Monthly Archives: July 2011

No Way to Run a Country

I’m really tired of hearing about the debt ceiling, and I’ve avoided contributing to the cacophony so far, but I just have to get this off my chest. It’s not so much that I think one side is right and the other side is wrong. Rather, I think everyone who created this mess deserves a kick in the ass from every America. Unfortunately, parts our current problem are the result of some really bone-headed thinking long ago, and the culprits aren’t around any more. Let me explain…

First of all, consider how the national debt arises. It happens because government spending is greater than government revenue, and the amount of the debt is equal to the difference between spending and revenue. In mathematical terms,

debt = spending – revenue

Now let’s consider where each of those terms comes from.

The spending term is essentially the entire federal budget. Sometimes it’s a specific amount to be spend on a particular budget item, such as the budget for the FBI, or the cost of running an infantry division, and other times the spending is authorized in the form of an entitlement, such as social security or medicare. The budget is incredibly complex and detailed, and it is essentially authorized by Congress.

The revenue term is essentially federal taxes, including payroll taxes, income tax, gas tax, phone tax, tariffs, fees, and any other way the government can think of to squeeze money out of us. Parts of it vary with the activity of our economy, but all of it is essentially authorized by Congress

The debt term is the amount of money the government is allowed to borrow. Ever since the Public Debt Acts passed around 1940, it has been subject to an upper limit (the infamous ceiling) set by Congress.

At this point, anyone with a background in math (or science or engineering or economics or business…) should see a very obvious problem: The system is overdetermined.

We’ve got a system of three variables related by an equation that uses all three variables. In a situation like that, once you know any two variables, you can always solve for the third one. If you know spending and debt, you can solve for revenue:

revenue = spending – debt

And if you know revenue and debt, you can solve for spending:

spending = revenue + debt

And as we said at the outset, if you know spending and revenue, you can solve for the debt:

debt = spending – revenue

In other words, once you determine any two of these numbers — perhaps by passing a budget and a tax plan, thus determining spending and revenue — you have mathematically determined the value of the third one as well.

In this case, Congress has spelled out the spending plan and the revenue plan, which of course implicitly determines the debt. Our Congress, however, also spells out the debt (or at least an upper limit to the debt), which means they have determined more of the variables than they should. The system is overdetermined. And as is often the case with overdetermined systems, there is no exact solution. Thus the current crisis.

The only way to fix this is that something in the system has to change to make the equation work with the numbers. The equation itself is an accounting identity, so it can’t be changed, which means that one of the variables has to change. Normally, it’s the debt that would be changed, by raising the debt ceiling, but this time there’s an argument. Republicans want to hold the debt fixed and change spending instead, and in return, Democrats are now arguing that a revenue increase is in order.

This is no way to run a country.

None of this would be necessary if Congress hadn’t tried to control all three variables in the budget equation at the same time. Unfortunately for those of us yearning to kick the bums out of office, the current members of Congress aren’t entirely to blame. Much of the problem goes back to the Public Debt Acts passed between the Great Depression and World War II, which established the debt ceiling. And the problem may extend all the way back to 1787, when the United States passed its Constitution, which gave Congress the power to spend money, raise revenue, and “borrow Money on the credit of the United States.”

Still, it’s a stupid mistake that could be easily fixed by removing the debt ceiling entirely and, if necessary (and I suspect it is) passing a law that specifically authorizes the Treasury to borrow money to meet the debts that arise as a result of the spending and revenue plans passed by Congress. This takes nothing away from Congress, since they are still in complete control of the other two variables of the equation.

Well, it takes one thing away from Congress: It takes away the ability to do a lot of stupid grandstanding by taking the federal budget hostage. If the Tea Partiers want to reign in the federal deficit — something which, broadly speaking, I agree needs to be done — the proper way to do it is by controlling federal spending. (Or, if you lean that way, you could do it by raising the taxes.) But that would require specifying exactly which spending you propose to reduce, which will surely anger the voters who benefit from it.

The federal debt ceiling, however, is a single number with no internal parts assigned to constituencies. That makes it much safer politically. So we have this massive Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling, but when it comes to actually cutting spending, there’s little agreement within the party how to do it. Finding an agreement with the Democrats will be even harder.

My prediction, by the way, is that the Republicans and Democrats will cut a deal to raise the debt ceiling before anything drastic happens. Of course, in order to reach that agreement, each side will have to receive something good in return, and there’s a pretty good chance that (a) the final bill will be larded full of many pages of special provisions designed to win support from various members of Congress, (b) no one will really know what it says, and (c) it will somehow end up costing us more than if we’d simply raised the debt ceiling.

This is no way to run a country.

A Brief Note to Wayne LaPierre

Wayne LaPierre
National Rifle Association of America
11250 Waples Mill Road
Fairfax, VA 22030

Dear Wayne,

I just received your letter of July 18, 2011 inviting me to your upcoming American Values Leadership Forum at the end of September. I must say, the guest list looks like a conservative all-star lineup — Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour, John Boehner, John Bolton, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Oliver North, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney — although, as a libertarian, I was disappointed to see you did not include Ron Paul. I guess he would have freaked the traditionals, huh?

By the way, I can’t help notice you call them all “invited speakers,” as if some of them haven’t actually agreed to appear. I sure hope that’s not the case, otherwise people might think you’re padding the list to make yourselves look important. Ha, ha.

My reason for writing is to let you know about a matter of incompetence among your staff that reflects badly on the NRA and on you personally. You see, I was pretty excited that you, the Executive Vice President and CEO of the NRA, wrote to me personally to say, “I’m extending to you this invitation to be my personal guest at NRA’s 2012 American Values Leadership Forum.” So you can imagine my surprise that your letter was accompanied by an “Official R.S.V.P.” that in included a list of ticket prices ranging from $125 all the way up to $1000!

I know! Right? You’re a sophisticated Washington insider, a power broker representing millions of NRA members. There’s no way you’d commit the serious etiquette breach of inviting someone to attend a gathering as a personal guest and then expect them to pay to be there. You need to look into this, because someone in your mail room is making you look like a total ass.

I just thought you should know.

In any case, as I am starting a new job and it would be imprudent to take the time off, I regret I must decline your kind invitation.

Sincerely,

Mark Draughn

Stop.Think.Fail.

After reading about Jennifer’s ambition to “touch every U.S. citizen,” I was randomly poking around the Department of Homeland Security website when I stumbled on this horrifying headline:

Secretary Napolitano Announces Stop.Think.Connect. Campaign Partnership with D.A.R.E. America

Oh God. The DHS and D.A.R.E. That’s a partnership forged in the pit of hell. I can smell the fail from here.

Actually, the Stop.Think.Connect program doesn’t seem like an awful idea. It’s supposedly an educational effort to help children and adults learn about the importance of staying secure online. I say “supposedly” because as far as I know, no peer-reviewed study has ever shown that the D.A.R.E. program accomplishes any of its goals.

(And if someone from D.A.R.E. wants to respond, let me head off the usual distraction: You’re going to tell me that those studies are out-of-date because they were of the old D.A.R.E. program. The new one really works. At least until the next study comes out, and you change the program again.)

Of course, the program is more about “awareness” than about actually teaching people specific and helpful skills. If you’re a government agency like the DHS or public interest group like D.A.R.E., awareness is always a cool thing to promote, because you can easily survey people’s awareness, launch an educational program, and do another survey to show that people are more “aware.” They won’t actually be any better off, because you haven’t taught them anything useful, but you’ll have numbers to prove that people are more “aware,” which will make it easier to get more money next time.

Then there’s the key issues page. In addition to warning people about identity theft and fraud, it also has a section on this decade’s version of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic: Cyber Bullying and Cyber Predators. The warning about predators is especially amusing coming from the people who brought you TSA patdowns for children.

Mysteries of Comcast

So last night around 2am I sat down at my computer and…no internet. Called Comcast and accepted the automated system’s offer to reset my modem. When that didn’t work, I asked for a human being. The technician told me there was an outage in the area, but they couldn’t give me anymore information, and they couldn’t take a trouble ticket because their system was down for maintenance.

Woke up this morning, and it was still down, so I called Comcast and went through the automated diagnostic procedure, which gave up and transferred me to a human tech. He poked around from his end and said everything seemed to be up. He could access my modem, but he said my router hadn’t requested an IP address from the modem.

Something didn’t sound right about that…oh yeah, I have a static IP address. My router doesn’t have to ask for an IP address because it already knows one. Once before, some piece of Comcast equipment had forgotten my address and stopped routing my internet traffic. It looked like it was happening again.

I mentioned this to the tech, and he checked my order and proceeded to set up the static IP service again. For some reason, however, he issued me a new IP address instead of giving me the one I had before. He doesn’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened. It’s just one of those mysteries, I guess.

Anyway, I’m back up. For now.

Clowns Of the Left, Jokers Of the Right

Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attacks in Norway are bringing out the idiots. For example, from the (more-or-less) right, there’s Cheradenine Zakalwe at Islam Versus Europe in a post titled “Why the Left Shouldn’t Gloat about Anders Breivik”:

Reading through Anders Behring Breivik’s comments on the document.no website, it’s clear that he was on the verge of giving up on democracy. … That’s what drove him to despair and to an act of apocalyptic violence. He felt there was a conspiracy among the media and political elite to suppress any derogatory information about Muslims or mass immigration. And, of course, he was right. …

He was particularly struck by the Andrew Neather revelations about the Labour government’s conspiracy to flood Britain with immigrants in order to “rub the right’s nose in diversity.” The left rubbed Breivik’s nose in diversity and he rubbed theirs back in blood. Well done Neather. Well done Blair. Well done Rusbridger.

It is the left-wing that is responsible for this outrage, not the right-wing. This act of violence is the consequence of a deranged political elite attempting to demographic re-engineer an entire continent against the wishes of its people; exploiting imperfections in the democratic system so that the people are never allowed a real choice; passing laws to criminalise free speech so that honest discussion is scarcely possible any more; and a media conspiracy (embodied in laws or informal agreements like the NUJ Guidelines on Race Reporting) to systematically suppress information about the negative consequences mass third-world immigration, and particularly the Muslim component of it, is having on Europe.

Personally, I think responsibility for Anders Behring Breivik’s actions begin and end with Anders Behring Breivik. I’m willing to change my mind if the ongoing investigation manages to link his actions to any other organizations. Right now, however, he’s just a lone wacko.

To the idiots on the (more-or-less) left, that makes me part of the conspiracy, as illustrated by Roger Cohen in a New York Times op-ed title “Breivik and His Enablers”:

LONDON — On one level Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian responsible for the biggest massacre by a single gunman in modern times, is just a particularly murderous psychotic loner: the 32-year-old mama’s boy with no contact with his father, obsessed by video games (Dragon Age II) as he preens himself (“There was a relatively hot girl on [sic] the restaurant today checking me out”) and dedicates his time in asexual isolation to the cultivation of hatred and the assembly of a bomb from crushed aspirin and fertilizer.

No doubt, that is how Islamophobic right-wingers in Europe and the United States who share his views but not his methods will seek to portray Breivik.

We’ve seen the movie. When Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords this year in Tuscon, Arizona — after Sarah Palin placed rifle sights over Giffords’ constituency and Giffords herself predicted that “there are consequences to that” — the right went into overdrive to portray Loughner as a schizophrenic loner whose crazed universe owed nothing to those fanning hatred under the slogan of “Take America Back.” (That non-specific taking-back would of course be from Muslims and the likes of the liberal and Jewish Giffords.)

Look, some people think Islam is a religion with a substantial history of violence and oppression. Others think this is yet another case of panic about immigration. Whatever the case, unless you can find an actual conspiracy — people, organizations, plans, money, that sort of thing — it’s ludicrous to say that either side is responsible in any meaningful way for Breivik’s crimes.

More Pictures of Hotch

[Update: We renamed this cat “Beezle” (includes video of him playing).]

I was going to blog about the President’s speech, but look! Kitty pictures.

Taking all these pictures of Hotch is proving to be more difficult than I expected. For one thing, the color balance is all over the place. The room is actually lit with incandescent light, which gives everything a warm glow, but of course the flash on the camera is daylight white. So while the colors in the camera images are probably accurate, it’s not matching what I saw when I was there, so I’ve been making some adjustments, and the results havn’t been very consistent.

The problem is that the camera is guessing one color balance and then I’m making rough adjustments to that guess, so the variance is accumulating. I should probably get out the grey card and switch to raw mode.

Hotch chewing on the iPhone...
Larger ImageHotch chewing on the iPhone...

As you can see, Hotch thinks my iPhone case makes a great chew toy. Too bad the iPhone’s still in it.

...and trying to look like he's sorry.
Larger Image...and trying to look like he's sorry.

The other problem with taking pictures of Hotch is that my focus technique doesn’t work very well. With the kinds of photograpy I usually do, I’ve found it works better when I disable the automatic auto-focus on the shutter button, so when I want to take a picture, I pick the object I want in focus, press the manual focus button, and then recompose the picture and press the shutter button. Now I can take as many pictures as I want at that distance, without the auto-focus deciding to do something different.

The problem is that Hotch moves so fast sometimes that between the time I press the focus button and the time I press the shutter, he’s moved away from the focus distance. I’ve taken thousands of photos this way — weddings, children, flowers, buildings, even marathon runners — and it works just fine, so I wasn’t expecting a problem, and it took me a while to recognize what was happening, because the camera’s LCD screen is too small to show the problem unless I know to look for it.

Still, I got a few nice ones.

More to come in a few days.

TOS OMG

Remember Lori Drew? She’s the woman who used MySpace to play a very unkind trick on a teenage girl named Megan Meier, who killed herself. Prosecutors in Missouri, where Drew and Meier both lived, didn’t prosecute her for this, probably because saying mean things to little girls isn’t a criminal act.

That didn’t stop grandstanding U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien from stepping in. Even though he was located 1500 miles away in the Central District of California, he used the fact that MySpace’s computers were located in California to charge Drew with computer fraud because she violated MySpace’s Terms of Service (TOS) when she used fake information to setup her account.

Fortunately, the judge assigned to the case wasn’t having any of that and dismissed the case. If this had gone forward, it had the potential to set a horrifying precedent. Instead of being merely a contract between us and the websites, the TOS would essentially be elevated to federal law. All that stuff you click past would be something that could send you to jail.

Well, according to a terrific post by Gideon at a public defender, something similar is happening to Reddit‘s Aaron Swartz. It sounds like an ordinary hacking complaint at first, but it’s not, because Swartz did not apparently hack past security. He just downloaded more stuff than the TOS allowed. The full story is up at Wired, but read Gideon’s post first.

Update: Scott Greenfield agrees the government’s position is absurd, but finds the intellectual property issues more troubling.

in Legal

Never Rely on Prosecutors For Mercy

Defenders of Caylee’s Law have been arguing in my comments and elsewhere that even though the rush to legislate will result in a poorly-written law, my fear that it will punish innocent parents and babysitters far more than it helps any child is unfounded, because prosecutors will use their discretion wisely and mercifully.

In most cases, I’m sure they’re right, but why rely on it? Why not just take the time to write a good law? It’s not like there aren’t grandstanding prosecutors out there who will punish people just to make themselves look tough, and it doesn’t take more than a few handfuls of them to ruin a lot of lives.

Radley Balko has an example:

Last April, Nelson was crossing a street with her three children when her 4-year-old was struck and killed by a car. She was crossing at an intersection, but was apparently not in a designated crosswalk. The driver who killed her had been drinking, taking painkillers, and was blind in one eye. He also has two prior hit-and-run convictions. Nelson and her daughter were also struck and injured. Residents of Nelson’s apartment building have complained to the city about the intersection. The nearest crosswalk is a half mile away.

In other words, she jaywalked, and she had very, very bad luck. Here’s what the wise and merciful prosecutor did:

Nelson was charged with second-degree vehicular homicide. Which is insane. She was convicted last week. When she’s sentenced later this month, she could spend more time in jail than the man who struck and killed her son. The prosecutor will say he was just enforcing the law. The jury will say they were just applying it. Both are excuses to duck responsibility (prosecutors can decline to bring charges, juries can nullify). But if both are true, then the time to prevent the unjust application of well-intentioned laws is to anticipate those applications while the laws are being written and proposed.

Which is the whole point I’ve been trying to make all along.

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