Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Solar System Warming

I'm not sure how I missed this one in 2007. However, it would appear Mars is having some global warming, too. How did we manage to release greenhouse gases there, I wonder?

Other scientists disagree with his analysis, naturally. They say the ice melt on Mars might be due to the natural precession of the planet, and that it's a coincidence that Earth and Mars are both in warm phases at the moment. Ours is due to humankind's activities, and Mars' is due to precession.

Then again, Jupiter has formed some new storms, too, and it's suggested these are due to climate change. It seems the sun may be conspiring with several planets to make the theory of human-caused global warming look wrong. Naturally this evidence won't shake the faith of true believers, but it's enough to add to my skepticism. It seems reasonable to gather more evidence before we leap to any conclusions.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why are Gas Prices so High?

Congress has been holding hearings into why gas prices are so high. If you don't think about it, that may not seem completely unreasonable, but it actually is. Big oil, so often made the villain, didn't cause this mess, though they're not perfect and I'm not going to defend them as a whole. A great political parody was done on these hearings. The first part, presented yesterday, may be found here, but the core of it is below. The host, Glenn Beck, is pretending to be a congressman.

We brought together the heads of big oil. See that big head over there? Yeah, he runs Shell. That one? That runs ExxonMobil. Mr. Big oil, we're here to talk about the high price of gasoline. How could it have possibly gotten this high?

Let me tell you what we've done here in congress. We told you that drilling in ANWR is off limits. We told you that drilling off the coast of Florida and California is off limits. We told you, Mr. Big oil, that there wouldn't be any new leases for drilling in the Gulf while China and Venezuela and even Cuba pursued these leases and have just signed 100-year leases on the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. We here in congress have promised, as all three presidential candidates have also promised, to introduce and pass in the next term a cap and trade legislation bill that will increase the price of gasoline according to the EPA by an additional $1.50. Some people say it could be as high as $5 additional per gallon. Order, order. We have said that we're shutting down oil fields in Colorado. We won't let you develop shale oil fields in several Western states. And yesterday we passed legislation that would let us sue OPEC with the full understanding that they'll never retaliate. Yes. We have allowed environmental attorneys to sue you big oil fiends for future possible destruction of Alaskan Eskimo village which legal experts believe is the same strategy used to bring down big tobacco. We're especially proud of our recent action to protect the polar bear and their habitat which just happens to be where the future oil deposits happen to be located. We told you that you're making too much money and that we're looking at seizing any money that we consider windfall profits. Yes. We have allowed you to drill in some very small areas in Alaska while simultaneously creating very generous environmental laws which have tied up the very production we authorize through years of litigation after you spent the money on buying and setting up equipment. We told you through our policies that we would not allow you to build a new refinery in over 30 years. In fact, this great country, under our tutelage, has even reduced the number of operational refineries by half since 1982. Order, order, order. We have even told your potential competitors in the nuclear and hydroelectric industries that we would send the environmental lawyers after them if they even dared think about building a new plant or a new dam. We've refused to fund or allow the deployment of coal-to-oil technology which has been around since the 1930s. We've told you that you have to make different blends of gasoline, let states like California dictate what unique gasoline blends you have to make for them. We will not reduce our federal gasoline tax. We won't even consider reducing it for the summer months. So Mr. Big oil, tell me why exactly are gas prices so high?

More commentary on the hearings was presented today, and may be found here. Simply put, Congress is at fault for the price of gasoline in the United States, not "Big Oil." Worse yet, they're actively denying the development of resources that could help. Thanks, Congress. No wonder they have an approval rating on par with that of toe fungus.

We're not a Democracy

I was listening to one of my favorite shows this morning (The Armstrong and Getty show, podcast here), and one of the hosts talked a bit about who will probably follow Ted Kennedy into the senate seat that will eventually be vacant. It will likely be filled by another Kennedy. Jack, the host in question, said we shouldn't have dynasties or royalty in a democracy. I had to write in, because the U.S. isn't a democracy. For those who care, here's the e-mail that gives the difference between a republic and a democracy and a very brief history of how we came to use the term democracy for our system.

Hi, guys. This morning Jack mentioned we shouldn't have dynasties or royalty in a democracy. Actually, democracies did have those. I know "democracy" is the common word these days for our political system, but it still bugs me and if you have some time to spare in the dour hour (yes, for me those two words rhyme), can we talk just a bit of political science? Jack, grab a copy of the Federalist Papers, since you're a fan of great literature.

Democracies, like the ancient Greek city states, had all qualified citizens voting on every issue. They were great for political states with a small land area, and there was royalty among the Greeks. The founders realized that wouldn't work for us, and they designed a constitutional republic. Since we were busy doing regular people work, we decided to elect citizen representatives to take care of the day to day politics for us. They weren't supposed to be professional politicians as we have today. When we vote for representatives rather than on every matter that arises, that's a republic, not a democracy. The closest any founder came to calling this a democracy was Thomas Jefferson, who called it a "democratic republic."

No, I'm not a Republican, that's not my motivation here. Democracy came to be used in the early 1900s when "Socialist" fell out of style because socialists were slaughtering their peasants in bloody revolutions and societal "cleansings." Former socialists began rallying for what they called "Industrial Democracy" and the term democracy took hold as the term for our political system. People forgot that early proponents of that term meant the government would own and operate all industry in the nation, and the word as defined by that group lost its negative connotations.

So, I know I might as well be spitting at an incoming tide, but I refuse to call our system a democracy. It just isn't.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

And now, for something completely random

Sent by Mark P, it's time for some math humor.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Polar Bears Declared Threatened

The AP reports:
This is the first time that the Endangered Species Act has been used to protect a species threatened by the impacts of global warming. There has been concern within the business community that such action could have far-reaching impact and could be used to regulate carbon dioxide.
I'm not aware of any animal with a population increase like that seen in polar bears ever having been listed as endangered. USA Today reports that there were about 5,000 polar bears in 1972. Today there are between 20,000 and 25,000 of them. They mention in the same article it is the "first time a healthy species would be considered at risk under the Endangered Species Act and the first time global warming would be officially labeled a species' main threat."

Listing the polar bear as threatened, despite a healthy population, is based on the idea that sea ice is decreasing, despite the fact that NOAA reported sea ice is on the increase--it's at the highest levels since 1979, in fact. To be fair, it's still debated whether ice is decreasing in the Northern hemisphere, and some are arguing that increases in the Southern hemisphere are predicted by climate models. I'll talk about the climate models in another post, but suffice it to say I don't have much faith in them.

What does this unprecedented action do? Listing the polar bear as a threatened species means there are now broad powers to regulate business granted to the government through the Endangered Species Act. This means those who would shut down what's left of our economy based on the hypothesis of human-caused global warming now have abilities they'd never have gotten passed through Congress.

Update: Ecochondriacs are puzzled by more of their projections turning out wrong. Eventually, when your data fails to support your theory repeatedly, it's time to admit you have a flawed theory. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/healthy-polar-bear-count-confounds-doomsayers/article2392523/

I have a Dream

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

--Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, full text here.

I still have this dream. I still wait for us to achieve it. I can't believe we've made so much progress and still see race as so important. I don't understand why we categorize ourselves by race, I don't see why we have racial caucuses.

When an African American votes for Hillary Clinton, she's said to have sold out her race. If a Caucasian person votes for Hillary Clinton, he's said to be a racist.

Why? Isn't the value of the candidate's ideas far more important than the color of his skin? I won't vote for either of these people, because I'm fiscally conservative, and think they'll lead the nation to certain financial ruin. I don't care what gender or race they are. Shouldn't we be past that?

I'm not naive; I know racism still exists. It shouldn't, but it does. Still, when it comes to picking your presidential candidate, please vote based on their ideas, not genetics.

I still believe in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. I hope you do, too.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property

That's how it was originally going to read: "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property." The founders were wise enough to realize that "Property" might be interpreted to include slaves, however, so they used "Happiness" instead. Still, they were heavily influenced by the writings of several people, including John Locke. Reading about the history of the U.S. and its founding, I was shocked to come across this excerpt from Locke's Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, pp. 75-76, paragraph 222:

"The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property....[and] whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience, and are left to the common refuge which God hath provided for all men against force and violence. Whensoever, therefore, the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society, and either by ambition, fear, folly, or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or to put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of other people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands...and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and...provide for their own safety and security."
This is a powerful and very sweeping notion. I know our law, just like English common law, is based in precedent. Certain principles are never to be violated, however. It makes me wonder how the Kelo vs. New London decision was ever reached, or how we got to a point where the Supreme Court might ever support the confiscation of private property.

On a lesser scale, Locke's ideas, concepts fundamental to the formation of the U.S., would seem to prohibit confiscation of firearms as was done in New Orleans following the Katrina disaster, not only because taking the property itself was unlawful, but also because taking away the right of the people to provide for their own safety and security whether or not the officials were helping should be unthinkable; the right is to be absolute and inviolate, or the people have the right to dissolve the government.

I don't propose anything so drastic as revolt. It's simply important to remember that the government does not have the rights it sometimes tries to exercise upon the citizenry. In fact, the government has very few rights at all, because the vision of the people responsible for the Constitution was that the government's primary duty would be to preserve the people's rights, and to make the infringement of them by any government officials unthinkable.

These are things to ponder as we select through voting the people who will represent us in our government.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Problem with Taxing Success

The current economic slowing in the U.S. has left many States low on funding. They get revenue from the real estate market, which is presently down. While there are some positive signs that the economy will be doing better soon, local governments are looking for revenue.

Unfortunately, many of them simply don't get it. Among them are California and Massachusetts, the legislatures of which think the solution lies in higher taxes. Nevermind that people are fleeing the already high taxes. Massachusetts not long ago recognized a population emergency, as tens of thousands of residents left for other States. California lost 89,000 people last year in State-to-State moves, a fact neatly covered by foreign immigration from our Southern neighbor.

Massachusetts is now working on the idea of taxing Universities with large endowments. The Universities aren't very happy about the idea, of course. After all, they're nonprofit organizations! Then again, Harvard, with an Endowment of $34 billion (yes, that's billion with a B), isn't paying any taxes and though it could allow all of its students to attend free of charge for eternity simply on the interest from that endowment, isn't interested in paying taxes.

In fact, the normally liberal professors there seem to get very conservative when it comes to "paying their fair share." Kevin Casey, Harvard's associate vice president for government, community and public affairs said, "You can't do that. You'd be taxing success... And over time this would put us at a competitive disadvantage. It would hurt the state." See Glenn Beck's discussion of the subject here. The Boston Globe article is here.

There is a simple truth. Anything you tax (or punish) you will get less of. Anything you subsidize (or reward) you will get more of. Period.

If you want to reduce academic activity, tax it. If you want to reduce business, large or small in a State, tax it. If you want to reduce profits in your State or nation, tax them. If you want to stimulate anything, either subsidize it or reduce its tax burden.

Right now, major political candidates are suggesting taxing or taking the profits from "big oil" as a solution to the current oil price problem. Let's think about that approach logically. First, understand that corporations do not pay taxes. They write checks to the government, but their profit margin does not decrease. How is this accomplished? They increase the price of the product enough to offset the taxes they're required to pay. That's not a dirty trick, as one might first be inclined to assume. That is simply fulfilling the obligation they have to their shareholders to make a profit.

That's good for the average American, who is likely to have a retirement account of some sort that relies at least in part on stocks.

That means that in addition to the $0.18 anyone who drives is paying in Federal Gasoline taxes (not to mention State taxes, which add more cost), any tax the government applies to "big oil" will be paid by drivers at the pump. I'm not interested in paying double taxes at the gas pump; I'm having to adjust my budget too much already.

Many countries, including former Soviet States, have recognized these principles and imposed flat taxes at fairly low rates on their people and businesses. This actually encourages success. If I'm going to pay 15% whether I earn $30,000 per year or $85,000 per year, I'm going to go for the higher income. If I'm going to be taxed at 75% when I get to $85,000 per year, I don't have nearly as much incentive to get there.

75% may sound like a number designed to frighten, but it's not. It's an actual tax rate for the rich from America's past. The president who worked to change it may surprise you. Let me present two quotations. Think about who this might be, and then look for the answer below.

Quotation One:
It is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now ... Cutting taxes now is not to incur a budget deficit, but to achieve the more prosperous, expanding economy which can bring a budget surplus.

Quotation Two:
There are a number of ways by which the federal government can meet its responsibilities to aid economic growth. We can and must improve American education and technical training. We can and must expand civilian research and technology. One of the great bottlenecks for this country's economic growth in this decade will be the shortages of doctorates in mathematics, engineering, and physics — a serious shortage with a great demand and an undersupply of highly trained manpower. We can and must step up the development of our natural resources.

But the most direct and significant kind of federal action aiding economic growth is to make possible an increase in private consumption and investment demand — to cut the fetters which hold back private spending. In the past, this could be done in part by the increased use of credit and monetary tools, but our balance of payments situation today places limits on our use of those tools for expansion. It could also be done by increasing federal expenditures more rapidly than necessary, but such a course would soon demoralize both the government and our economy. If government is to retain the confidence of the people, it must not spend more than can be justified on grounds of national need or spent with maximum efficiency. And I shall say more on this in a moment.

The final and best means of strengthening demand among consumers and business is to reduce the burden on private income and the deterrents to private initiative which are imposed by our present tax system — and this administration pledged itself last summer to an across-the-board, top-to-bottom cut in personal and corporate income taxes to be enacted and become effective in 1963.

I'm not talking about a "quickie" or a temporary tax cut, which would be more appropriate if a recession were imminent. Nor am I talking about giving the economy a mere shot in the arm, to ease some temporary complaint. I am talking about the accumulated evidence of the last five years that our present tax system, developed as it was, in good part, during World War II to restrain growth, exerts too heavy a drag on growth in peace time; that it siphons out of the private economy too large a share of personal and business purchasing power; that it reduces the financial incentives [sic] for personal effort, investment, and risk-taking. In short, to increase demand and lift the economy, the federal government's most useful role is not to rush into a program of excessive increases in public expenditures, but to expand the incentives and opportunities for private expenditures.
You might think these quotations are from Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Not even close. Quotation One comes from a President's News Conference on November 20, 1962. That's right. John F. Kennedy said it. He also gave us the second quotation at an address to the Economic Club of New York on December 14, 1962, full text here.

Lowering taxes to stimulate success in the economy is not a crazy right-wing idea. Insane tax rates inspired John F. Kennedy to look at economic theory and realize that the economy is not a static system. That is, income available to tax is not always the same, such that you can raise taxes and get more or lower them and get less. If that were the case, raising taxes would make perfect sense if revenue were short.

The truth of the economy, however, is that if the government leaves businesses and individuals with more of their money, by taxing them less, they essentially "farm" it. That is, they save, reinvest in the business, and make a larger amount of it, so that even taxed at a lower rate, the government's take is larger.

For any given State, this principle is even more important. The tax base can and will move to other States if the burden becomes too great, and that's already happening in places like California and Massachusetts. People are leaving for Texas and Colorado, where taxes are more reasonable, and business is not severely punished simply for existing.

When it comes to the oil industry, it costs enormous amounts of money to explore for and extract oil these days. It's no longer easily accessible, but must often be extracted from incredible locations, like 7 miles beneath the ocean's surface. The more capital we leave them with, the more oil they can extract, and the lower our prices at the pump will be as we work toward cleaner and more advanced methods of powering our economy.

The sooner legislators recognize these facts, the sooner we'll see this economy turn around and prosperity restored to the average American.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Does Violence Beget Violence?

A lot of my posts are spurred by conversations. This one began with the discussions revolving around Grand Theft Auto 4 and the continuing debate about whether violent video games make violent people. Some research suggests maybe there's a link. Other research concludes there's not, or at least nothing very strong.

Ending violence involves finding the correct method. The inherent fallacy about gun banning is that somehow you can prevent people from harming one another by removing one of the tools they sometimes use for that purpose. It's no surprise that approach doesn't achieve the desired result. You must instead work to change the violent nature of humanity. Then it won't matter what tools are available. So long as we are violent by nature, taking away any particular implement or class of implements won't help. There are plenty of rocks and sticks in the world.

Based on that idea, we should probably ban all violent movies and video games. There's a problem with that, however. There are people in the world who train for violence besides the U.S. How did peaceful peoples do against the Spartans? Not so well. Does that mean peace shouldn't be a goal? Of course not. It just means we're not there as a species yet. Everybody has to agree this is a good idea and work toward it or else peaceful peoples, happy or even smug in their superior position, will always be slaughtered or subjugated by those who train for violence. Long term, that's not a successful strategy.

There's a middle ground. We still play cowboys and Indians. We still play cops and robbers. We even have violent movies and video games, but we also work hard to establish a strong sense of reality vs. fantasy and to instill the idea that violence is only an option in self defense when others initiate it. Training for war and never having to go to war is much better than failing to train and being overrun and enslaved. If everyone did that, there would come a time when even the training would no longer be necessary, because harming another person would become unthinkable.

I hope we get there.