Monday, August 18, 2008

Atlas Shrugged

After 6 months I finally finished "Atlas Shrugged". I know that I'm about 51 years late in joining the party. I liked it. Probably most people have strong feelings toward this book, either positive or negative. I am not 15 anymore so I like to think that I don't blindly embrace anyone who spouts ideas I find appealing. As far as literature goes, I would not say it is the greatest book I ever read. The dialog does not exactly flow. The speeches and the characters inner thoughts are filled with one superlative after another. The best this, the highest ideal that etc.
I wanted to read the book with an open mind so I decided to wait until after finishing the book to read the Whitaker Chambers review on National Review online. After reading Chamber's review, I was surprised that the review did not do much to argue against Rand's themes. The main objection seems to be that the novel is written in an operatic fashion with simplified characters that are either completely good or completely evil. I would agree with this, but I think Ayn Rands objective in writing the novel was to promote her philosophy of "Objectivism". Creating a good story and well developed characters was secondary to this. Just for fun, this should teak some people, but the Bible does the same thing in the parables that Jesus told. The characters were stereotypes to illustrate a lesson, not created for their literary value.
Whitaker Chamber's chief criticism was with Rand's notion that Capitalism was an end in and of itself and that mans pursuit of happiness his only morality. Chambers argued that happiness without religion could degenerate into a pursuit of pleasure. He seems to be arguing for the desirability of religion. As an agnostic, I don't believe in a God as the bible describes that is highly involved in our everyday lives. I also don't believe in a God who would give us an intellect and then expect us to find our way to him without using it. The God who created us would not expect us to base our knowledge of him on faith, in my opinion. He gave us the ability to reason I think he would expect us to use it. I don't know if it is better for humanity to believe in God than not to. If God does not exist and we chose to believe in him because we think that faith is the better choice for humanity then what path are we taking for humanity's future? Can deluding ourselves into believing something that is false for the betterment of humanity really make humanity better. I think this is what appeals to me the most about Rand, her point that you cannot escape reality. Now I could be wrong about God or the nature of God but my reasoning and logic leads me to believe that I am not and those are the only tools I have to figure out the universe or understand the nature or lack of nature of God.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Death of the Hummer

Last week GM announced that it would consider selling its Hummer brand. Immediately shrieks of joy could be heard from Hummer haters everywhere. Amazingly there are people out there who think this will have a positive impact on their life. From what I can tell, GM has produced less than 200,000 of these things since they started selling them. This is compared to some mass marketed vehicles that might sell a hundred thousand a year. Sure they get crappy gas mileage and I don't see them as very useful or practical but they don't make up a very large percentage of the vehicles on the road. Where I work there are probably 150 cars in the parking lot each day. There are probably a dozen Camry's, 10 or 20 minivans, a few Ford Escapes, various other compact cars and 1 Hummer. Thats it. Yet, there seems to be an undercurrent of anti-hummer sentiment by people who view them as obnoxious and ostentatious. I don't really care as long as they aren't tailgating me. As a side note though, if you want an example of an obnoxious vehicle, look at Harley Davidson's. When there were not so many of them a person could be seen as an individualist. Now, with everybody and his brother buying one and customizing it to make as much noise as possible, they are just part of a group of loud obnoxious people. Try enjoying a peaceful day at the park without a herd of orthodontists and accountants thundering buy on these things. But I digress.

I think the real thing that gets people is the way Hummer owners seem to defy gravity. Most of us have a hard time paying for a normal car and the costs associated with it. Then they see this huge monster of a vehicle that cost close to 50k and takes 3x the fuel of most cars to fill up and they wonder how are they able to do this. It does not make sense. It upsets their perception of the world. We all get this, especially those of us who live conservatively below our means. When we see someone living so far above our means it gets to us. It makes us wonder what are they doing that we are not. Are we idiots? Then the average person not wanting to believe himself an idiot says no, I am not an idiot, that guy driving the Hummer is and I don't like him. Now many people driving Hummers are living above their means. Not all of them but some are. The free market society that we live in has a way of dealing with people who live above their means so the rest of us should just chill out. By the same token when the market inflicts consequences on people who buy houses they cannot afford either, the government should chill out and not get in the way.

In the past couple months, the free market has demonstrated itself to be far more affective at modifying human behavior than a democratic government could ever hope to be. The number of miles driven is down 4% this year. With the huge plunge in truck and other full size vehicle sales I have to believe gasoline consumption for transportation is down more as many vehicles are being replaced with smaller ones. The free market will never let us run out of oil. It will gradually shift the price to a level that will force it to be used only for applications where it is economical to do so. Too often people expect immediate change by government decree. They ignore the real power of the free market that can do what governments cannot.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

$200 Oil

I should be working on my house and finishing the job of laying laminate wood flooring but I'm kinda tired after working all day. I've found that when I am tired, it is a good time to stay away from doing things that require accurate measuring and cutting. So I started thinking about the price of oil and how some are saying it might go to $200 a barrel. I don't know if it will. Who knows, it might. I just think it is interesting that a government that wants us to believe it can cure all our problems won't be able to do much about this one. Not like the "mortgage crisis" bailouts that are ongoing. This is not a problem that government is going to be able to make disappear with smoke and mirrors. With the mortgage problems the government can and has been doing things like assuming a lot of the risk from lenders, something that does not have an immediate downside. Sure you are removing the consequences from bad decisions resulting in more of the same behavior that will one day cause a much bigger problem. That, however, will occur down the road a bit, and no one will remember then what happened now. Some of us will bring it up and say "Remember in 2008 when they..."If anyone actually listens to the end of that sentence, they will remember what was said for about 30 seconds or until their next rant about how the government is not doing enough.

$200 oil is another thing though. Not much that smoke and mirrors can do there. The government could allow more drilling and maybe the political climate will change to allow that but I wouldn't bet on it. Even if they did open up drilling, it would be years before that oil was available, definitely not soon enough for our ADD electorate. The strategic oil reserve could be tapped for a while. I am sure no one would horde the temporarily cheaper oil. Price caps are a quick fix. The gas price would be cheaper and if you are lucky enough during the resulting shortage you might be able to get some. Gasoline rations would be popular. If oil goes to $200 a barrel things will change and the government won't be able to do much about the consequences we will all experience. Maybe people will build neighborhoods with corner stores and butcher shops like existed prior to the 1960's when it became easy and cheaper to drive to the local mega mart. Just idle speculation. I know people who are already downsizing their cars. Funny that the government wants to keep people living in houses they can't afford. Maybe $200 oil will remove the illusion that these snake oil salesmen politicians can fix all the wrongs and give you everything you want.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

First cigarettes and alcohol

New Jersey wants to tax fast food. First it was alcohol and cigarettes. Then it was a bunch of other things to numerous to mention. Now it is fast food. What is considered fast food. Seems to me it will be difficult to nail this down and some restaurants will change their format just enough not to meet the definition of "fast food" under the law. Every Friday I walk in to our local pizza place and get two large pizzas and jojo potatoes for 11.97. Is that fast food? In the food court in the mall, there is a McDonald's and a Chinese place where I like to go. Are they both fast food, is it only McDonald's that is fast food, why? Sadly enough I now some people who will think this is a good idea.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Gangsta Rap Invented by Rich White People

When you thought you have heard everything. Apparently "Gansta Rap" was invented by the governemnt according to Alicia Keys. I have not researched this much beyond the news clip I saw on Drudge but I guess that Keys is suggesting a bunch of rich, white, probably republican men sat around writing "Gangsta Rap" songs. Then, I guess they got some unsuspecting young black men to record them. I wonder which songs Dick Cheney wrote? It explains a lot though. I never understood the tendency of black rappers to refer to themselves using the "N" word and call black women "ho's". Now I can see that this was actually a plan by the rich white power structure in this country to undermine the black race. Maybe Obama can comment further on this as soon as he parks the bus that he has been driving back and forth over his white grandma.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Food Health Studies Hazardous to Health

After years of being harangued daily about how the food I eat is killing me I decided to do my own scientific study into the effect of scientific studies on the health aspects of various foods on me. I chose myself as a subject since I have in depth knowledge of me and doing research on others would involve well, work.


For last 20 to 30 years I have been told on a regular basis that various foods were bad for me. I am 38 now and I use the range of 20 to 30 years because I don't recall hearing this too much when I was a child. The studies that I can recall were on the following things:
Coffee and caffeine
Red Meat
Wheat Bran
White Bread
Sugar and Starch
Saturated Fats
Un-saturated Fats


Each of the above mentioned items have been taken their turn on the enemies list of the health food nannies. Yet each has at some point been found to have positive affects on health.

My studies have shown that we are bombarded with an endless stream of warnings day after day about how we are fat, lazy , stupid and destroying our health. If the warnings are to be believed, there are entire industries whose sole mission is to make us unhealthy and kill us.

Negative effects

From personal experience, the negative affects I experienced early on were a persistent sense of guilt and worry. A general reduction in self esteem that arose from a feeling of weakness when I would indulge in things that I enjoyed.

I have observed that as a result of these guilty feelings many people resort to a form of self flagellating masochism in an effort to perform some sort of penance for their perceived sins. One example would be the "Biggest Loser" show where teams of people participate in the most degrading humiliation imaginable at the hands of sadistic "trainers". Granted, these people are playing a game for money, but one can't help but get the impression that these people feel helpless to control their own lives. They feel guilty, inferior, weak. Decades of being constantly told that they are eating the wrong things, that they are lazy, that there is something wrong with everything they are doing in their lives have taken their toll. They go to these priests of physical fitness looking for absolution. And the priests tell them that only through working out, at levels inhumanely possible to maintain unless you are unemployed, and abstaining from all enjoyment of food, they can achieve eternal happiness.

For most of us we experience this to a lesser degree. We feel all of the feelings already mentioned. We decide to do something about it. We diet and workout like madmen and for a time it works. Then reality sets in that it is just not possible to maintain this regimen. We slip and slide back into old habits and we sooth ourselves with the food we crave. Meanwhile we are filled with self loathing. We have weighed and measured ourselves by an impossible standard and found ourselves wanting.

Industries harmed

Many industries have been harmed over the years by these periodic health scares. The baking industry for one has been been affected several times, first when white bread was considered bad and then when people were jumping on the low carb high protein train. Remember the Alar scare of the late 80's. Many fast food companies changed their cooking oils as a result of the supposed dangers of saturated fats, now these same companies are being told the oils they switched to are just as bad. Look at how the fishing industry has been hurt over the years with repeated scares regarding mercury, a naturally occurring substance that we have in our own bodies. These are just a few examples.

Long term consequences (legislation, loss of freedom)

The long term consequences are scary. We are seeing a steady increase in government control. Many cities such as New York have already tried to regulate the restaurant industry to ban trans-fats. The likelihood is that we will have some form of federally subsidized national health care in the near future. Government will use this to claim authority in regulating your personal habits. The government's position will be that we are paying for your health care and therefore it is the government's right and responsibility to regulate those activities which are determined (whether true or not) to increase the cost of health care. When the people belong to the government and not the other way around we are in trouble.

People will willingly turnover control to the government. After being brainwashed into believing that every indulgence they allow themselves is a sin, they will feel helpless in running their own lives. They will gladly turnover their lives to the government so that these decisions are no longer theirs to make. People will on the surface complain that the government has no business telling us what to eat, but, these are the same people who spend their days feeling guilty about everything they eat. The "know" in their hearts that what they are doing is wrong and subconsciously they will be thinking "I am a sinner and it is impossible for me to lead a sin free life". They will consciously or subconsciously look to the government to remove that temptation that causes them to "sin".

What possible conclusions can be drawn from this

1. These studies are an evil plot by SPs that are really PTS/SPs bent on the destruction of Tom Cruise and Scientology.
2. Nanny statists are endangering our health by subjecting us to endless studies and warnings telling us that what we are doing is wrong.
3. Nanny statists are endangering our freedom by undermining our confidence in our abilities to manage our own lives, thus inviting further government intrusion.

Proposed actions

Find ways to be happy. Happiness starts from within. Find things that work for you. The idea that you are going to spend 10 hours a week working out for the rest of your life is and eat only wheat germ and yogurt is preposterous. Stop looking for silver bullets. For Gods sake stop feeling guilty every time you take a bite of ice cream or pizza or whatever your favorite food is. Enjoy that food. Life is not meant to be lived in a perpetual state of guilt. Realize that not all of us are going to have six pack abs and that is ok. I love food. I find ways to enjoy it without guilt and still maintain my health reasonably. There is nothing wrong with me.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Why we will never go to Mars - additional thoughts

After I posted "Why we will never go to Mars" I saw this article on glasses that can find things. This is a perfect example of a technology that will profoundly change our lives. This goes way beyond finding lost items. Technology like this will record our lives. Every event from birth to death will be recorded and available for instant access. What is the next logical step for this? A smaller camera? Maybe no camera, just learn to interpret the signals from the optic nerve and auditory nerve making your own eyes and ears the camera. How will this impact criminal justice, privacy? 300 million cameras walking around recording everything? I would imagine criminal activity would become less common provided corruption of the criminal justice system does not increase.

Of course with increased regulation of the smallest details of our lives, the potential for corruption will increase. As more and more things become illegal, people will need protection from law enforcement. This is largely what organized crime does. My guess is that increased government regulation of everything from smoking and alcohol to trans-fat regulation to whatever other nanny state garbage they come up with will increase the number of people who will need some form of protection and be willing to pay for it. But I digress.

Another thing I got to thinking about regarding my original post is what will define intelligence in the future? I am strictly speaking in the ability to recognize the different intellectual abilities of people. What do we think of as characteristics of intelligence? Knowledge, skill sets, learning ability, ability to apply knowledge?

Consider, for example, this unverified quote by Alexander Fraser Tytler:

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship."

Before the internet, how many people had ever heard of this quote? Outside of academia, I would doubt very many. Knowing who it was attributed too would have required access to a library and a significant amount of research. Now it takes me a couple minutes to find out everything I ever wanted to know about Alexander Fraser Tytler. If everyone has access to information, knowledge will no longer distinguish intelligence. All the classic works of literature, especially those not protected by copyright will be available to everyone. And people may start to use references to these works without fear of being considered pretentious because the effort to understand the reference will be considerably less.

What about skill sets? Advanced trigonometry. Take the handy dandy glasses mentioned before. It should be relatively easy to make them recognize mathematical equations. Math was never my strong suit. Look at the most complicated trigonometric function and instantly see the solution. Want to read Spanish, look at a sentence in Spanish and get instant translation. Want to measure the size of counter top you need for your kitchen remodel, look at your kitchen where you want the counter to go and presto.

I am curious about the impact of the magic glasses on family "discussions". "I told you to get milk when you were at the store, well let me replay the conversation, oh wait , I guess I didn't. Why didn't you remind me to check if we had milk"? Don't worry guys it will still be your fault.

With regard to applying knowledge, I am not sure how that will turn out. Take the "Theory of Evolution" for example. I happen to believe there is a lot of evidence to support this and very little to support "Creationism". Some people will look at the exact same information and say only an idiot would believe in Evolution. Knowing the answers to complex trig functions and being able to apply those answers practically may be two different things. Without improving a persons mind, I don't know if you are going to be able to improve their ability to apply knowledge beyond a certain point. Improving our minds though may be an option on the table in the future at some point.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Why we will never go to Mars

Yesterday, at work, someone for fun sent me an instant message with an obscure reference to a movie. I did not know what he was talking about so I googled the phrase and in 10 seconds had a reply. He said he would have to try something more obscure next time. I replied that it would be difficult with the almost unlimited information available at my fingertips.

Why is it that almost every prediction about the future is completely and obviously wrong? Everyone focuses on flying cars, trips to the Moon or Mars and ignores completely the most obvious thing that will change. It is going to be us. We will change dramatically in the next few decades. I predict we will merge with our technology or we will be wiped out by it.

I am going to make this prediction with one caveat. I don't know how government will try to control it but I am sure it will. The future will be instant access to information. Not through your keyboard but by direct connection to, well, the internet if we still call it that. You will be able to know the name of every person you meet as well as any personal information about them. Different languages will probably no longer be a barrier. Anyplace you go, you will have complete information about the history, culture, customs, food. This is not the distant future either. We have most of the ability to do this now through our cell phones. We are beginning the next step where your cell phone is worn and responds to voice commands. The next step after that will probably be a device that is worn and responds to thought patterns. The next step after that will likely be an implanted device that responds directly to your mind bypassing your hearing. Possibly it will even bypass your vision and provide visual signals directly to your optic nerve. I am sure there will be a battle over control of information. People with means will probably have access to better information than poor people. The people who desire power and control will want to limit or control the flow of information. It is hard to predict how this will affect society. There will be very few secrets. Information known to one will quickly be available to all. How will this affect learning? I had to memorize "The Walrus and the Carpenter" in 6th grade. Would you need to memorize anything if you could instantly reference it whenever you want? What about politics, you could instantly fact check anything. This is where I think there will be a battle over control of those facts. If someone tells you that the average temperature was .5 degrees warmer last year you can know instantly if they are correct or not. Will this be a tool of instant and total information or mis-information?

Last night I saw a show on asteroids striking the earth and possible solutions to prevent this type of catastrophe. One of the silliest things I heard was the plan to send manned missions to an asteroid on a collision course with earth instead of machines because astronauts could explore and react to the environment better than robots. Please. By the time we mount such a mission, the state of robotics and artificial intelligence will have advanced to a point that it will be no contest. If the Earth is really in peril, are you going to send one or two manned missions with people who are totally inadequate to function in those environments, at enormous costs I might add, or are you going to send a bunch of unmanned robotic spacecraft on much less expensive missions with redundant missions for backup in case one fails. The idea of sending manned missions for this is so silly it is laughable.

We are never going to go to Mars. It won't happen. Our bodies are not designed for space travel. Could we send people to Mars? Probably. Could you make your car into a flying car? Probably with enough money and time. But would you if the result is a very expensive poorly performing airplane? You could take humans to Mars but it is hard to imagine a more poorly designed space traveler. Our bodies are designed for Earth's gravity and 14 psi atmospheric pressure. We require fuel in the form of food that is bulky and perishable and oxygen. We require lots of maintenance from personal hygiene and exercise to entertainment. And travel in space is no picnic. With the technology likely to be available over the next few decades a trip to Mars will likely take 5 months inside a tin can eating dehydrated food and drinking recycled water. This will be followed by several months on Mars doing much the same thing and 5 months returning to Earth. It is hard to imagine there are more than a handful of people willing to go through an ordeal like this. Our machines and technology will go to Mars, we will not. We might get back to the Moon. It is 4 days away, maybe less. There is not much scientific or economic reason to go but it is doable and with the amount of pork spending that would be involved, congress would support it. Space tourism to the moon might be a viable industry, who knows.

I think the future for us is going to be less in the physical world and more in cyberspace. You will be able to see, touch and experience Mars from Earth. In fact I doubt in the future we will do as much physical traveling on Earth as we do now. Travel for business will be less and less necessary. Travel for leisure will exist for a while yet but this will diminish if full immersion virtual reality develops. Maybe it will be possible at some point in the distant future to send our consciousness where we want to go but that is just a wild speculation at this point. It is pretty predictable though that we will be able to experience much more without leaving home in the very near future and that is not wild speculation.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

You may not be conservative if

With all the talk about how talk radio does not think John McCain is conservative enough, here are some things that may indicate if you are a conservative or not (not all apply to John McCain):

1. If you think the founding fathers did not intend issue adds, run within 60 days of a general or 30 days of a primary election, to be protected under the first amendment, you may not be a conservative.
2. If you think the key to this country's success is spending more money on public education, you may not be conservative.
3. If you think that there are "some jobs Americans just won't do", you may not be conservative.
4. If you think that our energy independence depends on subsidies to wealthy agricultural businesses to use our food supply for fuel, you may not be conservative.
5. If you have ever seen a fat person eating at McDonald's and thought it was anyone's business but theirs, you may not be conservative.
6. If you have ever been faced with a terrorist attack or natural disaster, and your first response was to create a new bureaucracy to deal with it, you may not be conservative.
7. If someone said you work well with democrats and you didn't respond by uttering a profanity, you may not be conservative.
8. If your National Director of Hispanic Outreach is the former head of a Mexican government agency whose mission is to help as many Mexicans as possible get across the border into the US, you may not be conservative.
9. If you have a National Director of Hispanic Outreach as part of your presidential campaign you may not be conservative.
10. If you think spending trillions of dollars to stop the temperature from rising 1 degree in 100 years is a good idea because who knows, global warming might be true, you may not be conservative.
11. If you think it should be government's responsibility to keep us from making stupid decisions, you may not be conservative.
12. If you think it is government's role to protect us from the consequences of stupid decisions, you may not be conservative.
13. If you only believe in capitalism and free markets when the economy is doing well, you may not be conservative.
14. If you think no one has the right to smoke a cigarette in a bar, you may not be conservative and I hate you.
15. If you don't believe that people for the most part can manage their own lives, you may not be conservative.
16. If complain about the vehicles your neighbors drive as wasting too much gas, you are probably an annoying sanctimonious pain in the ass and you may not be a conservative.
17. If you pick and choose the amendments in the bill of rights that you support, you may not be a conservative.
18. If you go on and on about how the most vile and disgusting forms of expression possible are "art" protected by the first amendment yet don't think that certain political speach is, you are an idiot and may not be a conservative.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Don't Call the Cops

I have a neighbor who's dog tends to bark a lot. Sometimes they let him out at night and he barks for long periods of time. It hasn't bothered me too much, I can close the windows on the back side of the house in the summer which usually blocks out the noise. I suppose if I got sufficiently annoyed I would go over and knock on their door and tell them that their dog was barking too much and ask them if they could try to keep him in at night. So far it has not aggravated me enough to do much more than complain about it to my wife. Some people would call the police and complain but I don't like to do that. I don't believe in involving the authorities in my life unless it is really necessary.

I ran across this article linked on The Agitator. The story leaves out a lot of details but apparently this 13 year old girl was reported to have touched two male students inappropriately. As a result the police were called and the girl was arrested. We don't know what the exact nature of the touching was and it is difficult to judge the seriousness of the situation from the article. Still, I don't understand why the police were called in. As a parent, my first response would have been to talk to the school about what happened. If I were a school administrator I think I would want to talk to the girl and her parents to find out what was going on and how to put a stop to it. If the girls behavior could not be stopped then for the well being of the other students I would bar the girl from riding the bus and if necessary try to have her expelled from school. Also I think I would be talking with the girl's parents to try to determine if she needed some help and I would be generally concerned for her well being in addition to the well being of the boys involved. In this case, apparently the best option was to call the cops have her thrown in jail.

In my view, police are not here to handle every problem that can occur in our dealings with other people. In general, police can only provide police solutions (arresting people, writing citations, using deadly force against those who are endangering others) so you should not call them if you are not willing to accept a police solution. Police are necessary and do a job most of us are not willing to do. They spend their days dealing with people on the worst days of their lives getting grief for enforcing ridiculous laws we allow to get passed. They should not be called on to settle problems outside the normal scope of police work. If you call the police you should do so realizing that certain things like arrests are within the realm of possibility. If this is not something you are willing to accept, maybe you need to deal with the problem another way. If someone is breaking into your house, call the cops. If two kids get into a fight on the playground don't. That is a job for parents and teachers, not cops.

Most of the time, people can come up with better solutions than government on their own. Government has to treat all individuals and situations equally when they are not all equal. Government prevents the use of discretion. Government's solutions tend to say that problem x always requires solution y. Look at this case. A 10 year old girl brought a steak knife to school, the police were called and a police solution was the result. The girl was arrested. This is an extreme case and one wonders if the police could not have used some discretion but none the less, arresting people carrying "deadly weapons" is a potential police solution to a problem. School administrators should know this is a potential outcome and should question if this is a desirable outcome in this situation. Several years ago, one of my kids drew a picture of a gun at school. Thankfully his teacher had been teaching students since I was in kindergarten and new a little bit about what normal behavior is for little boys. A simple "do not do this again" was sufficient. If this had been the wrong sort of teacher, we might have been bailing him out of jail as a result of some zero tolerance policy nonsense.

And zero tolerance policies are nonsense. We should expect school administrators, principals and teachers to use discretion and good judgement on a case by case basis. It should be part of their job, what we pay them for. Anyone can read the rules and apply them exactly as written. A professional is paid to do more than that, they are expected to use their experience and training to make decisions.

The less we are willing to manage our own affairs and dealings with other people, the more government will be willing to step in and do so for us. Chances are we will not like the outcome or solutions provided any better than if we solved the problem on our own. The difference is, what government does is much harder to undo.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ghoulishly Greedy Government

This last weekend I was helping my mother roll her 401K into an IRA when I learned something rather disgusting. Many people of retirement age probably already know this but I am a young guy at 38 so I don't think too much about retirement yet. Anyway, when you reach age 70.5 you have to start drawing money out of your retirement accounts. This I knew. What I did not know was the method the government uses to determine how much you need to draw out. They estimate when you are going to die and create a schedule of withdrawals so your account balance will be 0 on that magic date. Is it me, or is there is something wrong with a government estimating how long you will live in order to extract as much tax money as possible before you die.

I used to think 401Ks were great. Stick with me, this is not going to be a finance column. I have been putting money into mine since I was in my twenties. I used to think it was wonderful, I get to save this money, reduce my income taxes, and I don't have to pay any taxes on it until I withdraw it. The last few years however, I have come to view it as a trap, a prison for my money. I put money in because the company I work for matches contributions so not doing so is like leaving money on the table. But that money is then held hostage. I can't take it out without paying penalties or borrowing my own money and paying interest. Worse yet, I have no idea what the income tax rate will be when I do take it out but I bet it will be higher than it is now, much higher. According to the Social Security Administration the "trust fund" will only be able to cover 75% of its benefits by 2041. Add to that Medicare possibly running out of money in 2020 and you would have to believe the government is going to be pretty desperate for cash long before I can start making withdrawals from my 401k. The government is going to be looking at my big fat 401k like a hungry lion looking at a juicy steak.

Now, you can argue that the Roth 401k addresses the concerns about income tax on withdrawal and it does. The problem is that it is still the government telling you what to do with your money. You can draw out the principle after 5 years I believe but there are restrictions on withdrawing the capital gains until 59.5 as I understand it. Also you have to invest post tax dollars which many people will have a harder time doing.

Lately, all I hear is scaremongering about the economy. The housing bubble, the prime rate crisis, the weak dollar. A number of financial "experts" are predicting a recession, or a depression. I don't buy into it but what if? What if I lost my job? What if there were no jobs and things got real tight? I mean real tight as in selling things to buy food? I've got a decent (by my standards) chunk of change sitting there that I can't tap into without losing a significant portion of it. Most people have money in retirement accounts and very little liquid savings and you know why? Liquid savings is EXPENSIVE. You have to pay income tax on that money just so you can have it in your savings account. That means social security tax, federal income tax, state tax and in my case city tax and 15% a year in capital gains on any investment returns. So the savings people do have is tied up in retirement accounts that are difficult to get at. I am not saying its a good idea to tap into your retirement willy nilly but if a depression were to hit along the lines of 1929 where are the reserves going to come from to keep people afloat?

And don't get me started on the taxing the rich nonsense. The rich don't get taxed the way the people trying to get rich are taxed. The rich don't have income for the most part, they have capital gains. You don't pay social security tax on capital gains and the current long term capital gains rate is 15%. In many cases there are no capital gains if you invest in tax free instruments such as municipal bonds. The really rich don't have to jump through the hoops that we do trying to become rich. They don't care what the income tax rate is, and they have access to their money while the rest of us have to lock our money up so we can't get to it even if we need to. The highest income tax bracket is 35% in addition to 6.2% in social security tax on the first 100K (actually 12.4% counting the employers portion) so if you are upper middle class working your ass off making say 250K a year you get soaked. If you are Warren Buffet, not so much. The rich people in this country put up roadblocks to becoming rich and tell lies about taxing the rich to help the poor. If you want to help everyone, eliminate capital gains and decrease the income tax so people can save for retirement in a way that allows them to control and access their money as needed.

And Uncle Sam wants to make sure I pay all the tax they can squeeze out of me before I shuffle off this mortal coil. So when I turn 70.5 they will send me a letter telling me when they expect me to die. At least when I reach 70.5 the age should be higher than it is now. I wonder, will they consider me irresponsible if I don't oblige and drop dead on time? I mean, I will no longer be paying income tax on my 401k withdrawals and God help us if we have universal health care where the state will view me as a drain on their resources at that point.

The point of all this is that we don't have the freedom to manage our own money. Taxes have become so predatory that we have to protect ourselves from them and in doing so we put our finances in a straight jacket. Imagine what this country would be like if capital could flow freely. We could invest for retirement and have access to our money for real emergencies. There would be a buffer for economic downturns.

Its my money, my life and when I will die is none of the government's business.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Surveillance no substitute for responsibility

A couple days ago I saw this article on breathalyzer tests being mandatory for all students at a New Jersey high school. A few days later I saw this about speed cameras being installed on mountains in Switzerland to catch people skiing to fast. It occurred to me that people are no longer expected to act responsibly because it is the right thing to do. They are expected to act responsibly because they are under surveillance and they might get caught.

Question. Does providing 24 hour surveillance of your children make you a good parent? Well, if your criteria for being a good parent is that your kids never get into major trouble and you deliver them to adulthood without the chance to ever screw up then yeah, I guess so. If you want to make sure your child never takes a sip of alcohol before they are 21 and you breathalyze them everyday I guess you could in theory make sure that this does not happen. But what have you accomplished really? Have you taught them how to use alcohol responsibly or have you just avoided having to deal with the issue on your watch? You can pat yourself on the back and say my kid never drank in my home meanwhile that kid is suddenly an adult learning about alcohol without any helpful guidance from you.

This isn't really about alcohol or people speeding on snow, but these stories are good illustrations of how people are no longer expected to act responsibly. As surveillance becomes more common, people think less about right and wrong. The focus becomes not getting caught. The difference seems small but is huge in terms of attitude and outlook. An individual looking to do what is right has a positive goal. They are using their moral framework to make a decision that will benefit first themselves and, as a result, society. Trying not to get caught results in decisions made out of expediency and any morality is coincidental. Worse it does nothing help develop one's moral framework. Society has little expectation for people to do the right thing anymore.

As parents we should be raising our kids to be adults and finding ways to trust them more, not less. People rise or fall to the expectations that you have for them. When I say trust, I don't mean blind trust. I don't mean saying "here's the keys to the car, see you in the morning". Trust takes work, it has to be built and it requires parents to take risks. It is simpler and becoming easier all the time to monitor our kids. If you don't believe me, here is an article about devices to monitor your kids when they start driving. Here is an article about parents buying breathalyzers to test their kids. You can monitor their location with GPS enabled cell phones. You can give them credit cards a monitor their purchases. In short we as parents have the ability to monitor our children far greater than our parents ever could and this will only increase as technology advances. Pretty soon there will be few decisions our kids can make without our knowledge. If we are relying on surveillance alone in raising our kids, we are only doing part of the job.

The real problem is we are raising a generation that is accustomed to being watched, to having guardrails in place to protect them. Individuals with morals, with a motivation to go out and build a life for themselves will make the right decisions out of a desire to do what is right. And when they are in situations where the guardrails don't exist they will be better equipped to handle it. It is part of our job as parents to help our children develop the tools to make the right decisions. This has to be done through experiencing life, not hiding life from them. Our goal as parents should be to produce an adult who does not need to be breathalyzed to see if they have been drinking, who does not need 24 hour surveillance, in short an adult who is responsible.

Our civilization has only two paths it can take as I see it. The first path, the one we are on now will gradually diminish our individual responsibilities to the point where we will have few or no decisions to make in life. What you eat, drink, think and do will be determined for you. This is not hyperbole. The guardrails will gradually become fences. As our decision making decreases and technology increasingly has the ability to make its own decisions, the value of humanity will diminish. The second path, the one we need to be on involves increasing individual responsibility and control over our own lives. Individuals are responsible for their own survival. As much decision making as possible is put back on the individual as well as the consequences of those decisions. Ultimately we will become more responsible for our individual existence or we will cease to be individuals and become a nameless faceless mass of humanity for whom the decisions are made.

Monday, January 7, 2008

There's no crying in baseball

There's no crying in baseball. Someone needs to tell Hillary there is no crying in elections either. Its self indulgent, narcissistic and weak. In this case it is probably calculated too. Undoubtedly the result of a focus group polling saying Hillary needs to be more human. There is so much wrong in this video.

"I have so many opportunities for this country" what does this even mean? Its gibberish that loosely translated means that Hillary when elected will be like your fairy god mother who will use her wand (the power of the government) to grant you magic wishes and take credit for whatever good happens because you are too stupid to do anything on your own without her. The fact that people are choosing Obama over her obviously means that they are too stupid to know this undeniable truth.

"Some of us put ourselves out there against incredible odds because we love our country." And some of us do it because we are power hungry, controlling, manipulative control freaks who want to rule the world and everyone in it.

How Hillary sees herself as president:
1. If you got up this morning and went to work you need to thank President Hillary because she is the reason you have a job.
2. If you were able to buy food and feed it to your kids, you need to thank President Hillary because she made sure the food was safe and not too expensive.
3. If you were able to buy clothes for your kids yadayadayada... thank President Hillary.
4. If you are lucky enough to have a house, it is only through the grace of President Hillary and her hard work against the evil mortgage lenders.
5. If you have a car and can put gas in it, see number 4. but substitute oil companies.
6. If you have healthcare, see number 5, substitute HMOs, doctors, drug companies.

The country succeeds because of the people doing the actual work, not because of who the president is. The best a president can do is get the government out of the way so people can go about the business of making things work. The worst a president can do is be a glory hound who thinks they alone are responsible for the sun rising every morning.

"This is one of the most important elections America has ever faced". This always irritates me no matter who says it. Every election I hear this. I guess this election is more important than the elections of 1788, 1860, 1932, and 1960 just to name a few. If it is more important than most elections, it has a lot to more do with the welfare state and the nanny state than anything else. Immigration, weak dollar, education issues, budget concerns all can be tied to the rise of the welfare state.

If our country's success is wholly dependent on the right person being elected president every 4 years lest the whole thing fall apart then we are toast anyway. Its not going to happen. There are going to be good presidents and bad ones. Its the people who keep things together and work to keep government in its place.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Conflicted on Ron Paul

I just saw Ron Paul speaking on CNN and man do I want to vote for the guy. The man is passionate, and he has a vision! Not sure I completely agree with him but hearing him speak there is no question in my mind what he believes what he is saying and knows what his vision for the country is. That is hard to ignore.

I have supported republicans in the past but honestly republicans and democrats are headed in the same direction, the democrats just want to waste less time in getting there. Ron Paul is the only one offering something truly different. Smaller government, less interference in peoples lives, music to my ears. I am going to try and read up more on what he wants to do as president.

What has me conflicted is his ideas about national defense. I think he wants to bring the troops home immediately from Iraq and from other spots around the world. Even that has some appeal, letting other nations run their own lives, but is that just a naive fantasy? Could we stay out of the middle east and leave them to their own designs? What about the oil supply? I don't see us being able to drill our own oil here anytime soon. What about nuclear proliferation? Then again I don't think it is possible to stop nuclear proliferation anymore. I doubt we will stop Iran from going nuclear. We can probably slow Iran down with air strikes on key facilities but are we going to go in with ground troops the way we did in Iraq? I don't think so. Then there is the issue that our intelligence agencies appear to be so severely crippled that I doubt anyone has a clear picture of Iran's capabilities are.

Would Ron Paul have removed a Saddam Hussein from power? I am starting to wonder if rebuilding Iraq is in our interest but would we have been better off leaving him in power? I don't think so. At the very least we have forced terrorist to commit resources to fighting our troops in Iraq. A Saddam controlled Iraq might have gained enough strength by now to threaten Iran and provide more motivation for them to acquire nuclear weapons. Last but not least, the intimidation factor. Kicking the crap out of Saddam instilled fear in some regimes. Khadafi in Libya suddenly saw the light and handed over his nuclear program. Anyone attempting to pull a 911 type stunt would have to be concerned that a provoked US would be willing to act again. Yes, I know Saddam was not behind 911 but taking him out has caused problems for Al Qaeda in many ways.

So what would national security policy look like under Ron Paul. Would we draw back our troops within our borders and tell our enemies this far and no further? Would we abandon trying to build a functional democracy in the middle east? What would be the response to a future 911? Would it be a more limited kick the crap of whoever did it and let someone else worry about picking up the pieces? I don't know, maybe that is how we need to act. Perhaps nation building is not enough in our nation's interest to justify it or perhaps it is not a realistic goal.

So much else about Ron Paul appeals to me. His interest in following the constitution, smaller government that is not there to solve everyone's problems, genuine concern with government spending instead of lip service that every other candidate gives it.

Oh well, my conflict will probably be short lived. I doubt he has a chance in hell of winning, you have to be able to pander to do that.
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