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Monday, April 18, 2011

My Learned Colleague: Mr. Beck

The alleged pitfalls of the public education system in this country are nowhere more evident than in the person of Glenn Beck. While he and his cadre of like-minded opinionators pound away at the idea that Johnny can't read because his elementary school teacher is both deficient in teaching skills and paid too much, the painful truth is that many young people struggle with socio-economic challenges, parental neglect and legacy intellectual capacity limitations. They will face a lifetime of substandard conditions due to the insufficiency of that education. For them they have a reason for their lack of attainment. Such is not the case for Mr. Beck. His case is characterized by a willful ignorance and pride of buffoonery.

While I suppose he is capable of identifying various colors and counting to higher than 21 on his digits, I doubt that he can delve deeper into the hues so as to distinguish between the primary and the secondary colors. Similarly while he can recite the numbers by rote he seems to have never learned that in every equation there is an Equals Sign. The more complex relationships among factors escape him. The concept of major contributory factors and negligible ones is one of those relationships.

In his protected world of close walls and echoes, he can say anything that comes to mind and be assured that no one present will challenge him. He is the man in the sound-proof booth hearing nothing from the outside.

These attributes make it possible for the man to say that the fermenting of corn into Ethanol in the US is causing world hunger, will result in starvation, rampant hyper-inflation and food riots across the globe. He does seem to understand the connection between what he says and the practice of food hoarding and the buying of gold as a hedge against that hyper-inflation and the shortage of ground beef that is coming because the US make some Ethanol from corn. No so coincidentally several of his sponsors cater to the anxieties of Americans who listen to Mr. Beck.

In one of his broadcasts he pointed out the relative profit margins of Apple Computers and unnamed oil companies. Apple, he asserts makes 47.9% profit on an iPad, while oil companies make < 8%. Here is that first lack of deeper reasoning that escapes the man. Apple had an annual gross sales in 2010 of $18.50 bn. Exxon-Mobile had sales of $52.959 bn, Royal Dutch Shell was $35.34bn, ConocoPhillips was $19.75bn, BP Oil (is down but was) $25.12bn in 2009 and Chevron was $32.055bn. This makes a partial total, just for these oil companies, $168.17bn. This number is 9.1 times higher than Apple. At 7.9% (just less than 8% as touted) the profits are $13.3bn for the oil companies and at 47.9% for Apple the number is $8.86bn. The other 'order of magnitude' factor that Beck neglects is that no one NEEDS an iPad in order to go to work, go shopping or go to religious services.

The matter of corn prices figures prominently in his and everyone else's analysis of Ethanol production. The difference is his is simplistic to the point of non-relevance. The rising cost of corn in the markets is his reason that the US must drill for more domestic oil. There is a significant cost of corn production that is tied to the cost of diesel fuel, i.e. foreign oil suppliers, speculators and refineries. It required diesel fuel to plow, sow and reap a harvest. It requires diesel fuel to move the corn to market, mill it and make food products that are stocked on our shelves. The rising cost of oil is a major contributor to that cost of corn.

And we cannot forget the impacts of market demand. There are 1.3 billion Chinese and about 1.2 billion Indians all of who want a part of both oil production and the corn crop. Their businesses bid in the global market to get the portions they want. This has the effect of driving up the prices. Indians are not adverse to eating chicken and the Chinese have a new found taste for beef and automobiles. It takes about ten pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. If the world were truly in need of the corn to eat, we would eat it directly and not feed it to our livestock. Such inter-connections are a mystery to people like Mr. Beck who can only see one linear path from A to C through a B.

While the only thing that happens in a vacuum is a thought in the head of the person who boasts his lack of education as a virtue, the use of resources in a global market does not. If we need more corn or other ferment-able plant matter, we can plant more of it. We can put fallow acreage into production. We can use chemicals on non-food corn that will be burned in our engines. We can replace crop subsidies with purchasing the increased yields. And finally, we can change the crop to a different one anytime we need the corn to eat.

In our imperfect world we must use the forces of the market, controls of government, the technologies of our scientists, the persuasion of wise proponents, cooperation of numerous points of view and the compassion of influential people to make sure we all can eat, be sheltered, kept warm, obtain and maintain a level of comfort without sacrificing any segment of humanity. All these people and forces combine to produce a complex equation that definitely has in it an Equals Sign.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Government Shutdown Tuna!

Congress has gone fishin’. Fishing for Tuna that is. Both parties hold fast to their ideologies while neither has a firm grip on the big picture or the realities of what needs to be done to resolve the imbalance of the budget. One party says cut the spending!! They are bolstered by the Tea Party faction yelling “Cut it! Or shut it!” The GOP legislators want about $61 billion in cuts while their fanatic backers want $100 Billion. The reality is that cutting the entire $100 Billion would do nothing to either balance the budget or curtail the necessity to raise the debt ceiling. Calls for shutting down the government elicit visceral responses from all factions in the grand debate. One might end the authorization to spend money for a few days or a week, but eventually there would be a resumption of the government activities. The only outcome would be the collateral damage that extends from the brief period of interruption. Much of what doesn’t get done during shutdown would have to be taken up after it is over.

The definition of what Tuna! is tells us that buying and selling without regard to consequences is what make something into Tuna! All sides of the budget issue are using the threats of government shutdowns to leverage their positions to extract the outcomes they seek. At risk are the people who depend on the spending that the government does. There are seniors who need medical services paid for by Medicare and Medicaid. There are children who need food and shelter. There are veterans who need their pensions for paying rent. All and all, a shutdown would pressure the legislators to come to an agreement while the American people sit and wait for funds and services that will come late. The long-term impacts of a shutdown can only be realized if the government stays shut down.

Like the Libertarian philosophy of governance, a government shutdown is not a sustainable scenario. The alleged budget bloat of one ideology is another person's dinner.

The Libertarian and Tea Party ideology can only be sustained for a short period of time. It is in that interval that the believer must derive ALL of his benefits before the system collapses into anarchy. Short term results may allow the Libertarian to keep his income for a year or two longer, but eventually the roads serving his property will need to be repaired. The Tea Party person may get a warm and fuzzy feeling from beating down the budget total and harassing GOP pansies who did not toe the party line in the budget fracas but soon there will be illiterate adults who were mere children when the budget was balanced at the expense of education funding. The health of seniors will not suddenly drop because the Medicare and Medicaid budget got slashed, but time will exact its toll on those people and if the ‘maintenance’ and ‘inspection’ are not regularly performed, people will fail. When they fail, they die sooner after being in poorer health.

The same principle applies to our physical infrastructure. Without bridge inspections and regular repair, some number of bridges will fall into the ravine. People may die in the fall. This will not happen during the days and hours of a government shutdown that has been orchestrated by the posturing and haggling of 536 elected men and women. It will happen as the days stretch into weeks and weeks into years that there is insufficient funding to maintain the essential elements of our society. The cutting of spending can only garner a few tens of billions for the tally sheet that says that some ‘good’ has been had. The larger issue is the increases in revenues that must be raised to meet our growing demand. The contentious $100 billion is only 2.78% of the $3.6 trillion 2010 budget. We have fallen so far behind in maintaining our essential systems that we might not be able to fix them. The bottom line is that we must balance our budget with a combination of better controlled spending and increased revenues. We can accept $100 billion in spending cuts if the people who actually have spare wealth would pony up the funds to not need to borrow any more.

Speaker Boehner and Harry Reid are verbally sparring over policy issues that are keeping the budget battle from being settled. At issue are the funding of Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Administration. In the first theater of war, the issue is the money that goes to abortions. Conservatives do not want to allow women to choose whether to bear a child or not. To the woman it is a choice and to the Conservative it is murder. The woman may see the futility of having another mouth to feed. The conservative sees the sanctity of human life. The Conservatives position on this matter would not seem so hypocritical if they added a provision that every child born would be given sufficient food, clothing, shelter, love, education and medical care even if the parents could not afford to pay for all those thing with their 40 hours per week labor. The right to life equation has an Equals Sign in it. Not-aborted = Taxpayer funded childhood services or a child who is economically and nutritionally deprived due to no fault of its own.

The environment is the place in which we all live. We as a species do not like being told what is good and bad for us. For all this distaste, we do know that there are things we do that are not good, but we are fully willing to deny that relationship. We want to drive automobiles and use electricity, heat and air-condition our homes. These things by their nature pollute the environment in which we live and breathe. But instead of embracing a new paradigm of energy usage that will protect our biosphere, we follow the lead of businesses that prosper by our present energy usage patterns and attempt to shutdown the government agency that was created to protect us from that death. The EPA is the one watchdog that we are insisting that it stops barking instead of wondering why it is barking in the first place. Defunding the EPA will stop the barking but will not mitigate the danger the bark is heralding.

So the fearful few are yelling "shut it down!" lest we anger the gods of deficit and debt. Make no mistake about it, we need to make a systemic change in the way we go about funding our essential services but merely cutting them off only spites our faces. We can limit spending but eliminating the revenues first is a backwards approach that only serves to exacerbate the funding of those services. Cutting the funding serves to protect the wealth of the more wealthy people in the country and creates a perception that spending must be curtailed. It would be a far better plan to make the expenditures more efficient, less fraught with fraud and unnecessary goods and services.

Ruben Navarrette, Jr. of CNNs writing staff avers that government must learn to live within its means. This process is quite difficult when the income sources (tax revenues) are stripped away like the income of a laid-off worker who has a fixed expenditure portfolio that includes a mortgage, car payment, college tuition loan, health care costs, food, fuel and taxes to pay that cannot be shed by willing it to be gone. Add to that family budget a new child who must be fed and you see what the government is up against when they cannot keep pace with the demands of the American public. It is not government that is bloated and out of control, it is us. We are the people. We are the beneficiaries of government services. We have committed the sin of getting old and needing others to support us. How can we retire if the next generation is not will to pay our bills? The crushing burden of pensions and Medicare are the consequence of our longevity. So who among us is going to volunteer to live a shorter life in order to save the wealthy class on their taxes? The Twenty-five Percenters would like you to know that they encourage and fully support your sacrifices.

Post Script:
It is quite fortunate that the factions of Congress put together a plan at the eleventh hour on April 8, 2011 and averted the imminent government shutdown. While there were people who cheered for a shutdown and rallied to crash our system on ideological grounds, the damage that would have been done was far out of proportion to the goals they sought to attain. The savor of shutdown was in the mouths of millions of Americans and the politicians who were doing battle in the committee rooms of the US Capitol. The fever was palpable like the run up to the start of a war. They all knew that the outcome would be felt for many years hence even if the suspension of paychecks was only for a few days. The idea that our unifying governance is expendable and non-essential would a be a seed of thought in the minds of many. Without our social support systems, America would be no different than any Third-world country where there is no hope in the people to be able to have a better existence.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dear Tea Party Members: (an open letter)

Dear Tea Party Members:

This open letter has been written it the hopes that you will read it and come to understand that there is an Equals Sign in the formula that you promote as a solution to all the financial ills of this nation. Taxed Enough Already is a noteworthy sentiment and I support such a notion, too. The question that remains in my mind is just "who is taxed too much?" Who do you rally for?

Do you rally for yourselves? This would be an outstanding undertaking if it were truly for yourselves. While people in your numbers stand and announce their frustration with paying taxes and the influences of a bloated big government in their lives, the fact remains that the same bloated Federal government that you protest is the one who pays your Social Security and Medicare. I should protest people over 65 getting Social Security checks and Medicare coverage. The stopping of ALL of that would swiftly eliminate the deficit and melt away our national debt. But them my mother would need to move into my spare room.

While middleclass Tea Party activists protest government spending that leads to taxation, there is a group of people who really benefit from your fervor. You may save a thousand dollars on your taxes with lower rates, while there are other people who save millions of dollars because of those same rates. You and I created the environment in which they could make millions of dollars and now do not want to give up any of that wealth. If they and the businesses they own paid a fair share of the costs of our society, then everyone's tax rate would be lower.

Instead of looking to the pillars of our society for equitable participation in paying the bills you have turned on your neighbors. Keep in mind that the public sector employees in Wisconsin are taxed enough already too. They are in the same socio-economic level as most of the rank and file people who identify themselves as Tea Party members. Attacking them for what they have is counter-productive.

I attended Glenn Beck's rally back in 2010. This event drew tens of thousands of people who think of themselves as fiscal conservatives and overly burdened with the costs of our society. The age demographic was heavily representing people who were 60 and older. The next group was the 50 to 60 age group. There was a huge population of people with walkers, canes and electric scooters. They were the Medicare class and those who would soon be there. Forgetting that there is an Equals Sign in every formula is a fatal mistake. It is not the "bloated government" that pays out Social Security checks and Medicare. It is today's working people who pay into the fund that pays today's retirees. Without them and the jobs they do, there would be no SSI fund without general budget taxes to pay for it.

The real culprit in this nation's fiscal crises is not Unions, immigrants, or people who don't want to work. The real source of the crises is the numbers of people who have already retired and will be drawing private pensions, SSI and funds from their own 401(k)-type accounts. Following that number is the millions of working men and women who will be retiring in the next few years.

The problem cannot be foisted off on some THEY. We are our own problem. All of us together. We have to figure out how to pay for what is needed more so than how to pay for what we are now getting or giving. The cutting of government spending also cuts our ability to employ people. It was the loss of jobs that allegedly caused the states and local governments to not have enough money to operate. Cutting food programs equals hungry people.

You can't just tell someone to "get a job." There has to be a job to have and it needs to be a job that pays enough to not need all the support programs that the Taxed Enough Already people don't want to provide anymore. You Tea Party folks must work with the rest of America to design and implement a sustainable economic future. This sustainable future cannot be created only by reducing what we spend because doing that only lowers our collective standard of living.

We can have fewer public employees if you will accept longer line at the DMV, snow covered roads in the winter, potholes in the spring that remain until the middle of summer, not having enough police officers and fire fighters when you need them. We would not need public school teachers if we did not care about children learning to read so they grow up and get that high-paying job you want them to just go get.

We would not need school lunch programs if children had food enough to be healthy and alert. But they don't, unless we all make sure they do. Focusing on only the spending side of the budget equation is a Draconian approach to solving the imbalance.

Tuna Blogger