Thursday, July 28, 2011

The President and the Rich

The relationship between President Obama and the "rich" is a strange one on both sides.

On the President's end, it starts with his definition. He has taken to referring to "millionaires and billionaires" but his low end includes people making $200,000-$250,000 per year (depending on marital status). A billionaire has 4,000-5,000 time the assets of this lower end.

Obama likes to include himself in this group. He regularly drops the phrase "like me" when talking about the rich. He is a millionaire, mainly through sales of his books. Before that he was a regular working stiff like the rest of us struggling to pay off college loans. Except, as a university professor married to a well-placed lawyer, he still probably qualified as rich under his own definition.

If you are rich then President Obama is sure that you have too much money. Some of it rightfully belongs to the government but was given away by the Bush Tax Cuts For the Rich (Bush cut everyone's taxes but Democrats always add the qualifier "for the rich"). Obama has no problems with the tax cuts that the rest of the country got under Bush, only the part that went to the rich.

This isn't an issue of fairness. Under the current system, around half of the country pays no income tax and some of that group gets money back from the IRS. The top 10% of wage-earners pay around half of the taxes. You might think that this constitutes a "fair share" (another term that the President likes to use). Possibly Obama's judgment on taxes has been warped by the involvement of George W. Bush. Like many on the Left, Obama reflexively hates anything that Bush touched.

Some of this is a knee-jerk reaction - how can we allow people to make so much money when there is widespread unemployment and misery? Many countries have tried equalizing income. It doesn't create prosperity.

While President Obama dislikes the rich in general, he saves special animosity for people in professions that he does not like. Bankers and investors are high on this list, especially if their income includes any sort of bonus. He tends to lump everyone on Wall Street together as being responsible for the Great Recession.

This is where things get complicated. President Obama dislikes Wall Street and everything it stands for but the Street loves him. Most of the campaign contributions in 2008 from people working on Wall Street went to Obama.

A few years ago someone wrote the book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" analyzing why the state votes Republican when the Democrats represent their true interests. I think that a good follow-up would be "What's the Matter with Wall Street?" The Democrats in general and Obama in particular hate Wall Street and everything it stands for but they keep supporting the Democrats over the Republicans.

The same thing happens in Hollywood but the entertainment industry never thinks of itself as rich.

The President has the same relationship with large corporations. He hates them and wants them taxed at a higher rate (even though the US corporate tax is already the highest in the world). These same corporations support Obama. This should come as no surprise since the large corporations are run by the same rich people who already have a dysfunctional relationship with the President.

There are rumors that this relationship is coming to an end, that the bankers and investors are getting tired of always being Obama's scapegoat. We will see what happens in 2012. At this point in 2003, Bush had raised more funds than Obama raised in 2011. Possibly Obama's wealthy donors are beginning to desert him.

Voting Reform

A column in the Washington Post by Katrina vanden Heuvel insists that there is no such thing as voter fraud and that Republicans are really engaged in disenfranchising citizens likely to vote Democrat. I will agree that the people most affected are likely to vote Democrat but I take issue with the rest of her column.

Is this a problem? vanden Heuvel quotes a report by the Brennan Center for Justice saying that it is not. She failed to mention that the Brennan Center is not apolitical. It receives funding from George Soros, a major supporter of the left. Their report assures us that voter fraud is extremely rare without revealing the methodology behind these statements.

One problem with evaluating voter fraud is trying to detect it. Often states only require proof of residency and that can be as simple as a utility bill. Notice that this does not establish citizenship.

My congressional district is a great example of why this is important. I live in the Ohio 15th. This include tens of thousands of (legal) immigrants who are not eligible to vote. It also includes tens of thousands of students who may also be voting absentee from their parents' residence.

The 2006 and 2008 elections in the 15th have been close. The 2006 election was settled by 1,054 votes out of over 200,000. The 2008 election was settled by 2,311. The 2000 presidential election was settled by slightly over 500 votes. Given these stakes, legitimate voters have the right to be assured that elections are not decided by people ineligible to vote.

Keep in mind that Democrats have their own history with unfounded problems. After the 2000 election, Congress tried to modernize voting machines. This hit a snag when Democrats insisted that the machines keep an auditable record of votes. The voting machine companies had to go back and redesign their machines.

During the 2004 campaign the founder of a voting machine company referred to doing whatever it takes to reelect George W. Bush. He said it at a fundraiser and obviously was referring to fund-raising but many Democrats took him literally. They assumed that the voting machines were programmed to shift votes to the Republicans. They took Bush's win as proof of this and spent the next several weeks looking for evidence. Ironically, they discovered that counties with older punch card readers were more likely to vote for Bush. They simply took this as proof that the conspiracy went back decades. Their new demand was that all voting machines be crapped in favor of optical mark paper ballots which would be tabulated at a central location. Minnesota followed these recommendations. The senate race was close enough to force a recount which drug on for months as both sides argued over what constituted a valid vote.

When arguing against voter id laws, the Democrats usually insist that certain groups do not have identification. This is hard to believe in the modern world. You have to have a suitable id to cash a check, open a bank account, rent an apartment, or even to buy liquor and cigarettes. Just exactly how do these people live without ids?

The truth is that the Democrats have a vested interest in getting non-citizens to vote and the Republicans have an interest in limiting voting to citizens. Any comparisons to Jim Crown laws are slanderous.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America

I wasn't expecting a lot from Captain America. I disliked star Chris Evans in the Fantastic Four and advance hints about the plot were not encouraging. My wife expected even less. She knew nothing about the character except that her brother likes him.

The movie was a pleasant surprise. It is very enjoyable. Like Iron Man, some of the best parts come before the action when we are watching Steve Rogers. The German scientist  Dr. Erskine, who creates Captain America, is also fun to watch.

An interesting thing about this movie is how firmly it is embedded in the Marvel Universe, even though most of it takes place decades ago. I'm going to examine this with lots of spoilers. You have been warned.

When we first see the World of 1938 exhibit there is a glimpse of a figure dressed in red under a bell jar. This is the original Human Torch (who was actually an android). Howard Stark is either the father or grandfather of Tony Stark although the character is based on Howard Hughs. The movie opens with a few mentions of Asgard and Odin as the Skull seizes the Cosmic Cube.

What we think of as Marvel only published a few stories of Captain America during WWII. The company was called Timely in the 1940s and the style of stories written then does not lend itself to modern movies. The film-makers cheated a bit by combining Captain America with the WWII comics that Marvel actually did write - Sargent Fury and his Howling Commandos.

A side note here - Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had been doing the Sergent Fury comics for a while when the secret agent craze hit. Rather than create a new character to be a secret agent, they reused Fury, making him head of SHIELD. At the time it was quite reasonable that WWII sergeant could have risen to colonel and be chosen to lead an elite operation. The timing no longer works since the modern Fury would be in his 90s (in the comics it was explained that he was given a longevity drug).

What we end up with is Captain America doing double duty as himself and as the replacement leader of the Howlers. It makes more scense than the original comic books.

One place where this melding happens is with the Red Skull and Hydra. In the comics, the Hydra was founded by a villain from Sargent Fury and the Skull a Captain America villain. In the movie, the Skull is the head of Hydra. Also, during WWII, the Skull was just a regular person with a skull mask. His face was deformed after he was transferred into a clone of Steve Rogers, complete with Super Soldier enhancements.

Hydra itself is an interesting addition that I am sure was put in for the international crowd. The movie makes it clear that Captain America is saving Germany from Hydra along with the rest of the world. In fact, the movie completely glosses over the evils of fascism. This is possibly its biggest flaw. I assume that this was done for the European audience. At least the movie never lapses into Superman territory (Truth, Justice, and all that).

One big change between the comics and the movie is the character of Bucky Barnes. In the comics Bucky was a costumed teen-age sidekick. In the movie he is a full-grown adult and Cap's best friend.

It is jarring at the end when Cap is confronted by the 21st century. The character only frozen for 20 years in the comics but nearly 70 years in the movies. In the comics, Cap replaced his WWII sweetheart, Peggy Carter with her younger sister. Now he could be dating her granddaughter.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Things Democrats Say

There are a few things that I keep hearing from the left. These are repeated so often that I doubt that they even think about them.

Right now the big thing is to claim that the Republicans are threatening the economy with their inflexible demands. The thing here is that it takes two to have inflexible demands. The Republicans are demanding budget cuts without a tax increase. The Democrats are demanding a tax increase. The Republicans' demands are only inflexible if you accept the Democrats' position on continuing government growth.

A corollary is that the Republicans didn't care about the deficit under Bush. There is a little truth to this since Bush was a Republican and ran deficits. That is about as far as it goes. The truth is that Bush was fighting his own party over spending and the Bush deficits were nothing compared to the Obama deficits. The graph here shows that, except for 2009, Bush's deficits ran around 2% of the GDP while Obama's deficits are quite a bit higher. His lowest projected deficit is 4.1% GDP followed by years of increases. The chart here puts the Bush and Obama deficits into a 30-year perspective. The deficit is a concern because tax revenues are the lowest they have been in seven years and government spending is the highest it has been ever. The fact is that if Obama's deficits were as low as Bush's we would not be having this fight.

It should also be remembered that Bush had significant trouble getting the Medicare drug plan, No Child Left Behind, and the TARP passed. His party split on these and they only passed because of significant Democrat support.

The final thing that Democrats keep saying is that the Republicans have moved to the far right. This is rather silly considering that both the President and the Secretary of State were Marxists in college and followers of the Marxist writer Saul Alinsky (Obama's work as a community organizer was based on Alinsky's theories and Hillary Clinton wrote her thesis on Alinsky). Starting with Howard Dean in 2004, the Democrats moved to the left. Both Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton were centrists and both parties have abandoned the center. The Republicans only seem to have moved further to the right because the Democrats made their own move to the left earlier.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

So Long Shuttle

I have to admit, I won't really miss the Space Shuttle. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, the Shuttle must have been their next assignment.

Prior to the Shuttle, astronauts jettisoned everything except for a small capsule which splashed down in an ocean and had to be recovered by an aircraft carrier. The Shuttle began as a design for a craft that could be controlled during reentry and land on a conventional airstrip. The early design used a dynamic lifting body (it could glide without wings) and had the code name "dynasore". A version of this piloted by Tony Stark made a cameo in a Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD comic in the mid-1960s.

Then the committee got a hold of it. It was bad PR to abandon so much of a spacecraft so NASA decided that their new craft would have as many reusable parts as possible. That included the rocket engine which was one of the most complex parts. At the same time, NASA was planning for a space station and wanted a space truck to ferry building material and personnel to and from orbit. The plan was to have something that could be quickly serviced and reused. Plans called for a fleet that could support monthly launches.

The Shuttle took shape. Budget cuts meant that it had to use an external fuel tank. This required a pair of solid state booster rockets to help get it off the ground. Once in the sky, it would roll onto its back so that the Shuttle could support the fuel tank. That is why the engines seem to point up at a strange angle.

This design led to the destruction of two shuttles and the death of their crews. It turned out that the booster rockets were sensitive to cold. When launched in freezing weather, an O-ring could fail allowing hot gas to burn through the booster and ignite the fuel in the main tank. Also, with the tank full of liquid oxygen strapped to the belly of the Shuttle, the inevitable ice that formed could (and did) hit the Shuttle, damaging the critical heat shielding.

For those worried about the suspension of manned American space shots, it happened in the 1970s, also. The Shuttle took longer to build than expected leaving a gap of several years without an American presence in space.

By the time the Shuttle launched, the space station that it was to service had been cut from the budget. NASA went ahead with the Shuttle on the theory that, as long as they had a space truck, they would eventually get approval for a station to fly to. In the meantime it struggled to find a mission. NASA offered it as a platform for launching satellites but had to subsidize launches in order to keep them competitive.

The concept of a reusable spacecraft making flights cheaper never really paid off. The Shuttle still needed expensive maintenance after every flight and an army of support staff. Just look at the news stories about unemployment on Florida's "Space Coast" to see where the real expense of operating the Shuttle went.

Also, the one-size-fits-all approach meant that the Shuttle was often bigger than required for a job. When every ounce adds high costs, this is a problem.

But the Shuttle's biggest problem is that it never became safe and reliable. With two shuttles destroyed out of 135 missions, it is one of the most dangerous vehicles in use in decades. The problems that destroyed the Columbia were never solved, only minimized.

The Shuttles are vehicles conceived of  in the 1960s, designed in the 1970s and built in the 1970s & 1980s. They are overdue for retirement. Operating the Shuttles as long a they did kept NASA concentrated on low-earth orbit instead of deep space exploration. Here's hoping that they return to their roots.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Did the stimulus work?

David Weigel of Slate asks if the stimulus failed. His answer is no but his reasoning needs further scrutiny. He starts by quoting an estimate that jobs created by the stimulus cost $278,000 each then follows up with:

The analysis that the Weekly Standard tore apart found that the stimulus increased employment by about 400,000 jobs in the first quarter after it went into effect, and increased it by about 2.7 million at its peak. If you're deriding the price tag for those jobs, you're acknowledging that the jobs exist.

He does admit that the bill was oversold but excuses that:

At his most optimistic, he (President Obama) said the stimulus would be a success if it "created or saved" 4 million jobs. It fell far short of that. But ambitious, expensive bills have fallen short before, and it hasn't discredited their reasons to exist. George W. Bush's tax cuts were supposed to balance the budget by 2010. That hasn't happened, obviously, but tax cuts have not been discredited—in fact, they're central to the discussion about how to dig out of the recession now.

This is an interesting piece of logic. Yes, Bush's budget projections said that the budget would be balanced by now which did not happen but tax cuts were only a small part of the reason. No one projected the economic disruption caused by 9/11, two wars, and a housing boom. Taking a longer view, tax cuts have produced results in the past but stimulus packages never have. The Obama Administration promised that this time would be different. The question here is not if the Bush tax cuts worked. The only question is if the Obama stimulus worked.

Weigel insists that it did and insists that the real problem was getting the message out.

So, did it work? At $278,000/job, or even the lower estimate of $180,000/job then you have to accept that only a fraction of the money spent went to jobs. Can a program that wasted most of its money be considered a success?

But this still ignores the main point. The stimulus was supposed to stimulate the economy. Did it do that? Considering current unemployment figures, it did a terrible job of that.

The dirty little secret of the stimulus is that it was never expected to do much. The White House's projections showed that the recession would end on its own in the Summer of 2009 followed by a steep recovery. The expectation was that things would start getting noticeably better right about the time that the stimulus really kicked in.

The stimulus was roughly divided into three parts. It had a short-term bail-out for cash-strapped states and cities to tide them over until the economy recovered, it had a small tax break for lower-earners. The rest was pork barrel projects. The "shovel ready projects" were never more than a small part and, as the President now admits, never existed.

The real question is why we are even having this conversation? The recession did end on schedule (which means that the stimulus did not save us from a depression) but the recovery has been exceedingly weak. Obviously the stimulus accomplished very little.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Debt Limit - what's really going on

Currently the government borrows $0.40 out of every dollar it spends. The total amount that the Treasury is allowed to borrow is the debt limit and is set by Congress. Typically when the Treasury gets close to the debt limit, Congress raises it. Sometimes there are some speeches about how the government needs to get its house in order and stop borrowing. Senator Barrack Obama gave one of those speaches in 2006. The limit was raised anyway.

Why are things different now? There are three parties involved, each with their own agenda.

First are the Congressional Republicans. They came to office with an ambitious agenda but they only control the House. This is their big club to force the Senate and the White House to compromise. They have taken a lot of criticism from the left about being too radical but many of them are following the wishes of their electorate. The ones in swing districts worry that they will lose if they agree to a deal that includes tax increases.

Next are the Congressional Democrats. Some of them are ideologically motivated. They believe that the rich are not paying enough taxes and will not agree to any deal that does not include tax increases. The rest of the Democrats are trying to discredit the Republicans by including tax increases. That is why meaningless increases like depreciation on corporate jets have entered the conversation. When talking about the trillions of deficit over the next decade, $3 billion is not even a rounding error but it keeps coming up.

So far the Democrats are winning the public relations battle but they are not fighting fair. It is easy to gain public support when your polls are disingenuous. For example, Medicare as it currently exists cannot continue. There is not enough money. But, rather than present two ways of reforming it, they phrase the choice as being between the Ryan plan and the current system. The rich do not make enough money to solve the deficit but they ask if people would favor tax increases on someone else (the "rich") over cutting programs.

The final party in the debt negotiations is the newest - President Obama. The states are high for him. As things stand now, he has no accomplishments to run on for reelection. Unemployment it likely to be 8% or higher. He is not going to win in Afghanistan. The best he can hope for there is to have a no more troops stationed there than when he took office. Obamacare continues to be controversial and may be declared unconstitutional by the election. Regardless, most of it will not even go into effect until after the election.

That is why Obama is pressing for a Grand Plan that will include $4 trillion in deficit reduction and changes to Social Security and Medicare to keep them solvent. If he can accomplish that with Republican assistance, then he has a shot at reelection.

And that is why the stakes are so high. Each side is fighting for political advantage.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Democracy and Big Government

Matt Miller of the Washington Post has a column bemoaning the current state of government. He attributed this to the lowering standards of democracy and compares it to a moral erosion:

In 1993, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a brilliant essay in the American Scholar in which he argued that America was "defining deviancy down" — that is, lowering standards as to what comprised normal (as opposed to aberrant) behavior in ways that skewed society's proper judgments. His addictive phrase spawned a cottage industry thereafter of things the country has been "defining down." But I'd wager that if Moynihan were here today he'd agree that the way we're defining democracy itself down is among the most depressing collapses we face.
The problem, according to Miller, is that our leaders now congratulate themselves when they avoid catastrophe instead of doing big things.

Once upon a time Americans could come together through government and create universal public education, build interstate highways, bring security to old age through Social Security and Medicare, and nurture the most dynamic economy on Earth.

Do you see the problem here? Miller's goals have nothing to do with democracy. Our interstate highways were inspired by Hitler's. Social Security and Medicare are not products of a democracy. After all, our democracy along for 150 years without Social Security and nearly 190 years without Medicare. These are not products of democracy, they are products of big government. Miller even gives China a passing mention as an example of what we should be doing.

At its heart, Miller's complaint is not about democracy. He is bemoaning the limits of government. This is ironic because the current crisis is caused by our inability to pay for the very programs that inspire Miller. Miller is just a progressive who missed out on the glory days of FDR and LBJ. It's always more fun spending the money than paying the bill but that's no excuse to go shopping again.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Gay Marriage

Let's be honest about gay marriage - both sides have valid points. I will start with the opponents.

The big argument against gay marriage is that once the one man/one woman definition is abandoned it is impossible to draw the line. As Rick Santorum pointed out, polygamy and adultery are sure to follow. Others have taken a softer stance but even in President Obama's "evolved" view, marriage should be reserved for one man/one woman unions with civil partnerships for other relationships.

They are absolutely right. Once you change the definition of marriage once there is no reason not to do so again.

But here's the counter-argument - these unions already exist so why not recognize them? My daughter is in a civil partnership and I know people in a polygamous relationship. This is the pro-gay marriage argument and it is hard to refute.

The other argument against redefining marriage is "What bout the sanctity of marriage?" Won't this hurt it? This one used to bother me. Traditional marriage is in trouble. Wouldn't a redefinition of what marriage is destroy it completely?

The reason that this no longer bothers me is that the sanctity of marriage no longer exists. In my lifetime, two presidents (JFK and Clinton) have had affairs in the White House. At least one vice-president (Gore) and an almost vice-president (Edwards) have also had affairs. Plus the former Speaker of the House (Gingrich) and the governors of multiple states (Schwarzenegger is just the most recent). If our elected officials don't recognize the sanctity of marriage then why should the rest of us?

In fact, the rest of the country does not care much about marriage. For the first time ever, the census reports that more couples are living together than are married. The number of women having children out of wedlock, and to multiple fathers, keeps increasing. Many poor women see marriage as something to aspire to in the future.

The one thing that might save, or at least strengthen, marriage would be an influx of committed couples who want to be married. In the short run, at least, gay marriage is likely to strengthen the institution rather than weaken it.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Cars 2 and Alternate Fuel

Warning - This whole post is going to be a major spoiler about Cars 2.

Here's the set-up for Cars 2 - a wealthy car (all of the characters in this movie are intelligent vehicles) converts to "green", converting himself to electric power and inventing a new alternate fuel. In order to publicize the new fuel, he sponsors a set of races. The competitors will use the new fuel.

The villains, a collections of lemons like the AMC Pacer, found that the new fuel becomes explosive under special conditions. They use a modified TV camera to cause race cars to blow up, discrediting the new fuel. In the meantime, the lemons control the world's biggest unexploited oil field so they will get rich by scaring cars away from the new fuel.

Big Oil vs the Environment. And the good guys have to prove that the alternate fuel is safe. Typical liberal message-movie, right?

But wait - it turns out that there is no miracle alternate fuel. It is just regular gas with some additions to make it explosive. And the head villain is the car who sponsored the races in the first place. He never converted to electric and the whole plot was just meant to discourage research into alternate fuels.

So the car who represents alternate fuel also represents Big Oil. That really messes up the message.

Actually, the whole alternate fuel plot was nothing more than an excuse to drive the movie.