Sunday, July 31, 2011

Danger: Falling Anvils

I'd been reading How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes by Peter Schiff, but I put it aside. I'm not sure I'll ever finish it. I picked it up because Schiff was one of the few people willing to go public with his opinion that the Housing Bubble was just that, a bubble, and that it had to pop. And he took a lot of heat for that view, even being laughed at to his face on cable television.

So I figured, "Here's a smart guy. I'll buy his book, and see if I can learn anything." Big mistake. How an Economy Grows... could have been an excellent introduction into the Austrian School of economics for the uninitiated. But the book's smug ideology, hectoring tone and simplistic moralizing quickly made reading it wearisome. Far from being a useful introduction to Von Mises and his followers, the book becomes a Randian screed, with Schiff's anger, bitterness and anti-government sentiment driving the whole thing forward. Those that Schiff is most angry with, "economists and politicians," are universally spoken of and portrayed as incompetent and/or smug, deceitful confidence artists, who, instead of sincerely believing in what they are doing, are deliberately perverting the system for their own gain and/or egos, at the expense of the book's upright, hardworking but dim public. While any introduction to a body of knowledge must, of necessity, simplify, Schiff simplifies some items that don't fit with the narrative that he wants to promote clean out of existence, and others are quickly glossed over. The basic format is that of a simplified ongoing narrative, not terribly unlike a children's story, and as the book progresses, Schiff treats the reader more and more like a dim-witted child, taking great care at the end of each narrative to lay out the very same points he just finished delivering so anviliciously. Perhaps he suspected that the constant hammering rendered the reader brain damaged, and so in need of help grasping the concepts.

Overall, I was disappointed. Not because the book turned out to be a partisan screed. After all, Christopher Hitchens has never met a screed that he didn't like, and I find him to be a massively entertaining writer. And I have some sympathies for Austrian economics myself. But How an Economy Grows... is either written for the ideological True Believer who enjoys the thought of the committed Keynesian being either chastised or defensive upon reading or the economic naïf who knows so little that they don't realize when they're being spoken down to. Either way, it was an opportunity squandered.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Third Columnists

While many people are confident that Congress and the President will come together on an agreement vis-a-vis the debt ceiling before the United States is forced (or chooses) to default on interest payments on the national debt (as opposed to simply going into a shutdown), I'm not so sure. It should be remembered that one of the primary goals of "Tea Party" Republicans is not simply to do something about the debt, but to shrink the size of government. Given this, the BATNA position of a default suits their purposes just as much as the serious reduction in spending that they're after.

As an aside, the Balanced Budget Amendment talk is pure posturing. Given that the federal government is currently borrowing a bit over 40% of the money it spend, the crash in spending or the severe tax hikes that would be needed mean that it's unlikely that you could get the amendment through the states, even the Red states, since they tend to receive more in Federal funds than they pay in taxes. They'd be unlikely to be willing to watch all of those funds evaporate, and the more-populous Blue states would likely not be a mood to share revenues.

Anyway, in the case of a default, it becomes less attractive for investors to lend money to the United States, and thus it becomes more expensive for the nation to borrow money. This is just fine if you're in the mode of attempting to shrink government, because the less money government can borrow, the less it can do. And if you can hold the line on tax increases (which will be a much easier job when the economy starts to recover) then recessions become a good time to shrink government by choking off its access to funds.

So, my personal opinion is that part of the reason why Speaker of the House Boehner is having such difficulty with getting all of the Republicans on board is that with the split in his caucus between more Reaganite Republicans and the Tea Party and/or Grover Norquist crowd he finds himself saddled with a number of people who are nominally on his side, but who are actually okay with a failure on his part. And, given that, a deal that allows the government to borrow its way clear of a default is by no means a sure thing.

Monday, July 25, 2011

400 Calories

It's more or less an article of faith among many people, including many Americans, that Americans are overweight primarily because they've never met a foodstuff they didn't like. It seems that the idea of some morbidly obese person going to Crapplebee's and ordering a Grub-blaster Gut-bomb on a platter so large it takes three men to carry it to the table resonates with people (or at least their sense of moral superiority). But it's much more likely that rather than stuffing themselves, many Americans are simply eating calorie-dense foods. Like, for instance candy bars, which pack a LOT of calories into a small volume. The idea came from realizing that a King Size package of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, which is 4 normal-sized cups or two of the Big Cups, has the same calorie count as three full pounds of broccoli. So I decided to take pictures of the two of them to illustrate just how much of a difference there was. And along the way I figured I'd grab some other foods, and add them in. And I'll likely add some more things (white and wheat bread come to mind) when I have time.

I also wanted to show that the smaller, calorie-dense foods do tend to be cheaper than the less-dense foods, especially when you're talking about prepared foods. (I'm somewhat surprised at the hostility you find to this concept - like the person online who derided the idea that "energy dense foods are cheaper" because, in his words, "this does seem to violate basic economics...," as if foods were priced by calorie count.) I only priced out those things that came in 400-calorie sizes, I didn't take the time to figure out what part of a bag of chips or box of crackers would cost, since you don't normally buy them that way.
So... here's part one of the project. The pictures aren't aimed at being artistic, although I'm sure that a competent photographer could do wonders with this. They're mainly about illustrating relative size, with the 11-inch dinner plate being a constant for a point of reference. Right now, I think that you get the contrast between the broccoli and the Reese's, but the rest of it all seems about the same size, so I'll have to see if I can find other things that really stand out when compared against one another.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Where Our Heads Are

On The Slatest, self-described as "The Most Important News and Commentary to Read Right Now," the top headline for the weekend has been the death of Amy Winehouse. Below that are stories about the Debt Ceiling "negotiations" and the Oslo attacks.

Because the MOST important thing you need to read is that yet another celebrity has self-destructed.
But before we have another round of hand-wringing over how the media is foisting crap off on us, to better distract us from what is really important, it's worth pointing out that as I type this, the Winehouse story has more "Likes," Tweets and Comments than the other two stories combined.

Maybe we should simply accept the fact that media panders to our collective (if not generally individual) tastes, and quit harping on them about it. Then perhaps they wouldn't feel the need to always claim that they don't pander.


Pretty much as soon as word of the bombing and shootings in Norway began to get out, the finger-pointing at Islam began. And of course, so did the counter-finger-pointing over anti-Islamic prejudice.

Predictably, the finger pointing hasn't stopped with the revelation that Anders Behring Breivik wasn't a Moslem, and, in fact, appears to have been a right-wing Christian. This has lead to such speculation that it is the nation of Norway is at fault - it's left-leaning policies having driven an otherwise upstanding Christian man to acts of mass murder.

This need to bend the narrative to fit a closely-held worldview simply can't be healthy. The mental gymnastics that it seems to necessitate come across is far to stringent.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Conspiracy Theory

I think that I've decided that Herman Cain is actually a deep-cover tolerance operative, whose goal is to demonstrate that Americans won't let you anywhere near the White House if you're running for Religious Bigot-in-Chief.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Preach it, Brother Cooper

Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) gets up on his soapbox to say that things have gone far enough with the partisan BS. He's right. And we, as citizens, need to back him up.


The problem with the United States Congress, and indeed, with government at all levels, is not the people who have been elected into those offices. It's with us, the people who elected them.

They posture and bluster for the television cameras because they know that we can see them. They hold to hard lines because they know that we will back them. They spend significant portions of their time fundraising to build up massive campaign war chests because they know that unless they put themselves in our faces come election season, we will ignore them.

We expect the people we elect into government to behave as if we as individuals, we who normally have such a tenuous grasp on the issues that we couldn't begin to describe them intelligently, are the only people who matter. When the public sentiment shifts away from us, and our representatives follow, we accuse them of "flip-flopping" or "blowing in the political winds." When we want our representatives to vote with us, rather than the majority of the people they were elected to represent, we call them "cowards." When they fail to take on the task of evangelizing our priorities to people who have priorities of their own, it's "a lack of political leadership." When we speak of a lack of political will, it's on our part, as the public. As much as admitting so interferes with our carefully-cultivated victimization narrative, our government DOES respond to us. But we are Legion, we number in the hundreds of millions, and we do not speak with one voice. And our government reflects that fractured reality back at us.

Therefore, if we want civility in politics, we have to be civil among ourselves. We have to stop expecting our elected officials, our Public Servants, to be our weapons in our petty conflicts with each other. We turn on each other too easily; that has to stop. We're the ones calling the shots. Our Representatives, Senators, Governors - all of them have one thing in common. They will put the needs of the nation first if, and only if, WE put the needs of the nation first. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the United States of America does not owe any of us, as individuals, a thing; unless your birth certificate is dated prior to July, 1776 or so, it was here first.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I've been playing around with Google+. It's interesting, but it does just enough that I want it to do more...

Monday, July 11, 2011


If you have ten politicians, 6 Democrats and 4 Republicans, how many political viewpoints will be represented?

No fewer than seven. The Republicans will have one between them, and the Democrats will be lucky if they have only one each.

So I'm betting that the Democrats cave on the debt ceiling. I'm also betting that the Republican commitment to fiscal discipline only lasts until they retake the Senate and/or White House. The Cynic in me says that this is really nothing more than attempt to hobble the Democrats by cutting off their constituencies from programs they've come to rely on. As soon as they're pulling the strings again, they'll suddenly realize that borrowing money from overseas and spending it to pay off their own base will be necessary to grow the economy. And since you can barely get two Democrats to agree that the sky is blue, the Dems won't be able to monkey wrench them through a show of unity.

I suspect that they're going to get away with it because they've guessed, correctly, that Democratic constituencies are going to be disillusioned enough that they'll stay home come the next round of elections, and Republicans will manage to gain seats in the Senate, and possibly even manage to retake the White House, as long as they're able to avoid nominating someone who scares Democrats into running to the polls. But then again, I wasn't convinced that Barack Obama would manage to take the White House, so I'm not about to wager my home on this.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


"I found a crab shell."

I turned to follow the sound of the voice and found a young girl standing just off my left shoulder. In her cupped hands, lifted up for me to see, was to top shell of a small crab.

"Yes." I said. "Yes, you did." And I took a moment to admire her find. Of course, such things are a dime a dozen. The seagull predate mercilessly on the young crabs, and their hollowed out shells can be found half buried in the sand. But to her, it was a discovery and she was eager to share it. So she quickly launched into a short dissertation of how she'd come to find the shell. Behind her, her mother looked on, unconcerned that the child had walked up to a complete stranger to show off a bit of beach debris.My own parents would have been less sanguine, I recall. Bothering adults was something they frowned on, and so I spent time scheming ways to be drawn into their conversations that I couldn't be faulted for. I was pleased that this kid didn't have to jump through those sorts of hoops.

While I'm not normally very patient with children, I admire the level of engagement with the world that their inquisitiveness gives them. As an adult, I sometimes feel that I spend too little time just sticking my nose in places where it doesn't belong, simply to see what can be found there. Of course, I have other responsibilities. But I think that I'm too willing to allow that to get in the way of just having a sense of wonder and a joy in learning and doing new things. No wonder people never want to grow up.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Remembering When

One of my classmates from high school was in town for a cousin's wedding, and so we got together for dinner. This was the first time in more than 20 years that I'd seen anyone from my graduating class, and it made for some interesting conversation. One of the things that he said to me was: "Reunions are therapeutic." I think I can understand that. Of all of the groups that I've ever been a part of, my high school class had to be the most fractious. By the time those four years were up, many of us ready to be anywhere else on Earth than in each other's company. But now, 25 years later, it's easier to look back, and see ourselves for who we really were, and therefore understand just why we did such an excellent job of rubbing each other the wrong way. I have a great admiration now for our teachers (and I thought fairly highly of them at the time). Managing such a diverse set of personalities, any number of which being at direct odds with one another, was quite a feat.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Rockets' Red Glare

Another Fourth of July. I think I'm burned out on the holiday. Fireworks became passé more than a decade ago and I'm not feeling the patriotic mojo anymore. It's nice to have the day off from the Rat Race, but it doesn't really feel like a special day anymore, as did when I was a child. Perhaps it's just me becoming older or simply more of a cynic. But the day seems to have become more about the trappings than anything else. Now don't get me wrong, I'm down with barbecues and fireworks and all of that stuff. But it doesn't seem like there's much else to it anymore.


And the livin' is easy...