. High tariffs provide high prices and high wages. Low tariffs lead to low prices for the consumer, but low wages. Uncle Sam is confused.

Of course, a country is not a family, and it is clear that some people will benefit more from cheap products, others less, and some folks will even suffer. Consumers and importers benefit, while employees generally do not. They are displaced from work, or find they must compete with employees in very low wage countries, and often with child labor or slave labor. The cartoon at right shows the conundrum. Uncle Sam holds a knife labeled “Tariff Revision” trying to decide where to cut. Any cut that helps consumers hurts producers just as much. Despite the cartoon, it seems to me there is likely a non-zero tariff rate that does not slow trade too much, but still provides revenue and protects American jobs.

A job-protecting tariff was part of the Republican platform from Lincoln’s time, well into the 20th century, and part of the Whig platform before that. Democrats, especially in the south, preferred low tariffs, certainly no more than needed to provide money for government operation. That led to a diminution of US tariffs, beginning in the mid- 1800s, first for US trade with developed countries, and eventually with third world as well. By the 1930s, we got almost no government income from tariffs, and almost all from an ever-larger income tax. After WWII low tariff reductions became a way to promote world stability too: our way of helping the poor abroad get on their feet again. In the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump challenged this motivation and the whole low-tariff approach as anti- American (amor anti America-first). He threatened to put a 35% tariff on cars imported from Mexico as a way to keep jobs here, and likely to pay for the wall he claimed he would build as president. Blue-collar workers loved this threat, whether they believed it or not, and they voted Republican to an extent not seen in decades. Educated, white collar folks were uniformly appalled at Trump’s America-first insensitivity, and perhaps (likely) by the thought that they might have to pay more for imported goods. As president, Trump re-adjusted his threat to 20%, an interesting choice, and (I suspect) a good one.

The effect of a 20% tariff can be seen better, I think, by considering a barter-economy between two countries, one developed, one not: Mexico and the US, say with an without a 20% tax. Assume these two countries trade only in suits and food. In the poor country, the average worker can make either 4 suits per month or 200 lbs of food. In the developed country, workers produce either 10 suits or 1000 lbs of food. Because it’s a barter economy with a difference in production, we expect that, in the poor country, a suit costs 50 lbs of food; in the rich country, 100 lbs of food. There is room here to profit by trade.

The current state of tariffs world-wide. Quite a few countries have tariffs much higher than ours. Among those, Mexico.

Tariffs world-wide. While we put no tax on most imported products, while much of the world taxes our products rather heavily.

With no tariff, totally free trade, an importer will find he can make a profit bringing 100 lbs of US food to Mexico to trade for 2 suits. He can return two suits to the US having gotten his two suits at the price of one, less the cost of transport, lawyers, and middlemen (relatively low). Some US suit-makers will suffer, but the importer benefits immediately, and eventually US consumers and Mexican suit workers will benefit too. Eventually, US suit prices will go down, and Mexican wages up, We will have cheaper suits and will shift production to produce what we make best —  food.

In time, we can expect that an American suit maker will move his entire production to Mexico bringing better equipment and better management. Under his hand, lets assume his Mexican workers make 6 suits per month. The boss can now pay them better, perhaps 100 lbs of food and two suits per month. He still makes a nice profit, more than before: he ships two suits to the US to buy the 200 lbs of food, and retains now two suits as profit. Hillary Clinton believed this process was irreversible. “Those jobs are gone and they’re not coming back,” her campaign told CNN. She claimed she’d retrain the jobless “for the jobs of the future” and redistribute the wealth of the rich, a standard plank of the democratic platform since 1896. But for several reasons industrial voters didn’t trust her. Redistribution of wealth rarely works because, for example, the manufacturer can keep his profits off-shore, as many do.

While a very high tariff would stop all trade, but lets see what would happen with Trump’s 20% tariff. With a 20% tariff, when the first two suits come to the US, we extract 0.4 suits in tax revenue, but nothing on export. The importer still makes a profit, but it’s now 0.6 suits, the equivalent of 60 lbs of food. He can sell his suits for less than the American, but not quite as much less. If the manufacturer moves to Mexico he makes more money than by trade alone, but not quite as much. Tax is still collected on every suit brought to America — now 20% of the 3 suits per Mexican worker that the Boss must export. The American worker’s wages are depressed but he/she isn’t forced to compete with the Mexican dollar-for-dollar (suit for suit). In barter terms, he isn’t required to make 6 suits for every 100 lbs of food.lincoln-national-bank-internal-improvements-tariffs

Repeating the above for different tax rates, we find that, in the above fictional economy a 50% tariff in the maximum to allow any trade (or the minimum rate to stop trade completely): the first two suits might enter; but they’d be taxed at one suit, just enough to pay for the 100 lbs of food. There would be no profit for the importer, and he/she would stop importing. At 50% tariff, we would get no new goods, and we’d collect no new revenue – a bad situation. Lincoln’s “protective tariffs” of 1861 may have contributed to Southern succession and the start of the civil war. While there is a benefit to trade, it seems to me that some modest tariff (10%, 20%) is better for us — a conclusion that Trump seems to have intuited, and that many other countries seem to have come to, too (see map-chart above). As for the academic economists, I note that they also predicted that stock market crash should Trump be elected; it’s gone nearly straight up since November 8, 2016. For experts on money, I find that most economists are not rich.

Robert E. Buxbaum, March 27, 2017. I learned such economics as I have from my one course in economics, plus comic books like the classic “Once upon a dime” produced by the New York Federal Reserve. Among the lessons learned: that money is a distraction, just a more convenient way to carry around a suit, 100 lbs of food, or a month of work. If you want to understand economics, I think it helps to work things out in terms of barter. As

Global warming and the president’s Resolute desk

In the summer of 2016, the Crystal Serenity, a cruse ship passed through the Northwest passage, going from the Pacific to the Atlantic above the Canadian arctic circle. It was a first for a cruise ship, but the first time any modern ship made the passage, it was wooden and unmanned — the British rescue ship, Resolute, 162 years ago. The wood from this ship was used to make the desk used by the last four presidents, and thereby hangs a tale of good global warming, IMHO.

President Trump meets with college presidents at the Resolute desk. Originally the front had portraits of Queen Victoria and President Hayes. Those are gone; the eagle on the front is an addition, as is the bottom stand.

President Trump meets with college presidents at the Resolute desk. Originally the front had portraits of Queen Victoria and President Hayes. Those are gone; the eagle on the front is an addition, as is the bottom stand. The desk is now 2″ taller than originally. 

The world today is warmer than it was in 1900. But, what is not generally appreciated is that, in 1900 the world was warmer than In 1800; that in 1800 it was warmer than in 1700; and that, in 1640, it was so cold there were regular fairs on the frozen river Themes. By the 1840s there were enough reports of global warming that folks in England thought the northwest passage might have opened at last. In 1845 the British sent two ships, the Erebus and the Terror into the Canadian Arctic looking for the passage. They didn’t make it. They and their crews were lost and not seen again until 2014. In hopes of finding them though, the US and Britain sent other ships, including the Resolute under the command of captain Edward Belcher.

The Resolute was specially made to withstand the pressure of ice. Like the previous ships, and the modern cruise ship, it entered the passage from the Pacific during the peak summer thaw. Like the ships before, the Resolute and a partner ship got stuck in the ice — ice that was not quite stationary, but nearly so, The ships continued to move with the ice, but at an unbearably slow pace. After a year and a half captain Belcher had moved a few hundred miles, but had had enough. He abandoned his ships and walked out of Canada to face courts martial in England (English captains were supposed to “go down with the ship”). But the ice continued to move, and the ships moved with it. The other ship sank, but the Resolute passed through to the Atlantic on its own, with no captain or crew. She was the first ship in recorded history to make the passage — something that would not happen again for 100 years, when the Nautilus nuclear submarine did it under the ice.

In September, 1855, the ghost-ship, Resolute was found by captain Buddington of the American whaler, George Henry. She was floating, unmanned about 1200 miles from where captain Belcher had abandoned her. According to the law of the sea, she belonged to the finders to use as they saw fit. But the US was inching to war with Britain, an outgrowth of the Crimean war. Franklin Pierce thought to return the ship as a sign of friendship — to break the ice, as it were. A proposal for funds was presented to congress and passed; the ship was bought, towed to the Brooklyn Navy yard, refitted, and returned to Britain as a gift. The gift may have worked: war with Britain was averted, and seized Russo-American property was returned. Then again, Britain aided the confederacy in the Civil War. Either way, it was a notable ship, and when it was broken up, Parliament decided to have two desks made of its timbers. One was presented to President Hayes, the other to Queen Victoria. One of these friendship desks now sits the British Naval museum at Portsmouth; its American cousin sits in the Oval office used by Donald Trump. It has been used in The White-house by Coolidge, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama before him — a reminder that global warming can be good, in both senses. If you are interested in the other presidents’ desks, I wrote a brief review of them here.

As for the reason for the global warming of the mid 1800s, It seems that climate is chaotic. I have proposed that we make a more-permanent northwest passage by cutting thorough one of the islands in northern Canada. If you want to travel the Northwest passage in 2017, the cruise is sold out.

Robert Buxbaum, March 16, 2017.

Arrested for decriminalized possession

The arrest rate for marijuana is hardly down despite widespread decriminalization, but use is up. decriminalization, but use is up. A rate that exceeds that for all violent crime.

Despite years of marijuana decriminalization, arrest rates for marijuana are up from 20-25 years ago, and hardly down from last year. Why?

There are a couple of troubling patterns in US drug arrests. For one, though marijuana has been decriminalized in much of the USA, marijuana arrest rates are hardly down from five years ago, and higher than 20-30 years ago — see graph at right. Besides that, it’s still mostly black-people and Latinos arrested. And the crime is, 4/5 the of the time, drug possession, not sale.

At the same time that violent crime rates are falling, marijuana possession arrests are rising (see graph below). Currently, according to FBI statistics,  more people are arrested for marijuana possession than for all violent crime combined. You’d expect it would not be this way, and a question I’d like to explore is why. But first, let’s look at more data. I note that part of an explanation is that marijuana use is up (18% in 2015 vs 12% in 1990). This still doesn’t explain the racial imbalance but it could explain the general rise. Marijuana isn’t quite legal, and if use is up, you’d expect arrests to be up. But even here, something is fishy: use rates are the same as in 1980, 35+ years ago in the midst of the “war on drugs,” but arrest rates have more than doubled since. Why? Take New York City as an example, 17,762 people were arrested for low-level marijuana possession in 2016 (smoking in public or possession of 25 gm to 2 oz). The low-level arrest rate is twice the national average in this Democratic-bastion city, where the drug was decriminalized years ago. Arrest rates in NYC went up an additional 10% in 2016, with black people arrested at 11 times the rate of white people. How could this be?

The race discrepancy of arrests persists across the US. Though black citizens use drugs only 15% or so more often than whites, and make up only 13% of the US population, they are arrested for drugs about three times as often and incarcerated about 4 times as often. It’s mostly for marijuana possession too, and the discrepancy varies very strongly by location In Louisiana, Illinois, and New York City arrests are particularly weighted to people of color. When New York City police precinct captains were asked about this, they explained that their instructions come from above. It’s a curious answer, I’d say, reflecting perhaps their dislike of the mayor.

Drug arrests are mostly for possession, not sale, and the spread is rising.

Drug arrests are mostly for possession, not sale and the spread is rising. More than half the time, it’s marijuana.

One of the race-affecting instructions is that the police are instructed to patrol black neighborhoods, but not the student unions of majority-white colleges like NYU. They’re mandated to stop and search junky cars but not nice ones, and to search people who have outstanding parking tickets, but not generally. They even get raises that depend on the number of tickets given, a practice that does not lead to a pattern of looking the other way — one many New Yorkers would prefer. Another issue: in many states, including New York, the police can keep money or cars, if they can claim that the asset was purchased with drug money or used in the drug trade. This leads to a practice where the city budget benefits when the police arrest persons they don’t expect will be convicted. It’s a practice called civil asset forfeiture, one lampooned, on Last Week Tonight, but jealously guarded. Since it is near impossible to prove that the money or car was not used in any way illegally, once they arrest someone, the police can expect to keep his or her money or cars indefinitely. The annoyance of lawyers perhaps encourages the arrest of people who do not seem to have them — people of color. New York mayor deBlassio justifies his arrests as a way to protect the neighborhoods, as his version of former mayor, Guilliani’s broken window approach. Maybe. But I think the profit motive is at least as relevant.

drug arrests hit black folks a lot more than white

Drug arrests hit black folks a lot more than white.

I note that strict justice tends to land hardest on the poor and defenseless. I also note that many important people have used marijuana without it damaging their lives in any obvious way. Both Jeb! Bush and Bill Clinton claimed to have smoked it; as did Barak Obama, Al Gore, and the Beatles. My bottom line: while marijuana decriminalization is worthwhile, it must go along with the repeal of civil asset forfeiture laws, and other means that make arrests into profit centers – or so it appears to me. Otherwise we’ll keep on flushing lives down the drain for no good reason.

Robert Buxbaum, March 6, 2017. I’ve previously blogged about the structure of criminal sentencing, coming to conclude that the least strict sentence that does the job is to be preferred. I also ran for water commissioner in 2016.

The hydrogen jerrycan

Here’s a simple invention, one I’ve worked on off-and-on for years, but never quite built. I plan to work on it more this summer, and may finally build a prototype: it’s a hydrogen Jerry can. The need to me is terrifically obvious, but the product does not exist yet.

To get a view of the need, imagine that it’s 5-10 years in the future and you own a hydrogen, fuel cell car. You’ve run out of gas on a road somewhere, per haps a mile or two from the nearest filling station, perhaps more. You make a call to the AAA road-side service and they show up with enough hydrogen to get you to the next filling station. Tell me, how much hydrogen did they bring? 1 kg, 2 kg, 5 kg? What did the container look like? Is there one like it in your garage?

The original, German "Jerry" can. It was designed at the beginning of WWII to help the Germans to overrun Europe.

The original, German “Jerry” can. It was designed at the beginning of WWII to help the Germans to overrun Europe. I imagine the hydrogen version will be red and roughly these dimensions, though not quite this shape.

I figure that, in 5-10 years these hydrogen containers will be so common that everyone with a fuel cell car will have one, somewhere. I’m pretty confident too that hydrogen cars are coming soon. Hydrogen is not a total replacement for gasoline, but hydrogen energy provides big advantages in combination with batteries. It really adds to automotive range at minimal cost. Perhaps, of course this is wishful thinking as my company makes hydrogen generators. Still it seems worthwhile to design this important component of the hydrogen economy.

I have a mental picture of what the hydrogen delivery container might look like based on the “Jerry can” that the Germans (Jerrys) developed to hold gasoline –part of their planning for WWII. The story of our reverse engineering of it is worth reading. While the original can was green for camouflage, modern versions are red to indicate flammable, and I imagine the hydrogen Jerry will be red too. It must be reasonably cheap, but not too cheap, as safety will be a key issue. A can that costs $100 or so does not seem excessive. I imagine the hydrogen Jerry can will be roughly rectangular like the original so it doesn’t roll about in the trunk of a car, and so you can stack a few in your garage, or carry them conveniently. Some folks will want to carry an extra supply if they go on a long camping trip. As high-pressure tanks are cylindrical, I imagine the hydrogen-jerry to be composed of two cylinders, 6 1/2″ in diameter about. To make the rectangular shape, I imagine the cylinders attached like the double pack of a scuba diver. To match the dimensions of the original, the cylinders will be 14″ to 20″ tall.

I imagine that the hydrogen Jerry can will have at least two spouts. One spout so it can be filled from a standard hydrogen dispenser, and one so it can be used to fill your car. I suspect there may be an over-pressure relief port as well, for safety. The can can’t be too heavy, no more than 33 lbs, 15 kg when full so one person can handle it. To keep the cost and weight down, I imagine the product will be made of marangeing steel wrapped in kevlar or carbon fiber. A 20 kg container made of these materials will hold 1.5 to 2 kg of hydrogen, the equivalent of 2 gallons of gasoline.

I imagine that the can will have at least one handle, likely two. The original can had three handles, but this seems excessive to me. The connection tube between two short cylinders could be designed to serve as one of the handles. For safety, the Jerrycan should have a secure over-seal on both of the fill-ports, ideally with a safety pin latch minimize trouble in a crash. All the parts, including the over- seal and pin, should be attached to the can so that they are not easily lost. Do you agree? What else, if anything, do you imagine?

Robert Buxbaum, February 26, 2017. My company, REB Research, makes hydrogen generators and purifiers.

A very clever hydrogen pump

I’d like to describe a most clever hydrogen pump. I didn’t invent it, but it’s awfully cool. I did try to buy one from “H2 Pump,” a company that is now defunct, and I tried to make one. Perhaps I’ll try again. Here is a diagram.

Electrolytic membrane H2 pump

Electrolytic membrane H2 pump

This pump works as the reverse of of a PEM fuel cell. Hydrogen gas is on both sides of a platinum-coated, proton-conducting membrane — a fuel cell membrane. As in a PEM fuel cell, the platinum splits the hydrogen molecules into H atoms. An electrode removes electrons to form H+ ions on one side of the membrane; the electrons are on the other side of the membrane (the membrane itself is chosen to not conduct electricity). The difference from the fuel cell is that, for the pump you apply a energy (voltage) to drive hydrogen across the membrane, to a higher pressure side; in a fuel cell, the hydrogen goes on its own to form water, and you extract electric energy.

As shown, the design is amazingly simple and efficient. There are no moving parts except for the hydrogen itself. Not only do you pump hydrogen, but you can purify it as well, as most impurities (nitrogen, CO2) will not go through the membrane. Water does permeate the membrane, but for many applications, this isn’t a major impurity. The amount of hydrogen transferred per plate, per Amp-second of current is given by Faraday’s law, an equation that also shows up in my discussion of electrolysis, and of electroplating,

C= zFn.

Here, C is the current in Amp-seconds, z is the number or electrons transferred per molecule, in this case 2, F is Faraday’s constant, 96,800, n is the number of mols transferred.  If only one plate is used, you need 96,800 Amp-seconds per gram of hydrogen, 53.8 Amp hours per mol. Most membranes can operate at well at 1.5 Amp per cm2, suggesting that a 1.1 square-foot membrane (1000 cm2) will move about 1 mol per minute, 22.4 slpm. To reduce the current requirement, though not the membrane area requirement, one typically stacks the membranes. A 100 membrane stack would take 16.1 Amps to pump 22.4 slpm — a very manageable current.

The amount of energy needed per mol is related to the pressure difference via the difference in Gibbs energy, ∆G, at the relevant temperature.

Energy needed per mol is, ideally = ∆G = RT ln Pu/Pd.

where R is the gas constant, 8.34 Joules per mol, T is the absolute temperature, Kelvins (298 for a room temperature process), ln is the natural log, and Pu/Pd is the ratio of the upstream and downstream pressure. We find that, to compress 2 grams of hydrogen (one mol or 22.4 liters) to 100 atm (1500 psi) from 1 atm you need only 11400 Watt seconds of energy (8.34 x 298 x 4.61= 11,400). This is .00317 kW-hrs. This energy costs only 0.03¢ at current electric prices, by far the cheapest power requirement to pump this much hydrogen that I know of. The pump is surprisingly compact and simple, and you get purification of the hydrogen too. What could possibly go wrong? How could the H2 pump company fail?

One thing that I noticed went wrong when I tried building one of these was leakage at the seals. I found it uncommonly hard to make seals that held even 20 psi. I was using 4″ x 4″ membranes so 20 psi was the equivalent of 320 pounds of force. If I were to get 200 psi, there would have been 3200 lbs of force. I could never get the seals to stay put at anything more than 20 psi.

Another problem was the membranes themselves. The membranes I bought were not very strong. I used a wire-mesh backing, and a layer of steel behind that. I figured I could reach maybe 200 psi with this design, but didn’t get there. These low pressures limit the range of pump applications. For many applications,  you’d want 150-200 psi. Still, it’s an awfully cool pump,

Robert E. Buxbaum, February 17, 2017. My company, REB Research, makes hydrogen generators and purifiers. I’ve previously pointed out that hydrogen fuel cell cars have some dramatic advantages over pure battery cars.

Edward Elric’s Flamel

Edward Elric, the main character of a wonderful Japanese manga, Full Metal Alchemist, wears an odd symbol on his bright-red cloak. It’s called a Flamel, a snake on a cross with a crown and wings above. This is the symbol of a famous French author and alchemist of the 1300s, Nicholas Flamel who appears also, tangentially, in Harry Potter for having made a philosopher’s stone. But where does the symbol come from?

Edward Elrich with Flammel on back.

Edward Elric wears a snake-cross, “Flamel” on his back.

s03_ama

Current symbol of the AMA

A first thought of a source is that this is a version of the Asclepius, the symbol of the American Medical Association. Asclepius was an ancient Greek doctor who, in 85 BC distinguished between chronic and acute disease, developed theories on diet and exercise, and cured parasitic snakes under the skin by wrapping them around a stick. In mythology, he was chosen to be ship’s doctor on Jason’s voyage, and was so good at curing that Hades told Zeus he revived the dead. Zeus then killed him and set him among the stars as a constellation (the snake-handler, visible in the winter sky between Scorpius and Hercules). Though the story shows some similarities to Full Metal Alchemist, the Asclepius symbol don’t look like Elric’s Flamel. Asclepius had two daughters, Hygeia (hygiene), and Panacea (drugs?); the cup of Hygeia, below, is similar to the Asclepius but not to Ed’s Flamel.

The cup of Hygia, the symbol of pharmacy.

The cup of Hygeia, the symbol of pharmacy.

Staff of Hermes, symbol of the AMA till 2005

Staff of Hermes, symbol of the AMA till 2005

Another somewhat-similar symbol is the Caduceus, symbol of Hermes/ Mercury, left. It was the symbol of the AMA until 2005, and it has wings, but there are two snakes, not one, and no cross or crown. The AMA switched from the Caduceus when they realized that Hermes was not a god of healing, but of merchants, liars, and thieves. Two snakes fighting each other is how the Greeks viewed business. The wings are a symbol of speed. The AMA, it seems, made a Freudian mistake picking this symbol, but it seems unlikely that Flamel made the same mistake.

The true source of the Flamel, I think, is the Bible. In Numbers 21:8-9, the Jews complain about the manna in the desert, and God sends fiery serpents to bite them. Moses prays and is told to put a bronze snake on staff as a cure – look upon it and you are healed. While one might assume the staff was a plain stick like the Asclepius, it might have been a cross. This opinion appears on a German, coin below. The symbol lacks wings and a crown. Still, it’s close to the Flamel. To get the crown and wings, we can turn to the New Testament, John 3:16-17. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up … “that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” The quote seems to suggest that the snake itself was being lifted up, to holiness perhaps or to Devine service. In either case, this quote would explain the crown and wings as an allusion to Jesus.

German coin, 1500s showing Jesus, a snake and cross on one side. Christ on the other. Suggests two sides of the same.

German “taller” coin, 1500s showing Jesus on the cross on one side, a snake on the cross on the other. Suggests two sides of the same holiness.

I should mention that Flamel’s house is the oldest still standing in Paris, and that it contains a restaurant — one that would be nice to visit. Flamel died in 1418. His tomb has this symbol but was found to be empty. A couple of other odds and ends: the snake on the cross also appears in a horror story, the curse of the white worm, by Bram Stoker. In the story (and movie), it seems there are serpent-worshipers who believe it was the serpent who died for our sins. If you re-read the lines from John, and take the word “Him” to refer to the serpent, you’d get backing for this view. Edward might have adopted this, either as part of his mission, or just for the hell of it. The following exchange might back up Ed’s desire to be controversial.

Roy: I thought you didn’t believe in gods, Full metal.

Edward: I don’t. That’s the thing. I think they can tell, and it pisses them off.

salvation-army

As for the color red, the color may allude to blood and or fire. In this direction, the Salvation Army symbol includes a red “S” on a cross with a crown and the words “Blood and Fire.” In the manga, life-blood and fire appear to be the ingredients for making a philosopher’s stone. Alternately, the red color could relate to a nonvolatile mercury compound, red mercury or mercuric oxide, a compound that can be made by oxidation of volatile mercury. Flamel claimed the symbol related to “fixing the volatile.” Either that’s making oxide of mercury, or putting a stop in death.

Robert E. Buxbaum, February 9, 2017. I’ve also opined on the Holy Grail, and on Jack Kelly of Newsies, and on the humor of The Devine comedy. If you have not read “Full Metal Alchemist,” do.

bicycle helmets kill

There is rarely a silver lining that does not come with a cloud, and often the cloud is bigger than the lining. A fine example is bicycle helmets. They provide such an obvious good that, at first glance, you’d think everyone would wear one, even without a law mandating it. Why would anyone risk their skull in a bicycle accident if injury were prevented by merely wearing a particular hat? Yet half the people ride without, even when there are laws and fines. There are some down-side to helmets, but they are so small that even mentioning them seems small. Helmets are inconvenient, and this causes people to ride a little less, so what?

hospital admissions for bicycle related head injuries, red, left; and bicycle related, non-head injuries, blue, right. Victoria Australia.

Hospital admissions for bicycle-related, head injuries, red, left scale, and bicycle-related, non-head injuries, blue, right scale. The ratio is 1:2 before and after the helmet law suggesting that helmet law did nothing but reduce ridership.

As to turns out, helmets hardly stop accidental injury, yet cause people to ride a lot less, and this lack of exercise causes all sorts of problems — far more than the benefits. In virtually every city where it was studied, bicycle ridership dropped by 30-40% when helmets were required, and as often as not, those who still rode, rode unhelmeted. There was a 30-40% decrease in head-trauma injuries, but it appears that this was just the result of 30-40% less ridership. You’d expect a larger decrease if the helmet helped, as such.

Take the experience of Victoria, Australia; head and non-head bicycle injury data plotted above. Victoria required bicycle helmets in January 1990. Before then, in the peak summer months, hospital records show some 50 bicycle-related head injuries per month, and 100 bicycle-related, non-head injuries — a 1:2 proportion. Later, after the law went into effect, each summer month saw about 35 bicycle-related, head injuries, and 70 bicycle-related, non head injuries. This proportion, 1:2, remained the same suggesting the only effect of the helmet law was to reduce ridership, with no increase in safety. The same 30% decrease was seen by direct count of riders on major streets, though now a greater proportion of those still riding were flaunting the law, and not wearing helmets.

One reason that helmets don’t help much is that the skull is already a very good helmet. As things stand, the main injury in a bicycle flip does not come from your skull cracking, it comes from your brain hitting the inside of your skull, and a second helmet doesn’t help stop that. There’s no increase in safety, and perhaps a decrease as the helmet appears to decrease vision. In a study of bicycle-injury-related highway deaths, Piet de Jong found that countries with the highest helmet use had the highest highway death rates. The country with the highest helmet use (the USA, 38% helmeted) had the highest cyclist death rate, 44 deaths per 1,000,000,000 km. By comparison, the nation with the least helmet use (Holland, 1% helmeted) had among the lowest death rates, only 10.7 deaths per 1,000,000,000 km. There are many explanations for this finding, one sense is that the helmets hurt vision making all types of injury and death more likely.

An hour or three of exercise per week adds years to your life -- especially among the middle aged.

From the national cancer institute. An hour or three of exercise per week adds years to your life — especially among the middle aged. Note these are healthy weight individuals. 

Worse than the effect on visibility, may be the effect on exercise. Exercise is tremendously beneficial, especially for middle-aged people in a sedentary population like the US. The lack of exercise is a lot more deadly, it turns out, than any likelihood of flying over the handlebars. How do I know? From studies like the National Cancer institute, shown at right. To calculate the cost/benefit of a little riding, less say you ride 3 hours per week at 10 mph (slow roll). The chart at right suggests a middle-aged person will add 3.4 years to your life, or about 10% life extension. Now consider the risks. This person will ride 30 miles per week, or 2400 km per year. Over 35 years the chance of death is only 0.36%. In order to get a 10% chance of death, you’d have to ride, over 2.3 million km, or 1000 years. Clearly the life extension benefit far outweighs the risk from fatal accident.

But life extension isn’t the total benefit of exercise. Exercise is shown to improve metal health, reducing depression and ADD in children, and likely in adults. Exercise also helps with weight loss, and that is another big health benefit (the chart above was for healthy body weight riders). So my first suggestion is get rid of bicycle helmet laws. I would not go so far as to ban helmets, but see clear disadvantages to the current laws.

The other suggestion: invent a better helmet. While most helmets are vented, and reasonably cool while you ride. They become uncomfortably hot when you stop. And they look funny in a store or restaurant. You can’t easily take them off, either: Restaurants no longer have hat racks, and stores never had them. What’s needed is a lighter, cooler helmet. Without that, and with helmet laws in place, people in the US tend to drive rather than ride a bicycle — and the lack of exercise is killing them.

Robert Buxbaum, January 19, 2017. One of my favorite writing subjects is the counter-intuitiveness of health science. See, eg. on radiation, or e-cigarettes, or sunshine, or health food. Here is a general overview of how to do science; I picked all the quotes from Sherlock Holmes.