Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Three Observations Worth Pondering

Beloved children’s author Lemony Snicket has visited the Occupy Wall Street protest and wrote up a list of observations that will hopefully chill those within the executive suites looking down upon Zuccotti Park. Here are three of those observations:
  • Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.
  • There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.
  • Nobody wants to fall into a safety net, because it means the structure in which they’ve been living is in a state of collapse and they have no choice but to tumble downwards. However, it beats the alternative.

From Wonkette.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Best book review ... ever.

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves Orcs.”

Read more on The Bonddad Blog.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Occupy Wall Street?

People ask, “What is it about.” Most simply put, it’s about inequity.

Let me outline a thought. The world has always had an extremely wealthy class. It has also always had the poor. Since The Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries) the thing that has changed has been the rise of the middle class. My thought is this: The middle class acts as a buffer between wealth and power on one hand and the peasants with torches and pitch forks on the other hand. The middle class offers hope to the poor in terms of the possibility of upward mobility; it also offers a consumer base that supports the very wealthy. A strong middle class is essential to both peace and prosperity.

In recent history, since the market crash in 2008, those hurt most have been the middle class. The poor were suffering to begin with and when you have nothing to begin with how much can you possibly lose? The wealthy haven’t suffered; virtually 100% of the income growth over the last 20 years has gone to the top 10% of our population … leaving nothing for the other 90%. Those most hurt have been the middle class. Pensions have been cut. Retirement “nest eggs” embodied in home ownership and retirement mutual funds have lost their value. The American Dream, an ideal of the middle class, has been destroyed.

Extraneous thought: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." (Anatole France, from The Red Lily, 1894)

Suddenly, the American middle class is confronted by the prospect of sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing bread - issues with which the poor have had to contend from time immemorial and the very rich have never had to consider.

This inequity coupled with the threat of the withdrawal of community support (like modifications to Social Security benefits and Medicare benefits, the threat of higher taxes for the middle class and lower taxes for “job creators” who aren’t creating any jobs) is, I believe, the prime motivator for the OWS movement. It is the expression of concern for the overall direction which is leading to greater inequity at the continued expense of the middle class.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The List

Let's make lists of names of people who disagree with us ... just like tyrants and dictators throughout history have done ... and let's call it "The Christian National Registry of Atheists."

(or view on YouTube)

Then we can make lists of Muslims. And when we've finished that, we can make lists of the names of Jews ... and trade union members ... and other "enemies of the state". Because lists are how we keep track of things ... and people.

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
~ Sinclair Lewis (attributed)

Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult

"It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe. This trend has several implications, none of them pleasant."

Read the rest on

When I was in college in the 1960s I took a couple Political Science courses dealing with American political extremism. The link above is to one of the best articles I've read on the subject since then. If you're at all interested in what's happening in American politics today, I believe this is a MUST READ article and I recommend it very highly.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Case for Wasteful (Government) Spending

Government waste is like the weather. Everyone talks about it but no one really does anything about it. I suspect that no one does anything about it because what constitutes wasteful government spending is such a subjective thing. Just as the old saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so it is that one man’s wasteful spending is another man’s necessary investment. As with so many things, the definition depends on your point of view.

This is not to say that government spending couldn’t be done more effectively or efficiently or that it isn’t possible to get more bang for the buck. Without doubt, our government could certainly get more bang for the buck in many cases.

But let’s examine a concrete instance. Let’s take Medicare Part D as a starting point. It was enacted as part of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA) and went into effect on January 1, 2006. (I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to figure out who controlled Congress in 2003.)

By the design of the program, the federal government, by law, is not permitted to negotiate prices of drugs with the drug companies, as other federal agencies do in other programs. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which is allowed to negotiate drug prices and establish a formulary, pays 58% less for drugs, on average, than Medicare Part D. For example, Medicare pays $785 for a year's supply of Lipitor (atorvastatin), while the Veterans Administration (VA) pays $520.

From the point of view of the tax payer, the difference between what the drug companies are charging the government Medicare program and what they charge the VA could easily be defined as wasteful spending. However, from the point of view of the drug companies who lobbied for the provision and the congressional legislators who supported the measure, it’s extremely important to protect the profitability of the drug companies. So, whether or not Medicare spending $265 more than the VA for the same medication is wasteful is a function of which side your on … the tax payers’ side or on the side of corporations.

That spending difference was enacted into law and, because it is the law passed by Congress, no one in the administration of Medicare can do anything about it without breaking the law. However, those in the administration of the Medicare program certainly get the blame for being inefficient and ineffective and wasteful.

The $4 billion worth of medical-related fraud the feds recaptured in 2010 is presumably a fraction of the taxpayer-subsidized scams that the pharma and health care providers got away with. The Top Ten Federal False Claims Act settlements in 2010 involved health care, with pharmaceutical company fraud accounting for eight.

Was the $4 billion a waste of taxpayer’s money? Most people would agree that it was. However, the obvious solution to some is to cut the Medicare program with the consequence that fewer government employees are available to investigate false claims … because it’s paying government employees that’s the wasteful spending?

But there’s a even bigger point. When talking about wasteful spending people seem to argue from the point of view that what they consider wasteful spending is basically putting money into a rocket ship and blasting it off into outer space. The fact of the matter is that even “wasteful” spending is money that, through the government purchases of goods and services, gets circulated throughout the economy. The money that isn’t captured as corporate profits (think $600 toilet seats) goes to pay people to manufacture those products or perform those services.

All systems have waste. Waste cannot be eliminated. At best, it can be controlled.

When we talk about wasteful spending in government, it might be a good idea to ask “compared to what?” For example, the internal combustion engine that powers your car has an efficiency rating on the order of 18% to 20%. That means that between 18% and 20% of the energy released from .the burning of fuel in the engine is used to propel the car down the road. The remaining 80% of the energy is released as heat and is dissipated into the atmosphere, accomplishing nothing. By contrast, Medicare a government program, considered by some to be very inefficient, provides a decent standard of health care for approximately 45 million Americans with only a 3% administrative cost (that could be analogous to the useless heat from your car engine) while 97% of its funds go to directly to individual health care (excluding fraud as mentioned above, of course).

But that’s not comparing apples to apples. So lets compare the Medicare 3% administrative cost to the 15% to 20% administrative cost associated with private health care providers. Incidentally, you can add corporate wasteful spending on top of that (interminable staff meetings that accomplish nothing, for example, because someone has to pay all those employees who attend for their time).

The take away from all of this is that government waste is subjective. It is a favorite hobby horse ridden by those who oppose anything that resembles a government program … while they neglect to mention that they were the ones who created the waste.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Modern Tea Party: An Error of Historical Analogy

Over the last several years I have often marveled at the lack of knowledge and understanding of history that is afoot among self proclaimed patriots dressed in 18th Century costumes claiming to be the rightful heirs to the Founding Fathers of this country.

The original Tea Party was held in Boston Harbor in protest of a tax on tea imported from England. The battle cry was “No Taxation Without Representation”. Parliament in Great Britain unilaterally passed the tax to be levied on colonists living in the American colonies in order to mitigate the costs of a British army sent to America to defend the colonies from the French during the French and Indian War. The British colonists in America resented the tax on the grounds that it was imposed on them while they had no elected representatives in Parliament. They were simply not allowed to vote.

In it’s current incarnation, the Tea Party has currently had all the representation they voted for. “No Taxation Without Representation” does not apply.

As for being the legitimate heirs to the Founding Fathers, they forget that it was the Founding Fathers who drew up a Constitution that established a relatively strong Federal government while reserving some rights for the states (and through the Bill of Rights; the first ten amendments to that Constitution) protected citizens from the power of the central government as well as from the powers of the various states.

In my opinion, the modern Tea Party has little in common with the original Tea Party nor do they have any understanding of what the Founding Fathers intended. However, I do believe that there is a more accurate historical analogy that could be applied.

The current Tea Party is opposed to the duly elected government of the United States. John Wilkes Booth was also opposed to the duly elected government of the United States. The Tea Party of today are strong advocates of states rights, the primary motivation of the Confederacy during the American civil war. John Wilkes Booth, as a strong southern sympathizer, also believed that states rights were more important than a central government. The modern Tea Party believes secession is a valid option for a state within the Union. John Wilkes Booth shared that opinion. There is ample evidence that today’s Tea Party are, at the very least, latent racists. In his strong support of slavery of black people in the south, John Wilkes Booth was a blatant racist. Today’s Tea Party believe it is appropriate to resort to Second Amendment remedies if they don’t get their way in legislation. Again, John Wilkes Booth shared that opinion and took his case to the logical conclusion.

Making the case that today’s Tea Party is somehow related to the original Boston Tea Party patriots and the Founding Fathers is a stretch and requires too many qualifiers. Making the case that the modern Tea Party is more analogous to John Wilkes Booth and his band of conspirators that assassinated Abraham Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War requires far less in terms of intellectual gymnastics.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Basic Math Lesson

"The GDP equation has four variables (long-time readers, please be kind. I'm talking to Washington here and they are stupid): C (consumer spending) + I (gross private investment) + X (net exports) + G (government spending). Right now, the consumer is OK but not great, investment is fair, but not great and the US is a net importer, so that subtracts from growth. That leaves government spending."

My comment: An economy is value (money) in motion. If the private industry is not spending (it's deleveraging or paying down debt), consumer spending is off (joblessness tends to do that) and we're a net importer (see the trade deficit), what do you suppose will happen to the economy if government spending is put on an austerity basis with draconian cuts in spending?

Cutting government spending slows the movement of value. Government spending (even wasteful spending) is not putting money in a rocket ship and blasting it into outer space. Government spending contributes to moving value (money) within the economy.

If you're sorta liberal, if you're a rational conservative, if your opinions are formed by facts, then read the article. If you're a Tea Potty supporter, don't bother. We already know that facts don't matter to you and that anything longer than a bumper sticker is too long for your ADD to navigate.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Deficits, Debts and Taxes

The deficit, which has everyone freaked out, is running about 10% of GDP. The people who are freaking out seem to forget that in 1942, government spending created a deficit on the order of 30% of GDP in the ramp up for our full and active participation in WWII. (The Debt in 1942 was about 120% of GDP while current Debt is about 110%.) In 1943, government spending was not significantly lower (as a percentage of GDP) than in 1942.

People like to say that WWII got us out of the Depression, and it did ... but it wasn't Hitlers spending that did the trick ... it was our government spending that fired up our ship yards; it was our government spending that converted The American Seating Company in Grand Rapids, MI from making folding chairs and cast iron theater seat frames to making B-17 bombers. Our government spending paid (through military orders) for companies to hire hundreds of thousands of people - nay! millions of people - who in turn bought groceries, shoes and clothing from local merchants causing them to hire more clerical help, causing the merchants to place more orders with their suppliers which caused their suppliers to hire more workers to produce more goods ... because there was demand. I wonder how a Balanced Budget Amendment would have worked out for us if it had been passed in 1941. How's your German? Japanese?

By 1946, at the end of the war, the deficit that had been running at 25-30% of GDP reversed and became a surplus - because government spending at previous levels was no longer necessary and GDP had increased astronomically. We became a manufacturing powerhouse and an export giant in a world where all of our competitors had been devestated. The deficit had moved to surplus in the space of less than a year. Eisenhower used that surplus to initiate the Interstate Highway System in the early 1950s. He used to people's money to do something for the common good, something that benefited individuals and corporations and still does to this day. (Incidentally, one of the specifications of the Interstate Highway System was that it could double as landing space for military aircraft in the event the threat from the USSR came home to visit us. Ever wonder why those Interstate lanes are separated from each other as much as they are throughout the country?)

I find it interesting to hear so many so-called Conservatives long for those simpler, idyllic days of the 1950s and 1960s when there was full employment and dad made enough money from his job that he could buy an affordable house while mom stayed home and took care of their 2.3 kids. They long for those wonderful days when inflation was less than 3% and there was a job for anyone that wanted one.

I find myself asking, why are they so reluctant to support a tax structure that made those days possible?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Quote of the day

""In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell."

~ H. L. Menckin

Friday, July 22, 2011

Insulting Religion

Pat Condell, a favorite of mine, weighs in on offering religion as much respect as religion affords those who don't believe.

No more respect, but certainly no less respect.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tea Party Logic

It seems to me that there are some in Congress who think you should stop making the mortgage payments (or paying the rent) if you feel your wife and kids are spending too much on food and health care.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Antiscientists are leading America down a dangerous road

Today's GOP antiscience fervor is somewhat new for America. The last time it got close was about a century ago, when the Democrats went antiscience under the leadership of anti-evolution campaigner William Jennings Bryan. Back then, the Republicans were the party of science, reason, finance, environmentalism and progressivism.

But even then, things weren't as virulent as they are now, because the push was coming mostly from Southern social and religious conservatives, while today those conservatives are joined by the vested interests and deep pockets of big business. This is driving almost all of the new GOP freshmen lawmakers to take positions that are vehemently anti-climate science, pro-creationism, pro-abstinence only education, and seeking to personally vilify, harrass and attack scientists for their own political gain.

This has never been a successful strategy, and today's GOP should abandon it. Americans should support Republican candidates that are pro-science. Nations that have strayed too far down the path of placing ideology ahead of science have come out losers, both economically and in terms of global power. Consider these examples from history, that are eerily echoed in today's antiscience politics:

Read the rest on Neorenaissance ...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Be a Budget Hero!

Think you might do better than President Barack Obama and congressional leaders in picking and choosing what government spending to cut — or taxes to raise — to stave off a debt showdown that could wreck the economy? A new computer game gives you, too, the chance to play "Budget Hero."

"Budget Hero 2.0" is an update of an original version that came out in 2008. It shows players just how difficult it might be to carry out their grand policy objectives — universal health care, extending the Bush tax cuts or ending foreign aid — and still keep the government from either becoming irrelevant, or going broke.

Read more at SFGate ...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Author offers evolutionary explanation for religion

"When it comes to religion, we tend to talk about what we believe rather than why we believe it. In his new book "Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith," J. Anderson Thomson, a Virginia psychiatrist, offers a scientific answer to the why question.

"He argues that religion, created by our ancestors, played a key role in human evolution but that will "wither away." Thomson answered questions in an email interview."

The article concludes:

"Since the Scopes trial in 1925, there have been about 20 cases, including two before the U. S. Supreme Court, over the teaching of evolution, creationism and intelligent design. Science always won. There will ultimately be a case about teaching the evolutionary psychology of religion in public schools. If the past is prologue, the religious right will object and litigate. Science will prevail again because victory goes to the side with the heavy artillery. Science has the big guns – evidence.

It is no longer a question of whether religion shall wither away, just when."

Read the rest in the Statesman ...

In a somewhat related item, today's Quote of the Day from Frantz Fanon is: "Fervor is the weapon of choice for the impotent."

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Questioning Some Economic Assumptions

Let me see if I have this right. I could be wrong, so feel free to correct me.

For thirty years you believed Republicans when they said deficits don't matter. While they were promoting this idea, you were happy with the tax cuts they made, believing that "starving the beast" was a good thing because Republicans told you it was.

Now you've changed your tune and you believe that deficits do matter but hasn't occurred to you that they lied to you for thirty years about deficits. Deficits do matter and they told you they didn't.

In the meantime, they've cut taxes - i.e. revenue - and made up the difference by borrowing so that the government could maintain it's obligations to it's people. Even though they've cut revenue income and replaced it with borrowed funds that must be repaid, you now believe them when they tell you that we have a spending crisis and not a revenue crisis?

Beyond that, when it comes to creating jobs you believe Republicans when they tell you that further tax cuts (additional reductions in revenue forcing more borrowing) will somehow create jobs. Yet the numbers are pretty clear. During the Clinton administration (eight years), more jobs were created than during the Reagan administration (eight years), the Bush I administration (four years) and the Bush II administration (eight years) ... combined! But, in spite of the numbers, you believe them.

When Republicans tell you that "tax credits" are a good thing you believe them because you believe anything that reduces taxes for anyone must be a good thing ... and because that's what Republicans have been telling you for years. They don't bother to mention that even though "tax credits" may reduce taxes for some, they leave a gap in tax revenue that must be made up for either by additional borrowing or higher taxes for others.

For years Republicans have told you that government is inefficient and you believe them ... in spite of the fact that Medicare (a government administered program) delivers excellent health care for 41.61 million people with only a 3% overhead while private insurance companies require more the 15% to provide service that's not as good. Paying 5x for the same or inferior service doesn't seem like the epitome of efficiency. (Ask anyone who's paid for their own insurance for any period of time before qualifying for Medicare which of the two they prefer.) Keep in mind that for the most part Medicare delivers services to people who are 65+; people who tend to need more health care services, while private insurance companies a.) serve a younger demographic who tend to need less health care overall, b.) have eliminated people with preexisting conditions (i.e., people who actually need health care) and retain people who don't need health care and c.) limit coverage with it gets too expensive - making the disparity even more striking.

Every system has waste but when Republicans talk about waste, they only talk about it in terms of government waste, without comparison to anything else ... but you believe them when they say government is wasteful. It is. But compared to what?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

10 Republican Lies About the Bush Tax Cuts

So it's come down to this. On Saturday, David Stockman, the legendary Reagan budget chief who presided over the Gipper's supply-side tax cuts, announced that the "debt explosion has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party's embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don't matter if they result from tax cuts." The next day, the former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, who famously helped sell the 2001 Bush tax cuts to Congress, declared them simply "disastrous."

Sadly, Stockman and Greenspan are just about the only voices in the Republican Party speaking the truth about the fiscal devastation wrought by the expiring Bush tax cuts. After all, the national debt tripled under Ronald Reagan, only to double again during the tenure of George W. Bush. And as it turns out, the Bush tax cut windfall for the wealthy accounted for almost half the budget deficits during his presidency and, if made permanent, would contribute more to the U.S. budget deficit than the Obama stimulus, the TARP program, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and revenue lost to the recession - combined. Of course, you'd never know it listening to the leaders of GOP.

Read up on the 10 Lies here ...

Sunday, May 08, 2011

An Open Apology to an Ayn Rand Fan

I'm sorry you've taken what I've said as an attack on your intellect. I admit that my interpersonal skills are flawed but I honestly though I was giving your opinions all the respect they are due. After all, you offered a tightly reasoned argument (in the form of an urban legend written by someone else that you didn't credit) and concluded "Socialism doesn't work."

I attempted to question your logic by offering a counter example of a situation in which capitalism didn't work (18th and early 19th century fire companies*) followed by a text book recitation of why it's a logical error to extract a general principle from a single, specific instance: effectively, if a saw fails at pounding nails does that mean it fails as a tool?

You quickly, succinctly and eloquently refuted my argument - well, not really refuted it. To refute it would involve pointing out where my error was. What you did say was, "I don't buy it."

Now, given that the example of fire companies that I gave is historically accurate and the recitation I provided demonstrating that it's a logical error to draw a general conclusion from a single instance parallels every textbook on the subject of logic, I can only conclude that what you're not buying is logic itself and that you have developed a means of analysis superior to logic. I'll take your word for it. Unfortunately, my intellect is saddled with the constraints of logic which render me incapable of "free thinking". I now recognize that logic is a handicap like the blinders worn by slavish draft horses that prevent them from looking at anything that isn't directly in front of them.

I admit that I made a grave error in neglecting to point out that the socialism practiced by the successful constitutional democracies of Europe (and Japan) is not quite the same socialism that was practiced by the totalitarian Soviet Union - which history indeed tells us failed - so you were right about history! Well, you were sorta right... if you assume the the socialism of the successful countries of Europe was the same as the Soviet socialism... but, heck, the Soviet Union did actually have "Socialist" in their name and that should be enough to settle the matter! (Of course, the National Socialist German Workers Party [NAZI] had socialist in their name, too, yet they were rabidly anti-Communist. History tells us that socialists were among the first people they sent to the camps .... but that's another story altogether.)

In the meantime, we'll just have to wait a bit for history to prove that the now successful countries of Europe will fail as a result of their misguided implementations of what I believe you would define as socialist ideas throughout their economies. But from my read of what you'd written, it's obvious that history will vindicate your position and that the now successful countries of Europe (and Japan) will eventually fail.

Far from questioning your intellect, I admire it! History shows us that single minded, blind dedication to an idea often triumphs over mere logic. That's why I recommended that you establish an economics consultancy in order to save the countries of Europe (and Japan) from their inevitable failure. I would not presume to do so myself because my knowledge of economics (hampered as it is by the restrictions of logic) is incomplete and obviously inadequate. But you, on the other hand - unhampered by logic and in possession of the truth that history shows us - that socialism doesn't work - have far more to offer than I would.

So, bottom line, I most sincerely apologize if you took what I have written as questioning your intellect. I hope that you will accept my apology in the spirit in which it's offered.

*Late 18th and early 19th century for-profit fire companies did, in the spirit of totally unrestricted , unregulated free enterprise, evolved a business model that would be admired by Mafia dons running down and dirty protection rackets in the early and mid-20th century - as in "pay up or we'll burn yer f&%king house down."

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Who Really Won This Round?

The question that troubles me is who is going to have the last laugh?

In his first taped statement following the 9/11 attack, bed Linen outlined his strategy. His objective, he said, was to bankrupt America. His plan was to do something very dramatic (9/11) to which we'd have to react. He succeeded. He anticipated that we would over react. We did. We put an army in the field at great cost. Bed Linen must have been rolling with laughter when we invaded Iraq and opened a second war in a place that would be significantly more expensive to field an army that Afghanistan. That it had nothing to do with him and his 9/11 attack on us was frosting on the cake. A standing army in somebody else's country generally pi$$es of the people of that country (not to mention all of their friends). The invasion of Iraq a.) divided all those who supported us in our actions in Afghanistan to that point; b.) united our enemies in the Arab world and c.) provided an unimaginably fantastic recruiting tool for al Qaeda and their franchises throughout the world.

Now, with a war cost estimated by some to be on the order of $3T (economist Joseph Stiglitz [1],) including external war fighting, internal security and off budget, "emergency" funding .. we are finding that we are close to bankruptcy. Mission accomplished?

Bed Linen had a template and a proof of concept already in hand. The Soviet Union was tied up in Afghanistan for a decade and, as much as some of us like to think that Reagan telling Gorby to "tear down that wall" did the trick - it was Afghanistan that was the straw on the camels back that broke the Soviet Union. Their economy simply couldn't sustain an arms race with us and a never ending war in Afghanistan. One or the other, maybe ... but not both.

While we played checkers for the better part of a decade, bed Linen was playing chess. He's dead ... but we're close to bankrupt and running around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying to figure a way out of a dilemma we've created for ourselves by sending armies to do what a team of SEALS supported by good "police work" could have accomplished in the first place.

We got him! Yes!

But I don't think there's much to celebrate if, in the end, he accomplishes his mission anyway.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Random thoughts on bin Laden

"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."
— Mark Twain

OBAMA: "I made killing or capturing Bin Laden our top priority"
GOP: "NO Gay Marriage" (because their so tough on terrorism)

Some are suggesting that Bush get substantial credit for tracking down bin Laden. Perhaps they have a point. After all, Bush made thorough search of all the places that Osama bin Laden probably wouldn't be... like Iraq, for example. Then, Bush having ruled out all the places bin Laden wasn't, Barack Obama only had to focus on the places in which bin Laden probably was. The process of elimination is a well regarded forensic tool and, seeing that there were more places in which bin Laden wasn't, the argument could be made that Bush did the lion's share of the work.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Facing the Unknowable

A fundamentalist, Christian acquaintance of mine sent me a note with a link to an article describing the worship services of the Pentecostal Church in rather derogatory terms. The subject line on his note was, "There's certainly whackos in my world".

Perhaps I was incorrect in assuming that he was trying to point out that we were both somehow on the same side or maybe that he was more rational than some other people (and therefore somehow superior).

I was a little taken aback. We've known each other for more than a decade. I'm familiar with his fundamentalism and he knows I have a rather dim view of organized religions in general. It took me two days to collect my thoughts and respond. The following is my response:
In the war over who's imaginary friend is more real, the actions of the Pentecostals look no more strange to me than the dresses the Popes wear or Aztecs imagining that ripping the living hearts out of their virgin daughters in the hope it would bring rain or 21st century people looking to the pronouncements of desert dwellers from 2,000 years ago, who herded sheep and goats for a living and thought the earth was flat, for predictions about our near future.

The holders of each of those belief sets embraces his beliefs equally seriously and equally sincerely. Each believes with equal conviction that they have a handle on the absolute truth. For any of them to imagine that their beliefs are somehow superior to another's is an act of simple hubris, allowing one believer to feel the smugness of holding themselves apart a from their brothers and looking looking down on them.

They all get an equal level of respect from me, and frankly, less respect than it might be for the reason stated above.

It seems to me that, when facing the humanly unknowable, one should be more humble and consider: "What if I'm wrong?"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ayn Rand set the standard

I've been doing some research, looking for the one place on the planet where those who live their lives by the values expressed by Ayn Rand would feel most at home. Given that the United States with all its taxes and regulations and it's nanny-welfare state is obviously a highly uncomfortable environment for them, I've had to broaden my horizons and look elsewhere. But first, the criteria for the ideal state:

1.) Government so small that it can be drown in a bathtub.
2.) An environment that is "business friendly", that is to say one that is unencumbered by regulations or restrictions on business.
3.) Possessing a society that encourages "free enterprise", allowing for the minimum investment of capital to provide opportunities for maximum profit.
4.) Minimized or absence of income, corporate, capital gains or death taxation which would allow those who earn the opportunity to keep what they earn without suffering the forced redistribution of wealth by government bureaucracies.

As uncomfortable as it is to live in the taxed, restricted and regulated conditions found in the USA, I had to rule out a list of countries that were significantly more taxed, regulated and restricted. This list included virtually all of the countries of Europe (as well as Canada). Though the countries of Europe are said to enjoy a high standard of living and rank high on virtually every index measuring quality of life, they are virtually all "socialist" countries that tax their citizens without mercy to support their nanny-welfare state programs of universal health care and/or universal education. It is obvious, even with the most cursory examinations that the people of these countries have been deluded by a liberal press into believing that life is good - not realizing that life could be so much better if they would only adopt the principals outlined by Ann Rand in her novels, "Atlas Shrugged" and "Fountainhead".

Most of the countries of South and Central America are burdened with "socialized medicine". Besides, Banana Republics have a bad habit of nationalizing things.

China must be ruled out as well. Though China offers a "business friendly" atmosphere, with few restrictions or regulations and minimal concerns about business impacts on the overall environment, their centralized government can change policy on a dime and nationalize the fruits of an entrepreneur's labors over night. China also mandates through it's laws that their government be part owner in any business franchise originating outside the country. This usurpation of ownership by the government and the uncertainty of tomorrow's business policy is an anathema to honest free enterprise.

Many of the other countries of Southeast and South Asia fall in the category of totalitarian dictatorships. These must be ruled out as possibilities, too. Tax policy and other restrictions and regulations imposed on business span the spectrum from capricious and unpredictable to draconian and rapacious.

This applies equally to the countries of the Middle East, where successful businesses are family business and, in many cases, only one family (the ruling family) is allowed to have a successful business larger than a push cart.

After ruling out most of the countries on the planet as being hostile to the Ian Rand approach - either for their tax policy, the size and strength of their government or their nanny-welfare approach to their people - I believe I have isolated one country that provides an ideal Randian environment. Well, perhaps not ideal, but certainly more idea than all the others and it meets all of the criteria that I've listed above.

In this singular country one may, with a minimal investment, band together with several other investors and launch a free enterprise venture which, if successful, holds the potential for an extremely high ROI (Return On Investment). The successful venture will not be limited by government interference through either regulation or taxation - the government is, in fact, small enough to drown in a bathtub! The government of this country provides no burdening, tax supported public services, providing an atmosphere where real individual responsibility can flourish.

This Randian paradise offers a mild climate and uncounted miles of un-zoned beach front property just waiting to be developed without pesky environmental restriction - a perfect place for Atlas to Shrug to his heart's content, away from the pesky proletariat that is always threatening to unionize and agitate for handouts they've not worked for. Here, the entrepreneur is not burdened by demands for five day work weeks or overtime pay by those he employs. No more paid vacations for the worker bees! Here, true to the Randian Ideal, success provides its rewards in full measure and, as they should, those who fail fall by the wayside.

In an act of good faith and brotherhood, I herewith offer to coordinate the relocation - of ANY who long for this level of freedom, who want their personal responsibility to shine in this Fountainhead Paradise - to this Randian Nervanah - Somalia.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Ducabores Explain Economics

My father once told me a story about the Ducabores, a tribe in the wilds of Siberia. It seems that a rare species of potent psychotropic mushroom grew in their region and, when ever some of the mushrooms were found, it was cause for great celebration. On the evening of the find, the women brewed a strong tea from the mushrooms. However, because the mushrooms were very rare, only the headmen of the tribe (the leaders and wealthiest) could have the tea. The good news was that the tea lost only a little of it's potency as it passed through the body so, the lesser of the tribe waited for the inevitable, cups in hand near the tribal latrine. When the headmen came to relieve themselves, the precious, golden liquid was captured in the waiting cups so that all in the tribe could share in the good times.

When ever I hear someone use the term "trickle down economics", this image leaps to mind.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Governing with Republicans - Bill Maher

MAHER: New Rule – Fantasies are for sex, not public policy. When you go down the list of useless distractions that make up the Republican Party agenda; public unions and Sharia law, anchor babies and a mosque at ground zero, ACORN and National Public Radio, the war on Christmas, the New Black Panthers, Planned Parenthood, Michelle Obama’s war on desserts…

…you realize that one reason nothing gets done in America is that one of the political parties puts so much more into fantasy problems. Governing this country with Republicans is like rooming with a meth addict.

You want to address real life problems like when the rent is due and they’re saying “How can you even think of that stuff when there’s police scanner voices coming out of the air conditioning unit?”


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tax Incentives Might Not Work the Way You Think They Do

Ya know ... I've been wondering. Why do these "business friendly" folks think for a minute that low taxes are particularly good for business. They aren't.

As an investor (I've got a couple bucks on the table), if taxes are low, I'm encouraged to speculate ... follow a run up, then take profits at the high point because low taxes means there's no significant tax penalty for taking my profits out of the company.

On the other hand, if taxes are high, the incentive is to leave my profits on the table, invested in the company because, if I take the profits I get hit with high taxes on the income (increase in stock price). As long as I leave my money invested in the company it can grow with the company and suffer no tax penalty ... and it can grow infinitely as long as I don't trade, taking the money out of the company I invested in.

There are implications that go further. Companies can't count on my investment for expansion, which in turn would mean jobs. If they maximize profits on a quarterly basis, they can be assured I'll be there .... for the short term ... but not for the long haul. Higher taxes gives me incentive to keep my money in place ... giving them a resource they can count on ... which allows them to grow the business (rather than playing games with the books to satisfy short term speculation). Lower taxes give me incentive to keep my money on the move.

One of the most productive times in history was the period following the Second World War (1945 to Reagan) ... businesses expanded, we had a steel industry, we had a textile industry and we exported more than we imported. We made money hand over fist ... and taxes on income at the high end were between 70% and 90%. An investment was an investment in the classical sense of the term. It stayed put. Now, with lower taxes, so-called investment moves in and out of companies like the tides. At high tide a company cannot imagine expansion or hiring because they know that low tide is coming.

I'm sure I'm not the only person on the planet who's aware of this. Personally, it doesn't matter to me whether the taxes are higher or lower - you play the game by the rules and, be assured, all rules have good sides and bad sides ... changing the tax rules only shifts the strategy, not necessarily the outcome.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The absurdity of contemporary “free thinking” -or- things aren’t always what we say they are

I have recently encountered several people in the media, in discussions on the web and in person who label themselves as “free thinkers”.

Traditionally “freethought” or “free thinking” had a meaning. Wikipedia tells us that “Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any dogma.

It’s ironic that the term “traditionally” might be appropriate when refering to a definition of “freethought”. Perhaps “historically” would rest more easily on the ears? But I think there’s a case for it’s use. In western thought the idea of “freethought” has its origins in the period of The Enlightenment with thinkers like Voltaire in Europe and in the new world, Jefferson and Adams, who rejected the ideas of the past, specifically ideas like the divine right of kings and formulated the ideas of self determination to replace them. In a conservative society predicated on a hierarchy of aristocrats, clergy and commoners with traditions that had a place for everyone and kept everyone in their place, they imagined a world in which “all men are created equal” and where ideas survived on the basis of their merit rather than the presumed pedigree or inherited power of their proponent. They were the liberals of their time, embracing change to the extent that they actively mapped out how it could happen. They placed themselves in direct opposition to those who fought to maintain the status quo.

There are those among us now who consider themselves “free thinkers.” I don’t claim that status for myself. I only claim to be a thinker at best. It seems to me that to add a modifier to anything generally limits it. For example, if I use the word “apple”, one could anticipate that the picture balloons that appear in the heads of our readers could range from “red apple” to “yellow apple” to “candied apple” and “caramel apple”. If I modify the word “apple” to read “Granny Smith apple”, how many of those picture balloons instantly pop, replaced by a totally different image of a “green apple”? The word “apple” has been modified (and limited) by the words “Granny Smith”. I believe now the same principle functions when we modify “thought” to “freethought”.

We are told that things evolve over time. Is it possible that historical free thinking has evolved into something we might not recognize by reading the “traditional” definition of the term?

So, lets ask ourselves (if we are capable of questioning ourselves and our assumptions), just what is the meaning of “free thinking” these days? Is it freedom from something? Or is it the freedom to do something?

Perhaps it is the freedom from something. Is it the freedom from the culture in which we were raised? I don’t think that’s possible. The background of our culture, brought to us by our parents and by our religion (or lack of religious belief) or by our education all provide our tools for thought and the measures by which we judge our thoughts and the ideas of others.

As an example of how one can go terribly wrong by ignoring their cultural background, I offer a statement made by Kathleen Parker, a Caucasian, conservative, newspaper columnist and TV opinion show host, retained presumably for her ability to “think freely”; to analyze how things are in reality and to comment accordingly in order to provide perspective to her readers.

In a recent column dealing with racial issues Parker said, “I don’ t see things through a racial filter.” This blithely ignores the fact that we are all of one race or another. Her presumption here is that only people of races other than hers see things through a racial filter and that somehow, presumably because she’s white, she does not. I’m sure that, without realizing it, Ms. Parker called into question the validity of any opinion she had on the topic of race with such a statement. The fact of the matter is that Ms. Parker most certainly sees things through a racial filter … the filter that is part and parcel of being a Caucasian and, more specifically, a Caucasian in America. As much as Ms. Parker imagines her thinking is “free”, in this case free of prejudice … the reality does not pass even the most casual examination.

Does being a “free thinker” mean that we have freed our imagination to think about anything in any way that we can imagine? Does it mean that we are free to imagine our own facts. Or does it mean that, because we have freed our imagination, we are free to pick our facts and ignore that facts that don’t fit with what we imagine to be true? It would be contrary to the historical definition of “freethought” but evidence suggests that selective reality is perfectly consistent with contemporary interpretations of the term

Does “free thinking” mean the freedom from preconceived notions? Perhaps it does, but that is true only if we continually question our assumptions and our sense of being right. If we do not continually question what we believe and consider the possibility that we might be wrong then we run the risk of going a long way down the proverbial garden path. If we cannot admit to ourselves that our opinions might be wrong, it becomes doubly difficult for us when someone else provides evidence that we are, in fact, wrong. If we do not continually question what we believe, we run the risk of painting ourselves into a corner.

In a 2006 interview, Chalmers Johnson, author of “Blowback”, a long time CIA consultant and historian of the post-cold war era defended himself against the assertion that he had changed his position from the time when he was considered the consummate “cold warrior”. “When I get new information, I change my position.” he said. “What do you do?”

If the primary objective of thought is to find truth, then the process must be to gather the evidence and allow the evidence available to determine our conclusions. To pursue a conclusion by seeking only evidence that supports our opinion while ignoring the evidence that does not only serves to promote an agenda but at best it can only provide a half truth. Beyond that, if the evidence we have can be demonstrated to be false, we must remove it from our consideration and recalculate all of our conclusions that depend on it. All evidence must be tested for truth.

Or perhaps the contemporary term “free thinker” is simply used by some as a self serving means to distinguish themselves from others who are merely “thinkers”, implying that somehow “free thought” is of a better quality than just plain old thought. But that begs a question. How is “free thinking” better than “thinking”? What is it about “free thinking” that provides a greater guard against logical fallacies, the dread faulty premise and preconceived notions? What quality does “free thinking” possess that is a defense against prejudice and bigotry, doctrine and dogma? What is it about modifying that idea of “thinker” that liberates thought rather than restricts it?

It's presumptuous to adopt an appellation that has historically referred to giants of liberal though while promoting conservative agendas. To label ourselves “free thinking” while cutting and pasting conservative orthodoxy, foisting it on our readers as our own thinking, is to create an oxymoron on par with a “giant shrimp”. And when we betray the title by abandoning the evidence and the rules of logic by being dogmatic and doctrinaire, we render “freethought” the punchline of a joke that we wear on our sleeves.

Or to summarize, using a quote from “The Princess Bride”; “That word you used? I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

(If anyone is interested in precedents for this particular abuse of language; using a word for a thing that is in total conflict with the reality of the thing, I would recommend Googling the Orwellian term “newspeak”.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: "All Of Life Is A Wager"

... or catch the video on YouTube.

In my opinion, few people have a greater understanding of life than Christopher Hitchens.