People are mad. Wahhhh. Boo hoo. “Why should Jay-Z and Beyonce get to go to Cuba when I can’t?” Well, the truth is, you might be able to. People just rush to conclusions because they heard someone say something about an embargo and travel restrictions and such. Honestly, until recently, I thought to get to Cuba, you would have to go through Mexico or some other country. Officially, the State Department says something like “If you do go and get in trouble, we can’t help you. But you can go if it’s sanctioned.” That last part is really important as, just before people started boo-hooing about these celebrities who get special treatment anyway, I received this email from my alma mater (in screenshot form and sorry it cuts off due to my blog theme – click to see the full image):

Image

So there you have it. Officially, the U.S. government only grants regular citizens access to Cuba if it’s “educational.” But IT DOES grant U.S. citizens access to Cuba. And if it must be educational and your only purpose to go there is to explore, is it not simple to make the argument that you’re learning about a different culture? Thus, it’s an educational experience.

The point here is that most people really have absolutely no idea what any of the Cuba-related travel restrictions are and aren’t. I’m not an expert on them, but I’m not going to go overboard, either, about some restrictions that shouldn’t even exist at all. I know a few folks originally from Cuba. They’re good people and have insight into the country that I otherwise never would have gotten. Like with North Korea, Cuba is largely known as being a poor nation, but it’s not the leadership that’s suffered from decades of trade embargoes – it’s the people.

If our country were so free, we shouldn’t have to justify trips to anywhere by saying it’s “educational.” More-so, we should be able to travel simply because we want to.

For the first time in a long time, I got a parking ticket. It was on Christmas Eve, and I’m not thrilled about it. While the federal government had the “Sorry, we’re closed” sign hanging in the window on that day, my fair city of Los Angeles was out contributing to the betterment of society, penalizing folks who prevented the streets from being swept. Previously, I had been so good about sticking my longest finger high up in the air toward the direction of City Hall and making sure the car was in the right place at the right time. But I guess we all have a down day… a lapse here and there.

Regardless of the $73 fine left on my windshield, the street sweeping system has always made me scratch my head, due to its sometimes incredibly confusing restrictions and lack of transparency. Ahhhh, yes, lack of transparency. Gee, that’s a new description for government programs!

A couple days before Thanksgiving, I parked on the street in front of a car that didn’t have a parking permit for my neighborhood. Parking Enforcement was in the middle of issuing a ticket, so I asked the officer what days they would be enforcing that week. He said they wouldn’t be giving out tickets on Thursday or Friday. In reflection, that’s very interesting, as it’s nearly impossible to find any sort of official Parking Enforcement calendar on the city website. That kind of thing is good to know for when you plan on having friends and family visit.

On a forum regarding this very topic, one person suggested looking at the Public Library calendar, to get an idea of the holidays observed by the city of L.A. The libraries were closed on Christmas Eve, so don’t trust that advice.

Finally, the one and only thing I could find (via a Google search – not the city website) was a scan of a directive from Mayor Villaraigosa to not enforce time-restricted and neighborhood permit parking areas on the following holidays:

1. New Year’s Day
2. Martin Luther King’s Birthday
3. President’s Day
4. Memorial Day
5. Independence Day
6. Labor Day
7. Columbus Day
8. Veteran’s Day
9. Thanksgiving Day
10. Christmas Day

Here is the full text:
http://ladot.lacity.org/pdf/PDF135.pdf

Hopefully this helps. Take care out there, and let’s do our best to starve the beast!

 

As an added note, if you are interested in this topic, check out these photos and stories of Parking Enforcement violating the same rules they give citations for:

“Other Parking Citations Received by Other Victims”
http://www.slapec.org/code/other2.shtml

I heard Dave Ramsay reading this on the radio yesterday… very intriguing to hear Lincoln’s eloquent writing recited and to learn a little more about how the official Thanksgiving tradition came to be. Enjoy, and happy Thanksgiving to you all!

 

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans. mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

The government’s intrusion in our lives is crazy. So is the lack of accountability. What I keep seeing, replaying in my mind, are the town hall events in 2009 and 2010. Those were packed with people, citizens, yelling at their representatives “We don’t want this bill!” But it didn’t matter. Congressmen and -women weren’t going to be swayed. They had their minds made up, yet shouldn’t it be the other way around? I always thought the will of the people was the most important thing. Or is it that elected officials truly do believe their constituents are just too stupid or uninformed to have an opinion?

It’s not that people want their neighbors, friends, and family to forgo treatment for their ailments, but rather it’s about government intrusion. It’s about expenses and the government’s willingness to keep putting things on a credit card. I think it’s safe to say that people have grown weary of politicians and promises that they often can’t keep, due to the design of the system.

You couldn’t pay me to vote for President Obama. And I don’t have faith that Mitt Romney is a better choice. So that leaves me voting for parties and candidates that talk about crazy, old school topics like the Constitution, freedom, and NOT policing the world. Those are the people the media paint as kooky, if they even get any coverage at all. Ron Paul is one such person. Whether you like him or not, he’s smart, can make an unconventional argument, and a lot of people like him. But he doesn’t pander so much to people and groups in order to get votes, and he’s not as young and handsome as the candidates the major parties push. Studies have shown that those characteristics truly are important today.

But as for the major concern about accountability, I think it’s important to keep things fresh. I’m pretty sure we all would have benefited if George W. Bush would have been in office four LESS years, and it seems to be a good time now for the incumbent to hand over the reins to someone new. Elected officials should bring a little bit of fear to their jobs, because their boss is an entire nation. What I see today is someone who appears to never have any regrets. I can hear in my head something a la “We took a real shellacking, but at least we got the job done.” It was a “shellacking” because Democrats and the President pushed legislation through that a huge number of constituents fought hard against.

So, in good conscience, I can’t cast a vote for someone who ignores mobs of people screaming that don’t like the direction their government is headed. And at the other end, I really thought Mitt Romney’s unwillingness to do something as simple as release a full tax return would do him in. Since it’s going to come down to either of these folks, I guess what I’m really looking forward to is way on down the road – at the end of “four more years.”

Before you cast your vote this November, please try to see through the rhetoric just a little bit. There is a lot of talk about job creation, one way or another, coming from both sides of the aisle. It’s important to consider this: the government “creating jobs” is akin to an accounting trick.

The textbook example demonstrating the job creation fallacy is that of the baker. Suppose someone throws a brick through the front window of a small bakery. “Poor baker!” you might say, while someone trying to think outside the box says “The economy is really going to benefit from this!” After all, the baker has to pay someone to fix the window. As more windows are broken and more business comes in for the glass shop, more money changes hands. With this increased business, the glass shop buys new trucks and opens up new retail locations and warehouses. The shop also buys more supplies and hires more workers, who go out and spend their money on other goods and services. But this all comes at the expense of the shop owners with the broken windows. While someone is making money, someone is losing money.

When the government “creates jobs,” they are taking money away from people who would spend it somewhere anyway. Whether the bakery shop owner spends his money dining out, or at department store, or on investments, money continues to change hands. Sure, the broken glass might visibly give more people work, but that’s at the sake of other industries that would benefit from the bakery shop owner having the freedom to choose what he or she wants to spend money on.

It’s one thing to collect taxes and use that money to pay for services we all use, like building roads and bridges and providing police and fire department services. These industries still need to be sensibly regulated, however. We all were to pay for Alaska’s famous “Bridge to Nowhere” project, and I firmly believe that, here is Los Angeles, the police department does NOT (and will likely NEVER) need a fleet of 19 helicopters.

While government officials tout what an economic boon to the economy some programs are/were, things usually aren’t as they seem. The “Cash for Clunkers” auto trade-in program in 2008 was no government success story. According to a University of Delaware study, the program cost taxpayers an estimated $1.4 billion overall. But it was a noble effort to get all those polluting vehicles off the road, right? Well, if you consider that the Cash for Clunkers/Car Allowance Rebate System bill was originally crafted by a Representative from Ohio (home of GM factories and other major auto parts manufacturing), and a Senate version of the bill was co-sponsored by a Michigan Congresswoman, the real intention of the bill seems to be more of a local stimulus program.

For another example of central planning and “job creation” gone wrong, consider Solyndra. If you read some background on the company, the design of its solar technology was unlike any other in the industry. Right off the bat, this can’t be a safe bet, right? After all, investing in a unique product sounds a bit like what investors would call “speculation.”

Well, as you probably heard in the news, after the government loaned Solyndra $527 million, the company had a hard time competing in the market and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Even if you don’t see an issue with the government taking in taxes to give people work, consider that the government actually has very little to spend. If the government keeps spending/investing in such great ideas, how has the deficit swollen to a number larger than all the money in circulation? You see, many of our political leaders are experts at nothing more than being politicians. That’s why lobbyists come knocking on their doors and manage to convince them that the petroleum industry “really needs continued subsidies,” as do the defense industry and farmers.

Speaking of farming, while small, family operations may be more sensitive to market fluctuations, corporate farming ventures (with stable finances) are reaping the rewards of government handouts. Are you familiar with Cargill – the multinational, multi-billion dollar food and agricultural producer? That corporation accepted a total of $17 million in subsidies between the years 1995 and 2011. Last year, Cargill’s net income was over $4 billion, yet the government continues to collect taxes and, you know, provide help to those corporations that need it most.

Another massive industry that government funds is defense. Of course, we need to maintain some level of military, but considering the U.S. recently finished up an eight-year tour of duty in Iraq, with none of those elusive WMDs ever to be found, what purpose did it serve? Well, for one, it was a great opportunity to pump money into the military-industrial complex that’s so well integrated into Washington politics. Conspiracy? It absolutely became one! Don’t worry, I’m not going to say “9/11 was a government cover-up” and blah, blah, blah. I don’t believe that and, if I did, there is no evidence to prove such a thing. What is certain, though, is that lots and lots of tax dollars were spent on military vehicles, aircraft, and ships (plus regular maintenance and replacement parts), fuel, clothing, armor, food, weapons, tools, field medical supplies, generators, and, of course, medical treatment for our injured (mentally and physically) soldiers for the rest of their lives.

If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Aviator,” you might remember how Howard Hughes was grilled by Senator Owen Brewster over allegations of war profiteering. That’s a phrase you don’t really hear anymore. These days, you have former CEOs become Vice Presidents, who then award half-a-billion dollar, no-bid contracts to the companies they ran. The “revolving door” between high-profile public service and corporate leadership positions is a problem and is well-documented. It’s that kind of conflict of interest that results in a hammer costing $436 and $640 for a toilet seat procured by the government.

As you can see, a lot of baggage comes along with government “job creation.” Though we are often fooled into thinking this money reshuffling is an investment for our future, what actually results is greater deficit spending. It’s important to note here that we never really operate with any kind of budget surplus. And a lot of the money that’s moved around and redistributed ends up in the hands of special interest groups and friends of the higher-ups in the public sector.

Next time you hear some mumblings from the government about creating jobs, consider the hidden economics and who the beneficiaries truly are.

 

_____________________________

Further reading and cited sources:

John Stossel’s Broken Window Fallacy –

The Broken Window Fallacy- How hurricanes, war, taxes, welfare, green job subsidies, and stimulus don’t actually create jobs –

Wikipedia – “Parable of the broken window” –
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window

Burton Abrams and George Parsons – “Is CARS a Clunker?”
http://www.relooney.info/0_New_5687.pdf

Environmental Working Group – “Cargill Turkey Products – EWG Farm Subsidy Database”
farm.ewg.org/persondetail.php?custnumber=004497123

Cargill reports fourth-quarter and fiscal 2011 earnings
http://www.cargill.com/news/releases/2011/NA3047889.jsp

CNET – “Case study: A simple tool” –
http://news.cnet.com/2009-1009_3-5404307.html

Frédéric Bastiat

Henry Hazlitt

Sometimes we need guidance. We needs changes and an action plan that helps the nation. Other times (quite often), we need obstruction. We need roadblocks and partisanship. It’s healthy. What’s dangerous is a lopsided government that passes laws unabated. That’s what happened with the Affordable Care Act. It’s a tug-of-war between two parties – two parties whose ideals I have lost faith in – even though we all know issues are more complex than always siding with the “left” or the “right.”

Affordable Care Act
Health care for all has always been popular to talk about. It’s wise and noble to take care of people, but it doesn’t make sense if you can’t pay for it, especially when your government’s debt is greater than the total amount of money that is even in circulation.

We’ve been lied to about simplicity. We always are. That’s why we need obstruction. We need our representatives to sometimes just sit down and shut up and to stay at home and not get paid $174,000+ a year. We were promised the Affordable Care Act would bring costs down for all. Since the law was passed and the Supreme Court upheld it, my health care premiums have gone up 30%. I haven’t needed the services of a doctor in years. I promise to get a checkup soon, but I’m just saying that the reason my costs have gone up isn’t because I’m visiting the doctor too much.

You know, as Americans we once had the freedom to do nothing if we chose. All this talk of rights these days…you once had to the right to be left alone. These days, so the government can “regulate interstate commerce,” you have to either pay into the public health care system or the private health care system. Either way, you have to pay. Instead of just regulating an industry, the President also found it acceptable to regulate people. That’s not freedom. Additionally, if government continues to get more into the insurance business, what ensures demand will lower costs? I have heard for years that the medical field is a great one to get into because 1) people will always need health care and 2) hospitals are already understaffed. If there is a lack of medical professionals and suddenly the entire country has medical access, it seems, Houston, that we might have a problem.

I know a lot of people who are happy about the pre-existing condition part of the ACA. That is, the insurance companies cant deny coverage to someone that has a pre-existing condition. Well then it’s not insurance anymore, right? What it turns into is paying for a service while forcing a company to subsidize the majority of the bill. According to the healthcare.gov website linked to at bottom, the ACA prevents insurance companies from charging higher premiums for pre-existing conditions and from setting lifetime limits on coverage for certain benefits. Allowing health insurance companies to assess risk and charge a higher amount for continuous care encourages healthy behavior. I try to be a cautious driver, and I would be pretty upset to find out I’m paying the same amount for car insurance as someone driving a Maserati or someone who has caused numerous wrecks.

I also understand that some people are born with a handicap or illness. Now, in a demand for equality for all, for all things these days, folks with unavoidable “pre-existing conditions” are also finding themselves in the same insurance category as people who have developed diabetes from lack of exercise and poor food choices, and people who develop chronic conditions like cirrhosis from alcohol abuse. Some of them say “What I do with my body isn’t your business.” Aha, but it is! It’s every taxpayers’ business. In 2009, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics cited the direct health care costs of smokers as being $96 billion and, resulting, the cost of lost productivity as costing $97 billion.

To be fair and honest, from a monetary standpoint, premature deaths partially offset money that otherwise would go to social security and Medicare payments. But that’s no justification. There is also the emotional cost brought on by losing a loved one from a situation that could have been avoided. Due to new regulations, the poor stay poor and the middle class becomes poorer. Health care for all is not free. As mentioned, my health insurance premiums have recently gone up. The following is a message from my representative:


Non-binding Resolutions

Now, taking a little focus off the Affordable Care Act, Congress wastes a lot of time. Did you know our representatives frequently bring forth official declarations, congratulating sports teams for accomplishments? For example, in 2011, Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland introduced a resolution titled “Commemorating the victory of Loyola University Maryland in the 2012 NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse National Championship.” As you might expect, it passed unanimously because it’s fluff. The day before that, the Senate passed a resolution called “Commending the Pacific Lutheran University Lutes Softball Team for winning the 2012 National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III Softball Championship.” And the day before that, another resolution passed called “Congratulating the Miami Heat for winning the National Basketball Association Championship.”

Not only do these resolutions take time, they also use up taxpayer dollars. According to South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, the total cost for printing copies of a single “simple resolution” page for our legislators comes to $1,200. DeMint also estimates that the 112th Congress may have already spent $400,000 on these non-binding, feel-good time wasters. Fortunately, there is a “Pay for Printing Act” being proposed that would require legislators to spend money from their own Members’ Representational Allowances (MRA), which currently ranges $1.3-1.6 million for the House and $2.9-4.6 million for the Senate, per member, per year.

I remember one of my college professors had a framed letter on the wall from one of our Congressional representatives. It was some of commendatory note, which I’m sure the prof was very proud of or else he wouldn’t have put it on the wall. Aside from the time spent crafting a letter, it probably took something like $1 to print and send that note. The same can be done for winning NCAA and NBA teams and, if a representative wants to make their praise public, take it to Twitter for free. My representative is on there, and yours probably is, as well.


Gold Medallions

Congress also has a bad habit of telling people they are really important by spending a lot of money on them. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in 2000 that it would cost $30,000 to produce a gold medal to give to Ronald and Nancy Reagan for their service to the country. The price tag was also the same for a medal to give to then-Pope John Paul II . It was slightly less, however, to give medals to John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, and to the family of the late cartoonist Charles Schulz ($25,000 each).  These are just a few examples. Other such medals have been proposed and awarded. Rep. Ron Paul made a good point in 2007 about the award proposed for the Dalai Lama:

I wonder if my colleagues see the irony in honoring a devout Buddhist monk with a material gift of gold. The Buddhist tradition, of course, eschews worldly possessions in favor of purity of thought and action. Buddhism urges its practitioners to alleviate the suffering of others whenever possible. I’m sure His Holiness the Dalai Lama would rather see $30,000 spent to help those less fortunate, rather than for a feel-good congressional gesture.

We cannot forget that Congress has no authority under the Constitution to spend taxpayer money on medals and awards, no matter how richly deserved. And I reiterate my offer of $100 from my own pocket to pay for this medal–if members wish to honor the Dalai Lama, all we need to do is pay for it ourselves. If all 435 of us contribute, the cost will be roughly $70 each. So while a gold medal sounds like a great idea, it becomes a bit strange when we see the actual cost involved.

You see, political gridlock is not all bad. In fact, if more opposition happened, maybe, just maybe, there would be more focus on more important matters. But until Congress stops spending time on congratulatory resolutions, swiftly pushing through hugely unpopular bills (that result in a “shellacking” during the next election cycle), and spending nearly the average taxpayers’ annual salary on a medallion, I’m going to think Congress needs to “work” less and also get paid less.

_______________________

Article sources and further reading:

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: “Protecting Americans with Pre-existing Conditions” –
http://www.healthcare.gov/blog/2011/01/preexisting.html

U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention: “Economic Facts About U.S. Tobacco Production and Use” –
http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/economics/econ_facts/index.htm#costs

Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives: “Congressional Salaries and Allowances” –
library.clerk.house.gov/reference-files/112_20120104_Salary.pdf

Congressional Budget Office: “Cost estimates search” (Congressional gold medal award costs search results) –
http://www.cbo.gov/cost-estimates/search?page=1&filters=ss_cck_field_congress%3A%22106th%20Congress%20%281999-2000%29%22%20sm_cck_field_budget_function%3A%22800%20-%20General%20Government%22%20created%3A%5B2000-01-01T00%3A00%3A00Z%20TO%202001-01-01T00%3A00%3A00Z%5D%20sm_facetbuilder_Paygo_Facet%3A%22Paygo_Facet%3Afacet_1%22

Congressional Record – House H6505: Ron Paul’s statement on the Dalai Lama’s proposed Congressional gold medal –
http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CREC-2006-09-13/pdf/CREC-2006-09-13-pt1-PgH6505.pdf

The Fourth Year

05/03/2012

This is that fourth year I always dread. I dread the third year, too. That’s when the rhetoric and debates ramp up, leaving many of us sick of political talk even before elections are more than a year away. Having a long commute, I have become pretty savvy at switching off the news, in favor of other radio material, the very millisecond I hear keywords resembling “super PAC,” “Romney,” “campaign,” and sometimes simply “Obama.” Now, as a slogan, “forward” is being added to that list. I just don’t care because, right now, is doesn’t matter. And it hasn’t mattered for a long time.

There is a lot of coverage out there that’s hard to ignore. There are debates and town hall meetings and talk around the water cooler. For many people across the nation, there is at least some chance to participate in the dialog and the nomination process. But when it really comes down to it, individual participation is a guided process. So much of it is about psychology. The party leaders know it, and would probably rather you not think about it.

Although “The Adjustment Bureau” is fictional (as far as we know! Hah!), parts of that film have stuck with me for over a year… most notably this scene: David Norris, played by Matt Damon, is a politician who is seeking a U.S. Senate seat. When that aspiration falls short, Norris is fed up and lets loose during his concession speech.

David Norris:

…we had a rule in my neighborhood, when you got in a fight, it wasn’t whether or not you got knocked down. It’s what you do when you get back up.

And I came here to tell you tonight that I will get back up!

Um…that’s bullshit! We…we didn’t have that saying in my neighborhood. It’s just one of those phrases that uh…that has some attraction with a focus group and so we kept using it. That’s not true. You know, 1998, I did a cover for GQ. The title was ‘Youngest Congressmen Ever’ and, since then, every story I tried to explain how I got here so fast. And…and the word that people kept uh…using was “authentic” and…

…here’s the problem, this isn’t even my tie. This tie was selected for me by a group of specialists, in Tenafly, New Jersey, who chose it over fifty-six other ties we tested. In fact, our data suggests that I have to stick to either a tie that is red or a tie that is blue. A yellow tie made it look as if I was taking my situation lightly and I may in fact pull my pants down at any moment.

A silver tie meant that I’d forgotten my roots. My shoes, you know, shiny shoes we associate with a high priced lawyers and bankers. If you want to get a working mans vote you need to scuff up your shoes a little bit, but you can’t scuff ’em so much that you alienate the lawyers and the bankers, cause you need them to pay for the specialist back in Tenafly.

It’s interesting to consider our current President’s attire choices. The necktie blog “Neck of State” shows that, during his first 100 days in office, President Obama wore a red or blue tie seven out of eight times. That’s nearly 90% of the time. Maybe he just really likes those colors, or maybe someone told him something like “Wearing at least one of the two primary colors on the American flag comes across as being more patriotic.”

There is that obsession with lapels that politicians have, too… American flag lapels, specifically. Reagan started the trend. George W. wore ’em. Dick Cheney wore ’em, and Obama wore ’em until he “noticed a lot of people wearing a lapel pin and not acting very patriotic.” Maybe someone also told him about the Cornell study that suggests greater exposure to the American flag persuades some people to shift toward “more conservative Republican attitudes and voting behavior.”

Another changing area of modern politics is the celebrity appeal. Modern Presidents are fit and handsome. Obama is “cool” and was accused of being more of a “rock star” than a politician during his campaign, going so far as flying to Germany to give a speech for, well, who really knows…just a demonstration of his popularity with another culture that can’t vote for him, I guess. Los Angeles and San Diego are other good spots for that. (I don’t mean that as a jab, but it’s true that some Democrats are motivated to extend social programs to people who are in this country illegally, and Los Angeles is a known safe haven for illegal immigrants.)

Never before has an American President been so willing to optimize the media in so many ways. And never before has a President been seen paling around with celebrities so much. The gap is bridging between celebrity and politician as time marches on. Of course, the POTUS is a pretty well-defined position. Such a person doesn’t get to endorse products and get to be famous for being famous. Rather, the line is blurring in such a way that U.S. Presidents are in the top 1% of income earners, go on on late-night talk shows and send birthday tributes to celebrities and, out of necessity, hobnob at fundraisers with their richest and most famous best buddies.

These days, the notion of political celebrity isn’t limited to the examples just mentioned. Take, for example, the show put on for political conventions. They are made up of prominent figures reading scripted statements from a teleprompter, with theatrics including pyrotechnics, fancy lighting normally reserved for big concerts, confetti, giant balloons, and elaborate stage sets that resemble things like Roman temples. It’s a manufactured environment, and what a person said holds less weight than if they were in a darkened theater with a spotlight shining down on him or her.

In a world where so many technologies and products are vying for one’s attention, we are reduced to getting our information from soundbites. Context is everything, and context we rarely get. Thirty-minute speeches are reduced to three seconds. All that ends up mattering is a catchphrase and the inevitability of moving in a direction that really has no inherent meaning. It just exists and can’t be changed. It’s called “forward.”

__________________________________________________________________
Further reading / cited material:

University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs:
“Romney Speaks 8+ Minutes More than Closest Rival at SC Debate”
http://blog.lib.umn.edu/cspg/smartpolitics/2012/01/romney_speaks_8_minutes_more_t.php

Los Angeles Times:
“Tale of the tape: Romney has had most face time in GOP debates”

Cornell Chronicle: “Study: Setting eyes on Old Glory moves voters toward GOP”
http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July11/FlagGOP.html

Neck of State: “Grading Obama’s First 100 Days”
http://www.neckofstate.com/

Washington Post: “Obama Stops Wearing Flag Pin”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/05/AR2007100501027.html

Computers Vs. Taxes

03/08/2012

$20 bills by J Kilmer

I almost bought a nice, shiny, brand new computer last night. Due to some shipping restrictions set by the retailer, this purchase has been in the works for quite some time now. I thought everything was finally squared away…until reaching the “purchase now” page and seeing that additional $78 tax tacked on to the price. Oh yeah, there’s that.

I live in Los Angeles. We have one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation. One of the security guards at work was recently telling me of a trip to Colorado and how the 2% sales tax was really conducive to spending more.

It’s all relative, and things are much, much different here at home. I moved to California from the Midwest a couple years ago and left the TV behind. Although it certainly made the relocation a little simpler, the 3.25% higher tax rate and eWaste disposal fee significantly added to the cost of the modest 32″ replacement TV I bought. By the way, you have to pay the disposal fee regardless of whether you are disposing of an old TV or not. Thinking about it, it’s rather interesting to consider how many different taxes and fees our (cash-strapped) governments collect from us. Here are some of the common ones I pay on:

-gasoline (county, state, and federal tax)
-electricity (City of L.A. Bureau  of Sanitation Charges, Energy Subsidy charge, City of L.A. Utility Tax, State of California Energy Surcharge, Multi-Family Bulky Item Fee)
-natural gas (State Regulatory Fee, Public Purpose Surcharge, L.A. City Users Tax)
-income taxes (local, state, and federal + Medicare, FICA and CA State Disability Insurance)
-groceries (local and state)
-property (built in to rent)
-phone (Utility Use tax, 911 tax, California High Cost Fund – A, California High Cost Fund – B, California Relay Service and Communications Device Fund, California Advanced Services Fund, California Teleconnect Fund, Universal Lifeline Telephone Service Surcharge)
-cable TV
-internet
-California Redemption Value ($.05 – .10 deposit on all drink cans/plastic bottles purchased)
-annual license plate renewal/registration (Registration Fee + License Fee + County/District Fees)
-smog check

Until last year, Amazon had been in a long fight with California legislators over collecting taxes. Too many “brick-and-mortar” companies complained that it’s unfair to compete with giant, online companies not required to tack on that extra charge in most states.

But don’t begin to think you are off the hook for non-taxed, online purchases. The slimy creatures in this state responsible for passing laws and regulations that ensure your freedom/rights (huh?) implemented a “Use Tax” in 1933, which makes consumers responsible for paying sales tax if the seller doesn’t collect it.

Some people may argue that this helps ensure people pay their “fair share” of taxes. But I guess what I am missing about what is “fair” is how we give and give and give and the money is misused and public employees game the system to ensure their own longevity. Some examples:

1) Some L.A. Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) auto painters are being paid $100,000+ a year (see L.A. Times link at bottom). According to the 2010 U.S. census, the recent, median HOUSEHOLD income in California has been nearly half that – $60,000.

2) “Any state or local government employee in California who commits a felony — theft, embezzlement, extortion, bribery — in the course of performing a public duty is still entitled to a pension.” (L.A. Times)

3) The public employee system is currently under fire because retirees have been found to be “spiking” their pensions. Unused sick days are being saved up and cashed in at retirement. When confronted, representatives of these former employees tend to always say the same thing: “Mr. So-and-so deserves the compensation.” Well guess what? I work in the private sector, so my bottom-line minded employer would never allow that kind of trade-off. Hell, I am officially “entitled” to exactly zero sick days every year. If I do get sick, we can work out some time off to recuperate, but it’s not set up that way. Paid sick days should be used to make sure employees can pay the bills if they get a cold, rather than being given as a bonus later on if they aren’t used up.

4) Another huge expenditure: The LAPD boasts having 19 helicopters and 1 airplane. Fourteen of those choppers are the Eurocopter AS350B2. An online search reveals that used AS350B2s range between $1.1 – 2 million each. The other four helicopters range between $325,000 – 750,000 each, also in used condition. In addition to the immense cost of owning these, it would be interesting to know how much the upkeep on a fleet of 20 aircraft costs.

So, back to that “fair share” thing again… we should all pay equally to support excess and bloated, self-serving payrolls? We should all evenly contribute to much-higher-than-average salaries and what amounts to bonuses for not getting sick twelve days a year? The thing is, even if a “fair share” could be justified logically, we all earn and consume at different levels. Thus, by nature we all contribute different amounts monetarily to the government. The rich are able to mitigate part of the income tax rates the middle and lower classes pay, so the only thing that can be fair is a flat tax rate for all.

At the same time, governments must certainly be aware that historic tax revolts have considered to be a contributing factor to the downfall of the Roman, Egyptian, and Aztec empires. So there may actually be a danger in leveling the playing field because everyone paying the same tax rate opens the door to transparent accountability.

Another issue to consider is utility rate increases used to supplement shrinking pension funds. If I make bad investment choices and the value of my portfolio falls, who is going to bail me out? NO ONE! Not that we should be putting people out on the streets, but some other agreement needs to be reached. We all know that stock markets have ups and downs and that the downs might last a long time. Raising utility rates to pay retirees, because some investment choices didn’t pan out, seems a little something like “taxation without representation.”

I have been paying taxes on a lot of things for a long time. It simply wouldn’t be to such a degree if those individuals voted in to represent the people, you know, represented the people. When it comes down to it, unions are “special interest” groups. They don’t represent the will of the majority. Their power comes from strength in numbers so, unfortunately, they can strong-arm city commissioners and councils so that auto painters, carpenters, and cabinet makers can all make in excess of $100,000 a year. Why does the Department of Water and Power have auto painters and carpenters to begin with? Don’t those seem like jobs that can contracted in a competitive bidding process?

As for this computer purchase discussed so long ago, I am off to visit Craigslist. Hopefully there I can find a nice, gently used computer with an included warranty… and no included sales tax.

L.A. Times – “L.A. catching up to Chicago in sleaze”
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-0226-lopez-roundup-20120226,0,5730418,full.column

L.A. Times – “Commit a crime, collect a pension”
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-cap-pensions-20120213,0,2131610.column

Ron Kaye – Why Your DWP Bills Keeping Going Up and Up
http://ronkayela.com/2012/02/carpenters-dwp-102732-general.html

Warfare

02/16/2012

MSN/Innovation News Daily (whatever that is) posted a rather interesting article last week entitled “‘Smart bullet’ hits targets a mile away.” The gist is that Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico has developed a bullet that uses fins to constantly readjust its course towards a target pinpointed by a laser beam. Pretty cool, huh? But what are the implications brought on by new warfare technology, and do we really need it?

Articles related to the aforementioned one (linked at the bottom of this page) speak of topics like the U.S. Army placing an order for “suicide drones” and a new grenade/launcher combination that’s being assessed in Afghanistan. Suicide drones are capable of relaying reconnaissance information back to operators on the ground and can also be used as a missile, if needed. The new grenade launcher looks more like a small, automatic assault rifle than ever, and the projectile that goes along with it can be programmed to explode at precise distances.

Although this kind of technology seems pretty incredible/kinda awesome, we have to continue to ask “We need this equipment to fight whom?” The military-industrial complex really starts to seems like a complex when we assess how we Americans constantly and continually police the globe. What would really be awesome would be diplomacy and to look past the rhetoric that people hate Americans “because of our freedom.” Education and critical thinking help provide that much-needed chance to take a step back and think “Ya know, it can’t really be as simple as that.” And it’s not.

Consider another perspective: let’s say your neighbor commits some sort of heinous crime, then disappears without a trace. Before you know it, people are speculating that he has fled the town, the county, maybe even the state. Ten years pass and the police are still camped out in your backyard. I image you would be irate. After all, you didn’t invite these visitors to occupy your yard, and you can’t figure out how to get rid of them. After all, it is your property.

Many Middle Eastern people were sympathetic over 9/11… we know that. We’ve seen them. We’ve heard their voices. We know most of them aren’t terrorists. But it also has to be less-than-comforting to have convoys of soldiers, armed to the teeth, rolling around their towns in these destructive machines, playing a perpetual game of Whac-A-Mole.

Something about no longer having to actually confront, who you believe to be, the enemy is alarming. Simply enough, in the days of yore, if someone shot at you, you shot back. The enemy was pretty well defined. You knew who and where they were, hunkered down on the other side of the battlefield. Now, we fly aircraft outfitted with small, black-and-white cameras having resolution only great enough to show people carrying… things. And we shoot at these people from meters, and sometimes kilometers, away. But what exactly are they carrying? Guns? Cameras? Does anyone know or really care?

When these incidents – these mistakes – take place, the government has a tendency to go on the defensive. Dispensing half-truths and other fabrications seem to be the priority, rather than acknowledging that people are fallible. It happened with the Reuters photographers that were gunned down by Apache helicopters in Baghdad. It happened when Pat Tillman was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan. It came to light when Jessica Lynch contradicted our government by clarifying that she was never able to fire a single shot from her jammed M16 rifle when her convoy came under attack in Iraq.

The same people who try to write history, whether or not what’s being written is factual, are the same people developing advanced weaponry. Through psychology and force they remain in power. And when fraud is revealed, more propaganda is thrown around by asserting with scary words like “terrorist,” “espionage,” “traitor,” and “insurgent.”

I would like to make a note here that our troops are not responsible for this culture. They are young, impressionable men and women who are trained to be tough and to dehumanize the enemy. Our soldiers on the front lines are under constant stress, knowing that a threat to their lives could be just around the corner. PTSD is rampant among troops returning home, and the constant warfare dictated by our government is screwing up the minds of these young adults for the rest of their lives. It is insanely irresponsible to go to war based on “bad intel” and to then keep fighting anyway. To date, 4,000+ U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq. That’s more than all the people killed in the 9/11 attacks. Interesting, considering 9/11 and the purported presence of “WMDs” were used as justification to invade Iraq. As we all know, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, and no evidence has ever been uncovered linking Iraq to 9/11 in any capacity.

Another “defense” program recently in the works has been the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program. The selling point for this aircraft was that it would save the military money, as it could be used by the Marines, Air Force, and Navy, rather than developing a new jet for each of those branches. However, what is a “money saver” is actually the Pentagon’s most expensive program ever, at $382 billion for 2,443 F-35 jets. 2,443 jets for what? Are these to patrol our borders? As we worry about what is happening on the other side of the globe, drug violence is spilling over into the United States. Farmers along the U.S./Mexico border have been killed, and it’s speculated that a number of abductions and killings in Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama are cartel-related. (CNN)

If we really want to do some good, we could take some of our drones out of the Middle East, and do some reconnaissance work over the Mexican villas that the drug cartels are operating out of. We could also stop spending money in Iraq and Afghanistan, stop spending so much money on seven-hundred-some overseas military bases in over half the world’s countries, and stop pumping money into Israel and Egypt so they can keep acquiring weapons. The term “national defense” means less than ever these days. It’s become a convoluted catchphrase used to justify a whole host of actions that have very little, sometimes arguably nothing at all, to do with actually defending a nation.

Imagine what better use we could make of reallocating money intended for “defense spending.” Our schools are in serious trouble. We have people living on the streets, eating out of trash cans. Emergency services are being cut in towns across the nation. Our infrastructure is eroding in many places. But focus on a greater good and “taking care of our own” gets replaced by meddling in affairs across the globe. We also “invest” billions of dollars annually in other countries to promote pro-Americanism. That’s not the official decree but, believe me, recipients of U.S. aid are not random countries asking for a handout.

U.S. Army Orders First Suicide Drones
http://www.innovationnewsdaily.com/550-suicide-drone-army-switchblade.html

New Video Showcases Army’s Grenade Launcher
http://www.innovationnewsdaily.com/185-xm25-grenade-launcher.html

‘Smart bullet’ hits targets a mile away
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46206458/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/#.Tyhfc4E_cXA

Pentagon’s F-35 Fighter Under Fire in Congress
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/military/jan-june10/defense_04-21.html

The Mexico drug war: Bodies for billions
http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/15/world/mexico-drug-war-essay/index.html