Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Understanding Billions of Dollars

Jed Clampett had a problem. Representatives from the OK Oil Company were willing to pump that pesky oil out of his swamp — even pay him for it. But for some reason, they didn’t want to give him “regular” dollars. No, they wanted to pay him with some kind of new-fangled “million” dollars.

And with that, Jed learned the value of putting six zeroes after a number.

Not content with that, Washington politicians insist on putting nine zeroes after every number. Sometimes twelve. They treat “billion” (and increasingly, “trillion”) as if they were mere adjectives. The words “thousand” and “million” are tossed aside like the quarters and nickels you find under your couch cushions.

In an era where the price of a cruise missile is treated as a rounding error, it’s easy to lose perspective of exactly how much money we’re talking about. Maybe it’s easier to understand if we bring it down to a personal level.

There are about 135 million 1040 tax forms filed each year. So for argument’s sake, let’s say there are about 135 million taxpayers in the country. To get an idea of the impact of federal spending on the “average” taxpayer, simply divide the number in question by 135 million.

Here’s how it works:

One billion dollars represents about $7.41 per tax payer. That doesn’t sound like much. For example, if the government needs to build a billion-dollar bridge across a river, that bridge would cost each tax payer a little over seven dollars.

The problem is most federal projects aren’t measured in billions; they are measured in hundreds of billions. A seven hundred billion dollar bailout costs each taxpayer over five thousand dollars.

A trillion dollars costs each taxpayer almost $7500.

If given the choice, would a taxpayer be willing to spend five thousand dollars to “bail out” the economy by giving it to banks, insurance companies, and mortgage companies that have already shown poor business judgment?

Or would it be more effective to give each taxpayer five thousand dollars to invest in the economy by spending it the way that he wants to?

Or would it be better to cut out the middle-man altogether and simply reduce taxes by five thousand dollars and let each taxpayer keep the money that he earned in the first place?

Washington isn’t just broken; it’s broke, too. It’s my money that they’re spending — and yours, too. There’s no hope for sanity until we replace the ones in charge of the checkbook with people that actually understand that concept.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Who to Blame

Yesterday, we elected our first African American to the Presidency of the United States.

Although he wasn’t my choice, I wish Barack Obama the best for the next four years. I’m not going to whine; we survived four years of Carter and eight years of Clinton. Let’s see what can be learned as we suffer through four years of Obama.

I had to wonder how we got into this mess. There is certainly plenty of blame to go around — on both sides of the aisle. John McCain obviously ran the most inept national campaign since Mike Dukakis rode around in that tank with that goofy helmet.

McCain certainly wasn’t my first choice. (Mike Huckabee dropped out several months ago; Fred Thompson never registered a blip on any charts.) Barack wasn’t my choice, either. A year ago, I lined up all the potential candidates on both sides in order of my preference. McCain was dead last on the Republican side and Obama was dead last on the Democratic side. Sometimes, you just can’t buy a break.

Back to how we got here...

It can all be traced back to the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991. Bear with me; this is the only place you’ll see this analysis. I’m going to share with you how an ill-qualified, unknown product of the Chicago Political Machine became the President of the United States.

The confirmation of Clarence Thomas was arguable one of the most contentious displays of dirty politics ever held in the United States Senate. George H. W. Bush was pressured on all sides to replace Thurgood Marshall with another African American. But the Democrats couldn’t bear the fact that a Republican would have the gall to nominate a conservative black guy to replace a liberal black guy. Of all the nerve!

So the televised mud-slinging started. Charges of pubic hairs on Coca-Cola cans and mentions of “Long Dong Silver” filled the air waves.

Since the Democrats had a 57-43 majority in the Senate, Bush needed to convert every Democratic senator he could to his side — while at the same time preserving his Republican base.

Bush and Thomas won with a vote to spare: 52 to 48. They did it by garnering the votes of eleven Democrats.

One of those votes cost a senator his job, and set into motion Obama’s trip to the White house.

Illinois Senator Alan Dixon was one of those turncoat Democratic senators who voted to confirm Judge Thomas. That single act so enraged Carol Moseley Braun — a former state legislator and the Cook County Recorder of Deeds — that she decided Dixon would have to pay. She decided to run against him in the Democratic senate primary in 1992

It was a bitterly-fought election. Moseley Braun had several things in her favor. She was black — always a plus when you’re a Democrat. She was a woman — how convenient. She was liberal — the trifecta of the left.

And she had the backing of the Chicago Political Machine. Icing on the cake.

Al Hofeld, a millionaire attorney, ran as a third candidate in the Democratic primary. He didn’t see Moseley Braun as a legitimate threat; he was only out to defeat Dixon. So he ran a series of vicious anti-Dixon ads to bring down the incumbent. The result was that he just split the vote. Moseley Braun barely won the three-way race and became the Democratic candidate.

She had no problem defeating a total unknown Republican, Richard Williamson, in the general election. Thus, she became the first African-American woman to win a seat in the Senate.

Once in Washington, Moseley Braun showed her true colors. Everywhere she went, she tried to out-liberal the liberal establishment. Her term was full of charges of corruption and was total embarrassment to the Democratic Party (and to politicians in general).

Not even the Illinois Democrats could salvage her miserable display. She narrowly lost her reelection in 1998 to Republican millionaire banker Peter Fitzgerald.

As much as Moseley Braun tried to out-liberal the liberals, Fitzgerald tried to out-maverick the mavericks. He was always at odds with the Republican establishment in Illinois. The home boys probably didn’t think he had much of a chance to defeat Moseley Braun in the first place and were frankly surprised by his victory. They did everything they could to make sure he stayed at odds with the party. And he obliged.

In 2001, his was the only dissent in the 99-1 vote to aid the airline industry after the September 11 attacks.

Seeing the writing on the wall, lacking support of his local party, and not needing the job, Fitzgerald decided not to seek reelection in 2004.

Moseley Braun, by this time, had enjoyed a nice stint as the us Ambassador to New Zealand. She was spending her Senate pension, running a private law firm in Chicago while working on a run for President. She said she wasn’t interested in being a Senator again. (Later, she wisely withdrew from her presidential bid and threw her support to Howard Dean. Maybe that’s why he screamed in the Iowa caucus.)

That left a huge vacuum for the position of junior senator from Illinois. Barack Obama was biding his time in the Illinois State Senate, having been groomed by the Chicago Political Machine. He was now ready to strike.

The primary race involved 15 different candidates. Obama hired political strategist David Axelrod, who launch an advertising campaign featuring former Chicago mayor Harold Washington and the daughter of the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon. The voters rewarded the campaign with 52% of the primary vote. The only thing that stood between Obama and the us Senate was the Illinois Republican Party. They proved to be as effective as a wet paper napkin.

In a crowded Republican field, one man was left standing after the torturous primary. Millionaire Jack Ryan barely garnered more votes than Jim Oberweis (36% to 23%) for the privilege of challenging Obama. Other than being rich and beautiful, Ryan’s primary claim to fame was being the ex-husband of former Miss Illinois and Star Trek:Voyager actress, Jeri (“Seven of Nine”) Ryan.

Jack and Jeri had split up several years prior. In order to protect their son, they both agreed to have their divorce records sealed. The judge obliged and nobody cared. At least, nobody cared until Jack became the only roadblock between the aforementioned Obama and the Chicago Political Machine’s quest to fill the us Senate vacancy.

The Chicago Political Machine contacted the Los Angeles Political Machine and finally found a judge that would over-rule the wishes of the parents and the best interest of the child and open the court records. Allegations of public sex tumbled forth, the Illinois Republican leadership withdrew their support, and Jack Ryan, seeing the damage done, withdrew from the race in June, 2004.

Meanwhile, what was Obama doing? He was busy writing a speech that would change the history of America. It’s very rare that a sitting state legislator would give a keynote address at a major political convention. But never underestimate the power of the Chicago Political Machine.

The Democratic Party was set to nominate John Kerry in Boston. The Chicago Machinery — aligned with the Kennedy machinery — was eager to humiliate their arch-rivals, the Clintons, while on Kennedy’s home court.

Obama — admittedly a great orator — spoke of change to the convention. Bush was bad, socialism is good, widows and orphans are starving, the Iraq war was a mistake, the Democrats have a better plan. He conveniently belied his own liberal agenda as he proclaimed, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.”

The audience went wild. The news pundits drooled and crowned him the successor to Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson.

And two presidential hopefuls in the audience — Hillary Clinton and John Edwards — put on their poker faces and gamely smiled. Behind those smiles, their jaws were on the floor as they could only mutter to themselves, “Oh ... my ... gawd!”

Meanwhile, back in Illinois, the Republican Machinery — who by now couldn’t get a dogcatcher elected in Peoria — were desperately trying to fill the gap left by Ryan’s fall from grace. Remarkably, not one Republican in the entire state was deemed worthy. Not one candidate — not even Republican primary runner-up Jim Oberweis — was either willing or able to be a worthy opponent to the newly-anointed Kennedy-esque black messiah.

When their last chance of a Great White Hope — Da Bears’ Coach Mike Ditka — declined to run, the Republicans sunk to a new low in stupidity.

In one of the most amazing examples of futile desperation in modern political history, the Illinois Republicans reached all the way to the state of Maryland to persuade Reagan-sidekick-turned-talk-show-host Alan Keyes to carpet-bag his way to the ticket. Keyes, already coming off several failed attempts to be a Maryland senator, obliged. He rented an apartment and a post office box in Chicago and said “Where do I sign up?”

He didn’t need to sign up. Three months later, the Illinois voters saw through the transparent sham and sent Obama to Washington with 70% of the vote — a mandate by any standard.

Keyes went back to Maryland to prepare for his 2008 presidential run. Obama went to neighboring Washington dc to prepare for his 2008 presidential run.

His run for the presidency culminated last night.

It’s been said that we walk through life backwards — only glimpsing at the present, ignorant of the future, while staring at the past.

In this case, we stare at the bold nomination of a Supreme Court justice, the fateful vote of a senator from Illinois, and the rage that ensued — and we now realize that it set into motion the election of a President, and the future of our nation.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Save America

My experience has taught me to be rather skeptical of forwarded emails that I get through the Internet. But I received an email today from a friend of mine that was especially intriguing. I was so taken by it, I decided to contact the original author, John Dini.

He was kind enough to send me an immediately and personal reply, verifying his original authorship. He also included the original verbiage of the email. (Things tend to get scrambled a bit after they have been forwarded several times.)

Here is something that I have never done before. (And I probably will never do it again, so don’t even ask.) Today’s posting is written entirely by John. It speaks for itself. Feel free to contact John yourself or to spread his message.

-------------- Forwarded Message: --------------

Dear Joe,

Before you mentally check out because of the “Save America” headline on this email, please read the next 2 paragraphs.

This is not a conservative or liberal, Republican or Democratic letter. This is for anyone who is angry about how our government is running, or who is frustrated by a feeling of helplessness, or who feels unable to do anything about our current mess.

A legislature that has a 9% approval rating, one month before an election, just passed a bill that constituents’ comments ran 100 to 1 against! Not only did they ignore voter opinion, but under extreme scrutiny they still added lots of breaks for cronies, and they did so knowing that 90% of them would be re-elected anyway. This letter is long, but at the end I will tell you how I think we can do something about it.

My name is John F. Dini. I am a small business owner in Texas, with 4 employees and well under a million dollars in gross revenue. I have lived in both red and blue states, on the east coast and the west. I don’t think what I have to say should offend anyone. That’s why I’m willing to put my name on it. My email is jdini@mpninc.com. Unlike many of our legislators, I will take personal responsibility for my actions. You are welcome to let me know what you think, and whether you’re signing on to this.

If you don’t want to read about the bailout bill, skip down to where the bullet points end.

Last week Congress passed hb 1424, the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act.” As you’ve probably heard, it was a bit more than just the bailout bill. I’ve gone through all 451 pages. Here are some highlights:

• Sec. 103: The Treasury can also purchase mortgages on apartment buildings. To my knowledge, those who own apartment buildings aren’t usually in danger of having their house taken away.

• Sec. 110 allows the regulators (there is a whole new bureaucracy being formed) to make any change to any troubled mortgage, including giving the property away.

• Sec. 116: Keeps the bureaucracy in place until the last asset is sold, or the last loan is paid.

• Sec. 122: Raises the debt ceiling to $11,315,000,000,000. For historical reference, we broke the $1 trillion debt limit in the Reagan administration. That runaway borrowing is what George H.W. Bush called “Voodoo Economics” Last week we borrowed another trillion in a day.

• Sec. 132 suspends fasb 157. That’s what made banks show the real value of their assets on their books, even if it had fallen to zero. That is no longer necessary, (but we will form a commission to decide later on what they should be showing to their shareholders, presumably something other than the actual value of their assets.)

• Sec. 136 raises the fdic published coverage limit to $250,000 per account. What they haven’t mentioned is that this higher “coverage” expires in 15 months, and the fdic is ordered not to adjust the insurance for these new risks. That law actually just orders the fdic to change the number $100,000 to $250,000 everywhere, nothing else.

That is the first 112 pages. The next bill (actually several different laws, passed on the same vote) extends a bunch of energy tax breaks for wind, clean coal, biofuels, geothermal, and others. It also gives credits to the steel industry, for plug in vehicles (in addition to the $25 billion handout to gm and Ford last week), for the black lung trust fund, and for home appliances that recycle gray water.

The next bill tacked on is a Tax Relief bill. That one raises the amt trigger by a fraction (from $66K to $69K) and has special tax breaks for:

• Restaurant and retail depreciation
• Rum from Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands
• Businesses in American Samoa
• Mine rescue training
• Businesses on Indian Reservations (casinos)
• Railroad tracks
• Motorsports Racing Facilities (the “nascar” break)
• Employees of companies affected by Hurricane Katrina
• Investing in Washington dc
• Wool producers
• Film and television production
• Wooden arrow manufacturers
• Winners of Exxon Valdez lawsuits
• Farming Machinery purchases

Also, the failed 2007 Paul Wellstone mental health bill is included here, which requires all health insurers to cover mental health treatment just like physical illness. I’m not sure how long this bill has been trying to get passed, but Senator Wellstone died in 2002.

Under “other” that bill has another 100 pages including the following:

• Funding for schools, roads, weed control, forest ecosystems, improved cooperation among Federal agencies and the Oregon & California Railroad.
• Secure payments for states with Federal Lands, which you would think was everybody, but is defined as only la, ca, or, pa, sc, sd, tx and wa.
• A call for proposals to cooperate with Federal agencies, which upon reading is actually a requirement that blm accept a minimum of 50% 0f timber logging contracts over the next 3 years.
• Doubling of the “Mine Reclamation Fund”
• Rewording of the Katrina relief bills to include il, ia, in, ks, mi, mn, mo, ne, and wi
• Further extension of Katrina Relief to anyone “affected” by Hurricane Ike.

My sympathies to the folks in Maine and North Dakota, who appear to have been left out (unless that’s where the wooden arrow makers cluster.) Actual outlays are not $700 billion, but an estimated $852 billion, apparently not counting tax reductions.

Are you angry yet?

end of bailout bill discussion

In her 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” Ayn Rand foresaw an America where corrupt businessmen and politicians allied to loot the country for all they could get. They got away with it because most people either believed that a bit more hard work, a bit more struggling, would see things turnaround eventually, or that everything was beyond their ability to control anyway. Many people disagree with Rand’s conclusions and philosophy, but on this she was truly clairvoyant.

Most voters believe that Congress is full of bad actors, except for their guy! Your congressman (or woman) came to your Rotary meeting, or saved a local industry, or got funding for your favorite park, and therefore is one of the “good guys.” I put forward the idea that if any one of them was truly above the corruption, he or she would have been back in your district screaming bloody murder rather than in dc casting a vote for or against this farce. Instead, every single Congressman is telling you that it was the other guys who got us into this mess. They are cultivating and depending on our fear of each other to stay in power.

what you can do to save america
I don’t “do” chain letters, even the ones my relatives send me that say “return this to show you care for me.” This is my first-ever exception. I care enough to risk your annoyance with me for sending this. It’s up to you to decide whether you care more about saving this democracy, or having a friend, customer or client think you are “too political.”

I believe that if we continue “business as usual” by returning over 90% of Congress to office, we are rewarding their arrogance; and surrendered any fantasy that our government is answerable to the people. They obviously don’t believe it. That is why Congress has exempted itself from labor law, equal opportunity, osha, Social Security and any liability. This may be our last chance to remind our elected officials that this is supposed to be a government by the people.

“My vote can’t do anything”
You can’t vote to throw out the other guy’s representative, you can only vote for or against your own. In 2006 the Democrats won their average district with a 54.8% vote, considered a landslide. The so-called Republican Revolution of 1994 was won with an average of 51.6% of the vote. So if one person in twenty changed their vote, the result would be an almost complete turnover in Congress!

Our Founding Fathers designed the checks and balances of government well. The Senate is supposed to change slowly, so that it provides a longer-term perspective. Congress changes every two years because it is supposed to reflect the current mood of the people! Returning 90% of Congress to office year after year, decade after decade, is surrendering the responsibility that Jefferson, Adams and Washington placed in us. It confirms their belief that they are untouchable.

On November 4th, vote for whomever you feel would be the better President, Senator, Governor, and for any state or local office, but vote against your incumbent congressman or congresswoman. It doesn’t matter who it is. It doesn’t matter who the other candidate is. Cross party lines. Close your eyes or hold your nose when you do it, but do it. In 30 days we can send the biggest message to Congress of the last 100 years. It’s a message that says “You aren’t above the law. You are answerable for this mess. You still serve the people of this country.”

And pass this along widely and quickly. Remember, we have less than 30 days, and it will only take one in twenty.

Thank you.
John F. Dini, cmba, bcb, cbi
President, mpn Incorporated
www.MPNinc.com

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Abortion Isn’t a Privacy Right

Katie Couric, anchor for cbs Evening News, did her best to play “gotcha” journalism with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin during her interview shortly after the governor announced her candidacy for Vice President.

Couric knew she had Palin in a corner when she brought up the question about abortion. Her surprise follow-up question tripped the governor, especially since Palin was not answering from her heart, rather from the very strict and politically-correct coaching that she had been fed from the John McCain campaign.

The question was why did the governor believe that Roe v. Wade was a bad decision by the Supreme Court. The governor was forced to give the party-line answer, positioning it as a states’ rights issue. That gave Couric the opening she needed to assert that Roe v. Wade was a privacy rights issue, not a states rights issue. She got Palin to admit that the constitution guaranteed a right to privacy — It does not — and therefore she must be in conflict with her own assertion.

Palin tried to backpedal and get the topic back on states’ rights issues, but the damage was done. Couric countered with a challenge to name any other Supreme Court decision that Palin disagreed with. Sarah clutched, gulped, and fumbled. She never recovered.

Okay, Sarah, I’m sorry you had to learn the hard way that politics in the federal arena is very nasty business, especially if you’re a pro-life evangelical fundamentalist. I know it was no surprise to you, but it still hurts, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, I am not being interviewed by any national news anchor. I am not accountable to a national party candidate and I have nothing to lose. (Joe the Plumber and I have that in common.) So here is the answer that Sarah Palin wanted to give:

Katie Couric’s question: Why, in your view, is Roe v. Wade a bad decision?

My answer: The individual states had already decided for themselves whether to allow abortion and under what circumstances. The tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States grants all powers to the states if those powers had not been otherwise granted to the federal government. The purpose of the Supreme Court is to interpret law, not to create new laws. Since neither the Congress nor the Constitution had specifically addressed the issue of abortion, the right to regulate it rests with the individual states. Until and unless that changes, the Supreme Court should have never even accepted the case, much less ruled in that way.

Q: Do you think there's an inherent right to privacy in the Constitution?

A: No. I believe there is an inherent expectation of privacy in our society. And there are various laws passed by Congress and by individual states to enforce that expectation. But it is not guaranteed by the Constitution.

Q: But the right to privacy was the cornerstone of Roe v. Wade.

A: And that was wrong. If your question is about Roe v. Wade, the answer is it’s a states’ rights issue. But if you’re asking about my views on abortion, I believe abortion is wrong because it is murder. A fetus is not a cystic mass to be surgically removed by a doctor at the whim of a woman. It is a human being. The rights of the mother are limited when they would infringe upon the rights of the baby to be born. There is no inherent right to reproductive decisions once conception has occurred. And the right to privacy is just a red herring that abortion advocates have put up in their attempt to de-humanize an unborn baby.

There you have it, Governor. I know that’s what you wanted to say. Maybe in your next career, you can be a contributor on Fox News Channel and you can throw that verbiage at Alan Colmes. You don’t even have to give me credit for it; I know you would have come up with it yourself if you were given the opportunity.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Health Care is not a Right

The presidential candidates were tossed a simple and fair question in their second debate by moderator Tom Brokaw.

Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?

John McCain answered that it is a responsibility, and then went on to trash Obama’s health care plan

Barack Obama said that it should be a right, and justified his answer by noting how wealthy we are as a country.

McCain was close with his answer. Obama was dead wrong. Here’s why:

A “right” is bestowed from a higher authority. It cannot be revoked, it cannot be transferred. The Declaration of Independence refers to “inalienable rights” — those which cannot be taken away. Wikipedia defines them as that “which are not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs or a particular society”.

If health care is a right, then why not define other necessities of life as a “right”? How about food? I could go a week without health care, but going a week without food could be fatal. Should I have a “right” to have my food given to me by my federal government?

How about “transportation”? I need a ride to get to work. Perhaps door-to-door public transportation should be a right that is given to me by my government.

Or my job itself. Many countries guarantee employment. Shouldn’t mine? Should my employer be forced to keep me hired in all circumstances because I have a right to have a job? And if I cannot find one, should my government grant me a job as a right?

If health care is defined as a right, a slippery slope of new “rights” is sure to follow. There will be no stopping people who demand more and more rights bestowed upon them by government.

As the states of Massachusetts and Hawaii have already proven, government cannot afford to grant that right to its citizens without going bankrupt.

Don’t be fooled by Obama’s claim that his health care plan merely supplements whatever existing insurance the population already has. As soon as federal health care is made available, large numbers of people will drop their personal insurance (or their employers will do it on their behalf). The government will have to pick up the tab for just about everybody anyway.

And that’s just fine with the Obama/Hillary socialists, because universal single-payer health care is exactly what they had in mind for everybody in the first place. The plan in Obama’s presidential campaign is merely a placation for the control-minded HillaryCare advocates that have been around since FDR.

My health care is my responsibility. Your health care is your responsibility. The health care (as well as the well-being) of innocent children and those who cannot fend for themselves is society’s responsibility, which may or may not involve the federal government.

But the federal government is the last person I want in charge of my health care. You will never believe how expensive health care can be until it’s free.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Health Care as a Comodity

Atroubling trend in presidential debates that I have noticed is the tendency not to answer the question that was asked.

Candidates seem to have a template of talking points to cover and they just drop those points whenever they some key word in the question that matches the template.

Since the candidates won’t answer the questions, I’ll answer them here — the way they should have answered them in the first place.

I’ll start with the definition of health care, as asked last week in the “town hall” debate in Nashville between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Question: Do you believe health care should be treated as a commodity?

Senator Obama ignored the question, whined about how health care costs are “breaking family budgets,” and how McCain was going to tax health care benefits.

Senator McCain talked about his health care plan — which includes government giving everybody $5,000 to buy insurance — and how Obama is going to fine small businesses that don’t insure their employees.

Neither answered the question. So here’s my answer.

For the economically uninformed, a “commodity” is defined as a good or service for which there is a demand and abundant supply and for which that supply is essentially undifferentiated except for the price.

Using that definition, yes, there are many aspects of health care that are commodities. In fact, most trips to doctor’s offices are very routine. A prescription for an antibiotic; a bandage on a wound; relief from the symptoms of the flu or a sore back or a headache.

This is not to diminish the work of the medical profession — it just illustrates that a large portion of their work can easily be undifferentiated in the marketplace.

That type of treatment is rightly a commodity. In fact, health clinics to handle routine health care are already cropping up in pharmacies all across the nation, handled quickly and efficiently by medical paraprofessionals.

Do you know what happens when a product becomes a commodity? The price goes down!

I’ve seen it happen in the telecommunications industry. The telecom companies fought for years to guarantee that long distance and wireless voice communications were not commoditized. As soon as they were, competition and the invisible hand of the economy drove the price down — even while the quality of service went up!

It happened in telecom; it can happen in health care.

Let the marketplace determine the cost and availability of routine health care. I guarantee that if the government would get out of the way, everybody who needs health care would be able to afford it. The companies that provide the service would finally have the incentive to provide a quality service at a price that everybody could afford.

There are already government programs in place to act as a safety net in catastrophic and extreme circumstances — as there should be. But if the socialist policies of Obama and Hillary and the DNC were ever enacted as they would like, every antibiotic, every BandAid, and every tongue depressor would be dispensed by a Washington bureaucrat with the compassion of the DMV and the efficiency of the IRS.

That’s a scenario that should inspire Republicans and cure Democrats.

Yep, except in extreme cases, health care should be a commodity.

Maybe next time I can explain to Senator Obama the difference between a right and a responsibility.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Watering My Family Tree

Since I am an amateur genealogist by choice and a perfectionist by nature, my life is full of complex ambiguities. Genealogy is as much an art as it is a science. In art, there is rarely a definitive resolution. And that drives the perfectionist in me crazy.

I was recently reminded of this when I was browsing some Internet genealogy sites and discovered a record for my late father. The birth date listed for him was several years off. This site’s policy (as is the case with most such sites) is that records cannot be corrected. The best you can do when you discover incorrect data is to post the correct data and then let succeeding generations sort it all out.

One such site reminded me to include my sources when posting such correctional data. My sources? He’s my dad, for crying out loud! Don’t you think I’d know when his birth date was? (The scientist within me calmed the nerves of the artist within me and cooler heads ultimately prevailed.)

Bad data isn’t the worst part of genealogical research. The hardest part is determining your limits. Thus, I have constructed the three most agonizing dilemmas that face me in my pursuit of ancestry:

How deep should I go?

Fortunately, there’s an easy answer to this: as deep as possible. My ultimate goal as a genealogist is to find the oldest possible ancestors. As long as they’re in my blood line, I’ll go backwards as far as I can to find my great-great-great-great-great whatever.

Unfortunately, the farther you go back, the messier it gets. Spellings are not always consistent, the handwriting in family Bibles is almost impossible to decipher, and census takers were generally undereducated and poorly paid.

In addition, a couple of hundred years ago, it seems like every male was named either William, or Henry, or Harry. (Including President William Henry Harrison, but I digress.) Just because you find a person with the same name as a great ancestor of yours, that doesn’t mean you’re related. Challenges like that keep the work interesting.

How wide should I go?

No clear answer on this one. I finally had to draw the line one time when I had the names of my third cousin’s ex-wife’s parents. Fully knowing that I might regret it some day, I decided not to include them in my family tree database. It’s not likely that I’m going to run into them or their descendants in the mall. Let their family build their own tree.

I could be wrong about that one, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

When should I stop?

That’s easy. When people stop being born. And when people stop dying. When history stops living. And when the lion lays down with the lamb.

That’s the beauty of genealogy: It’s a living history. It keeps going and going. And its blessing keep giving and giving.

There are times when I’m working on a particular part of my family’s history when I’ll stop, take a breath, and step back to see what I’ve done. It puts things in perspective. It lets you know where you’re going by seeing where you’ve been. It makes you realize that everybody deserves a legacy, even if it’s just a birth date and a death date in a database.

Then, I get a phone call or an email. Somebody in my family has died. Or somebody has been born. Two people have been joined in marriage or split by a divorce. A new tombstone has been discovered in an old cemetery or a new obituary has been discovered in a yellow, tattered newspaper.

So I open up my database and enter the new information. Another legacy has been preserved. And my great-grandchildren will thank me for it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

That’s a Lotta Zeros

I have always loved studying really big numbers. I mean really big. Like the number of grains of sand on a beach. Or on all the beaches in the word. Or the number of hydrogen molecules in the sun.

Or the price of a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe.

This third-world African nation is in the midst of some truly world-class hyper-inflation. The rate is somewhere between 2.2 million percent and 12.5 million percent, give or take a few million percent. When it gets that high, it’s hard to imagine.

Currently, the country with the next highest rate of inflation is Myanmar/Burma (I don’t want to start any arguments here about the official name of that country), with a rate of 39.5%. Not much of a challenge for the inflation gold medal, huh.

A loaf of bread costs around a hundred billion dollars. (When Zimbabwe achieved independence and renamed itself from Rhodesia, they adopted the “dollar” as the name of their currency. Any resemblance to the American dollar is strictly comical.) Next month, it could cost a lot more. Or a lot less, depending on whose math you choose to believe.

The Zimbabwe government, in typical federal government fashion, attempted to stop inflation by making it illegal. Such price controls didn’t work for Richard Nixon in the 1970s and they didn’t work in Zimbabwe, either. It’s funny how the free market demands that it remain free — however rowdy and insane that may be.

So a couple of years ago, they attempted to control inflation by ignoring it. They just lobbed three zeros off the currency and declared the problem fixed. That didn’t work, either.

Last week, they took more drastic action. Gone are ten zeros. Ten. What used to be ten billion dollars is now just one.

Yeah, like that exudes confidence in the federal government.

To understand how they got into this mess would require a study of a complicated history of civil wars, border wars, and generally lousy government. Add to that some over-zealous printing presses in the government capital turning out worthless paper currency with zeros that multiply like rabbits and you have a recipe for disaster.

Through it all, President and resident idiot-for-life Robert Mugabe is clinging to power. He got the job in 1987 by simply abolishing the position of Prime Minister and assuming power. Pretty convenient. He managed to get himself re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008. Apparently, there are more dead voters in Zimbabwe than in Chicago.

Now there is some debate over whether it’s Mugabe or the military who is currently running the county. Whoever is in control has a lot of explaining to do.

It is said that the Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen invented the quote, “A billion here, a billion there; pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” Obviously, Dirksen never went shopping for a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe. He was off by about a dozen zeros.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Obama’s Confused Lingual Policy

Barack Obama recently sent the conservative blogosphere into a tizzy by suggesting that our children should learn how to speak Spanish. It was touted as another nail in the coffin of our Anglo/Christian heritage that so many Americans hold dearly.

Actually, I’m going to give him a little bit of a break. I think our children should learn another language. But I sincerely doubt his motivation and certainly his implication.

To be fair, here’s the quote — in proper context — from Obama as he spoke at a recent campaign event in Georgia:

I don’t understand when people are going around worrying about “We need to have English only.” They want to pass a law: “We want English only”. Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But, understand this: Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they'll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how your child can become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language. You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is “merci beaucoup”.

At first, Obama appears to chide us into pandering to Hispanic immigrants — telling us we should accommodate their language rather than forcing our own language on them. Then he turns that into a plea for our children to be bilingual. It’s an effective ploy — he is a master of such turn-arounds while stumping on the campaign trail.

But he is missing the point when he compares our language skills to the language skills of Europeans. And I can prove it by asking and answering three simple questions:

Why did I learn Spanish?

To know English better.
I took two years of Spanish while in high school — and a year of French in college. They were some of the most rewarding educational endeavors I have ever done. I learned more about how to conjugate English verbs by conjugating Spanish verbs. I learned more about irregular English words by studying French irregular words. I had a greater understanding, a greater appreciation, and a greater respect for my own language because I learned another language. Sometimes you have to get away from a subject to actually study it.

Why do the Europeans learn English?

Because they have to.
English is the language of law, the language of science, and the language of business. English has become what every French speaker and every Esperantist hoped for their respective languages. It’s the language of the un. It’s the language of the Olympics. It’s the language of nasa. In Europe, every country is the size of one of our Midwestern states. Language barriers abound. Many countries have multiple official languages and dozens of indigenous ones. They need one communicative glue to hold everything together. It may not be the best or most efficient language in the world, but English has become that de facto glue.

Why don’t all Hispanic immigrants learn English?

Because they don’t have to.
I knew we lost the battle the first time I had to press “1” for English at my local atm. I’m reminded of it every time I read the signs in the aisles at Home Depot. (Long ago, I learned that the Spanish word for “exit” is “salida”. How long does it take Hispanics to learn that the English word for “salida” is “exit”?) With bilingual customer service, bilingual menus, and even bilingual ballots, we have accommodated the Spanish-speaking world so much that their incentive to learn English has completely disappeared.

Obama is right, our students should learn a foreign language. They should do it to make themselves better students.

Immigrants to America should also learn a foreign language: English. It’s the glue that holds America together. And it’s the glue that will keep us together unless we choose to dissolve it by accommodating foreigners who refuse to learn it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Name That Instrumental Tune

What’s the composer of instrumental music to do? The title of a song is usually defined by the lyrics. But when there are no lyrics, there is nothing to hang one’s hat on. Nothing that intuitively determines a title. How does a composer of a purely instrumental song put a label on his creation?

In the old days, it was good enough to name instrumental music by the type, key signature, and serial number. Is it the fifth symphony in C-minor? Then I guess the name would be “Symphony #5 in C-minor”. Gee, that was easy.

Somewhere along the line, opus numbers came into being. But they were often added posthumously. Composers really didn’t care about opi. (Actually, the plural of opus is “opera”, but it’s not nearly as funny. And who would believe it, anyway?)

Occasionally, some descriptive word would get attached to a piece of music. That’s why we have a “Moonlight” sonata and a “Revolutionary” etude. These names filled the need to identify the songs, but they really weren’t the “names” of the songs.

In the 19th century, some popular composers realized that their songs actually needed marketable names. John Philip Sousa attached names to his marches like “The Washington Post” (it was actually commissioned by the newspaper) or “Stars and Stripes Forever” (it really has lyrics, but nobody cares).

Scott Joplin earned a whopping $360 in his lifetime for “The Maple Leaf Rag”. A better title wouldn’t have helped. And “The Entertainer” was certainly entertaining enough; it just wasn’t real popular until Marvin Hamlisch rediscovered it in “The Sting”.

So what’s a modern instrumental composer to do to title his songs? Here are a few hints.

Make it memorable
Use real words, even if you put them in some strange context. There may not really be such a thing as a “Pink Elephant”, but it would make a cool name for a song.

Make it appropriate
Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” works because the song really does feel good! “Grazing in the Grass” may not make you want to graze, but it sure makes you feel like you should be doing “something” in the grass. And it’s a whole lot better title than just “That Song with the Funky Cowbell Part”.

Make it unique
There are probably a million songs named “I Love You” or some generic title like that. If you do a Google search and you find your song title, you have some more thinking to do.

Make it personal
One of my favorite instrumental titles is “Tuesday Morning”. I bet you can tell when that song was written. Of course, it means something to the composer. Whether it means anything to the listener is irrelevant, because it’s so easy to implant yourself into the song’s history.

Have fun with your titles. It’s usually the first thing that your fans encounter — even before they hear the music. Never forget that the melody makes the song enjoyable, but the title makes it memorable.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Richard, the Space Tourist

Some over-achievers have all the luck. Consider, for example, the case of Richard Garriott. At a time when most people his age are entering mid-life crises, he’s getting ready for the adventure of his life. And I am extremely jealous.

Growing up, Richard had a dad with the coolest of jobs. His father is Owen Garriott, astronaut. How cool is that? Owen has the distinction of not only being one of the few that worked on the short-lived Skylab mission in the 70s, but who also got to fly on one of the very first Shuttle missions in the 80s. He was there while nasa made the transition from the heydays of Apollo to the truck-and-bus missions of the Shuttle.

As for Richard, he became one of the first truly pioneering and successful PC game programmers. While in high school and college, he made a name for himself writing computer games and giving them away to friends. He soon parlayed that into a business, paying for his college education with the games he sold.

He wrote the first in what was to become a blockbuster series of “Ultima” games. One after another, Ultima sequels were churned out with Richard writing or producing every one of them. Sell a few million copies; make a few million dollars.

The son of the astronaut had become a computer entrepreneur. And in his early 40s, he had more money than he new what to do with. And all the time to spend it.

What’s a fella to do? Follow his dad’s footsteps into space! Lucky guy.

Just about the time he amassed his fortune, NASA and the Soviet space agency started working with private companies to create something that Arthur C. Clarke had dreamed about for decades: space tourism. For a cool thirty million dollars, you can be on top of the world as they light a candle under you and catapult you to a week’s visit on the International Space Station. How could Richard refuse such an opportunity?

Already five men have had their turn. Richard gets his chance in October, 2008. Of course, it’s not all fun-and-games. While on the space station, he will perform vital research into the commercial applications of the effects of weightless on extremophile bacteria. Pretty heady stuff.

Along the way, he has also made a name for himself as an accomplished magician, having appeared on the cover of MUM, the magazine of the Society of American Magicians. And he has served as the corner man for boxer Jesus Chavez. In his spare time, he built a haunted house museum at his home in Austin, Texas.

My mid-life crisis is coming along just fine; thanks for asking. I can look back on my life — I’m about the same age as Richard — and think about what I would could have done differently. My dad wasn’t an astronaut. Every computer game that I’ve written has been a commercial flop. People laugh at my magic tricks. And nobody reads my blog.

But Richard is still an inspiration to me. As soon as I make my first thirty million dollars, I’ll start my weightlessness training in preparation for my trip to the moon. Gee, I better start saving my pennies right now.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A Tribute to Some Lovable Space Junk

It’s fifty years old and it’s a piece of junk. In another couple hundred years, it’s destined to be destroyed in a violent and fiery blaze of glory.

But it’s a lovable piece of junk. And maybe — just maybe — it deserves to be on some nation registry of history things.

It’s Vanguard 1, currently the old piece of space junk orbiting the Earth. And it’s celebrating half a century of weightlessness.

Vanguard 1 was the fourth artificial satellite put into space by man. The previous three long ago succumbed to the Earth’s gravity and atmospheric drag. But Vanguard 1 is still up there, having completed almost 200,000 orbits so far. It circles the Earth every two hours and fifteen minutes in a highly-elliptical path that takes it almost 2500 miles from the Earth at its highest before dipping to a low of about 650 miles.

And it’s that “low” that’s eventually going to kill it. With every orbit, it briefly touches the very outer limits of our atmosphere. So briefly that it will still be up there another 200 years or so. But eventually, it will run out of inertia and become nothing more than a shooting star for my great, great grandchild to wish upon.

It’s not much to look at. It’s roughly spherical, about six inches in diameter. Six short antennae protrude, one from each side. On Earth, it weighed less than three and a half pounds. In space, it weighs nothing.

It’s shiny on all sides, the first satellite to be solar powered. That was revolutionary at the time, and it allowed Vanguard 1 to transmit a good radio signal for more than six years. At a time when most satellites were burning up in the atmosphere or blowing up on the launch pad, trusty little Vanguard 1 was still up there, beeping its location to anyone who wanted to tune to its 5 milliwatt signal.

Even today, it’s being tracked optically and through radar. Its symmetrical shape and unique orbit has given us valuable information about the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere and the precise shape of the Earth. By tracking slight variations in its orbit, scientists determined that the Earth is slightly “pear” shaped; the southern hemisphere is a tiny bit bigger than its northern cousin. And by watching the orbit degrade slightly through the years, we can measure the extent that upper limits of the atmosphere rises and falls with the sun’s 11-year cycles. Such serendipitous research wasn’t imagined when it was launched. At the time, they were just happy to get it off the ground in one piece.

Vanguard 1 was launched on March 17, 1958, at a time when the Russians were beating us at everything and President Eisenhower was looking forward to retirement and to handing the reigns of the presidency over to Vice President Nixon in a couple of years. From its unique vantage point, it has watched as Man has gone to the moon. It watched Skylab orbit the Earth and fall back in the ocean. It has watched more than a hundred Shuttle missions and witnessed two Shuttle disasters. It has waved an antenna at the International Space Station a time or two.

Its beeper has fallen silent over the years. And the mirrored finish of its solar panels probably isn’t as glossy as it used to be. But it continues to circle the Earth proudly, knowing that it’s the granddaddy of all the satellites. Perhaps, before it’s too late, we can send a spacecraft to meet it in its orbit, gently pluck it, and bring it back home. It would be a fitting tribute for a piece of space junk that deserves a little more respect than most.

After all, Vanguard 1 is a survivor.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

My Office, My Playlist

Several years ago, Muzak (the corporation, not the irritating genre) had a saying something to the effect of “People are more productive when listening to boring music”. And with that, they sold hundreds of thousands of installations of Muzak (the irritating genre).

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, I worked in several offices that had piped-in music — Muzak, adult-contemporary radio, and god-awful country music. It was alternating annoying and soothing, but mostly it was irrelevant. The problem was that nobody could agree on what it should be — what style, what volume, or even if it should exist at all. It seemed like the only one that was happy was the office manager who picked the music.

The revolution toward personalized playlists started with Walkmans and portable CD players, but it really took off with iPods. Now we can add streaming Internet radio, satellite radio, and CD ripping to PCs to the mix. It seems that everybody is plugged in. And that’s fine with me.

I’m constantly amazed at the variety of tastes that exists in the officeplace. When the listener is shielded knowing that nobody else can tap into his style (by virtue of ear buds, tucked away into his aural cavities), all inhibitions are lost.

There are times that I have “peaked” into my co-workers’ playlists. The only thing I can be sure of is that I can never predict what other people are listening to. My own playlist (mostly smooth jazz with some light classical mixed into it) is no match for the mixture of heavy metal, country, blues, and American Idol mush that I know everybody else is listening to.

And that’s fine with me. Individualism is good. It empowers the office worker, giving him a sense of importance. His it department can tell him what version of Microsoft Office he has to deal with. His boss can tell him what font he has to use in PowerPoint presentations. His finance department can tell him what receipts he has to turn in after a business trip. His hr department can tell him what documentation he has to gather before he can fire his slackered subordinate.

But, by golly, nobody can tell him he can’t listen to Def Leppard while he works on his client’s latest proposal.

What harm can possibly come from that?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Best Sitcoms Ever

The sitcom was invented for television. It has a dilemma, a development, and a resolution all neatly wrapped into a 30 minutes package with some laughs thrown in for good measure. Here’s my list of the best of the best.

I Love Lucy

The granddaddy of all sitcoms. The one that established the rules by which we all live today. This is the one that established the three-camera standard that is the norm today. It was one of the first to be filmed in front of a live audience on high quality 35mm film, ensuring its preservation forever. We are eternally grateful for that.

Neither Ball nor Arnez needed the job — they were already at the height of their respective careers. And that let them take chances with the show, giving it a unique personality. Owning their own production studio helped, too. They were beholden to no one, only to the enjoyment of their fans.

WKRP in Cincinnati

Arthur thought turkeys could fly. And that pretty much sums up this ensemble farce.

One of the very best comedies to be cancelled at the height of its creativity. It was a true character study. Johnny, the washed-up stoned DJ. Les, the never-been-washed news guy. Venus, the nerdy teacher turned cool DJ. Herb, the slimy salesman. Bailey and Jennifer were a study in contrasts never seen since Mary Ann and Ginger. All presided over by the befuddled Mr. Carlson. And all revolving around loveable Andy, trying to make sense of it all.

It all fell together perfectly. Such an ensemble cast will never again be constructed. Nor should it be.

MASH

The Korean War lasted three years. MASH, the TV show, lasted eleven seasons.

But the MASH wasn’t about the war. In fact, the war was just one character in the series.

MASH was about love, pain, comedy, loss, farce, and everything in between. It was equally about the tragedies of war as the resilience of humanity. It was about distain for authority as well as the rule of order. It was about the weakness of man resulting in infidelity as well as the love of a man for his family.

MASH covered the entire spectrum of emotions and pathos. Who knew that a war could reveal so much about ourselves?

Mary Tyler Moore

Laura Petrie busted out of her capri pants and landed in Minneapolis as the na├»ve Mary Richards. She fell in love with Mr. Grant and he returned the favor, even though she could never call him “Lou”.

Over the years, the show evolved. Mary moved from the apartment with the kitchen on the left to an apartment with the kitchen on the right. Phyllis and Rhoda left for their own shows. Georgette and Sue Ann took their place. Ted never grew up. Murray never got a promotion.

And in the end, everybody was fired except for the goofball Ted. In the ultimate TV irony, everybody huddled, sang a song about Tipperary, and turned out the lights.

What’s missing?

I could have written about lots of other shows. Both of Bob Newhart’s hits. Andy Griffith. Dick Van Dyke. My Three Sons. And the trifecta of Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and the Beverley Hillbillies. Each of those almost made my cut.

But two shows won’t be on my list. How could I miss writing about “Friends”? And what about “Seinfeld”?

Well, I would have had to have watched them, wouldn’t I? But I gave up television as a vast wasteland the same time that Bob Newhart woke up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette and realized his second series was just a bizarre dream. I’m sure television has produced a good sitcom since then. It just hasn’t been in front of my eyeballs.