Wednesday, January 28, 2009

House passes enormous waste pork spending bill

Here's a link, there are many others. Normally, I wouldn't quote mundane news stories, but it's not every day that "our" government wastes $825 Billion dollars in payoffs, bribes, handouts, pork, and other corruption disingenuously labeled "stimulus". To put that in perspective, assuming countries tax income equals roughly 20% of their GDP, that makes this wasteful spending package alone the equivalent of spending the entire annual income for a country producing 4.125 Trillion dollars in GDP; such a country would be just behind Japan as the third largest economy in the world. And that's just what we're wasting in new sewage pork waste; that doesn't even count the projected deficit, which is even larger!

Anyway, the somewhat humorous quote from the news article is:
"We don't have a moment to spare," the president said earlier in the day[, using the same fear mongering tactics and rhetoric Bush used to pass his failed stimulus package, invade Iraq, or any of the other actions he has been ridiculed for by Obama and the other Democrats]. (clarification added, since the original news author didn't bother to note the obvious parallel)

Also of note: All Republicans and 10 Democrats in the house voted against the bill (good for them). How's that new bipartisan spirit of cooperation and compromise coming, oh leader of the Obamanation?

LHC and the US government

So I guess the "joke" would begin with: what do the Large Hadron Collider and the US government have in common? The answer, of course, is that they both could screw you (and the entire world) very badly, and you would not be able to do anything about it. Of course, there are some differences: the LHC presumably has a small chance of screwing the world, but if it does it will literally be the end of the world; the US government's actions probably won't lead to the literal end of the world, but you are extremely likely to be screwed.

So why, you ask, might the LHC be the death of the planet, and you can't do anything about it? Well, the address the second point first, you can't do anything about it because it's a project being pushed by various governments, and scientists who need to perform the experiments to justify their salaries and jobs. Unless you're controlling a world government providing funding and can shut the whole project down, they will eventually proceed, world-destruction possibilities aside. It's kinda like nuclear weapon development and proliferation: everybody thinks it's bad, but you can't really stop it (although in all fairness, the people directly involved with the LHC don't think it's bad, cause they want to keep getting paid).

Now, for the question of why it might be bad. The LHC scientists have assured the public that although they are attempting to create miniature black holes, and the don't know what's going to happen at all (hence the desire to do it and observe the results), nothing catastrophic could possibly go wrong. Seriously, I'm not making this up; that's the "scientific" analysis of the danger. Moreover, even if you believe the "analysis", this paper makes the excellent point that roughly 1/10000 scientific articles contain fatal flaws in their arguments, so the "best-case" is that there's only a 1/10000 chance that something completely unexpected could happen. For example, and I'm just throwing out one thing which scientists have admitted might happen, the mini black hole could survive long enough to absorb a few other particles, then the entire planet a few seconds later. At least the scientists won't have to listen to "how could you?" and "I told you so" from all 6.5 billion people in the entire human race, cause the entirety of human existence would all be wiped out in a matter of seconds.

I guess all I would ask, since we normal people can't really do anything about getting screwed, is that the people screwing us be honest about what might happen, instead of blatantly lying about it. For example, the US government could say "we're taking you're money, and giving it to our lobbyists for pork projects, at a massive scale never before seen in history: deal." Similarly, the LHC scientists could say "we're creating black holes which might end the planet and the entire human race, but we're doing it anyway because justifying our own jobs and funding is worth that risk to us, and you can't stop us: deal." A little honesty might temper the pain somewhat, that's all I'm saying.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I feel a little bad for real estate sales people

... and I should qualify that, cause I feel bad typing it already. I don't feel bad for Realtors; they chose to be part of the NAR, which is one of the most dishonest institutions involved in the housing market, and greatly contributed to the housing bubble and resulting collapse/correction. I also don't feel bad for bubble bandwagon RE agents, who got into the RE business to get rich quick during the bubble by putting up a sign (maybe), doing some data entry (maybe), signing paperwork, and cashing fat commission checks; those people can have fun serving fast food or equivalent in their new jobs. I also don't feel bad at all for RE agents who were involved in leveraged RE investments during the bubble, trying to cash in on the hysteria they were hyping to make million from all their "hard work"; may they enjoy the foreclosure process many times over.

No, the people I feel a little sorry for are long-term, hard working RE agents/brokers who don't fall into the above categories, but are just trying to make a normal living providing a worthwhile service. Those people are getting screwed over by the government's policies, and it's kinda unfortunate. See, they make money on commissions, which are generated from sales (even rational-price, non-bubble sales). With the government doing everything it can to stretch out and amplify the housing meltdown (by delaying foreclosures, or keeping rates below market, as examples), they are turning what might have been a year-long downturn into a many-year virtual market halt. While the end-result is the same (eventually prices will get down to "correct" levels), the interim difference will cost many RE sales people their jobs and livelihoods, as the government destroys the market which they need to continue making a living.

So yeah... I feel a little bad for RE sales people, they are kinda the unsung victims of the whole misguided "stop foreclosures" debacle which our government is currently engaged in. Sure, many share some blame for contributing to the problem (eg: not speaking out against the NAR, lying to clients, etc.), but many will lose their jobs unnecessarily as a direct and preventable result of the current governmental idiocy, and that's unfortunate when the government is purporting to be trying to preserve jobs. Just my opinion.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another money quote on the economy

This one from Warren Buffet, summing up what would be required to ensure that there is never another housing bubble/explosion (interview for this show, blog entry with entire transcript here):
WB: Well you can have a rule for example to prevent another real estate bubble; you just require that anybody bought a house to put 20% down and make sure that the payments were not more than a third of their income. Now we would not have a big bust ever in real estate again...

Quite possibly one of the biggest "duh" statements about the economy in recent times, yet equally astounding that politicians still fail to grasp that this would be a good idea. One of the reasons the country is so f-ed up is that even with this blindingly obvious concept, clearly stated, we're creating trillions in new debt, thousands of new regulations, and thousands of new policies, procedures, and regulations all designed to specifically avoid implementing the simple and obvious prevention solution. Even Buffet acknowledges such later in the same response:
...where the balance is struck on that will be a political question. My guess is that it won’t be struck particularly well, but that’s just the nature of politics.

More recommended reading

I'd also recommend reading: this article.

I'm not sure if I should describe it as a feel-good piece or a doom and gloom piece; I suppose it depends highly on your own personal view of America becoming a more socialist country. Regardless of your opinion on it, though, I found it to be a very well thought-out analysis of what's probably going to transpire over the next four (at least) years. I suppose it's kinda disheartening if you're in the category of productive worker with no political connections or ambitions who gets absolutely raped in a socialist system, but for every person like that, there's probably two other people very happy to have their government take that person's hard-earned wealth and forcefully redistribute it for the "good" of the less productive.

Anybody have any good suggestions for a democratic, free-market country that abused ex-Americans can move to in a few years? I realize the list of options is dwindling with the global credit contraction, but there's got to be a few left. I prefer somewhere that speaks English, and has reasonable personal freedoms... if you have suggestions, please leave a comment.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Great article on the economy state

This article is very informative, and quite possibly the best summary of the current state of the US economic system, and what's likely in store for the next couple of years. It's so good, in fact, that I'm going to quote a section directly:
If monetizing nonfinancial debt were costless, economically speaking, the Zimbabwean economy would be the envy of the world. But, of course, there are economic costs. Monetizing debt means printing money. And printing money ultimately leads to accelerating prices – prices of goods, services and assets. As well intentioned as it may be, the government does not use economic resources as efficiently as the private sector. This inefficiency from government spending worsens the trade-off between aggregate demand and goods/services price increases. And finally, with the Federal Reserve holding the price of credit below its free-market equilibrium, malinvestment, as the Austrian economists say, occurs. That is, the lower-than-equilibrium interest rate structure encourages investment projects that cannot profitably be sustained when the interest rate structure ultimately must adjust upward. When the interest rate structure finally does adjust upward, unprofitable investment projects are abandoned and economic activity slumps.

The only part of the analysis which I'm not sure I agree with is the speculation that the Fed will act to curb inflation once it starts getting out of control by slowing its credit creation. The Fed will have substantial political pressure to allow continued spending regardless of the consequences, and I see no reason to believe they will suddenly start caring about the long-term preservation of the country, its currency, or its economy, after sacrificing all of them repeatedly for so long to keep the party going a little longer. Apparently the Zimbabwean economy is the envy of our political leaders, as they are doing absolutely everything in their power to emulate it.

The Obamanation, day 1

I figured I'd try to do some small blog posting on observations about the Obama presidency, at least for the first few days/weeks/months (eg: the "critical time"), in an attempt to document in small part the actions of our "historical but not because of his race" (actual reason for historical-ness un-cited) 44th president.

Executive order: increasing transparency in government. That's a good idea, I think. I mean, I can't think of a much more transparent way to start your administration other than personally lobbying Congress behind closed doors to release the 2nd half of a $700 Billion blank check, of which the first $350 Billion was spent in secret, and the Treasury officials in charge are still either not sure exactly how they wasted all the money, or aren't eager to tell. I'm sure there will be more accountability for the 2nd $350 Billion, surely that was included in the new "transparency and openness" guidelines. Surely our new "belt tightening", "transparent", "work for the people" government wouldn't just request another $350 Billion blank check to spend without oversight, a clear plan, or even stated spending proposals, right? Oh, wait... they already did. I think I'll count that as fantasy "1", reality "0".

Other items of note on day 1:
- Obama plans to close Gitmo (duh, easy call, politically a no-brainer). Good plan, it was not functional as is (as I've said before, and bashed Bush about); you get a solid point for this.
- Obama's acceptance speech included the lofty goal of putting petty squabbles and partisan vendetta's behind the country; good plan, it'll be interesting to see what happens when that runs into the quintessential example of that in the Democrats pursuing charges against Bush's aides for war crimes, and other petty partisan idiocies. It'll be interesting to see if this point goes to fantasy or reality.
- Obama will halt all Bush policy directives pending "review" (read: reversal). No points either way here; this is fairly standard operating procedure for new administrations which are ideologically opposed.

More to come, as more reality of the Obamanation is revealed.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Astounding stupidity

It never ceases to amaze me how people, even seemingly intelligent and educated people, can be remarkably dumb regarding things they haven't bothered to think about, don't understand well, or have ideological blocks regarding. I know I've blogged about some of these before, but here's a recap of some things which just keep coming up, uttered over and over again by otherwise reasonable people, blathering on like morons in these cases:

- We should raise taxes to solve government budget problems
This has to be the #1 most often repeated, stupidest proposition in the common understanding of government economic policies. I mean, it's the definition of insanity: it has never worked (to reduce deficits), yet people keep suggesting it, over and over and over again. The people who keep espousing it must have ulterior motives (not unlikely), ideological impediments to rational thought (probable), or mental damage [in this area], or all of the above. Excess spending is always the problem with government deficits, and reducing spending is always the solution; I'm not sure how much simpler that concept could possibly be. That is not to say there's never a case for increasing taxes (compensating for an intentional and purposeful increase in spending, for example), but for unintentional budget deficits, increasing taxes is never the right answer, period, full stop. The world would be noticeably better if everyone could get that pounded into their thick skulls and stop the insanity.

- Government market manipulation helps people
This is probably #2 on the most common and most monumental fallacies in popular understanding, which nevertheless continues to get touted in one form or another. In virtually no case in history has government market manipulation ever helped people. In case you're incredulous, here are some recent pertinent examples:
- Manipulating home loan rates causes banks to stop lending, cause they can't compete, reducing the availability of lending on the whole
- Interfering in the stock market causes less people to invest there, which decreases the amount of money invested in businesses in the country, decreasing prosperity there (see corrupt 2nd-world countries)
- Mandating fixed prices (eg: food in the 70's) causes shortages of those commodities, as less people produce them due to losses
... the list does on and on.

Note that this should not be confused with market regulation, which is usually burdensome, costly, and completely ineffective, but not uniformly harmful to the people. Nor is it applicable to government-run insurance programs to backstop markets; which, although usually underfunded and eventually very costly and ineffective, do not themselves hurt people nearly as much. No, market manipulation is the real bad guy here, who lures people in with a sweet song of short-term fixes, and is always to their detriment.

Those are probably my top two, or at least the top two noticeable ones today. If you're reading this, do everyone a favor and resolve yourself to never fall victim to one of those gross misconceptions, and you'll have made the world just a tiny bit better.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jury duty

I figure since I'm currently sitting in the jury room waiting to be assigned to one or more cases (which has an outside chance of basically ruining my life for a while), I would blog about jury duty. This is mostly going to just be my opinions on how things should work, with possibly a little personal experience thrown in.

First, I think the #1 travesty with jury duty is the compensation for jurists: it's beyond retarded into insulting. You get $15/day, for each day beyond the 1st, plus one-way mileage. That... is ridiculous. Now I get that if you're getting paid by your company anyway that extra money is just that, but it's not like your company is not losing money when you're wasting your time waiting around for your rubber-stamping time in the jury box (which, BTW, might be literally months of mind-numbing time wasting, but more on that in a bit). More than that, though, your employer is losing your services, which are likely worth more than your actual compensation.

Here's my opinion on compensation: you should earn, per hour that the court requires you to be anywhere (including commuting, waiting, jury-ing, etc.), the higher of the court-decided minimum compensation (currently the insulting $15/day, as mentioned), or your average pre-tax hourly compensation rate based on your previous year's tax return. Of course the court will be able to consider the compensation when selecting prospective jurors, and/or streamline the management of the time they require jurors to be places, to be able to control their costs if they so desire. In exchange for this compensation, the employer should be able to not pay the employee for days they are in jury duty; after all, they are losing the employee for those days. With this scheme, the employer is minimally impacted (not injured as they currently are), the employee is minimally impacted (deriving similar compensation during their service), and the court is strongly incentivized to minimize the disruption to the jurors' time.

Speaking of the juror's time, if you have the misfortune to be placed on an actual trial, it can ruin your life. Think six months of seclusion from everyone, six months away from your job, day after day of mind-numbing court procedure and legalese, followed by stress-inducing deliberations ad-naseum. Granted this is the unlikely case, but it's also a scenario you could use to frighten small children, or hardened war veterans. And we won't even consider the outside chance of being put on a case where the defendant is in a position to threaten jurors, or possibly extract vengeance after the trail; that could be life-ending, rather than "only" six months of pure hell.

In all fairness, though, I have to include the unexpected reasonable aspects. For one, there is free wifi here, so I can browse the net while my employer is paying the LA court system to waste my time... that is allowing me to blog, among other things. Second, the chairs are not hard uncomfortable pain-inducing benches, but rather reasonably comfortable soft airport-style chairs. I should note, however, that it was pointed out that both of these "luxuries" were only added recently in direct response to overwhelming unity of suggestions in the suggestion box, so it's not like the court was independently trying to make anyone comfortable or otherwise mentally occupied during their forced incarceration in the jury process.

More later as the process continues, maybe.

Monday, January 12, 2009

People and Big Numbers

A small part of the problem with federal (and state) budget deficits and ridiculous spending is that people don't really comprehend how large the wasteful spending numbers are, and just how much money we are flushing down the proverbial toilet of government [in]efficiency. People can kinda grasp up to about a million dollars: that's "a lot" of money (enough to retire still, for many people). To that end, I offer the following suggestion: all official government numbers for deficits and spending, when in excess of $10,000,000, will be expressed as number of millions of dollars.

Thus, when we're talking about California's annual budget deficit, instead of saying "45 billion dollars", politicians will be forced to say "45 thousand, million dollars". The estimated federal budget deficit for next year before Obama's "waste as much money as possible" spending package will be "one million, two hundred thousand, million dollars". Obama's spending package will be estimated at "750 thousand million dollars (before added Congressional pork", etc.

I really think this would help a little in hammering home to the average person just how much money the government is printing to give away to insiders, special interests, and government waste. Consider that Bush is about to request another three hundred fifty thousand million dollars, so that Obama will have some spending cash to give to special interests right out of the gate (since Bush already gave away the first three hundred fifty thousand million dollars to investment banks and other financial institutions with insider connections). Then again, perhaps everyone's seeming lack of outrage is not due to the incomprehensibly large numbers of your money the government is taking from you to give to their buddies, in which case this exercise will not affect much change. It would still be a worthwhile change, though, in my opinion.

Monday, January 5, 2009

My opinion on Israel/Hamas conflict

This article pretty much sums up my opinion, for reference. To paraphrase, it's regrettable that there are lots of innocent casualties, but take the race and religion out of it, and the situation becomes fairly clear-cut: on one side, you have a region who elected a terrorist group to lead them which is interested in maximizing innocent casualties; on the other side you have a government which is explicitly trying to minimize innocent casualties, even at the expense of their own people/soldiers. Pretty simple to figure out which side is morally "right" by most people's morality, huh?

I guess I can hope that if enough Palestinian people die, they will clue-in to the fact that sponsoring terrorists (and/or electing terrorists to lead them) is not the best way to play nice in the international community today, and also not a particularly good way to keep yourself safe and alive. Then again, trying to get people to clue-in to that in general is a lot like wishing for peace in the Middle East...

Friday, January 2, 2009

Airlines and gate-checked bags

I recently went on vacation for the holidays, and on the flight there the airline (Hawaiian) forced us to check our carry-ons, because they were full. Now normally, this would be no big deal; we had a checked bag already so we were already going to baggage claim, no extra fee, etc. However, when we got there, our bags as well as many others had been rifled through somewhere along the way, and several people had cell phones and other electronics stolen. In addition, bags were very damaged in the process (ripped zippers, torn bags, damaged items, etc.). This, in my opinion, is ridiculous, and should be illegal.

Here's what I would do, if I were making laws. Force the airlines to provide, at no extra individual charge (general uniform fee increases to cover the cost are expected, and even preferred), a minimum of $10,000 insurance for any item which is checked. This will be payable, by an independent 3rd party insurance company, for any non-trivial damage, theft, lost item, or obvious internal disruption of baggage (eg: items inside your luggage opened, rifled through, etc.). The insurance company can handle claims (investigating as appropriate), and adjust the rates payed by the airlines based on the number of claims, and correlative success of the airlines at handling checked baggage. I'd suggest a 3rd party to just handle claims and verification (before photos/docs, talking with customers, etc.), and just bill the airlines directly for valid claims. In fact, it would be preferable if the law specified that the 3rd party was not directly employed or controlled by the airlines, but by a federal agency instead, with a fixed-rate cost to the airlines for their uniform services across all carriers (a bid-contract model would work nicely).

Airline travel is painful enough as it is without gross negligence compounding bad experiences. Granted I'm never going to fly Hawaiian again (and neither should you, unless you like people stealing your stuff), but that's really not enough. There should be a law protecting consumers from abuse, and there should be real meaningful financial pressure to improve the customer experience or perish as a viable business.