Thursday, May 27, 2010

Some Days our Government is Really Aggrevating

Most days, the machinations of the malignant imbeciles in Washington as just the backdrop of life in the US: an evil, to be sure, but a somewhat necessary evil to allow the country and society to continue its strained existence. You can usually write off the constant struggle between the people and their would-be rulers as the price of living in a country with some semblance of law and order, and just hope that there are enough people sacrificing their time and energy to keep the government in check to prevent the situation from deteriorating too much. Some days, though, enough abuses pile up that you can't help but feel a sense of profound anger and frustration, even if each individual abuse seems small compared to the sheer magnitude of vileness emanating from Washington, and today is one of those days for me.

See, this particular frustration starts (oddly enough) with looking at new cars. Now, I'm not really considering buying a new car, but I wanted to see what was new in that world; my car being over six years old now, and I wanted to explore. I quickly remembered, however, that I'm not going to buy a GM car (ever again): I just don't like the idea of GM or the government being able to listen into any conversations in range of my vehicle at any time without my knowledge or consent, and the idea of giving both arbitrary corporations and the entire government full access to remotely manipulate my vehicle doesn't really thrill me (and if you don't know what I'm talking about, please do yourself a favor and figure out what OnStar really does and has actually been used to do, if you're going to give the government that level of control over your life, at least don't be ignorant about it). Unfortunately for me, this malignancy is spreading: Government Motors is unlikely to remove it ever for obvious reasons, and other automobile companies are adopting it or similar systems.

But wait, it gets worse. Apparently the House of F-U to Freedom is working on passing legislation to require all vehicle manufacturers to include a mandatory government spy and back door devices in all new cars manufactured for sale in the US. So soon, you may not be able to buy a new vehicle which does not function as a mobile listening device for the government (or anyone allowed to use their systems), as well as subjecting yourself to remote control of your vehicle. Yeah, that's just what I wanted in a new car... my current car's looking better every day.

Add that to all the recent previous atrocities (warrant-less wiretaps, covert executions, terrorist designations to strip citizenship, etc.), and the country is looking pretty bleak today. Some days you gotta wonder which would be better for the United States: if Iran gave up their nuclear weapons, of if they somehow smuggled one into the US and nuked our government. I mean, I don't wish ill on anyone, but as a philosophical discussion, I really couldn't say for sure which of those two elements (Iran's government or our own) is worse for the United States, and I'd lean toward our own government: they have certainly done a lot more to actively and effectively destroy the principles of freedoms of the United States, at least as the free country it was conceived to be. If I were taking an oath to defend the country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, I'd have to take a long look toward Washington DC and do some soul searching to answer the question if I was ready to uphold that promise.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Political Opportunity

Barney Frank is a funny guy... or, at least, I'm sure some people find him amusing. In a joking swipe at the controversy around Obama's concerted efforts to ensure that nobody outside of a couple of public officials in Hawaii can actually verify his citizenship (and hence his qualification to serve as president), Frank suggested that the media should verify the citizenship of new House representative Charles Djou. Notwithstanding the fact that citizenship is not required for membership in the House of Representatives, I'm thinking it provides a potential political opportunity.

See, Djou was born in LA, so it would be pretty trivial for him to acquire a certified copy of his actual birth certificate, and post it online or something. You'd have to be careful about the wording, but I'm thinking of a public statement along the lines of:
You see, it's not actually difficult at all for an American-born citizen to acquire and produce for verification one's birth certificate, as I have shown. There is no law requiring this, and several states have laws to shield the information from the public; but I personally see no reason to go to extraordinary lengths to hide by birthplace information, or contest people requesting it for verification, or otherwise fight to obfuscate my background or qualifications. I see no place for that in public service, although that's just my opinion.

Depending on the level of media coverage, it could make for an interesting response to jolly ol' Barney...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Prediction: Next Stage of Socialized Medical Care

I've talked about this before, somewhat, but I'm not sure if I've ever laid-out a specific prediction on the future of medical care in the US, now that it has been partially socialized by the Obama administration. One could argue that these changes were inevitable with or without the latest "reform", and that they stem from the Medicare system in general, but more socialization certainly doesn't help.

From Texas: more doctors opting out of Medicare. Now, no big surprise here: Medicare is somewhat unfair to practitioners, underpays for procedures, has horrible inefficiencies, a spotty payment history, and is generally a pain compared to other insurance programs. To some extent providers accept Medicare for the same reason businesses take credit cards: it opens up markets and allows more sales opportunities. However, as the Medicare costs go up and the system continues to degrade, look for more practitioners to drop it as a coverage option, leaving few actual resources for those with Medicare.

However, this will not go over well in Congress, especially since more people than ever are going to be on government health care. In response, Congress will mandate that some practitioners take Medicare, probably all over a certain size. This will launch a fight between the medical industry and Congress, and cause more hospitals to go under and/or restructure to avoid falling under the mandate. We may also see some bailouts in the form of subsidization, to delay the problem at the expense of the taxpayers, while the underlying problem continues to get worse. In the meantime, the medical profession will become even less attractive from a cost/potential perspective, and we could see even more of a shortage of practitioners.

Eventually indefinite subsidization and accounting shell games will no longer be able to hide the true cost of Medicare, and the problems will come to a head. At this point, it's hard to say what will happen; liberals will blame conservatives and visa-versa, but in terms of real action, it's anyone's guess. Politicians will try to forestall this point until we as a country have more dire things to worry about (eg: hyperinflation), which, at the rate Obama and the liberals in Congress are expanding the deficit, may come sooner rather than later, and they may succeed. If they do, it'll get lost in the revolts which inevitably follow an effective national default; if they do not, the rest of the options may all be untenable, and it could well be the final straw.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Housing Mobility: Interesting Quote and Semi-rant

From USA today, via CalculatedRisk:
"This is the absolute worst time to lose our residential mobility," says Richard Florida, a professor of U.S. urban theory at the University of Toronto. "It's important for people to move to where the new opportunities are, because that is the cornerstone of our idea-driven economy."

CR goes on to note that part of the reason for the lack of mobility is that lots of people are underwater on their homes... which is true, but not the only factor. I'd venture to say that another significant reason why people are reluctant to move is that many people know that there's significant pending price declines in he housing market, and don't want to make a move now because they know prices are going to be lower after the delayed foreclosures work their way through the system in the next few years. This is less likely to be preventing people from moving for employment if they are desperate (after all, you can always rent), but would be a significant drag on people who might otherwise move for better opportunities or less competition, or in response to other subjective factors.

Speaking of housing prices, I had another interesting realization today: government debt makes housing less affordable for everyone. This may not come as a shock to anyone well-versed on economic causality, but might surprise some people who don't regularly appreciate how destructive to the American economy massive surges in government debt are. In this case, debt leads to the perception of future inflation (as the government prints more money to devalue its debts rather than pay them), which causes investors to look to both borrow money, and acquire assets which hold their real value. Aside from precious metals, one of the best asset classes historically for a hedge against currency devaluation is housing/land. This is a problem because perception drives investment allocation, artificially increasing the demand (which naturally increases prices). If the perception was that the currency value would remain stable, housing would be a much less attractive long-term investment (relative to just, say, money), which would in turn act to reduce prices closer to actual consumption/use value.

Incidentally, that's also a factor which causes speculative swings in other asset prices, such as oil, food futures, and precious metals. It also drives volatility in the stock market, and helps decouple stock prices from fundamental valuations (as people buy stock to hedge against currency devaluation). As even novice economic theorists could observe, all these price distortions and speculation are bad for business, bad for the economy, bad for individual people, and bad for the country. Think about that the next time Comrade Presidente and the Party decide to print another $800B for their insider friends.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Funny Quote

This from a Reuter's article about how LA is apparently going to boycott doing future business with Arizona in protest to their attempts to curb their rampant illegal immigration problem:

"I cannot go to Arizona today without a passport," Councilman Ed Reyes said before the vote. "If I come across an officer who's had a bad day and feels the picture on my ID is not me, I could be summarily deported -- no questions asked. That is not American."

Arizona's new law, which comes into effect at end-July, does not allow police to demand identification from individuals without cause or to summarily deport them. But it does require officers, during a lawful contact, to check the immigration status of anyone who they reasonably suspect is in the country illegally.

One has to wonder if resident douche-bag Ed Reyes is just a moron, woefully uninformed and thus making a fool out of himself, or just spewing garbage based on the belief that his constituents and supporters are too stupid to know the difference. I personally thought it was telling that even Reuters, which is normally slightly more left-wing than the socialist party, calling out his BS in a matter-of-fact, marvel at our resident town idiot fashion. At least he's being entertaining.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thoughts on Government Borrowing

Ok, this might be a bit wonky and theoretical, fair warning...

I've been thinking some about the problem with long-term government debt, and how to prevent government entities from mortgaging the future to fulfill current spending desires. In essence, this is the #1 long-term problem with government debt: it's not that debt is bad, it's just that the accumulation of debt, combined with compounding interest payments, eventually leads to default or inflation, or both. The same is true for everyone else's debt too, of course, although normal people cannot typically print money to paper over the problems and reduce the debt by devaluing the currency. But I digress.

Consider if, instead of being allowed to roll over debt indefinitely, a government (eg: state government) had a strict, carefully-constructed Constitutional limit, which specified that all debt would only be valid for a specific period (eg: 10 years), after which if not paid back it would be automatically void, and the government was explicitly prohibited from paying back any debt with new borrowing (ie: no interest/principle payments could be made for any debt during any fiscal year where any additional borrowing occurred, for any reason). The implications would be significant:

- Debt servicing cost from the private market would increase proportional to the expectation of fiscal prudence (to enable repayment) and responsibility (to repay the debt), knowing that there is a fixed expiration
- Financially responsible entities could still borrow to cover extraordinary events, but probably at a higher cost
- Governments would be forced to have a credible repayment plan at the time of borrowing
- Probably most importantly, it would eliminate the possibility of shouldering future generations with debt: the subset provision ensures that any debt expires within a fixed period of time, by design
- Borrowing costs for financially dysfunctional governments would be prohibitively high, forcing immediate changes rather than prolonged paper-over periods and political blame-games
- Governments will be more immediately responsible for the fiscal impact of their decisions
- Several other problems would likely be also solved as side-effects (eg: no more missing the budget deadline every year)

The more I think about it, the more I like it. Yes, the initial change-over would be painful for most governments, especially those with massive existing debt problems, but the end result would be a system which ran much more smoothly, and had much less potential for political abuse. Thoughts?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Thoughts on Privacy

Kinda off-topic from current events, but I've been thinking somewhat about online privacy, and specifically how it could be protected. Now, being the small-government person that I am, my thoughts naturally shy away from idiotic notions like "we need government regulation" and "more government regulation would help", and toward more practical and potentially effective solutions. It's a hard problem, though, and it's ripe for abuse... already various government organizations are vying for the right to control our privacy. Rather than just rant about how stupid all those "solutions" are, though, I've been trying to come up with some actual good ideas.

One idea I've been evaluating is making telecommunications "gateway" providers civilly liable for any divulgence of personal data (which seems pretty straightforward). A step further, though, would be to make them also jointly liable for any illegal data access or activity (eg: content stealing, hacking, etc.), but only if they monitor, record, or otherwise oversee or store the data being transferred; there would be an explicit safe-harbor if the data is not monitored or recorded in any way. This would provide a significant advantage for service providers to strictly maintain privacy for their users by design, while not substantially increasing government overhead. Of course, this would require also modifying any laws which required storage or monitoring of personal data, but those [invasive] laws could be happily sacrificed. A similar safe-harbor law would be available to corporations, although I'd imagine less businesses would avail themselves of it, though it certainly wouldn't hurt (from a privacy perspective).

Another difficult area is financial privacy. Big government types would argue that the government needs access to all financial information, large and small, in order to track terrorist funding and other nefarious financial activities, as well as preventing market manipulation and ensuring financial stability. They're dead wrong, of course; not so much in their logic (ie: the government would need that data to optimally protect the people from those things), but rather in their premise (ie: that the government can or wants to protect the people at all). The "solution" for these concerns is twofold: first, apply the forth amendment liberally and repeatedly like a blunt hammer to the heads of the imbeciles who keep proposing these asinine laws, and second, develop separate mechanism to ensure financial stability and market fairness which don't rely on mythical government competence, but rather transparency and accountability.

There's one more issue which has been hot recently, and it's vexing to try to address: online information privacy. There's lots of information available on people online, and controlling access to that information is a logistical and legal nightmare, especially when most people don't know what information is out there, or how to effectively control their own information. Again, here, transparency would be our friend: if every online site were required to post, in an easily accessible format, all your data which they make available and under what circumstances, it would go a long way toward enabling private information to stay private. The other way the government could help is by making it illegal for companies to ask for and/or acquire sensitive information unless they assume legal liability for its release, similar to the laws which control health care information. A little more easily-applied liability could go a long way toward companies taking privacy more seriously.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this difficult subject, which is only going to become more so as systems become more connected, and nefarious politicians try to capitalize on it to advance their own unrelated agendas. Hope it was interesting.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Greece: More Craziness

Picture this: you have a spouse with a spending problem. You both work, but "he" (imagine a gender-neutral pronoun here) is incapable of controlling his spending, and has run up enormous credit card debt while you have been trying to save money. He claims that he has an expensive lifestyle which must be maintained, and that it's unfair to ask him to make sacrifices when he's always lived extravagantly before. You've even gone out of your way to try to negotiate a debt settlement with your creditors which only requires a small reduction in his spending, but he complains that even that amount is arduous, and vows to continue spending as normal, seeing no problem with your ever-increasing debt, and no scenario where you would "run out" of money.

What do you do? Well, apparently if you're the EU, you give him another $110b euros and hope that magically fixes the problem. ...WHAT? It's like giving free booze to an alcoholic while he's complaining about you asking him to stop drinking as much! It's absolutely insane.

At this point, the rest of the EU is going to be as much to blame for Greece's eventual colossal downfall and default as Greece itself, in much the same way an enabler must share some blame for an addict's self-destruction. If the more stable economies of Europe want to flush their money down the socialist economic toilet which is Greece, it's their right; if I were the US, though, I'd be telling my banks to value their debt at junk, and trade/adjust accordingly (and absolutely ensure that we, as a country, have as little exposure to their financial situation as possible).

If/when they want a real solution, I'd look at selling off some land. Greece has lots of easily separable islands which could make nice colonies for countries with money, and Greece could be a pioneer in rewriting borders with economic, instead of military, force. As a side-benefit, once you sold off a few islands, maybe the people of Greece would finally "get it", and act to save what remains of their country, instead of fighting about which of their failure policies and political parties are most to blame.