Monthly Archives: June 2015

Master of the Void

To be sure, space travel sure is a lot easier, now that humans don’t need food, water, or even air. Immortality means precisely that – not dying, no matter what. But space travel being easier doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily something to look forward to.

I still remember the day I returned to life, when I got this body that never needs and, as a result, never dies. Truth be told, I was hesitant about returning to life. I didn’t have such a good run, my first time around. Lots of regrets in that life, even if I didn’t experience those regrets until after I returned to life. I wasn’t a good person in my mortal life, not by a long shot. But, still, they found a way to give me that so-called great gift that everyone else received. And now I’m here.

Artificial intelligence isn’t necessary if a human intelligence can be surrounded by a form-fitting capsule and then launched into space, that great deficit of matter and time. My perfect recall is now the new instrumentation array for this space probe, and it’s all free of charge to the powers that be. The only mechanism is the radiation filter. And what does it do? Why, it filters the visible light from distant stars, all of it, so that if there is any visible light to be seen in this void, I will know of it.

There is no light in my capsule, not a flicker. Frozen but unable to die, the cold pierces my bones, but I am beyond physical pain. I am conscious, however, and the mental pain… I never got used to that. How long have I been traversing the Great Void? My mortal self would have forgotten long before perishing. My immortal self knows exactly the time spent here: but the years and days of my home on earth mean nothing in this emptiness. I am somewhere between the beginning and the end of time, and I have eternity to search for light. In the meantime, I have only my memories as companions.

And I thought it was dark before I entered the void… pinpricks of starlight growing fainter and farther as I plunged ahead into this absence of matter and time. Anything further than 10 megaparsecs, that light I do not see. I’m told that this void is close to 400 million parsecs in diameter, and I get to cross the whole of it. There’s supposed to be a small bubble of 17 galactic clusters in a 50 million parsec area somewhere in this void, but I don’t think my trajectory will be within 10 million parsecs of any of them.

They knew who I was when they brought me back to life. My victims were alive before me. Dead men tell no tales until they’re resurrected, and then it truly is Judgment Day. I couldn’t argue, not with them there before me, those innocents… those little innocents… It’s like I’d already been convicted before being brought back to deathlessness, and my punishment decided upon.

They’re fairly certain I won’t find anything out here. I’ll be here for billions of years – and then what? I don’t know. And what if I do see something? How do I let anyone know? Why would they want to hear anything from the likes of me?

My perfect eyes never shut, and I never sleep. I am always at rest. My perfect mind never hallucinates or delves into delusion, so I always have my reality before me and within me. I do wonder about the end of time, where that would place me. Will I even know when time ends? Or will I eventually move beyond the gravity of any other body in the universe, and rip away, my matter to never again participate in the fabric of life?

I guess I’m already in such a state. I am rejected by the human family for my crimes, and I now exist outside that vibrant, joyous community. My victims didn’t hate me, but I couldn’t stand being around them. I suppose I can’t really be around anything alive, such is my punishment. Dead, my spirit still knew the earth and its haunts. Alive once again, and I am the lord of all that I survey, for 10 million parsecs all around me. There is nothing to oppose me, nothing to stop me, nothing to impede me in any way. I can reach for the stars, but they shall forever be beyond my grasp.

I am ruler over the darkness outside the universe, and I would never know if any other being laid claim to the radius of nothing that extends from my person. My infinite, timeless kingdom is also my prison cell where I face the darkness to equal the light I once extinguished. If I could live my life over differently, I would, but I am the only matter for 10 megaparsecs because I did not live my life the way I should have.

If only I did not have a perfect ability to experience regret, perhaps I could rejoice somehow in being master of the void!

If only…

The Truth About Dragons

Sir Philip called down to the peasant on the road. “Hoy! Be thou from Daneshire town?”

The peasant made a half-bow and responded, “Aye. I be from yon Daneshire township. Who be thee?”

“I am Sir Philip, late from the courts of King Richemonde, the Wise. I am on an errand from my lord, the king, and it doth bring me to these parts.”

“Oh? On errand, eh? And what errand might this be?”

“I seek the dragon of the lands north of Daneshire.”

The peasant’s face took on a similarity to a recently-plowed spring field. “Why?”

Sir Philip’s head recoiled from the directness of that question. With frown emblazoned across the base of his face, he said, “Impertinent one! Knowest thou to whom thou speakest?”

The peasant shrugged. “Apologies, sir knight. Forgive mine surprise in hearing thou seekest the Dragon of Daneshire. Why, sir knight, seekest thou the dragon?”

Appeased, Sir Philip responded, “To prove my virtue in arms.”

“What, thou plans’t kill ‘im?”

Sir Philip tolerated no more of the peasant’s uncivility. “Out of my way, varlet, I would pass thee now!” He spurred his horse as the peasant made clear the way to Daneshire.

“Ignorant peasant!” Sir Philip couldn’t get the bumpkin’s lack of respect out of his mind. The three miles to Daneshire were thoroughly unpleasant, full of reflections on the peasant’s churlishness and villainy. When finally Sir Philip did arrive in the unremarkable town of Daneshire, he was at least able to distract his disgust in the search for the reeve of the town. Daneshire existed at the far reaches of King Richemonde’s demense, and, as such, there was no manor nearby to appoint a bailiff over the settlement. Such a mannerless and uncouth realm!

But Sir Philip hoped to make a change to all that. With the hoard to be had in the cave of the dragon, why, he could build a strong, walled manor and become a landed knight with Daneshire as the beginning of his barony. Would that it could be less a forsaken borderland was the wish of Sir Philip, but ’twas only in the forsaken borderlands that new nobility could be made.

There being not many souls in the town, the search for the reeve was brief and conclusive. A clean, well-dressed peasant presented himself. “I am Fastulf Huldriksen, reeve of Daneshire. At thy service, good sir knight.” Fastulf made the proper half-bow for due deference to a mounted knight of the king.

“I would dismount and converse with thee, reeve.”

Fastulf gestured to several men to approach Sir Philip, to assist him in dismounting. The reeve motioned for the visitor and the men bearing his arms to enter the town hall, while a pair of men took Sir Philip’s horse to provender it.

Sir Philip pointed to a suitable corner and Fastulf nodded a the men with the arms, who placed them in the corner with care. Sir Philip’s black hair topped his scalp, its length a sharp contrast to the shaved back and sides of his head. His clean-shaven face made him stand out further from the bearded, blond rabble of the peasantry.

With the weapons in a corner, Fastulf ordered two chairs be brought to set facing the central hearth and that a fire be stoked there. The knight seated himself first and Fastulf took the chair of second preference. He then asked, “What bringeth thee to Daneshire, good sir knight?”

“Reeve Fastulf of Daneshire, I am here on errand from King Richemonde the Wise.”

“Long live the king.”

“I am here to bring gentility to this wild land. I am of a mind to do great works that would earn for me a barony.”

“Very good, sir knight. And how may the people of Daneshire be at thy service?”

Sir Philip appreciated the manner in which the reeve observed protocol. “I would know more about the Dragon of Daneshire.”

Fastulf nodded and leaned towards Sir Philip. “And what would thou wish to know?”

“Tell me first of its habits. How does it move about? What does it eat?”

Fastulf surmised from Sir Philip’s questions that the knight intended to hunt the dragon. “The great beast, though capable of flight, uses that mode infrequently, preferring to roam its territory on legs. We have seen it walking with stately gait, and striking its prey from cover with a pounce most rapid. Its prey is typically the deer or elk of the forest or the ram of the mountain. Rarely will it strike a bison of the plain.”

“And how did the people of this town come to see the dragon do these things?”

“Good sir knight, we travel to the lands of the Cumbri for trade in amber and tin, and the road to the Cumbri passes through the territory of the dragon. For many years have we seen the dragon and its ways.”

“And has it ever slain a man or the horse of a man?”

“Nay, good sir knight. Nay. Never has the dragon given us cause to fret or worry.”

“But what of hunters in that area?”

“We hunt not in the territory of the dragon. We hunt not where the king claims his woods and neither do we hunt where the dragon claims his lands.”

Sir Philip raised an eyebrow. “So would thou sayest that the dragon is rival to the king?” Already, Sir Philip entertained designs on the tribe of the Cumbri and how they might be conquered after he slew the dragon.

Fastulf looked into the fire, which did fill the hall with its warmth. He did ponder Sir Philip’s question carefully. He spake, “The people of Daneshire know the benevolent rule of King Richemonde. Him do we serve, and none other.”

Sir Philip wanted a different answer. “Nay, reeve, doth the dragon possess a mighty power, that the folk of this land do fear, even as they would fear the king?”

Fastulf nodded. “Aye, good sir knight. The people of Daneshire dare not to take their flocks into the borders of the land of the dragon. Why, only one man that I know doth live in the lands of the dragon.”

“Hold, Fastulf. Thou sayest a man liveth nigh unto the dragon?”

“Aye, Rolf Klintsen, he is the man. He maketh his home upon a cliff that overlooks where lives the dragon, where the quiet alloweth him to know better his Maker.”

“A holy man, this Rolf?”

“Aye, good sir knight. A holy man, indeed. He doth offer up prayers and supplications on our behalf, and we have known the blessings of his devotions.”

Sir Philip looked into the fire. “I would meet this holy man, if he would be able to speak more to me of this dragon. Comes he oft into the town here?”

“He doth, from time to time, as it pleases him to get grain or paper, or to mind his letters to and from the Father Superior of the monastery in Ogham.”

“Then I should have a room here in Daneshire, that I might be present when returns the holy man.”

“As you wish, good sir knight.”

And so, Sir Philip did reside two days in Daneshire, in wait for Rolf Klintsen, the monk of the dragon-lands. On the third day did Rolf arrive in town, and the reeve did introduce him to Sir Philip. Rolf did give his assent to converse with Sir Philip, on condition that the two would be seated in a garden plot.

“What, among the vegetables and the worms?” But Rolf would have it no other way. Being a man of God, he was not subject to the command of the knight. Sir Philip did relent, and the two sat where they did overlook the cabbages, carrots, and turnips.

Rolf asked the first question. “Sir Philip, do you mean to hunt this dragon? And to slay him?”

“I do, indeed.”

“Then I would dissuade you from such a task, for it is fraught with danger and promises little reward.”

“My king does not permit me to consider danger.”

Rolf allowed Sir Philip’s bravado to pass over him. “So it is. What then, dost thou know of the dragon, Sir Philip? For whatever thou knowest to be true, shall be one less thing I would be needed to teach thee, and whatever thou holdest as truth, but is false, that I shall be able to correct, that a falsehood not prove to be thy undoing.”

“Fairly said, holy man. Here is what I have heard of the dragon, that it is a mighty hunter of beasts, and that it doth hold sway over its lands, as does a lord. And the bards of the court sing of the vast treasures that it has amassed in its cavernous home, where dwarves beat its gold into grand jewels; that the dwarves are enslaved not by the dragon, but by their love for the grand hoard of gold. Their songs tell of how the dragon once did battle with the king of the sea-raiders, and how the dragon did slay that king, with breath of fire; that the dragon did bind the servants of that king to place the king’s treasures on ships and sail them back to his cavern, lest he slay them with breath of fire, as befell their lord and master. Heard I the song of the fall of the Darini, who did anger the dragon when they paid not their tribute of ten virgins one year; that the dragon did lay waste their lands with fire and violence; that the Woluntii followed in the wake of the dragon and did take hold of the lands of the Darini, that the name of that people is known no more. Truly, the dragon is a rich and powerful beast, full of cunning and malice. That he troubles not these lands is plain: they are poor, and the people trouble him not – there is nought to be gained in plundering…” he motioned over the garden “… cabbages.”

Rolf smiled. “Well, good sir knight, there is much that you do know. And verily, the dragon is a mighty hunter, and, yea, it doth hold sway over its lands. But it lives not in a cave.”

Rolf motioned outwardly from his person, describing a great circle. “It maketh a great ring for its lair, a wall with no gate, for it doth fly over the wall as it sallies forth to hunt its prey. Sheer are the walls, half as thick as they are tall, and fully the height of two men are these walls.”

Rolf held two fingers up. “Dirt and dung, these are the stuffs of which the walls are made of. The dragon mixeth his dung with the dirt and useth its tail to beat the mixture into shape. The sun baketh this mud, and it becometh like unto stone in durability. Safe from man is the dragon in his lair, lest a man bringeth a ladder and a bow, or two ladders and a lance.”

Sir Philip did not like this learning. What use was a lance without a horse to deliver the power needed in the blow? Would he have to lay siege to a dragon’s fort? Or, perhaps… “What of the dragon as it hunts and feeds? Doth it show any vulnerability? Wouldst I be capable of striking it then, from my mount?”

“The dragon is quick to respond, good sir knight. It sleepeth not outside its lair and it, like thee, feareth not the dangers of battle. Truly have I seen it brave the antlers of the bull elk and prevail. And especially ferocious it can be when a rival enters its territory.”

“A rival?”

“Aye, sir knight, a rival. There is a she-dragon as well as a he-dragon in these lands, and I have seen, twice, a rival enter these lands, for to claim the she-dragon for its own. Twice have I seen the dragon of Daneshire send his rivals flying to other lands, after battle fierce with claw, bite, and fire.”

Sir Philip had secretly been hoping that the dragon-fire detail had been but a legend. That it was actually true troubled his heart and clouded his mind. “So you have seen this dragon fire, holy man?”

“Yea and verily, sir knight, yea and verily. As sure as I have seen the dragon in its lair, asleep like unto a cat on a hearth.”

“Like unto a cat, say thee? So he sleeps well on his mounds of gold?”

“Nay, good sir knight. There is no gold in the lair of a dragon. There is but the ground where he maketh his bed and a spring from which he drinketh.”

“Egad! No gold?”

“Nay, good sir knight. The tales of dragon’s gold are but stories told to fill the darkness of night with the illuminations of imaginings. Likewise, I am certain that no dragon has wrought the downfall of a kingdom, nor has any exacted a tribute of virgins, or any other sort of tribute. Again, such things are the stuff of fancy, meant to entertain, but not educate.”

No gold meant a serious obstacle to Sir Philip’s plans to fund the building of a manor house. Still, if the dragon could be slain, such a feat could still earn him a baron’s title. Then, plunder from the lands of the Cumbri might produce enough for the beginnings of a noble estate. “No matter. The dragon is a worthy foe, and honor shall I bring to my king with its head presented as a trophy.”

“Hm. The time for a dragon hunt is not opportune, for it is their mating season. The dragon of Daneshire tends to be in the company of his lady. A fight with one dragon, I would not want to have, and a fight with two would be foolishness, indeed, even for a score of men-at-arms.”

“When ends the mating season?”

“In thirty days or so, good sir knight. Following that time, they become solitary, though the sir will bring his dame gifts of food, to sustain her and her young, who stay with the dame for five years. One would never wish to hunt the dame, for she is always in the company of her brood, and they are as fierce as she.”

“Then hunt the sir, shall I, a knight for a knight.”

“Ah, good sir knight, but even then, I would not think such a course to be wise, and I would inform you sufficiently to stay thee from this course.”

Sir Philip adopted a condescending tone. “Oh, holy man, great is thy wisdom and learning, and I thank thee for the profit I have enjoyed of’t. But leave unto me mine own knowledge of the hunt, for skilled am I in such arts.”

“Well, good sir knight, wouldst thou approach him from the front?”

“Nay, holy man, for he doth bite.”

“Wouldst thou approach him from the side?”

“Nay, for fierce are his claws.”

“Then wouldst thou approach him from behind?”

“Yea, for his defenses are weakest in that quadrant.”

“I would advise against that, good sir knight.”

“And why sayest thou such a thing, holy man?”

“Well, good sir knight, that is the matter of another falsehood of the bards.”

“And what is that?”

“Verily, verily I say unto thee that a dragon doth not breathe fire… ”

Meet the Hackers

Hackers… they’re a bunch of social misfits, loners, hoodie-wearing, energy drink slamming programming geeks, right? Well, no. They’re not. The bad guys with computers are not the sort to slide easily into media stereotypes. Most of them are members of criminal organizations or have nation-state backing. Awkward loners don’t fit in with the Russian Mob or the People’s Liberation Army. Gotta have team players in those groups.

Hackers don’t always use computers, either. Social engineering – also known as running a con job – is incredibly effective and simple to do. You’d be surprised how many people will give out their passwords when accused that they’re not strong enough. “Why, you better believe I got a secure password! It’s +O;66fg#3.>ha!” Hint: the password isn’t secure anymore if it’s been read out loud to someone else. It’s also not secure if it’s written on a notepad or post-it note.

Do you have someone that’s always asking questions about where things are on the network? That’s possibly social engineering. One guy did that at a company and learned where the financial data was stored. After a two month interval, a tiger team broke into the server room and stole that exact server. The thieves were caught and the connection to the inquisitive employee became evident. The people at that company were shocked to discover that a guy they all considered to be a cheerful, bumbling, balding co-worker was in fact in league with organized crime.

That guy, and others like him, are well-camouflaged. They blend in. They go to lunch with the rest of the gang. They have neither an excess, nor a deficit, of cool. They live in apartments and homes, they watch sports and reality teevee shows, they drink beer, they may not even know anything more technical than how to copy and paste and add an attachment to an email. Because, face it, if a guy copies a sensitive document and then sends it to someone that shouldn’t have access to it, that’s a data breach. A hack. And the guy that did it could have been a total shlub.

True, he could have been a more exotic chap, say, a soldier in an army unit responsible for espionage via computers. But that guy’s not working alone. He’s also not working on a short timetable. Guys like him or the organized crime types have all the time and patience in the world to find where the weaknesses are in an organization and then exploit them. They develop custom code, just like other corporations do, but their custom code is dedicated to undermining their target, rather than developing just-in-time strategic synergies. Most of what they do goes undetected for the simple reason that the vectors they use are either ones that haven’t been used before or their target isn’t looking where they’re active with .

If you like the shows with slick hackers with social flaws, keep on enjoying them, along with everything else that’s been Hollywood-ed up. But in your real life, the guy compromising your financial data is going to buy a case of beer and then have a trip to Disneyland. Be careful about the questions that you answer and hope that you’ve got a security team that has a data loss prevention tool in place, among other things.

The Myth of Efficiency

Would you like for your car to run faster? Well, it’s easy. Just shed excess weight on the vehicle. Get rid of the doors, seat cushions, seat belts, airbags, windows, the roof, electronic systems, and man! That car will MOVE!

What’s that I hear you say? It will be unsafe? Well, pardon me, but you wanted it to be faster. You said nothing about preserving the current level of safety.

And although I doubt that any sensible person would want to drive that vehicle at top speeds, we do precisely the same things with our Internet usage and our programs and apps. We want them to be as fast as possible and, if it means less security, we accept the higher risk by saying “I’ll be careful!” and then going forth to enjoy the higher efficiency without really being any sort of careful at all. Why?

It’s simple to my mind. Our brains are well aware of the possible bodily harm that can result from a car accident, so we reject a tradeoff of mayhem mitigation for super speed. But a computer application? A website? No physical harm can result from using those things, so why not worry less and enjoy them more? We simply don’t think of the potential financial and personal wreckage that could result from unsecured data transfers. We fail to see that the injuries from unsafe computing are very real and very damaging and very permanent. If we did see what could happen, we’d ask for the digital version of safety belts, every time.

I’ll point a finger at programmers and designers: they want their customers to have the smoothest experience possible. That smooth experience makes money or facilitates the making of money, so it’s no small thing. But, again, the blindness to the risks in the digital world mean that those designers and programmers aren’t necessarily thinking about the safety of that experience. This is particularly evident in the emerging area of “smart controls”. Smart controls basically turn a phone or a laptop into a giant remote control device for something that used to not be remotely controlled.

Even the idea of remote control doesn’t sound all that bad. Our teevee remote controls do just fine, don’t they? But would you maintain that benevolent attitude towards your teevee remote if some kid a mile away was able to interfere with your choices and put your channel choice on anything he wanted? It’s no mistake that a “nightmare scenario” in many a spy thriller or sci-fi flick involved The Bad Guy taking over the airwaves and forcing the world to watch whatever he dictated. Stuff like that really freaks us out. Well, how about a nightmare scenario in which The Bad Guy messes with your thermostat? Or forces you to order an extra gallon of milk? Or locks all the world’s ovens on cleaning mode?

OK, so those are all #firstworldproblems. But the ones that can hit the third world involve disruption of power grids or supply chains. How about a man-in-the-middle attack that scrapes a few pennies out of every bank account in India? In places where microcredit is embedded into the local economy, such an attack could destroy lives. Who would do such a thing? Well, there’s a Marxist insurgency in about a third of India, so there’s my first candidate to execute such a move.

A home with a closed, unlocked door offers more security than some of these highly efficient applications. I mean, at least the door is closed, so that someone has to make an effort to see what’s going on inside. Far too many apps send every transaction, back and forth, in plain text.

Now, there are some security measures that are as easy as locking a door. But there are also some security measures that are as difficult as putting on a suit of plate armor and mounting a horse. As one would expect, the more complete security measures are also those that involve the biggest drags on performance. But look at it this way: which vehicle would you rather operate, a unicycle with a solid-rocket booster engine, or a comprehensively-tested motor vehicle with excellent safety ratings from its excellent safety features? While the unicycle rocket will definitely move faster than that car, the car exposes its operator to a much shorter list of potential hazards. For example, “death due to improper aim at start of journey” is a biggie to consider with the unicycle, not so much with the car.

So it should be in the programming and development world. It’s my frustration as a security professional to see security treated as a cost that should be minimized. Too often, I’ve heard of businesses that refused to stand for a reduction in efficiency that later wound up with their doors shut for good within days of the major breach that happens in the early days of their existence. To treat security as a costly afterthought is tantamount to saying one or more of the following phrases:

“I’d like to have all my employees lose their job after a major breach, which is statistically bound to happen very soon.”

“I would prefer for my company’s intellectual property to be in the hands of my competitors, preferably without my knowledge or ability to get recourse through criminal and/or civil courts.”

“I feel much better knowing that, when my financial records are breached, the criminals involved will enjoy high levels of server uptime, plenty of bandwidth, and be ‘very satisfied’ with their experience in compromising my network.”

“Our company’s vision statement is: We will have synergies of poor security and high ease of use enable criminals to have first grab at our profits, even before we pay our fixed or variable costs.”

That last one might actually get shareholder attention.

But what to do? I’m not a C-something-O or a member of any board or anything like that. I can’t tell my company or any other company that there are areas where security is a joke, and that’s where to expect the next breach. Even if I was a CxO or chairman of the board, there’s no guarantee that I’d have all my company’s employees take security seriously enough to realize when they need to help implement it. This becomes a huge deal in major corporations, where employees tend to reject anything not done 100% by the book, and offer little or no help after making the rejection. Now, the “why” of that may have more to do with outsourcing and other heinous practices to control labor costs, but it does point up the old Machiavellian maxim that mercenaries aren’t going to protect you as passionately or as effectively as your own citizens.

So, if you want to predict where the next headline-grabbing breach will be, look for a major company with a massive contract labor pool in place of full-time employees, that also brags about how fast and effective its operations are. That’s where the money is and, chances are, also where the advanced persistent threats are already embedded in the system.

Who knows? Maybe even one of those threats is so embedded, it even has a section of actual employees tucked away somewhere that actually provide technical support for it. They file exemptions with anti-malware groups and open up firewall rules and away they go…

So, to sum up, efficiency without security is reckless endangerment. We should be ready to have things be at least a little slower so that we can enjoy a greater measure of security.

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“Employees Are Our Most Important Asset”

Lots of companies say that line. It sounds reassuring and soothing. However, it’s entirely false. Employees are actually a cost, not an asset, according to accounting rules, and that becomes painfully clear when some clever lad at the top decides the company needs to be more profitable. The easiest way to goose profits is to cut costs and, typically, the biggest costs are in labor.

Look at it this way: the office furniture is more of an asset than the employees. When calculating the value of a company, that office furniture is considered in the total, partly because many employers deem furniture from China furniture factory to be an accurate measure. The employees are not. Actual intellectual property in the form of patents and trade secrets are assets. The minds that think of those innovations are costs.

But before anyone decides to reclassify employees as assets, I’d hesitate. If employees were assets, they’d be owned by the company. People are assets only if they’re slaves. I’m not down with that. And I don’t want to be treated as rented capital goods, either. That doesn’t solve the “being a cost” problem.

This definition of labor as a cost is what has led to the collapse of the American middle class. Idiots running companies think that reducing labor costs is an actual benefit for a company. The word “idiot” is an Ancient Greek term for someone that was totally self-centered and clueless about what makes society work, so it’s quite appropriate here. The idiots think that everything has to be measured and quantified and, if something can’t be measured or quantified, it’s not worth considering. I had this conversation at lengths with my Loveland accountant, people today are being educated in a very odd way, no full picture is ever considered only microscopic parts that seem independent from each other.

Sending out surveys to measure employee loyalty and things like that are useless gestures. Most employees just click right through them so that they can get back to work. Others just click right through them because they know that even though their name isn’t on those surveys, there are still ways to trace responses back to them. The real employee survey that counts is the turnover rate. If people are leaving for other opportunities, it means that the opportunities at that firm are not attractive.

But back to my point… employees certainly aren’t assets, and they shouldn’t be counted as costs. They’re part of the company, the people that can actually keep the whole venture going in spite of the idiots at the top. Good, quality employees are what make growth possible in a firm. Once upon a time, that was reflected in the way companies wanted employees to stay with them for their whole career. When the idiots took charge in the 70s, they started slashing those employee “costs”, and the nation’s circled the drain ever since.

I like the sympathy in that statement, “employees are our most important asset,” but employers ought to not say it. They ought to take actions to prove that value, and shareholders ought to insist upon their take after the employees have gotten their just share. Otherwise, we’ll soon find that what circles the drain without a change in direction is what goes down the drain.

What? Me Stingy?

Jon Hilsenrath wrote this letter to American consumers:

This is my response:

Dear Mr. Hilsenrath,

How are you? I am fine. I hope you are healthy and well. You recently wrote a letter to Americans, which includes me. You said that most of us were stingy and that the economy was depending upon us to be a bit more free with our cash. You also said that I, along with the rest of America, was getting a free ride with zero interest rates. These statements bothered me.

In response to the matter regarding saving, yes, it is true that I have been saving much more of my money than ever before, but that is not to imply that I am socking away the cash for a rainy day. I am saving by paying off debt, which is an odd way of looking at saving for anyone but an economist. However, I used to teach AP Economics, so I get it. I freely admit that I am saving. I will save and save and save some more until I am debt-free.

I want to be debt-free because money, unlike water, flows uphill. Every penny I spend on interest goes to someone wealthier than me. This is the cardinal reason for wealth inequality. People with lots of money lend it out and are supported by my labor in the form of interest payments. Even if I pay off all of my personal debt, I will always be paying interest on corporate debt, as it is rolled into the cost of the goods and services that I purchase. I will never be able to escape debt unless I myself become a lender of sufficient means to make my living off of the labor of others rendering timely interest payments to me.

That is unlikely to happen. Even though Janet Yellen told me to get assets or die tryin’, the fact remains that now is not a good time to start a small business and neither is starting a small business any guarantee of success. In fact, in the oligopolistic structure of most markets, it’s a guarantee of failure. Small businesses simply aren’t getting off the ground like they used to. Markets are increasingly dominated by a small group of players that find it easier to compete against the customer than against each other, with resultant market contortions.

This leads me to the matter of zero interest rates. I have not gotten any money borrowed at zero percent interest, ever, unless it was from my dad. My dad is a great guy. If I can’t make a payment one month, he lets it slide and doesn’t report me to a credit bureau, with consequent disasters implied for my precious credit rating. No, Mr. Hilsenrath, I have always had to pay interest on what I borrowed. I do not know anyone paying zero percent interest on anything other than a car, and that itself is part of a highly rigged gimmick. I do not think that I have gotten a free ride. I do not think anyone in America has gotten a free ride from zero percent interest, unless that person was a corporation powerful enough to qualify for such a rate, and then turn around and use the interest-free borrowings to purchase t-bills or lend it out in consumer credit at higher interest rates.

Now, if you would like to figure out the minds of Americans that aren’t Fed officials, let me help you out. Let’s start with the young.

Kids in school get their money from their parents. If their parents are poor, they’re also poor. Quite a few of them are po’. That means they can’t afford the last two letters, just an apostrophe. Quite a few are even p’. They watch people buying vowels on “Wheel of Fortune” and think to themselves, “One day… one day… I will be able to afford to buy a vowel one day.” Pity those poor, po’, and p’ children.

As for the parents, anyone with a job is poor, at best. That means there is no supply of wealth to tide the family over in hard times. If the job is lost, if there is a dread disease in the family, they are wiped out. Elvis Presley is rich: he continues to earn money from his properties, even though he’s dead. I may have a very well-paying job, but if I were to lose that job, my family’s finances would be dire, indeed.

But let’s consider instead the young person that has just gotten out of high school: that person has a choice to get into the workforce, learn a skill, or go to college. Only one of those paths has a better than average chance of paying off. Ironically, it’s not the college path.

It’s the skill learning path that works for young people. They have to learn to do a job that has to be done here and now, not 12000 miles away at midnight. I have a good friend who is learning computer programming skills in a class full of accountants, engineers, and other people with professional degrees. These are not failed baristas and beauty school dropouts: these are guys that went after the degrees with loads of math and science and then found out that they simply can’t get a job.

My own daughter had three years of college and then realized it wasn’t going to get her anywhere. She dropped out, learned how to do CAD work, and now has a job that pays more than the average salary for a recent college graduate. She has no degree, but has a job that is above the US median wage.

My son is getting ready to join the labor force. He doesn’t want to spend a day in college, and I don’t blame him. It’s a gamble of time and resources that has a poor chance of paying off. Even at a state school with junior college, that’s a proposition that involves borrowing at least $50,000 at non-zero, non-negative interest rates to have a degree that is not a real qualification for any entry-level job. Should he do as I did at the end of my teaching career and invest just a few thousand dollars in IT training, he could have a very well-paying job and be free of personal debt. That is a huge thing.

The sad fact is that most kids will either get an unskilled job, a job with low skill levels, or go to college and then get the unskilled/low-skilled job – if they get a job. U3 unemployment may be low, but have you looked at the U6 number lately? There are an awful lot of people that are still out of work, and they’ve given up to the point where they’re no longer trying to compete for the meager jobs out there.

The Panic of 2008 was more than a big whack to unemployment and 401K programs. It signaled a major structural change in the US economy. Now, the structural change in question had been underway for some time, but The Panic of 2008 removed any doubt in my mind of the irreversibility of the changes.

Globalization of labor markets did not result in rising tides for everyone. Rather, minor wage improvements in developing nations were matched by eliminations of high-paying jobs in the US. The globalization of the labor market meant the end of the days of walking out of college and into a job that typically had nothing to do with one’s major. Those jobs went to college graduates, sure enough, but they were graduates of Indian and Chinese universities, and paid Indian and Chinese wages. This meant that US workers either had to accept wages in those areas or not have a job at all.

The jobs that remained were part-time service jobs. Waiters and waitresses have swelled in numbers as accountants have fallen by the wayside. People living off of $2.15 an hour plus tips are not going to provide for a robust consumer economy.

At least they young have their health, for the most part.

So why did the Great American Consumer not show up to spend money? It’s because he or she has no money to spend. Those waiters are not going to go out to eat all that often, let alone buy a house.

I did not care for the tone you took towards the end, berating the poor for being poor and telling them that they were lucky not to be Greeks or Chinese. Mr. Hilsenrath, we *are* Greeks and Chinese at the end of the day. Our wages are already approaching Chinese limits, and our government is approaching Greek levels of indebtedness.

You speak about raising interest rates as if it was a threat against us, the people of America. A person paying credit card interest doesn’t care much between a change from 23.99% to 24.99%. It’s all the same sort of hopelessness for him. Maybe it triggers another massive round of default on debt, which puts those TBTF institutions into a very failure-prone stance. With a higher interest rate, they can’t be sustained as was the case in the wake of the Panic of 2008. Would we lose jobs in the wake of such a thing, if JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs went belly-up? You bet we would.

The question that should really be dealt with is, “will we lose our temper?” Seeing that the non-violence of Occupy has been replaced by paroxysms of urban rioting, the answer is most likely yes. This makes sense of all the war-drums beating around the world: better to have that rage directed externally than internally.

So, should the world plunge into war, will it be the fault of the American consumer? No, Mr. Hilsenrath, it will not. For the American consumer is, if nothing else, loyal and obedient to his government and its guidance. Whatever the ills of America these days, Mr. Hilsenrath, I assure you that the average American is but a victim and not a general contributor towards. We cannot vote for visionaries to lead us when the lobbyists and major donors only give us puppets that they can control. You say yourself that you listen to Fed officials all the time at the Wall Street Journal: it is because you know full well that the average American is powerless and voiceless, so why bother with him, eh?

A question you should perhaps ask is if the Fed officials ever listen to the WSJ, or is your voice and the voice of your collective colleagues powerless in their view, and therefore beneath their consideration?

Well, long story short, we got no money because it all flowed uphill to the very rich. The very rich don’t spend the way us poor folks do, so that’s why the US economy is poleaxed. It won’t recover unless the very rich decide they don’t need as much profit or return on investment as they’ve gotten in the past. I don’t see that happening, so why not save your lectures for those guys, Mr. Hilsenrath, and then wait and see what it’s like to be completely and utterly ignored.

I’ll be happy to discuss this stuff more, if you would like.

Kind regards,

Dean Webb