Thursday, April 28, 2011

The false intimacy of church

Anyone even the slightest bit outgoing makes friends quickly at church. After all, you're self selected to be compatible; you believe the same things, or nearly enough. You're there for the same reasons and purposes- that produces an infectious camaraderie, an intimacy.

But it's a false intimacy. You have no idea how huge are the differences that can be masked over by a common ideology or a covenant, how little of the real person is conveyed by a religious identity until there's some decision, some committee vote that makes you say, "That isn't the man I know. That isn't the woman I know. Who are these people who have been so large a part of my life for so many years?" And then you have to decide whether it's possible to fellowship with the real people in the room, rather than the illusions you had been fellowshipping with.

I hope you have no idea what I'm talking about. I hope you never do.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why do people feel they have to lie to enhance a perfectly good argument?

I've said before that lying, even in a good cause, is wrong- and now here's an even more egregious example. First listen to the President speaking about budget proposals:

Sounds compelling to me! How can anyone justify cutting infrastructure spending, when the lack of maintenance caused that bridge in Minneapolis to collapse? 13 people died in that tragedy; what bastards those Republicans are to not care how many more they kill with their penny pinching!

There's just one minor detail, a mere quibble, really: It's a lie! The bridge collapsed because of a design flaw, not poor maintenance. According to the NTSB, the primary structural members, "gusset plates", were too small even for the original design weight, much less the extra abuse they were heaping on it when it fell: "On November 13, 2008, the NTSB released the findings of its investigation. The primary cause was the under-sized gusset plates, at 0.5 inches (13 mm) thick. Contributing to that design or construction error was the fact that 2 inches (51 mm) of concrete were added to the road surface over the years, increasing the dead load by 20%. Also contributing was the extraordinary weight of construction equipment and material resting on the bridge just above its weakest point at the time of the collapse. That load was estimated at 578,000 pounds (262,000 kg) consisting of sand, water, and vehicles. The NTSB determined that corrosion was not a significant factor, but that inspectors did not routinely check that safety features were functional.[135]" (Wikipedia) You could have given the maintenance crews an extra billion dollars, and it wouldn't have saved the bridge, because they were maintaining a fatally flawed structure. Extra maintenance dollars don't mean much when you're loading more than a half a million pounds onto something that wasn't up to code to begin with!

The rest of the President's argument was good enough in its own right- why did he feel he needed to lie to strengthen it? Are politicians unaware that when they're caught at it, people often consider the entire position discredited? Why do they risk it?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Oops, another correction to "Why all this deficit stuff matters"

In that post, I said, "And "tomorrow" no longer means some far-flung future; city and state munis are being de-rated by bond companies right now, and we're hearing the first hints that it could start to happen to federal bonds, too. Within just a few years, we could be paying junk bond interest rates for T-bills, which would make everything I've outlined above far, far worse." Well, I was wrong- it's not "Within just a few years", it's right now Standard and Poor issued the threat today: "NEW YORK (Reuters) – Standard & Poor's threatened Monday to downgrade the United States' prized AAA credit rating unless the Obama administration and Congress find a way to slash the yawning federal budget deficit within two years." I hate to say I told you so, but...

No, actually, I don't hate it at all.

A correction to "Why all this deficit stuff actually matters"

In my previous post, I said that only those working in the private sector, paying taxes, can pay off the national debt; there being 108 million people working, and a $14 Trillion debt, that's $129,630 each. A friend has pointed out an error in this calculation.

The error is this: just because you have a job, that doesn't automatically mean that you pay any federal income tax. In fact, with tax breaks and dependents, Nearly half of US households escape federal income tax "In recent years, credits for low- and middle-income families have grown so much that a family of four making as much as $50,000 will owe no federal income tax for 2009, as long as there are two children younger than 17, according to a separate analysis by the consulting firm Deloitte Tax... The bottom 40 percent, on average, make a profit from the federal income tax, meaning they get more money in tax credits than they would otherwise owe in taxes. For those people, the government sends them a payment."

So only the top 53% of wage earners are actually expected to pay back the national debt. If you are one of the 57,240,000 people earning over $50k/year, congratulations! Your share of the national debt is $244,584.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why all this deficit stuff actually matters

In my post, On extending unemployment, I noted the difficulty of working with unemployment numbers, and based my discussion on employment numbers instead; there's no debate over how many are working. I noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that there were fewer people working today than in 1999. Evidently things have gotten worse since I wrote that.

According to the USA Today article, More Americans leaving workforce, "Only 45.4% of Americans had jobs in 2010, the lowest rate since 1983 and down from a peak of 49.3% in 2000. Last year, just 66.8% of men had jobs, the lowest on record." But what kind of jobs are being held by those who do have jobs? According to a Wall Street Journal article, We've Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers, it's government jobs. "If you want to understand better why so many states—from New York to Wisconsin to California—are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, consider this depressing statistic: Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government. It gets worse. More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined. (emphasis mine) "Every state in America today except for two—Indiana and Wisconsin—has more government workers on the payroll than people manufacturing industrial goods... Now it is certainly true that many states have not typically been home to traditional manufacturing operations. Iowa and Nebraska are farm states, for example. But in those states, there are at least five times more government workers than farmers. West Virginia is the mining capital of the world, yet it has at least three times more government workers than miners. New York is the financial capital of the world—at least for now. That sector employs roughly 670,000 New Yorkers. That's less than half of the state's 1.48 million government employees."'

Why does this matter? Public employees, while they pay taxes as individuals, are net tax expenses. If you combine public employees (22.5 million) with Social Security recipients (59.6 million), that's 82.1 million living off the taxes 108 million are paying... not counting poverty assistance programs, of course. Then we have to look at the 76 million Baby Boomers. I don't know how many of them are currently employed, but starting this year, and running for the next twenty years, they're all going to shift to the Social Security side of the ledger. That's in addition to the current 59 million. Now, yes, I know some of the current 59 million recipients will die before the Baby Boomers finish swelling the ranks, so the total living off the government will be less than 82 + 76 million; but then, the numbers of public employees will also go up starting in 2014 as the healthcare legislation takes effect. No matter how you figure it, in just a few years, there's going to be more people taking money from the government than paying into it. A LOT more. And despite knowing this day was coming, we haven't saved a single penny to pay for it.*

This means we're going to have to borrow money to pay even essential services, let alone SSI, etc. Banks who loan to governments look at the same thing they would in extending credit to a business or an individual: the ability to pay it back. And the biggest single factor in that equation is current debt load. As of right now, that's $14 Trillion... or as so many pundits like to point out, $45,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. The problem is that banks know that every man, woman, and child don't pay loans back; people with jobs do. Private Sector jobs. If you divide the current national debt by the people actually expected to pay it off- the 108 million employed- that's $129,629 per taxpayer!

That's today. At the current rate of increase in the national debt, in just four years that will be $20 Trillion- $185,185 per taxpayer. The average income is about $35,000. Would you loan more money to someone who earns $35K and owes $185K? Yes; if his children, and his children's children cosigned the note- which is what it means to be a citizen of a debtor nation. But that banker, knowing full well that that kind of debt cannot be paid off in a single lifetime, will charge enough interest to make his money back just on the interest rates... and municipal bonds will begin to look like credit card statements instead.

But wait! We have the new budget cutting agreement just passed by congress- $38 Billion cut! That's a good start, right? Okay... a Trillion is just a Thousand Billion; let's drop a dump truck load of zeros, and pretend this was a small town council meeting with the state comptroller. First meeting, September 30, 2010:
Comptroller: It says here that your town is $14,000 in debt. How much do you collect in taxes?
Council: $2,000 per year.
Comptroller: And how much are you planning on spending this year? Council: $3,700.
Comptroller: (sigh) Go make some cuts- and remember, the budget is due tomorrow!

April 14, 2011

Comptroller: You've been arguing for six months! Have you made the cuts?
Council: Big cuts. Women and children will die. We're going to become a Third World village, but we know how important this is, so we made the cuts!
Comptroller: I'm Impressed! How much have you cut?
Council: $38. (shout from the back) And 50 cents! Don't forget the 50 cents! Right! Make that $38.50!
Comptroller: Which takes your $1,700 deficit all the way down to... Council: $1,661.50!
Comptroller: I see. And if you continue to make huge cuts like that, spending $38.50 less than the year before, the budget will be balanced in the year...
Council: 2374. Provided, of course, that in the meantime we have no new economic downturns, no new wars, or serious hurricanes, or terrorist incidents, or anything else of a disruptive nature...

Now some people would prefer to tackle this from the revenue side instead. Now surely, if we repeal the Eee-Viiile Bush Tax Cuts For The Rich (tm), that would balance the budget, wouldn't it? Make the millionaires pay their fair share? Well, no, actually; it wouldn't...

Look, folks, it's no longer a matter of whether cuts will happen; we no longer have time to tax our way out or grow our way out. The choices are: severe, painful cuts today of our own choosing, or devastating, draconian cuts by force tomorrow. And "tomorrow" no longer means some far-flung future; city and state munis are being de-rated by bond companies right now, and we're hearing the first hints that it could start to happen to federal bonds, too. Within just a few years, we could be paying junk bond interest rates for T-bills, which would make everything I've outlined above far, far worse.

*Don't talk to me about "Trust Funds", or "Lockboxes". Do you know what's in those "Lockboxes"? T-Bills. Treasury bonds are not funds. They are not money. What they are is a promise from the government that they will keep taxing us until they scrape enough money together to pay it off. That's what all your taxes have bought you- a promise that they will keep taxing you. That's all.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Loosen up!

I had a seriously brilliant post written about things said and done in the budget debates by politicians, pundits, and bloggers... but then, reading it for editing, I asked what purpose could this post serve, for all its brilliance? I pondered that for a while, then decided to chuck it and post this instead:

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Chris Matthews' leg must be tingling again

Listen to his coverage of the continuing resolution compromise...

Can't you just hear him doing a karaoke of this?

Friday, April 08, 2011

Those aren't secret "Black Sites", it's just Kinetic Questioning!

From the Associated Press: "“Black sites,” the secret network of jails that grew up after the Sept. 11 attacks, are gone. But suspected terrorists are still being held under hazy circumstances with uncertain rights in secret, military-run jails across Afghanistan, where they can be interrogated for weeks without charge, according to U.S. officials who revealed details of the top-secret network to The Associated Press. The secrecy under which the U.S. runs that jail and about 20 others is noteworthy because of President Barack Obama's criticism of the old network of secret CIA prisons where interrogators sometimes used the harshest available methods, including the simulated drowning known as waterboarding. Human rights advocates say the severest of the Bush-era interrogation methods are gone, but the conditions at the new interrogation sites still raise questions. Obama pledged when he took office that the United States would not torture anyone, but former detainees describe harsh treatment that some human rights groups claim borders on inhumane. "

We can't blame it on the locals or our allies, either; this our project, which the "sovereign" Afghanistan government has no control over: "The status of the temporary facilities likely would be negotiated as part of a future security agreement, transitioning power to the government of Afghanistan."

I did predict in September 2008 that Iraq was a non-issue because candidates Obama and McCain would behave identically regarding the wars. I had hoped I was wrong, but we've already gotten news that we'll be in Iraq past 2012, in Afghanistan past 2014, (after new "surges" in each) started a new war in Libya (and anyone who thinks the no-fly zone is the end of it should read up on the no-fly zone we imposed on Iraq in 1991), re-started the military Gitmo trials, made secret deals to supply arms to the Libyan rebels, and, apparently, opened new Black Sites as fast we closed the old ones. I don't see how McCain could have done more.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Important words spoken in jest

One of the best written comedy websites out there is One of the things that makes them so good is that often their articles are the straight dope- but being about people, they're naturally funny. And sometimes, they include really important words that people need to hear, like 5 Complaints About Modern Life (That Are Statistically B.S.)