Thursday, December 27, 2012

Helpless, helpless

The United States has, by far, the largest military establishment in the world.  Our expenditures are roughly equal to the next fourteen world powers combined.  China and Russia, together, spend only 30% of what we spend.

That level of expenditure might be justified if our military actually accomplished anything, but it really hasn't been good for much lately.  Some may argue that "lately" goes back half a century or so, but let's start by looking a lot more "lately" than that.

Not even factoring in all the lost lives, and the contributions they might have made to our society, Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to add up to $4 trillion — when you add in the costs of caring for the injured and disabled, and the interest on the debt we accrued to fight in those countries.  Hell, we're still paying the social and psychological costs of Vietnam — and we lost that one too.

Yes, that's what I said.  We lost.

Iraq's Shi'a government — thoroughly corrupt, aggressively purging Sunnis, hostile towards the Kurds, and not even remotely recognizable as democratic — looks like a good bet to become Iran's closest ally.  Afghanistan, as any student of history might have predicted, will return to it's natural condition of tribal-warlord-dominated-failed-state-locked-in-perpetual-civil-war.  Nobody even can guess what will transpire in Pakistan, but it doesn't look too hopeful for the USofA.  Great job, America!

Then there's Syria — not to mention Libya, Egypt, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and an host of other severely challenged not-quite-states — places where even the most ambitious American generals fear to tread.  And, no, we can't get away with invading Venezuela or Bolivia or Peru, and our military is useless against provocations by Russia or China (despite our commitments to Japan, Georgia, and the Philippines.)  What good is a huge, bloated military if you can't even use it?

(Okay, Clinton managed to get the Balkans back to where they were, more or less, before World War I — but, as you may recall, that "balkanized" region was where World War I started.  All Obama does is launch drone attacks, which is kind of like using laser beams against the flies buzzing around those starving babies' eyes.)

Does global capitalism need a powerful army to protect its interests around the world?  It seems to think it does — but why in hell should you and I pay for it?  Let global capitalism hire Eric Prince and whatever he's calling Blackwater these days — and pay for the protection, extortion, and intimidation without putting it's grasping tentacles in our pockets.

Oh — and, yeah...  Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Only Thing...

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun," we are told, "is a good guy with a gun."

Okay.  I've watched all the cowboy movies, so I know the story line, but I'm unsure.  Does a "good guy" with a Glock necessarily stop a "bad guy" with a Bushmaster?  Does a bored-out-of-his-mind, fifty pounds overweight retired cop stop a twenty-something psycho who knows the old fat man is kind of snoozing around the main entrance to the school building?  Give me a break!

It sure as hell won't work in any secondary school, where the numerous "safety" doors are popped open by the resident youth for the sake of a smoke or a toke, and then propped open to accommodate the next "bell."  Granted, the doors won't all be open at the elementary school, but, on a warm day, most of the windows will.  Air conditioning is too goddamned expensive for your ordinary school budget.

Give the principal her own semi-automatic, to stop the carnage "earlier?"  All the principals I ever worked for would have been pretty useless.  Mine all were kind of "manly" men (and one manly woman), but they still would have shit their pants before getting into a fucking firefight.  Okay, one or two would have tried the firefight even with the shit in their pants, but they still would have been useless.

I don't pretend to know the answer to gun violence in the USofA.  There are a shitload of guns out there already, and I suppose the Connecticut slaughter is inspiring more sales of AR15s, just in case  President Blackie Socialist tries to take away our Constitutional Right to buy them.

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a fucking lunatic with an explosive vest.  Try to ignore the collateral damage.

If American gun manufacturers also produced cordite, you could be pretty sure the NRA would lobby for the Constitutional right to wear a suicide vest to your local mall, church, or youth group meeting. I mean, that's the meaning of the Second Amendment.  Isn't it?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Over the Cliff!!!

Butch and Sundance did it.  Thelma and Louise did it.  Results were mixed.

As for the fiscal cliff, it is pretty obvious that John Boehner cannot control his caucus.  Maybe, come January, the crazies will elect Paul Ryan to the office of Speaker.  You never know with those assholes.

I just listened to Obama's brief statement. He didn't say much — certainly nothing especially specific.  I was kind of hoping he would withdraw his most recent offer ($250,000 to $400,000, "chained CPI"), but he didn't.  He just expressed a little half-hearted optimism and left the room.

I suspect the Administration calculates that going over the cliff might turn out to be a net gain.  Now that Boehner's "Plan B" is dead, the last chance for Republicans dodging responsibility is gone.  Once the leap is undertaken, and tax increases and sequestration kick in, the right-wing ideologues scarcely could oppose tax cuts for the middle class because they are not extended to the very rich.

As for the sequestration, those spending cuts will kick in slowly, probably not doing a great deal of damage while Congress works to balance the demands of the defense lobby and the remainder of the human race.  I fear defense will make out better than humanity, but what the hell?  What would you expect?

Will the markets take a dive?  Uh huh.  Briefly.  As I've observed before, the markets have very little to do with real life.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Case for (and against) Chained Inflation

Obama is compromising again, and among his latest offers is acceptance of computation of inflation using the "chained" consumer price index.  In truth, the "chained" computation makes a lot of sense, because it accounts for something we all (ought to have) learned in basic economics — the substitution effect.  If the brand name product's price goes up, we buy the store brand.  If beef gets too expensive, we buy pork.  Chained computation of inflation really does reflect the actual cost of living — for most people.  The cost of inflation really does have less impact — on most people — than the current computation of CPI indicates.

For the elderly, though, chained computation does not work.  People getting by on Social Security payments already are substituting the pork (or the cat food) for the beef, and some of their largest expenses are not part of the CPI "market basket" — health care costs.

Most of the people who re-elected Obama (including the elderly) do not have a clue what the new measure of inflation means, which probably is why Obama put it on the table.  Maybe Our President will look more liberal in his second term, but he's still the guy whose economic team's godfather is Robert Rubin.

Who will Obama select to replace Timmy Geithner?  (I think we can assume it won't be Joseph Stiglitz.)

As for Timmy, he has not yet been CEO of Citi, but there still is plenty of time.  Wall Street ├╝ber alles.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

An Afterthought: Note to Suicidal Killers

Dear Shootists:

I've been kind of wondering, lately, why none of you ever has shot up a gun show.  Shooting up a gun show has several distinct advantages:
  1. You don't even have to bring your own guns!  Loaded guns and plenty of ammo will be readily available, so you can save yourself the time and expense of stocking up.
  2. You don't have to bother killing yourself, because somebody else is sure to do it.  It's even better than "death by cop."
  3. The death toll will be far greater than anything you could accomplish by yourself.  When the "self-defenders" see other people shooting at you, they'll start shooting at them, creating a righteous right-wing daisy chain of murderous intent and consequences.  You could leave hundreds of bodies behind.  Wow!
If you happen to survive, please don't tell the cops it was my idea.  This is just free speech, y'know?  Surely, the first amendment counts for as much as the second.  If you happen to be on Twitter, please tweet these observations (not recommendations) to other crazies, and if the general public gets the message too, that's fine.

Once again, America, fuck the NRA!

Thank you, fucking NRA

The NRA probably will say that if those tiny dead children only had been armed with semi-automatic weapons, they would have wiped out the shooter before twenty of them were dead.

The children are dead.  The shooter is dead.  The NRA is alive.

Yes, the shooter was nuts.  A lot of people are nuts these days.  Why do so many of those fucking nuts have legal access to combat weapons?

(Answer: the second amendment, according to the NRA.  Hey, how are you supposed to overcome a socialist Muslim president without your fucking guns?  Before you know it, those commies will want our fucking pricks, and then what are we supposed to stroke if they take our fucking guns away?)


Yes, I'm angry... and I'm very sad.  Just like you, very, very sad.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bibi Burlusconi?

Lately, I've been noticing some strong similarities between Silvio Burlusconi and Bibi Netanyahu, similarities that go well beyond having egos inflated well beyond Hindenburg size.

Both, of course, pretend to be populists —  but both, more likely, are just playing to the base.  (Oh, and how base the base tends to be.)  Berlusconi, who just could not stay out of politics, is pretending to be outraged by Mario Monti's austerity programs.  It's just bullshit, of course.  No matter how austere the Italian economy becomes, Berlusconi will continue to have all the underage girls he desires, and staying in the Italian parliament will keep him immune from all those criminal charges.

(Personally, I think all the European austerity measures are idiotic, but for real reasons — not Berlusconi's.  If they just would kick the Germans out of the Eurozone, they could devalue the Euro and escape the biggest problems.  Nobody would be hurt but the banks — and fuck them.)

On to Netanyahu, another alleged "populist."  He's been playing the "existential threat" angle for so long, he might believe it, but I doubt that too.  He is entirely aware that any American president — even one whose middle name is Hussein — will pull Israel's nuts out of the fire in the event of any real threat.  Most important to him is holding together his governing coalition of right wing extremists and religious bigots.

Also, both leaders benefit by the inability of their respective countries' leftists to get their acts together.  Needless to say, though, there's a lot of that going around.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Housing Deductions

Yes, I take the deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes.  Just the same, I think we all can live without either of them, and probably should — in time.

Most important, they're not fair.   Renters pay their landlords'  mortgage interest and property taxes, but the landlords get the tax advantages.  Those who can afford the biggest, most expensive homes get the greatest benefit, and those who can afford multiple homes get even more.  Change has to happen — but given the popularity of of the mortgage and property tax deductions, the big question is how to get those particular loopholes closed.

As Lord Robert Baden-Powell, homosexual hero of the Siege of Mafeking in the Boer War and founder of the Boy Scouts is reputed to have said, "Softly, softly, catchee monkey."  (Damn, those Brit colonialists were so attuned to those they conquered and oppressed.  Nevertheless...)

"Softly, softly" means not all at once.   That makes a lot of sense.  People (with encouragement from their realtors) factor in tax savings when they buy.  Realtors are able to convince them they can afford houses far larger and fancier than they really ought to be considering.  Granted, if they lost their mortgage interest deductions all at once, there would be a hell of a lot more foreclosures.

The obvious answer is to cap the mortgage interest deduction — so only mortgagees of relatively expensive houses would be screwed.  After that, we could drop the cap, year by year.  After ten or fifteen years, the deduction would be gone.  Housing prices would fall, gradually, and families would stop buying more house than they really could afford.  Since mortgage interest is front-loaded, current homeowners should feel little financial impact year to year.  New buyers should be able to predict how the phase-out of the deduction would impact them, and let that help guide their home buying decisions.

The property tax deduction could be phased out in much the same way, only faster.  The greatest impact would be in wealthier, higher-tax areas — and the change might create political pressure for the states to take on more of the burden of funding education, which might create greater equity among school districts.

By the way, I believe the phase-out of any and all deductions should be accompanied by higher tax rates, because when government takes money out of people's pockets, it has an obligation to put some back by providing better services and benefits — but for all, not just for some.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Charitable deductions

Now that there's serious talk of capping deductions from both sides of the aisle, all sorts of interest groups are up in arms trying to carve out exceptions.  I'm not privy to which K Street firms are collecting the largest fees from whom, but I hear an awful lot of noise about the impact on charities.

Donations to organizations that are ideological in nature are not tax deductible — except when they are.  I am not allowed to deduct my contributions to the ACLU, for example, because defending First Amendment rights is, presumably, "political."  Okay, I can live with that.  We ACLU members cannot deduct our contributions, but guess what?  We keep on giving.

One third of all deductible contributions in the United States go to religious organizations.  I imagine some portion of those contributions goes towards feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and such like.  I know that a substantial part goes to proselytizing and missionary work, and I can't see how converting a sucker from one set of cockamamie beliefs to another is any sort of public good.  Tax deductible contributions also are used for agitating on political issues like abortion, contraception, gay marriage, suppression of competing religious practices, etc.

Will members stop donating to their religious organizations if their contributions no longer are tax deductible?  I doubt it — not if they want that afterlife they've been promised.

Then there are the religiously and ethnically affiliated "social welfare" organizations, many of which operate commercial enterprises like bars, bowling alleys, and catering halls.  Paying your tax deductable dues to those gets you cut-rate booze, a convenient place for your Thursday night poker game, and a less expensive venue for your daughter's wedding.  Similar non-sectarian groups provide many of the same benefits, but serve primarily to provide ocassions where local businessmen can hobnob and arrange business transactions.  Yes, such groups do involve themselves in charitable work, but nobody joins for the tax advantage.

People who donate to medical charities usually are motivated by having known someone who suffered with the illness to which the charity is dedicated, not by a tax deduction.  Also, I'm pretty sure rich people will continue to pay to see their names featured on bronze plaques in the lobby of the ballet or outside the hospital emergency room, not to mention engraved on the lintels of university buildings.

Frankly, I don't think capping (or even eliminating) the deduction for charitable contributions would have much impact at all — but if charities having a little less to spend means I'll stop getting all those useless address labels, it's okay with me.