Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Yes Virginia, There Is A Debt Crisis

Watched the Pres last night, followed by Speaker Boehner.  And dang, that caused me to miss Rey Mysterio winning the new WWE World Championship from The Miz.  I think the right guy won the match, and though I'm not sure about the specific details, it's almost a certainty how it ended.  The Miz is great on the mic, which carries a lot of weight in the wrestling world, as it should.  But lets face it, I love that masked wrestler and his patented, if vaguely superficial, 619 finishing move. 

Anyway, with the remaining wrestling matches on the tube, I looked on the web to see how the public took the political speeches.  MSNBC asked who we thought won their point; I was slightly surprised to find a great majority felt Obama made the best argument.  I would have guessed a fair split, but it was roughly 60-30-10.  I myself voted neither won, because I found flaws in both presentations, and this put me in the 10% group.  The story's online comments were divided by how one voted, and I looked up some of the comments of those who voted with me.  I agreed with the one who said Obama's was better, but both are guilty of "politics as usual."
What was troubling about these presentations was how they both made it clear that they agree disaster looms.  But at the same time, and much more importantly, it is the other side who is pushing us to the brink; and the other side that must move on their position.  Message decoded: we are very possibly going to default, and each party is snug (and smug) in the conviction it will be the others fault.  Almost like magic, the very thing most people agree must not happen, will happen, and no one will be to blame!  This is just preposterous.

To be sure, there are those who think this will not be a disaster, and apparently they are the Tea Partiers.  Do I detect a little "This is all alarmist crap.  It isn't the big deal the Pres says it is.  But, if default is really bad, it will serve those Democrats right for pushing us to this point."  If you tea-baggers really believe this, then you are nothing more than little kids playing with matches in the fertilizer shed.  It's one thing to burn yourselves; quite another to blow up the whole damn farm.

Let me tell you what's really going to happen.  I finally saw some numbers, and here they are:  $203 billion in receipts for August, $363 billion in obligations.  Wait a minute... WTF?  We're only going to take in about 56% of what we need to pay out?  Uh-oh...  since we're not going to print more money, SOMEBODY is not going to get paid...

Nobody knows for sure who doesn't get paid, but everything I've read says we'll pay debt interest first, to salvage our already suspicious credit standing with all our creditors.  The question is how to divide the remainder amongst the rest.  Who are the rest?  Well, anybody getting a check from Uncle.  Including all government contractors, those on Social Security, government salary, government retirement, medicaid, medicare, and so on.  Putting aside the absolutely astonishing and appalling thought that our all volunteer force servicemen and women currently at war might not get paid, let's just look at retirees. I am among these, and figure we are somewhat farther down the ladder.  I am already figuring how to cover next month's rent. 

If I can make the rent, I will be one of the lucky ones who was not living paycheck to paycheck, as so many are.  A lot of rent and mortgage payments are at risk, which puts banks at risk, which tightens credit, which stops growth and puts businesses already on the edge in a deeper fix, and so on.  So much of our economy rides on consumer confidence, and an intangible faith that there will be bread on the store shelf when we are ready to buy it.

So, what didn't I like about each speech?  Well the Pres seems hooked on this "we must tax the rich and corporations" thing.  Though I tend to agree with him (because I don't think that not raising their taxes will create more jobs; at least, it hasn't worked for the last 12 years), the actual increased revenue numbers appear to be a drop in the bucket; i.e., it's more symbolic than anything else.  President Obama, are you using this to to get working class America behind you and the Democratic platform for future elections?  Should it really be the deal-breaker?  It's true, businesses getting a tax break on a corporate jet is irksome.  But at least Americans built that jet.

And Speaker Boehner, you were almost folksy in your presentation.  You made it sound matter-of-fact that this is where we should draw the line on Big Government's excessive spending.  You spoke to us like you were one of us, and sir, you plainly are not.  You are in a position of great power, and have been for a long time.  It's hard to believe you or any of congress will be affected to the same extent, if any, as the rest of us if the default happens.  If you were Joe Anyguy, you'd sit down with the President, agree on the numbers being tossed around, agree on a general game plan and quit worrying about that 2% of people whose taxes would be raised if you acceded to the President's tax proposal.

In short, both of you failed to make this a de-politicized issue.  At least the President wants to raise the ceiling high enough so it won't come back again as a political football in 2012, which seems to me like a party-neutral position.  The Republicans have set their proposal's timing to appear to make spending authority a reward for cutting costs, but you can't ignore the fact it makes another heated debate come due at a critical time.  Nevertheless, shame on you both.

And finally, I'm thinking I can't forgive you guys for upsetting me so that I got distracted and missed out on John Cena beating Mysterio just a little later on the same night that Rey had just got the title.  It changed hands twice!  And Heck, I'm still processing that, then CM Punk comes out and... never mind.  Just get this debt business settled before next Monday Night RAW, because if I miss any more wrestling drama, I'm going to scream, and default on my rent.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Problem with Rocket Science and the Economy

So we have this cliche, "it's not rocket science."   When we use it, it can be a little bit pejorative.  It can be a combination put-down of a person and whatever they're trying to understand, while at the same time entrenching the idea that rocket science is so unintelligible that who the hell normal people would understand it anyway?  So the convenience is that it quickly imparts the idea of complexity.  Now we can divide the world into things that are like, or are not like, rocket science.  And if it's like rocket science, you can be forgiven for not understanding it, because, well, you're normal.

Let's consider the U.S. economy and its relationship to the federal budget.  Is it rocket science?  Hell yes, and also, not exactly.  On one hand, we've been doing this economy thing for hundreds of years, and our very best minds STILL can't agree on what works, and what doesn't.  Tax rates, interest rates, incentives, tariffs, what's the balance?  And apparently all the historical evidence we have supports all viewpoints, at some time or other.

On the other hand, if you look at just some small pieces, it's pretty simple.  Like, should we raise the national debt limit?  At this particular point in time, sadly, yes.  To not do so would be an order of magnitude worse than "Epic Fail."   But, as the clock ticks toward August 2nd, we find we may have already done significant damage to the long term economic standing of the United States.  I find this intuitive, but a much better explanation than I could give is in this link:


We're teasing the dragon here.  Why hasn't congress acted?  It's complicated, because we have a budget crisis during a recession (depression?) with an election coming up.  We have borrowed an historic amount of money at a huge premium against the future, we have neither plan nor mandate to balance our budget and we can't agree on taxes and spending cuts.  Possibly the most damning: apparently the exact details on a budget compromise will be the "decider" of which party will be best positioned for the 2012 Presidential election.  OMG, we've got to: A. Stay in power, or B. Get more power.  I could say simply it's time to be Americans, not Republicans or Democrats, and do the right thing for the country.  But when has that call really worked?  Even entering WWII there was dissent, and we were attacked, dammit.

The Dems have got to accept spending cuts, and they have--not enough to satisfy the GOP, and not enough to really address the problem.  However, addressing serious spending cuts means going after entitlements, and there is precious little time to tame that beast.  They also want to get back to old taxation rates (not raise taxes, restore them to pre-Bush tax cut levels) or at the very least, restore tax levels for the people who can best afford to pay the old rates.  Raising taxes gets people's attention quick, not for the better.

The Republicans are at risk of fragmentation (think Tea Party).  Working a true compromise seems fatal to their ability to keep a united front.  So apparently rather than mediate the amount of a cut, or even consider taxes, their compromise is to "allow" the debt ceiling to be raised if they get significant spending reductions without raising taxes.  That's not a compromise position, since they have not agreed on what can be haggled.  It's really more like demanding a ransom--most of our congressmen already know we must raise the ceiling.

On a pragmatic level, it seems to me we must do all of it.  Reduce spending, increase taxes (a little?) and dedicate ourselves to fiscal responsibility, i.e. balanced budget.  Something will have to be done to the sacred cow of entitlements; for example, we can't ignore the demographics of a smaller generation's burden from the larger, longer-lived baby boomers.  Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Government retirement; all will have to be reconsidered.  Unfair to those who paid into these things, and made lifelong decisions based on promises?  Absolutely.  Unmanageable burden for some?  Sadly yes.  Charity and sacrifice are not two sides of the same coin.  We may have been charitable with our surplus, but we are about to have to sacrifice from our current standard of living.  Such is the risk of embracing an economy primarily dependent upon growth, because that is never a guarantee. 

All the signs are there.  The world looks to us to keep things steady, and that's not a position we have tried to avoid--we have proudly taken center stage on world affairs for nearly a century.  Portugal, Greece and some other countries are about to find out what it means to default.  What will they cut?  Inability to provide basic government services is a path to anarchy.  At the very least, they face a significant downturn in their prosperity.  What does it mean when the standard of living declines, after so many years of improvement?  We'll find out soon it seems.

The very first savings investment I ever made was a US Savings Bond, "backed by the full faith and credit of the US Government."  When I asked an investment counselor if it was a good investment, he said "the yield is very low, but there is no safer investment in the world."  Then he added, "but it boils down to being a promise we have no choice in--because nothing else matters if our own government's money is no good.  It's not rocket science."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Our Story Thus Far...

  Evil Professor Exodus has repaired the damaged Tectonic Fromambulator, and is threatening the entire continent with catastrophic destruction in the next 10 minutes.  Our heroes, Jim Ed and Scooter, are lost in a maze beneath the Professor's lab, only steps ahead of the giant mutant guard dogs.  Meanwhile, unknown to the President, General Packard has ordered a nuclear air strike on Exodus' fortress, while his daughter Trudy begs him to give Jim Ed and Scooter just a few more minutes to stop the madman...

  Will the Professor carry out his vile plan?  Can Jim Ed and Scooter escape the maze in time?  Who the hell told General Packard he could launch the fleet???  These questions and more will be answered next time, in Chapter 6 of "Cold Hard Revenge of the Moon Men from Mars!!!"

  Ah, serials.  I just watched an old movie serial called "King of the Rocket Men" on Netflix.  It was in 12 parts and the production value was surprisingly good, especially for 1949.  A funny thing, the good guys win of course, but not before Manhattan is utterly destroyed and millions die.  Still, after the destruction they get the bad guy and laugh as they pat each other on the back.  Simpler times!  Apparently the producers had stock footage of tsunami damage to a big city from a movie called "Deluge," and it was just too darn good not to use.

  Anyway, it was fun to watch this, and imagine the kids (and adults) who paid 25 cents each Saturday to see a short newsreel, a 12-minute serial, and a main feature at the local Bijou.  That was back when people were quiet during the show, and never failed to cheer on the hero and applaud the movie when the lights came up.  Oh, and they jeered if the movie stunk, too.  These days you're lucky if people just whisper while they answer their cell phones that they were supposed to turn off.  And even though audiences are still affected by the powerful emotions seen on the screen, they are careful not to show it as they leave the theater.    

  Going to the movies is still a huge treat for me.  I was enthralled by the opening of Star Wars; it began right in the middle of an exciting space battle and never let up til the end, or so it seemed.  That kind of instant immersion was uncommon for the time, and everybody wanted to play light sabers after that movie.  And Alien--how could I forget that the lady next to me left finger bruises in my leg after the alien punched out of John Hurt's chest.  That scene, which was very visceral for the time, still managed to remain a secret to the next audience, much like (I am still grateful) it was with The Sixth Sense.

  Its good that movies are still around, even if I have to sit through commercials and trailers, and pay outrageous prices for snacks.  I don't care at all for 3D, it is quite obviously a rip-off designed to eke out a few more shekels from us for an ineffective gimmick.  I think it will die a merciful death soon enough, even though theaters are retrofitting themselves with the technology. 

  As soon as the local theater re-opens, I am promising myself at least a once a month trip for something.  I will mix it up between comedy and action, and keep my fingers crossed that I'll have another Star Wars moment.  Or maybe two.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

To Die on Mars

  Today was a milestone in the American Space Program, the last launch of the space shuttle.  I think it's a low point.  When Atlantis took off today, I lost my chance for a bucket list item: to witness a shuttle launch in person.  I saw it live on TV, but didn't get to feel the ground shake or witness the near bright-as-the-sun rocket flame.  Well, they say there will be more launches in the future, apparently in the 2020s, but I don't think its a sure thing.  First the Ares program was on, then off, then Orion, sort of; and now, whatever.  The fact remains that thousands of shuttle workers will be fired/furloughed/let go, and with them goes a huge brain trust of experience in the nuances of manned space exploration.  Not everything we know is in books, and lost knowledge can be difficult to recoup.
  Many people are hopeful of commercial enterprises and other countries taking up the challenge, but none of them are working on anything more than satellite and tourist carriers, and low earth orbit cargo vessels.   That's sad.  For a brief time, NASA was working on a plan to re-establish a presence on the moon, and probably use it as a stepping stone to Mars.  Those are still intentional plans, but no hard plan exists to achieve them.  Nor is there any money.
  As a kid I was an astronomy nut, had memorized all the northern hemisphere constellations and the names of many stars.  I knew the distances to the planets, their known moons, and observed as much as I could through my Tasco 100-power telescope.  We already knew that a human trip to Venus was a pointless goal; a trip to Mars, however, was a tantalizingly realistic pursuit.  Consider this; forget about space suits.  On a "hot" martian day (+32 degrees F), with clothing and supplemental oxygen equipment similar to that used by mountain climbers, you could walk the surface of Mars.
  I am reconciled to the fact that no human will walk on Mars in my lifetime.  Surely there are better uses for the money, and so much suffering and uncertainty in the world today begs solutions worthy of the full efforts of our best minds.  But the reality of human existence is that at any given time, all possible endeavors are being explored to some extent by somebody, somewhere.  That includes all the good and ill that we humans are capable of.  What we are not capable of is limiting ourselves to looking either exclusively inward or outward; as a race, we are always doing some of both.  If space exploration can be thought of as part of our efforts to improve ourselves as human beings, then it is never an idle pursuit of the privileged, but instead a noble pursuit of the enlightened.
  Recently I read that a simple paradigm shift of thought would make the trip to Mars vastly easier.  For a moment it shocked me, but here it is: whoever goes there, stays there.  Planning on a one way trip immediately eliminates some difficult logistics problems.  And surprisingly, there would be no lack of volunteers.  I even considered it something I might do had I the chance.  But if I were going, it would have to be with the understanding that I want to explore all over, and not just settle into some bare-bones existence, huddled into a small underground enclosure.  No, they'd have to send a lot of self-sustaining goodies along with me and the crew, and plan on frequent CARE packages.  It's the least they can do if I'm going to die on another planet.  But how cool would that be...