Robert Rayford (Robert R): AIDS in St. Louis in the 1960s

Robert Rayford (Robert R): AIDS in St. Louis in the 1960s

The sad story of Robert Rayford (aka Robert R), the first documented victim of HIV/AIDS in the United States, shows that if timing had been a little bit different, the AIDS epidemic could have happened a decade earlier than it did, and its epicenter could have been St. Louis instead of New York. His story raises some uncomfortable questions. How did HIV end up in St. Louis, of all places? And why did it stay local to St. Louis rather than becoming an epidemic?

His story made me uncomfortable, and sometimes that’s how I know it’s time to dig in a bit more.

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How to pay off the national debt in less than 30 years

A couple of coworkers were talking about taxes, deficits and the national debt this week. One of them looked my direction and said, “I’ll bet Dave can figure out how to pay off the national debt.”

It’s actually not as hard as it sounds.

The biggest problem is that we’ve convinced ourselves that the national debt is impossible to pay. I believed this back in the mid-1990s, when it was around $4 trillion. Today, it’s right around $10 trillion. (Note: That was in 2008. In 2016 it’s about $19 trillion. So double any of the dollar figures you see from here on out.)

Let’s put that in perspective by personalizing it. The United States has about 304 million citizens. Divide it evenly, and my share and yours is $33,500 or so.

That’s a lot of money. Back in the mid-1990s, when I calculated my share to be closer to $20,000 (our population was lower then), I bought the lie that it was unpayable. I was 20 or 21 at the time. When my credit card balance swelled to $1,000 one month, I thought that was a pretty big deal. I’d never paid off a large debt before.

Now, for most of us, $33,500 is a non-trivial amount of money. A family of four’s share would be $134,000, and where I live, $134,000 will buy a house large enough for a family of four. For the average household, the national debt is like a second mortgage.

I just spend the last five years or so of my life proving that you can pay that kind of personal debt off much more quickly than mortgage lenders want you to know, even if you don’t make huge sums of money.

But we can’t just raise everyone’s taxes by $7,000 a year across the board and pay the debt off in five years. There would be open revolt, especially in this economy.

The other extreme would be to just shut the government down for a time and pay nothing but debt, but that isn’t realistic either.

But financing the debt over 30 years at 6% interest, the yearly payments are around $2,400 per person. That’s a long time, but this problem really accelerated over the last 28 years, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world to pay it back in a similar timeframe. And that’s still a lot of money, but not insurmountable.

That $2,400 is an average. My son is one of the 304 million, but he doesn’t pay any taxes. He’s a young child. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet pay a lot more taxes than me. So it would make sense that any payoff of the national debt would work progressively, the same as the rest of the tax code.

Exactly where to get the money is a matter of debate. But the book The Government Racket by Martin L. Gross is a nice collection of government waste. If we cut all or most of the $375 billion of waste he pointed out in the 2000 edition of his book, it would get us going. At this point, interest on the debt outstrips $375 billion, but it’s a start.

Realistically, a bit of a tax increase would also have to happen. I think raising the top income tax bracket to 39.6 percent would be beneficial. I’ll cover where I got that number later.

Based on history, I believe that setting the top bracket to 39.6 percent would increase revenue by about $100 billion a year, year over year. History also suggests raising it above that level would be detrimental. If my math is right and my estimate is right, it would take less than 25 years to eliminate the debt. (Or it would have, if we’d started in 2008.)

Why we need to pay it, somehow

Cheney is fond of saying that Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. That’s true if you’re Dick Cheney. Cheney will be dead before it really starts to matter. The problem with his attitude is that most of the rest of us 304 million will still be around to pick up the pieces.

When asked in 1992 how the national debt affected him personally, Bush I infamously didn’t have an answer. But I have an answer.

When I plug $33,500 into an amortization calculator, I find that a year’s worth of interest on the debt, if you’re making regular payments (we aren’t), is almost $2,000. So that’s $2,000 in taxes I’m paying every year and nobody’s getting any service in return for it. As mad as I get when “Tubes” Stevens appropriates my tax dollars to build the Bridge to Nowhere, at least some people are getting paid to build the useless thing. So somebody is benefitting, even if I don’t agree with the project. But in the case of debt, the only people getting any benefit are the people who agree to loan that money to the government.

For most of my life, many people argued that the debt wasn’t a problem because, by and large, we owed the money to ourselves. Maybe that was true in 1985 and maybe it wasn’t, but we know that in 2008 it isn’t. Today, foreign countries own much of that debt. In some cases, the debt is owned by countries that are friendly and for the most part share our values, such as the United Kingdom and Germany. In other cases, it’s owned by countries that are less friendly, or at the very least do not share our values, such as China and Saudi Arabia.

It goes without saying that if we become dependent on a steady stream of investment dollars coming in from China or Saudi Arabia, they will exert more and more control over what we do and how we live. We don’t like it when France tells us what we should or shouldn’t be doing. So shouldn’t it bother us a little that Maoist China, the country that has never apologized for what happened at Tiananmen Square, might eventually be in the position to not just tell us what to do, but to force us?

And while I may not like paying $2,000 in interest every year to my neighbor, I like the idea of enriching Maoist China to the tune of $2,000 a year a lot less. Unfortunately, we’re beyond the point of being able to choose who loans us money.

If we eliminate the debt, we eliminate that leverage from other countries that don’t share our values. And then we can spend that money on things that do benefit everyone. Or we can give every citizen the money to do what they please with it. Or we can split the difference somehow. I’m not a big government kind of guy. But even the idea of replacing the debt with a slew of new government programs is a lot more appealing to me than paying interest.

Eliminating the debt also frees us from the temptation to just print money. With the other problems going on right now, that idea gets floated around quite a bit even now. But Germany found out the hard way what happens when you try to print your way out of debt. In the 1930s, Germany just printed money with reckless abandon, and inflation ran rampant. It got to the point where it was cheaper to burn paper money in the fireplace than it was to use that money to buy firewood. A charismatic young leader came along with a scapegoat and a plan to get out of the situation. That man’s name was Adolf Hitler. You probably know what happened next.

But the debt is unethical on another level as well. Deficits don’t matter to Cheney because his life is almost over. But the decisions he made from 2000-2008 will live on. Even if we start making payments on the debt now, the people born in 2008 and 2009 will be making payments on our debt, even though they didn’t vote for or against the people who made those decisions. (You can’t vote if you’re not born yet, even in Illinois.) That’s called taxation without representation. As I recall, we fought a war over that too.

I don’t believe that just paying off the debt without understanding how it happened is constructive, because then we’ll just do it again. So how did we get here?

Supply-side economics

Many people blame supply-side economics for the ballooning budget deficits since 1980. This theory is generally attributed to economist Arthur Laffer. Laffer said if the government sets taxes to 0%, it will receive nearly zero revenue. And, paradoxically, if the government sets taxes to 100%, it will receive nearly zero revenue, because everyone would hide all their money.

I don’t blame supply side economics. I blame both parties’ misunderstanding and misapplication of it.

Laffer’s theory is that there is some optimal tax rate that balances potential revenue with the incentive to hide money from the taxman. The problem is that Laffer didn’t know what that was.

Although most people associate Laffer and supply-side economics with Ronald Reagan, the right-wing media loves to point out that John F. Kennedy generally agreed with these ideas. “It is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low,” they echo with delight.

In 1980, the problem was that Laffer’s theory was largely untested. But over the last 28 years, it has been tested. Here’s how people generally remember it: Reagan cut taxes. Bush I famously raised them after promising not to. Clinton raised them some more. Bush II cut them back.

But that’s not exactly how it happened. Although people remember Bush I for raising taxes, the top income tax bracket was 50% for most of the Reagan years, whereas under Bush I it was around 31-33%. He cut some taxes too.

Clinton raised taxes, but the top bracket under Clinton was 39.6 percent, which was still below Reagan. Bush II dropped them to 35%, lower than Clinton but still higher than his father.

Reagan was right, in that revenue from income taxes rose from $244 billion in 1980 to $401 billion in 1988. The problem is that in the Reagan years, spending rose faster than revenue. That caused what huge deficits for the time ($237 billion at Reagan’s peak).

But tax revenue rose from $476 billion in 1992 to $1.004 trillion in 2000 under Clinton–he more than doubled it. Revenue dropped for three years straight under Bush II and only exceeded Clinton’s 2000 levels after 2006.

Liberals like to point at the records of Bush I and Bush II as indications that supply-side economics doesn’t work. But that’s not how I read the numbers. It looks to me like Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and JFK not only proved that the theory works, but together they also gave us an indication of where the highest tax rate should be.

We don’t know if Clinton’s 39.6% rate is perfect. But one can argue it gave better results than either his predecessor or his successor. Revenue increased by $66 billion in four years under Bush I, vs. $114 billion in Clinton’s first four years. Revenue increased by $159 billion in seven years under Bush II, vs. $403 billion in Clinton’s first seven years.

So why did tax revenue increase over Reagan’s levels during Bush I’s presidency? Simple: Taxes under Reagan were too high. But the Bushes’ levels of growth, while better than Reagan’s, weren’t as high as Clinton’s. That suggests their rates are slightly too low.

Anyone who knew me during the Clinton years will know I’ve never been a fan of Bill Clinton. I still think he was highly overrated. But from the standpoint of optimal tax rates, the numbers say he was closer to being correct than any other modern president.

Clinton also is the only modern president to have a balanced budget, although Richard Nixon came close. Clinton did it twice. Bush II’s first budget had an almost Nixon-like $32.4 billion deficit. That suggests that if he’d left taxes alone he might have had a balanced budget in 2001. Had growth continued at roughly $100 billion year over year like it did under Clinton in 1995-2000, even the years of 2003 and 2004 could have been balanced-budget years. Instead they were record-busting $500 billion deficit years.

It’s possible to pay off the national debt. The main thing is admitting it’s possible, and having the determination to do it.

Hey publishers, get over Google Print already!

I really don’t understand why Google’s plan to digitize the text of thousands of books and make them searchable is controversial.

France didn’t like it because they think it will be U.S.-biased. Get over it, France. Google is a U.S. company. What language do you think they’d do first? Hungarian? But I understand that. That’s just France being anti-American.

Now some U.S. publishers are complaining too, and that’s what I don’t understand. They should be loving this.I’ve got news for copyright holders: Virtually anything that exposes people to your work is good. It’s not possible to tell from just looking at book spines and covers everything that’s mentioned in a book. Making the text of books searchable will let researchers find obscure references to the information they seek in unexpected places.

It will also allow researchers to search books that aren’t in their local libraries. While this will likely lead to them seeking out the book via inter-library loan, it will also potentially lead to (gasp!) sales.

As an author, I believe sales are good. I believe this because I used to get little quarterly statements in the mail that told me that when a copy of my book sold, I got $1.75. The cover price on it was $24.95. That leads me to believe the publisher made some money on the sale too, unless there’s something publishers know that I don’t.

Publishers can’t aggressively market every book. The catalog is just too big. Some books sell themselves, but the majority have to wait for someone to be compelled to pick them up. Google’s search plan amounts to free, highly targetted advertising.

The publishers are also complaining that the web pages containing snippets of book text displayed by Google bear a Google copyright. When a newspaper or a magazine publishes a review of a book containing a snippet of text from the book, who do these geniuses think owns the copyright? It isn’t the book publisher. Again, a review is free, targetted advertising. No problem there.

My publisher actually allowed me to take excerpts of my book and republish them as magazine articles and they didn’t make me or the magazine pay them anything as long as the article mentioned the original book at the end of the text. Why? Again, it was free advertising.

As a writer and researcher, I salivate over the possibility of any kind of book search. I have used’s search inside the book feature for research purposes with some (albeit limited) success. Google’s search will inevitably lead to more books being listed in the bibliographies of new books, which is still more free advertising, and as references in places such as Wikipedia, which is also free advertising.

Publishers should be lobbying for some kind of arrangement between themselves, Google, and a print-on-demand service to offer reprints of out-of-print books that turn up in search results. Publishers and authors would then be able to continue to get revenue for books that no longer have enough interest to justify a print run, and it would allow publishers to gauge the popularity of old books and perhaps unearth a few gems that ought to be re-released. Books go out of print when the publisher can no longer prove a book is popular enough to justify a print run. Google statistics would give a real-world (not theoretical) gauge on the popularity of old books, which is something marketing departments should be clamoring to see. Wouldn’t they love to know every book that gets picked up and read in a bookstore? Metrics from Google would be the next-best thing.

The ability to search the full text of thousands of books could revolutionize the publishing industry. As an author, I can’t wait, and publishers ought to be even more excited than me.

R. Collins refuses to concede the election

R. Collins Farquhar IV, aristocrat, scientist, and next president of the United States

To the voting populace.


Be it known that this past election was so close that I refuse to concede it.John Kerry’s rapid concession of the election proves that he is not an aristocrat. Unlike him, I did not marry my aristocracy. George W. Bush’s rapid proclamation of victory proves, well, nothing, because the votes are not all in. Unlike him, I did not marry my education.

There was one candidate who was qualified for the job of most powerful man in the world, and time will tell that that candidate was R. Collins Farquhar IV.

Unlike that pretender Kerry, I will not concede election until every vote is counted and either my manservants, lawyers, or myself have had a chance to personally tampe… er, examine, each and every ballot.

If anything, the events of the past week prove that the time is right for R. Collins as president. The political unrest in France and Palestine proves it.

I will not rest until we have conquered France and turned it into a training ground for our other wars, and I will not sit and watch as the jobs for our peasants get outsourced to foreign peasants. Our rabble need jobs just as much as the foreign rabble. If the foreign rabble want our jobs, they can get it the old fashioned way: Get an aristocrat to sponsor them and pay their way over here in exchange for a pre-agreed amount of indentured servitude. And when that time has expired, they can apply for a peasant’s job, or remain a manservant.

Or become a soldier. We will always have job openings there.

A political announcement from R. Collins

R. Collins Farquhar IV, aristocrat and scientist, would like to take this opportunity to remind you that declaring war on France is one of his campaign promises.

Vote early. Vote often.I understand that in some parts of the country it is customary for one to take three dead friends with you to vote. I appreciate any and all of your votes. Even those who are not aristocrats.

Now if you will excuse me, I must go play with my new aristocratic toys.

Pretentious Pontifications: R. Collins for President

R. Collins Farquhar IV, Aristocrat and Scientist.

To the directionless American people.


As my most recent endeavor received little appreciation, it is my great delectation to announce my decision to devote my considerable talents to solving the world’s problems.George W. Bush is in the back pocket of large corporations in a time when there are only two corporations, Intel and Microsoft, who are worthy of any trust. John Kerry is in the back pocket of labor unions and other leftist organizations.

Matters such as war and the economy are best left to the aristocracy, and not to amateurs such as these men. And, being an aristocrat, I have adequate means to support myself for eight years, so I can work without the distraction of trying to tread water above the poverty level on a meager $200,000 salary.

Therefore I am running for president.

John Kerry says he will reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil but he does not say how. This is because this is a popular idea to which he has given no thought. Some political consultant told him this is what the rabble wants to hear. As even a simpleton like my brother David knows, the way one reduces dependency on oil flowing in from countries that hate you is by increasing your dependency on oil flowing in from countries that do not. Alaska has oil. Alaska is not even a foreign country. Venezuela has oil. We already buy oil from Venezuela. We should keep doing that. Russia has oil. We have money. We need oil. Russia needs money.

I will not state the rest of the obvious.

Now let us tackle the difficult matter of war. Being of rich Scottish heritage, and being descended from warriors who nearly succeeded in overthrowing the King of England except for a minor technicality of being betrayed by the French, I know a few things about war. I know more than a few things about winning a war.

I suppose only an aristocrat would notice such things, but it is very appropriate that our troops wear green camouflage, for many of them are not battle-tested. This is part of the reason why we are not winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is painfully obvious to my aristocratic eyes that our troops need more seasoning before we send them off to fight in either of those two countries. Therefore, I propose we declare war on France in order to give our troops an opportunity to learn how to fight a war and gain confidence by absolutely trouncing an enemy. This trenchant and sonorous victory would give our troops confidence and rid us of a distraction. While routing the French army would not provide total preparation for facing the much better-trained guerrilla troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would certainly give them confidence, and confidence is 90% of everything.

The economy is easy to turn around. The aristocracy needs to spend more of its pin money. And when unemployment increases, the aristocracy needs to take on more manservants.

There remains but one problem, but hear me out, for I am going to turn that problem into a tremendous advantage: My age. The reports are true that I am but 29 years of age, which is well short of the 45-year requirement. However, I am in possession of an evil twin brother, who, incredibly, is also 29 years of age. Our combined age of 58 is well over the legal requirement. The advantage is that my brother, whom some consider more personable than myself, can take to matters that make presidents popular with the populace, such as jogging, drinking coffee at McDonald’s, looking at trains going around Christmas trees, signing books, making appearances at sporting events, dedicating libraries, granting interviews, and other such examples of woolgathering. He obviously will not know what is going on, but that is okay, because it will make this presidency appear peccant and naive, but such are the hallmarks of recent U.S. presidencies. Meanwhile, I can be tending to vade me*censored*presidential affairs, such as having my manservants bathe me, and then I can tend to a grueling 4-hour workday, whose tasks will include turning around the economy, bringing jobs back to the United States, and winning wars.

With an identical twin frolicking about the country acting as an aegis, it will be impossible at all times to know my whereabouts. So my misguided fans who like to give me fan letters soaked in alcohol and set on fire, or give me a 21-gun salute all by themselves, will not only have to get past the Secret Service, they first will have to figure out where I am. The additional Secret Service agents needed to protect two co-presidents will help the economy, offsetting some of the abstruce disadvantages of having such an ignoramus in such a prominent and redoubtable position.

My vice president, of course, will be none other than Jacques Pierre Cousteau Bouilliabaise le Raunche de la Stenche. He will, of course, be my main deipnosophist, and act as a fountain of yeasty jeremiads.

My time has come. My country needs me.

Not only do I appreciate your vote, I deserve it.

Myths about the 1904 World’s Fair

I just spent some time over at Wikipedia attempting to demolish the myths that the ice cream cone, hot dog, and hamburger were invented in St. Louis at the 1904 World’s Fair. Hey, one does lots of things when there’s a big pile of stuff needing to be done that one would rather neglect.
The ice cream cone was independently invented in England in the 1880s and New York City in 1896 (the NYC inventor even held a patent on it, dating from December 1903). Perhaps the stories about a vendor running out of bowls and grabbing a Syrian waffle-like pastry and wrapping it up to put ice cream in, and the story of an ice cream sandwich vendor watching someone take the top off an ice cream sandwich and wrap it into a cone, and about a baker imitating with bread the paper and metal cones used in France are all true. Maybe three or four St. Louisans did independently invent the ice cream cone. (I heard today that all myths are true.) But even if they did, they weren’t the first.

The first example of prior art on the hot dog dates back to 64 A.D. The first example of prior art on the hot dog bun dates back to New York City around 1860. A St. Louisan supposedly invented the hot dog bun in the early 1880s (the story goes that a vendor, selling red hots, would loan white gloves to his customers, who then all too often walked off with the gloves. So his brother-in-law, a baker, baked him long dinner rolls to put the red hots in). And in another example of prior art in St. Louis itself, by 1893, the eccentric Christian Frederick Wilhelm Von der Ahe, owner of the St. Louis Browns, was selling hot dogs at Sportsman’s Park. (Whether his intent was to make his patrons thirsty and drink more beer, or to give them something else to keep them from thinking about the horrendous team he was putting on the field is open to speculation.)

The case for the hamburger on a bun is just as weak. But Wikipedia’s response times are down. Examples of prior art: 1885 in Wisconsin, 1885 in Hamburg, New York, and 1891 in Hamburg, Germany.

I don’t doubt that the 1904 World’s Fair made all three of these things much more popular. But it’s an awfully big stretch to say any of them were invented here.

Royal roots

This past summer, someone told me he’d traced his genealogy back to William the Conqueror. I acted impressed, but I didn’t believe him. I dismissed it as wishful thinking.
When I traced myself back to the late 1600s, I felt pretty proud of myself. I mean, I wanted to go back further, but there just didn’t seem to be any trace of Adam Farquhar’s father or Dugal McQueen’s parents. Dugal was shipped over because he participated in a little rebellion intended to overthrow the King of England. I don’t know why Adam did. It was probably something boring, like an inability to get land.

The only way at the time to go back further was to trace a few other mothers’ families. The majority of them only went back a generation, maybe two. Then I got to my great great grandmother, Elizabeth Stratton. I mentioned that via her, I was a very distant cousin of the patriots John Adams and Samuel Adams. But it goes further than that. She also makes me a distant–very distant–cousin of Teddy Roosevelt, his wife, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George Bush. I always knew I probably had distant relatives in Texas, but I didn’t expect Dubya to be among them.

But I wanted direct relatives, so I traced her back. And back. I started finding knights. Then I started finding people with higher noble titles, like Duke and Baron. Then I found someone with a title of Princess. One link later, I’d connected with William the Conqueror. And within a couple of hours, I’d also with Charlemagne (twice) and Alfred the Great.

I also found people who fought in the Battle of Hastings (besides William), a number of kings of France and Italy (you know something’s wrong when you cease to be impressed when you see a note on an ancestor that lists his occupation as the King of Italy), and people who appeared to be among the invaders who led to that whole Anglo-Saxon thing.

Eventually I had to return to the 19th century though. The inconsistency of last names gives you a headache when you research genealogy in 3-digit years.

Along the way, I found speculation that every person of European descent is probably related to Charlemagne. One genealogist has identified more than 50,000 descendants of Charlemagne. I’ve lived half my life in towns smaller than that. I wonder if the same thing is true of every person of British descent and William the Conqueror.

I think I also know where the plot of the John Goodman movie King Ralph came from now.

But now I want to trace my line back to 1382 in Scotland, when the Farquharson clan was founded. I now believe that Adam Farquhar’s father was a James Farquhar, who lived from 1670 to 1728 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and that James’ father was named Robert. That still leaves a gap of 300 years.

An irreverent look at April 4 in history

On this day in 1581, Sir Francis Drake finished his journey around the world. For his efforts, Queen Elizabeth received a message from the Spanish government, saying Drake was nothing more than a pirate who ought to be hanged. She didn’t take them up on the suggestion.
On this day in 1814, Napoleon abdicated his emperorship of France for the first time, defeated at the hand of an alliance between Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria. He was then made emperor of the island of Elba. Dissatisfied with the size of his new 120-square-mile empire, he was back in France by March 1, 1815. Napoleon’s enemies sent armies to stop him, but instead, those armies made him their leader, giving him 340,000 troops with which to return to Paris and set up rule again. His second reign was slightly less impressive than his first, lasting 100 days.

But the length of Napoleon’s second reign was impressive compared to that of William Henry “Tippecanoe” Harrison, the 9th president of the United States, who died on this day in 1841. His inauguration was a month earlier, and March 4, 1841 was a cold day. Harrison, against the advice of your mother and mine, refused to wear a coat and proceeded to give the longest inaugural address in American history, prattling on for two hours. His lack of brevity came at a high price, for he caught pneumonia and became the first American president to die in office. He also claimed the record for the shortest term ever served by an elected president.

If those aren’t the answers to enough trivia questions for you, Tippecanoe was also the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, forming the only grandfather-grandson combination to be president.

And on a somber note, it was on this day in 1968 that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

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