Friday, March 30, 2007

Why not to be Nice

Sometimes, being nice is exactly the wrong thing to do.

The other morning on the way to work, I was driving down a four-lane city street. Traffic was moving along nicely, and I was almost to work. Up ahead I noticed a city crew with amber lights flashing, blocking the right-hand lane about a half block from my upcoming right turn. (It was vital that they clean out the storm drain while it was dry ... at rush hour).

I slowed to let the left lane traffic get past me, signalled, checked behind and merged left. The cars who had been behind me in the right-hand lane continued on, even accelerating. Apparently, they thought they'd get there faster that way (wherever their "there" was). That's when people started being nice, and resulting in a traffic jam.

See, instead of those in the open lane simply driving forward through the green light ahead of them, they decided to take turns. Each would let a car from the closed lane, those who had failed to take their chance to merge properly, now merge ahead of them before going ahead themselves. This of course meant that neither lane moved, and soon enough the light turned red. So we all sat there.

I've noticed this ill-considered niceness during Interstate construction season, as well. Workers close a lane to patch a pothole, placing "Reduced Speed Limit" and "Merge Left" signs miles uproad to warn the unsuspecting motorist that disaster will befall him in the form of a jail term if he fails to heed the warning and change lanes. So of course a line of SUVs forms in the right lane, at the last point before the closure, inching into the left lane. Sometimes they even have their turn signal blinking helpfully, but usually they attempt to use vehicular body English.

If everyone merged to the open lane at their earliest chance, things would go a lot smoother. But they don't.
If everyone in the open lane drove along something near the speed limit, those abusers in the closing lane would soon find an open spot into which to merge. But they don't, Instead, some people try to be Nice and "fair", allowing the abusers to merge. To be nice to that abuser, though, they have to delay their own lane, so both lanes are delayed.

Furthermore, allowing people to merge at the last minute encourages them to do just that. The result is that no one moves.

My solution on the highway is to drive astraddle the two lanes. That's right, I drive right down the center of the road, just close enough to the next car ahead in the open lane to keep people from passing me, but grabbing enough of the closed lane to force would-be abusers to pass on the shoulder. A few get past, and I don't sweat it. Most of the time a truck driver or two figure out what I'm doing and get behind me. Pretty soon, since the abusers are kept out of the closed lane, the traffic jam is gone.

Yes, I know it's illegal to straddle the lanes. It ought to be illegal to be Nice.

Ask yourself this: if everyone did what I do, which is not to allow others to pass me, what would be the typical result? But when everyone does what they usually do, which is to try to get to the front as soon as possible and then take turns using the single open lane, you know the result: a parking lot.

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The media dustup over Dr. James Dobson's interest in Fred Thompson's faith made me think about Dr. Dobson. I used to be a devoted follower, back when I was a single dad trying to figure out kids. This isn't about him at all, though.

A few years ago, Focus on the Family interviewed Dr. Richard Swenson on his book Margin. I haven't read it, but that interview stuck with me 1.

Since the invention of writing a few thousand years ago, technology has been able to increase at an exponential rate. I use "exponential" advisedly. Prior to writing, Man possessed only the amount of knowledge that a group could memorize and pass on to its next generation orally. After writing, information could be recorded in much more detail, allowing an individual to acquire or recaquire the details of an area of knowledge as needed.

A quantity increases exponentially when the amount of its increase is a function of how much of it there is. That's not a rigorous definition, but it will do.

Writing allowed information to spread, even being carried by people who could not read it. Once written down, it could last as long as its medium. The more people there were who could read, the more information there was to store and disseminate.

The Internet has greatly expanded our power to communicate. We can form cliques with people whose interests we share, even though we have never met them and couldn't pick them out of a crowd.

Likewise, the technology of war has come a long way, from spears and slings to firearms, rocket-propelled grenades, and supersonic fighters whose targets never see or hear them. Many of these weapsons require only one person to operate, and greatly magnify a single human's power.

Dr Swenson was writing before 9/11, but he foresaw the leverage acquired when a handful of people with simple knives can control the destructive power of a jumbo jet, or derail a train, or poison a city. Blogs and online communication allow us to control of vast amounts of power with the flick of a switch or the click of a mouse. Well, "us" may be a bit of an overreach.

I really should read that book.

1 Or maybe I've got it confused with some other book. It's been several years.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It's the inspiration, stupid.

I've gotten kind of bored with politics lately.

The discussion on the blogs seems on the one hand to be too process-oriented, and on the other to be driven by the latest media frenzy or blogolicious kerfuffle. I know it's important to keep track of the mechanics and the numbers, but reading about the polling numbers in Ohio-4 and whether Giuliani or Romney do better against Obama or Hillary makes my eyes glaze over. Or maybe all four of them just make my eyes glaze over.

I want to be inspired. I think most people are like that. Democrats mistake their shtick, which is getting liberals to shake their fists in guilty rage at the injustice of life, for inspiration. Conservative leaders need to inspire people in order to be successful. The numbers will take care of themselves.

It's far too easy, when focusing on the mechanics and the numbers, to emulate success, or even apparent success. If one candidate is making headway in the polls with a particular stance on an issue, the others are tempted to take that same "stand", which is of course not a stand except in the smallest sense.

I don't want candidates invoking Reagan, or even Adams or Jefferson. I mostly know what Reagan and Jefferson would say; tell me what you say. Don't tell me it will be easy, because nothing worthwhile ever is.

I think it's time to revisit what I want.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Greenpeace Values Rats over Humans

Greenpeace claims that a Monsanto corn hybrid genetically altered to protect against rootworm is harmful to rats. They claim Monsanto knew about it, but covered it up. What they have really uncovered is that Greenpeace would rather see humans go hungry than risk the health of the rats who infest our food supply.

It turns out that what they have "uncovered" is that the scientists who studied the genetically modified (GM) corn found that rats exclusively fed the corn had signs of lowered liver and kidney function. The scientists said the differences were within normal ranges (pdf), however. No story here ... unless you have a political axe to grind and funds to raise, as Greenpeace has.

The studies show that the genetically superior corn protects against rootworm, allowing farmers to produce more grain from the same amount of land and fertilizer, with lower pesticide use. It is in fact much better for the environment than incorporating pesticide in the soil, with attendant runoff. Genes don't end up in rivers.

And what if the studies do show that the corn is harmful to rats if they're fed it exclusively? Neither humans nor cows are raised exclusively on corn, so rat studies have to show a big difference in rat health before any action is taken on them. And maybe it's just me, but I don't particularly like rats, so I'd say being unhealthy for rats would be a plus, not a minus for this corn.

I am surprised that Greenpeace doesn't claim Monsanto is competing unfairly since, through natural selection, since if Greenpeace's claims were accurate rats would do better eating Monsanto's competitors' brands.

What's more, while I find Greenpeace's analysis off-base, their concern for the world's dwindling rat population is touching. Perhaps Monsanto could compromise with Greenpeace by marketing this corn as diet food for overweight rodents.
(wt: /.)

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

BDS offsets available - Act Now!

In the interest of Global Sustainability and justice for the downtrodden, The Academy is now making available, for a limited time only, BDS offset credits. The credits will be denominated in "whacks", with the price schedule 1 as follows.

  • Claiming not to like President Bush -- 1 whack
  • Use of the phrase "Chimpy McBushitler" -- 3 whacks
  • "No WMD" - 5 whacks
  • Claiming BushLied™ - 5 whacks
  • Rehashing a 9/11 conspiracy - 5 whacks
  • Linking Halliburton with 9/11 - 5 whacks
  • Bush Theocracy™ - 20 whacks
  • Bush Dictatorship - 20 whacks
  • Bush Controlled by Israel - 40 whacks
  • Identifying brand new 9/11 conspiracy - 40 whacks
  • Media is conservative, soft on Bush - contact us 3
  • Islamofascists are victims, Bush the real villain - don't bother

  • 1 Prices subject to market pressure and change without notice or explanation.
  • 2 By sending money, you agree not to receive anything in return.
  • 3 If you prefer, remove any tinfoil or metal covering from your head and step outside (there is no longer any need to wait for daylight or use a cellphone, as these system quirks have been resolved) You may then recover your head if desired. Our people will be contacting you shortly.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Grotesquely Revolting Tale of the Gross Receipts Tax

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) wants to do away with the corporate income tax on businesses with $1,000,000 or more in sales receipts. The State's corporate income tax is too loophole-ridden, he says. So since there are too many loopholes to effectively soak the big corporations, he has decided to soak their customers, the people of Illinois.

And from where did those loopholes come in the first place, Governor? From the legislature, either in an effort to attract business to Illinois or to convince them to line the pockets of Illinois' infamously corrupt political establishment. In neither case will the businesses who located here as a result of promises appreciate this unexpected change in the rules, and will find Illinois an increasingly unpleasant place to operate.

Blagojevich plans to replace the corporate income tax with a 0.5% "Gross receipts tax" for goods and 1.8% tax on services. That's right: the Governor wants to tax every single transaction that he can, from cab fare to the pennies on your eyes. But the truly insidious nature of this tax is not that it taxes everything sold, but that it taxes every part of everything that is sold.

The "milk jug tax", as I like to call it, taxes suppliers of milk jug caps .5%, label printer .5%, suppliers of milk jugs .5%, and suppliers of milk .5% (if they are big enough and don't get a loophole). So the seller of milk to grocery stores pays an extra .5% for the cost of materials, and an extra .5% for his own tax. That raises the price by 1%. And the grocery store pays another .5%. The longer the supply chain, the more expensive it gets.

That, my friends, is worse than a mere Value Added Tax, and it will have a dramatic, negative effect on our economy. Blog user Kevin Sandefur explains this at IlliniPundit:

As I understand it, a VAT is only paid on the mark up at each step of the chain, so that the total pass through to the consumer is theoretically limited to the total percentage rate. I.e., a VAT of 1% would supposedly only raise the price of end products to the consumer by 1%.

A gross receipts tax, on the other hand, is effectively on the whole enchilada in each transaction, so it becomes multiplied many times over, as you illustrated.

In his penchant for disingenuity, the good Governor lauds himself for exempting exports from Illinois from the GRT. That would be fine, except for two things.

First, the States are Constitutionally prohibited from taxing exports, or at least, there are thorny legal questions that would have to be answered on a product-by-product basis.

Secondly, businesses exporting from Illinois will be paying higher prices from their Illinois suppliers. Like other consumers, they would be paying higher prices for the things they buy in Illinois.

However, under the Blagojevich plan, an Illinois manufacturer could purchase materials from other States, avoiding sales tax, produce their goods, and export them solely to other States. That manufacturer would pay no tax at all.

[Update: an anonymous commenter here says: "An out of state firm that sells to an Illinois firm will have to pay the gross receipts tax on that sale. The gross receipts tax will apply to ALL SALES MADE TO ILLINOIS BUSINESSES, and it matters not whether the firm making the sale is located in Illinois or out of state."

I think that may run afoul of the "substantial nexus" requirement, but I'm not a lawyer.]

The net effects of the Gross Receipts Tax would be 1) prices going up for everything and 2) a flattening of the supply chain. Companies with tight margins (which is to say, all companies) will see this new landscape and start making everything in-house, or buying it from Wisconsin, Indiana, or Taiwan.

While the real target of this is probably Wal-Mart, it is Wal-Mart's customers and small local competitors who will feel the crunch.

It may surprise some people, but many small businesses generate over $1 million in gross annual receipts, but nothing like that in profit. The typical small-town grocery store, for instance, can easily have $25,000 per week in sales, but their net profit is a tiny fraction of that, barely enough to keep the lights on and freezers in repair. These small players are already being pushed out of the market by pressure from Wal-mart on one side and convenience stores on the other. Being forced to fund the Governor's expansive pandering could force them out of business, another victim of government largess and the unintended consequences of intrusion into the marketplace.

A Crain's Chicago Business article said:
Gov. Blagojevich's proposal — the gross-receipts tax — has been tried elsewhere. Ohio and Texas recently adopted such a tax, but only as part of a broader restructuring in which other, more onerous taxes were eliminated. Michigan just junked its gross-receipts tax after gripes that it put its firms at a competitive disadvantage.
Michigan, by most measures, has one of the worst economies in the nation.

Back on IlliniPundit, Pseudonominal user Ammonium adds:

But not everybody is going to be worse off under this tax scheme. Large, integrated corporations that make lots of money will likely end up paying less. If you're a company like ADM you're paying out 7.3% of your more than a billion dollars in profit every year (assuming no loopholes). With this new tax scheme, ADM is paying very little. Most of their products are exported out of state, so they pay no tax on those. They may have to pay a little more for their inputs (I doubt farmers will have to pay the 0.5% tax though), but in the end they're making out with a hundred millions of dollars saved in taxes.
Companies large and small will pass these costs on to the consumer, and as many who can will leave the State. Many who can't leave will go out of business. Illinois will be following Michigan down the road to ruin, all so the Governor can make a difference. He'll make a difference all right. In the end, Illinois consumers (you know, the little people Governor Blagojevich allegedly champions) will be paying every penny.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Besmirch Not Thy Betters

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Rosa Brooks mistakenly charges Col. George E. "Bud" Day (Ret.) with being a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Vietnam-era veterans who opposed Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in his 2004 presidential bid. While unleashing her venom on the the Swift Boat Vets for speaking truth to Mr. Kerry's attempt to gain power, Ms. Brooks splashes some of her poison on Col. Day, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the most decorated living veteran.

[. * . * .]When a Medal of Honor wearer enters a room, Generals stand. Everyone who wears, or has ever worn a uniform for our country should stand and salute if appropriate. He is due the same level of respect as the flag-covered casket of one killed in action, because by his actions he showed that he would forfeit his life for ours. He is due the deference one would show the holder of an irreconcilable debt.

To carry the illustration further, Redstate's Jeff Emanuel (wreath tip) notes:

When a man wearing the Medal of Honor approaches the President, it is the President who salutes. 'Nuff said.

He is owed, in perpetuity.

It would be as difficult, and as fruitful, to attack Mother Theresa for harlotry as to attack his integrity for a quick political score. As she shunned both lucre and carnality, the implication that she used the latter to gain the former would expose the one making the charge for transparent malice. Those awarded the Medal of Honor are accorded, unlike all other citizens, a free pass similar to hers with regard to being a judge of character, at least character in military service, in no small part because they define it.

As a postscript, it should be noted that while there is nothing wrong, and very much right, with being a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Col. Day was not one. Ms. Brooks not only picked an unassailable target for character assassination, but she was shooting blanks at the wrong target.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Voters are clueless.

The majority of voters, on the order of 100% of us, are clueless. We think we understand, but to really understand even a single issue requires such expertise and time that no one, not even elected officials, can keep up. In the end, it's all about perception and trust: who do I perceive is more able to do the job, and who do I trust.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Hey, Where's My Offset?

[Update: I failed to mention the excellent piece at Spinning Cleo which takes a whack at the Gorecaster, as well.]

Al Gore wants us to purchase "carbon offsets", credits to allow us to continue to give plants too much CO2. It's a little known inconvenient truth that plants hate CO2, because it makes it so easy for them to grow. After all, if they grow they will simply be eaten by some cud-chewing fertilizer and methane factory destined to be in turn eaten by humans. It isn't right to encourage false hope in plants.

As Jeff Goldstein points out, it would be far better to purchase these carbon offsets, and thereby help the downtrodden poor of the world, such as Mr. Gore, than to raise the hopes of a bunch of plants.

But all of this talk of offsets has me wondering: there must be offsets I can buy for my other notorious planet-destroying and plant-teasing activities. Being flush with both cash and guilt, surely I can purchase some sort of indulgence. With my four-figure income and miserly, tight-fisted lifestyle, the old mattress is getting kind of full. Instead of burying yet another one and hiding the map in my freezer, I should find something more constructive to do with it. Greater good, save the planet, yada yada.

So I think I'll start with a list:

  • A beer offset

    Rather than burdening the planet by using too much beer, I should be able to purchase pretzel or peanut offsets. That way I wouldn't have to necessarily match my own beer and legume consumption, but could partner with my fellow man to save the planet.

  • A coffee offset

    Since my coffee intake is single-handedly* destroying the planet by forcing coffee bean monoculture in the Andes, I can purchase coffee offsets in the form of coca plant futures. I will make certain South American businessmen really happy. The diversity in agriculture will benefit the planet greatly, by raising diversity. For the planet.
    (* "Single-handed" is just an expression. My coffee IV goes in my wrist, usually.)

  • A Red Meat offset

    Since most of the evil carbon burdening the world's plants comes directly from plant-destroying herd animals, my daily cow intake really has to drop. Addicted as I am to my wife's baby-back ribs*, I think it would be better if I purchased whale offsets from Iceland and Japan.
    (* No, these aren't my wife's actual ribs. These are beef and pork ribs, prepared by her. Calling them hers is just an expression.)

  • A carb offset

    I never got into the low-carb diet craze -- is that still going? But clearly I should be able to purchase credits for all the carbs I consume, so that I can avoid eating beans, cabbage, onions, broccoli and asparagas. I don't want to contribute any more to the greenhouse gas problem than I have to.

  • A Trans-fat offset

    The amount of processed lard now formed into a crusty anulus lining my aorta is a global threat. At least, the world as I know it is threatened. Perhaps if I purhase enough bran and aspirin offsets, I can continue to subsist as I always have, on fried starch, undercooked red meat, beer, and coffee.

  • A work offset

    I think I work too much, and make way too much money. Curse you, George Bush, for this economy that gives me this burden of guilt! If only I could partner with someone, and pay them to offset my excess work. I guess it could be called "Welfare".

  • An offset offset

    With all of these offsets I'm snapping up, there will be a shortage of offsets somewhere. That isn't right. It isn't fair. Since I'm all about saving the planet and everthing, I should be able to sell offset offsets to the poor and downtrodden who have no offsets. If they could not afford them, perhaps the government could help. I'd hate for the poor and downtrodden not to be able to afford my offsets simply because of finances.
Yes, I think this offset thing is just what I need. And wow, the guilt is flowing right out of me, just by raising consciousness to power about it. So this is what liberals feel like.

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The Anchoress deserves a wreath tip for reporting that 17,000 scientists are not part of the consensus on global warming. She also uses the word "globaloney", for which the world owes her an irreconcilable debt.

As I always say (or will, starting now): follow the logic.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Vote your mind

I've got a lot of other stuff to do right now, like reconnect the dishwasher and finish tiling the kitchen floor. But I hate plumbing, and love blogging, so I'm doing some constructive avoidance. I feel like mixing a few metaphors, buckling up my sleeves, and changing the world.

I'm avoiding this construction because there's something irking me. I keep seeing people on both left and right who are willing to settle on a candidate for President based on who they think can win. I don't mean political pros, people who are looking to hitch a ride on a candidate and land a cushy Undersecretary gig after the election. I mean I'm getting irked at my fellow Americans for letting polling numbers decide their votes.

As the presidential race heats up, we will be hammered with polls comparing the popularity of various candidates, the pollster's fondest hope being a scissor-paper-rock result in which no one candidate is clear favorite. Some of these polls ask questions about stances on issues, but mostly they're of the "If the election were held today, would you prefer candidate X or candidate Y?"

The election will not be held today. It will not be held tomorrow. There is over a year and a half between the time of this writing and the election, and almost a year before the first primary. In this era of the headline news cycle, that is an eternity. It is even enough time for a relatively unknown candidate with the right message and character to gain a following, build a team, and emerge as front runner and presumptive nominee -- of either party. It's enough time for dozens of scandals, and yes, it's enough time to raise the money it will cost to win the Prize. Not likely, perhaps, but as I said, a year is a long time, especially as people turn to the Internet for news.

Declaring allegiance to a candidate because you think he can win is like marrying a girl because everyone says she's pretty. Deciding to vote for a candidate who is "electable" this far out is like marrying the girl without even sneaking a peak. What happened to the slow grind of the primary season? What happened to the subtle dance we used to call "courting", in which the girl slowly revealed her opinions, attitudes, and gave us reason beyond her requisite outwardly charms to declare her ours?

We are prone to following the herd, and to be on the winning team, convinced that name recognition and not losing is more important than making good and sure that this is the candidate we choose.

Good things happen when you exercise your right not to follow the herd. Just as it does for a third party, aligning yourself with the candidate of your true conviction gives that candidate a boost for the future, and gives others reason to note his ideas. Voting bestows your tiny portion of the mandate. Take great care lest that mandate be misinterpreted, because your vote will be heard as total approval for whomever it is cast.

I know that the professional pol will tell me I'm hopelessly naive, and will show demographics and electoral breakdowns that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that if the election were held today, this or that candidate would beat that or this one. They would prove that the Baby Boomers fleeing to the Sun Belt will tip the balance, and I'd better get on the bandwagon now or the other side will elect a monster, do you hear, a monster.

Support is beginning to coalesce around the various men and woman seeking The Prize, and I think that's fine. It's never too soon to start wasting time, I always say. But I urge you, my countrymen, to hold your vote in great esteem. Think twice, think seven times, and seven more after that, rather than surrender your vote to a pollster.

Vote your mind.

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