North Carolina Lurches Right (and Why It Won’t Last)

I delve more into economics than politics, but occasionally a bit of political punditry is what is required.  This is one of those times.

A bunch of folks are bemoaning the “Decline of North Carolina” as the Republican Party is using their current control of the state government to move NC firmly toward the right.  Even the Grey Lady has lamented this sorry state of affairs as a tragedy.

While in the short term, I agree that many of the things which the NC Republican Party are doing range from poor policy (as I watch our education system drop back to one of the worst-funded in the country) to morally deplorable (issues on abortion, gay rights, religious freedom, etc), I don’t think this is the end of the world for NC.  In fact, I tend to think of this as indicative of the death throes of Red State NC — and possibly of the Conservative movement as a whole in the U.S.

Somewhere back in the early 80′s, thinkers in the Republican party decided to pursue a strategy of “playing to the base”.  They identified those people that would be most fervent in their support of the GOP and tailored their campaigns to the ideals of those people.  Money and votes followed.  It was a brilliant tactical move that rewarded Republicans with numerous wins — but also transformed the party into a right-wing movement that likely would have left Richard Nixon a Democrat (not to mention Bush, Sr, who was quite the environmentalist and a icon of restraint in terms of war as a way to move U.S. interests forward).

The problem for Republicans — and the reason the majority of Americans should not lose faith in our Great Experiment — is that the policy hitched Republican fortunes to a smaller and smaller group of rural aging Americans.  The *majority* of Americans believe in the right to abortion in the first trimester.  The majority believe in protecting the environment.  The majority want health care reform.  The majority want to rebuild our aging infrastructure.  The majority believe in religious tolerance and that the federal government shouldn’t try to force one faith on all citizens.

The fact that the majority is out of step with the Republicans although the Republicans hold a great deal of power in many states leads many Democrats and Independents to despair.  They feel that the system itself is failing.

It’s not.

The system grants one person one vote BUT the influence of a party is very much boosted by the degree to which their supporters are fervent in their participation.  Republicans tapped their core, and the core responded with an outpouring of time, energy, votes and donations.  That’s FREEDOM, folks…  the moderates and the left could buck up and do the same any time.

Here’s the problem for Republicans:  their core values are more and more out of step with those of the 60% or more of the country.  Their success depends on their core — but that core is predominantly elderly and rural.  The elderly pass on to the next generation and the percentage of our populations living in cities continues to grow (you know… those places that need efficient government services like modern rail, infrastructure, etc which Republicans tend to vote against).

In other words, the Republican core is dying both through age and through migration.  Our republican system (by that I refer to the U.S. electoral system, not the party) gives heavier weights to rural state voters than to urban state voters, so they have a short to intermediate term advantage.  Regardless, though, the tide is turning rapidly against the Republicans as led by Neoconservatives.

So for liberals:  don’t despair!  The Neoconservatives have had  their day in the sun.  It’s almost over.  That’s just pure demographics.  If the Republican Party wants to stay relevant in the coming decade they need a new strategy FAST.

On the other other hand… I don’t claim this is “all good” either.  I think democracy works best with two or more vibrant parties sparring intelligently over issues.  By exploiting a culture war in the U.S. the Republicans have abandoned the ground trod by Nixon’s GOP.  We need a good debate and a smart, savvy Republican party as part of it.

In summary:  Democrats need to stop thinking that the United States is going down the tubes, and Republicans better start thinking about how they can win the hearts of the middle if they don’t want to see everything they’ve down flushed down the toilet and branded forever as a misogynistic, extremist, warmongering era studied in the future only as “what not to do”.

The future is still to be made, and I for one still have great hopes for the future.

 

 

Jawbone UP Review

My life has settled down a little bit.  Ariel has graduated high school and is ready to head to college.  Maker Faire North Carolina is “Achievement Unlocked” for another year.  That’s brought things around so that I can focus more time and energy on my own well-being, so I’m tackling some health and fitness goals.

Unsurprisingly, I’m going about this with an engineering mindset:  hard data and tracking progress.  Also unsurprisingly, I’m using technology to help.  I thought I’d share some thoughts on my tools and process for anyone interested.  I currently employing four pieces of technology:  my iPhone, Runkeeper, a Withings WS-50 Smart Body Analyzer and my Jawbone UP.

Right now, I just want to review the Jawbone UP.

Short version:  the UP is a $130 pedometer.  I highly recommend it.

Long version:  the Up is a $130 water-resistant pedometer that uses an accelerometer and fairly sophisticated software to track the number of steps you take each day (the recommended healthy number is 10,000) as well as tracking motion as you sleep to determine times awake, total hours of sleep and time in deep sleep versus shallow sleep.  It is supported with a smartphone app — you just plug in the UP to the headphone jack on your phone to update your data.  Additionally, the app is compatible with several other fitness products (including my new scale/body fat monitor) and Runkeeper (my running app) as well as others. Among other niceties it features a “power nap” mode to help you take the right length nap to refresh yourself without ending up “fuzzy” the rest of the day and the ability to set inactivity reminders if you are a desk jockey so that you get up and move on a regular basis.

After having used it for a couple of weeks I give this my vote of approval!  My activity level is higher, I’m conscientious about not sitting still too long at work, and I’m doing a much better job of getting the sleep I need (something that boosts your metabolism and mental clarity).  If it was to break six months from now I’d jump right back online and buy another with little hesitation.  I do recommend, however, that if you are currently very sedentary that you set your movement goal to something quite a bit less than the recommended 10,000 daily steps.  A very sedentary person might only take 3,000 steps a day or less, so going straight to 10,000 might be a bit discouraging.  Also, recognize that the distances it tracks are based on calibrating your step length, but your stride varies with what you are doing — mowing the lawn, taking a stroll, going on a power walk, and running all have different strides, so distance tracking will be an approximation.  If you want accurate distance info, try the Runkeeper app for your smartphone.  That said, I think the number of steps you take per day is a better measure of your activity level than distance covered.

Verdict: If you are looking to get fitter/healthier I definitely recommend adding a Jawbone UP to your tool chest.  You can get them from the manufacturer directly (website annoys me…) or from everyone’s favorite virtual megamall, Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/UP-Jawbone-Medium-Wristband-Packaging/dp/B00A17IAO0/

 

A Bit on Marriage Equality / Gay Marriage

Everyone is a bit abuzz with the Supreme Court cases regarding marriage.  I’m a bit swamped at the moment but wanted to briefly share my thoughts on the subject.

The Nature of Marriage

What is marriage to you?  Is it two people publicly committing to build a lasting relationship together? Is it a relationship pact framed by a set of theological considerations?  Is it the formation of a specific legal arrangement between two people as a household that conveys certain legal considerations?

Should the Supreme Court be Involved?

Many people see this as a decision that should belong to the States.  I would entertain such an argument, but this document kicks it to the curb: http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f1040.pdf Boxes one through five set up Federal differentiation among citizens based on marital state.  That makes this a Federal issue.  Regardless of what you think the foundation of marriage is, the fact that specific legal rights and responsibilities are established by Federal law on the basis of marital status makes this a Federal issue that needs to be settled at the Federal level.

Is Marriage is Based on Theology?

If you believe that marriage is an institution of God, then you must fall into one of a couple of camps:

1 – Marriage has a religious basis, and since the Constitution specifies that no citizen will be accorded preferential or discriminatory treatment on the basis of religion, the United States should not be in the business of  messing with marriage in any way.  Marriages belong to the Church, not the State.

2 – Marriage has a religious basis, and the Constitution’s “more perfect union” should be overthrown and replaced by a “more Godly union” where “more Godly” reflects your own religious beliefs.

If you see marriage as having a basis in religion, you really can’t claim to believe in our Constitutional right to freedom of religion and SIMULTANEOUSLY believe that the government should have *any* role in recognizing *any* form of marriage.  Is it based in religion or is it secular?

If religion is a civil union, the United States should not discriminate based on religious definition of marriage.  Which religion?  If a person’s religion allows polygamy would you support that as legally married, or is it just your religion that is to be recognized?  What about divorce?  If a marriage is an eternal God-approved bond, can you allow the government to recognize a second marriage?

My View

As for me, I don’t think any civil legal discrimination on the basis of marital status should occur.  Let’s leave marriage to be a personal choice based on individual ethics and religion.  Leave the government out completely.  In terms of legal benefits, I think anyone should be able to form a household that chooses to live under the same roof together.

A 4o-something man taking care of his 80-something mother with Alzheimer’s? Household.  Two siblings living together?  Household.  A single mom with two kids?  Household.  Two old men who’d rather live together and play chess in their golden years than die alone?  Household.  A multi-racial couple? Household!  Gay couple?  That, too, is a household.

The government has NO BUSINESS telling us how to live our lives in ways that bring us contentment, joy or simple companionship.  This is WAY BEYOND gay or straight.  This is about our freedom in “pursuit of happiness” and is therefore a central part of what it means to be an American.

If you believe that government should define marriage to be a civil institution which is in turn defined by your religious beliefs, then you do not actually believe in the Constitutional right to freedom of religion:  you want the government to define and discriminate on the basis of marriage as defined by your religion (and no more nor less!).  There’s no way around that.

Note that throughout all of this, I have no problem with what you and your particular religion recognizes as marriage.  I just have a problem if you claim the government should make your religious view of marriage into a *civil* institution. You can’t support the American Way AND the imposition of a particular religious viewpoint on all people.  Choose.

As for me, I *believe* in the American Experiment.  I believe in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  I believe in YOUR right to marry according to the rules of God as you see them, but I believe in right of others who believe differently from you as well.  I do NOT believe in your right to require everyone to adhere to your religious views.

You cannot be intellectually honest while claiming that you believe in freedom of religion AND wanting the government to define marriage according to a particular set of religious views.  Do you want the government regulating religion or not?  Choose, and state your view with integrity.

 

 

 

Federal Receipts and Outlays as %GDP

Another look at how big our government has grown (or not)…

Here’s a chart I made from White House data on historical federal receipts and spending from 1931 to the present:

Nothing amazing or really stunning to see here, but it is informative.  For the last few decades the size of the federal government as measured as a percentage of the economy has fluctuated but not shown any definitive trend.  We’ve had a tendency to overspend on a regular basis.  No clear patterns related to political party in power jump out to me.  Prior to the current financial crisis, spending as a percentage of GDP peaked in 1982  excluding WWII (that did surprise me a little).

Government is NOT much bigger now than at other times during the post-war era when measured against GDP.  The massive U.S. national debt appears to be mostly due to policies of moderately overspending while reducing federal receipts over a period of many years — i.e. we keep spending a little too much as a country while also lowering tax collections.

So should government size generally be measured against GDP?  If GDP doubles is it optimal or necessary for government spending to also double?  I have no answer to those questions.  In other words, I can draw a few conclusions from the data in terms of where we are now compared to previous times, but I can’t tell you if that means we’re doing well or poorly.

Another “How Big?” Question: U.S. Federal Spending

Just about everyone and their dog has seen those scary graphs of government spending shooting skyward along an exponential curve.  They look like this:

This runs from 1913 until 2011 and was retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals.  In 1913 Federal spending was $715 Million.  In 2011 it was $3,603,061 Million ($3.6 TRILLION).  However, if you’ve seen my last few posts you know how important it is to adjust for inflation and population before assigning any meaning to these kinds of statistics.  Well, that’s just what I did.  I grabbed my population numbers from a previous post and used an online inflation calculator to convert everything to 2012 dollars.  We end up with real (inflation-adjusted) Federal spending per person from 1913 to 2011.  How’s that one pan out?  Again, I was stunned by the result (which means my guess and reality were *again* very different).

Wow!  I kinda thought the folks screaming about how much government spending has grown were exaggerating in a major way.  It looks like I was wrong.  In 1913 the federal government spent $172 per person per year (in 2012 dollars!).  In 2011, the federal government spent $11,799 person person per year (in 2012 dollars).  I’m blown away!  At the height of WWII we spent only $8515 per person in 2012 dollars.

Here are my thoughts:

  • Since around 1930 we’ve seen an almost linear growth in federal spending per person.  The nineties represent a departure from that trend, but 00′s soar to bring us right back to the trend line.
  • We get a LOT more from our government today in terms of social safety nets, research, public health, education and other programs than we did in the early 1900′s.  Is that good or bad?  That’s a matter of whether or not that is what we want in terms of what we give the government and what we expect to get in return. There isn’t a clear right or wrong — but we need to recognize that fact as a society and make an enlightened choice.
  • Federal spending really is increasing dramatically over the long-term trend and seems to do so in a fairly predictable way.
  • I don’t think that trend line is sustainable.  How far can it go?  How will it end?  I have no idea.

I’d really like to look at federal spending vs. median household income, but that is a topic for another day.

Hat tip to Kenny Felder for getting me to pursue this set of calculations!

In Perspective, How Big is the U.S. Government?

This is another post in which I’m trying to separate fact from rhetoric for my own sake, and I thought I’d share my results. There are a lot of politicians making promises to shrink “Big Government” in the U.S. What I wanted to know was simply how big has that government actually become.

Let me say right off that there are LOTS of ways to consider whether the federal government is “BIG” or not — budget-wise, intrusiveness into local/regional issues, etc. As a start I’m just looking at how many employees the federal government actually has. There are real problems with this — for example, contractors are not, I believe, counted as employees and I can’t say how the number of contractors has changed over the years. Likewise, this gives no glimpse into private-sector workers whose livelihoods are completely dependent on federal work (defense industry, for example).  This is just another glimpse that might give me a bit of insight.

As in my previous posts, I’ve analyzed the data by adjusting for population (i.e.: per capita results). Why? If the population has doubled, but the government is the same size, then are government has HALF as many employees per citizen as it did previously. That indicates a much leaner government. On the other hand, if population doubles but government employment quadruples, then we have TWICE AS MANY employees per citizen as we did previously.  Population adjustments are absolutely necessary if you want to make sense of historical trends.

A second caveat:  this is another “first order” approximation.  I’m not looking to publish this for economic modelling purposes, so I’m not worried about being off a few percent here or there due to interpolations I made on census data, for example. I just wanted to make a quick-and-dirty reality check to see how big a problem government growth actually is. Employment data were drawn from this table: http://www.opm.gov/feddata/historicaltables/totalgovernmentsince1962.asp

Once again, the data and my expectations were pretty darn different!  Here’s total U.S. Federal Employment (Civilian + Military) per capita from 1962 through 2010:

Much to my surprise, the size of the federal government in terms of employees per capita has been on a general downtrend since the end of the 60′s. In fact, it’s now under half the it’s peak size for this time period. I absolutely did not expect that.  Digging through the data reveals that we’ve seen big drops in civilian employees per capita and still bigger drops in uniformed military per capita. The drops in military employment as the cold war wound down and we refocused on stand-off engagements (cruise missiles, smart bombs, drones) make sense, but I didn’t think that through beforehand. What really surprised me, though, is that the number of civilian employees (what we can consider to be the bureaucracy) has actually shrunk per capita.  I really did think government was much bigger in terms of employees now than it was in the 60′s or 70′s.

Well… now I know better!  Just for kicks here is one more graph stacking up all federal employees (executive branch employees, legislative/judicial employees and military):

So what does all of this say about whether or not our federal government is too big?  Not a thing.  It does not tell us what the best size would be for the most successful government for our society.  It only says that our federal government has been shrinking since the 60′s in both the civilian and military side of things.  We may or may not have a “BIG” government, but it *is* a much smaller government than it used to be.  The only other thing that I notice is the lack of any convincing claim that one party or the other has a significantly different impact on size of government from their rival.  The downward trend is fairly uniform.

 

On the Nature of Economic Growth

My last post was a basic investigation into a simple question:  would “tax the rich” fix our deficit and or debt?  It generated a lively thread over on my Facebook page, but a lot of that discussion went well beyond the scope of my simple question.  All that debate got me thinking:  in a more-or-less free market economy like our own, can you discern the impact of tax rates or government spending or politics or anything else in the growth of our economy?

To answer that question I went dredging the web for data.  I started by finding a table of U.S. GDP from the end of 1929 through the present in inflation-adjusted (real) dollars.  If you don’t use real dollars then “growth” can actually be simple inflation, so that’s a necessary adjustment.  I charted it using a Google spreadsheet and got this:

We see a basic exponential curve with some variation along the way and a blip at the end that represents the current financial crisis.  Hmmm… exponential…  That made me wonder how much of our growth is due to nothing more than having MORE PEOPLE and therefore MORE WORKERS.  To answer that question I grabbed census data from 1920 to 2010, ran a linear interpolation for years in-between, and used those numbers to create the following graph of Real-Dollar GDP per Capita:

Wow.  That’s *almost* linear, but perhaps it could be the early portions of an exponential growth curve.  Regardless of that, however, what can we conclude?

Tax rates varied wildly over the range, but the trend is almost linear.

Government policies varied greatly, but the trend is almost linear.

Wars and recessions came and went, BUT THE TREND IS ALMOST LINEAR.

I can’t draw conclusions from this about what are really the biggest drivers of economic growth (my first guess is progress via science and technology) but I *can* see that it seems to vary negligibly based on who is in power, what the tax rate for the rich is, or most of the other political positions people tend to take.  So maybe one position *IS* better than another. Fine.  I’ll give you that.  On the other hand, the impact of any particular position seems to be insignificant in the larger sweep of history in terms of economics.  It’s noise in the long-term trend.  I don’t know about you, but I find this FASCINATING and a bit unexpected!

Tax the Rich!!! (or not…)

There’s been quite a bit of talk of making the rich “pay their fair share” as a way of solving the U.S. budget problems.  I got curious as to how much good it would actually do.  I’m not interested in being super-duper precise here — just enough to know whether there is any sense in it or not.  PLEASE note that this is NOT a meant to be any statement of support for either end of the political spectrum as my feeling is that both extremes are self-deceiving at best and  self-serving at worst.

Here’s what I found:

The Current Population Survey from the Census Bureau reveals that there are 2.484 million households (out of 118 million) in the U.S. that make more than $250,000 per year.  Those households have an average income of $398,194 per year. With current tax brackets, their upper income is taxed at between 33% and 35% That’s on everything ABOVE $250K/yr of taxable income, so $148,194 per household.  At 33% that would bring in about $121 billion per year.

What if we raised it to 50%?  That would give the U.S. government about $63 billion more per year.  What if we TOOK IT ALL — ALL THEIR INCOME OVER $250K PER YEAR??? The U.S. government would get a little less than $250 billion a year more (in year one — after that NO ONE would be interested in making over $250K a year anyway, so the take would go to $0).

Through July of this year the federal deficit — the amount we’ve overspent so far just this year — was $974 billion.

So…  if we took away all income over $250,000 from the wealthiest 2.5 million households in the U.S.,  we would only be able to cover about a QUARTER of our current overspending.  So no matter how much we tax the rich, it barely even puts a dent in the problem.

That means EVERYONE is going to pay much, much more in taxes or we’re going to see HUGE reductions in spending. The former means much slower economic growth and reduced prosperity.  The latter means cutting Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and the military (along with interest on the debt they make up ⅔ of the budget, so you can’t balance the budget without cuts there).  We have to pick our poison… there is no such thing as a free lunch.

A Review of Atlas Shrugged

I finished Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, so I want to share my thoughts on it, especially since it brings out such strong emotions in many people.

1 – It’s long and long-winded.  Rand never fails to use four pages where one could do the job better.

2 – It’s preachy.  One of the main characters gives a THREE HOUR speech.  Seriously, the chapter claims the speech took three hours.

3 – The plot is OK.  It has its moments, but the long diatribes detract from it.  Also, it reminds me of “Mission Impossible 2” where there seemed to be a large number of silly “glamour shots” focusing on Tom Cruise’s hair.  Rand does that IN PRINT.  Editing out 50% of the book would make for a much better story while retaining all the meaning.

4 – It reminds me Robert Heinlein’s more Libertarian writings — just swap “spaceship” for “train” throughout the book.

So that’s about it for the book itself.  Of course, what makes the book so controversial is that it is a vehicle for exploring Rand’s philosophical framework, Objectivism.

Objectivism rejects religion, insists that rational thought is what makes us human, believes that individuals should live a life of rational self-interest, and that altruism is wrong (or a form of self-delusion).  You could very loosely describe it as “Libertarianism for Atheists” although real differences do exist between the two.

Interestingly, the human that honestly embraces Objectivism is also meticulously honorable and fair.  This stems from the relationship between rational thinkers and self-esteem:  you cannot rationally take pride in wealth, awards or accolades which are undeserved and unearned, so you must treat every dealing with others with a sense of utmost fairness.  This is in stark contrast to what I had heard spoken of Rand’s philosophy — that it justifies the behavior of a scoundrel.  I can see how people could believe that, but Atlas Shrugged definitely does not support that view.

On the subject of altruism, it is my interpretation that Rand recognized no such thing.  I believe she would suggest that a person is always getting something in return:  happiness, a sense of nobility, superiority, gratitude or satisfying a personal need to shape the future to be more the world they desire.  Wikipedia discusses this debate in its article on altruism as well. Altruism, I think, is not represented so much as something to be avoided, but something an honest person would recognize as self-delusion.  Again, a bit different than I usually see her views as presented by critics.

So what do I think of Rand’s philosophy (based on my reading of Atlas Shrugged — I have not studied her other books or essays on the subject)?

I think that for people who can live Objectivism honestly, it could make them better individuals — individuals who tend to pull the world forward towards a brighter future in the process.  For people that do not find solace or hope in religion, it seems to be a way for those that embrace it to live happier lives as well — productive, energetic, purposeful and accepting joy at the accomplishments that brings.  It’s not an easy way of life for anyone, but I think it has good value for individuals that can deal with its high demands for open self-examination and constant unflinching use of reason.  It doesn’t offer easy answers or simple choices, and doesn’t serve as a pre-determined rulebook for every situation an adherent would encounter.  I think that the number of people that are capable of successfully applying this philosophical framework to their lives is very small.

Of course, many people wish to judge a philosophy as a social system, not as a choice for an individual.  What world would we live in if everyone adopted Objectivism?  That’s a fantasy question as it demands a world in which everyone be the kind of person that would live accordingly.  To answer the question presupposes a world completely different than the one in which we live — and that doesn’t answer the original question at all.  That’s a problem with most philosophies as well as social systems — they paint a picture of Utopia that is based on everyone choosing to embrace the same system.

Conclusions

One-sentence summary of Atlas Shrugged:
It’s worth reading for its historical relevance and as an introduction to Objectivism even though it is long-winded and limps along at times as a work of fiction.

Two-sentence summary of Objectivism:
Potentially quite valuable to a very small number of individuals, but highly unlikely to be successfully applied by most people.  It is neither the salvation nor abomination that some make it out to be.

Headlight Restoration

It’s clear that my Boxster had a headlight replaced before I bought it. Unfortunately, that’s because the one that wasn’t replaced has become cloudy. I considered replacing the cloudy one, but then found out that my car has the premium light package and the xenon headlights are over $1200 each.

OK… not going to be doing that. Instead, I spent about 1% of that on a lens restoration kit from 3M. It’s a series of sanding disks and polish that you attach to an electric drill to remove the outer layer of the lens and then polish it clear again. I was a bit nervous about taking sandpaper to a $1200 part, but hey… you only learn by giving yourself permission to make mistakes. Fortunately, the process turned out to be really easy. 3M’s kit is very complete and has excellent instructions — you can even go online to see a how-to video.

Here’s the before and after:

And after…

I may do a second polishing on it since I think I could still improve it slightly, but I’m not sure. I can still see a slight difference between the two headlights, but it’s now very subtle instead of “one clear – one cloudy”. For under $20, I’d highly recommend 3M’s kits to anyone that wants to fits cloudy headlights.