Friday, September 30, 2011

How to tell how decisive a leader any American president is

American presidents are, legally, America's COO (Chief Operating Officer). That is, someone empowered with carrying out the laws--particularly on spending--enacted by Congress. He can't even put legislation in front of Congress--a Congressman has to do that. He can veto legislation, but it can be overcome by a supemajority of Congressmen.

And the rules of Congress are designed currently so that a minority of the Senate can block legislation and nominations, and even a majority of Senators could easily represent a minority of Americans.

Thus the Republicans' 109th Congress (2005-2007) had a Senate Republican majority of 55%, yet it represented only around 48% of Americans--a minority majority, due to the Republicans' domination of the more backward, small, rural states.

So it's hard to judge the leadership of an American president by his domestic accomplishments, while his more unfettered international scope shows us what he could do domestically under a parliamentary system--the form of government of all the countries with a AAA rating from all three American economic rating agencies.

Even when a president has majorities in both houses of Congress, he can still be hamstrung by an obstructionist minority in the Senate--something that doesn't happen in countries with parliamentary systems, where the head of government is by definition the head of whatever party dominates the legislature, and our quaint rules don't apply. There they need 51% of the votes. Here we need at least 61%--nearly impossible to achieve in a country as evenly divided as we are, and only approachable when one party's gross malfeasance comes to light and is rejected.

And in foreign policy President Obama has been surehanded and decisive--and a coalition-builder instead of a cowboy. The killing of Al-Aliki in Yemen today is just the latest example.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

It costs more to have private sector employees do government work--even though they make less

Federal employees make an average of 20% more than comparable private sector employees. Yet it costs more to have those private sector employees do work for the government. The reason: the government hires those lower-wage workers via middlemen--contractors--and when you add in the middleman's cut, it's almost always a lot more expensive.

This is a perfect example of how pols can lie with the truth--by omitting the context that proves the opposite.

At the same time this isn't a justification for government workers making more than private sector workers. In fact they should make less, to compensate for their higher security. Except now with rampant government worker layoffs mandated by Republinomics, the old "less pay for more security" equation is breaking down.

So if we do bring government worker compensation down we have to restore public sector job security--which makes sense to me. Both parts.

Meanwhile at the state and local level, the pension time bombs tick away, threatening to bankrupt cities and counties. It's a pity the GOP has a valid issue here--and that their real reason for pursuing this is to kill off a prime source of Democratic party funding-- but nobody should ever have believed that all goodness (or badness) reposes on either side of the fence.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How to hide big government spending

Both parties--but especially the Republicans--have discovered a surefire way to hide humongous amounts of taxing and spending (if they're Democrats) or borrowing and spending (if they're Republicans): use contractors; and make it Secret.

Private contractors cost taxpayers 2 to 3 times as much as government employees doing the same thing, and once the ball's rolling, the private contractors can and will lure away the government employees who are left doing what they do, then flood Congress with lobbyists to divert even more tax dollars away from cheap public employees to expensive private ones.

Which is fine if all public employees are slackers and all private employees are hardworking and talented and devoted to doing a good job.You've always gotten great products and services from for-profit companies...right?

Plus if the work is classified secret, who's to know whether the contractors (and subcontractors and sub-subcontracotrs) are doing a good job? In which case the proper profit motive is served by getting as much for as little as possible (once you've made sure oversight is either suborned or missing).

Because the profit motive is amoral--something a lot of Bible-thumping Republicans seem to have forgotten. Not immoral, as some Leftists believe. Just amoral. Meaning that without effective oversight, capitalism naturally morphs into crony capitalism. Just as unchecked socialism morphs into...well, pretty much the same thing, doesn't it?

Thursday, September 15, 2011


The cleverest liars tell the truth--they just tell it in such as way as to get listeners to believe the lie they want you to believe.

This gives them "plausible deniability."

They do it by
1. removing context--omitting other truths--facts, reason--that would lead listeners to a different conclusion
2. trying to trigger powerful tribal fears and anger that lead listeners to an embattled "circle the wagons" mentality
3. exploiting people's inability to understand statistics (also known as innumeracy)

Examples are innumerable. A good way to find them is by going to or and see where the liar didn't so much lie as pull the shenanigans I've described here.

You can't stop with simply checking the factuality of what is said. That the bottom line. You also have to make sure that the facts being cited are true in context, and aren't coupled with emotionally compelling narratives that lead listeners down the rabbit hole.

"Context disambiguates."

Perfect example this week. FOX TV saturated its coverage this week with a clip of President Obama saying "If you love me, pass this bill."

Well. What an egomaniac, huh?

Only problem is all those Fox viewers didn't get the context: Obama was giving an unscripted answer to someone in the town hall audience he was addressing, who shouted out "I love you!"

See? Without context: egomaniac; with context: clever off-the-cuff answer.

It's all about context. And the fact that clever propagandists don't hesistate to lie with the truth.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Debt and infrastructure

It's conservative to avoid debt and to pay any debts you do have. It's liberal to finance one's goals with debt. And it's foolish to finance optional luxuries with debt. Maybe.

Of course if this is true, every family that purchased a home with a mortgage is liberal. If they were truly conservative they'd save until they had the cash for the price.

Precious few do, making them conservatives when it suits them, but not conservative as a hard and fast principle.

Likewise, the average corporate CEO is aggressively conservative. Yet what large, successful business hasn't financed growth with debt? What do you think stocks and bonds are? What do you think the Wall Street Stock Exchange is?

What I observed over 20 years of reporting on Silicon Valley companies is that the successful startups didn't use their venture capital borrowing to pay for fabulous offices, cars and perks for the management suite. They used that debt to buy company infrastructure, marketing, R&D.

But even when it comes to luxuries, suppose you discover your spouse has an incurable, mortal illness but is currently well enough to travel. Would you take out a second mortgage to take your spouse on his or her dream vacation? Or would you refuse, proudly citing conservative principles?

And how do you know your spouse doesn't have an undiagnosed cancer that, when you discover it, it will be too late for that vacation? This actually happened to our next door neighbors, such that their lifetime of scrimping and saving for world-traveling retirement years came to nothing. The husband spent the last year of his life in a hospital bed, waiting for a heart transplant that never came.

The fact is that reasonable people--and corporations--see debt as a tool that can be used or misused. Not as something that's automatically bad or good.

And one form of debt businesses and government incur that's not so obvious is infrastructure maintenance and repair.

In general this is a form of debt that can be hidden--yet failure to deal with it on a timely basis creates a balloon payment at the end.

Maintenance deferred is debt compounded.

For example, suppose a condo complex doesn['t meet current earthquake retrofit standards--it's built over garages and needs reinforcing that will cost $9,000 per unit. If this isn't done, after a significant earthquake doing the repairs at that point will cost six times as much--possible a lot more--perhaps accompanied by loss of life and irreplaceable possessions that can't be priced.

Our nation's infrastructure has maintenance needs that have been sacrificed for decades to the insistence on low taxes and the ballooning outlays for public employee pension plans that were implemented without being funded.

So that unmaintained bridge collapses in rush hour traffic, killing half a dozen people and maiming others, and must be rebuilt from scratch instead of being repaired. The dam fails. The potholed streets and freeways damage car and truck undercarriages and/or just wears them out prematurely, which individuals and companies have to pay for, thus passing the expense of those saved taxes to consumers and businesses on the downlow.

 It's called being penny wise and pount foolish.

So when the President calls on the legislature to fund infrastructure maintenance, he's not calling to increase our debt--he's calling on us to pay debts we incurred when we built that infrastructure--and he's calling on the legislature to pay that debt with borrowing and/or taxing instead of incurring vastly higher debt by waiting for damaging deterioration and collapse to take place.

It is conservative to pay what you owe. And unless we're willing to do without those roads and bridges and dams and more, we owe the nation the maintenance of its infrastructure.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why both the Left and Right are Wrong about Obama--and in the same Way

Opinion polls for President Obama are down--down enough to make his re-election seem unlikely.

But when the polls just ask whether people are satisfied with his actions, they conflate people who are dissatisfied because he's a Socialist with people who are dissatisfied because he's a Corporatist.

That is, the Left in general are unhappy because he isn't opposing the Republican Party enough,
while the Right is unhappy because he isn't surrendering to the Republican Party totally.

Lumping those two kind of unhappiness together leads to a severe misunderstanding of what the polls point towards in the next election, and to what the electorate is thinking now.

And the unhappiness with President Obama from both Left and Right stems--at least in part--from the unconscious belief that President = Ruler.

And though he has the bully pulpit to be sure, but in terms of actual power he's more like the chief administrator of the country. He can't pass legislation. He can't even initiate legislation. He can't overrule judges. And in our particular country, even if all congressional Democrats always do everything he asks of them, Senate rules in particular make it possible for a Republican minority there to make the Federal government incapable of sending any legislation to President Obama's desk, and incapable of confirming any presidential appointees, producing a hogtied government that lives down to Republican claims that government can't do anything.

An American president only wields the kind of power people think he had when his party isn't just in a majority in both houses, but which has 61 votes in the Senate that can always be relied on (difficult to maintain with senators in battleground states whose seats are vulnerable), and which has a Supreme Court majority that can generally be relied on. Bush II pretty much had that for most of his disastrous reign. Obama never did, and even during the four months he had a nominally filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, he was being forced to deal with the economic crisis the Republicans handed him (and then tried to blame him for), and with the fact that they proved willing to cripple the country through routine obstructionism for political gain.

It was like seeing two boxers fighting but each under different rules, one willing to hit below the belt and bite and kick, the other not.

These are all process observations which you can evaluate regardless of the actual policies involved.

The bottom line is that ideologues don't think about policy, they think about personality. Right wing ideologues call Obama a Socialist, which is beyond ridiculous, but they don't really mean they think he really wants a Soviet States of America. They clearly don't understand what the word means, or that every single person in America who does say he's a Socialist also says Obama is not remotely one of them. Mainly they use the word because they associate it with opprobrium, making it more like a junior high school schoolyard taunt than a serious political statement.

And left wing ideologues call him a Corporatist because, just like their right wing brothers in thought, they see things in black & white. So for them centrists like Obama are seen either as one thing or another, or as confused.

They're shades of gray-blind.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How is India a more advanced nation than America?

India is busily implementing a biometric universal ID, and we aren't even thinking about it.

From Wikipedia:

"Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique number which the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) will issue for all residents in India. The number will be stored in a centralized database and linked to the basic demographics and biometric information – photograph, ten fingerprints and iris – of each individual.It is easily verifiable in an online, cost-effective way. So also, it is unique and robust enough to eliminate the large number of duplicate and fake identities in government and private databases The random number generated will be devoid of any classification based on caste, creed, religion and geography."

Upon completion it will cost, by varying estimates, $6-34B.

We need this even more than India. But it's being blocked by both leftists and rightists, who are certain that a universal ID will be immediately followed by the black UN helicopters swooping down to castrate our men and impregnate our wimmen.

It's ironic, really. The exact same people who claim that illegal immigration is a huge, huge problem are the ones who oppose a universal biometric ID the most.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

10 years after 9/11

On 9/11 the NYPD and Fire Dept couldn't communicate with each other. Today, all over America, we still don't have full communications interoperability at federal/state/local levels. The Republican Congress handed out the 9/11 largesse to the states with no strings attached, as a tribute to states' rights. So a dirty nuke in a van goes off in Washington  DC and affects five states--and we'll get the same lack of coordination.

So they made sure the Federal Gummint stayed out of the way. And it's still out of the way. Why do people think this is a good thing?

Who loves overpopulation? Liberals...and Conservatives.

Here's a summary of both sides' discussion of overpopulation in the last 10 or so national elections:


So it's not a problem, right? There's plenty of room for everyone! Come on down!

After all, if you fly over America, you see gobs of open space. Food is plentiful and relatively cheap, ditto water. What's the problem?

The alternative explanation is that it is a problem but it's not one that can be exploited for partisan advantage, because both sides have so much to lose from admitting what a problem it is.

Liberals used to say overpopulation was a big problem, but in the 1970s racialists told liberals they were racists if they complained about overpopulation, so that was the end of liberal opposition to overpopulation..

Moreover, a growing population is good for business--for union members in the building trades especially.

And Catholics and members of most other religions (regardless of party affiliation) believe in placing no restrictions on population growth. Hence the constant complaints by the American government--regardless of which party's in power--to China about its One Child policy.

Which leads to conservative opposition to even admitting that any country anywhere has an overpopulation problem.

First, it's religious. Second, it's business. The developers those union tradesmen work for love more population. And if anyone who opposes conservatives raises the issue, they love to brand that person a racist, since it gives cover to the racism that persists in the hearts of so many conservatives.

Recently the economic conservative publication The Economist editorialized in favor of population growth at a means of coping with the graying of advanced nation populations--without even considering the cataststrophic consequences of human overpopulation.

Overpopulation denial isn't just a national policy problem. Here in California the state legislature is firmly in the New Urbanist camp. New Urbanism is a movement that ostensibly seeks to remediate urban sprawl and energy-intensive long commutes by building up housing in urban areas and guaranteeing low income housing by requiring developers to include same in their projects as an unfunded mandate.

And the New Urbanism takes rapid, continual, unlimited population growth not just as a given, but as a Good Thing, since it adds jobs for unskilled laborers.

Consequently my state's legislature has created a regional organization called ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) dedicated to achieving the goals of New Urbanism.

It has found the college town I live in guilty of providing too many jobs--a terrible crime in the New Urbanism bible, apparently, because we provide more jobs than housing. So we're being required to cram more and more housing into the town, mainly through eliminated the kind of retail and office space that provided those extra jobs in the first place, and replacing them with high density housing, which then loads our streets with more traffic than they were designed for, and can't be widened, because the town it totally built up already.

It's also loading up our schools with more kids than they can accommodate, and our sewer systems, and power systems, and overburdening road repair schedules.

Plus our town, like most American cities, is having to pay out more and more money for lavish city worker pensions, causing it to skimp on infrastructure maintenance, even though that greatly increases the cost of maintenance when it's finally done.

All because no one in either party will even say the "O" word, much less admit the drastic steps that should be taken to deal with it.

Here, instead of adding housing, we should impose a moratorium on additional housing by denying water permits for it.

Nothing in the Constitution mandates accommodating limitless population growth by states, counties, or cities.

But the real problem is that dealing with overpopulation realistically goes against our instincts, which formed when the human race numbered a few thousand people, and the urge to procreate needed to be overwhelming. And we also have an instinct to trust our other instincts--that is, to be uncritical about them and highly suspicious of anyone who says things that go against them.

So it's easy for demagogues to use our instincts to further their goals, even though many of our instincts don't match our current circumstances.

Try bringing up overpopulation with people you know, and you'll see how their Procreate! Procreate! instincts kick in the moment you bring up the issue.