Category Archives: Dysfunctional Government

Tyranny with your Dinner?

Out in the wider world, things are slowly getting back to normal, almost:

  • Buses are back to the normal routine of getting on the front end of the bus and paying the fare, but the white line beyond which passengers are not permitted to stand when the bus is in motion has been relocated to keep passengers from standing too close to the driver.
  • Museums are reopening, but one must make a reservation before visiting.
  • Blink, the gym I used to frequent before the emergency, has reopened.  But the showers are closed, and one is encouraged to make a reservation.  I can resume my membership, or keep it suspended until the end of October.  I think I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, a proper meal inside a restaurant is still prohibited in New York City.  There’s outdoor dining, which is OK while the weather is nice, if one doesn’t get caught in a public protest (‘shame on you for flaunting your dining privilege!’), but will likely not be so wonderful come November.  One can also cheat a bit, and go outside the city (Hoboken is a few minutes from Greenwich Village on the PATH train), but that’s a so-so substitute.

Uncle Andy (Governor Cuomo) and Uncle Bill (Mayor DeBlasio) were maundering earlier this month about how resuming indoor dining would be ‘too risky.’  After raging at President Trump and insisting that they would make decisions driven by science and data, they fumbled about uselessly.  Governor Cuomo feared that indoor dining would bring about a resurgence of Covid… unless, perhaps, we allocated 4,000 police officers to mind people’s behavior in restaurants.  (In fairness, this is the same Uncle Andy who predicted dire consequences without 30,000 ventilators for the anticipated Covid victims of New York State.)  While I first came across this item on a conservative news feed, I checked a couple of more mainstream news sources to make sure it was real.

The Labor Day weekend felt close to normal.  My wife and I had lunch in Little Italy: there were fewer people in the streets than in past years, but it was comfortably busy.  We could get a seat on the subway returning home, but not a socially distant seat like in past weeks. 

A couple of days ago, Uncle Andy relented and put forth a plan for indoor dining in New York City, to take effect 30 September.  Restaurants would be limited to 25% capacity, with tables at least six feet apart, no seating at the bar, temperature checks at the door, and masks required to be worn when not seated.

But the worst part, to my view, is that one member of each party must identify himself for contact tracing.  If someone visits the same restaurant and later turns up positive, the Covid police will show up at my door demanding to know who I’ve been hanging out with for the past month.

The icky part is that restaurants with indoor and outdoor dining spaces (October is still mostly nice for outdoor dining in New York City) will probably collect contract tracing information from everyone, not just the indoor diners.  Choosing to eat outdoors to avoid contact tracing probably won’t work.

Oh, yes: New York City will provide ‘a team of 400 enforcement personnel’ to ensure compliance.  Not quite 4,000 cops, but it’s still onerous and stupid.

The saddest part is the response from the restaurant community reported on the New York State Web page.  The Restaurant Association and the owners of various restaurants are unanimous in praising and thanking Uncle Andy for his wise leadership.  Alas, he has them all by the throat.

Plastic Bags

A while back, I was at the Trader Joe’s, buying groceries.  I had brought a reusable bag.

“Oh, aren’t you saving the planet!” the cashier said.

No, I’m just trying not to be wasteful.

She enthusiastically told me that the store had stopped providing plastic bags, and that it was wonderful ‘for the planet.’  The store now had only paper bags for carrying things home, unless you wanted to buy a reusable bag.

I’m skeptical:

  • Paper bags are bigger and heavier, and require more energy (i.e. fossil fuels) to produce and transport than plastic bags.
  • Plastic bags are more readily reusable.  They come in handy anytime one has extra items to carry.  Paper bags are good for covering school textbooks, but my need for that went away quite some time ago.
  • Paper bags can be a home for bugs.  When I moved out to my first apartment, I had a bug problem.  I sprayed under the kitchen sink, but the bugs migrated to the stack of paper bags I stuck between the wall and the refrigerator.

Beyond that, plastic bags don’t get soggy in the rain.  The one real environmental downside to plastic bags that I’m aware of is that if they are not disposed of properly or recycled, they can become litter and foul waterways.

But it really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a big deal.  I’m not going to stop shopping in a store, or go out of my way to visit a store, because of bags.  If a store wants to provide only paper bags, or indeed only plastic bags, that should be their choice.

Alas, not anymore, not in New York.

Starting next March, it will be illegal for stores to pass out single-use plastic bags for carrying things home.  Smaller bags for meat or deli items will still be legal.  It will also be legal for restaurants to use plastic bags for takeout items.  As for paper bags, each county has the option of applying a five-cent fee for each bag, the proceeds to go to a state environmental fund.

Better living through government, I guess.  Thank you, Emperor Cuomo.

We’ll still go to the Trader Joe’s: they have good stuff at reasonable prices.  But my wife is on the lookout for plastic bags from stores that still have them.

When the ban goes into effect next year, I’ll still be able to get bags from the Chinese takeout.  But while I do enjoy Chinese takeout, I don’t enjoy it that much.

What about a lifetime buy?  How many bags would my wife and I need for the rest of our lives?  If I posit 200 bags a year for 40 years (I’ll be 97 then, and probably beyond caring about bags), that’s 8,000 bags.  Amazon sells a case of 1,000 bags for under $20.  For under $200, I could buy myself peace of mind on the plastic bag front.

In fairness, that’s still a bit silly, as buying bags in bulk will still be legal: how would the Chinese takeout get their bags?  Then again, I’m sure that this year’s initiative is just a start, and Emperor Cuomo or his successors will come up with cleverer ideas.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The Border Emergency

Four years ago, I wrote:

One can construct a sensible immigration policy around the notion that the borders should be open. Such a policy would necessarily include restrictions on receiving public benefits, and effective enforcement against the relative handful that are genuinely criminal or otherwise dangerous.

Alternately, one can construct a sensible immigration policy around the notion of closed borders. Such a policy would include physical border security, and an immigration bureaucracy that actually works, so that our closed borders do not interfere with legitimate travel and tourism.

The horrifying thing is that we’ve done neither, and are continuing to do neither.

I’ll amplify a bit: our laws and regulations are based on the premise that the border is secure.  It’s against the law to simply walk in without presenting yourself and your stuff to the designated officials at the border.  Yet the border itself is not secure, and most of our leadership—both Democratic and Republican—seems OK with that.

Four years later, nothing has changed, despite our being more than halfway through the term of a President who made border security his signature issue.

President Trump asserts that there is an emergency at our southern border which requires him to reallocate funding from other purposes to build a wall and take other measures to secure the border.  Meanwhile, the rest of our leadership denies there is an emergency, and further asserts that Trump is bonkers for saying otherwise.

Is there an actual emergency?  I don’t know first-hand: I don’t live there.  And whatever may be happening there, one could argue that it’s hardly an ‘emergency’ because the same conditions have prevailed for years.

But reports from the people who live at the border suggest, if not an emergency, a continuing, serious problem.  And the government’s figures show that, after reaching a low in early 2017 (perhaps in the belief that Trump might, actually, enforce the border?) illegal border crossings have surged back to where they were a few years ago.

Whatever may be happening at the border, the real emergency is in Washington.

We have a President who has, like all Presidents, a duty to faithfully execute the law.  The law, in this case, operates on the premise that the border is secure, and there is therefore an executive responsibility to secure the border.  And President Trump is simply following through on that responsibility.

The emergency is that the rest of our leadership believes that enforcing the border is stupid or immoral or… something, and seeks to thwart the President from carrying out his duty.

If you really believe the borders should be open or that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should be abolished, then make the effort and change the law.  If it’s really a moral issue, it’s a worthwhile project, although you won’t get results next week.

Until then, the law is what it is, and our President is bound to faithfully execute it.

After the ‘Shutdown’

I’ve been overtaken by the tail end of a project that has taken much of my time for the last several months.  My staff and I had to work nights and weekends, and through the holidays, to frantically get everything hooked up and operational, and finished the last part Friday morning.  We’ll have to do cleanup over the next few weeks, but that hopefully won’t be quite so manic.

*          *          *

The soap opera that was the government shutdown is over, for now.  President Trump will not get funding from Congress for a wall or other border security measures, for now.  It would be within the President’s power to allocate funds for the purpose by executive order, and he isn’t doing that, for now.

I respect the President for trying to force this issue, and I respect him for recognizing that he wasn’t getting anywhere.  What’s galling is that the Democratic leaders, Senator Schumer and House Speaker Pelosi, were in favor of better border security a few years ago, but are against it now that President Trump wants it.

It was a defeat for the President, of course, but not a ‘humiliation,’ as it was reported in the Daily News and other media yesterday.  Remember that Trump is not a politician by education or temperament.  He’s much more willing to take risks than a ‘normal’ politician, because he’s learned that, yes, risks sometimes go bad, and defeat stings, but you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again.  He does not humiliate easily.

But what happens next month?

A proper way forward will require the parties to address each other with respect.  It’s hard to assess the dimensions of Trump’s respect—or lack thereof—for Schumer and Pelosi.  He’s given to making offhand tweets, but I’m not sure that means anything one way or the other.  I’m sure, however, that he recognizes the power they hold over the situation, and while he may not respect the people, he respects their positions.

On the other hand, the Democratic leadership seems to see Trump as somewhere between contemptible and beneath even contempt.  It’s not just that they voted for the other candidate in 2016: Trump is not their President.  If he can’t be removed from office (not that that won’t be a coming attraction), he can be effectively neutered by refusing to acknowledge him as President.

It’s a simple strategy, and demonstrably effective, for now.  All they have to do is stay the course.

For 2020, it will either work extremely well or extremely poorly.

Brett Kavanaugh

Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings to be the second appointee by President Trump to the Supreme Court were derailed by the accusation by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh held her down and tried to force himself upon her in the early 1980s, when they were high school students.

Let’s break the “he said, she said” deadlock and grant that events unfolded as accused.  How did the two of them get together?  They were at a party; they were friends; they knew each other.  They apparently rather liked each other, to the point where they wanted to be alone with each other.  But when Kavanaugh asserted himself, she resisted, and ultimately, he thought better of it and backed off.

If this had happened last week or last month, or even ten years ago, I’d agree this is a serious concern: I don’t want a Supreme Court justice who runs around attacking women.  But what about an accusation from two-thirds of a lifetime ago, when the participants were both teenagers, with their brains not yet fully cooked?  Moreover, Kavanaugh, as a serving Federal judge rising through the ranks, has repeatedly been background-checked by the FBI, and nothing of this nature came up.

While it may have been a sexual assault under the legal definition, more practically it was a case of botched consent.  (If there had genuinely been an assault, the proper course of action, even in the early 1980s, would be to call the police.  But that didn’t happen.)  Today, one is supposed to ask and receive permission every step of the way, giving a romantic encounter all the charm of an ICBM launch.  But this was another time.

We’re told that we need to believe the survivors of sexual assault.  OK: I’ll believe her.  We have an event that happened two-thirds of a lifetime ago, which, at the time, would have been deemed a youthful indiscretion.

Since then, repeated background checking over Kavanaugh’s adult life found nothing of concern.  The inescapable conclusion is that Kavanaugh grew up, became a responsible citizen, husband, and father, and the events of his adolescence shouldn’t be held against him.

What’s chilling is that the tale of Christine and Brett is hardly unusual.  Very few people are so pure of heart that nothing could be dredged from their past.  If this is the standard to which future Supreme Court justices and others subject to advice and consent will be held, we’re going to have trouble finding people who can meet that standard.

Then again, this could all be a put-up job.

Andrew Cuomo

Last Thursday we had the primary election in New York for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and some other offices.  It’s the first time that I can recall in my life that an election in the United States was moved from Tuesday.

But then, this past Tuesday was 11 September, the modern date that will live in infamy.  For me, it’s the day we learned our leadership is either stupid or evil, and to this day we’re afraid to find out which. Living well—or at least carrying on with aplomb—is the best revenge against terrorism, or stupid or evil governments.  Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Alas, I’m apparently in the minority.  11 September is supposed to be a day of moaning and interminable suffering, and not for normal things like elections.

Andrew Cuomo, son of Mario, won the primary and will be running for a third term in November.  His opponent this week was Cynthia Nixon, the actress who played Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City. I knew it was a lost cause, but I voted for Cynthia, even though I disagree with most of her positions.  Then again, if a live turnip had been running for Governor, I would have voted for it.

It bothers me when a politician is himself the son of a politician.  (I’m sure we’ll have daughters of politicians running for office someday, and I’ll have the same objection.)  It says that talent is so thin on the ground that we have to look to the children of past leaders.  I thought hereditary government was something we fought a Revolution to get rid of.

Worse than that were his campaign commercials.  Cuomo’s campaign invective against President Trump rubbed me the wrong way.  It isn’t that I agree or disagree with his positions: I watched Cuomo’s campaign commercials and realized: I don’t like this person.  I want him to go away.

In contrast, in President Bush, we had someone who more clearly became President in 2000 as a result of electoral finagling, and who led us into a pointless war.  But other than John Kerry, whose entire platform running for President in 2004 was ‘I am not Bush,’ nobody felt the need to rail against Bush or make him the bogeyman.

Alas, Andrew Cuomo isn’t going away, and I expect that he’ll run for President in 2020.

Thwarting from Within

Lester Holt was almost breathless on Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News.  An anonymous senior White House official had written an op-ed published in the New York Times that day about how the President’s staffers were working to thwart his out-of-control initiatives.  The item was presented as an ‘unprecedented warning’ on the President’s condition.  This was followed by an unflattering snippet of President Trump denouncing the op-ed, looking especially boorish.  (But what did you expect him to say?)  Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director, seemed, on a quick listen, to go along with the message that the President is deranged.  But he actually said that the report itself was suspect, and that was the real cause for concern.

The op-ed itself is understated, compared to the overblown report on NBC.  While I wonder about the motivations of its author in writing for publication while asserting that he supports the President’s achievements, my more immediate impression was that the op-ed was dated: although it was written more recently, it reflected the situation early in the Trump administration, when the new President hadn’t yet gotten his bearings.  Donald Trump had never held any sort of elected office before becoming President, so it’s entirely reasonable to expect some learning curve.  But he—and we—got past that.

So why are we reading about circumstances from a year ago—which we could surmise from news reports at the time—now?

And why is NBC (and doubtless other media outlets) pushing the narrative that the President is going off the rails?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Deep State.

Russian Hacking?

“CIA believes Russia helped Donald Trump win the White House,” read the headline in the Daily News back in December.  How did they accomplish this extraordinary feat? I wondered.  Hacked voting machines in Pennsylvania?  Mass hypnosis in Oklahoma?  Itching powder in Hillary’s bedroom?

Alas, nothing quite so dramatic:

Officials briefed on the matter told the Washington Post the assessment found that several individuals with close ties to Moscow provided anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails in order to boost Trump and harm Hillary Clinton’s chances.

OK, they may have a point.  We don’t know how WikiLeaks gets the documents that it publishes, and, although WikiLeaks denies it, it’s entirely possible that the trove of e-mails published in the runup to the elections came from Russia.

But in that case, whose fault is it?  The Russians, for pursuing their national interests, or Hillary, for maintaining a private e-mail server that was eminently hackable?  And the Democratic party, for not doing proper IT security?

It’s particularly interesting that nobody has suggested that the WikiLeaks e-mails are bogus.  WikiLeaks had to be stopped—so said our President—not because they were fanciful storytellers, but because their documents were real.

So the Russians influenced our election… by making available information that the government would rather we didn’t know?  Given that the information was acquired as a consequence of the carelessness and hubris of our leadership, how is this a bad thing?  Sorry, guys: the exclusionary rule (that information gained in violation of Fourth Amendment rules cannot be used in a criminal trial) doesn’t apply.  Hillary Clinton is not on criminal trial.  (Or does someone imagine that she is?)

For the moment, let’s grant the report as written.  It’s entirely plausible that (a) Russia forwarded hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks, and (b) did so to favor Trump in the election.  But does that mean that (c) in the absence of such action, Hillary would have won?

I doubt it.

In the weeks before the election, WikiLeaks e-mail reports made the rounds of the alternative media, but didn’t get very much play in the mainstream media.  As far as Hillary herself, the e-mails didn’t really deliver any new revelations as much as confirmation of what we had already surmised.  It’s a preposterous stretch to go from ‘Russians delivered hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks’ to believing that ‘Trump won the election thanks to Russian hacking.’

In the following week, we learned:

  • The President knew about ‘Russian hacking’ several weeks before the election, but our leadership claimed that they didn’t act because they didn’t want to appear to be favoring Hillary. But there were rumblings in the news at the time, and if the President wanted to do something, prudence would dictate that he would have to do so quietly, without calling a press conference.
  • The Republicans suffered hacking attempts from the same actors, at about the same time. But the GOP is apparently better at IT security, and the hacking attempts were not successful.

I had expected this issue to go away after Trump was confirmed in the Electoral College vote on 19 December.  But it’s still with us, and today Congress will vote to ratify the Electoral College results and confirm Trump as President-elect.

Our current leadership has been briefed on this issue, and seems to believe it, even though no specifics have come out in the press.  (I guess all the specifics are deep dark secrets.)  Trump is scheduled to be briefed today, and even though he’s given to running off at the mouth on Twitter, I don’t expect that to happen this time.

We shall see….

The Genius of ISIS

A week ago Saturday, at about 9:30 am, a pipe bomb went off in Seaside, New Jersey, along the route of a charity race.  Nobody was there because the race had been delayed (ironically enough, by a suspicious package): if things had gone as planned, the consequences would have been more severe.

That night, at around 8:00 pm, an explosive device went off in a dumpster on West 23rd Street, injuring 29.  Another device, in a pressure cooker, was found by police a few blocks away.

Mayor DeBlasio was quick to note that the 23rd Street explosion had ‘no evidence at this point of a terror connection.’   After it happened, given recent events in San Bernadino and Orlando, and the guy who tried to set off an SUV bomb in Times Square a few years ago, I imagined the perpetrators of these events as people who were born in the United States, grew up here, and then turned to radical Islam.

I was close.  The alleged perpetrator of both the Seaside and New York events arrived in the US as a refugee from Afghanistan as a child, became a naturalized citizen, went to high school in New Jersey, and worked as a fry cook at his father’s fried chicken place.

So what happened?  Therein lies the genius of ISIS: they don’t actually have to do anything, in terms of actually committing violence, to be effective.  This isn’t to say that ISIS isn’t doing anything, or that we don’t have be mindful of the possibility that they might do something, but that’s not the real problem.  All ISIS has to do to be effective, and encourage others to commit violence on their behalf, is present a compelling alternative to the vapid cultural neutrality of our time.

Consider the case of a young Muslim male growing up in this country.  His parents tell him that he has to keep his religion under wraps when dealing with others.  Even if there isn’t overt discrimination, those who might otherwise be his friends would be weirded out.  And many Christian and Jewish parents, I’m sure, tell their children the same thing.

As he grows up and sees the world around him, it doesn’t fit with his upbringing.  It isn’t so much a matter whether it fits with Islam or not.  Our secular culture encourages us to indulge in whatever physical pleasures come to hand, and reminds us that morality is a quaint anachronism.

And then what?  Well, find some more physical pleasures.

And if you’re still unhappy?  Then there must be something wrong with you.  We have pills for that.

And then our young man finds out about ISIS, and it’s a revelation.  There are rules; there is right and wrong; there is honor in doing the right thing.  ISIS is bold, strong, compelling, and dangerous.  And if you fail, you will have died with honor, with 72 virgins waiting for you.

Indeed, it’s a compelling alternative even if you aren’t a Muslim.

So what do we do about it?

The icky part is that the government can’t fix it.  The best they can do is to turn the country into a police state, watching everything we do and say and read.  And if they could monitor our thoughts, they’d do that too.

For my part, I don’t want to live in a police state, even if they can effectively protect me from terrorists and terrorist wannabes. Imagine the most officious, overbearing boss you can, and then imagine him in charge of your entire life, and if you disagree with him, he can kill you or throw you in prison to rot. I’d rather take my chances with terrorists.

The government can also address the threat of terrorism by going to war, i.e. ‘taking the fight to the enemy.’  We’ve been at it for 15 years now, having accomplished, well, zilch.

This isn’t to say that government doesn’t have a role in fighting terrorism at all.  The government should be looking out for threats from abroad, as well as such domestic threats as can be discerned while respecting our Constitutional rights.  A few years ago, people asked ‘should terrorism be dealt with as a law enforcement matter?’ with the notion that those who answered in the affirmative were really soft on terrorists and the real answer was to use the military.  But having seen how that worked out, I’m not so sure.

But the real answer, the more difficult answer, is that we—all of us—need to build a society in which the nihilism of ISIS is not a compelling alternative for a young person looking to make something of his life.  And the government, by itself, can’t do that.

A Really Subjective View of Atlantic City Casinos

There are two basic ways to make money in a casino: the “Circus Circus” small bettor/grind out every dollar approach and catering to the high rollers as the Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood and owned by Harrah’s) tried to do with the London Club, which had the first million-dollar chip in the gaming industry. If you are going to cater to high rollers, casino management has to be willing to live with more variance in the casino’s “win” month to month. William Bennett, former CEO of Circus Circus, took an ax to the baccarat tables after they lost too much to some high roller.

Atlantic City started as a day-tripper place because only 300 rooms were required to qualify for a casino-hotel license. For about a year, Resorts International had a lock on the casino market in Atlantic City because they were the first to open. When Atlantic City casinos first opened, and you took one of the buses that went to the casinos, you got back more than your bus fare in quarters and a free buffet coupon. In the summer of 1977, a friend of mine who looked 21 did nothing but ride the bus back and forth to Atlantic City all day to collect the extra money because he couldn’t find a summer job. By the time that I went there last in 2008, the refund had dropped to about half of your bus fare on weekdays, a third of it on weekends, and maybe $5 off the buffet. If you took the Greyhound bus out of Baltimore, Silver Spring or Washington, DC, as I have, Trump Plaza was the first casino drop-off and the last place to be picked up, which allowed people to maximize the time that they spent gambling. I learned that it is better to be picked up at the first pickup place so that I could choose my seat. The order of stops in Atlantic City was the main bus station, casino #1, and casino #2, with this order reversed on departure.

The Frontier Casino in Las Vegas had their workers strike for six and a half years, ending in 1998. This doesn’t make the failure to settle the strike at the Taj Mahal right, but it is not unprecedented. There have been books written about Donald Trump and the building and management of the Taj Mahal. For instance, three of Trump’s top managers for the Taj Mahal were killed in a helicopter crash in 1989. The dominant color in the Taj Mahal’s decoration is red, which is geared to attract the Chinese and Koreans because they think that red is lucky. I can say that the rooms in Trump Plaza were nice, but I never stayed at the Taj Mahal.

Casinos are a high fixed-cost business, and Trump overpaid for all of his properties, if you compare construction costs per square foot for comparable properties, adjusting for when they were built. He wanted the prettiest buildings, and didn’t understand gamblers, many of whom would trade lower table minimums and lower hold percentages for a pretty building. Trump Plaza sold for $20 million in 2013, and it cost $210 million to build in 1984. Trump Marina sold for $38 Million in 2011. If you look at the sales on a “per hotel room” basis. they are comparable prices.

A trend that crept into the gaming industry sometime in the 1990s was that every department had to make money. This gets to ridiculous degrees, such as allowing a pit boss to give away only ten packs of cigarettes per shift to players at one casino in Cripple Creek, CO. The longer trend of flat to declining wages affected the gaming industry, but even so, we spent more on gambling than any other leisure pursuit. Looking at the player club formulas for complimentary goods is instructive. In 2008, one had to gamble $5 on the slots to get one cent of credit toward complimentary items at Harrah’s properties. There were also efforts to increase the house edge on table games, such as paying 6:5 for a blackjack rather than 3:2. Resorts International had a deal in 2010 or so where you were paid 90% of your bet if you won on blackjack. To bet only $5, you had to put up an extra fifty cents. if you won, you’d be paid $5, but they would take the fifty cents.

Trump would have done well to do what Steve Wynn did: build a casino and sell it for a profit some years later, but this would have cost him the opportunity to continue to extract money from the company. Wynn opened the Golden Nugget casino in 1980 in Atlantic City, but sold it to Bally’s in 1987. The former Golden Nugget had three other owners/managers before it closed permanently in 2014. It is easy to ask what could have been. Had the money that was supposed to go to Atlantic City redevelopment actually been spent on redevelopment over the first 30 years or so of casino gambling in Atlantic City, it would be a far different place. Unlike Las Vegas and most other towns where casino gambling is legal, casino workers didn’t move into town(or a nearby town) to a large degree, and there was still satellite parking for them about two miles outside of town as of 2008.

Demicans

There are lots of ways to organize a world, and many of them work, at least in the short run:

  • There can be such a thing as a benevolent dictator. But they usually don’t last: they either get corrupted by power, or their successors have other plans.
  • When I traveled to Chile a few years ago, I had the sense of it as a country that had gone through the wrenching transformations we are facing now, and come out the other end. But Chile had been under a military dictatorship for over two decades.
  • Soviet Communism had a pretty good run: for a time, they were our only real rival on the world stage. But Soviet Communism carried the seeds of its own destruction, in their belief in educating—really educating—the populace.  After a couple of generations, people realized that they didn’t want to be Communists any more.

But all of that is beside the point now: our leadership knows the one, the only, and the proper and correct way forward.  They’ve been to college, studied real hard, and unearthed the Awesome Nugget of Eternal Truth.  The news media knows and understands the Awesome Nugget as well, but knowing which side their bread is buttered on, won’t explain it out loud.

And so, whether Democratic or Republican, our leaders subscribe to the same basic tenets:

  • Big government: Since the United States is the world’s most powerful nation, it stands to reason that we should have the most powerful government.
  • Big surveillance: And our big government has its first responsibility to protect us from the evil terrorists.
  • America the global hegemon: And of course, we have the absolute right, if not duty, to throw our weight around the world.  All in the name of freedom, of course, and protecting ourselves from the terrorists.
  • Entitlements forever: It isn’t just that Social Security is the third rail of American politics: contemplating cuts to entitlements would be an admission that we aren’t the nation we used to be.
  • Free trade: The market works most efficiently when it is unconstrained by artificial rules like borders.  So let’s not have any.
  • Open borders: And while we’re having open borders for things, why not people too?  Immigrants do wonderful things for our country: we should be glad to have as many as want to arrive here.  (Having not studied the Awesome Nugget myself, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, but I’m sure that’s my own shortcoming.)
  • Fiat money: Money is an abstraction, and deficits don’t matter, if we have a big enough rug under which they can be swept.  Fiscal responsibility is a quaint virtue from another time, like waiting until you get married to move in together.  Tying ourselves to a known scarce commodity (like gold or silver) is a relic of the past, and unnecessarily limits our ability to implement our plans.
  • Too big to fail: Our big government lives in symbiosis with big business.  Just as it would be disastrous if government itself were to fail, it would be almost as bad for a Citibank or a General Motors to fail.   The effects would not be confined to that one firm, and would spread through the economy, to catastrophic effect.  So we won’t let that happen.
  • The Constitution as a dead letter: We can’t say this one out loud: after all, the President’s oath of office still calls for him to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.’  But the Constitution is really a quaint anachronism, not suitable for a modern superpower.
  • Climate Change: Whether it’s real or not doesn’t matter: without an overarching ‘emergency,’ how else could we advance the rest of our agenda?

Now an individual politician, running for office, might rail against a couple of these points: whatever works to get him elected.  Once in office, however, he will follow the program.

This, then, is the Demican party platform.  You may think of other elements, but I think I’ve covered the basics.

Now, in fact, the two ‘radical’ candidates for President, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, have in fact accepted most of these tenets as gospel.  Each has only really challenged a couple of them.

What makes them dangerous is that, having amassed a following by challenging the Demicans, they might actually follow through if elected.

The Ninny State

Mayor DeBlasio: Stay Indoors!

Yes, it was cold last weekend.

When I was a kid, we had a name for that.  We called it, ‘winter,’ and expected that every year would bring a week’s worth of really cold weather requiring one to bundle up, think warm thoughts, and, yes, not go outside without a good reason.  There were also snowstorms, and the one or two oddly warm days that made one believe that beach season was only a week away.  We accepted it all as normal, and somehow got through it without guidance from our political leaders.

So I’d like to believe that anyone with half a brain can figure that it’s cold and it’s best to stay inside without a pronouncement from our Dear Local Leader, Mayor DeBlasio.

Does he really think his citizenry is that stupid?

But then again…

b160215b

Variations of the above image, with straight and gay couples, have been plastered everywhere in the city.  They are on subway stations, trains, buses, and advertising wraparounds of the free newspapers that one picks up on the way to the subway.

Perhaps I’m an old fudd, but I’ve always believed (even when I was a young fudd) that sex is best enjoyed in the context of a committed relationship.  I have to question the wisdom of the city government encouraging people to swing from the chandeliers (as long as they play sure!) when it apparently believes those same people don’t have the sense to get out of the cold.

And then again…

A while back, I went to the Department of Health offices to get a copy of my birth certificate.  It’s an ordinary enough government office, and the process is simple enough: get the form, fill it out while waiting on line, hand in the form with $10 (may have changed of late) and your ID, and walk out with the document.

But in addition to the stacks of forms, the Department of Health office was also stocked with fishbowls full of condoms.  I had to wonder: were some people overtaken with desire that they had to do each other on the spot?  And should the government be encouraging such activity?

The Scripted Emergency

A week and a half ago Wednesday, three men with rifles shot up a conference room in a center for the developmentally disabled (try saying that ten times fast!) in San Bernadino, California, killing 14 and injuring about 20.  I found out about it at the gym that day: I was annoyed because I wanted to watch Judge Judy while on the treadmill, but all the major networks had been pre-empted.

The reporting came across as less of a news event and more of a manufactured pageant: the announcers regurgitating the same three sentences’ worth of facts while we saw the same shots of the outside of a building and distressed people.  It was, in brief, a scripted emergency.

Later the story changed: there were not three assailants but two: a native-born American citizen and his Pakistani/Saudi wife, conveniently shot dead by police.  One of the shooters just quietly disappeared from the narrative.  And on Friday, the news media were invited to rummage around the couple’s home, with all sorts of documents left behind by the FBI, barely two days after the event.

The story has been leading the network news programs ever since, even though there still isn’t much to tell.  The event has been labeled ‘terrorism,’ as if that declaring the event as such is somehow momentous.

Yes, the event is what we, today, call terrorism.  From what we know about the motives of the killers, we now know that it was an event of Islamic terrorism.  But this type of terrorism only has power to terrify if the people are told about it.  Does this event merit wall-to-wall coverage, when all we really know fits in a couple of paragraphs?

The news media are as much terrorists as the shooters themselves.

Sunday night, President Obama, our Dear Leader, addressed the nation, telling us nothing we didn’t already know.  He ducked out of the Kennedy Center awards to make a 13-minute Oval Office appearance, and then returned to the festivities.  He wants people who are on terror watch lists (‘no-fly lists’) to be denied the right to buy guns.

It’s a charming thought, but it wouldn’t have stopped the San Bernadino shooters, who had squeaky-clean records until last Wednesday.  And it flies in the face of our Fifth Amendment (no person shall be denied life, liberty, or property without due process): the process by which one is added to the terror watch list is a deep dark secret, with no way of finding out about it until you try to fly somewhere.  For all I know, I may be earning myself a spot on the list by writing and posting this essay.

The Dear Leader also wants us to embrace the hundreds of thousands of Islamic refugees that he proposes to bring from the Middle East.  What they are seeking refuge from is not entirely clear, given that the vast majority are Muslims.  We have no moral justification (a story for another day) to bring then here, and even though they may not be associated with ISIS or al-Qaeda or any of those groups, I can’t see how they can bring anything but trouble.

I don’t really know how a young American-born man and his Middle Eastern wife embarked on a path of terrorism.  I’m not sure it really matters.

But it’s clear to me that the government and the media are doing far more to advance the cause of Islamic terrorism than the terrorists themselves.

They should stop.

Afghanistan

Our Dear Leader announced this week that we would not be leaving Afghanistan as planned at the end of 2016.  We will continue to have several thousand troops there for the foreseeable future, beyond the end of the Obama administration in January 2017.

Will someone remind me how we got into Afghanistan in the first place?

Oh yes, that’s right: after 11 September, we believed that the Taliban, the Afghan leadership, was harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.  So we partnered with the ‘Northern Alliance’ and routed the Taliban.  We then fumbled around in the mountains for a few weeks, but never found Osama there.

OK, the Taliban’s out.  What did we expect would happen next?

Did we believe the Afghan people were pining for limited republican government like we like to believe we have ourselves?  Building that would have been a major, major project that could not have been done on the cheap.

So we installed something resembling a government, not even a very good government, and the Taliban was able to recover as a militant force.

It’s now 14 years later, Osama is dead, and al-Qaeda are now our friends because they’re attacking Syrian President Assad.

What do we expect to achieve with our continued efforts there?  For my part, I have no clue.

The USSR went into Afghanistan in 1979 to support an allied government, as an exercise in geopolitical gamesmanship.  They left in 1989, having accomplished pretty much nothing.  Meanwhile, the USSR itself was much weakened, and fell apart two years later.

Do we believe that we can do better?  If so, what?

My mother used to say, ‘Don’t throw good money after bad.’

It may be time to pull the plug.

Getting Schooled

Over the last week, Vladimir Putin has been addressing ISIS with brisk dispatch, while our President is running around bloviating.  This morning our Dear Leader told us:

Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr. Assad, was crumbling.  And it was insufficient for him simply to send them arms and money; now he’s got to put in his own planes and his own pilots.  And the notion that he put forward a plan and that somehow the international community sees that as viable because there is a vacuum there — I didn’t see, after he made that speech in the United Nations, suddenly the 60-nation coalition that we have start lining up behind him.

Where do I begin?

  • The weakness of which Obama speaks is Syria’s, not Russia’s. It’s expected, from time to time, that a stronger country will have to support its weaker allies.  And Russia is politically and culturally more ready to engage in direct military action than we are, for a variety of reasons.
  • If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. If we haven’t learned the value of doing it yourself from years of proxy warfare, where last year’s ally is this year’s enemy, we probably never will.
  • I don’t know if our Dear Leader has noticed, but I don’t believe that Putin cares what the international community thinks of his actions. He is convinced of the rightness of his plan and proceeding accordingly.  He doesn’t need to go to the UN for validation.
  • In any case, the ‘international community’ just wants ISIS to go away, without any effort on their part.
  • And our ’60-nation coalition’ has so far been, in a word, useless.

Beyond that, Syria’s ‘weakness’ is a result of our finagling.  Our issues with Syria, as far as I can tell, go back to the Bush administration, when we believed that Syria and Iran were supporting terrorists who were working to destabilize Iraq.  I’m not sure why the trying-to-be-secular government of Syria would embroil itself in the morass of Iraq, but then again, our leaders had told us a few years earlier that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had to be stopped, so I’m sure they were also right about Syria partnering with Iran.

Then, more recently, there was the ‘Arab Spring.’  In hindsight, it was a move by the Islamists to install Islamic governments in the countries in the region that didn’t have them.  In Egypt, they succeeded in installing a new President loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, but he was so inept at leading the country that he was deposed in a military coup.

President Assad was a little more astute and saw the Arab Spring movement for what it was.  He endeavored to shut it down.  And we took the side of the Islamists, and our enemies from ten years ago—who had engaged in actual terrorism on US soil—were now our allies.

That took brains!

So while we rail against ISIS, and our Dear Leader says that we will ‘degrade and destroy’ it, it actually serves our purposes in oppressing the Syrian government.  I’ve framed the issue in previous posts as our wanting to support ‘moderate Syrian rebels’ who realized that running their own little state would be easier and safer, as if it were an innocent error on the part of our leadership.

I was being polite.  Mistakes of this magnitude are not made innocently.

And now Vladimir Putin is sending his air force, and ultimately his army, to mop up our mess.  He isn’t spending six months in the UN to build a consensus.  His leadership supports him.  He doesn’t have to worry about his plan gaining political traction within Russia.  I’m sure that he doesn’t have teams of lawyers scrutinizing target lists (like we did) to avoid collateral damage: you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.  And I would expect the Russians to ultimately dispatch ISIS in a few months.

We’re getting schooled… the hard way.  Hopefully we will have learned something, at least.

Syrian Flim-Flam

The world has been transfixed by the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees streaming through Greece and Turkey, into Hungary, seeking refuge in Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia.  For a time, thousands of them were effectively detained at the Budapest railway station, but the Hungarian authorities relented and let them continue on.  Germany has indicated that they are prepared to take one million refugees; Austria has already taken tens of thousands.

Many of the refugees are from Syria.  Some may be from other places, and some may even be Islamic terrorists: we can’t really tell, and the refugees themselves know that they can simply ditch whatever identification they may be carrying and tell the authorities whatever they want.  But let’s go back to Syria for a moment.

About two years ago, we almost went to war over the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.  But two years before that, we were pretty much OK with Syria.  And then something happened—well before the chemical weapon attack—that turned him into an adversary.  And we felt the need to arm the ‘Syrian rebels’ to fight the government, in the process building what we now know as ISIS, a de facto fundamentalist Islamic government in control of big pieces of Iraq and Syria.

Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, is a dictatorial strongman, but he was running a secular, moderate government.  When fundamentalist Islamic fighters appeared, proclaiming themselves to be fighting for freedom and democracy, Assad counterattacked.  He knew, as we should, that an election with fundamentalist Islamists is like an election with Communists: if they win, it will be the last meaningful election for quite some time.

But we bought the Islamists’ line and supported the ‘Syrian rebels.’  Our leadership was flim-flammed.  (Either that, or they actually want the world to be taken over by a new Islamic caliphate.  But that’s an issue for another day.)

In writing this post, I dug up a quote from the then-National Security Adviser, Susan Rice in the abortive 2013 runup to war:

…in the first instance, Assad and his backers in Iran and Hezbollah, do not have any interest in seeing this escalate…

And the next day, we came to understand that Assad’s main backer was not Iran or Hezbollah, but Vladimir Putin.  Oops.

In the meantime, we have hundreds of thousands of refugees piling into Europe.  Many are Christians, and many are Moslems.  Remember that fundamentalist Christianity admits that not everyone is a fundamentalist, and indeed that not everyone is Christian.  Fundamentalist Islam makes no such concession: anyone who isn’t a true believer is to be forcibly converted, taxed, or killed.

The Germans seem to believe that many of these million refugees can be integrated into the labor force to address chronic labor shortages resulting from, among other things, Germany’s low birth rate.  I hope, for their sake, that they’re right.

Disgustipated

My mother used to say ‘disgustipating’ to refer to things that she thought were really rotten.  I hadn’t thought of it for a while, until this week.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a decision that gay marriage is a Constitutional right, and that the remaining states where gay marriage is forbidden will have to allow it.

Hooray for Marriage Equality
Hooray for Marriage Equality

While I was out this morning, I saw the sign above at a parking lot.

I really have no problem with gay civil marriage: gay people should be able to express their commitment to each other, and secure their legal rights with respect to each other, the same as heterosexual couples.

But is it ‘marriage equality’?  Hardly.

All but a tiny handful of the seven billion of us walking the planet today are here because, at some point in the past, a man and a woman came together and caused us to be.  Not all of them were married, but it is that essential fact of our existence that is the origin of marriage.

And until and unless there is a race of literal Amazons who reproduce through parthenogenesis, so it will continue to be.

What bothers me about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is that, first, there is nothing in my reading of the Constitution that infers a right to gay marriage, either directly or indirectly.  Many, many decisions are made (in business, politics, and life in general) by coming up with the answer first, and assembling whatever arguments are needed to support it.  But I expected the Supreme Court to be above that sort of crap.

What’s far worse, though, is that the government is now empowered to clonk those of us who believe that ‘equal under the law’ is not ‘the same thing’ upside the head and tell us to get with the program.  We already have laws preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation: those, together with yesterday’s decision, mean that gay civil marriage will not be containable as ‘civil’ for very long.

*          *          *

The other disgustipating Supreme Court decision concerned Obamacare.  The law, as written, indicated that subsidies would be available for individuals who had purchased insurance through ‘an exchange established by the State.’  We normally don’t say that in American law.  You might say ‘a State’ or ‘the States,’ referring to one or more of the 50 state governments, or ‘the States or the Federal government’ if that’s what you meant.

We had understood that the intent was that a state would have to set up an insurance exchange for its residents to get the subsidies, as a means of encouraging states to set up exchanges.  But most states didn’t do that, leaving it to the Federal exchange.

But if people couldn’t get subsidies, the insurance wouldn’t be affordable, so an executive decision was made to allow subsidies to residents of all of the states.  You could reasonably read ‘an exchange established by the State’ to refer to, not a particular one of the 50 states, but the government in general.

Ultimately, this one doesn’t really matter for me.  New York did set up an Obamacare exchange. (Alas, I earn too much to be eligible for a subsidy, and even if I got one, it wouldn’t make a dent in the actual premium.)  Nevertheless, with or without the subsidy, Obamacare remains the most breathtakingly bad public policy decision that I can remember in my life.

But I’m sure something will come to top it later this year.

The Power Beyond

One of last week’s crises was resolved this week, as the Republican Congress passed a ‘clean’ funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security and President Obama signed it, funding its operations for the remainder of the fiscal year, including Obama’s executive action to legalize some five million illegal immigrants.

In other words, the Republicans caved.

As I understand the logic behind the decision, since a Federal judge ruled against Obama’s executive action policies, the Republicans need do nothing further to stop the policies, as they can let the matter play out in the courts.

Well, maybe.

To my view, if Congress passes a bill allocating funding to an executive agency, knowing damn right well what they’re going to do with it, then they have effectively authorized the agency’s actions.   And I’m sure the Administration will make that point.

So why did the Republicans give up so easily?  And why has it been, throughout the Obama administration, that the Republicans have never been able to make headway while President Obama and his crew have been blundering about, making up rules as they go along, and taking a Roger Rabbit approach to the Constitution?

The Democrats have demonized House Speaker John Boehner as the locus of the opposition, but everything I’ve seen suggests that he is just another politician, whose high-sounding principles vanish the instant they become inconvenient.

My unfortunate hypothesis is that there is a Power Beyond Congress and the President, and that this Power Beyond is OK with open borders and OK with our blundering administration.

There are any number of conspiracy theories about the Council on Foreign Relations or the Bilderburg group or Skull and Bones or whomever.  They may be right that one or more of these may be the identity of the Power Beyond.  At this point, I don’t know.  But I’m pretty sure is isn’t God, and it isn’t the people (i.e. the government deriving its power from the consent of the governed).

The Power Beyond manifests itself in other ways besides government policy: it’s also why the mainstream media, now organized into six giant corporations, won’t actually tell us anything that we’d really need to know.  It manifests itself in our non-educating educational system, where young people learn… I’m still not sure myself.  It manifests itself in our fluoridated water, originally promoted as combating tooth decay, but having no practical positive effect, and yet we continue to do it.

There have always been people for whom the world has been a plaything.  The Russian revolutionaries who organized what became the USSR would not have been able to do so without financing from the capitalist West.  Perhaps the capitalists thought it a nifty experiment at the time.  And perhaps, for these people, the United States was fun while it lasted, and now it’s tired and broken-down, and it’s time to move on.

Snowjobbed

The spectacle of the Exploding Meteorologist has been a fixture of New York City winters for at least the last twenty years: the weather reporter breathlessly telling us about the monster snowstorm, which ends up yielding, perhaps, two inches.   Of course, every once in a while, a real snowstorm shows up, and the Exploding Meteorologists do their thing.

But this time, the Exploding Meteorologists were joined by an Exploding Mayor.  Yesterday’s morning news included this item:

Yeah, right, whatever.

I rearranged my schedule to get through my meetings earlier, and walked out of my last meeting at 12:20 pm.

Back in the office, I put on  WINS, the go-to radio station in New York City for bad weather.  I found that the Exploding Mayor had been joined by our Exploding Governor, Andrew Cuomo.  He admonished us, like little children, not to go out in the snow, and ordered all non-essential vehicles off the road at 11:00 pm.

I left the office about 5:00 pm, and had a pretty normal ride home, except that the trains were not as crowded because most people had left work earlier.  Back home, I learned that the ‘travel ban’ also included the subways.  Usually, the trains keep running when it snows, and during NYC’s worst snowstorm ever, in 2006, the subways kept running.  (I know, because I was travelling that day.)

At 11:00, ready to sleep, I looked out the window: there had been a substantial lull in the storm.  So much for the Exploding Meteorologists.

In the morning, my wife noted that the G train was running: we can see the viaduct from our windows.  Slowly it dawned on me: the subways could have kept running, and perhaps did to some extent. But we, as passengers, were not allowed to ride them, by order of the Governor.

The morning news reported that the storm had moved off to the east, and the travel ban had been lifted.  NYC got about a foot, although snow is continuing to fall, and New Jersey got 2-3 inches: hardly worth complaining about.  The subways are starting up and will run on a Sunday schedule for the rest of the day.

In another time, the Mayor and Governor would have declared states of emergency, ordered private vehicles off the roads, and left it at that.  Why did they feel the need to shut down mass transit?

Don’t tell me it was to protect the public: we’ve had many, many snowstorms, and this was the first time it was felt necessary to shut down the subways pre-emptively.  (Usually, in a really bad storm, lines that run outdoors are shut down on a case-by-case basis as conditions worsen.)

Is it a case of liability making cowards of us all?

Were they simply asserting their authority because they could?

Are they getting us in practice for martial law?

Whatever it was, I’m sure it wasn’t good.

Our Non-Fearless Non-Leader

It’s State of the Union time again.

The Constitution requires that the President ‘shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.’  This has now devolved into an annual address before a joint session of Congress, televised to the nation as a major event.  Instead of merely presenting ‘information,’ the President uses the address to put forward his agenda for the coming year. In recent years, the speech has been ‘enhanced’ with PowerPoint-style graphics delivered on a split screen.  (At least they don’t show the PowerPoints in the actual House chamber… yet.)

And this year, President Obama has already been test-marketing his proposals in recent weeks: we already know much of what he’s going to say.  So while on one level it’s kind of pointless, as an informed citizen I feel that I have to sit through it anyway.

But it’s a chance to yell back at the screen what I really think.  Times are from the video of the speech from the White House Web site.

02:46: “More people are insured than ever before.”  Yeah, at great personal cost to themselves, because you forced them to.  And it’s still unclear whether having insurance will actually provide access to good health care.

03:04: “And we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in 30 years.”  You didn’t build that, Obama.  Don’t take credit for it.  And your pals in Saudi Arabia are now trying to sweep it all away.

04:34: “The state of the Union is strong.”  Every State of the Union address includes this line somewhere in the first five minutes.  I was a little worried you weren’t going to make it.

06:30: “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist  of proposals….”  To be followed, of course, by the checklist of proposals.

06:43: Where’s Ben?  The President launches into the story of Rebekah and Ben Erler, married seven years and living in Minneapolis.  Rebekah is in the audience, sitting next to the First Lady.  But Ben is absent.  Was he really too busy to come to Washington?  Did he not have an adequate suit?  Could they not get a babysitter?  Or is it politically incorrect to show a normal heterosexual married couple except on America’s Funniest Home Videos?

09:10: “And over the past five years, our businesses have created over 11 million new jobs.”  The chamber erupts in applause, the Senators and Congressmen clapping like trained seals.  Guys: you didn’t build that, either.

09:50: “And thanks to lower gas prices, and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save about $750 at the pump.”  I can’t see that fuel economy has changed much over the past 10 years at least.  The recent drop in gas prices is not so much a consequence of our new exploration efforts as it is the Saudis lowering the price for their own ends.

10:34: “Today we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts….”  Actually, the only tool we need is for our leadership to stand up and say ‘no.’  But in 2008, we were told that a failure to enact bailouts would result in mass riots and martial law.

14:18: “Because families like Rebekah’s still need our help.  She and Ben are working as hard as ever, but they’ve had to forego vacations and a new car so that they can pay off student loans and save for retirement.  Friday night pizza, that’s a big splurge.  Basic childcare for Jack and Henry costs more than their mortgage, and almost as much as a year at the University of Minnesota.”  That’s called, well, the human condition.  Most of us, when bringing up small children, don’t have money for luxuries.  And proper child care is expensive, because it’s labor intensive, and not just anyone can do it.  (And having the government pay for it will make it cheaper?)

16:00: “First, middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change.  That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement.”  Mitt Romney’s campaign imploded in 2012 when when a video leaked to the public in which he stated the truth that about 47% of the population receives payments from the Federal government.  Obama apparently won’t be happy until it’s at least 77%.

18:31: “Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.  It’s the right thing to do.” Paid for by whom?

18:54:  “That’s why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work.” We often hear the figure that women get paid 77 cents to a man’s dollar.  But when one matches men against women at the same levels of experience and responsibility, the difference becomes much smaller.  And equal pay for equal work has been the law since… 1963!  (In fairness, women’s earnings still don’t quite equal men’s for the same work.  But I doubt that Yet Another Government Bureaucracy will help very much.)

22:14: “That’s why I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”   So now the community colleges will become wards of the Federal government.  And, like everywhere else touched by Federal funds, the colleges will be run to maintain their subsidies.  Whether anyone learns anything is, of course, besides the point.

25:48:  “…we need the new economy to keep churning out high-wage jobs for our workers to fill.”  All I’ve been reading about for the past few years is how people who were laid off from middle-class jobs in 2008-2009 are coming back as burger flippers.  Where are these high-wage jobs of which you speak?

27:13: “So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.  Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.”  But Keystone XL (the ‘single oil pipeline’) is to be built with private funds. It’s not the same thing.

30:45:  “Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a reenergized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars.”  Yes, but when?  In the 1960s, when JFK pressed us to go to the moon, we felt there was some urgency.

37:02:  ” Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group[ISIL]….  And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. ”  So we’re not getting into a ground war, but we need a resolution to authorize the use of force… for what, exactly?

38:07:  “… Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength.  That’s what I heard from some folks.  Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters.”  Well, maybe.  Russia isn’t doing so well right now, but they’re used to hardship.  We aren’t, and our vaunted prosperity is mostly pluffage.

41:00:  ” Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran….  There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.  But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; making it harder to maintain sanctions; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.  It doesn’t make sense.  And that’s why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”  So let me make sure I understand this.  Iran is our adversary.  We’re negotiating with them, but nothing seems to be coming of it.  So if Congress proposes to actually do something that would meaningfully impact Iran, you’re going to veto it.  Is that right?

41:35: ” No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.”  But if our own government invades the privacy of American families, that’s fine.

48:40: ” So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not.  As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.  And next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.”  As long as the NSA is Hoovering up all our electronic communications, it will ultimately be used against us, regardless of what ‘safeguards’ the present administration decides to implement.  Someday, probably in the not-too-distant future, computer power will be abundant enough and cheap enough that it will be possible to sift through the vast pile of data: initially, to protect us against terrorists, but ultimately for God knows what.  The only protection, temporary though it might be, is to turn off the Hoover, and not to build more such facilities.

From there, the speech went on to the usual platitudes, the same as any President might say about how wonderful we are as a nation and a people.  Whatever.

Maybe I’d take it a little more seriously if the audience would stop clapping like trained seals.

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

If we are the civilized people that we claim to be, the only appropriate policy direction on torture, or anything resembling it, is not to do it.  There are two essential reasons:

  1. If policies admit torture as acceptable in some circumstances, some of our people, perhaps being restless or bored, will do it for sport.  (See Abu Ghraib.)
  2. We like to believe that we face danger bravely, being appropriately apprehensive, but we don’t let it scare us.  A policy admitting torture is the mark of a scared people.

Last week, the public discourse included reheated discussions arising from the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.’  It was the same discussion that we had years ago, and the report (a Democratic partisan effort) revealed some of the gorier details of these interrogation methods, but otherwise revealed nothing of consequence we didn’t know before.

Was it torture?  I don’t know if there’s a formal definition, but as I think about it, torture would include any of the following:

  • Violating the subject’s body.
  • Causing permanent physical injury to the subject.
  • Offending the subject’s basic human decency.  This would include something like parading the subject naked in the town square; offending the subject’s personal beliefs is fair game.
  • Using drugs or poisons on the subject.

By that definition, yes, we tortured people.

Did it work?  This is the part where the debate has swirled for years.  But it was only a couple of days ago that I understood what we were really up to.

  • If you interrogate one person, the results will be hit or miss.  He might tell you the truth, and he might not.
  • If you interrogate a dozen people on the same question, you’ll get a dozen stories.  But by cross-checking them, you can usually reconstruct the truth, or a good approximation.

We weren’t just practicing enhanced interrogation on a handful of terrorist kingpins.  We were doing it on a broad scale, getting dozens of answers to the same question and reconstructing what happened from the result.

Once again: did it work?  The answer to that is probably–justifiably–secret.

In fairness, most of the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been discussed at length (waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions) don’t meet my earlier definition of torture.

But that doesn’t make them right.  They can still be abused for sport; they’re still the mark of a frightened people.  We’re saying that the ends justify the means: the first step on the road of evil.

And finally, to turn to the favorite argument of the defenders of enhanced interrogation: what if you had someone who knew the details of the atomic bomb that would destroy New York City tomorrow?  Would you play nice with him, or bash his face in?

Of course, you’d bash his face in.

But there’s a big difference between doing that, as an agent exercising his judgement in an extreme situation, and a policy admitting face-bashing as a normal interrogation technique.

Immigration Executive Action

Production Note:  This morning, I discovered the controls in WordPress that enable one to use one’s nickname to identify posts, etc.  So now my posts and comments are identified as belonging to ‘BklynGuy.’  But it’s still me.

*          *          *

Last Thursday, President Obama announced a plan to grant residency to those illegal immigrants who had been here for five years and had citizen or permanent resident children.  I missed his speech on Thursday night, but tuned in to some of the commentary on the Spanish television networks.  They all thought it was a really good idea, and were looking forward to more action in the same vein.

On the other hand, one of my conservative colleagues sent me the following:

Each and Every Illegal Alien Is a Criminal

Well, maybe.

Illegal immigration, as the name implies, is against the law.

So is murder.

And so is speeding.

And in the continuum of breaking the law, illegal immigration is closer to speeding than murder.  And an appropriate punishment is closer to speeding than murder: pay a fine, face an administrative penalty (points on one’s driver’s license for speeding; something similarly relevant for illegal immigration), and be done with it.  For the moment, I’m not addressing other crimes that one might commit on top of being an illegal alien: that’s a different kettle of fish, and one I’ll get back to at the end of this post.

Meanwhile, the President struck back with this item:

White House Immigration

On the surface, it seems a perfectly reasonable approach.  It is, indeed, such a reasonable approach that we tried it in the 1980s.  We provided a path to residence and citizenship for those already here, together with allegedly better border enforcement and penalties for employers who hired illegal aliens.  But we didn’t follow through on that last part, so instead of 4 million illegal aliens, we now have 12 million.

There’s nothing to suggest that this time wouldn’t be different.  From past events this year, it’s difficult to imagine the Obama administration actually working to secure the border.  It seems to be in their interest to keep the ‘humanitarian crisis’ going.  But, again from past experience, I don’t see that someone else would do much better.

Beyond that, Obama has incrementally used executive action to get around the  law in progressively larger steps.  Besides the scandals, there was the tweaking of Affordable Care Act requirements to make his administration politically palatable.  This move on immigration is the biggest and boldest yet, and if we let it stand, further usurpations of power are inevitable, not only by Obama, but future Presidents as well.

Should I write to my Congressman or Senator?  It seems pointless: they’re all total Democrats who worship the ground our President walks on.  I should save my breath to cool my porridge.

But the bottom line:

  • Our immigration system is broken.  Despite all the rhetoric, in fact, both parties like it that way and want to keep it.  The Democrats like it because immigrant families are part of their power base; the Republicans like it because illegal immigrants push wages down for everybody.
  • For that reason, it’s hard to believe that our leadership will enact real immigration reform.
  • And if they do, whether that reform will be actually implemented, without backfiring on itself, is even more doubtful.
  • I noted earlier that merely coming here illegally is closer to speeding than murder.  But if someone here illegally commits other crimes, we should throw the book at him.  But too often, our leadership seems to wink at it.  One of our ongoing scandals is that of illegal immigrant families claiming not only their own families as dependents on tax returns, but also their relatives back in their homeland, and our leadership doesn’t seem to care.  We have to start caring.
  • The Republicans will moan for a few months about Obama’s abuse of executive authority, but they’ll ultimately let it stand.  After all, they wouldn’t want the Democrats to come after a Republican President doing the same thing.

The illegal immigrants aren’t the problem.  It’s the bloody politicians.

 

Evil or Stupid?

I’ve written in these pages that 11 September 2001 was the day we discovered our government was either stupid or evil, and to this day we’re afraid to find out which. Now we’re hearing that the terrorist group ISIS is already ensconced here in the US, just waiting for the right moment to strike.

Our leadership is trying hard to present themselves as ‘not stupid:’ if, indeed, there is a terrorist attack, we won’t be able to say they didn’t warn us.

But if they’re not stupid, then they would have to be….

Hold that thought for a moment.

We, the United States, built ISIS.

We built ISIS the same way we built al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein. They served our purpose… until they didn’t.

In the particular case of ISIS, we wanted to go after the Syrian government, but the political will for a direct military response wasn’t there. So we enlisted the help of the ‘moderate Syrian rebels,’ only later coming to understand that there was no such thing.

There are two rational ways to deal with ISIS:

  • Acknowledge (even if only to ourselves) that we’ve made a mistake, and do our best to undo it. That means not only ‘boots on the ground,’ but whatever it takes to grind them into oblivion, followed by an extended occupation so they don’t get back up.
  • Acknowledge further that whatever efforts to undo the situation will only make matters worse: resist the urge to do something in the face of ISIS atrocities, stop supporting them, and let them burn themselves out.

Of course, we’re doing neither of those, outsourcing the dirty work to ‘carefully vetted moderate’ rebels, even though that approach got us into this mess in the first place.

Maybe I just don’t understand things. Maybe sleazy geopolitical gamesmanship is simply the way of the world.

I do understand, however, that if ISIS commits terrorism here, it will also be an event of our own making, because, besides building ISIS, we neglected the simple imperative of securing the border.

I also understand that responsible leadership means forestalling crises, not encouraging them. ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’ is the cry of fearmongers and despots.

Evil or stupid?

I’m still not sure, and I don’t think I want to find out.

The Trouble with Ukraine

The story, according to the news media:

The good people of Ukraine, yearning for freedom and prosperity, seek a closer relationship with the European Union.  But the government of Ukraine, with it’s President supported by the Russians, wants a close relationship with Russia.  The matter came to a head during the last week of the Winter Olympics, and the government was thrown out.  The new provisional Ukraine government wants a new relationship with the European Union, which would also bring billions in aid.

Meanwhile, the Russians have moved into the Crimea, a peninsula in the southeast of Ukraine that is ethnically Russian and the site (for years and years) of a Russian/former Soviet naval base.  The troops don’t carry Russian insignia, and when pressed, Russia indicates that they’re merely protecting their interests and the Russian population.

So we’re led to believe that the provisional Ukraine government stands for freedom and constitutional democracy, and all good things.  It’s a good story.

And if I believed it, I might feel differently.  But I wonder:

  • Are our hands clean in this exercise?  Or did we put the Ukrainians up to it?
  • It appears that this provisional Ukraine government is made up of the worst kind of right-wing reactionaries–the spiritual if not physical descendants of the Ukrainians who stood with Nazi Germany in the 1940s.  Why are we supporting these people?
  • The government that was deposed had been validly and noncontroversially elected.  What is the justification for throwing them out?
  • If Ukraine joins the European Union, they will indeed get aid.  But most of the aid will be in the form of loans that will have to be paid back.  Ukraine will have to take austerity measures to be able to repay the loans, like Greece.
    • Is this a ploy to acquire for the Europeans (and deny to the Russians) Ukraine’s coal and natural gas?
    • If the people of Ukraine understood the dimensions of the issue, would those in favor of joining the European Union still be enthusiastic about it?

Once upon the time, we were the strongest and most productive nation on Earth.  We could and did go meddling in the affairs of other countries not only because we could do it, and we thought it was right, but because we could withstand the consequences of our actions.  The rest of the would couldn’t do very much to hurt us.  And we had enough common sense not to mess around in our adversary’s home turf, which, in fairness, might result in consequences that we couldn’t shuck off.

But we’re not the country we were fifty years ago, nor even during the Reagan administration.  The Russians can inflict far more severe consequences on us than we can on them, because we are hugely and catastrophically in debt to the rest of the world.

The best thing we can do in Ukraine is to leave it alone.

Finally, a Federal Jobs Program

Food Label Updates

The Food and Drug Administration announced this week that they were seeking to update the standard nutrition label found on most food products sold in the United States.  It is expected that this effort will cost the manufacturers of food products some $2 billion, as well as a couple of hundred million more for the government’s costs.

My first thought was, ‘what’s the point?’ The changes are incremental, although some of them (like using larger type for the number of calories) are obvious enhancements.  But why couldn’t manufacturers make tweaks like that for themselves?

Because it’s a Federally-required label, you idiot, and it has to fit the Federally-required format.  Tweaks are illegal, resulting in fines, and maybe criminal prosecution.

And why is the Federal government formatting food labels?

I don’t specifically recall.  The news reports on this noted that the standard nutrition label has been around for about 20 years.  What did we have before then?

Well… we had nutrition labels that generally provided the same information, perhaps not to the same detail, but covered the basics.  Formats varied from one manufacturer to another, but were generally consistent (how many ways can you list calories and nutrients?).

Somehow, we survived: I don’t recall any sort of crisis that led to the FDA mandating formats for food labels.  They just sort of appeared, quietly, in the 1990s.

But maybe I shouldn’t rail at this latest bureaucratic exercise.  $2 billion will provide tens of thousands of jobs, and most of the cost will be covered by the private sector.  And those people will spend on goods and services, creating still more jobs and stimulating growth.

Yeah, right.

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Some of the reports on the new nutrition labels noted that for a cost of $2 billion, a benefit of $20 billion will accrue to consumers, or about $65 per capita.

OK: where do I go to collect my $65?  Because I can’t see how a reformatted label is going to actually save me anything.

Sharing is Scary

Edward Snowden, the man who made public and overt what we long tacitly understood about the government’s surveillance activities, issued a video last Christmas in which he remarked:

A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.

That’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only a very little one.  What’s worse is that we seem to be willing to do it for ourselves.

The other day, I noticed that a small Facebook logo had appeared on an update to the media player on my tablet.  I selected it to find a control to publish what I was currently listening to on my Facebook account.

I hit ‘cancel’ and shuddered:  I was glad, in that moment, that I do not have a Facebook account.  The thought of someone, outside my home, tracking my personal choices in music, gave me the creeps.  (Not that it might not happen anyway, given the state of government surveillance, but why would I volunteer what is intensely private for me?)

But there are doubtless people who are happy to post their current selections to the world.

The latest trend in managing education seems to be to give ‘high-stakes’ tests to children as young as 5.  I’m not sure of the wisdom of giving standardized tests to kindergarteners, but I had them from about the second grade, and nobody thought they were anything other than a part of the school experience.  (I actually liked test day better than the regular school day, as it was quiet and I could focus.)

But some of the reports of teachers who have to administer standardized tests to young children are telling: this is apparently the first time the children are asked to perform as individuals, and for the children, it’s not a comfortable experience.  Some of them, brought up with the notion that ‘sharing is caring,’ tried to help their classmates; some of them, realizing that they would have to work alone, got physically ill.

When I was a kid in school, there were things that we did collectively, and things we did as individuals, and that seemed the natural order of things.  There were things to share, and things not to share.  But now, the individual doesn’t matter, it seems.  Everything is to be shared.  The trend was there when I was growing up: the school’s biggest complaint about me as a youngster was that I ‘didn’t get along with the group.’  But the notion has apparently come to full fruition now.

To be sure, indiscriminate, overreaching government surveillance is evil.  But if the young are brought up to believe that the collective is everything, and their individuality is only relevant as it relates to the collective, then it doesn’t matter what the government does.

We will have surrendered our privacy ourselves, as much as the government took it from us.

Who Killed JFK?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Last Friday was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and last night, my wife and I watched a History Channel presentation about the assassination.  While they did a good job of presenting the facts of the events, the program was driven by statistics of what people thought about the assassination.

In the process, one of the most significant events of the 20th Century is turned into a parlor game: CIA operative X did it from the grassy knoll with a sledgehammer.  At the end of the presentation, we were back where we started: another demonstration of the impotence of facts and reason.  (There’s a reason for this that goes beyond the JFK assassination, but it’s a subject for another day.)

I was two years old when JFK was assassinated, so I don’t remember what happened.   But there is an event of similar dimensions that occurred in my adult life: 11 September.  There are many similarities in the two events, particularly in how the government acted to get its official version of the story out and suppress alternatives.

But there are essential differences:

  • The official story of the JFK assassination is at least plausible.  Some years ago, I watched a documentary of an effort to reconstruct the trajectory of the ‘magic bullet’ that struck both JFK and Texas governor John Connally.  The effort succeeded.  On the other hand, while I can believe that the Twin Towers would collapse from being struck by airliners, it strains the imagination that they would fall into neat little piles.  Moreover, 7 World Trade Center was not struck by airplanes.  It sustained damage that should have left it standing.  But it, too, collapsed into a neat little pile.
  • The Warren Commission that investigated the JFK assassination believed they had gotten to the truth of the matter.  I don’t know what the 9/11 Commission thought they were doing, but it wasn’t the same.
  • From the official explanation, it follows that the assassination of JFK could not have been avoided.  The President was protected with the normal security measures of the time, and it seemed implausible that someone could accurately shoot and kill the President in a moving vehicle.  But the coming events of 11 September cast their shadows beforehand, and yet we did nothing to forestall the events.
  • The assassination of JFK led to some changes of policy direction, but all of these were within the realm of normal politics.  11 September led to the unfolding police state.

Cavalcade of Stupidity

Thursday night, I was watching NBC Nightly News:

  • Federal regulators are contemplating changing the rules to enable passengers on airlines to use their cell phones during the flight.  The practical answer is that as long as cell phone use doesn’t affect the safety of the flight, and doesn’t interfere with the operation of the cell networks on the ground, it should be OK.  But the news report was full of angst over the possibility of having to listen to one’s seat mate yakking nonstop from coast to coast.  Get over it: Amtrak and the commuter railroads have successfully dealt with this for years.  We used to have smoking and non-smoking sections on planes; it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to have yakking and non-yakking sections.  It’s a problem for the airlines to solve, not the government.
  • A 747 Dreamlifter landed at the wrong airport in Kansas.  The Dreamlifter is an oversized aircraft used to transport components of the Boeing Dreamliner 787 and other large airplanes.  You’d think that the pilots of the Dreamliner would be able to tell which airport is which.
  • The Senate Democrats changed the rules to allow nominations for most judges and other Presidential nominees to pass on a simple majority vote: the Republicans were denied the ability to filibuster the nomination.  While this may not be a big deal in itself, it upsets the balance of the Senate, and opens the door to bolder rule changes in the future.
  • The Administration was pushing back against reports that American troops could remain in Afghanistan for another ten years.  The Afghan government held debates on this arrangement.  The Afghan President assured the assembly that the Americans wouldn’t be involved in combat missions anymore.  (How would he know that?)  OK, we had bases in Europe after World War II (and indeed still do).  But is a presence in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, really necessary?  And then our President promised that the Americans would:

…make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes… just as we do for our own citizens.

You mean like the NSA?

  • An elderly veteran of the Korean War fulfilled his lifelong dream of revisiting North Korea.  He went there for a 9-day tour, and was arrested on the plane that would have taken him homeward.  The last time I checked, the Korean War had not yet ended.  For a Korean War soldier to go back to North Korea would seem most unwise.
  • The Dow Jones Industrials closed over 16,000 for the first time ever, an all-time high.  The pluffing of the stock market continues, without any real productivity underneath.
  • The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce ran a full page ad encouraging Washington state legislators to pass a transportation package (presumably more tax breaks) to that Boeing would build their latest aircraft in Washington state.  Unfortunately, the ad featured a picture of an Airbus jetliner, made by Boeing’s strongest competitor.

 

Positive Train Control

I normally don’t write about topics in my profession: I think of blogging as a relief from work.  But I can’t resist commenting on a news item this week.

First, a little background.  For years, legislating requiring railroads in the US to install a positive train control system had been kicking around Congress.  Public interest groups supported it; the railroads hated it.  The stalemate persisted until 2008, when a head-on collision between a freight train and a commuter train occurred in California, killing about 20.  At that point, Congress was galvanized into action: the Rail Safety Improvement Act was passed, and signed by President Bush, less than two weeks afterward.  It requires certain mainline railroads in the US to implement positive train control systems over some 60,000 miles of track by the end of 2015.  (The territory where the California accident took place had a signal system, but no method of enforcement if a train should overrun a stop signal.)

Like any other human endeavor, railroads are imperfect: accidents happen, sometimes spectacular ones.  But on balance, railroads are safer than most other forms of transport.  The Positive Train Control system will incrementally improve safety, but at a cost of some $13 billion dollars to build, plus ongoing maintenance.  Meanwhile, from fewer accidents and improved operating efficiencies, the railroads will gain about 5% of that for their efforts.  And the system will not prevent all accidents: Positive Train Control would not have prevented the accident in Quebec last July, when a runaway train of crude oil derailed at the bottom of a hill, destroying 30 buildings and killing 42.

In any case, as of 2008, the railroads had a little over seven years to implement this system.  The first year could only be spent on general planning, because the regulations still had to be written.  But the railroads set to work on it, making progress, although the 2015 deadline was still a difficult target.

Earlier this year, there was talk about extending the 2015 deadline, which on balance seems reasonable.  But this week, a news item crossed my desk:  the sites for 22,000 radio towers, required to make the system work, would have to be approved by Native American tribes across the country, to ensure that the sites did not cover sacred burial grounds.

Where did such madness come from?  I thought of the times I have driven cross-country and the innumerable radio towers to support cell phone service.  But it turns out that those towers were subject to the same approvals.  The phone companies presumably set up a process for getting the sites approved with minimal delay, and built out their networks like they planned.

So now, I’m disappointed: either the consultants and engineers involved in Positive Train Control implementation don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re overstating the dimensions of the problem to cadge for more time.

The weasels….

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

No, that isn’t true.

I’m still worried, just as much as I ever was, if not more.

What made last week’s default debacle particularly scary was that, unlike August 2011, we now know that President Obama will handle the situation like a petulant child.  Rather than encouraging the people to be calm and face the problems together, he would happily incite nationwide riots because, after all, a good crisis should never go to waste.

I was hoping that the Republicans would be able to do something about Obamacare, the worst public policy decision since Prohibition.  But other than one little nibble (that we would explore the possibility of verifying one’s income before granting a subsidy), Obamacare stands.

And what is this business of ‘raising the debt ceiling until February’?  The debt ceiling is a number.  You raise it by a trillion dollars, or a billion dollars, or 75 cents.  But thus time it’s different: Congress has abdicated its authority under the Constitution and enabled the Treasury to borrow however much it needs for the next four months.

The movement to defund Obamacare was led by the Tea Party Republicans, who believe in a constitutional republic with a limited government.  (How quaint!)  The Republicans in general got hosed, even though most Republicans, from what I can tell, are as much big-government statists as the Democrats.  (Indeed, in last year’s Presidential election, it was hard to tell the difference between Romney and Obama, except that Romney would work to undo Obamacare… maybe.)

In the end, it worked out spectacularly well for the President: no substantial changes to Obamacare, no restrictions on spending, debt ceiling increases by time rather than money, the Tea Party excoriated as lunatics, the Republicans weakened, and the chance to repeat the lesson three months from now if anyone should dare to challenge these issues again.

Maybe it’s time to give up.

Maybe deficits don’t matter after all.  Maybe debt is a badge of honor.  It’s contrary to what I was brought up with, but maybe the world has changed, and what I was brought up with is now wrong.

I can’t imagine how this would work out, other than a totalitarian socialist utopia in which everyone is equally shabby, or else chaos, destruction, and death.  But the problem may be my lack of vision.

It may be time to learn to stop worrying and love the debt.

But I’m not ready to admit that.

Default, Again

For my part, there appears to be an eminently reasonable approach to the stalemate that has resulted in the Federal government shutdown: postpone the Obamacare penalty for not carrying insurance for one year.  People would still have the option to buy the insurance, and receive subsidies (perhaps reducing them a few ticks to balance the penalties that won’t be collected).  It would balance the Administration’s unilaterally postponing the Obamacare employer obligation for one year.  In fact, I believe that House Republicans proposed such an approach, but Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, rejected it out of hand.

Meanwhile, on top of the government shutdown (which has in fact left about two-thirds of the government up and spending), we now face a deadlock over the debt ceiling.  We went through this a couple of years ago, and if we had adults in charge, I wouldn’t be particularly worried.  If the government cannot borrow money, the 14th Amendment means that its debts are sacrosanct.  The government must pay its debts, which includes paying interest and principal on its bonds, and paying contractors and employees for services rendered.

Everything else is fair game.

If adults were in charge, they would follow the 14th Amendment, pay the debts, then prioritize the other expenses (aid for states and localities, ongoing procurements and government services that can be shut down, foreign aid, and–the elephant in the room–entitlements) and pay what they can from the remaining funds.  It’s what the rest of us do when we have a case of the shorts.  In fairness, the immediate effects would not be good for the economy.  But we would be facing reality, which is the first step to actually fixing things.

Alas, we don’t have adults in the room anymore.  One of the disconcerting parts of the Syria debacle a month ago is that the only person who seemed to have his head on straight was Vladimir Putin.  Our President and Secretary of State came across as damned fools.

That’s the real scary part.

Shutdown

I burst out laughing when I saw today’s Daily News headline:

House of Turds

But I’m not sure that House Speaker Boehner deserves the honor he is accorded here.  As far as I can tell, he’s an establishment politician who is somewhat embarrassed by his colleagues who are standing up for their principles and exercising their authority to actually change something.  (After all, it wouldn’t be good for angry Democrats to stand up for their constituencies and work to undo bad Republican policy.)

In any case, the House, driven by Republicans, and the Senate failed to come to agreement last night, and as a result, the Federal government is now ‘shut down.’  Well, not really: the mail will still be delivered, the politicians will still get paid, and essential services are still running.  But the national parks are closed across the country, and some 800,000 Federal employees are temporarily unemployed.

Whom do you blame for the government shutdown?

The direct answer is obvious: the House Republicans, of course.  They could have gotten with the program and kicked the can down the road, as has been done a hundred times before.  But the pollster’s question is loaded: it implies that the Federal government shutdown is a something to be blamed for.

To be sure, it’s not ideal, and not a desirable outcome.  But it’s the first break in our time from the pattern of yowling and wailing about some problem or another and then resolving to change nothing.  At least they’re trying.

Meanwhile, my mailbox is stuffed with missives from the Obamoids about the rotten Republicans who ‘want to prevent 40 million people from gaining affordable, accessible health care.’

No, that isn’t it at all.  It’s that Obamacare insurance is not ‘affordable;’ it’s unclear, given shortages of doctors and the rotten medical care in this country (unless you’re in the 1%, going to a hospital is only marginally nicer than going to jail), how ‘accessible’ care will be; and maybe a third of ’40 million’ will benefit, while the rest of us are bankrupted in the process.  Meanwhile, as a weekend bonus, employers all over the country are cutting their staffs and their hours so as not to have to pay for it.

And for those who say that Obamacare is ‘the law of the land,’ settled and beyond debate, I have three words:

So was Prohibition.

Obamacare: For Real?

Next week, the Obamacare health care exchanges will open up, enabling Americans to buy health insurance at allegedly reduced premiums.  An op-ed piece in the Daily News urged people to look up how much health insurance would cost before complaining.

OK, I’m game.

For comparison, the health insurance I buy for my company has a premium of $575/month for a single person.

Under Obamacare, there are four grades of coverage: ‘platinum,’ ‘gold,’ ‘silver,’ and ‘bronze.’  The grades are defined in terms of what fraction of the aggregate medical costs of the covered population they will pay: ‘bronze’ pays 60%, up to ‘platinum,’ which pays 90%.  I don’t have any information about how this resolves into practical details like co-payments, or how much one will have to pay for a hospital visit, and I don’t have a real basis for comparison with my current insurance.  (I asked my insurance agent  for a figure for comparison, but didn’t get an answer.  I suspect, though, that my current insurance is somewhere between ‘gold’ and ‘platinum.’)  There’s also a ‘catastrophic’ level, which is only available to people under 30.

There are nine insurance providers offering Obamacare policies in Brooklyn; for the purposes of this table I took the median premium as a middle-of-the-road value.

Level Full Premium/month (median) Net cost after subsidy/month
$40k/year income $25k/year income
Platinum 577 529 356
Gold 486 438 265
Silver 419 371 198
Bronze 340 291 118
Catastrophic 218 218 218

In fairness, many of the provisions of Obamacare that will drive up premiums in other places (no exclusion for pre-existing conditions, equal premiums for men and women) were already law in New York State.  So I wasn’t expecting much change from the status quo, and I was right.

What about not carrying insurance?  In 2014, the penalty will be $95 or 1% of income, whichever is greater.  For an individual with an income of $40,000/year, that works out to $33/month, well below even the ‘catastrophic’ plan.  In 2016, the penalty will be $695 or 2.5% of income, or $83/month for a $40,000/year income: still cheaper than real insurance.

The one good thing that I can see, for where I live, is that an individual can buy comprehensive health insurance for a premium that is comparable to an employer’s group plan.  (A while back, when I was between policies, I asked about the premium for an individual health insurance plan for myself and my wife.  The agent was ashamed to tell me.  “Be brave,” I told her.  Her shame was justified: the premium was $2500/month.)

But even with subsidies, it’s still God-awful expensive.  And I still don’t understand how making everyone pay for it–mobilizing more dollars to pay for the same finite resource–will not raise costs through simple supply and demand.

Arthur and August for Mayor

Arthur and August

About three weeks ago, two kittens, later christened Arthur and August, interrupted subway service on the Brighton line in Brooklyn.  NYCT staffers shut off power not once, but twice, and stopped train movements in order to retrieve them.  (They’ve since been adopted.)

The next weekend, the Republican candidate for Mayor, Joe Lhota (who since won his primary and is now the Republican candidate in the general election in November), who previously ran the MTA (the umbrella organization for mass transit in NYC), noted that he wouldn’t have interrupted subway service for kittens.

That was a foolish thing to say.  The issue isn’t the kittens: it’s the passengers, one of whom might take matters into his own hands and attempt to retrieve the cats himself, possibly getting hurt or killed in the process.

In another time, NYCT might have sent two guys with orange vests and flashlights to chase after the cats between trains.  They would have left the power on, so that one guy would chase after the cats, while the other would watch out for trains.  But by current rules, that’s unacceptably dangerous, so now they stop the trains and shut off the power, and what was a minor event turns into a major production.

Joe Lhota, in spite of his remarks, will probably get my vote this November.  The alternative is Democrat Bill deBlasio, who was nowhere in the primary race until he started running campaign commercials featuring his 15-year-old son.  (DeBlasio is white; his wife is black; his son is appealingly halfway, very telegenic, with a surprisingly deep voice.)

DeBlasio is running as a traditional Democrat: raise taxes on the rich and spend it on government goodies.  He says that it’s time for a break from Republican Mayors who ran the city for the past 20 years.  (And gave us a city that works, with crime a small fraction of what it was in the 1980s?)

For my part, I’d vote for Arthur and August if they were on the ballot:

  • They’ve shown that they have what it takes to survive in the big city.
  • They don’t stop when they get frisky.
  • And they won’t raise taxes.

Insecurity Adviser

Tuesday’s NBC Nighly News included an interview with Susan Rice, the President’s national security adviser, about the upcoming attack in Syria.  It was unexpectedly entertaining, but not in a good way:

Q: If you lose the vote in congress. what does the president do then?

A: …we have no expectation of losing the vote in congress.  We are quite confident and indeed today. we’ve had a series of very constructive bipartisan meetings… a number of key leaders have come out of those discussions, making plain their support for this. on a bipartisan basis.

In other words, the fix is in, even though most of the electorate is against it, and many Congressmen are getting almost unanimous word from their constituents that going to war in Syria is a really bad idea.

Q: …Since when did we start announcing our intentions to the enemy. potentially giving the enemy time to prepare?

A. We have not announced our intentions to the enemy….

Huh?  Our leadership has been about as subtle as Miley Cyrus.  (And ten years hence, we’ll wonder what that meant.)

…in fact the united states has been making clear for years that it is unacceptable to use chemical weapons. when president obama made the statement last summer… that the use of chemical weapons is absolutely unacceptable.

You see?  We’re not blabbing our intentions!  We’re just telling everyone about them.

Q: Do you draw that bright a distinction between the death by an incendiary bomb by a school and death by chemical weapons?  That appears to be the administration’s bright line on this?

A: All of this is horrific… if terrorists get hold of those weapons, other dictators get hold of those weapons, they can be used on a massive scale.

As opposed to massive use of incendiaries, which are OK.

Q: what about the measurable chance as recent history has taught us, that military action could in this case, make things worse?

A: …We think that’s a very limited risk in this case. in the first instance, Assad and his backers in Iran and Hezbollah, do not have any interest in seeing this escalate….

I did a double-take when I heard this the first time, and went back to the video and the transcript.  What planet is she on?  Iran and Hezbollah are spoiling for a fight, and will be more than happy to escalate.  They can start by attacking Israel.

…they know that the united states will stand up for our own national security , our own defense. and that of our partners and friends in the region. it’s not in their interest to escalate, and i don’t think they would do so….

That’s almost as good as Bush belling us that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators.  Getting us into another interminable war, in the face of flagging public support at home, when we’re, in a word, broke, would definitely be in our adversaries’ interest.

…We also have to ask, what if we don’t act. what message does that send to those who would use violence against us or others with impunity?

Well, if we do act, it tells our adversaries that if they do something really bad, we’ll send in the missiles to make some pinprick attacks, and think we’ve done our job.

Do we have a national insecurity adviser?  That could only be an improvement.

A Step Back

On Saturday, President Obama reverted to type (since he was first elected, he has strenuously avoided the appearance of actually leading on anything) and announced that he would be seeking authorization from Congress to engage in military strikes in Syria.

Yesterday, we learned that Obama had actually been reconsidering on Friday, while the news media were banging the drums for an imminent attack.  We’ve been had, again.

But the drumbeat for war continued on the evening news last night:

  • “Air samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin,” noted our Secretary of State.  That’s not particularly surprising: sarin is an effective chemical weapon.  But that doesn’t address the more important question: who used it?
  • We’re told that when Obama told his advisers that he would hold off on the attacks and seek authorization from Congress, his advisers tried to talk him out of it.  Why would he do such a thing?  Because by getting the US involved in a pointless war–by himself–he could get himself impeached.  And his fingerprints would be all over it.
  • Senator John McCain, Obama’s rival in the 2008 election, had a somewhat different take on it.  The actual merits of the case in Syria seemed beside the point.  But if the President deferred to Congress, and Congress voted him down, it would be bad for future Presidents who might need to engage in unilateral executive action.  And this is a problem… how?
  • The evening news then reported on Syrian refugees who are distinctly disappointed that America hadn’t come through with destruction.  “We are asking for Obama to strike Assad, like he promised,” one refugee remarked.  When all else fails, go for the heartstrings….

On last night’s news, other than noting that some Congressmen and Senators were opposed to the attacks, there was no discussion of the case against striking Syria.  Is this because the case is so self-evident as to not be worth reporting, or is it that the news media’s corporate masters really want us to drag out the blunderbuss?

“A Shot across the Bow”

About  a week ago, so we’ve been told, the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons against its own people in several villages east of Damascus, killing several hundred.  On Monday, our Secretary of State, John Kerry, looking like an unshaven bum in his expensive suit, called it a ‘moral obscenity’ deserving of American military retaliation.  (And this is the same John Kerry who ran against Bush for President in 2004?)

Why don’t I believe this narrative?

I’m reminded of the runup to the Iraq war in 2002, when we were told that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world, when it seemed clear enough, even in 2001, that we were looking for a pretext to fight Iraq so that the younger Bush could avenge where the older Bush had wimped out.

We’re against the current Syrian government, when we were OK with them until a couple of years ago.  We’re now arming the ‘rebels,’ some of whom belong to al-Qaeda, which, I thought, was the enemy.

President Obama now proposes ‘a shot across the bow’ to send the Assad regime “a pretty strong signal, that in fact, it better not do it again.”  Perhaps that’s meant to be reassuring, but I’m not reassured.

A literal shot across the bow is a warning measure (not intending to accomplish actual damage) taken against a warship in a context that makes that ship a legitimate target.  Obama proposes cruise missile strikes against Syrian military installations to actually destroy them: if that’s not an act of war, I don’t know what is.

Last year, Obama indicated that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a ‘red line’ that would trigger severe consequences.  So now either the narrative of last week’s attacks is true, and we need to follow through on our word and retaliate, or else visibly wimp out; or the narrative is fake, and we’re setting ourselves up for another pointless military adventure.

I don’t believe that even President Carter would have been that stupid.

 

Everything Old Is New Again

When I was a kid, on Election Day, my parents would sometimes take me inside the voting booth to see what went on.  Back then, there were mechanical voting machines, with a lever for each candidate.  Push the lever, see the little ‘X’ pop up, and when you were finished, swing over the big red lever, and all the little ‘X’s would disappear into the belly of the machine, and your vote would be recorded.  It felt simple, sure, positive.

It isn’t really fair to call that a childhood memory, since the same machines remained in service until about five years ago.  In 2009, a new system went into service, in which one would mark one’s votes on a paper ballot, and then feed it into a scanner.  It was really clunky: if you wanted your ballot to really be secret, you would have to slip it into a folder after filling it out, and then deftly pass it into the scanner so that nobody could see your votes.  The scanner would then cogitate for half a minute or so before accepting the ballot.  Still, it seemed more modern than the old machines.

This year, we will elect a new Mayor, which means that there will be primary elections in September.  If there is no clear winner for each party, there will be a runoff election shortly after.

These elections will be conducted on the old voting machines, because the election officials insist that it would not be possible to certify the results of the primary election, establish the need for a runoff, and then reconfigure the system should a runoff be necessary, in three weeks.  (It’s normally two weeks, but that day would fall on the Jewish holiday Sukkos, so the runoff was pushed a week later.)

So we’re back to the future with our old voting machines.

Now, if there were only a candidate that I’d actually want to vote for….

But You Can’t Say That Out Loud….

When Obama was running for President in 2008, I signed up for the campaign e-mail list, an act that I’ve now come to regret.  I believe that I’ve received more e-mail this year from Obama’s ‘Organizing for Action’ group than I did when he was running for re-election.  He can’t run for a third term–right?–so why is he hitting me up for money?

And why am I told that I should ‘have the President’s back’?  Isn’t that what the Secret Service is for?

I received a missive today in this vein in which Joe Biden, the Vice President, remarks about the Republican opposition:

When I asked several Republican senators after they voted against background checks [for gun purchasers], not one offered an explanation on the merits of why they couldn’t vote for them. But almost to a person, they said, “I don’t want to take on Ted Cruz. I don’t want to take on Rand Paul. They’ll be in my district.”

I’ll be clear: I do not own a gun.  I don’t have a burning need to run out and get one.  While it would be cool to learn to shoot, I don’t have the time or energy to invest in it.  But I believe that the Second Amendment underpins our other freedoms in that an armed citizenry represents the ultimate defense against government overreach.  And if the circumstances of my life or my environment changed, of course I would arm myself.

And there is a simple explanation on the merits as to why universal background checks are a bad idea.  Presumably, one ‘passes’ or ‘fails’ a background check, and is either granted or denied the right to purchase a firearm.  But who determines the criteria for passing the background check?  And what’s to prevent the criteria from being manipulated for partisan political purposes, or to effectively deny what is still a Constitutional right?

But I guess that a Republican Senator can’t say that out loud.  As a present-day politician, he cannot vocalize the notion of our Founding Fathers that government is inherently untrustworthy and its reach needs to be constrained.

So instead, he blames Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

And comes across as either spineless or stupid.

Snooping

For a while now, I’ve lived with the presumption that anything I transact over the Internet gets snorfed up in transit by the National Security Agency, for possible review/analysis/whatever.  This week, we learned that Verizon, the telephone company for many of us, has turned over records of all telephone calls made over its network in recent weeks to the government, and that the NSA has an ongoing program to collect data from major Web providers including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.  Apple joined this group more recently, in 2012.  That this happened after Steve Jobs died may be telling.

We’re told that all of this is done strictly in the interest of catching terrorists, and that there are safeguards on the use of this information.  Somehow, I’m not convinced.  It’s probably still a bit of a stretch to sift through billions of telephone records to construct a chain of associations from a given person, but that will only become quicker and easier over time.  It seems inexorable that eventually the same process will be used against more ordinary crimes (after all, for every felony there is a related law against ‘conspiring to commit’), for sociological research, and for God knows what else.

I’m a law-abiding citizen, and as far as I’m aware, I’m not under investigation for any sort of crime.  But if the police wanted so send officers to track my movements, they could.  It would be legal, and Constitutional, because there is no presumption of privacy on a public street or, by extension, in a public conveyance.  But it would be preposterously expensive to send officers to follow everyone.  And so it always was… until now.

We’re reaching the point where it is becoming practical to perform surveillance on everyone, regardless of whether one has committed a crime or otherwise merits investigation.  I carry a cell phone, and I’ve always accepted that in order for it to function, the cell phone network must keep track of approximately where I am.  But I’m not comfortable with the notion that the phone could use GPS or other means to more accurately locate itself, and then report that information back to the network, which could then be reported to the government.  And I’m really uncomfortable with the notion that, under government order, the phone could be used as a listening device without my knowledge and consent.  (And I’m sure that such a feature has been included in our cell phones for years.)

And the telephone companies and Web providers are really big companies, and they know which side their bread is buttered on.  They all exist at the grace of the government, and wouldn’t want to get in trouble, lest it interrupt the revenue stream.

The Fourth Amendment says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

But who is to say what is ‘unreasonable’?  I’ve noted in these pages that a search of one’s possessions prior to boarding an aircraft is reasonable, for reasons that go beyond terrorism. (What’s reprehensible is the conduct of the people carrying out the search, but that’s a subject for another day.)  But this week, politicians and columnists have lined up to commend the government for its efforts to keep us safe: it’s only ‘metadata,’ people; nothing to worry about.  So I guess the current view is that trawling through everyones phone records is ‘reasonable.’  Ten years hence, when voice recognition is fast and really, really cheap, it will be ‘reasonable’ to trawl through the actual content of everyone’s voice conversations.

You don’t want the terrorists to win, right?

Or do you?

Two to Tango

My conservative ex-boss sent me this item:

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In fairness, the first statement is not entirely true.  Before the Sixteenth Amendment brought us the Federal income tax, there were state income taxes, and certainly other Federal taxes.

But, indeed, we did have all of those things with fewer taxes and less onerous government than we do now.  What happened?

Some of the items on the list–schools, roads, streets, and subways–were the province of local governments, doing what is a good local government’s first job: provide an environment in which commerce can flourish.  New York City financed the first subways (which were built and run by private firms) not to provide transportation to the poor, or for a ‘greener planet,’ but because the city was becoming overwhelmed with traffic congestion, which was getting in the way of business.

Other items on the list were in the domain of the private sector.  The railroads and the power grid were built with private investment.  (Yes, there was also some government help, and the railroads were overbuilt as a consequence, but the successful railroads turned a profit and thrived… until later in the century.)

A century ago, in general, the private sector knew that it had to work for a living.  They hired millions of workers and literally lit up our world.

Today, the private sector has gotten lazy.  They have learned that it’s easier to seek favors from the government than to actually do something.  Banks used to earn their living by taking calculated risks and lending to businesses and individuals.  Today, it’s easier to sit on the money, or park it at the Federal Reserve.

So while it’s appropriate to rail at government policy for not getting us out of our stalled economy, it takes two to tango, and the private sector has become as much of a problem as the government.

And what do we do about the lazy private sector?  Alas, I have no idea.

Preparing… for What?

I have the feeling that there is something terribly wrong in the world.  I don’t believe I’m alone.

I could start with the Federal deficit: every day the government spends about $10 billion, of which maybe $6.5 billion is funded by taxes.  The government must then borrow approximately $1 trillion every year to fund the rest.  There is no sign that tax revenues will increase  substantially (perhaps a few ticks, but not enough to make a dent) or that spending will drop (everyone loves to talk about it, but no politician actually wants to cut spending) to make a difference.

Debt serves a useful and necessary purpose an a productive economy: it enables people to do things today on the premise that they will be paid for by future productive activity.  And as long as the new debt does not outstrip the rate of growth of productive activity, the whole system floats skyward and everyone is happy.  Bad things happen, as they do now, when debt grows and productive activity is stagnant.

The debt problem is causing trouble all over the world.  The Cypriot parliament was considering a measure this week to tax people’s bank deposits (not just the interest, but the actual amounts on deposit) to help fund a bailout.  As of now, the thought is to tax only large deposits.  Alternately, Cyprus could end up being the first country to be tossed out of the Euro zone.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.  If the powers that be wanted it, I could get locked up at any time and the key thrown away, on suspicion of being a ‘terrorist.’  And who exactly is a terrorist?  A terrorist is anyone deemed as such by our leadership.

So what can I do about it?

It’s beyond my power to change politicians or public policy: I can write to my elected representatives, but I’m better off saving my breath to cool my porridge.  I can vote for the other guy, but even if he wins, nothing changes.

OK: what can I do to save myself?

I know the conventional prepper wisdom: move out to the boonies; arm yourself; stockpile food, water, and ammunition; don’t tell anyone your plans, unless you’re positive that you’re in the company of like-minded individuals.

But I bristle at some of these suggestions: I’m a city boy, always have been, and was bored to tears–literally–living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; I don’t know how to shoot and don’t have time to learn; I live in a relatively small apartment without very much storage space.

And then I ask, what am I preparing for?

The prepper answer is some kind of extended public emergency, with no electricity, no banks, no supermarkets, no police, no ATMs, for a period of weeks or months, if not longer.  It is typically accompanied by widespread destruction, either as a cause or a consequence of the emergency.

But is that a realistic assumption?

I look back through history for an event in which civilization in a region simply shut itself off in a period of days or weeks and didn’t try to restart itself.  I’ll exclude events resulting from an attack by a foreign military, and I’ll consider events in the last 200 years.

I was coming up empty until just before I wrote this, but there is an example: the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which emptied the cities and forced everyone to work in the fields.

As much as I wonder what our government may be up to, I don’t see that as a realistic alternative.

Isolationism 101

It is attractive to think that we can save money on a national level by withdrawing our military from other countries or cutting off foreign aid or ending offshoring of jobs. What we see reflects national priorities, and the country doesn’t matter too much.  If one goes to a British or German grocery store, tea, bread, and cheese are relatively cheap relative to U.S. prices in a British store and grains, vegetables and chocolate are relatively cheap in a German grocery. Walk into a U.S. grocery store, and chances are that you will be met with a display of soda and snack foods as the specials of the week.

The main thing that “free trade” does at the consumer level is to roll back or eliminate tariffs on imported goods.  The government misses out on the revenues that they would raise from the tariffs, but people will get somewhat cheaper goods. Another way to get cheaper goods is to reduce the cost of production.  This can take the form of reducing wages or using cheaper ingedients and even reducing the size of the package while keeping the cost of the package constant. This is not an exhaustive list.

One reason that countries or regions of the same country trade goods is because certain areas make certain goods better or more cheaply.  The prospective buyer sees value in the other region’s goods. At different times, foreign-made goods can be seen as either a superior or inferior good.  People are willing to pay more for a BMW than for a Kia. As long as we insist on cheap goods, it will be diffficult for jobs to return to the U.S. because goods of acceptable quality can be made elsewhere.

One can argue that the U.S. provides a huge subsidy to the rest of the world because we have such a large military and that we maintain a military presence in most countries. I don’t know how often the status of forces agreements that the U.S. has with other countries are renegotiated.  These are what allows us to maintain a military presence in the country. We were heading for the end of a status of forces agreement in the Phililppines some years ago when Mount Pinotubo erupted.  The Philippines wanted us out anyway, but the fact that the base was destroyed in the eruption probably allowed us to avoid any termination costs under an “Act of God” clause.

We used to have many more military bases in Germany than we do now.  The Army base at Heidelberg is scheduled to be turned back to the Germans, which is why US Army Europe headquarters was relocated to Wiesbaden. Maintaining bases in Europe isn’t cheap. There is no end to the litany of damages that the Germans seek to charge.  It’s a lot like what happens to you in England if you run over a sheep that is crossing the road:  you have to pay not just for the sheep, but for all of its offspring, so killing one sheep can cost you twenty times the value of the sheep in damages.

I expect the military to offer certain incentives to its personnel to leave or retire early within five years.  The last time around (1992-94), someone who volunteered to separate received a pro-rated pension for twice their length of service provided that they had more than 10 years of service , so someone wth 15 years of service got a pension for 30 years that was worth about 30% of their base pay. The separation incentive for a civilian is much less generous:  $25,000 and a five-year ban on federal employment. However, this matters less if you are immediately eligible for retirement.

People who want us to take a more isolationist stance often don’t look at the unintended consequences. We are going to abandon a lot of military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t deal with what to do with the people.  I’m happy to let the contractors take it on the chin, because they made at least 3-4 times what the soldiers did, plus got much of their income tax-free, as any cmtractor who works overseas does.  If you are a contractor who works overseas under a status of forces agreement, you get an exemption from U.S. income taxes of about $100K plus don’t have to pay taxes to the host country. If they didn’t have the sense to save their money, too bad for them. For every military slot that you cut, there is somewhere around 5 support billets that go along with it.

Unfortunately, it looks like federal employees will take the hit of budget reduction, at least this year. In part, this is a function of contracts having been signed, but in the case of Department of the Army, iis also a result of being “overstrength”.  Military personnel can’t be furloughed by order of the President, so civilians have to make up the budget cut. Other agencies expect far fewer days of furlough than the 22 days that Department of the Army employees have been told to expect.  22 days is the maximum amount of days that a federal employee can be furloughed without it being considered an adverse personnel action. 

Want to bring the troops back home?  Look for a spike in unemployment, both at home and abroad, because we employ foreign nationals overseas.  This is not an argument not to do it, but understand that the jobs that will go away will be good-paying jobs with benefits, not McJobs. It’s a macroeconomic problem that I can’t address adequately in a blog post, given the effect on the economy of military spending. When Congress wanted to get the B-1 bomber funded, they made sure to put a piece of the work in every congressional distrcit.

Machine Politics

A few years ago, when computerized voting devices came into use, some software professionals reviewed the devices and their software and found them deficient.  There is a YouTube video about finagling a particular brand of voting machine with a hardware change.  New York missed out on this: state law requires that all of the candidates and issues on a ballot appear on a single page, and so we have paper ballots and scanners, which are really clunky, but seem to work.

I’m not a software jock, but I know something about computers.  Given a couple of days, I could write a functional emulation of one of the old mechanical voting machines for a Windows PC.  You’d have to partition the ballot to make it readable on the screen, but other than that, it would work.  It wouldn’t be certifiably bomb-proof, but in the hands of professionals, it could be used to run a real election.

After the November elections, reports surfaced that many districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio recorded not a single vote for Romney.  In other districts, the number of votes recorded exceeded the number of actual voters.  There were scattered reports of people who were clearly not from the area (out in rural areas where people presumably know each other) appearing in significant numbers to vote.  There were also reports of people being unable to vote for Romney in that the machine would change their vote to Obama.

None of these events was reported widely in the media, but then again, when the votes from the 2000 election in Florida were counted a few months later, Al Gore would have one, and that story was buried, too.

I’m beginning to believe that the complaints about deficient software and hackable voting machines may be misplaced.  The software in an election device may be imperfect—is there ever such a thing as perfect software?—but running an honest election is really simple stuff.

But what if the election authorities, or someone behind them, didn’t want to run an honest election?

In another time, I would have considered the thought preposterous.  But if someone did want to run a corrupt election, voting machines would be just one tool among many.  And whatever software certifications the machines might have had are beside the point.  No machine is incorruptible, if you want to corrupt it badly enough.

But why?  And why has the mainstream media reported nothing about this?

Kicked Again

In the first hours of the New Year, Our Leadership enacted a plan to address what had been looming over our heads as the ‘fiscal cliff.’  Yeah, right.

The essential problem of our government is that it spends far more than it takes in, to the point where the stability of the economy is now in question.  To address this, the government must tax more and spend less.  No, it’s not one or the other: we’re in a deep hole and need to do both.  And faced with circumstances that would lead to precisely that outcome, out leadership punted.  Yes, there will be some tax increases, and the ‘payroll tax holiday’ is over.  But there will be no real spending cuts, at least for now.

Worse, the stage has been set for an ongoing soap opera, with the debt ceiling, the deferred spending cuts, and God knows what else rising periodically out of the ooze and requiring urgent negotiations to forestall disaster.

Can someone tell me how this will create real jobs?

End This Depression… How?

A while back, prompted by a comment on this blog, I read the Paul Krugman book, End This Depression Now!  He argues that a large Federal stimulus is needed to push the economy out of the doldrums and get people working again.

Well, maybe.

I agree with some of his premises:

  • The economy is in a liquidity trap: even after driving interest rates to zero, there is insufficient demand to support full employment.
  • One of the immediate causes of this liquidity trap is that everyone is trying to save and get out of debt at once.  Production, in and of itself, is pointless without consumption.
  • The Federal government has room for more deficit spending before the danger of inflation sets in.
  • A small amount of inflation might actually be a good thing, as it means that debts would be repaid with cheaper dollars.

So let’s borrow (it’s OK, it’s from the Federal Reserve, who will never ask to be repaid) and spend a couple of trillion dollars to boost the economy!  Right?

Alas, I don’t think so.

  • Between existing government programs and the Federal Reserve’s ongoing quantitative easing, we’re already loosing trillions of dollars into the system, with nothing useful to show for it.
  • A Keynesian government stimulus is supposed to vary with the overall state of the economy, to fill in for ‘missing’ consumer and industrial demand.  But we’ve had the spigots stuck on ‘wide open’ for years, blunting the effect of additional stimulus.
  • Historically, before we tried to regulate the economy, we had cycles of boom and bust.  The busts, although painful, served a necessary purpose, as they forced people to reallocate resources from useless endeavors into useful ones.  But our economy has gotten to the point where it runs on useless endeavors.  Republicans rail at pointless government regulation, and to some extent they’re right.  But millions of jobs and billions of dollars are invested in such pointlessness.  (Not that all government regulations are pointless: one of the further difficulties is recognizing the pointless ones.)  Reallocating away from such efforts will require an agonizing re-appraisal, which will get worse the longer we put it off.
  • One of the main causes of our employment problems is that employers, in the name of cost-cutting, have turned away from actually employing people, as far as possible.  If you can get a machine to do the work, so much the better.  Failing that, outsource it, leaving the dirty work of actually hiring people to others.  (And if those people are outside the US, it doesn’t matter.)  I can’t see how a renewed government stimulus will change this trend.
  • One of the practical purposes of deficit spending is to tide people over until the economy begins to grow again.  It’s not clear when, or if, that will actually happen.  There is no job fairy waiting for us to change policies.

Alas, I’m back where I started.  I don’t believe the government can ‘fix’ the economy.  The best it can do is to invest in infrastructure, but this will not magically get the rest of the economy buzzing.  Under these circumstances, the best thing for the government to do is to try to moderate its deficits by raising taxes and cutting spending, to prepare for a future eventuality more dire than our current circumstances.

Over the Cliff

Our leadership in Washington is now contemplating how to ‘avoid’ the ‘fiscal cliff’ at the end of the year, when, if nothing is done, taxes will rise some $2000 on the average American household, and the Federal government will face actual budget cuts.

Awwww… poor babies.

It’s true that nobody likes paying taxes, and even fewer enjoy a tax increase.  And the tax increase that will bite most Americans is the end of the ‘temporary’ cut in the Social Security payroll tax, which will itself cost the median American household about$1000.

But the intent of that tax cut was to stimulate the economy through consumer spending.  It didn’t work.  When I try to do something, and it doesn’t work, I stop doing it.  But I guess that the ‘temporarily’ lowered Social Security tax rate has become yet another entitlement.

The other part of the ‘fiscal cliff’ is a reduction of some 10% of discretionary spending.  Other than an adjustment to Medicare reimbursements, entitlements aren’t touched.  Again, nobody likes budget cuts, but I can’t believe that the Federal government will roll over and die because of a 10% cut.

Yes, we need to raise taxes on the rich.  The economy, as it has functioned for at least the last ten years, has worked to transfer money from everyone else to the very richest.  If we continue at this rate, we will have regressed to a feudal state in another generation.  It’s reasonable, in this context, for the government to redistribute to maintain balance.  But do not believe, for a moment, that raising taxes on the rich will solve all our problems, or provide license for yet more government spending.  We’re still very badly out of balance.

President Obama, for his part, is doubling down on the crisis, asking Congress to delegate to him the power to raise the debt ceiling, and allocate more stimulus spending.   No, that won’t work either.  We still have a Constitutional government of checks and balances.  We worried about an overreaching executive under President Bush, and are now learning that Democrats can do it too.

Will doing nothing and ‘going over the fiscal cliff’ be pleasant?  No.  But I can’t see how it will be any worse than the power grabs and kick-the-can-down-the-road schemes in play now.  The job fairies are will not shower their employment pixie dust on us if we extend the Bush tax cuts for two more years.  This is because there are no job fairies.

Until our leadership comes up with a real plan to bring revenues and spending back into balance, the fiscal cliff seems the least painful alternative in the long run, as it at least represents an effort to balance revenues and spending.

Tax Breaks for Offshoring?

One of the topics of the Presidential debates, and of discussions on this blog, was tax breaks that companies get for moving their operations overseas.  Are there really such things, such as would encourage businesses to offshore themselves and ditch their US work force?

As far as I can tell, as far as an obvious tax break, no.  There is no US program that will give a business a tax credit for, say, building a factory in Bangladesh.  But there are benefits that come out of the normal functioning of the tax law:

  • US taxes on businesses are based on profits after expenses.  The law generally gives wide discretion to businesses on what is considered an appropriate business expense.  Under current law, the expenses incurred in moving one’s operations overseas fall into that category.  They’re legitimate businesses expenses and may be deducted from revenue when calculating taxable profit.
  • When a US business earns revenue overseas, the resulting profit should be taxable in the US, with an offset for whatever foreign taxes were paid.  What actually happens is that, as long as the revenue and profits remain outside the US, the Federal government has no cognizance of them, and they remain exempt from US tax.  Apple, for example, has billions of dollars overseas that it will not bring back to the US because it would be immediately taxed.

This latter opens up its own cans of worms:

  • When a multinational business operates in the US, it may be able to rearrange its finances to that the profits from its US operations appear to have been earned elsewhere.
  • If the money is ‘out there in the world’ and not subject to US tax, there are a galaxy of international tax-avoidance schemes by which it can be further hidden away.

I’m not sure what can be done to address these items.  You could say that the expenses of moving one’s business abroad are not deductible.  Indeed, President Obama proposed such a law, but it was defeated in the Senate.  But how does the government distinguish between moving one’s business and expanding it?  Alternately, rather than relocating its operations abroad, it could simply close its operations in the US and contract out to a foreign firm.  (There are no Apple factories in China: Apple products are made by Chinese firms like Foxconn.)

I have even less clue as to what to do about the second issue.  No politician could survive the wrath of Big Business for trying to collect taxes from US firms on foreign operations.  And again, the businesses could rearrange themselves to maintain the exemption.

The only thing the US could do is to reduce taxes and hope that business stops playing tax games, figuring that it’s cheaper to simply pay up.

Yeah, right.  It’s hard to be cheaper than zero.

Bad Medicine

Last Thursday, the Federal Reserve announced that it would embark on a program to buy $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities every month until the economy improves, and hold interest rates near zero through mid-2015.

And how will that help the economy in general, and stagnating unemployment?  As near as I can tell, it won’t.

The point of buying ‘$40 billion of mortgaged-backed securities,’ of course, is that nobody knows how much they’re really worth, other than that it’s far less than $40 billion.  The intent is to make the banks whole from their bad investments of a few years back.

In a normal time, the banks might turn around and lend the money to consumers and businesses, encouraging demand, employment, and economic growth.  But they haven’t done that: they’ve found it preferable to simply sit on the money, and perhaps lend it to the government.

The other entities that might hold mortgage-backed securities probably have even less interest in lending to ordinary people and businesses.  In other words, the rich get richer, and all the rest of us get screwed.

If the money from the Fed’s quantitative easing efforts made it out into the general economy, the result would be massive inflation: the classic result of more money chasing the same goods.  But the reason we haven’t had runaway inflation so far is that the money has been kept out of the ordinary people’s economy.

So a fat lot of good it does us.

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Soda Pop and Apartment Leases

Today, the NYC Board of Health voted to outlaw ‘sugary drinks’ larger than 16 ounces from being sold by restaurants and other businesses regulated by the Board of Health.  Six months hence, my preferred warm weather wakeup of a large iced coffee with milk and sugar will be illegal, unless it has no more than 25 calories (a packet and a half of sugar) per eight ounces.

Large diet sodas will still be legal, but I can’t imagine a fast-food chain trusting its employees to obey the law and use the big cups only for diet drinks, so we’ll all be stuck with smaller portions even if we don’t drink the sugary stuff.  However, 7-Elevens, and the self-service soda fountain in the Walgreens in Times Square, will not be subject to the law as they are not considered restaurants and not regulated by the Board of Health.

For the last six months, I’ve been meaning to send in the renewal of my apartment lease.  It’s not that I have anything against my landlord: it’s that the renewal lease is a pile of papers to be signed in duplicate, requiring eleven signatures and three initials in each copy covering:

  • Indication of the new rent, with an acknowledgement that I’m renewing the lease and choosing to renew it for one or two years;
  • An addendum to the lease, which is in fact unchanged since we moved in back in 2003;
  • A second form indicating the new rent for the renewal lease;
  • A second form in which I select whether I’m renewing for one or two years;
  • An advisory about window guards, in which I indicate whether or not children under ten years old live in the apartment;
  • An advisory about lead paint;
  • A form to indicate whether I have children under six years old, so that the landlord can inspect for lead paint (seems pointless: the building was converted from other uses about 2000, long after lead paint was outlawed);
  • And advisory that the landlord is not responsible for air conditioners, Venetian blinds, or the dishwasher (our apartment has one, but we never use it);
  • An advisory that we are not to keep a dog or other animal without the landlord’s written permission;
  • An advisory that the apartment rent is regulated because the building owner took advantage of a tax abatement, and that when the abatement runs out (in 2015) the rent will no longer be regulated (which, again, I knew back in 2003);
  • Finally, an advisory that there have been no bedbugs in the building.

Reading and signing the papers takes a half-hour; I’ve been putting it off over and over again.  Last week, I got a nasty note from the landlord giving me 10 days to send in the lease renewal or else, so tonight my wife and I sat down and confronted the pile.

Many of the pages of the renewal waste paper have their origins in city law.  The city is looking out for me, making sure I’m informed.  But the result is a giant pain in the neck.  If the landlord had sent me a one page form, requiring one signature and eleven boxes to tick, the renewal would have been back on his desk the next day.  OK, maybe the next week.

I don’t need the city telling me how much I can drink, and I don’t need fifteen pages of waste paper to renew a simple apartment lease.

Mayor Bloomberg: can you please, please just BACK OFF??