Thursday, February 14, 2008

Economic "Stimulus"

You know, so long as the Republicans and Democrats in congress are fighting each other, nothing gets done. And that's not always a bad thing. But when they AGREE, watch your wallet. Such is the case with the new "stimulus" package signed by President Bush this week. For those who haven't been paying attention, the government will send a "tax rebate" check to all Americans who make less than $75,000 a year ($150,000 for couples). The idea is that we'll spend that money and stimulate the US economy out of its current slowdown.

A couple of quick points. First, these "rebates" aren't necessarily just refunding the tax you paid. Some people (my middle-class family included) will get "back" more money than they paid in. Indeed, some people who never paid ANY taxes will get rebates. Secondly, it's not like the government has a big old pot of extra money floating out in the stratosphere. That money is all collected in taxes... the vast majority of which, by the way, are paid by the people in the upper income brackets. (The last figures I saw showed that about 96% of the taxes collected in this country are paid by the top half of wage earners. Over 35% of collections came from the top 1% of earners.) So, even assuming the "stimulus" works, it's not really a tax rebate. It's taking money out of the pockets of those who earned it, and giving it directly to those who don't. It's a welfare program disguised as a tax rebate. Don't get me wrong, I would object to this on fairness grounds if it were properly named. But I'm doubly offended by the dishonesty.

And whether this is a "good" stimulus plan is doubtful, at best. $600 a pop in a 13 trillion dollar economy is not that much. And lots of folks will use this money to save, or pay down debt, rather than rushing off to spend it at a retail establishment. (I'm thinking theme park, on my end.) Of course, money invested, saved, or paid against indebtedness will eventually filter through the economy as banks and others use that money for good purposes--home loans, infrastructure, new jobs... but the money could have done that if it had been LEFT in the economy in the first place through lower taxes. The argument is that it's more likely to be spent now that it's in the hands of "the needy" who spend most of what they have, rather than in the hands of the evil "rich," who are more likely to save or invest it. Sorry, once again I have a problem with this little enterprise, which in the private sector is called THEFT.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not sending "my" check back. Disney, here we come*. But I do feel at least a little funny knowing that our vacation for my home-owning, middle-class, two-income family is being subsidized by my fellow taxpayers. I just have two questions. First, under pay-as-you-go, zero-based budgeting rules, shouldn't we RAISE TAXES even more on the "rich"to pay for the costs of this tax rebate? And also, why only $600? If this is fair, why can't we make it $6000? Or $60,000? Where I come from, stealing is still stealing. If we're going to commit petty larceny, let's go for the whole enchilada!

*Note to Pete: Yes, I know I should use this "found" money to work my way up Dave Ramsey's "baby steps" on my path to financial independence. And I know that if later I want to live like no one else, right now I ought to live like no one else. But I'm nothing if not a good citizen, and right now Uncle Sam wants me to live like everybody else. So I'm blowing it!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Electoral College

A topic of discussion at the faculty table yesterday was whether we should abolish the electoral college. If we only counted popular votes at that table, the measure would have passed... overwhelmingly among the under-30 set, by the way, and with gusto by a nice girl who's an immigrant. Her words: "It would be better if you did it more like the French do...." RIGHT. That's what I want from my government: to be more FRENCH. The two main holdouts to this idea whose time has obviously come were the two of us at the table who actually teach history, government, and/or civics.

Most folks who don't like the EC really just don't like the fact that Bush beat Gore in 2000. What they don't realize is how many times in US History the winner has not received a majority of the popular vote (all but 4 times--1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000--the winner did receive at least a plurality of the popular vote). Just off the top of my head, I'm thinking Clinton twice, JFK in 1960, Truman in 1948, Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and a guy you might have heard of called Abe Lincoln in 1860. All of those folks would have gone to a run-off under a popular-vote system. And some (Truman, Wilson, Lincoln, possibly Clinton '92) would have probably lost.

Here's the deal. Imagine a scenario where a candidate wins a single state, let's say a big one, like Texas, by 50,000 votes. Then he or she goes on to lose the other 49 states by 1000 votes each. So he or she "wins" the overall popular vote by 1000--but the other guy wins 49 states. Which one deserves more to be president of the whole country? I think most of us would say the one who won the broadest support across most of the country, rather than the deepest support in one region. The electoral college measures that, while also adjusting for the relative populations of the states (hence, 55 electoral votes for California, 27 for Florida, 8 for good 'ol SC, and only 3 for near-empty Wyoming). It was one of the smartest things old James Madison ever came up with. Thank goodness that changing the system (for us, unlike the French) requires a pretty severe super-majority to pass an amendment.

NOTE: I realized after writing this that I have spoken of this topic before. My original point, that the Democrats have an electoral advantage this cycle, remains unchanged. They win Kerry's states plus Ohio, and it's over 270 electoral votes. but McCain scrambles things. If he wins Bush's states, loses Ohio, but flips New Hampshire (where they LOVE him), he still squeaks out. There are a million scenarios, of course. But reading my year-old posts about how he's never going to get nominated should serve as fair warning about trying to predict these things.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

What Now?

I haven't posted anything on politics since before Romney dropped out. No surprise there, and it was the right thing to do. So half of my Super Tuesday prediction holds up. (Do I get a prize?)

As for the other half, Clinton leads in the delegate count, but Obama has won more states. With all the Democrat primaries having proportional allocation of delegates, it's unlikely either one will get the separation necessary to win the 2025 total delegates it takes to be the nominee outright before their convention.

This presents a pair of problems (for them; for me it presents even more interesting lesson plans). Problem one is what happens with the "superdelegates," the 796 Democrat bigwigs who get to vote at the convention who are not beholden to any primary voters. Clinton has more support among these insiders. Obama will (I think rightfully) feel more than a little used if he wins more delegates or more states, and yet still loses. There's also the little problem of the two states (Michigan and Florida) that Clinton "won" by being the only one on the ballot, since the Dems stripped them of their delegates. What will they do if (when) she starts demanding that those votes be counted? ("The people of Florida had their votes stolen by Bush and his evil cronies on the Supreme Court in 2000, and now WE must count every vote!") It's entirely possible that by convention time, the Democrat nomination could be in limbo, or even in court!

And this leads to yet another scenario--normally the party convention is a carefully-scripted coronation of the known winner (both parties do it). The nominee sets the agenda, the platform, the order of speeches, etc. What if there's no winner? We haven't seen a convention like this in my lifetime (last one was Dems in Chicago, 1968--and THAT was a disaster). Once again, for me it's not a disaster--it's a chance to write a brand-new (and interesting) lesson plan. But if I were a Democrat, I might worry.

Still, I stand by my prediction. In the end, I hope it's Obama, but think it's Hillary. Then comes the big question: will he "take one for the team" and run as her veep to help paper over any divisions caused by her win? If I were him, I wouldn't--he's still young enough to run on his own later as a guy with no connections to any Bush or Clinton. He loses some of his "agent of change" mojo if he associates with her.

All I can say for sure is that this is one of the most fascinating elections ever. I don't recall ever caring so much about either party's primary results. For a politics junkie, this is fun!

Blast From the Past

Last night, Jake and I watched a great movie on AMC--Die Hard, from 1988. This movie is so old, Bruce Willis had HAIR. I had forgotten how good it was, and really enjoyed it. But here's the funny thing--there's a scene where a cop pulls up to a gas station, and the price of gas on the marquee (in Los Angeles, even) is 78 cents a gallon! That got my wheels turning. Obviously, the price of everything else has gone up, too. My old personal finance teacher taught us the "Rule of 72," which says that if you divide 72 by the number of years it takes a price (or an investment) to double in value, you'll get back the percentage of increase. It's been exactly 20 years since then, and it looks like gas has basically doubled twice. So a 10-year doubling time, or a 7.2% annual inflation rate for gasoline. But the annual rate of inflation nationwide (and my corresponding cost of living raises) have been about half of that: 3-4%, or doubling in about 20 years. So no wonder my fuel bill takes a bite out of the budget--it's twice what it was relative to everything else compared to when I was in college!

(BTW--Don't do this math with the cost of college or health care... it's even more depressing.)

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Barbershop Limerick

I was playing around with Becky and talking about how I get my hair cut at Ed's Barber Shop, but the owner is Glen "Bubba" Chaplin. I think he bought it from Ed a long time ago and never changed the name. Suddenly, the following rhyme came to me:

There once was a man named Ed,
Who could cut the hair of your head.
He could do a flattop, but now he has stopped.
I sure hope that Ed's not dead.

OK, so it's not exactly lyrics worthy of John Seymour and the Fire Apes (my favorite local band). But we got a little chuckle out of it.

Righteous Run!

I got a grand total of ONE run last week. Two big miles, which became my total for the run, the day, the week, the month, and the year-to-date. I'm just happy it wasn't a big, fat zero for January. Today I hit the track again (and hope to get 3-4 total runs in of 2 miles apiece this week). Probably only Adam and Matthew will care about the splits, but I've gotta brag a little. Last week I ran my first mile in 7:48, but I ran my first lap at 1:51 and got slower every lap. Then I had to kick in the last lap at 1:35 (that's 6:20 mile pace, and the last 200 meters was sub-6) just to edge under 8 minutes for the second mile. I felt like crud.

Today was different. My goal was just to be consistent, to start slow and stay steady. Lap 1 felt under control. Split-1:54. Although not much slower than the first lap last week, it felt a lot less labored. Lap 2, 1:55. Lap 3, 1:55, and lap 4, a steady 1:54. That's 7:40 (counting all the decimals) for the first mile, faster than last week, but it felt far better. After a 1:57 5th lap, I felt like stretching it out. Lap 6, 1:52. Lap 7, 1:46 (hey, that's 7:04 pace, and I'm breathing hard, but not dying!). Lap 8 was a steady but not out of control kick at 1:36, for a 2nd mile total of 7:12. I would have bet that I couldn't run a single mile at 7:12! Total time for 2 miles = 14:52. The dip under 15 minutes was unexpected and very, very cool.

Not to get too excited yet--if I had to run another mile, I couldn't have done it (although I probably could do 3 if I ran it at 8:30-9:00 a mile). And my track distance kids did an "easy" run of 50 minutes today that covered 7-ish miles (and there was a time I could have run with that group, or just behind). But I feel a lot more like a real runner than a slacker compared to last week. Give it a month or so. I'm coming back!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Previewing Super Tuesday

So now it's down to basically two in each party: Obama vs. Clinton on the left and McCain vs. Romney on what used to be the right (and Huckabee, stealing votes from Romney in the hope that McCain will reward him later, maybe as veep). As I've said before, predictions are only fun if you go out on a limb in advance. So here are mine, which are worth exactly what you paid for them:

Democrats: After Super Tuesday, Hillary will be the nominee. Obama is a far better candidate, but the demographics are all in her favor. Just doing the math will tell you that her margins among whites, women, and Hispanics equal more eventual votes in more states than his among African-Americans and Ivy League students. I hope I'm wrong, but that's my pick.

Republicans: McCain has done the near-impossible--become the GOP front-runner while never winning over most Republicans. And the "establishment" really hates him. But sadly, the other choice is Mitt Romney, and he can't win. I'm sorry, but he's just tough to like. I've tried. I actually agree more with Romney's (recent) positions than McCain's. And I've tried to tell myself that it's not his fault that he looks like a Ken doll, and that it's just envy to resent his money, and I know his family life is a lot cleaner than McCain's.... but whatever it is, I can't make myself LIKE him. And if I can't, then he's not gonna beat Hillary. Period. That's the calculus--conservatives know that McCain will stick it to them if he ever gets in the White House, but that's still better than what Hillary would do, and a vote for Romney ensures that worst-case scenario. And if it's Obama, either one of them would almost certainly lose. So McCain will be the nominee. He's the least-bad choice.

Bonus Prediction: If nominated, I'll bet McCain picks as his running mate SC Governor Mark Sanford. Sanford balances McCain's age, and brings a solid Gingrich-Revolution voting record from his three terms as a congressman, plus a hatred of pork and a reputation as a bit of a "maverick" with a flair for "straight talk" himself. And Sanford was a McCainiac in 2000. He could do a lot worse (Huckabee would be a lot worse, as would Rudy, at trying to hold together the party). Hillary likely asks Obama. No, she doesn't LIKE him. But she'll do what it takes to win. I think he'd be smarter to turn it down, though, and live to fight again in 2012 or even 2016 (when he'll still be young by presidential standards, and a mere babe by McCain's) without having ever been tarnished by Clinton, Inc.

There you have it. By Wednesday, we'll see!


This past Monday, I went to see my doc, for all of about 5 minutes. It was so short, he didn't even charge me the forty bucks. One quick look at the ankle, and he pronounced, "Looks great. Go have a run." So I did, that afternoon. Two miles, on my school track, before my team practiced, at a total of 15:46. It took all the kick I had in me for the last lap to squeak in the 2nd mile in under 8 minutes, and I paid for it for the rest of the week. But at least I didn't have to write a big "zero" in my log book for the month of January. The rest of the week was insane, and didn't lend itself to another run (it's too bad I'm salaried, as I could have clocked 24 hours of OT this week). But I'm a free, two-legged man again!

PS-The removal of "Arthur" (the cyst) came to a total bill of $4365, counting the doc, the facility, the gas-passer, the biopsy, and everything. Of course, the insurance will write off a good part of that, and my out-of-pocket will be about $850 (I had to pay my whole $500 annual deductible). That's just nuts. I intend if I ever get some time to blog some about health care costs.