Monday, February 22, 2010

Crystal Ball, 2012

Is it too early to pick the 2012 election results? Let me preface my prediction with a warning: I'm a guy who has NEVER voted for the eventual nominee in the primaries. So my analysis is worth about what you're paying for it.

That said, the GOP nominee in 2012 will be.... drum roll... MITT ROMNEY! Not necessarily because he's best, but because he's next. Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. Go back as far as the eye can see... you would have to be eligible for social security to have voted for a GOP candidate who wasn't the obvious "next in line" (Goldwater, 1964). After that, it's former VP Nixon, his VP Ford, Reagan (runner-up to Ford), his VP Bush, long-time bridesmaid and Ford's running mate Dole, Bush's son Bush 43, and McCain, who was runner-up to Bush in 2000. By this logic, nobody but Romney has a chance!

Additionally, my guess at this point is that Palin doesn't run, but the chance that she might breaks up the "anybody but Romney" vote a little. I also think that unless we see miraculous economic recovery, Romney's rep as the savior of the 2002 winter Olympics and his experience as a real businessperson will look very attractive. And at the end of the day, I think more folks will embrace demonstrated academic prowess (albeit not Ivy League--he was valedictorian of BYU) over folksiness (even facile folksiness) of the sort you might see in Huckabee.

Of course, Obama will run again. The question is, can he win? That hinges on two variables. The first is whether he will pivot like Clinton toward the center. I don't see that happening, but I could be wrong. The other is whether he catches the big break of economic recovery. It doesn't even need to be his fault, but if things turn around and he can take credit for it, well, he wins. I think you can count on a very positive media environment for him; he won't have to swim upstream against NYT stories on "jobless recovery" or anything like that. But if his best answer is only "it could be even worse," well, ask Carter, Hoover, or even Van Buren how that worked out. And that's the zillion-dollar question.

I'll bet he at least makes it close. I'm just too bullish on the American people and economy to believe that we'll continue to languish in this kind of trough for two more years. We'll see!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Coupon Queen

Everybody who knows me knows I think my wife is pretty awesome. She's beautiful, she's smart, she's talented, and she has a strange attraction to nerdy guys. But she's also very frugal, which is especially cool when you're trying to feed a family of five on two teachers' salaries. Lately she has become a coupon maniac. And that's a compliment. She spends a couple of hours each week planning out her purchases for groceries based on sales and coupons. There is a website called southern savers that helps her with the legwork. By this combination of brains and discipline, she has cut our monthly grocery bill by more than half!

Here's the math of it: So far this year (7 weeks), we have bought groceries with a sticker price of $1497. That's over $200 a week! (Which, in all honesty, isn't too crazy for 5 people including two teenage boys. If we drink any more milk, we'd be better off buying a cow... or a herd.) Let's break that down further. It comes out to over $900 a month, which is more than double the rent on our first two apartments, more than the mortgage on our first house, and right in the ballpark for everything but the taxes and insurance on our current house. It's two new car payments. It's 4 times the payment on our "better" car. It's more every month than my car is worth! And for all that money, every day, those boys are hungry AGAIN!

But Ann has gotten those $1497 worth of groceries for only $624. Her planning and couponing has saved us $873, or 58% off of our grocery bill. For every dollar she spends, she has saved $1.40. In other words, at this rate we'll save over $500 per month, and over $6000 on the year. (And this doesn't even count what she saves by buying never-worn brand-name clothes at thrift stores, etc.)

It really isn't a big deal about the money (although numbers are a nice way of keeping score in any game). It's about stewardship, and freedom. Making these wise decisions gives us the freedom to do jobs we love, to take summers off, to travel, to save, and especially, to give. I feel like Proverbs 21:20 is all about Ann's great stewardship. Oh, yeah. Another passage comes to mind, too.

The Law of Averages

OK. I'll do one quick one. Everybody who follows my blog knows that I am obsessive about my running log. The first 15 years of my running life, including my entire high school career and through my first (and only, so far) marathon, were not logged. But I have the last 12 years painstakingly detailed. Not only have I got a spiral-bound log with every run described, but also a big excel spreadsheet with every monthly total laid out, and broken down into all the statistical gobbledygook that makes my inner nerd smile. (Who am I kidding? My inner nerd is on the outside, too!)

Well, February is the worst month of the year, on average. It's the first full month of track season, when my coaching conflicts with my own running. It's the coldest month of the year. And I have a very, very hard time breaking that rhythym. This year, I'm semi-happy to report that I am having an "above-average" February, following a slightly above-average January. But it's still not a great running month unless seen through the lens of my usual bad winters.

The good news is, if I continue on at "average" or slightly better all year, the end product will result in me continuing my annual 500+ miles (it took 6 before midnight on New Year's eve to get 6000 in the books for the last 12 years, so there's not any wiggle room). The bad news is that I don't want to be "good" for February. I want to be good by an objective standard of excellence. Running well for February is like being tall for a midget.

Still, I'll take encouragement where I can find it. At least I'm a little ahead and not behind. If I can just keep plugging away, the weather will keep improving, and spring (and summer) will be a lot easier. So if you ask, "how's your running?" The answer is, "pretty good, all things considered."

What's On My Mind

Lots of topics bouncing off of each other in my brain these days, but no time to write. Here's a quick list of things I want to get to, in no particular order. The list is really just so I don't forget the topics before I get time to blog.
  • "progressivism" as wrongly defined by Glenn Beck
  • ranking the presidents
  • "category error," most recently demonstrated by the guy who flew his plane into the IRS building in Texas
  • sex in the movies
  • the Prodigal Son
  • the law of averages (about running)
  • predicting the 2012 presidential race
  • anti-anti-anti-elitism

I'm sure there were more when I sat down to type this. That's how quick these brain-droppings fly away. If any of those look interesting, keep watching this space!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Wise Words

I was reading a blog/news/opinion piece last week and managed to somehow get sucked into the 200+ comments on the thread. I forget what the original topic was, or even what the website was, but one of the commenters made the following statement: "We can't keep on taxing ourselves like libertarians and demanding benefits like socialists." That stuck with me, particularly in light of some reading I've been doing lately for class on the Eisenhower adminsitration. Many politically astute people know that Reaganomics involved a big tax cut (down to 28% at its lowest point) down from the 70% top rate under JFK. Others will tell you that Reagan's cut was itself patterned after JFK's own big cut, which came down from the 90% top rate under Ike. I know that for those of us under retirement age it seems crazy, but back in our parents' childhood the Republican party was the party of green eyeshades and balanced budgets. Ike jacked taxes sky-high and also cut the military's conventional forces (while investing heavily in nuclear deterrence, which provided far more "bang for the buck"--in more ways than one). Not that Ike loved the taxes, but he felt like the 1950s economy, which was growing like gangbusters, could handle it. Both Truman and Eisenhower paid off part of the national debt, which had necessarily run up during WWII (the last president to completely pay off the debt was Andy Jackson).

Of course, that didn't last. The big-spending of the Great Society under LBJ opened the door to non-emergency deficit spending, and of course, we've all heard the horror stories of the exploding deficits during the era of Reaganomics. I will defend the Reagan deficits, at least to a point. The Reagan tax cuts were, I firmly believe, instrumental in pulling us out of the recession of the late 1970s and fueling the economic boom that persisted until just lately. Moreover, if you could have told me in 1983 when Wargames was looking a lot like a work of nonfiction (or a couple of years later, when The Day After showed by hometown of Charleston getting nuked) that the deficits we were running would finance the end of the Cold War, I would have said, "where do I sign?" And when Clinton (with a good bit of help from the '94 GOP congress) was able to run a surplus on the strength of the "peace dividend" and the internet boom, I thought that the time had come to go ahead and pay down that debt.

Of course, that was not to be. First was the dot-com bust, followed by 9/11, followed by more and more and more spending (and yes, I'm pointing the accusing finger right at old G.W. Bush and his Medicare Part D, et al.) And somehow along the way, we as a country forgot that somebody has to pay for all this. Then came our current administration, who managed to vilify Bush for 400-billion dollar deficits while at the same time proposing deficits in the trillions for as far as the eye can see, not counting whatever it might cost for a big health care entitlement.

Anyway, back to those wise words. I wish we could somehow set the clock back and both tax ourselves like libertarians and also spend like libertarians. That would be fine with me (within limits--my brand of conservatism would conserve much of the New Deal). But if that's not going to happen, I'd also be OK with actually taxing people what it costs to pay the bills. Note that I didn't say some people. You could tax every dime over $250k a year in this country at 100% and still not generate enough revenue to break even. And I'm not a fan of 40%+ (and rising) of the country having zero federal income tax burden. I'll even go so far as to say that my own family is under-taxed. We make nearly double the national average income, yet we pay hardly any federal income taxes after 5 standard exemptions, all our itemized deductions, and multiple credits. Don't get me wrong--I don't want to pay more. But I also don't think it's cool that somebody else pays the freight of citizenship for my upper-middle-class lifestyle.

What if--just imagine it--we were to just do the math and determine that social security can't get by on only 15.3% payroll tax (which it can't). Let's say 20% would do the trick (I have no idea if that's even close). So charge that. Ditto medicare. Yes, people would absolutely howl. And then we could have the necessary discussion about whether we're willing to pay that much or cut benefits, raise retirement age, means-test, or whatever other solution presents itself. But whistling past the graveyard, pretending that the bill is never going to come due, is just crazy.

Once again, my personal preference is low tax, low spending. But option number two would be that we all pay for the benefits we enjoy. Want to live like socialists, fine. Pay the bills. I'll bet that wouldn't happen--we would discover that a majority of voters would vote for freedom and corresponding personal responsibility. What we've got now is the worst of all possible worlds.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

There has been some buzz of late that the Obama administration may repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prohibits openly-gay service in the US military. I have just a few thoughts on the topic.

First, DADT was itself a loosening of previous restrictions. Bill Clinton had wanted to get rid of the previous policy, which not only didn't allow gays to serve, but also asked up front about their orientation. Those who tried to serve while remaining closeted could then be drummed out of the service if they were "outed." And his hamfisted attempt at a gay-friendly effort, when combined with his overreach on Hillarycare, an "assault-weapons" ban, a never-materializing middle class tax cut, and other missteps served to undermine his image as a not-so-liberal bubba and resulted in the 1994 takeover of congress by the GOP (followed, of course, by his succesful "triangulation" and recovery on a more centrist model in his 2nd term).

Secondly, the key issue--then and now--is what is best for the military. When you enlist, you check certain "rights" at the door of boot camp. I don't give two hoots in heck about social engineering in the military. I want the army, navy, air force, and marines to be the best in the world at killing people and breaking things while serving the foreign policy goals of the USA. Period. Full stop. Whether it's gays serving openly, women in combat, or whatever, the big question simply cannot be what we think is nice. Bombs and tanks and guns are, by definition, NOT NICE. Get over it.

That said, in the past 20 years or so, American society as a whole, and the military as a part of it, have seen changes in the acceptance of gays (we'll leave aside any discussion about whether that is a sign of progress or decline), as well as an expanded role of women in combat. I read a statistic (don't remember where, so no link) that said only 51% of servicemen now say they are against gays serving, compared to more like two-thirds back when DADT was new. And it is also true that other countries have gone farther down this path, without catastrophic results.

My own take (which admittedly, comes from the biases of a 40-something hetero dude) is that the biggest issues involve fraternization and unit cohesion. People do stupid things when they are in a romantic relationship. If my wife and I served in combat together, my #1 goal, even superseding that of our mission, would be to protect her first. Whether it's straight men and women serving together or gay men and/or lesbians, the possibility of personal relationships undermining group cohesion is there. (I've heard some attack this line of thinking by saying, "are you suggesting that gays have less self-control than straights?" Answer: that's a strawman argument, as I don't want women on submarines, either, and also, yes, I'm perfectly willing to say that gay men, on average, show less self-control than hetero couples--not because they are gay, but because they are MEN, without a woman to slow them down.) I'm not super-worried about discrimination and prejudice. The military handled that with race in 1948, and can again.

What I would do, were it up to me, is find out first of all what the military thinks. If making the change will hurt enlistment numbers, how much? Is there a trade-off in terms of efficiency? What is the cost vs. the benefit? Let's be Hippocratic: first, do no harm. Assuming they say it's a go, then I would let gays serve in the exact same way that women do now. Fly a plane? No problem. Serve as an Arabic translator for military intelligence? Fine. Submarines, SEALS, or infantry? Nope. Not because you're not tough or macho enough. (Shucks, I had a female assistant coach once who was an ACC record holder in the discus... she would have made a MUCH better soldier than I would.) But because it's not worth the potential drawbacks.

Sometimes change is progress. Sometimes it is not. A battlefield is no place to be tinkering with progressive social goals.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I May Vote Democrat!

Okay... got your attention yet? There is a rumor floating around that retired SC Circuit Court Judge Victor Rawl may challenge Jim DeMint for his US Senate seat. I actually like DeMint. I also probably would disagree on almost every issue with Judge Rawl. However, he's been a friend of mine for 30 years. His son was my best friend from age 11 through high school, and was best man in my wedding. Moreover, one of the best students I ever taught has developed into a future democrat policy-maker, and may wind up working on the campaign if it materializes. They say blood is thicker than water. My ties to those two may not be blood, but they are thick. So if it happens, I'll probably vote heart over head.

Of course, I doubt very seriously that a lowcountry democrat, even a really good one, could win a statewide race in SC against DeMint, whose approval rating statewide is 63%. But if, at the end of the day, it comes down to a one-vote margin, it wouldn't be too bad to have an old friend in the Senate.

A Blast From the Past

The title of this post refers to me blogging (seems like a while), as well as a link I found today. The article is from "Car Lust," but it is called "Car Disgust." It features my first car, the 1973 Buick Century. I had the ugly green one with the half-vinyl top and green paisley bench seats. Unlike the one in the article, though, I had a 350 V8 (which got about 9 miles per gallon... highway. Fortunately, gas was only about 80 cents a gallon).

I keep meaning to blog more. I'm just having a hard time finding the motivation. I've got plenty of blog-worthy thoughts, on numerous topics. Perhaps if anybody is still out there reading, drop me a comment and let me know you're there. Maybe even mention topical areas you've liked before. I feel silly just rambling on and on when I'm not sure anybody is listening, or even interested.