Thursday, May 31, 2007
But, moreover, I just need to take a "fast" from blogging. (Usually, when I declare a hiatus it lasts about 2 days before something comes up in the news that requires immediate reaction. I'm going to refrain from that this time).
Joni and I are in the middle of life-change and so I'm both stressed and depressed. That easily spills over into my writing, so when I return I hope to be much more upbeat.
I've been thinking about liquified coal as alternative energy. This requires some more thought and research on my part. I'll just say that anything that Senators jump all over to throw money at is usually a waste of that money, and the coal lobby is no different than the ethanol lobby. I agree with most of this NY Times editorial entitled "The Coal Trap."
Some "talk amongst yourselves" points:
The Coal Trap
Lou Dobbs is an idiot. There haven't been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the U.S. in the last 3 years as he claims.
John Stossel's op-ed on free trade.
If you don't know about "The Awakening" movement in Iraq, you should. It's a growing pro-government, anti-Al Qaeda network of native Sunnis that are gaining ground and building intelligence networks. They are clearly the "good guys" and fighting a tough battle.
See you soon.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
This is partly why consumer debt + mortgages is over $12 trillion in the U.S. We can't afford to pay for this ridiculousness up front, (but apparently love it so much that we divorce, re-marry and do it all over again):
Every year, as might be expected, the American Wedding Study’s* tally of the amount spent by Americans on getting married increases: from about $22,000 in 2003 to more than $26,000 in 2005 to, in 2006, a grand total of $27,852 … According to the 2006 study, Americans were spending $14 billion annually on engagement rings, wedding rings, and other items of jewelry. They were purchasing just over $7 billion worth of wedding gowns, tuxedos, flower girl outfits, bridesmaids’ dresses, veils, satin shoes, gloves, stoles, and other items of wedding attire. Brides and grooms were registering for $9 billion worth of gifts from their friends and relatives, of whom there were an average of 165 at each wedding. The expenses of the wedding day itself, including the food and drink, the limousines, the flowers, the wedding bands, and other nuptial paraphernalia, totaled $39 billion, which comes to [$750 million] being spent on weddings across America every weekend (with the exception of Super Bowl weekend, when only the oblivious or highly inconsiderate decide to begin married life). A further $8.5 billion were being spent on honeymoon vacations.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
He now writes various columns about Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan for various news sources and is currently imbedded with the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery working with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in western Baghdad.
He wrote this article today for The Fourth Rail (linked to the right). An even-handed look at the work in Iraq, he raises more questions than answers.
On the discouraging side, much of the Iraqi army has been penetrated by insurgents intent on betraying the U.S.:
"multiple military sources with whom I spoke said that infiltration can be as high as 90% in some districts. In part because of this, distrust of the Iraqi security forces is rampant."
This jives with that NY Times article I linked over the weekend in which a sergeant was quoted as saying “Half of the Iraqi security forces are insurgents.”
Not all the reports are bad, however, and he points out that journalists can truthfully write stories with just about any slant.
"Right now our country is embroiled in a critical debate about setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Unfortunately, this is one of the most intellectually impoverished political debates that I have ever witnessed, with both sides often resorting to sloganeering and demagoguery rather than substantive argumentation."
Monday, May 28, 2007
My mother-in-law, Jan Strimple, is truly a special person. I told Joni back in pre-marital counseling that the fact that her parents were cool people factored greatly in my decision to marry her. (I don't think she so cared much for that statement, but hey, it was in those awkward pre-marital days).
And Joni's parents are cool. My father-in-law writes a cool blog. My mother-in-law sewed Joni's wedding dress herself, pictured here: Very cool.
She got to be here for Mother's Day a couple weekends ago. We took her (and my mom) to dinner. But, she gave us presents for Mother's Day. Who does that!? She gave me a NASCAR preview magazine! I was in need of something like it, to help learn who the drivers are and understand the tracks, but I wouldn't have bought it myself. She gave me a magazine that had all the info I wanted, and that was very exciting! If I hadn't had it, I would not have enjoyed the Coca Cola 600 nearly as much yesterday. (BTW- What a great finish to the race. Casey Mears wasn't sure if he had enough gas to make it. But, while everyone else was making literal 2-second pit stops, his team risked it and he had just enough and finished way out in front).
Not only that, but when my cellphone broke, and I was very much in need of a loaner phone, my in-laws had just gotten brand new phones and offered to send me their old ones. What does Jan do? Rather than send me her used phone, she sends me her brand-new one, never even taken out of the box. Who does that?! It's a nice Samsung SGH-C417 camera phone!
So, I can easily and happily say that I love my mother-in-law. Not just for making such a hot daughter, and for giving us stuff we need, but for just who she is and for being the special person God has made her to be.
So, thanks Jan! This post's for you!
Sunday, May 27, 2007
I've also added a cost meter so you can see where your tax dollars are going.*
There's a decent article 3-page article in the NY Times today about withdrawing from Iraq. The White House is now reportedly debating reducing troop levels 50% by next year.
"The New York Times interviewed more than 40 Iraqi politicians and citizens and consulted recent surveys of public opinion in Iraq. The views of a broad range of senior military officials, American intelligence experts, politicians and independent analysts who have recently returned from Iraq were also solicited."
Clearly the most intelligent quote from the article: Abu Fayad, an aide to a leading Shiite member of Parliament:
"The Americans failed, but they should stay."
*Update* new article in the Times about the growing disillusionment of soldiers in Iraq. Some stories illustrating why are in the article. One notable quote:
“In 2003, 2004, 100 percent of the soldiers wanted to be here, to fight this war,” said Sgt. First Class David Moore, a self-described “conservative Texas Republican” and platoon sergeant who strongly advocates an American withdrawal. “Now, 95 percent of my platoon agrees with me (about withdrawing).”
Frank Rich points out that since 2003, the U.S. has only granted visas for 466 Iraqis! 2 million Iraqis have fled, and in almost 4 years we've only given 466 refuge!? Sweden will grant visas for 25,000 Iraqis this year alone! Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton (among the last of the neocons to leave power) says it's not our problem: “Our obligation was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation." Bolton reportedly says that the refugee problem has "nothing to do" with our overthrow of Saddam. Hello!?
The majority of Iraqis, politicians, generals, and analysts believe (rightly, IMO) that our soon departure will lead to more violence. They're not sure we can pressure the government to forge a coalition by threating to withdraw.
Seeing as how large-scale reform never happens in the Middle East (or anywhere, really) until pressure or threats of consequences are applied, then I tend to disagree. We see this "they can't change because of their culture" argument all the time in international aid. It's mostly bunk, and even Wolfowitz could see that and addressed it at the World Bank. I really liked the idea of economic aid cut-offs if Iraqis don't meet certain benchmarks that the Senate included in this past spending bill. The President will likely waive them, however.
(And I hate the democrats that loaded up on $20 billion in pork for peanut farmers, citrus growers, and the FDA to build a nice new office. If we're not living in ancient Rome, then where are we?)
Meanwhile, a few corrupt Iraqi politicians are bilking much of the aid we send, and most of the projects we build are falling apart. "Shoddy work found at seven of eight Iraq reconstruction projects, report says." You can still read the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report for free, President Bush seems to think that might be a good thing to do after all (you can read my report of it here). A lot of the money just gets "lost."
Question: If we keep 150,000 troops on the ground for 7 more years, instead of keeping them on the ground for just 1 more year, will there be any difference in the end result?
As long as everything I wrote in this previous post and everything else we know to be true in Iraq holds, then the answer is a definite "no."
So, do we really want to keep spending over $200 billion a year and sacrificing American lives just to delay the inevitable? There were people who advocated staying on in Vietnam in 1975 after over 10 years of combat. It was the right decision to just say "we screwed this up, let's go home and hand Saigon over to North Vietnam." Vietnam actually turned out okay in the end; they now have a quasi-capitalist system and a fast-growing economy that lots of American firms are investing in. They did better without America than they did with America.
So, if we could do 1965 all over again, would we still call for troop increases in Vietnam?
One of the military blogs I linked at right reminded me that we still fought the cold war after we pulled out of Saigon. It won't be any different when Baghdad falls to Iranian control. We have other ways and other places to fight terrorism and fascism besides Iraq. Maybe we should consider focusing on them instead.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Here's some facts from the article:
"From 1989 to 2004, the total amount owed by households earning $30,000 or less a year has grown 247% to $691 billion."
The poorest people in the U.S. are $691 billion in debt and growing!
Let's put $691 billion in perspective:
(Given $691 billion is a nominal variable, let's look at countries' nominal GDP in 2004).
That's bigger than the GDP of all but 10 countries in the world!
So, the poorest people in our country owe more money than the amount that 174 countries make in a given year from production of goods and services. And that amount of debt is growing at a faster rate than other countries' entire economies are growing!
The average college student graduates with about $2,700 in credit card debt. 50% graduate with student loans, and the average student loan debt is $10,000. Many never get out of debt ever again.
Banks and producers are making it easier than ever to obtain credit. Even for poor people with horrible credit histories. What most of the poor don't realize is what a ripoff it is.
"In 1989, households earning $30,000 or less a year paid an annual interest rate on auto loans that was (only) 16.8% higher than what households earning more than $90,000 a year paid." Now, those $30,000 households pay a 56.1% higher interest rate than households earning more than $90,000 a year (BusinessWeek).
A few lessons you can learn from Dave Ramsey and this BW article:
1. Never use credit cards. It's easier than ever for poor people to obtain credit. One woman is reportedly $169,585 in debt and still gets credit card offers in the mail.
There are too many hidden fees and interest rate hikes that keep people trapped. Most college students graduate with thousands of dollars in credit card debt, not realizing what a mistake it was to sign up just to get a "free" t-shirt.
2. Never buy anything on credit. The article mentions one company that sells an $800 computer to low-income folks for a downpayment of $124. After that, there are 17 payments of $71.98 to make twice a month. In the end, the person will end up paying $1,347.66 for a computer that won't even be worth $800 at the end of his 9-month pay plan.
If you instead saved up that same $1,347.66 over 9 months you could buy an even better $800 computer at the end of the 9 months, and still have over $500 left over!
People make this mistake by leasing cars all the time, and for some reason that's just the "acceptable" way to do things.
Plenty of people who were smart enough to become millionaires have learned: Don't buy anything (except a house) on credit, and don't lease cars.
3. Do your taxes yourself, or go to a free center for help. Don't go to places like Jackson-Hewitt that prey on the poor.
The article mentions that many poor people don't realize that there are free services at their local libraries, churches, and other places that will help them prepare their taxes. Instead, they go to Jackson Hewitt and pay outrageous fees.
One lady, deeply in debt, was relying on the $4,351 Earned Income Tax Credit she was going to receive. Without knowing about her free options, she went to Jackson-Hewitt to prepare her taxes, and they then gave her an advance loan on her EITC credit of $4,351. They also charged a 10% fee on the loan, or $453 dollars! She didn't realize (and they didn't tell her) that she would receive the credit direct-deposited from the government in just a week for free! So, she ended up losing $453 that she needed to pay bills and feed her family.
Companies mentioned in the article (like Jackson-Hewitt) have had massive lawsuits filed, but most are running businesses by the letter of the law. Most people in the article admit that they were just ignorant. They didn't understand what an interest rate was, or know what their free options were, or read the fine-print of their contract. They just signed on the dotted line (much like I mistakenly did with Cingular the other day. That's thankfully been remedied).
The moral of the story is to be educated, be aware! Before you purchase anything on credit, calculate out the total amount your purchase will be and decide if you'd be better of saving and paying in cash instead.
Friday, May 25, 2007
(Frank and others purport a theory of "superstars," (wiki) which attempts to explain why "relatively small numbers of people earn enormous amounts of money and seem to dominate the fields in which they engage," and why marginal differences in talent among those top professionals results in large differences in pay between them).
Fun example: The article points out that the highest-paid baseball player 25 years ago made 41% more than the 25th highest-paid. Now, the highest paid player (Roger Clemens, who hasn't even pitched a game yet!) is paid 100% more than 25th highest-paid David Ortiz.
Income inequality makes everyone nervous and, in response, politicians advocate policies that make economists nervous.
Question: Should the goal of economic growth be a larger pie in the hopes that people with small pieces of that pie happen to end up with a larger slice? Or, should the goal of economic policy be to insure that all of our slices are more equal?
How you answer that question determines where you are on the liberal/conservative spectrum. It's the question that is at the heart of every conversation you will ever have with someone about poverty, development, and economic freedom.
Senator Jim Webb's Democratic Response to the last State of the Union Address said this to the nation:
"When one looks at the health of our economy, it's almost as if we are living in two different countries. Some say that things have never been better. The stock market is at an all-time high, and so are corporate profits. But these benefits are not being fairly shared. When I graduated from college, the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did; today, it's nearly 400 times. In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day."
A janitor making minimum-wage today isn't making much more, in real terms, than a janitor making minimum wage in 1967. A CEO's salary, in real terms, is much higher.
The NY Times article shows that part of the reason is due to competition. Firms will often provide a high financial package to attract a CEO from another firm, so firms all pay their CEOs a lot in order to compete. Tyler Cowen also likes to point out that it's due to increasing returns to education.
The great fundamental questions are: Does this matter? If so, what do we do about it?
My answer to the first question is somewhere close to "no," because I don't like the answers to the second question.
But, if you answer "yes," then the answers to the 2nd question become tricky. The only way to effectively "do something" about it is to take income away from the CEO and give it to the janitor. This is done by taxes and income redistribution programs. We can tax the CEO much more and give a larger welfare payment or tax credit to the janitor. This creates a dis-incentive for the CEO to work as hard as more of his dollar just goes to the janitor, and creates a dis-incentive for the janitor to work as hard since he's going to get more of the CEO's money.
Since both people aren't working as hard, you've shrunk production (the overall size of the economic pie), but made the slices of the 2 people more equal.
(I should point out that this is a result of a "good" answer to #2. Answers like "increase minimum wage", "impose tariffs," etc. are what I call "bad" answers to #2).
Countries like Sweden are fine with this result and, as long as the price of oil is high, everyone is happy.
There's no real "right" or "wrong" answer; it's where the debate begins.
Right now, the majority of our country is answering "yes" to the first question and demanding policies to answer the second. That makes me nervous.
Sanchez makes the point: "It's also kind of important for us to answer the question, 'What is victory?', and at this point I'm not sure America really knows what victory is."
So, in Iraq (and Afghanistan) what is victory? Any ideas anyone? Is victory just "staving off defeat?" And what is "defeat"?
Here's what "victory" is not:
It's clearly not the defeat of Al Qaeda and capture of Bin Laden. Because we're still funding Al Qaeda through the billions of dollars we give to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (in the form of direct aid, covert payments to their intelligence services, or oil purchases) who in turn funnel the money to Wahabbist mosques and schools that recruit and create Al Qaeda's soldiers and buy their weapons.
If the goal was to defeat Al Qaeda, we wouldn't be silent while Pakistan's government has decided no longer to patrol border regions and to openly give the Taliban a new safehaven, safer than ever. We wouldn't still be protecting Saudi interests and "charities" that openly fund Bin Laden. Thanks to our funding, there's a limitless supply of hostile, radicalized fighters, and these are the guys we're killing on the ground. Why not stop the problem at its source?
It makes me furious to hear Rudy Giuliani still claim that Iraq was responsible for 9/11. Even Bush has quit saying that. I guess a lie, repeated often enough, eventually becomes truth if you're running for president. I'm almost ready to throw my support behind Ron Paul. I'm so tired of the idiocracy and lies on both sides of the aisle.
I guess I'm a flaming liberal, now. I seem to be the only conservative saying "I want the truth!" I'm also the only one who seems to remember all the claims that were made going into this thing, and how almost every press release the administration puts out now is a direct contradiction to 6 years ago. Eventually the day will come when I turn this blog into a mouthpiece angrily directed toward this administration and the "base" who so blindly support its foreign policies.
"I am absolutely convinced that America has a crisis in leadership at this time and we've got to do whatever we can to help the next generation of leaders do better than we have done over the past five years, better than what this cohort of political and military leaders have done."
I agree. But, I don't see any "generation" of better leadership on the horizon.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
4 stars. Few books have shaped my thinking like this book. It's hard to write a review of it because there are so many incredible stories in this book. If you want to know the history of the CIA, this is your book.
The author has spent over 35 years as an investigative journalist covering military and intelligence operations. This book is a compilation of 35 years worth of first-hand interviews, painstaking research, and incredible use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain previously classified and unknown documents. He has done a good job compiling all of this into a readable book (one 46-page chapter has 93 separate citations).
Americans have never heard of Ted Shackley or Ed Wilson, but men like these have shaped our country's intelligence networks and influenced the course of history (click the links to get a sense of what we're talking about here).
The book is essentially about 2 people: Ed Wilson and George H.W. Bush. Wilson was a good businessman who was part of a CIA that became essentially a privatized business network after Watergate. He was later framed and imprisoned by Shackley and the government, mainly because he knew too much.
George H.W. Bush was the son of one of the original CIA men, Prescott Bush. He worked with anti-Castro CIA activities in the 1960s, and later helped protect the CIA from Congressional scrutiny as CIA Director during the 1970's. He partially oversaw the privatization of the CIA, and his Saudi connections would end up making the CIA reliant on foreign intelligence services and embroiled in controversy like Iran-Contra and Iraqgate.
This book definitely shows a different side of Bush "41". His long-running extramarital affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald, stories of his business failures, proof of him working for the CIA long before he says he did, his role in undermining Jimmy Carter, his role and deposits in illegal banks used for black operations, and his protection of the Saudis while arming both Saddam Hussein and Iran in the 1980's, policies which greatly contributed to Gulf War I and 9/11. You won't find this in his autobiography or at his museum in College Station.
It also fills in many of the gaps in House of Bush, House of Saud which I reviewed here and here a couple years ago.
Very little is said about G.W. Bush, 9/11, and Gulf War II, but the history in the book leading to those events is fascinating. Current President Bush is shown as inheriting a mess. This is the author's commentary on the last page:
"George H.W. Bush 's long partnership with American and Saudi Intelligence and money set in motion events that would fall on the shoulders of a son totally unprepared for the challenge. The arc from Prescott to George W. Bush is a three-generation saga of the rise to power of an American family. Ironically, the Bushes survived and prospered in each generation by making alliances with some of the most anti-American elements, and yet disguised these involvements with the noblest rhetoric of public service. President George W. Bush has a lifetime of friends and family who have always come to his rescue. But sometimes friends fail... as Bush learned when he heard the awful news on September 11, 2001... In that moment, his personal history and the dark secret history his father and grandfather helped shaped all came together."There's so many events beyond the Middle East that are mentioned in this book. Vietnam, South America, Eastern Europe. Mind-blowing information.
After reporting on the CIA for 35 years and seeing it change shape various times, the author comes to this sad conclusion:
How it got to that point is shown clearly in the long history recorded in the book.
"The CIA during the George W. Bush administration has become at best irrelevant and at worst a joke... The people in charge...have taken America's Intelligence, foreign policy, and military into a private world..."
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
In his words, all used cars are lemons. In Game Theory we talk about how in auctions you will always pay more for something than what it's worth. It's called the "winners curse." Happens when you're on a used car lot, too.
I found an empirical support for this in a recent Business Week article:
Dealers take a $31 loss, on average, on the typical new car.
New car dealers that also sell used cars on the side make a $223 profit, on average, on the typical used car.*
One particular used-car only dealership (that preys on the poor) makes an average of $828 profit on the typical used car.
Why is this? Asymmetric information. With a used car, only the seller knows exactly how much it's worth. You're making your best guess, even if you've had it appraised.
However, with a new car you can look up online exactly what the MSRP is and know exactly how much the dealership paid for that car. You can pay a price much closer to its actual value.
Now, given that the car depreciates a couple thousand dollars the instant you drive it off the lot, buying a new car probably isn't worth it. But, there is less asymmetry of information in buying a new car and you can pay a price closer to its actual value at the moment of purchase than you can in buying a used car.
*(If you're asking how dealerships earn a profit when they're taking these hits on new cars and low margins on used cars, it's because most cars are sold through financing and leases, or "fleecing" as Dave Ramsey calls it, where the buyer will pay much more for the car, due to interest payments, than the agreed-upon price. I'll post about fleecing using info from the same BusinessWeek article tomorrow).
I've defended Jimmy Carter on this blog before. But, it's hard to argue that Carter didn't have the worst foreign policy in history. Here's a few quotes from a great book I'm reading. I read the chapter "The Drowning of a President" a couple days ago that wraps up how key members of the CIA worked to undermine Jimmy Carter and his CIA director Stansfield Turner.
Let's go back to 1979: The Shah of Iran is ousted and in need of cancer treatment.
"In September, 1979, Carter approved the (Shah's) visit (to America for treatment) and the dying shah was flown in. Almost immediately, it was apparent that this treatment was seen as a slap in the face of the Iranian people. On November 4, 1979, five hundred angry Iranians invaded the U.S. embassy compound and took ninety people hostage...Carter's "human rights" presidency and his Camp David triump here now seen as images of weakness. Carter tried economic sanctions. The only result was another rise in the price of gasoline."So, that was among several of Carter's foreign-policy disasters. Then, the Reagan-Bush team worked to negotiate with the Iranians behind Carter's back to provide arms to Iran (through Israel) in exchange for the Iranians delaying the hostages' release until after the 1980 election. Members of Carter's cabinet and NSC basically turned double-agents to work for Reagan-Bush.
(As quoted in Gary Sick's October Surprise).
"Carter's most secret operations were thoroughly penetrated by Bush partisons...One of those sources stole a copy of President Carter's briefing book, which the Republican campaign then used to prepare Reagan for his debate with Carter on October 28."
Coincidentally, what was the name of the agent that stole Carter's briefing book? Our current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. He was later rewarded for his efforts. Funny how it all works out, isn't it?
The chapter concludes:
"The destruction of Carter's presidency can hardly be blamed on the secret intelligence network alone. Besides the foreign-policy disasters, for which that network's failure to keep him informed was partly responsible, there were severe problems on the domestic front: runaway inflation and double-digit unemployment. Complicating matters further, Carter had made powerful enemies among intelligence officials in Israel..."When the guys you have doing your foreign policy absolutely hate you, as they did Carter, and don't even tell you what's going on in the world, then you're probably going to have the worst foreign policy in history.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Here's my yesterday and today:
The Grand Am is in the shop yet again, trying to fix the same problem it's had the last 6 months. We've spent over $800 in parts and labor, including about $450 last week, so far with no lasting results.
What I've learned from this experience: NEVER overfill your gas tank. When you go to the pump and it clicks off, STOP PUMPING GAS. Don't squeeze the trigger again, trying to juice "just a little more" before the price of gas goes up. IF YOU GET GAS INTO YOUR EMISSIONS CANISTER YOU WILL BE HOSED LATER ON.
I think my dad taught me the habit of squeezing to get "just a little bit more" out of the pump. I've since broken the habit.
I was told yesterday that oil is leaking in 3 different places on it, which would cost another $700. The mechanic won't sell me the work because he doesn't think it's a bad enough leak to be worth it. I wouldn't pay it anyway.
FOR SALE: 1996 Grand Am SE 4-door. 120,000 miles. Dual airbags, keyless entry. Needs some maintenance.
So, I'm driving the Camry and trying to find ways to save and earn money. Thinking about donating my blood plasma. On my way to pick Joni up from work, I was merging from Franklin onto Hwy 84 at that tricky little intersection and ended up knocking someone in the rear end. A 2005 Ford Mustang, to be precise.
This little stunt is going to cost us $500 (our deductible) plus whatever damage I did to the Mustang (hopefully not as much as what I did to my own car).
We were fortunate enough to have several people give us money for my graduation. If it weren't for that, we'd probably be dipping deeper into our Emergency Fund. So, God equipped us with funds that stayed with us for about 2 weeks.
At exactly the same time as my car accident, my cellphone keypad decided to quit working!
Story: 18 months ago, the nice cellphone I had broke. It was a nice Motorola but with a flaw in its earpiece. I broke it trying to flex it so the wires would straighten and I could listen to someone talk. Because I didn't have insurance on the phone, I was going to have to pay something ridiculous to get a new one. I wrote a nice post about that. Note: The U.S. cellphone market is a RACKET. We have probably the worst cellphone services IN THE WORLD.
So, I got the cheapest, crappiest phone I could find. It's lasted 18 months, and I've even been paying insurance every month in case it ever broke or got lost.
I took it to Cingular today. They told me that, because I was paying insurance, I could pay an additional $50 to get the same model phone shipped to me, or pay $50 to upgrade to a better phone. In fact, I could get a $50 camera phone that has a $30 mail-in rebate (it's now the crappiest, cheapest phone they have). A $50 phone for $20. Sounds great, right? Even factoring in the $19 "upgrade fee" on my next bill. A $50 phone for $40.
Here's the catch:
We were no longer on our contract with Cingular. Just paying month-to-month, but our contract ran out about 6 months ago. So, to get a new phone what did I have to do? Sign up for a 2-year contract.
In fact, they didn't even tell me I was signing up until I was paying for the phone. When I asked, "why am I signing a new contract?" they said "Because if you don't, this phone will cost you $250."
So, why pay insurance on something that you're going to end up paying for anyway???
Note: The U.S. cellphone market is a RACKET. We have probably the worst cellphone services IN THE WORLD. All the companies are the same in my experience.
Granted, there's not a difference in our contract and the month-to-month we pay currently. But, seeing as how we're looking to go overseas for several months, we'll either have to pay $80 a month while we're gone or cancel our contract and numbers for $150.
So, I had a more interesting post for today but ended up writing this rant instead. Because I'm unemployed. It does remind me to go check into selling my plasma, though. A friend of ours ended up getting nasty blood clots from damage she suffered at the blood center. I guess I'll weigh the risks. $20 buys almost 7 gallons of gas, that's a risk worth taking!
Monday, May 21, 2007
In honor of #500, I've launched a new blog of mine to the right: Thoughts on Scripture. We've been going through 1 Timothy in ABF and so far it's a collection of thoughts on it.
Having covered a variety of subjects in 500 posts, I get a large number of hits from many countries. I'm most proud of one from Mongolia last week. It's funny how people find this site on Google.
My favorite hit is from someone searching for "Mark Cuban" + "breast implants."
I have no idea how searching for that brought up this blog.
The most-hit post is currently this one about Al Gore. Lots of Australians hitting that one.
Another popular one is still this one on the "smiling preacher."
UK fans often find my blog while looking for posts about obscure players. Anyone searching for anything with "econometrics" usually finds this blog as well.
Any post in which I mention a singer, or used a songtitle for the post title gets instant hits and lots of them.
Sadly, I don't get as many hits talking about immigration or taxes or trade.
I like my blog, especially now that I'm unemployed and can plan out my blog posts each week. So, here's to half a millenium and to all those who have helped by visiting and writing comments!
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Jesus was often criticised by the pharisees for the company he kept: tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, etc. However,
"The Christian church now attracts respectable types [of people] who closely resemble the people most suspicious of Jesus [when he was] on earth. What has happened to reverse the pattern of Jesus' day? Why don't sinners like being around us?"
--Philip Yancey (The Jesus I Never Knew). Comments welcome.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
1. a. Isn't this a problem with Mexico's economy?
Yes. Currently, 10% of Mexicans live in the U.S. and I forget how much of Mexico's GNP comes from remittances from the U.S. (Mexicans sending money home). It's a large percentage. A Mexican with a hard life here still has more economic opportunity than what was available in Mexico.
In Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, he explains how Mexico got "stuck on the train tracks" of globalization. It made some "macro" reforms (like NAFTA), but failed to pass through the micro reforms. They failed to make it easier to start businesses and invest.
Mexico's economy hasn't grown as hoped because China's has been growing like crazy. Mexico is losing out as firms leave Mexico for China. China made the reforms necessary to get businesses there, Mexico has not.
b. Should we fix it?
Business leaders have tried to push reforms in Mexico. But, as you saw in the last election, a Socialist/Communist almost took over the presidency. The appetite for market liberalization in Mexico has died, thus they're dependent on Mexicans working in the U.S. There's not much we can do.
2. Who gets green cards? Does extended family get to come too?
Only spouses and minor children are also eligible for green cards under the Z visa plan. This isn't much different than the current laws we have for near-permanent and legal permanent resident immigrants. After naturalizing (5 years to become a citizen), an immigrant may also bring his parents over.
Under current law, permanent entry visas granted to non-immediate relatives of citizens is somewhat limited. CIRA would increase this number by about 254,000 relatives per year. So, it opens the door for more non-immediate relatives of naturalized citizens to come over. I don't know why this is in there. The way it's currently set up makes more sense to me.
(So, to clarify, initial green cards are only given to spouse and minor children. Once you become a full-fledge citizen the door is opened for non-immediate family, but with a fixed cap on exactly how many).
One of the controversial aspects of the bill is that in the point system, "family connections" only make up 10% of the decision to grant you a guest worker visa. 50% is made up of education requirements. The remaining 40% is based on English proficiency and work experience.
Some Republicans want education and work experience to be 100% of the requirements. Some Democrats want family connections to be weighted the heaviest. I think they're both useless and unenforceable requirements. Just do a lottery.
3. What's the deal with guest workers?
Under CIRA, guest workers can stay in the U.S. for 6 years. After year 4 they may apply for Legal Permanent Residence if they have learned English. (5 years after LPR is granted you can receive citizenship).
325,000 guest worker visas will be issued in the first year. After that, demand by employers determines how much that number grows, up to 20% per year.
I like the guest worker program, and think this is great. I say replace the entire legislation with just the guest worker program and you've solved the problem, just like in 1942. The market will mostly determine the demand for immigrants.
4. How many people and how much money are we talking about here?
The Heritage Foundation estimates from 66 to 103 million legal immigrants over the next 20 years, or roughly 33% of our current population. That's much higher than anyone else's estimate. The Congressional Budget Office says , in contrast, 24.4 million over the next 20 years at a cost of $78 to $126 billion over 10 years.
I think the immigrant number is closer to 24.4 million than 103 million. There just aren't that many Mexicans.
5. What effect will this have on Social Security?
I can't find any info on The Great Moose's comments about being vested in 6 quarters. The best I can find is Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley's objections that illegal immigrants get to count the years they worked illegally towards their Social Security payments. Moose, send me your source for this one, I can't seem to locate it.
The CBO report says that CIRA will cost Social Security $5.2 billion over the next 10 years.
However, due to the influx of immigrants paying into Social Security, the SS system may be "saved" for another decade or so. It will partially offset the number of Baby Boomers retiring, something that threatens to break the system currently in 2018. CIRA might add another decade or more to that date.
So, there are "benefits" of a substantial band-aid on a broken system, and "costs" of immigrants counting illegal gains as legal ones.
6. What kind of wages will guest workers be paid? What about "union wages"?
All I can find on this is section 404 of the original S.2611 bill. It says the guest worker has to be paid the "prevailing wage." This is determined by what the standing "collective bargaining agreement between a union and the employer" is, or if there isn't one then what the "statutory wage" is (ie: minimum wage).
Then, it says that if there is no statutory wage, the worker must be paid the prevailing wage as determined by the BLS. If that can't be determined, the business can use other means to determine the wage. That's reasonable.
But, this is all rhetoric, and will be unenforced in most situations. The guest worker isn't going to file a grievance (nor will he/she likely know how to) out of fear of being fired. The employer will pay just enough to keep others from getting angry, and will always pay at least minimum wage. That's how it is now for "on the books" employees. That's fine with me.
What caught my eye is this paragraph in the same subsection:
"(5) PROVISION OF INSURANCE- If the position for which the H-2C nonimmigrant is sought is not covered by the State workers' compensation law, the employer will provide, at no cost to the H-2C nonimmigrant, insurance covering injury and disease arising out of, and in the course of, the worker's employment, which will provide benefits at least equal to those provided under the State workers' compensation law for comparable employment."
Employers are required to provide insurance. This won't make firms happy, but it means that we won't be picking up the tab as taxpayers when they go to the emergency room. I like this part of the provision.
7. What are we doing for physical defense of our borders?
"1,000 additional Border Patrol agents, detention facilities for 20,000, build and maintain 370 miles of border fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico frontier, and a computerized system to verify the eligibility of applicants for lawful employment."- Washington Post
I saw on the news a few weeks ago some numbers suggesting that the border patrol build-up from last year is working to stem the tide somewhat. This will add to that. Combined with giving workers an incentive to enter legally, this should dramatically reduce illegal immigration.
So, it's not perfect. It's costly. It could use some tweaking, particularly at questions 2 and 5. But, I think it's still better than nothing.
Friday, May 18, 2007
Both Ted Kennedy and Lindsey Graham said "This is probably the best we're ever going to get." So, I think not passing it would be a greater mistake than passing it. Pass it, if it doesn't work then we'll try something else. It's better than doing nothing.
The simplest solution is usually the best one. Most Americans have probably never heard of the "braceros" guest worker program that existed from 1942-1964. In the 1940's, the U.S. was facing the same problem it is now. Hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens arrested, massive migration across the borders, etc. The solution was to create a guest worker program granting work visas to hundreds of thousands of immigrants to come in and work temporarily.
The result in 1942 was that arrest of illegal aliens went virtually to zero. Mexicans lined up for a relatively easy-to-obtain visa, and they entered and worked legally. They returned to Mexico when their visa was up to obtain a new one. (Yesterday's proposed legislation sets up a similar program, with 400,000-600,000 guest worker visas available). 10% of their wages were garnished by the U.S. and deposited in Mexican bank accounts, to create an incentive for them to go home and get it (admittedly there was a lot of fraud that happened here either by our government or Mexico's).
LBJ eliminated the guest worker program in 1964. Do you know why? Because Texas businesses didn't have enough cheap labor! The businesses wanted illegal immigrants to flow across the border and lobbied LBJ to open the borders up. So, law enforcement has had to deal with illegal immigrants ever since. Our current H2-A system only brings in about 40,000 workers legally each year. So, the rest come in illegally. Thanks, Lyndon!
I'm supportive of yesterday's legislation, but I think simply creating a guest worker program would be enough. Are there too many illegals in the U.S. to think the heads of households wouldn't all go home to line up for a guest worker visa? Probably. So, maybe it wouldn't be enough.
That said, I don't mind letting illegals come forward and get a "Z" visa, pay $5000 and be allowed to live/work here. They're already here working. One of them helped eliminate the mold problem in our apartment this week. Good for them.
Attention far-right people: You're NEVER going to see many illegal aliens deported. They're here to stay. You depend on them to cook your food and build your houses. I say let's make them pay $5000 and income tax. Better to get something out of them than nothing. If you kill this legislation you'll be getting nothing out of them and insuring that illegal immigration will continue.
I'm angry at Republicans for insisting that there be "education requirements" that make up 50% of the eligibility of entering. Immigrants already have an incentive to be educated in order to improve chances of finding a better job in the U.S. What's the point of this legislation? To protect uneducated unskilled U.S. workers in industries like manufacturing? I wish you'd take your newfound protectionism and shove it. Quit kissing up to unions!
Mexican immigrants with high education are still going to be flipping burgers at McDonalds. Why would I prefer that my burger flipper have a college degree as opposed to no education?
In fact, I think the whole "points system" is unenforceable nonsense. You'll see a bunch of fake universities popping up in Mexico providing forged documents to those wanting to prove they have higher education. I'm not sure how you'd prove family ties either, but apparently our system already allows for that.
I'm also angry at "immigrants' rights" advocates for opposing the legislation on the grounds that it forces guest worker applicants to return to Mexico in order to apply. They're afraid that a large number of those who leave to apply won't be able to return. Hello, if you came illegally you shouldn't be here in the first place! You're going to kill any chance you have for large numbers of Mexicans to live here legally solely on your fear that if a few go back to Mexico they won't be allowed back in, or may have to wait "a long time." The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few here. Benefits outweigh the costs.
So, I think we really need to do a cost-benefit analysis here. I think we'll see that we'll be better off with this legislation (including the increased number of border patrol agents and fencing) than without it. If someone has some data that says otherwise, I'm willing to listen.
You may have heard rumors that Clive Davis, the head of RCA, was going to pull the album after he listened to it. Kelly apparently denies the rumors about a feud.
"My whole goal is not just to sell millions of records," she said. "My whole goal is to have people like my music, come out to shows. That's basically it. I'm pretty low-key."
That's great. But, you'll neither sell millions of records nor have people like your music with songs like this.
She's flirted with country music the past couple years. I think she should probably just cross over. She should do something better with her voice than the nails-on-the-chalkboard stuff I'm hearing in this first single. Makes me sad.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
My father-in-law's blog has fun insights. They're also very real and honest. Joni's parents were strategy coordinators for the IMB in SW Poland for several years, and before that John was a pastor. He recently left his pastorship in Cincinnati and is now doing real estate while also working at Wal-Mart.
Joni's sister's husband, Matt, has 2 blogs. One is a ministry blog over at 3cords entitled The Remix of Children's Ministry. Matt was a children's pastor at the mega Fellowship Church (Ed Young Jr.'s church) in the Dallas area and is now at Horizon Community Church in Cincinnati. If he wasn't in ministry he'd probably be doing marketing for a big firm in Dallas or something. He's written curriculum for Lifeway and such. He may remind some of a young Scott Dishong, except even more savvy.
Matt's pet project is to raise money for charity by making trades. His goal is to raise $1 million by trading people smaller amounts of money. Visit the better 2 give blog to understand how this works.
No one in my immediate family blogs, at least that I know about. My parents only have a 28.8kbps connection at their house, and my sister and her husband discovered what a "blog" is only a few months ago. I enjoy my unique place.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Part 2 of my series.
A few years ago I read a modern translation of Jonathan Edwards' Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. It was Edwards' observations on the Great Awakening. Edwards encourages believers to test every spirit and make a distinction between what is purely man's creation and what is God's.
I've come up with a short list of characteristics I would look for in a modern church to distinguish a "good organization" from a Spirit-filled body. I'd love to hear everyone's opinions and overall thoughts. I'm not saying that if a particular church doesn't have these characteristics it's not being led by the Spirit. But, I think these characteristics are "unnatural" enough to mean they're likely supernatural and not something we can accomplish on our own.
Non-homogeneous membership. A multiracial body with people from a large scale of income levels. This is because in the world we live in today most church bodies are homogeneous and segregated: people of the same color, education, and income levels tend to flock together. Just like the neighborhood you live in.
I think we see Scriptural evidence of this happening in the early church in James 2:1-9. James denounces making a distinction between rich and poor.
Economists have done some regression analysis of various variables' effects on church attendance. (If you have access to JSTOR you can view these papers).
A 1969 study by Gockel entitled "Income and Religious Affiliation: A Regression Analysis" found that denominations are made up of people of a particular income and education. Jews, Episcopalians and Congregationalists had the highest family income and education on average. Baptists were at the other (poor, uneducated) end of the spectrum.
A 1980 study by Barbara Redman entitled "An Economic Analysis of Religious Choice" supported a model she developed based on the hypothesis that higher-income people tend to join more liberal denominations and attend Sunday School less frequently than lower-income people. Lower-income folks care more about personal salvation than social welfare (her words, not mine).
Interestingly, more liberal denominations also have shorter church services (i haven't found this study, but one of my professors tells me it's out there). An Episcopalian service will be shorter, on average, than a Pentecostal service.
So, if you're wealthy you're more likely to be a liberal Episcopalian or United Church of Christ than a Southern Baptist. You're likely to attend a shorter church service because the opportunity cost of time spent at church is higher for you than for a poorer person.
My own observations would seem to support this. The longest service I ever went to had some really poor people in it. The shortest services were at some of the wealthiest churches in
So, what does that mean for our churches? I think most churches state that they want to reach their entire city for Christ. My own church sits in a relatively low-income, multi-racial neighborhood but attracts almost no one from the neighborhood despite efforts to reach out. Why? Because people tend to group themselves in organizations by income and ethnicity.
It takes a true miracle for a church to become multi-ethnic and multi-income. It's not something we accomplish of our own accord. It's like the tithing vs. free-riding example I mentioned earlier. If 90% of your church members tithe then that's also a Spirit-led miracle. Because 90% of Christians behave rationally and free-ride in real life.
Should we care? If we see the churches in our city collectively as The Church, then we'll see that each income bracket and ethnic group is being ministered to. Should our own church just specialize in its comparative advantage of reaching out to middle-class white people and not reach out to others? Should it reach out to others while expecting no results? Should it partner with more churches to be a more specific part of The Church?
I'm not sure about answers to the above, and that's where you can help. But, I contend that since the data clearly says we group ourselves by income and ethnicity, a church can only be multi-racial and multi-income if it's completely Spirit-led.
Monday, May 14, 2007
Here's one of my baby and me. She has been the very supportive wife this past year and a half. Here's one of everyone. My mom and dad on the left. Joni's mom and dad next, with our 2.5 year old nephew Patriot. Matt and Jessica (Joni's sister) with their other son, 5 month old baby Azlan. At the Elite Circle Grill. Joni and I seized the opportunity of having guests to go several places we hadn't eaten before in Waco.
Here's me reading a bedtime Bible story to Patriot. He's a cute, funny kid.
Thanks very much to everyone who showed their love and support either by visiting, calling, or sending us mail! We're blessed.
I'm going to take 1 more class at Baylor in June and then I'll be finished. What happens after that is anyone's guess.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Game Theory is one of the best mind-sharpening classes I've taken. It's changed how I think about negotiating, responses, cooperation, and behavior.
One example of applied Game Theory comes in the analysis of the murder of Kitty Genovese.Genovese was murdered very publicly over a period of 30 minutes in a crowded area in Queens, NY.
Psychologists and sociologists studied why no one came to her aid. They termed the problem the "Bystander Effect," created by "pluralistic ignorance." They reason that everyone assumes someone else is going to do something, creating a "diffusion of responsibility." No one coordinates to provide help because they are ignorant of what the other bystanders are thinking.
This is where economists can come in (with assumptions that people behave rationally) and apply some Game Theory along with some calculus to prove this hypothesis: The larger the crowd, the less likely someone is to help another person. (I'll not reprint the textbook calculations that bears this out).
Everyone free-rides. A person gets pleasure in seeing someone get helped, but the pleasure they get is lessened if they have to pay a price to help them themselves. Genovese's would-be savior would have had to take the time to call the police, testify in court later, etc. etc. So, everyone waited for someone else to pay that price so they could free-ride off of it. It's rational , self-interested behavior that led to a suboptimal outcome
So, what about Christians? Do we behave rationally and make the same calculations? Very clearly.
Tithing is a clear example. In what size church would you expect someone to be the most faithful with their tithes and offerings: A church of 10, or a church of 10,000? If you walk into a church of 10,000 people you think: "There are already plenty of people here that are going to give to support the ministry. The marginal cost to the church if I don't give anything is practically zero."
Barna reports that only 8% of professing evangelicals tithe. What are the other 92% doing? Free-riding. This is rational behavior.
The other type of free-riding is seen in evangelism. All of us get a benefit by seeing someone repent and be baptised and by seeing our churches grow. But, like the Genovese example, we don't want to diminish our benefit by paying a cost ourselves. So, we let others pay the cost. Hey, I'm very often guilty of this one.
Barna states that in 2003, about 60% of born-again believers shared their faith with a non-believer at least once. (People who evangelize are also more likely to pay a tithe, according to Barna).
I don't know how many shared more than once a year. (Sharing once a year isn't going to yield a very high multiplication rate. Imagine if 60% of Americans tried to reproduce once a year every year. Our population would decline). Many likely shared more or with large groups. But, 40% of the born-again population is still free-riding.
It's rational behavior that leads to a sub-optimal outcome. Game Theory has an answer for this in its study of "collective-action games." The goal is to coordinate with your neighbor: "If you help, I'll help too, and our payoffs will be greater than if one of us did it alone. " Indeed, it depends on the payoffs.
So, how do you do it, how do you coordinate in interactions (games) like this? Assuming you only have 2 people:
1. If it's a repeated game (like most of life), then there needs to be some form of punishment in the future to coerce the free-rider (cheater) to start giving. Or the promise of a reward. It has to be a credible promise like "If you give, then I will give too," and you punish the other person if he does not. However, the threat isn't really credible in the tithing case (hard to illustrate here without drawing a payoff table). If the other person gives, then the promiser now has an incentive to cheat and not give.
2. Illustrate that the benefit is maximized if both players fully participate. Depends on the payoffs, though. You can argue that the more people become saved the better all of society is. The only way to maximize the number of people converted is to both participate. So, making those payoffs clear might help.
Now, I've very crudely turned Christian church life into a "game" and that makes non-economists very uncomfortable.
Why should we tithe and why should we share the Gospel when the rational choice is to free-ride? Because we've been crucified with Christ and it's no longer us that live, but Christ who lives within us. God gave His only begotten son. "We're never more like God than when we give." - (Dave Ramsey). By faith, Abraham gave 10% of his increase to Melchizidek. The only place in the Bible that God tells us to test him is in the area of tithing: "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it." - Malachi 3:10.
So, why do so many professing Christians free-ride and do neither? Because they're making a purely rational choice rather than a spiritual one.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
1. Teamwork and strategy.
2. Skilled performers making split-second decisions.
3. Intense competition.
4. Excitement and rabid fans.
5. A touch of luck to keep it from being predictable.
6. You learn something new every time you watch it.
I used to just see the sport as cars going around in circles. I have recently come to appreciate it for what it is: cars chasing each other and working together against each other to win.
Teamwork is found on the racetrack as guys are buddying up to pass others. It's also found with the spotter and crew chief that make decisions on what a driver should do. It's found with the pit crews who are so important to maintenance and even testing the vehicles before the race.
The competition is fierce. Drivers sometimes get fined for giving each other the "bird," or bumping each other out of frustration.
Luck comes when you get involved in a crash that was someone else's fault, or some miniscule piece of your car breaks down. Some luck is created by having good mechanics and sponsors so that you have a durable car.
The commercials during the race are funny. Nextel has all kinds of cool gadgets online and off that you can follow the race with. I wish the NFL had some of this type of gear.
The commentators and reporters cover so many things at once during a race. It's huge amounts of information. And I like their accents. These people are down-to-earth (here's an example).
I've known more educated professionals who love NASCAR than I have known rednecks that do. Doctors, lawyers, school principals, etc. Now, I think I've got the bug.
I think the bug was first planted last year when we saw Pixar's Cars. It showed all the sportsmanship of the sport and alluded to its history. Then, we saw Talledega Nights. The week after watching that movie I watched the end of a race with a very exciting finish and it was like a switch was thrown inside of me.
I've tried watching MLB again. I tried to get excited about the Yankees-Red Sox series and Dice K. That same weekend, ESPN published the article by Brian McRae about all the steroid abuse he saw in the locker rooms in the 90's. Abuse that Bud Selig and co. still deny ever happened and refuse to apologize for. MLB gets excited when a codger like Roger Clemons comes out of retirement yet again because there isn't any young pitching talent anymore. They need a Roger Clemons because there aren't any dominant white players still playing. It's hardly even a sport in my book anymore, it's a waste of time.
I've tried watching the NBA playoffs. I try to get excited, I really do, but so many of the games are boring and look so similar to each other.
NASCAR is not boring, there's something going on every second and you never know what is going to happen next. It sucks you in at the beginning and doesn't let go. You can't leave the room because you'll miss something. That's the sign of a good sport.
I like it. I like it a lot.