Wednesday, April 27, 2011

This is insane.

I really didn't want to post anything on the three ring circus going on in the media over The Birth Certificate. To me, its always just been about a bunch of right wing nut jobs trying to grab headlines by pandering to a hard core of bigots. Bigots who just can't handle a black man in the White House doing anything but clearing away the dishes after dinner. As one pundit noted, the issue of foreign birth is just code for ordinary racism.

Another pundit pointed out this dog and pony show has become a national shame. After producing exhaustive, irrefutable evidence of American birth, the President had to go on national TV and present the public with a copy of the original document. And all the perverse miscreants who fanned the flames are now strutting around like proud peacocks, as if they have accomplished something, when all they've really done is give America another humiliating episode to live down.

In another sense, by forcing a good and honest man to lower himself to respond to this inane, fake crisis, what they've actually done is lowered the nation as a whole. If any of them had the slightest sense of moral dignity they would know this. But they don't. It embarrasses me to live in the same country with them.

Like I said, I didn't want to waste your time and mine calling these birthers out for the ignorant fools they are. But I came across another article which seems to add a whole new dimension to this disgusting mess.

According to Joseph Farah, World Net Daily intends to proceed with publishing a book by the muck raking, ethically challenged yahoo, Jerome Corsi, entitled: "Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President".

Huh? Steve, we know where the birth certificate is now. Why proceed with this idiotic screed? Well according to Farah: blah blah blah blah, and, "... the real issue (now) is that Obama is still not eligible to be president because his father was Kenyan and his adopted father was Indonesian, making him a potential “dual citizen” of two separate foreign countries.".

In other words, having lost the entire impetus for producing this book, Mr. Farah invents and adds a new Article to the U.S. Constitution as a bizarre form of justification. It makes no sense. It has no basis in reality, or even passing acquaintance with logic or reason.

But what I find flatly stunning is that this book will probably sell like hot cakes anyway: an outcome which at first seemed nearly as incomprehensible to me as Boolean algebra.

Then it came to me. The issue of Barak Obama's citizenship is not really a conspiracy theory after all. Conspiracy theories deal with real people supposedly performing real acts and manipulating tangible objects in the same space/time you and I inhabit. Take away these components and what have left is pretty much bupkis. It would be like saying John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Daffy Duck, or Jack The Ripper was Foghorn Leghorn in real life. See what I mean?

But why would a person spend $14.25 for a book which amounts to pretty much nothing?

I think I know why.

I think it is because when some people want to believe something bad enough, facts no longer matter. Oh sure, maybe on some barely conscious level, they may know their "facts" don't square with reality, and that bothers them. Yet in the end, its not important how they justify what they believe, but that they believe it.

This conscious effort to re-order reality to fit a belief is nothing new. But you know, I don't think I've ever seen first hand a mass expression of it on so large a scale. Which makes me wonder if maybe the highest form of self delusion is not to distort reality - but to ignore it altogether.

Monday, April 25, 2011

On Writing


Since I first read it, my favorite work in all literature has always been "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", by T. S. Eliot. As you know, its a rather long poem, filled with striking images and unforced rhythmic cadences and rhymes. I've always felt the last three of its 131 total lines to be a compact summary of all the 128 lines lines which came before them - as if Mr. Eliot had thought, "Dash it, if you don't understand by now what I've struggled mightily to tell you, well then here, here is what I mean, blockhead!"

This thought occurred to me while reading through "Freedom Versus Organization" by Bertrand Russell (Sadly, you can't download this book for free, but much of his work is available at Gutenberg.) Mr. Russell was a terrifyingly intelligent man, but for me at least, prone to vast spells of really boring pedantry. Which I'm quite sure is an observation I make sheerly because I lack the intellectual stones to instinctively appreciate what he says on my first read, and the patience to go back over it and give it the attention it deserves.

Occasionally though, a compact, thought provoking nugget emerges. Like this:

"...if Henry VIII had not fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, the United States would not now exist."

It is as if Mr. Russell had noticed I wasn't paying attention and so reached out and slapped me... "Here! This is a potential consequence - so pay attention, dummy!"

It seems to me now that nearly all great literature depends as much on the imagination of the reader as it does on that of the writer. Average writers believe themselves possessed by above average vision, and don't care how many words it takes to describe their visions to poor slobs like us. After all, they're allowing us the privilege of seeing something which we ourselves cannot, aren't they?

Well actually no, no they're not. All of us I think, from the meanest digger of ditches to the climbers of the highest mountains, experience the same painfully beautiful visions. Its all in how we express those images to others - and the really great writers know how to reach out, grab us by the lapels and demand our attention.

My copy of "Freedom Versus Organization" is 471 pages long. It is among the best and most illuminating history books ever written. But what makes it a great book for me is the page or two of phrases which reach out and engage my imagination.

In another sense, maybe what the great writers are telling us is, "Look man, I can't do this by myself. I need your help." And it is that respect for the reader which draws us in, fleshes out and breaths life into their visions. So, maybe, before you put pen to paper, your first thoughts should not be of how you will say it, but how and by whom it will be read...


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Spending Limits


From your last comment:

"What percentage of the federal budget do you think is appropriate for military spending? Also, please include the appropriate percentage to be used for direct payments to individuals."

First, since every government program addresses a different set of parameters, I don't believe the more or less arbitrary application of a budget percentage to each program makes any sense whatsoever. In fact, this kind of practice actually encourages waste and inefficiency both in government and private industry, for reasons which should be obvious. Consider when you assign an arbitrary, annual budget limit to any division of any enterprise, its only human nature for the managers of that division to always spend up to that limit, in order to avoid cuts in the next year's budget. Really Steve, I imagine we've both seen this phenomenon at work many times before in our own vocational experience. I know I have.

But since I believe military spending should be no more than half its current level - a decrease which amounts to around from 350 to as much as 500 billion annually, depending on how you figure it - it shouldn't be too hard to calculate the percentage of that against the overall budget.

Direct payments to individuals are a little more complicated, since the question applies to both entitlements and sheer hand-outs. Entitlements first (stay with me here):

For programs like Social Security, Medicare and Unemployment Compensation, I would treat each program as a separate account, calculate their direct, net revenues (over time) and add a reasonable sum for accrued interest. The resulting figures (again, for each account) would determine the level of current pay-out (based on the added assumption that each program should be self-sustaining indefinitely). For Social Security, the level would be fairly close to current levels. For Medicare and Unemployment, the level would be less - in the case of Medicare in particular, much less. How that translates to a percentage against current spending should be easy to calculate.

"Hand-outs" are a different matter altogether. In my opinion, modern societies must somehow reach a balance between the altruistic goal of helping the less fortunate and providing for the continued health of their economies. Too much altruism and the economy which ultimately supports it begins to deteriorate to the point where suddenly, no altruism is possible at all. Too little altruism, and genuinely deserving citizens suffer and die. Personally, I don't believe either of these outcomes to be a worthy testament to the enlightened principles on which our founding fathers erected this magnificent nation.

But, if a man simply refuses to provide for his own upkeep, I don't now or ever have believed government should be responsible for it by default. However, too often we tend to caricaturize this issue. Yes, government does indeed provide millions, if not billions, in hand-outs to undeserving needy people. But let us not forget that billions more are handed out in complex subsidies to otherwise capable individuals and profit making enterprises.

As to genuinely needy people, I believe I would certainly couple welfare payments with some kind of reciprocal work and/or on the job training. Now I've already posted a piece on how government programs like this can turn into nightmares. However, I do believe a workfare program, thoughtfully designed and managed, would benefit both the recipient and government. One proviso: I would have no intention of constructing a program which effectively transforms genuinely needy or disadvantaged people into a class of serfs. My workfare program would have to provide a full measure of dignity and worth to whoever participates.

How much? In terms of percentages, I couldn't say without a great deal more research on the subject. My best guess is that government should learn to apply different models to different situations. People become needy for a host of different reasons - many of which, like physical handicaps, are completely out of their control. Thus, the goal of getting them out of poverty is going to require different approaches. Bottom line though: government should set as a worthwhile goal that no genuinely needy citizen should lack the basic requirements to sustain life.

Now as to "corporate" welfare. OK, first, I'm not going around screaming about how General Electric paid no income taxes last year. If they didn't, its only because they had sharp tax accountants who took advantage of tax law. What we are calling "loopholes" are not unintended faults in tax law. They consist instead of laws which encourage activities which legislators believed would confer some sort of overall benefit - and therefore incentivized them with tax breaks - plain and simple.

As a matter of fact, I don't believe corporations should be taxed at all. Corporate profits are always taxed when they are distributed in the form of dividends. Taxing the profits first, then the dividends as well amounts to double taxation. This doesn't make any sense to me.

But, besides that, I do believe government does have a role to play in partnering with private industry. We need effective action from government on things like energy and health care, to name just two issues, and private industry alone doesn't seem up to the task. What percentage of the budget should go towards addressing these issues, and how should it be spent? I guess that is a little much to add to this already long post. So - more, later...


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another un-original idea...

So the bureaucrats and bean-counters are talking TAX INCREASES (again). And, as usual, without finding very many significant reductions in one the spending side. Want to generate some revenue from the "Evil Rich"? Here's an idea...

How about a 50% surtax on anything earned after leaving the federal government, above whatever the federal salary was. Example, leave a $300K job at the White House, take a $1M job with Goldman-Sachs, and pay a $350K surtax. Such surtax to be in effect for ten (10) years.

Now, I'm mostly after elected and appointed positions only, not the hired rank-and-file, but they don't completely escape either. Those worthy folks being paid a salary in the upper 20% percentile of taxpayers would have their 50% surtax only kick in for the difference at 20% above their public-sector salary, and would be limited to only(?) 5 years. All those above the 20% income level take the big 10-year bite with the rest.

And while we're at it, let's take the pain another step further and say that any salaries paid to such former government officials aren’t tax-deductible for corporations while the surtax is in effect. See? There's a private-sector penalty, too.

Some enterprising budget hawk (from either party) should add this concept to a spending bill and watch the fur fly.

- Steve

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Behavior Modification

This is a quickie, but it obviously deserves more comment...

There is a clear understanding, among many policy makers, that if you want to manipulate societal behavior - regardless of direction - one very common method is to adjust the TAXATION of a particular activity. If you want to encourage an activity, you reduce the associated taxes; if you want to discourage, increase the taxes. Simple.

Case in point: there have been numerous attempts to 'encourage' people to suspend or quit smoking. One primary motivation technique is to RAISE taxes on tobacco products. (Caveat: there are many different approaches currently in play on this issue, but let's focus on taxes.) The idea is that people will 'grow tired' of paying the additional taxes to the point they will subsequently modify their behavior to avoid the taxes by avoiding the product; which is the stated purpose of the policy in the first place. All agreed?

Ok, Let's also consider a group of folks out there I call "wealth generators". These are the folks producing wealth, by providing products and services. The desirability of a specific product/service doesn't matter: there is a financial flow from the consumer to the creator, creating wealth. The economy *depends* on these folks to continuing to create wealth, if for no other purpose than to generate the capital which can be consumed by paying taxes.

Logically, if follows that if one targets these 'wealth generators' with an ever-increasing tax burden, they WILL eventually modify their behavior to avoid the taxes. It seems the most likely behavior modification will be to REDUCE the creation of the wealth they will not be allowed to retain. After all, why work so hard to create something that will be taking away from you?

Thus - I pose the question: If we need these generators to keep doing what they do - and we REALLY do - then why do we seek to 'punish' them for their success? And worse, why do those same manipulators FAIL to consider the ramifications of taxation in predicting future revenues? I am reminded of the 60's humorist 'Brother' Dave Gardener, who suggested we should "tax the poor folks and give them an incentive to become something", which makes as much sense as anything else...

There has been a large amount of posturing recently (all sides) which are predominately concerned with "how much we will 'save' over the next X years". Hogwash. Those calculations assume the wealth creators will blindly continue to do what they've been doing, without changing their behavior at all, and without consideration of the increase in taxation. This is wishful thinking at best.

I submit that Human Nature will take over and the currently popular "Tax The Rich" class-warfare strategy will backfire in a big way. The economy will NOT recover as expected/predicted. At the very least, the recovery (if any) will be substantially blunted. This will result in the all-too-familiar cry, "we tried, but THOSE EVIL RICH have conspired against us: they're not paying 'their fair share'.

Perhaps we need a dose of honesty - something in very limited supply in D.C. - to clearly define precisely What Level of Taxation is Considered "FAIR". But then, IMHO, if they *were* honest about exactly how much the bureaucracy wants to collect and from who, the subsequent Behavior Modification which followed would *really* wreck the economy.

Bread and Circuses.

- Steve

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Picture this:

On March 31st of this year, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology scheduled a full committee hearing on climate change. As Paul Krugman later put it, three of the five "expert" witnesses Republicans called for were " economist, a lawyer and a professor of marketing." The only scientists which Republicans scheduled to testify were two outspoken skeptics: Doctors John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and Robert Muller, University of California, Berkley, and Faculty Senior Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Robert Muller was there for two reasons. First, he had publicly doubted the validity of the surface temperature records which scientists believed proved the existence of global warming, and second, using U.C. Berkley resources, he had just finished a thorough, independent review (BEST) of those records. That review by the way had been partially funded by, of all things, the Koch Foundation.

Republicans were all a'twitter in anticipation of a take-down of global warming alarmists by Muller and his team. Even the hack Tony Watts had written, on February 11th, a glowing post on the integrity of the methodology behind the Berkley review.

So... what happened?

From the written summary of Dr. Muller's testimony, this bombshell:

"...we see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups."

And later:

"Prior groups at NOAA, NASA, and in the UK (HadCRU) estimate about a 1.2 degree C land temperature rise from the early 1900s to the present. This 1.2 degree rise is what we call global warming. Their work is excellent, and the Berkeley Earth project strives to build on it."

Dr. Muller even presented the committee with this lovely graph:


Republicans had been expecting a complete refutation of the data, yet got instead a complete confirmation!

How did they react? Steve, please, why ask? The majority summary of the hearings is titled:

"Witnesses Highlight Flawed Processes Used to Generate Climate Change Science, Inform Policy"

Take a moment to go have a look at it. In it, there is no mention, at all, of the testimony by Dr. Muller - their own witness! How's that for impartiality? It is as if Dr. Muller didn't even testify! And by the way, this is the committee charged with reviewing the findings of science. Steve, all the posts you've written here on this blog about science tell me you are at the very least a passionate believer in the concept that science should remain above politics. In this crude, clumsy episode, Republicans have just edited out the facts they don't want to hear.

The whole thing was intended by Republicans to be nothing more than a show trial, reminiscent (and I mean this) of the show trials orchestrated by Stalin back in the late 1930's. Why else would they have called an economist, a lawyer, and a professor of marketing to what was supposed to be an investigation of science? They expected, indeed invited, five witnesses to appear, raise their hands and swear before God to tell the truth, but had no graceful stategy for dealing with the one man who actually did. So they just pretended he wasn't there.

Anyway, predictably, after having praised the Muller effort before the results were in, Anthony Watts is now posting links on his website to criticisms of the BEST survey by the usual suspects. Back to Stalin...

If you have time, take another moment to read through the entry on "Lysenkoism", a term which,

" used colloquially to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives."

Reading through this entry myself I got an eerie sense of deja vu. The driving force behind Lysenkoism was the common man's distrust of the academic, as against the more reliable value of intuitive common sense:

"Isaak Izrailevich Prezent, a main Lysenko theorist, presented Lysenko in Soviet mass-media as a genius who had developed a new, revolutionary agricultural technique. In this period, Soviet propaganda often focused on inspirational stories of peasants who, through their own canny ability and intelligence, came up with solutions to practical problems."

I see this same distrust of a presumed intellectual elite - with sinister, ulterior motives - as underpinning the Right's dogmatic rejection of science generally, and of climate science in particular. You yourself have more than once referred to the wisdom of "the unwashed masses", which, by some kind of magic, renders perfectly clear answers to questions posed by a highly complicated science.

Steve, I'm no worshiper of science. Plus, yes, often times in matters of policy we sometimes lose sight of the simple solutions hanging right in front of our noses. But the problem of climate change is one we desparately need qualified, informed scientists to unravel. We're not going to get anywhere if we decide, as congressional Republicans apparently have, to ignore them when they contradict whatever conclusions we want to be true, as opposed to what really are.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Eat the Rich

Iowahawk, noted internet cynic and genius of satire, has a marvelous article, Feed Your Family on $10 Billion a Day, which can be found here. A nice video version, by Bill Whittle, can be found here. It's worth a look.

- Steve

A Simple Explanation of Baseball

BASEBALL is a game played by two teams, one out, the other in. The one that's in sends players out one at a time to see if they can get in before they get out. If they get out before they get in, they come in, but it doesn't count. If they get in before they get out, it does count.

When the ones out get three outs from the ones in before they get in without being out, the team that's out comes in and the team in goes out to get those going in out before they get in without being out.

When both teams have been in and out nine times, the game is over. The team with the most in without being out before coming in wins unless the ones in are equal. In which case, the last ones in go out to get the ones in out before they get in without being out.

The game will end when each team has the same number of ins out but one team has more in without being out before coming in.

See? Simple.

- Steve