Thursday, September 30, 2010

Financing the post office, where are the strict constructionists?

Once again, with the changing means of communicating, the U. S. Postal Service is in financial trouble.  Many think it shouldn't be subsidized but privatized.  This can lead to some Constitutional fun.

The U. S. Constitution merely says that "The Congress shall have the power … to establish Post Offices and post Roads;…"

Does "establish" mean "set up" or "operate"?  How is it financed?  Should it be self-funded or are Post Offices" part of the "General Welfare"?

All we know is at the time of the writing of the Constitution, the only means of communicating were either face-to-face or putting words on paper and sending them to other people.  One of the means of putting words on paper was called "newspapers", and the Founders considered newspapers so important to having an informed citizenry that they subsidized the postal delivery of newspapers (Post Office Act of 1792).  So, from the beginning, the Post Office was not self-supporting and was not intended to be.

The writers of the Constitution did not foresee the telegraph, the telephone, the Teletype, radio, television, and the Internet; all means of expanding the distribution of information (or misinformation).  Maybe the Internet should be subsidized to have an informed citizenry.  Of course, it is subsidized in a way.  Government organizations from local to international provide websites for public access to information.  But these sites are maintained by government employees.

We do have a slightly subsidized Internet - it's called public libraries, many which have free, albeit limited, access to the Internet.  Of course, free libraries and free Internet require taxes, which we can have none of.

What a long way we've come from
“However firmly liberty may be established in any country, it cannot long subsist if the channels of information be stopped,” Massachusetts Senator Elbridge Gerry stated in his fierce defense of providing federal subsidies to newspaper postal distribution in 1792.
– "The History of Transparency – Part 1: Opening the Channels of Information to the People in the 18th Century"

BTW, we have the wish to limit information all over the political map.  The Obama administration want to get authority to eavesdrop on the Internet.  See "U.S. Tries to Make It Easier to Wiretap the Internet", Charlie Savage, New York Times, 2010-09-27.

Again, where are the strict constructionists?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Muslims do speak out against "Islamic" violence

Several letter writers to newspapers have complained that Muslims are silent about the violence of "Islamic" terrorists, but is the whole Muslim world really silent?  I think these critics aren't reading the likes of Al-Jazeera and Dawn, both available in English online.

I found an example of the concern of Muslims about violence by Muslims in an article about the conviction of Aafia Siddiqui in U.S. courts, Dawn Editorial, 2010-09-25.
"Denialism embedded deep in the public psyche has allowed the real threat to the Pakistani state and society, religious extremism, to grow to dangerous proportions. The ‘impossibility’ of a Muslim committing a crime against another Muslim or the sympathy extended towards those who resort to violence against the West as ‘retaliation’ for its crimes against Islam and Muslims serve to obfuscate the campaign by a militant, fringe minority to hijack a religion of peace. The cancer within grows, ironically even as it is occasionally held up as a symbol of heroic resistance. If the government can, it must try and bring Aafia Siddiqui back to Pakistan, given the unsatisfactory conclusion to her trial. But long after the story of Dr Siddiqui will eventually fade, Pakistan will still be faced with an internal enemy it has not even begun to comprehend."
Also see "Siddiqui's 'missing years', Stories differ over the whereabouts of Pakistani scientist between 2002-2008".  This doesn't read like a one-sided headline that Siddiqui must be innocent because a U.S. court said she was guilty.

You can also read a long Wikipedia article about Siddiqui.   It is a complex story.

Whatever the facts in the case, ask yourself how you would feel and act if the Chinese invaded the U.S., if they captured you as a "terrorist", and if they tried you in Beijing.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Losing money by avoiding taxes

On NPR's "All Things Considered" we heard an interview with a businessman who said he was reluctant to hire any new employees because of the uncertainty of the tax rate changes.  I immediately thought, "What do tax rates have to do with hiring?  Either the costs are covered by sales or not.  Taxes will be on the net income, not costs.  Doesn't this guy know accounting?"  So, I made up a scenario and ran the numbers.

Suppose a new employee would be paid $20,000 a year.  Payroll taxes, health insurance, and so forth could be $10,000 a year.  Materials for the employee to do his or her work might cost $10,000 a year.  The employer would then have to have $40,000 a year in additional sales to break even.  Taxes would not be an issue.

Suppose that the employer makes $44,000 in additional sales a year because of hiring the new employee.  That gives $4,000 additional net income.  If the company is an S corporation, then the $4,000 passes on to the employer's income, not the $44,000 in additional sales.

If the marginal rate for the employer's personal income tax was 30%, then his or her additional tax would be $1,200 leaving $2,800 extra income.  If the rate was 35%, then the additional tax would be $1,400, leaving $2,600.

So, this employer would give up over $2,000 in extra income to avoid paying $200 more in taxes in his "worst case" scenario.

I ran this scenario by my daughter who is a partner in and president of her own company.  The only thing she said was that most companies would want to have a 200% return in sales per each new employee rather than a 110% return.  That is, if a new employee cost $40,000 per year, then sales should increase $80,000, rather than $44,000 I propose.  If so, that is lot of extra income to throw away to avoid paying additional taxes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How to win in politics

"Winning is the important thing. Giving speeches is not a matter for average minds, but rather a matter for practitioners. They are not supposed to be lovely or theoretically correct. I do not care if I give wonderful, aesthetically elegant speeches, or speak so that women cry. The point of a political speech is to persuade people of what we think right. I speak differently in the states than I do in Washington, and when I speak in Chicago, I say different things than I say in the party caucus. That is a matter of practice, not of theory. We do not want to be a movement of a few straw brains, but rather a movement that can conquer the broad masses. Speeches should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of speeches to discover intellectual truths."

Does that seem to you how our politicians come across?  Think of all the catch phrases that have been thrown out to catch votes - Obamacare, government off our backs, tax the rich, live within its means, working families, and on and on.  "They" all do it.  They don't want the truth, intellectual or otherwise, they want our votes.

Now guess who said something very close to the above quote.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda of the Nazi government of Germany.  For the translated original speech, see

Saturday, September 18, 2010

If Republicans are for the people, then why…

Are they opposed to a consumer protection agency?  Aren't consumers people and people consumers?

Could it be that Republicans are really for corporations and the people be damned except for their votes?  Come on, Mel, isn't that a bit cynical?  Oh, wait, corporations are now people with the right to make political contributions.  Of course, let's follow the money.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why gas prices go up faster than down

How often have you heard the complaint that gas prices go up faster than when they go down?  Especially after the latest pipeline break in Illinois.

Consider how wholesale gas or any high turnover products are purchased. 

Merchants pay for product with some of today's receipts.  In order to buy more product tomorrow, they need to raise prices PDQ.

Conversely, when prices go down they want to make up for some of the smaller margins they had as prices went up and to provide some protection against prices going up again.

If the rate of prices going up matched the rate of prices coming down, we would probably be very upset when our favorite station ran out of gas.

An ad for candidates with deep-pocket opponents

I thought up the following after reading about Meg Whitman spending $119 million of her own money for the California gubernatorial campaign:

Do you want the be$t candidate money can buy,
or do you want the best candidate.

BTW, I think it was Meg Whitman who said we needed candidates with experience in the real world.  Gosh, I wish I lived in her "real world".

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"The Media" is biased, but not the way many think it is

"The Media" is some mythical beast devouring the minds of people with slanted information.  Slanted is often in the mind of the complainant.  Too often the charge is "The Media" is "too liberal".  I've observed "too liberal" often means "The Media" doesn't emphasize a supposedly "conservative" view sufficiently according to the view of the complainants.

I think "The Media" gives too much coverage to views of all kinds that are based more on emotion than on fact, irrespective of where on the "political spectrum" they may be.

"The Media" reinforces the emotional impact of its coverage with a different, more worrisome bias.  A bias towards economy of words and away from nuance.  Just think of some of the headlines:

Angry voters
Consumers hold tight to their wallets
Investors were buoyed/dejected by …
Americans think…

These headlines convey "all voters", "all consumers", "all investors", or "all Americans" are acting as one.  What we rarely know is if the implied "all" should be replaced by "most", "many", or "some".  Sometimes we can read deep into an article that a poll claims that 45% of respondents answered with view A, 40% answered with view B, and 15% had no opinion.  That certainly doesn't justify a headline "People hold view A".

Oh, yeah!  It's probably even more problematic.  Few polls admit how many people hung up without responding.

For more of my rants on generalization, see "General Ization Battles Truth".

Malice in Wonderland

Political discourse is often filled with exaggeration, both of the efficacy of one's own plans and of the deficiency of an opponent's plans.  Too often discourse also generates into calling into question the character and purpose of one's opponents.  And too often the rhetoric gets way off the mark.

I think Obama is engaging in wishful thinking that the various initiatives he proposes are going to create jobs.  Far too many of the jobs that match the "skill sets" of many workers are gone, not to return anywhere in the world.  Obama's opponents are engaging in wishful thinking that tax cuts will create jobs that match those "skill sets".  Sorry, folks, but investment is going to the jobs of tomorrow, not the jobs of yesterday.

Interestingly, both "sides" claim to be in support of the people.  But which people?  Republican John Weaver claims that victory will be given to the Republicans "by an out-of-touch, big spending president." ("GOP is riding a tiger in Tea Party movement", Star Tribune, 2010-09-16)  My question is which people is Obama out of touch with.  Certainly not all the people.  Almost all of the elections are a bit over one-third of the people voting for one party, a bit under one-third voting for the other party, and one-third of the people not voting at all.  Results may vary by electoral district.  Projecting results like these to a mandate of the "people" is living in Wonderland.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The beginning of the end of the open primary?

With the election of Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senator for Delaware, some of the Republican establishment see less hope in taking control of the Senate.  Conversely, some Democrats have reinvigorated their campaigns with attacks on Tea Party-backed Republican candidates.

O'Donnell claims she doesn't need "the support of Washington Republicans" and will "harness the power of 'the people' to defeat her Democratic opponent in November."
- "The Morning After: Whose Party Is it?" Michael D. Shear, New York Times, 2010-09-15.

But who are the "people" that supported her in the primary?  Are they members of the Republican Party who give of their time and money to the Party?  Are they people who only say they are Republicans and only show up at election time?  Are they "independents" who voted for her on a lark?  Are they Democratic sympathizers who think O'Donnell will be easy to defeat in November?

Come November we will see how many "moderates" and "independents" reject Tea Party-backed candidates.  If many of these candidates lose, there may be a push for closed primaries.  On the other hand, "moderates" and "independents" may not even vote because they dislike both candidates.  If so, we could be looking at two more years of Congressional gridlock.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Who's a sexist?

At coffee and at the barber's I asked the one about the barber who shaved all the men in town who didn't shave themselves.  Who shaved the barber?  My barber answered, "the barber".  The usual response is that it is a contradiction; I've long held that the barber is a woman.

My barber replied with a man and his son were in a car crash.  The father was killed but the son was rushed to the hospital.  The doctor walked out of the operating room and said, "I can't operate; the patient is my son."  Who is the boy's father.  I replied, "The doctor is the boy's mother."

I told this to my wife when I got home, and she puzzled over an answer.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Weak economy? Which economy is weak?

Many people complain about the economy being weak, but have many stopped to think that certain segments were bound to become weak?  And if certain segments have become weak, might other segments have become strong?

Consider the booming sales of iPods, iPhones, smart phones, DSL subscriptions, wireless subscriptions, and on and on.  Airlines are making a mint on their extra fees – to some people's displeasure and to other people's pleasure.  Regional activities of all kinds are drawing people to the events and local merchants.

What has become weak is more of the same.  Cars are built to last longer and cars are built with less labor.  People are staying in their houses longer and not moving so frequently; that means less turnover and that means fewer home sales.

What has become weak is credit card purchases.  Not that people have stopped using credit cards, but many have stopped using their credit cards as indefinite loans.  In other words, more people have become "dead beats" – people who pay off their current balance every month.  That certainly cuts into the profits of credit card companies and banks and the sales of all kinds of businesses

Businesses are still being started.  Both the Duluth News Tribune and the Star Tribune feature new or growing businesses every week.  These owners have found products and services that people want to pay for.  In a world of iPods it will be difficult to sell lots of CDs.

We do have to recognize that life has become difficult for many people.  And business "efficiencies" and "no new taxes" governments are making matters worse.  If businesses and governments lay off employees, then there will be fewer consumers to buy goods and services.  If there are fewer consumers to buy goods and services, there will be fewer sales and taxes.  If there are fewer sales and taxes…

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Vote for Dayton, Emmer, Horner, or nobody; but VOTE!

I left the following comment on a Star Tribune editorial, "This November, the choice is not either/or".

Whatever you do in November, vote one of four ways according to what you believe, not what the polls say.  Remember 1998 when the poll rankings were Humphrey, Coleman, and Ventura.  The election rankings were Ventura, Coleman, and Humphrey.

Four ways, what fourth way?  The fourth way is to not be a stay-away.  If you don't like any of the three candidates, vote anyway with a blank ballot.  If you leave a blank ballot for governor your vote is counted.  If you stay away, your vote is not counted.

If everybody who stayed away in 1980 and many other elections had cast a blank ballot, the winner would have come in second to none-of-the-above.  There would not be any trumpeting about a landslide with less than 30 percent of the eligible voters casting a vote for the "winner".  When this happens, we are all losers.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ku Klux Klan = Al Qaeda?

Too many people think Islam is a violent religion because of the actions of a few.  But one could think the same of Christianity.  Does the Ku Klux Klan or Torquemada represent Christianity?

The Ku Klux Klan terrorized "uppity niggers" for a long list of imagined crimes and terrorized whites from opposing the Ku Klux Klan.  The Klan used the cross as its symbol and even corrupted it by burning crosses in the yards of those who opposed them.  They purported to be defending Christianity, but it wasn't the religion of Jesus.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban terrorize all those who don't agree with them for a long list of imagined crimes.  They have used the Koran as their symbol, but ignore all those parts that don't fit their rigid view.

The Grand Inquisitor Torquemada tortured many people on real or imagined threats to Catholicism.  Jews, Muslims, and Protestants were tortured to get them to confess to not following the "true belief".  Torquemada worked with the blessing of King Phillip of Spain; religious orthodoxy was a means to quell dissent with his policies.

The Iranian government tortures many on real or imagined threats to Islam or its national security.  But isn't it behaving like King Phillip?  Religious orthodoxy is a means to quell dissent with its policies.

There are far too many historical cases of "bad apples" of any major religion; it makes it very easy to argue that any religion is violent.

What doesn't make the news is the multitude of people of all religious faiths who follow the example of the Good Samaritan, offering help to those in need regardless of differences.  On the one hand we have Afghans offering tea to American soldiers who broke down their doors; on the other hand we have Americans sending money to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for Pakistani flood victims.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Your tax cuts at work

The cartoonists of "The Wizard of Id" couldn't have said it any better.  See

Or given some of the news items this week, Congress fiddles while homes burn.

Peace quote of the day

"All the work that Beyond the 11th has done in Afghanistan over nine years has cost less than keeping a single American soldier in Afghanistan for eight months."

Beyond the 11th is an organization founded by two 9/11 widows to help women in Afghanistan.  To read the full column, see "The Healers of 9/11", Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, 2010-09-08.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Cut! A story of two movies

On Saturday we rented two movies to take to our cabin: Chris Rock's "I Think I Love My Wife" and Helen Hunt's "Then She Found Me".

I liked Chris Rock in "Head of State" and thought we would have quite a chuckle with this one.  In "I Think I Love My Wife", Rock comes across as a nice, well-meaning guy with a good job.  His problem is that his wife is only interested in sex when she wants to have another baby; they already have two children.  Then Nikki appears from his past, sweet talks him into signing a recommendation letter that he didn't even read, and persuades him to have lunch with her.  Over lunch she starts asking lots of personal questions, including about his sex life.  Cut!

"Then She Found Me" is about a school teacher who marries at 39 to a guy who turns out to be gay and leaves her.  Her grousing adoptive mother dies, and another woman appears who claims to be her birth mother.  The birth mother invites the school teacher to lunch.  The mother starts asking lots of probing questions while bubbling over how glad she was to find her daughter.  Cut!

Why cut?  It was the manipulation.  In "I Think I Love My Wife", we just knew that Nikki was going to draw him into deeper and deeper trouble at home and at work.  In "Then She Found Me" we wondered if this was some scam being played on the school teacher or if it wasn't just a bit too cloying.  Enough!

Oh, the advantage of renting DVDs, especially at senior rates - $1.08 each.  If we had been in a movie theatre or had rented them from Netflix, we would have sat through to the bitter end.  Oh, well, there is probably a happy ending in both cases, but it would have been a tense wait for the happy ending.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

We've already been taken over by a foreign power

Many on the right claim to be for a strong defense.  But a defense against what?  After nine years of a strong defense against guys in sandals with rocket launchers, we haven't moved much closer to peace.  Many say that fighting these guys in sandals is going to protect our freedoms.

Are these guys in sandals going to take away our freedom of speech?  Or is it somebody hidden in plain sight who is controlling the debate.

Are these guys in sandals going to take away our freedom of the press?  Or is it somebody hidden in plain sight who is controlling a large part of the so-called mainstream media?

Are these guys in sandals going to take away our freedom of assembly?  Or is it somebody hidden in plain sight who gets police to keep those who dissent away from  the meetings of his fellow travelers (or is it dupes)?

Are these guys in sandals going to take away our freedom of religion?  Or is it somebody hidden in plain sight who gets people riled up about people who have the same religion as the guys in sandals claim to have?

Do these guys in sandals have any serious chance of invading our country and taking it over and denying us our freedom?  Yeah, a few of them can cause some serious damage in a few places, but is that damage that much greater in sum than the damage we have caused in their countries in the name of our freedom?

We have already been invaded by a foreign power hiding in plain site who with a few fellow travelers is playing many of our citizens as puppets to do his will.

Who is this foreign power?  Rupert Murdoch, a native of Australia, who controls News Corporation, which controls Fox News, which controls Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who frame the debate.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Why do we have "out-of-control" government spending?

One reason is our state of permanent war.  Wars as envisioned by the bright minds of the Pentagon bureaucracy and the best Congress money can buy don't come cheap.

In 2009, The Washington Post reported that the war in Afghanistan was costing two billion dollars a month ("Obama Plans More Funding For Afghan War", Karen DeYoung, 2009-03-27  Gosh, if Afghanistan has a population of 28.4 million, that means the U.S. could just give every man, woman, and child in Afghanistan $70/month or $840/year.  That's pretty damn good for a country with a gross national per capita income of $250/year (

Ironically, many of the deficit hawks are for a "strong defense", but against foreign aid and taxes.

A second reason is that we vote for Congressional candidates who will "bring home the bacon" to our districts.  Alaska is home to a large number of anti-tax people, but Alaskans get more per capita in federal money than in any other state.  Isn't bacon another form of pork?

Or maybe it is that not enough of us vote.  If 25-40% of the registered (or eligible) voters don't bother to show up, we are going to have candidates elected by a plurality rather than a majority.  And we are going to be left with candidates who either want to spend a gazillion on wars and pork or want to spend a gazillion on social programs and pork.

National Security? The emperor and his clothes

This morning at coffee, various wars came up in the conversation.

I mentioned Andrew Bacevich and his books, especially "Washington Rules, America's Path to Permanent War".  I said that the Department of Defense has become a vast bureaucracy where few question many of the assumptions.  It's another case of nobody noticing the emperor has no clothes.

A World War II veteran, shot down over France, hidden by the Resistance, and smuggled out through Spain, said, "Department of Defense!  It should be called the Department of Offense!"

Later, another person who comes up with many good puns, which unfortunately we soon forget, asked, "Does an immortal emperor have no closure?"

If the national security bureaucracy thinks it is immortal in its path to permanent war, we certainly will have no closure.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Grading teachers, there you go again!

See "Method to Grade Teachers Provokes Battles", Sam Dillon, New York Times, 2010-08-31.

Supposedly somebody's come up with a way to accurately grade teacher performance, but others find many flaws in applying the measures.

However, the major flaw is that teacher performance can be measured on how students perform on standardized tests.  Passing tests is not what made this country great; it was learning to be creative.

Furthermore, if you look back at your own education, which teachers do you think were most effective.  Those who prepared you for tests or those who put a dream in your head?  Who do you remember best?  Miss Grumpy who made you an expert on parsing sentences?  Or Frank McCourt who taught you how to tell your own story?