Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Annual Resolutions Wrap-Up

Almost the only thing I still do on this blog is post my New Year's resolutions.  But at least doing so puts them all in one place for future reference.  The tradition continues....

Let's just say that I need a good fresh start in 2014.  I didn't do well at all with my 2013 list.  My Bible study and prayer habits have been a hot mess, I had my first-ever DNF in the Charleston Marathon, my personal disciplines and organization have been a shambles, and my goals involving personal health habits were basically non-starters.  Somehow, in the midst of all that, I was awarded the Gibbes Award for excellence in teaching at the end of last school year, and we won our third-straight state title in track, by the largest margin in league history.  We also won our 4th consecutive cross-country state championship, and my school's alumni magazine ran a feature story on me as if I were doing a lot better than I feel like I am.  Go figure.  This new school year has been one of the most challenging of my career in the classroom (lots and lots of change--my oft-repeated one-liner of the semester has been that if we could have picked any 3 or 4 of the big changes this year, I could have handled them well, but a dozen at a time was a bit much).  On top of all of that, my athletic director (and good friend), Ed Steers, is retiring at the end of the school year, and I have put my name in the hat as a possible replacement.

So here I sit, unsettled and anxious.  I am possibly entering my last semester of classroom teaching, but I don't know.  We have the opportunity to win state again, which is good, of course.  And I am ridiculously proud of my family.  What's more, I came across some of the goals I wrote back in about 1997 and look at them now with a sense of pride.  Although I haven't been the runner I once was, I quietly logged another year of over 500 miles, and take some pride on being in significantly better shape than lots of guys turning 45 this year.

So--looking ahead, what will I resolve?  I can't really resolve to win the AD job; it's a goal, but one I have no control over.  I will go ahead and claim the goal of winning a 4th straight boys' track title.  The more difficult one, but what I really hope to do, is add a girls' title to match.  I think we're close.  Obviously, the athletes have to do their part, and I cannot do a thing about the quality of other teams. But I will be very satisfied if we can pull that off.  It will definitely take my best work.

I do want to read the Bible through again, as well as get back in the habit of "aerobic kneeling" (serious prayer).  This will require more discipline with my mornings.  I really, really want to regain that element of control over my day.  I also want another 500+ mile year.  It gets harder and harder to be consistent, but those are big ones.

Whether or not this is my last teaching semester, I want to do a better job than I feel like I did last term.  Lots of folks have said nice things about the results, but I have not been satisfied.

I also want to do a better job managing our family budget and my time with family.  Neither have been that bad, but both could be better.  And what these items all share is the same sense of "winging it," being out of control, and accepting the good rather than insisting on the best.  And the answer is the same for all of them: discipline.  So that's going to be the watchword in 2014.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Just A Thought

I had written most of this on Facebook and then thought, "nope." I'll just write I here where nobody will read it anyway.

Deep thought regarding the filibuster modification in the house.  My brother-in-law, Tommy Brown, is home for the holidays from Nicaragua.  We have talked a bit about Daniel Ortega's Sandinista power grab down there.  But the short version is that, for most folks there, they prefer the services the Sandinistas provide to a relatively theoretical notion of freedom.  In reality, the constitutional changes are merely making official what has been de facto for some time.  And the remaining Contras who would like to fight are clinging to a hope that is no longer there: the Cold War is over, Reagan is long dead, and nobody is coming to their aid.

Big disclaimer: I am not saying that Harry Reid is a communist dictator.  But isn't the parallel there?  A very few teachers of government and civics, a few political junkies, and some talk radio listeners really care about the role of the filibuster in our checks and balances.  But times have changed (really beginning with the 17th amendment, but that's even more geekery). There are no Scoop Jackson Democrats nor Rockefeller Republicans, and most voters on both sides are just fine with that.

The country has grown more and more small-d democratic, for better or worse.  I think worse.  Our founding fathers would probably agree. But they made a system that could be changed.  Dr. Franklin was asked in 1787 what sort of government we had.  The answer was, "a republic, if you can keep it."  Perhaps we don't want to,

Monday, January 21, 2013

Marathon Post-Mortem

Well, it's over.  Unfortunately, not a happy ending. I started the Charleston Marathon, and I looked great through 13 miles, good through 16, not too bad through 19, and by 20 knew that my hopes of a decent time were long gone. I ended with a DNF (Did Not Finish), which I am not sure if I have ever done in a race before.  To be honest, I am still not 100% sure how I feel about that.  I definitely could have walked/shuffled the last 6 miles and finished the race, but I gave up.

That sounds really bad.  But it's not like I bailed out as soon as it became obvious that my hoped-for time of 3:59 was going to be 4:01.  I was physically toast, and it was going to be upwards of 4:20 before I limped in.  Had I never completed a marathon before, or even if I could have salvaged a 4:11 and claimed an "age adjusted" sub-4, I would have soldiered on.  But I already have a marathon finish.  Indeed, I already have a marathon failure.  Looking at another 70+ minutes of agony to produce an identical twin of my previous disaster was just more than I was willing to do.

When I raced the USMC marathon in 1996, I was 27, but I really did not train adequately.  I thought I had this time.  However, in every training run over 16 miles, I suffered.  Even when I completed training runs of 19 and 20 miles at a good average time, that average ALWAYS was including everything past 16 being a death march.  I told myself that this was probably a nutrition issue; I never took in enough calories or fluids while training.  But on race day, with Gatorade every 2 miles and carbohydrate gels every 5, I thought it would be better.

In the end, it wasn't.  At least I was consistent. I can honestly say I have had the exact same outcome of every run over 16 miles in my life.  The weather was perfect, my pacing was good, I took in fluids and gel at every stop, without even breaking stride.  Yet I crashed anyway.  People talk about hitting the wall in marathon running, and pushing through it.  Somehow, I never have been able to. I don't know if what I feel at mile 17 is the same as everybody else and I am just mentally weaker, or if physically I crash worse than the next guy.  That's the thing that hurts worst of all.

Several folks have asked two good questions: "Do you think your time goal was too ambitious? Will you try another one?"  Those two are related.  Regarding the first, maybe.  Had I run my goal pace, I would have been top-20 in my age group (out of 72 finishers).  Maybe that's a little over my head.  I feel very confident that if I "ran" slower, took walk breaks, and set out to just finish, I could do so.  But like I said earlier, I already knew that I could do that.  I finished in 1996.  But I wanted to see if I could run under 4 hours.  Apparently, the answer to that is no.  And that being the case, I currently am not at all interested in doing this sort of training again to chase a lower goal than that.

That may sound pretty defeatist.  But I really did not/do not enjoy marathon-style training.  I think after this race, it's safe to say that my body is cut out for something else. I am in great shape; my resting pulse rate was 49 this morning.  I can run 5k, 10k, and even half-marathon races and enjoy them more than this.  So, for now, I am done with the marathon.  However, several years ago, I took about three years totally off from racing after being disgusted that my aging body could no longer cash the checks my brain wrote.  Eventually, I mellowed, and have come back with a different attitude.  I won't rule out the possibility that I may one day find a way to toe the line in a marathon and take pride in just finishing.  But not yet.  And not soon.

I will carve out one little exception to my "no more long stuff" resolution.  I will continue to crew for my brother-in-law, Adam, as he runs ultramarathons.  I actually am beginning to understand better why he enjoys them, and although I don't care to actually run them like he does, I don't mind putting in 30-40 non-consecutive miles in a weekend if it's part of one of those.

Thanks to everyone who has wished me well throughout this 5 month process. I do wish it had ended more successfully, but I am very, very glad it's over.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What I Really Think About the Fiscal Cliff Deal

Ok, let's get the preliminaries and disclaimers out of the way.  First, let's stipulate that I would prefer that taxes be raised on no one, and also that we actually balance the budget.  Let's go further, still--I wish we would even PASS a budget at all.  Let us also agree that the deal passed last night does nearly zero about the deficit.  It really doesn't, $620 billion over 10 years is a rounding error when we're looking at annual trillion-dollar shortfalls.

All that said, fine.  We are dealing with the possible here.  As I have said elsewhere and repeatedly, I'm not a big fan of utopian fantasies, whether of the progressive or libertarian flavor.  If you allowed me dictatorial powers, I would do LOTS of stuff different, but that's not an option.  And in terms of the POSSIBLE, this deal is about as good as it gets.

Here's why: it locks in the Bush tax rates PERMANENTLY for everybody under $400k per year.  Admittedly, that does zip to reduce the deficit.  But that's a spending issue anyway.  And since we apparently are not serious at all about paying the bills, why screw over most of America?  I'm happy to share some sacrifice, if we get serious.  But this whole tax charade reminds me of nothing so much as the old "global warming" deal--asking America to drive cars made of tinfoil and pay gazillions in carbon taxes while India and China keep on churning out coal smoke and make those sacrifices meaningless.  With those rates permanently locked in for over 99% of taxpayers, the whole issue of holding everybody hostage every few years while we argue over what rates should be on those making upwards of $400k goes away.

But wait, you may say.  I thought you were a supply-sider.  How can you be so nonchalant about jacking up taxes on small-business owners, job creators, etc.?  Well, I am (read my post from a couple of days ago).  And I think it's a dumb idea. But it's a dumb idea that my side cannot defeat.  ALL the     rates were going up.  And had we gone over the cliff, I have zero doubt that the endgame would have been a restoration of low rates below $200 or $250k, with even more damage done.  And let's face it--$400,000 is nothing like $200,000 in the real world.  I hate class warfare, and have no desire to stick it to "the rich."  But that's what the country voted for.  And a case can be made that $200k is not rich--it's a high school principal married to a police lieutenant.  And particularly in areas with a high cost of living, after you pay taxes on $200k, it's hard to live "rich."  If you tithe, put a kid or two in college or private school, and live in a nice (but not ridiculous) neighborhood, it's easy to imagine a married couple at that level driving a used Benz or a new Honda, but not a brand-new Lexus.  Those guys may live a lot better than most (better than me), but they are not the yacht and caviar club.

On the other hand, at $400k, you're talking real money.  At that level, even after taxes, you can live on water.  You can vacation almost anywhere.  You can pay sticker price if your kid gets into Yale.  You might not can do all three at the same time, but you are in an entirely different ball game at that point.  Now, I happen to believe that raising those taxes is a dumb idea, will detract from economic growth, and will likely hurt small businesses and cost jobs.  But such an idea is not sellable to our current electorate.  Maybe if they see the consequences, they can learn.  I doubt it, but it's possible.  Regardless, it is impossible to have that discussion so long as everybody else is held hostage over the rates in the other brackets--least of all when the party that (allegedly) champions tax cuts is in the minority, and also in political disarray.

So what should the GOP do from here?  If Hemlock is not on the menu, I suppose they can use the debt-ceiling ad the sequester to get some spending cuts.  With taxes now permanently off the table, the battleground is more favorable to them on those two--just like the rates were going to rise if nothing happened, giving any tie to the tax-hikers, on the other two items a tie goes to ending-cutters.  Actually, I kinda like the sequester; for all the and-wringing about draconian cuts, spending still goes UP.  If you let me be in charge, I would do a true budget FREEZE.  No cuts, but nothing goes up, nobody gets a raise, you just have to find a way to only spend what you did last year (the horror)!  Sounds tough?  No tougher than what many families (mine included) have done the last few years.

But again, that's future stuff, and assumes a fact not in evidence: that politicians can do math.  For now, this tax deal was about as good a deal as we were going to get.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Year-End Reolutions Post

Even though I barely blog anymore, one thing I have done pretty consistently for the last several years is post my new year's resolutions.  Not only does it provide at least a semblance of accountability, it also is fun to go back and evaluate from one year to the next.

This past year I resolved to read the Bible through again, and I was successful in that.  That is somewhere around 11-12 "full" readings, not counting partials.  This year I want to continue the discipline of daily reading, but I am tired of the "whole Bible in a year" format.  I intend to begin this year with a 90-day plan through the New Testament, and after that I may re-evaluate and do some other directed study.

Another goal I set last year was to build on my record-setting year in 2011, when I logged the most miles I have ever run in a calendar year (745).  This year I actually eclipsed that.  I have 797 in the books with a day to go, so I intend to shuffle at least once around my block and make it a cool 800 in 2012.  The driver of all those miles is my plan to run the Charleston Marathon in January.  It's not much of a "resolution" to check off a goal three weeks into the new year when all the work took place in the previous one, but I do intend to set a new personal record, hopefully under 4 hours, in that marathon.

This coming year I emphatically DO NOT intend to continue marathon training.  I really don't enjoy it.  But now that I can run 15 miles pretty easily (and 20 with difficulty), my running goal in 2013 is to make a 10-miler a weekly or bi-weekly occurrence, in the hopes of running some age-adjusted personal records from 5k through the half-marathon.  Since I will be 44, that makes me the oldest in my current age group (40-44), so any hopes to win age-group trophies may be postponed until 2014.

I resolved last year to try and win a repeat state title with my track team. We did, in pretty convincing fashion.  (A great deal of that has to do with having amazingly talented kids and the best coaching staff we've ever assembled.).  I think it is possible to three-peat; even though it's hard to resolve something that depends so much upon the performance of others (not just my own team, but all the others, too), that's going to be the goal.

Probably the main thing I want to do in terms of habits is to make better use of my early morning quiet time.  I already get up at 5:30 daily, and have close to an hour before anyone else in my house is up.  But too often I spend the whole time "reading the news" online.  I managed to use technology (a Nook) last year to do a better job of reading books instead of blogs.  This year I have an iPad, and hope to use its calendar and task list features to do better in time management.

There will also be some less-dramatic health-related goals.  As I get older, my vital signs look more and more like those of my family (not the best genes), in spite of my running.  So I intend to eat and drink more good stuff and less bad stuff.  I've also got a couple of personal goals involving priorities at home.  But that's pretty much the list.

A Little Econ

This post is actually something I wrote over a month ago, while waiting for my son to complete his driving test at the DMV.  Just clearing the decks before the annual resolutions post.

A Little Econ Lesson

Sometimes I wish I could just reach through the TV or computer screen and just grab some talking head by the lapels and teach some simple economics to them, and to the apparently-ignorant audience to whom they write or speak.  Don't get me wrong--it is perfectly OK for people to disagree over economics.  Indeed, one of my favorite economics jokes (What? You don't have favorite economics jokes?) is about the economist with three arms.  That allowed him to say, "on the OTHER other hand...."  But even those disagreements should not be based on utter ignorance.

Let's begin with some pet peeves.  First up, supply-side economics, and the Laffer Curve.  Supply-siders (of whom I count myself one) say that, just as a tax rate of 0% will yield zero revenue, so would a tax rate of 100%.  The logic is that I can stay home in my pajamas and bring home nothing, so why should I work all day for the same?  That then yields a premise: just as tax rates can be too low to generate maximum revenue, they can also be too high.  At the point which tax rates change behavior to the point of shrinking the overall economic "pie," taking a larger "slice" for the government becomes counterproductive.

This idea lends itself to twin falsehoods.  One is the idea that raising rates always produces more revenue (the standard, "let's hike taxes on the rich" plan). But equally dumb is the reverse, conservative fallacy--that lowering rates always produces more revenue.  Obviously, that's not true.  We may not know what the "Goldilocks" tax rate is, but assuming there is one, you can muck things up moving either direction.

Now, that leaves aside other considerations.  A famous sports scientist once wrote, correctly, I believe, that anybody who runs more than 90 minutes per week is doing so for reasons other than health.  Yet I still run more than that in a single run sometimes.  I just don't lie to myself and say it's for cardiovascular fitness.  Same with taxes.  If it were to be conclusively proven that a tax rate of 90% would generate optimum revenue, I would still oppose it on moral grounds, as I believe that confiscatory rates amount to slavery.  Likewise, I can imagine that some folks might want taxes on certain groups at some set level above that which is mathematically most effective.  But if you believe that, I think you should be able to say so, and explain the principle behind it.  If you can't, then stick with the math!

So what does the math say?  Well, Coolidge, JFK, Reagan, and Bush 43 all cut tax rates, and in every case, tax receipts grew.  Now, I do think it's pretty obvious that JFK's cut of a 91% top rate to 70% or Reagan slashing that down to 28% would yield far more pie-growing stimulus than Bush's cut of 39% down to 35%.  But it seems proven by a pretty standardized and repeatable experiment that this works.  If that's not what caused (or at least contributed to) the growth, then I am open to alternative explanations.

What about the reverse? Paul Krugman of the New York Times has waxed rhapsodic over the fact that the USA enjoyed a huge economic boom in the 1950s under Eisenhower, with top rates of 91%.  But there was a little something else in the mix at the time, as well.  The fact that the USA was pretty much the only industrialized economy not shattered by WWII may have had a little to do with that.  Let's face it, I am a 138-pound marathoner who can eat anything I want and not gain an ounce.  But I don't assume that the diet is the reason I am skinny!

The other big counter-example is the fact that the USA prospered and even ran a budget surplus during the Clinton administration.  This is almost always followed by the fact that after Bush cut taxes, the deficit roared back and he wound up with a net loss of jobs over his two terms in office.  But once again, was it the tax rates that caused either the prosperity or the later crash?  It is my contention that Clinton was helped a good bit on the revenue side by two inflating bubbles.  The fact that Clinton's first year in office was also the year that the World Wide Web went mainstream cannot be ignored.  And many Americans, myself among them, made a small fortune in real estate during the same time period, as housing prices soared and down payments became relics of a bygone era.  We might also note that Clinton was the first US president since before my father was born to not have to worry about a Cold War, and the last one to not need to worry about a War on Terrorism.

But we DID run a surplus, right?  Well, sort of.  Our surplus included Social Security receipts, earmarked for the (nonexistent) trust fund.  Actually, the US National Debt never went down a penny, despite the paper surplus.  But at least there was one on paper.  And then Bush screwed it up.  Or did he?  Do you remember the campaign of 2000, back when nobody dreamed 9/11 was in our future?  The big question was what to do with the surpluses that were projected as far as the eye could see.  Bush wanted the "overpayment" returned to the taxpayers.  Al Gore wanted the surplus put in a budget "lockbox" to offset the eventual deficit in Social Security.  Bush won (barely), and we got the cuts.  But the lack of a lockbox nor the declining revenue is what brought us down.  It turned out that the rosy projections didn't account for the bursting of the dot-com bubble.  Indeed, by Election Day of 2000, the economy was already in recession.  Just a few months later, planes hit the twin towers in NYC.  The seeds of both of those events had been planted and watered while Bush was still governor of Texas.

The rest of Bush's two terms were actually economically strong.  The economy recovered (some might even say because of the tax cuts).  It was never as good as the best years of the Clinton administration, but how many of us would not like to see unemployment under 5.7% nowadays?  Even with the "two wars on a credit card" (and although the wisdom of the Iraqi adventure is still quite debatable, what the heck else were we supposed to do in Afghanistan after 9/11), the deficit, which had ballooned out to over 400 billion dollars after 2001, had begun to contract.  It came down every year until 2007, when it was about 165 billion dollars.  And had all those trends continued, even including low tax rates and two wars, we would have seen surpluses again.  But once again, the forecasts failed to account for unexpected events.  The same housing bubble whose run-up had contributed so much to the growth under both Clinton and Bush burst, and the resulting crash wiped out every gain made in the previous seven years.  That is a slightly different narrative than "Bush presided over a net loss of jobs."

This all sounds somewhat dishonest, as I seem to be saying that all the apparent good stuff under Clinton can be explained away, and all the bad stuff under Bush somehow should not count.  But that's not all true.  Bush's biggest fault (fiscally) was not Iraq, it was Medicare Part D.  There is no need to laud him as some sort of misunderstood budget-cutter.  But the strawman that "Bush's policies are what got us into this economic mess," particularly when that is shorthand for tax rates, simply is not true.  And I also don't deny that the 1990s under Clinton were fabulous economic times.  But no one has yet demonstrated to me what policies of Clinton's can be credited for that.  A week on a cruise ship is also wonderful, but meanwhile at home, bills pile up and the grass keeps growing.  Once the vacation ends, the reality which had been in the background is still there.  It amuses me that we do not (yet) apply the same standard of historical judgment to the 1990s as we do to the "Roaring 20s."  There, too, we had a period of peace and prosperity, fueled by an inflating bubble.  But we judge that decade in light of the Depression which followed, which takes off some of the shine.  How are the Clinton years different?

So... what is the takeaway of this epistle?  Not much in terms of policy prescriptions.  I have a few, and may even write about them.  But I just wish for more honest argument.  Smart people can disagree with me about all of this... but they should acknowledge the fact that these arguments exist, and should be obligated to deal with them, as I hope I have with their reverse.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't raise taxes.  It only means that if we do, it shouldn't be based on a narrative which "everybody knows" that is nonetheless untrue.  Or, if it's true, it ought to be able to be explained a heck of a lot better than we are getting these days.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Random Thoughts--Things I Think I Think

The sitemeter numbers for this blog still come to  my email box monthly, and apparently nobody reads it.  That probably has something to do with the fact that I never write anything.  After the election, I had TONS of stuff to "say," but sure didn't want to post it on Facebook.  It is hard to resist the urge sometimes, but I really don't want to be that guy who constantly peppers his friends' news feed with unrequested political observations.  That said, if you come here, you asked for it!

I've been thinking a lot about the results of the election.  I voted for Romney.  And I did so happily--more happily than I have voted for any candidate I have ever voted for.  Every other GOP nominee since '88 was someone I had voted against in the primaries.  Not Romney.  Some people called him a squish, a RINO, and worse.  Who knows, maybe I am, too.  In him I saw a fundamentally good and decent man, with a deep faith and a wonderful family.  I saw an intelligent, highly educated, very successful person.  I saw someone whose skill set seemed uniquely situated for dealing with the current issues facing our country.

But he lost.  I really thought he would win.  Even when the polls showed him behind, I thought they were wrong.  I could not fathom that there would be a huge Democratic turnout advantage after 40 straight months of 8% unemployment, US Ambassadors' dead bodies dragged through the streets, Al Qaeda flags flying over our embassies, etc.  But there was.  I thought there would be a "silent majority" that showed up at the polls, just like in 1968.  And they didn't.

This floored me.  I wasn't so upset that Obama had won; I was upset that a majority of the country wanted him to win. (I wasn't upset that committed liberals voted for him, either--that is expected.  But you expect the "undecideds" to break in the direction of certain predictable trends--and they did not, in this case).  Lots of ink has been spilled analyzing the loss.  And I still am not sure yet what the lesson plan on the election of 2012 will look like down the road.

Here's the big question: Is this the "new normal?"  Do the combination of demographics, media bias, entitlements, and changed expectations on the part of our citizenry mean that no conservative can ever win again?  One could argue that if this Republican could not win in this environment, that the GOP has become the Tories in Britain--relegated to a rump status, campaigning only on the promise that they can run a liberal nanny state more efficiently than the other guys.

Or... Is this election tied up in the unique personalities involved?  Obama is our first black president.  That's special.  Romney is mega-uber-super-rich.  If 4 years from now, a more populist Republican faces a less-historic Democrat, do the same messages resonate differently?

I don't know.  However, historians look for patterns.  I was thinking the pattern was Reagan in '80 or Nixon in '68 (or, had the economy recovered before election day, Reagan in '84, with Obama starring as the Gipper).  Now the closest pattern I see is Bush in '04.  Look what we had--a fellow who half the country disliked intensely, who but for the unique circumstances of his birth would have never been a contender in the first place, defending a mess mostly of his own making.  The other side puts up a rich New Englander with a skill set perfectly tailored to the issue of the day (in this case, Kerry and the War on Terror).  But he is seen as out of touch, and the election is held at almost the last moment that Bush or the War on Terror have more than 50% support.  Certainly a year later he would have lost.  Afterwards, Democrats are passing around the hemlock, and Karl Rove is pontificating about a permanent majority for Republicans.  And look how that turned out.

Anyway, I still don't know exactly what I think about this election.  But it's not the end of the world.  And even if it is, there's nothing I can do about it.