Monday, August 29, 2011

A Docile Democracy

In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote a pretty interesting article on the willful ignorance of Republican presidential candidates. The following quote got me thinking:
So it’s now highly likely that the presidential candidate of one of our two major political parties will either be a man who believes what he wants to believe, even in the teeth of scientific evidence, or a man who pretends to believe whatever he thinks the party’s base wants him to believe.
Given our current political climate and what I've seen from Obama, I think it's safe to say that both parties will run a candidate who pretends to believe whatever will likely get him -- or her (God forbid) -- elected.

Americans are slaves to platitudes, and there is no greater lie than this: Americans want to hear the truth.

In the so-called "Malaise Speech," Carter told Americans the truth. We cannot continue down a road of unfettered consumption in which the efforts of many serve the desires of few. Basically, he gave the American people a needed ass chewing.

He called for shared sacrifice in uniting for the common good, particularly in dealing with the energy crisis. In order to combat American dependence on foreign oil -- a phrase that today is all to familiar -- he proposed investing in programs that would create 20% of American energy through solar power by 2000, protecting the environment and revitalizing the economy.

We're not even close to that goal, and Carter lost the election the following year for a lot of reasons. One is that he told the truth about Americans to Americans, which is political suicide.

So why do we fear the truth so much? Because we're lazy. The truth isn't always good. Sometimes we have to see our faults and correct them, but correction means change and change means effort. It's just easier to accept the status quo.

It's easier to say that the current health care system provides an acceptable level of care than it is to suggest a major overhaul that would deliver universal care.

It's easier to say that climate change isn't happening than it is to make drastic changes in our energy consumption habits.

It's easier to say that evolution is just a theory than it is to ask serious questions about our faith.

It's easier to say that government is the problem and must be limited than it is to say that government could be a solution if we only work to make it better.

Carter called this a crisis a confidence, Krugman calls it a stand against science, but at the heart it's really a problem of cowardice and complacency. We don't want to know the truth because the truth is that we're scared and docile, and until we understand that anything worth having is worth sacrificing for, we'll always be in a state of perpetual malaise.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Rethinking Reagan

I've been posting a lot lately about tax rates and wealth inequality, in part because the debt ceiling issue has dominated the news, but also because I view these issues as critically important.

My thinking is largely Keynesian, which explains my frequent reliance on Paul Krugman as a source. Briefly, Keynesian economics refutes the laissez-faire concept, arguing that public involvement -- particularly from the government in the form of fiscal policy -- is critical to economic growth as it can help correct irregularities in the private sector business cycle.

Keynes fell out of favor during the 1970s when the economy came to a standstill and inflation rates soared, largely due to the energy crisis at that time.

Enter Reagan and supply-side (or trickle-down) economics, which aimed to reduce inflation, cut taxes, decrease government spending and limit regulation.

Reagan unquestionably presided over a period of intense economic growth and he, along with his policies, has been deified to some degree by the modern Republican Party.

So now, when I question Reagan Almighty, several figures get thrown back at me to which I would like to add a bit of needed context.

Here are some commonly highlighted statistics from the Reagan years that I've seen praised by conservatives:
  1. The top marginal individual income tax rate dropped from 70% to 28%
  2. Unemployment fell from 7.1% to 5.5%
  3. The growth rate in America's GDP rose from -0.3% to 4.1%
  4. The federal deficit decreased from around 6% of GDP to 2.9% of GDP
These numbers are all true, and to some extent remarkable, but they don't tell the whole story.

Since America was founded by wealthy aristocrats who didn't want to pay taxes, we'll start there first -- out of respect. First, it's questionable how much tax cuts led to economic growth considering the effects of other policies.

That point aside, however, it's also important to remember that the 42% decrease in the highest tax rate didn't happen overnight. In 1981, Reagan cut the rate from 70% to 50%. The cut to 28% didn't happen until 1986, meaning that for the bulk of his administration -- including the worst Reagan recession years of 1982 and 1983 -- the highest marginal tax rate was 50%.

That 50% is well above the current rate of 35%, an increase to which is apparently off the table and unconscionable because we're currently in a recession. Go figure.

On to unemployment and the GDP. While Reagan did cut unemployment 1.6% during his two terms, it's important to remember that unemployment initially increased to around 9.5% in 1982 and 1983. Most economists credit this spike in unemployment to increased interest rates imposed to control inflation.

I actually have no problem with this policy since controlling for inflation was critically important. Once that problem was under control, interest rates were lowered which in turn led to an economic upturn, job growth, and the subsequent swelling of GDP.

I would, however, like to point out two things. First, statistical regression to the mean is pretty common. In other words, things can only get so bad until, eventually, the only way to go is up. Still, point Regan.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, increasing interest rates to control inflation in order to provide an environment for job growth is a Keynesian approach. It's a good idea, but not Reagan's. Point Keynes.

Finally, there's the deficit. First, it's worth noting that a deficit can be relatively meaningless. It's simply the annual difference between what the government takes in and what the government spends -- and notably negative. Deficits only really become problems when they are consistent as they add to the national debt.

All debt come with interest, and it's a bitch. It really eats at your income, and in the case of America, our annual interest payments on our debt total 6% of the budget. As a reference, consider that education spending accounts for only 3%. That's half for those of you who went to public schools.

I guess what I'm saying is that debt is the bigger issue, and Reagan created a lot of that. During his two terms the national debt rose from $712 billion to $2.05 trillion. Again, for the public school grads, he tripled it.

And how do you accrue so much debt? By spending a hell of a lot of money, particularly in the Department of Defense. Again during Reagan's two terms, government spending averaged 22.4% of GDP compared to the 20.6% average from 1971 to 2009 -- and remember that last number takes the Reagan years into account.

So looking back on what supply-side economics is supposed to achieve, it looks like Reagan got 3 out of 4. He lowered taxes, controlled inflation, and decreased regulation. Government spending, on the other hand, went through the damn roof.

I, however, am not against government spending -- particularly during recessions. Recessions typically occur when private sector funds dry up, causing economic stagnation that can in turn be offset by increased public spending for a limited period. This is the Keynesian approach.

Reagan followed this approach to a degree, but the greatest problem with Reaganomics is that our national love affair with it never really ended. The dual cycle of ever-decreasing taxes and ever-increasing expenditures creates a crippling debt. Raising taxes and limiting certain expenditures during times of prosperity creates a surplus that can be used to pay down debt accrued during recessions. Point Clinton.

I guess what I'm saying is that I prefer a "tax and spend" approach to the Reagan "don't tax and spend like a drunk teenager" approach as a sustainable economic model. Also, I'm wondering how drunk we must be as a nation to consider such a model fiscally responsible.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Trickle-dumb economics

The debt is dominating economic news lately, and despite accusations of rampant spending, it seems as though the Democrats are the only ones taking debt reduction seriously.

This weekend Republicans scaled back their debt reduction efforts, pulling out of the bipartisan talks. House Speaker John Boehner listed Republican reasoning as follows:
Despite good-faith efforts to find common ground, the White House will not pursue a bigger debt reduction agreement without tax hikes. I believe the best approach may be to focus on producing a smaller measure, based on the cuts identified in the Biden-led negotiations, that still meets our call for spending reforms and cuts greater than the amount of any debt limit increase.
The most interesting part of Republican reasoning is its complete lack of reason.

Taking tax increases off the table only leaves spending cuts as a means of deficit reduction. And although the Republican Party has done an excellent job of selling "tax and spend" as a Democratic plan of unjust wealth redistribution, they forgot a critical point: you can't redistribute wealth where it does not exist.

Fighting against the so-called tax hikes does not provide security for the middle class; rather, it represent a crusade against it. Nobody would feel the effects of most Democrat-proposed/Republican-opposed tax increases. Notice I said feel. Those with modest incomes would not see tax increases. Wealthy individuals would see tax increases, but I doubt it would meaningfully affect them.

Let's consider a few examples. First, we could eliminate the carried interest loophole. As of late, the stock market has become as much a place to make short-term profits as it is to make long-term investments. In the spirit of encouraging investing, capital gains are taxed at 15% as opposed to the rate in one's typical tax bracket -- 35% for the wealthiest among us. Translation: hedge fund managers like John Paulson, who made nearly $5 billion last year (not to mention his massive profits from betting against the market during the crash) has much of his income taxed at 15% rather than 35%. Nice to see the government looking out for the little guy.

Republicans oppose closing this loophole because...not sure. But my guess is they default to the idea that taxing the wealthy inevitably stunts job growth. Corporations and wealthy Americans must be protected from tax increases so they are free to invest in job creation, so sayeth the mighty theory of trickle-down economics.

My good friend, Stephen Colbert, once said that if the "trickle-down" were a cocktail, the recipe would go like this:

The bartender keeps giving your drink to the rich guy next to you until he vomits in your glass.

Trickle-down economics is certainly excrement of some kind. Republicans are fighting for corporate tax breaks and tax holidays, the argument being that businesses are strapped for cash and freeing up revenue will create jobs.


First, the premise of this argument is false. Businesses don't exist to create jobs, they exist to turn a profit. If creating jobs leads to profit, they do it. If it doesn't they don't. Tax breaks typically don't lead to job creation, or at least they haven't in the past.

Second, most large corporations are sitting on large cash reserves. Without government or consumer support in economic growth, they likely won't spend it. So giving them more money to do nothing is moronic.

Finally, why do we have such a hard-on for the middleman -- or more precisely the corporate middleman? American workers need our help, so let's give money to big business and let them help America workers.

Why? Couldn't we help both? Why not invest in strengthening national infrastructure via works projects. Programs to better national communication and transportation efforts would provide jobs in the short term while laying a foundation for long-term economic growth, helping both American workers and corporations.

I could throw out ideas all day and someone would probably have a valid counterpoint, but one thing is indisputable: unwavering dedication to a single class of people is detrimental to the whole. The middle and lower classes will likely take a hit in the "spirit of solidarity" and the hope for recovering, while the privileged among us will remain undeservedly privileged. Putting arguments of fairness aside, this approach is just plain dangerous.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

U.S.A. number 1?

If Mario Kart has taught me anything, being number one is a mixed bag. You get first dibs on the latest swag and you can drop trash in the path of other contenders, but everyone is always gunning for you. And then there's the damn blue shell, seeking out first place like a socialist wrecking ball.

I guess I've never really cared if America was, in the words of Sean Hannity, "the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth." Since I never cared, I don't suppose I ever asked myself if I believed it. PEW recently asked that question of Americans, and it seems most of us don't.

Just under 38% of Americans believe the United States stands alone at number one. Most respondents (53%) believe America stands among the greatest countries in the world. Then there's the pessimistic 8% who believe other countries are flat out better. Also, as you might expect, conservatives tend to hold the "U.S.A. number 1" view while liberals tend to be more pluralistic with their praise.

Now that I ask myself where I stand, I suppose I don't really know. When you talk about wealth and military might, we're certainly near or at the top. Consider things like education, health care or even happiness indexes, not so much. But does that mean other countries are better than us?

I think the best answer is, "Yes, at some things." Maybe such a statement is blasphemous so near Independence Day, but I don't see it as unpatriotic. Patriotism is simply the love and support of one's country.

I love and support a great many people and things in my life, and with love comes honesty. Looking at the world as it is rather than as you hope it would be allows you to transform those hopes into reality. If we got past the platitudes we could do it.

Thankfully, according to the same PEW study, well over half of Americans believe we can solve the problems we face. I am among those individuals, but recognizing the shortcomings comes first.

Anxious as I am sitting in first place, it's a good place to be because it means your getting something right. In the end, I guess a part of me misses looking over my shoulder for the blue shell.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Is bin Laden still winning?

I spent most of last month traveling in the South and Northeast, which explains the lack of posts recently, but also prompted this one.

While at an airport in Boston, I experienced the infamous full body scanners. I was not a fan -- probably because I accidentally left a quarter in my pocket, which won me the prize of a figurative and literal groping of my coin purse.

As I sat on the plane on my way back home, I wouldn't say that I felt violated, but I didn't feel any safer.

Before I had even arrived in Boston, I spent several days in New York. While there I took the subway most everywhere I couldn't walk. Also, to save money I decided to take a train to from New York to Boston rather than fly. Once in Boston, I walked most places, but used the train and transit bus system for longer trips.

At no point on either the subway, the bus or the commuter train was I or my belongings inspected. The most I ever needed was a ticket and a drivers license. If someone had the desire, he or she could easily blow any of those transit cars to hell and back.

I'm not saying I want all travel to be like it is in airports or that I want to blow anything up (talking to you government employee who reads every blog), but it did get me thinking about how selective we are in our screening. Airport travel is a bitch because of 9/11 -- or more of a bitch now anyway -- but that's a seemingly random selection.

Many people fear flying naturally, but bin Laden enhanced that fear and scarred our collective memory. But then again, that was the point.

Terrorism, as defined by the American Heritage dictionary, is "the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence to intimidate or coerce societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons."

Some people might say that bin Laden's actions failed, that his death marks a victory and that we were not coerced, because as every action movie buff knows, we don't negotiate with terrorists.

I, on the other hand, could care less about negotiating with terrorists. I'm more concerned about how we negotiated with ourselves.

Freedom and security exist in an inversely proportional relationship. As we increase one, we sacrifice from the other. Maintaining that balance is tricky, but we've swung too far in favor of security following 9/11. Hell, even the fact that "post-9/11 America" is a commonly used phrase speaks to some kind of change anyway.

Think of the costs in money, liberty and lives that came from two botched wars, the Patriot Act, illegal wiretapping, Gitmo, etc. And still we aren't safe -- and never will be. There are too many contingencies and dangers we simply can't prevent without sacrificing the very ideals that make us who we are.

I'm not arguing for a security free-for-all. All I'm saying is that without liberty, it's the pursuit happiness in this life may not be worth it. Also, taking off our fucking shoes before we board a plane doesn't make us safer, it just makes us look stupid.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The golden outhouse

I have a distinctly postmodern view of the world. I don't really believe we interact with the environment around us as it exists; we interact with the environment around us as we perceive it to exist.

It only makes sense, then, that perception is everything -- or maybe the only thing. It truly governs our behavior.

Consider, for example, how much time we spend projecting our own desired personae. The cars we drive say something about us beyond the fact that we go from A to B. Our clothing communicates different messages beyond the fact that we don't like being naked. Basic hygiene aids in courtship as much as it prevents disease.

So are institutions any different from individuals? Probably not considering that institutions are comprised of individuals.

What you see above is the newly renovated Freedom Park, between Second and Third Streets on the University of Louisville campus. This is one part of several beautification projects the university has undertaken over the past year, the total cost of which is about $7 million.

U of L argues that these projects are "designed to improve student safety and provide more convenient access onto and around campus." That, of course, is untrue. A brick sidewalk is so safer to cross than one made of asphalt, and I never found the campus difficult to access -- at least by foot.

In reality, I believe the university was trying to impress the Phi Beta Kappa Society, whose members -- coincidentally -- appeared on campus this spring for a site visit. If you want the prestige that comes with a PBK chapter, you have to look like you warrant it. The perception becomes important.

But the perception doesn't become the reality.

Looking as though you deserve prestige is not the same as actually deserving it. I don't think the University of Louisville is a bad educational institution. Quite the opposite actually. Still, we could be doing more.

My perception of these beautification projects is that we are wasting money. Imagine what else we could do with $7 million beyond some aesthetic face lift. We could invest in research, technology, extracurriculars, career training, travel, TEACHING or any number of other things that add true value to the institution.

Is upkeep of the campus important? Yes. But is it $7 million important? For four small projects? Probably not.

I could take a dump in an outhouse made of wood or one made of gold. No matter how nice the gold one looks, it's still full of shit.

I'd rather focus on the educational core and build real value at the university, allowing the exterior to merely reflect the learning housed within. Instead, I worry that we're becoming just another golden outhouse, and that stinks.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I can't get no satisfaction guaranteed

I spent Saturday replacing my 1970s Maytag dishwasher with a new Whirlpool. Apart from the nightmare that is installing anything remotely related to plumbing, I'm largely satisfied with the product.

What frustrates me is the purchase.

I bought the dishwasher from Lowe's, and all in it was about $400. I'm okay with that. What I wasn't okay with was the offer to extend my one year limited warranty to cover me for an additional 2 years. These maniacs wanted another $200 for that privilege.

I was angry for two reasons. First, at that price I'm better off rolling the dice. The added warranty was half the cost of the appliance, which is a ridiculous mark up. What are the odds I'll have repairs totaling more than $200 in the next three years? Slight I would say, especially considering that the average lifespan of a dishwasher is about 10 years.

That brings me to my second point: Why should I have to pay you to stand behind your product? If dishwashers are expected to last a decade, shouldn't some sense of integrity drive you to guarantee my product for at least three years? Apparently not. Instead I have to pay you to be a responsible manufacturer.

And where does Lowe's factor into this equation? Shouldn't you, as a retailer, stock your shelves with products in which you have confidence? I wouldn't want to sell junk to my customers. In fact, many of the local stores that I frequent refuse to stock certain brands because they know them to be shoddy.

I guess I'm just offended by the disrespect manufacturers and retailers routinely show their customers, who are the very people they should respect most. Still, regardless of whether you stand behind your products, your products inevitably stand for you. If this dishwasher falls apart within the next few years, I won't be buying Whirlpool again, and I won't be buying appliances from Lowe's again either.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The deficit of "me"

With the increasing deficit dominating policy on both sides of the aisle, it's only natural that PEW would have something to say about the debate.

There's been a great deal of discussion concerning budget cuts, but tax increases have been a taboo subject. As of December, however, 65% of Americans favored not only cuts to major programs but also tax increases to combat the deficit.

My guess is that these opinions stem from simple input/output calculations: if you want to balance a budget, limit what goes out and increase what comes in. Makes sense.

Still, what interests me most is the following:
The public's view of the deficit is often summarized as follows: Yes, Americans agree that the nation's finances are in a precarious state and, yes, something needs to be done. Yet they overwhelmingly reject any specific ideas for reducing the deficit -- particularly when it comes to changes in entitlement programs.
In essence: we need to cut back on spending, and by we I mean you.

I can't say I'm surprised. As the "me generation" of baby boomers approaches retirement, it's only natural for self-interest to kick in. I'd like to say that as the millennials age into adulthood that we'd be more selfless, but I don't see it. I'm constantly thinking of ways to trim my budget and I don't even want to give up cable TV; imagine how hard I'd fight for social security.

I think it's only natural that in times of overt selfishness we look back nostalgically to the traditionalists, the so-called "greatest generation." Somehow they seemed more collectivist, more selfless.

Really, though, I think they just had a better understanding of how to make selfishness work. They seemed to focus more on us than me, but consider that definitionally I am a part of us. Therefore, benefiting the whole means I sacrifice for others in some way and others sacrifice for me in another way. In this manner we advance the interest of the self by consistently advancing the interests of the whole.

Some call that selflessness. I'd call it enlightened self-interest. Either way I think it would work. We might all fair better if we understood the numerous and intricate ways that all the "mes" are connected to create the "us." Maybe then we -- and by we I do mean we -- could dig ourselves out of this mess.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


It appears that the federal government may be headed for a standstill over budget debates, and all I want to know is this: What are the Republicans smoking and where can I get some?

Actually, I think I can answer my own question. Looking at the Republican proposal and the reasoning for it, I'd say it's a giant joint of cognitive dissonance. I honestly have no idea how heads are not exploding; at lest then they could genuinely talk out of both sides of their mouths.

The argument -- as usually -- is that government is too big and that shrinking it will help us escape crushing debt. Our current government is headed for a downfall, to which the budget plan eloquently speaks:
This is not the future of a proud and prosperous nation. It is the future of a nation in decline — its best days come and gone. The only solutions to a debt crisis would be truly painful. Massive tax increases, sudden and disruptive cuts to vital programs, runaway inflation, or all three.
So to avoid this nightmare scenario of sudden and disruptive cuts to vital programs, it's critical that we make sudden and disruptive cuts to vital programs. Genius.

But here's the part that is absolute insanity, as quoted from The New York Times:
The plan, drafted principally by Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Budget Committee, proposes not only to limit federal spending and reconfigure major federal health programs, but also to rewrite the tax code, cutting the top tax rate for both individuals and corporations to 25 percent from 35 percent.

You know what sounds like a great way to get out of debt? Stop levying taxes on those with money. That would definitely work. That's like trying to make a mortgage payment by quitting your job. You'd be thrown out on your ass, or squatting in your own home.

But perhaps that metaphor is appropriate, because that's what these rich bastards have become: squatters. Innovations in communication, transportation, and technology -- many of which were made possible through government-funded research -- led to advances in infrastructure which in turn created fertile environments for business growth.

But now that the rent is due they're crying broke. Being generous landlords we gave them a few extra decades to come up with the money. After all, they had nowhere to go. But you turn around and what do you see? A handful of billionaires squatting on the hard work and achievements of the masses.

I don't know about you, but I'm thin on patience sick of excuses. The first of the month has come and gone, so give me my check or get the fuck of my lawn.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The dangers of great expectations

Photo by David Shankbone
I firmly believe in the importance of expecting great things from yourself. Too often people just quit because it's too hard or they think goals are given, not earned. I find that level of apathy irritating.

Yet it's interesting how we can expect so little from ourselves and so much from the things that make up our daily lives. I think comedian Louis C.K. sums it up well.

I'm guilty. I'm always so caught up in matters of money and trying to keep up with the Joneses, but I never stop to ask why. Why do I want this particular thing? Do I really want it? Do I really need it? Or do I just think I do because that's just what people do?

I honestly don't know. I'm not sure if happiness comes from personal satisfaction or the accumulation of stuff. If I had to guess, it's probably both.

Most of the purchases I've made that truly contribute to my happiness have led to self-actualization through connections to others.

I've spent a ton of money on music equipment, but it opened me up to a whole new world of creativity and connected me to a social group that would have otherwise been completely alien.

I've spent a ridiculous of time consuming college sporting events, but they've enabled me to bond meaningfully with my father.

I've spent a lot on video games, but through the power of X-Box and the Internet, those games became kind of a social network that helped me stay connected to friends miles away.

Money can't buy happiness, but it can foster creativity and connectedness, and to me those are the roots of happiness.

In the end, however, I think we'd all be better off if we expected as much from ourselves as we do from the often unnoticed technological miracles that surround us daily. Without such expectations, how fast I can download music from iTunes doesn't really matter.

Now to see if my stupid phone can download that fart noise application. Then my life will be truly complete...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The days after DOMA

With the unrest in the Middle East and the constant debate over government spending dominating the political and news landscapes, one important story flew under the radar last week -- at least to some extent. President Barack Obama is refusing to defend DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996.

Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder will no longer force the Justice Department to defend the law in court, opening the door for the future legalization of gay marriage and admitting that refusing that right in the first place is a violation of civil rights.

In a word: finally. I've criticize Obama pretty harshly on many of his social policies and his failure to stand up for the electorate. Lately, however, it seems that principle trumps political expedience, which it typically should.

Still, it's a bit odd for the executive branch to declare a law unconstitutional, as that is typically the role of the Supreme Court. Though uncommon, this move is not without precedent. But as one would expect, there are oppositional voices from conservatives.

"Some conservatives questioned Mr. Obama’s timing and accused him of trying to change the subject from spending cuts to social causes," said Charlie Savage and Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times.

I think this criticism is accurate, but neither party really has grounds to accuse the other of altering national discourse for political gain. It happens constantly. In 2004, the Republicans rode the threat of terrorism and national moral erosion into the White House. Obama did the same in 2008 by shifting the focus to domestic issues. Then there's the 2010 election, when concerns over deficit spending put Republicans back in control of the House. So how is this different? It's not. Moving on.

This is my personal favorite among the dissenters: "This is the real politicization of the Justice Department — when the personal views of the president override the government’s duty to defend the law of the land." This statement comes from Republican Texas Rep. Lamar Smith.

Personal views always inform political and legal decision. Why do you think the approval of Supreme Court justices takes so damn long? We vet their personal views. The law is really just a social contract that reflects our collective personal views concerning what we deem acceptable and unacceptable at the time of its writing. As our views change, so does the law, though much more slowly.

My big question in all this goes to the Republicans, supposed champions of personal freedom and limited government: Why do you care about how two consenting adults choose to live their lives and why should the government involve itself in such decisions? To me, their stance it the epitome of hypocrisy. Score one for freedom!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spend, save or draw?

Surprisingly, few Americans support decreases in federal government spending according to a PEW Research Center study.

In only two areas -- unemployment benefits and aid to the world's needy -- does the public favor a decrease over an increase.

I say these results are surprising for two reasons. First, it seemed as though the midterm elections were focused on deficit spending and decreasing federal spending as a whole. As it turns out, most people aren't ready to make those cuts. Perhaps all we heard were the loudest voices, not the people's voices.

Second, the wave of Tea Party candidates pushed an agenda of lower taxes. But lowering taxes and preserving the Bush tax cuts, while at the same time increasing spending, will inevitably lead to a deficit. We can't have it both ways.

Interestingly, perhaps we don't want it both ways. In a previous post, I pointed out that most Americans don't feel overtaxed. Again, perhaps all we heard were the loudest voices, not the people's voices.

Regardless, until the silent majority finds its voice, we're looking at political deadlock and party-line idiocy.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

News and Comedy Central

There's an interesting study out from the PEW Research Center about viewers of the Comedy Central news programs "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."

According to PEW:
When it comes to mixing news and point of view, at least seven-in-ten NPR listeners, "Colbert Report" and "Daily Show" watchers and USA Today readers say they want news without a point of view.

As a regular viewer of these programs, I tend to agree, but I recognize the irony. Stewart and Colbert unquestionably present a point of view, and typically a politically liberal one. What makes these programs unique is that these viewpoints are disguised by satire, which has some interesting implications for what results when comedy and information mix.

Personally, I find their views to be logical and well informed and their humor to be...well, humorous. Still, maybe that's a rationalization for my own biases. Something worth thinking about...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Well enough alone

Americans are split when it comes to what the federal government should do concerning the recent health care bill.

Twenty percent think we should leave it as it is, 35 percent think it should be expanded and 37 percent think it should be repealed, according to findings from the Pew Research Center.

My guess is we'll have a preservation of the status quo. The support for expansion and repeal are roughly equal, so I doubt either side has much to go on -- that is, of course, assuming Democrats don't roll over on this one, which is a damn big assumption.

It's no secret that I'm for expanding to a single-payer system. My few interactions with insurance companies have been unpleasant to say the least, and as I understand it, my insurance is damn good. Maybe my mood is telling or maybe I expect to much.

The politically interesting point of all this concerns the deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan group, the GOP plan to repeal the health care bill would actually increase the deficit by $145 billion over the next 8 years.

Also, consider that the George W. Bush deficits were larger than those of any other president in history and that the RNC debt currently sits at $23 million.

I'm not arguing that this makes Republicans fiscally irresponsible. Deficit spending during times of economic crisis are useful ways to stimulate business growth because of reluctance to spend from the private sector. Don't believe me? Ask Paul Krugman. That Nobel Prize in Economics should carry a bit of credibility.

I am, however, arguing that Republicans are disingenuous. They are engaging in practices similar to those of the Democrats, yet they condemn the opposition. They accuse Democrats of a "tax and spend" philosophy, but at least there is an input for the output. The real Bush doctrine was "don't tax and spend anyway." It doesn't take a financial genius to see how that will play out, but I didn't hear any Republican cries for reduced spending then.

Now the new GOP policy is "don't tax, cut," but the proposed program cuts would put a minimal dent in the deficit -- or even increase it in the case of the health care debate.

In the end, I feel like being the party of "no" is just a hard habit to break. Opposition isn't bad, but when it's blind, it can become stupid and down right dangerous, as my good friends at the Onion point out.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Nearly 70% of Americans see the trend toward single-motherhood as societally damaging, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. Continuing with my recent conservative trend, I'm throwing my lot in with the majority.

I'm not saying that being a single mother is necessarily bad, or that entering a loveless marriage or "staying together for the kids" is a good idea. However, there have been numerous studies highlighting the positive social and psychological effects of a two-parent home.

The strengths and weaknesses of one parent tend to balance out in the other, often resulting in more well-adjusted kids. I think family is critically important and that children benefit from positive male role models.

However, I seriously doubt that the nuclear family has a monopoly on producing people of good character. Still, I would bet that a commitment to childrearing beyond just the mother provides a definite boost.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Renewed focus on infrastructure

President Obama alluded to advancing U.S. infrastructure in his State of the Union address, a change that I find refreshing.

Liberal as I may be, I don't think the federal government can sustainably create jobs. At best it offers a Band-Aid that can't protect a wound forever. It can, however, protect a wound long enough to heal and return to normal.

That's what investments in infrastructure can do for the American economy. Building better roads, rail lines, airports and communication systems offers short-term job opportunities to help workers weather the unemployment storm.

Once these systems are in place, they create new opportunities for the growth of private business and the creation of sustainable, long-term employment. Such growth is good not just for business and for workers, but for the country as a whole. We need to adjust in order to ride the coming wave of globalism...that of be swept away by it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


A new study reports a dramatic decline in study time among college students.

According to authors Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, college students in 1961 devoted 40 hours a week to study, as opposed to just 27 hours in 2004. And yes, this applies to everyone: "the declines occurred at 4-year colleges of every type, size, degree structure, and level of selectivity."

The article is written for an economics article, so the authors take a "garbage in, garbage out" approach. The concern is that, provided investment in study yields positive results -- which it likely does -- declines in study time will result in a batch of graduates that are unprepared for a competitive job market and uneducated, despite the degrees.

Babcock and Marks provided several reasons for this decline, but my favorite is the following:
Institutional standards may have evolved to meet an evolving market for college students.
In other words, colleges make more money if they admit more students, so they lower their standards to increase the customer pool. What's strange about this whole thing is that the key to a university's success is the devaluing of its own product. Anyone smell another remake of The Producers?

I, for one, am not buying into this game. Earlier this week I actually had a student remind me that I "don't teach at Yale." So I should expect less of you as a student? I don't think so. Expect more from yourself...that or drop out.

But they can't quit. They're trapped. Soon McDonald's will require a college degree from its employees. Societally, in an effort to "leave no child behind," we've let every child down. A Bachelor's degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma. It is expected and valueless, at least for my generation. What pride is there in achieving what so many others achieve?

Our real problem is that too many people attend college. Yeah, I said it, and I'll say it again: too many people attend college.

Let me be clear: I'm not blaming the students. What choice do they have? Some have no interest in the careers a college degree ideally affords, but jobs that don't truly require higher education for some reason require a degree. Other individuals, to be perfectly honest, lack the temperament or intelligence to benefit from college. But again, to get a moderately decent job, a college degree is required.

In my eyes, this system creates two major problems. First, is forces individuals who have no interest in being in the university system to go to college. Second, it devalues the degree students eventually earn because it's not that damn difficult to get one. Does a Bachelor's degree really separate you from the pack anymore? I don't think least not like it once did.

I think a return to a trade-school focus is in order. Let's educate people to do what they really want to do. If a nine-to-five is your only end goal, then train for that. If your interested in something more thought-provoking and mentally challenging, then train for that.

But the incessant dumbing down of curriculum and the perpetually lowering bar are not effective ways to mine human capital or benefit students.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Group interaction and the Internet

Internet users are more likely to participate in voluntary groups and organizations according to a report from the Pew Research Center. Eighty percent of Internet users are active in groups, compared to 56% of non-Internet users and 75% of the public as a whole.

While there's a lot going on in this report, the following interests me the most:

It seems that Internet use positively correlates with the level of group activity. I am, however, skeptical.

I think there might be a third variable issue here. Does using the Internet facilitate greater group interaction? Probably. But would these same individuals be active in groups without Internet access? Is there something about them that sparks a need for activity that may also drive them to use the Web as a means to placate that need? I don't know. Good questions though.

What bothers me most about this study summary is that "groups" are never operationally defined. Based on the data, I assume the researchers are pointing to more formal groups with clearly defined agendas, but it's hard to tell.

Still, I think it's worth a look.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bowdlerizing Twain

The publishers of Twain's classic, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" -- arguably the quintessential American novel -- are releasing a revised edition, replacing all 219 uses of the word "nigger" with "slave."

I disagree with many individuals who say that such a change won't meaningfully affect the story. One of the major themes is Huck's gradual realization of the full personhood of Jim, as a man deserving of respect. The word "nigger" robs Jim of that personhood, even more so than "slave." I fear such a change compromises the integrity of the work.

Beyond damage to the book, I believe this move to be damaging to us societally. I'm reminded of a classroom debate I had with an African American woman over Faulkner's frequent use of the word "nigger." She argued that word was offensive and should be removed; I argued just the opposite. Of course that word is offensive, but to remove it is to destroy the historical context of stories of the American South during the 19th and even 20th century.

I would also argue that such editing also does a disservice to generations of suffering African Americans. The word "slave" doesn't have the same biting sting that "nigger" does. It's supposed to make us feel uncomfortable because it brings to mind a long, dark chapter of American history. Erasing that chapter of pain and oppression and repressing the memories of centuries-long injustices is far more offensive than any word could ever be.

I leave you with this clip from "The Daily Show," which I believe sums this scenario up pretty well.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mark Twain Controversy
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

Monday, January 10, 2011

Politicizing tragedy

We all knew it was only a matter of time before the Gabrielle Giffords shooting became a political matter. Depending on how this plays out, it could spell political disaster for either party...or neither party.

Not surprisingly, Sarah Palin is taking the brunt of the political heat. Democrats can ally her enough with Republicans to paint the GOP as fanatical, while Republicans are eager to throw her under the bus because she and the other Tea Partiers create political problems.

At the heart of the controversy concerning Giffords is a map depicting several congressional districts overlaid by crosshairs, Giffords' district being among them. The idea was to encourage voters to remove Democrats from Republican-voting districts because these Democrats had voted in favor of the health care bill. The argument from some on the left is that her violent imagery might easily spur violence.

Palin's speeches have at times had violent undertones as well, oftentimes referred to as lock-and-load rhetoric. In April 2010 she was quoted as saying, "Don't retreat. Reload. And that is not a call for violence."

Many individuals are quick to lay some blame on Plain for the Giffords tragedy. I am not among them. Loughner seems unhinged from what I can gather. The blame should rest with the crazy person who pulled the trigger, not the crazy person with her foot perpetually lodged in her mouth.

Still, I think Palin is guilty of an intentional fallacy here. She may not mean to "call for violence," but violence is occurring, and violently politicized rhetoric like hers is likely feeding the flames.

Also, her qualifier is a bit of a dodge. If I say, "I wish someone would shoot this guy. And that's not a call for violence," it kind of is. Clearly Palin's rhetoric is not so direct, but she calls for channeling anger into action, yet provides no all to action other than to "reload."

While Palin and others may not intend to spark violence, they certainly intend to inspire hatred. At some point, hatred often boils over into violence. I don't believe Palin owes anyone an apology, despite clamoring from the left. I do, however, believe she -- and other pundits as well -- should be more deliberate with her words, as they may not always be interpreted as intended.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Different year, same shit

Often I'm glad to see that some things never change; unfortunately, stupidity is among those things. House Republicans, led by incoming Speaker John Boehner, are pledging to cut $100 billion from domestic spending over the next year.

I understand the concern about spending money we don't have, and the all-to-common rhetoric of budget cuts doesn't piss me off nearly as much as the following, quoted from The New York Times:
House Republican leaders are so far not specifying which programs would bear the brunt of budget cutting, only what would escape it: spending for the military, domestic security and veterans.
I'd say it's also a fair bet that social security and medicare will go largely untouched as well, unless the GOP plans on committing political suicide. According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans and Tea Partiers likely rode into office on a wave of older voters. Take away those voters' benefits and that same wave will carry them back out to sea.

If GOP members avoid cuts from the military, domestic security and veterans as they say they will -- and from medicare and social security as they likely will -- just over 50 percent of total federal spending will go untouched. While programs beyond these five areas are numerically greater, they are fiscally smaller.

Bottom line: this is just grandstanding. If Republicans were serious about reducing spending, they would address the real issues, and their deafening silence during the health care debate suggests they won't.