Thursday, December 6, 2007

The interest rate freeze

I saw that Bush negotiated an interest rate freeze yesterday and sat down to research it so I could rant about it. It ends up, though, that based on the available information it looks like a pretty decent solution.

The proposal first off only addresses subprime loans. That means I could not have gone out and refied my house a year ago into a crazy 3% teaser rate ARM that was going to cause me to lose my shirt in 2 years and come out way ahead of where I am now. Somebody with my credit can't use this. We're talking about people who got into a crazy 11% loan that jumped to 15% after the end of the fixed period.

It secondly doesn't even try to address people who can't afford their homes even at the introductory rate (which is probably a good portion of the subprime market). So if you got yourself into a house you couldn't afford at 11% the government isn't going to pay for you to keep your house or twist somebody's arm get them to give you a 6% loan.

The people who own securitized subprime loans were about to have huge drops from foreclosures if the government didn't bail them out so something had to happen or people would lose their houses and the securities they owed would lose a bunch of value as well. The mortgage owners (banks and traders) ended up losing some interest on a really lucrative (but really risky) security by freezing the rates, but they were going to lose a good portion of that anyway to foreclosures (and they still might). I do feel a little bad for people who own a lot of these securities (cough, CountryWide) because it's an insane risk that is only worth taking because of the incredible return on it and this deal lessens the return while keeping a lot of the risk. I would rather the government not have to use its, um, influence, to get them to agree to terms. Maybe their actuaries say the risk vs. return numbers come out best with a two year freeze, for instance. Having said that giving people who you know can't manage money a ripoff loan that has rates going into the stratosphere in 2 years makes you a financial pusher, so I'm not getting teary eyed about them losing some of their return.

The CNN/YouTube Debate

I should note before I start this, I haven't actually watched the CNN/YouTube debate. I expected it to be a complete joke and from all I've heard I wouldn't be disappointed.

There's a lot of hubbub around the conservative blogs about operatives from this or that Democrat who asked questions during the debate. I find it moderately interesting that CNN had the time to arrange their retired general's airfare but not enough time to do a quick google search and see if he was on anybody's campaign, but that's not a real issue.

Even if he really were a random undecided voter, very few of the submitters were so important to CNN that they flew them in to watch the debate. Because I haven't watched the debate I don't know how many, but I've watched 5-10 questions and only one of them was flown in. So the one guy I know of who they paid to appear in person first asks why the candidates "think the US military so unprofessional they cannot serve with gays" and then after getting a response to his question says they didn't respond to his question (they did, he just didn't agree) and follows up with a long about how destructive "Don't ask don't tell" is and how it has nothing to do with unit cohesion.

I know some people who share the general's view and would make an issue of it when voting. I know a lot of people voting in the Republican primary. I don't know of any overlap. It might be an important issue to the news board at CNN, but it's just not that important to the average Republican primary voter.

Given the relative importance of issues to Republicans (the people who a Republican primary debate is aimed at) it would have made sense to fly in the abortion questioner (a John Edwards supporter), but of course there's the same issue with her question. She asked what the punishment should be for abortion if it were made illegal. After getting an answer (which didn't actually address the question, because it's not a federal matter) Cooper kept hammering what the punishment should be, but that presumes the fed should stick its nose in the states' business, which hardly any conservative agrees with. There are a few right-to-life amendment people out there, but they're not the majority of Republican voters.

I'll note I watched the guy who asked if we would make a commitment to Iraq. He actually sounded like a conservative and also would have been a good candidate to fly out there.

I bring this up for two reasons, the first is that CNN didn't really need to research those two people (one of which was their star of the show) to see if they were open supporters of Democrats. They should have known just by listening to their questions that they were likely Democrats and certainly not representative of Republicans. I think this should have automatically excluded them from a primary debate for the Republicans because there's a limited amount of time and I would rather see it spent on issues people who are voting in the primaries actually care about. At the very least, it should have prompted CNN to do more research on those individuals, which in 5 minutes would have turned up their avowed support for particular Democrats.

The second is that I think this behavior would be shameful even if the Democrat debates got the same treatment with obviously Republican questions, but they don't. I'm certain you can search in vain for a question asked in the Democrat debate on if we would once again abandon our allies to torture and death when victory is in site as we did in Vietnam, or if we would continue to get Supreme Court justices who override the will of the elected representatives of the American people based on selected pickings of international law, or how their health care plan affects the already burgeoning unfunded liability of medicare and social security. I would actually go farther and say that you wouldn't find questions worded like this even if Fox hosted the debate, but we'll never get the chance to see if I'm right.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Social Security

I was discussing Social Security today and came across this piece of propaganda from Rock the Vote. I'm not stating that it's any less propaganda than my blog, but it's certainly not a flat statement of the facts.

What I wanted to comment on primarily was his assertion at the beginning that "Following is a table that illustrates, in 2005 dollars, the annual benefit that Social Security can pay with no changes at all." But his table is missing some data that would be rather critical in assessing whether it in fact "illustrates" that. The most obvious is what is he assuming the inflation rate to be? It took me a while to find the assumptions on the Social Security Administration publication from which he appears to draw his data and it looks like we're assuming a 2.8% inflation rate, a 1.1% increase in average real wages, a 1.95 fertility rate, a .67% average annual death-rate decline, and an immigration rate of 900,000 persons per year (illegal and legal).

Those might actually be reasonable estimates. I suspect 2.8% is low for inflation and 1.1% is very high for increase in real wages (1985-1995 for instance averaged something like .75%).

A bigger problem is that he's assuming that the "trust fund" actually works as advertised. So while (making all the above assumptions) Social Security can continue being 12.5% of payroll and payout what he posts, we currently put a sizable part of that into the general budget by "buying" treasury notes. I've read numerous people who say that the government would never default on those notes because then the entire economy would collapse. I don't buy that.

Social Security does not have a guaranteed benefit and those notes belong to the Social Security Administration, not to individual taxpayers. It's basically like saying if my wife made all the money in the family and had all the assets you could give me money that I made a promise to pay back later and I then loaned that money to her and she spent it. If the two of use decided later that I would just forgive her the loan then you would be up a creek. You could sue me, but I don't have assets. You can't sue her because she doesn't owe you anything. That's how the "Trust Fund" works. You pay money to the SSA, they loan the money to the rest of the US government. If they later decide they're just going to shut their doors and not worry about those T-bills it doesn't hurt the rest of the market at all, the government hasn't really defaulted on anybody except itself. It's actually a little bit worse than my analogy because in my analogy you made me a loan, with Social Security you are paying taxes that are "not earmarked, and ... Congress is at liberty to spend them at will." (Helvering v. Davis (301 US 619, 645)) so the government owes itself money for those bonds but neither Congress nor the Social Security Administration owes any individual anything related to Social Security. If the benefit went away tomorrow the government would still have upheld their legal obligation (which is none).

Anyway based on the SSA estimates in 2014 things will reverse and the SSA will start having to collect on those T-bills to meet shortfalls in the program (but they won't have a shortfall excluding the "trust fund interest" until 2026 or run out of money until 2040). The problem with this is that the shortfall escalates fast:

yearshortfall (in billions of dollars)
2015 7
2020 201
2025 506
2030 908
2035 1382
2040 1908

Keep in mind that the current entire budget is 2.3 trillion. So we're assuming that by 2040 we're going to double income tax revenues so we can support the existing programs plus pay a nearly equal amount back to the "trust fund". By the end of his chart we're paying out 10 times the current budget to keep up with shortfalls.

I don't know at what point the taxpayers say "No more" to this, but I'm pretty sure it's before that. Personally I would rather be in just about any situation than that one. If you could offer me a program where I continue throwing 12.5% away for as long as I work and the program goes away the day I retire, I'd still take it just so I didn't leave this mess to my kids.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Fun Money

Since I haven't yet had a personal finance post on the blog, I guess I might as well throw this into the hodgepodge of stuff currently here.

Amanda and I try to live on a budget and have tried various budgeting systems, many of which we've been unhappy with. One thing that has worked for us is what we call "Fun Money". Dave Ramsey calls something similar "blow money", but it's not exactly the same thing. Nearly every budgeting system I've looked at (including Ramsey) recommends budgeting for, for instance, work lunches. Ramsey has a category "blow" for small expenses that weren't worth budgeting. For several years Amanda and I did something similar, but it had a problem.

I wanted a very expensive camera (at the time a Nikon D70 which was around $700) that I knew would never fit in our budget. I'm a long term guy so I was perfectly willing to scrimp for years to get there but our budget didn't have any way for me to save money for personal purchases. Enter fun money. What we decided on is that we would each get some amount in the budget each month to do with as we please. That would include lunches, going out with friends, any dinner on our own (for instance me before Boy Scouts), toys we buy while out, anything of that nature. Any fun money we don't use during the month gets saved in our "fun money account" (a spreadsheet, though it already came out of the budget so it's backed with real money somewhere. It's not like Social Security where we put it in a trust fund and then spend it anyway.) so that if I want an expensive camera I can not go out with my coworkers ever and in a while I can afford it. It's so far worked very well for us and I think we've actually reduced our expenses some because of it because now we know that if we impulse buy some toy it's coming out of our fun money account and not some mysterious amorphous blow money line in the budget.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Shown up

Last night I was sitting around playing with Andrew and asked him "Can I have some Chapstick?" He responded "Yes, you may."

A bit later we were naming random body parts ("Where's your arm?") and I asked "Where's your metatarsal?" He pointed to his big toe. When asking the question I was thinking it was a bone between a fingers and the wrist but it ends up that's a metacarpal, metatarsals are the bones between the ankle and the toes.

Evidently I'm not smarter than a 3 year old.

Total Watering Bans, part 2

A friend sent me this link, which details a home in Marietta that's using an average of around 400,000 gallons of water per month. At the end of the story it mentions that his bill is going to go up to $2000 per month. Admittedly, I wouldn't want to pay that much for water, but in the middle of a drought it's hard for me to imagine that you can fill something around the size of an Olympic sized swimming pool for only $2000. With restrictions on particular usages, though, what he's doing is perfectly legal. It would even be legal to just stockpile a half million gallons a month so that you can sell it when we run out.

If he were a commercial user it would be even cheaper ($1139). That makes me wonder how many gallons of our water Coke is buying at $2.59 per thousand gallons so they can filter it, slap a Dasani label on it and resell it at $2 per liter.
If water is really so precious that we're going to run out of it why not just raise the cost until people quit using more than we have? And by that I don't mean raise the residential cost and subsidise commercial users while requesting that restaurants not automatically serve water when you sit down for dinner. If water were $20 or $100 per thousand gallons you wouldn't have to request it, the restaurateurs would see it in the profit margin. Some businesses that are heavy water users would either close or move, but if we're really going to run out of water then the lost jobs over Coke no longer getting cheap water from us would be more than offset by being able to keep drinking.

Of course we could also just keep selling commercial users water at $2.59 per thousand gallons. After all, we could always buy Dasani for $2 per liter when we run out.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

iPod screens and science

In my random wanderings around the internet I came across this post on the new iPod Touch (and the iPhone). The guy tries to scratch it with a bunch of household objects and it doesn't scratch. Now this makes for great video, but I found it completely uninteresting.

As you hopefully remember from middle school science, scratching happens with something of higher hardness cuts away part of something with lower hardness. The screen on the iPod Touch and iPhone is supposedly optical glass; I'll assume it's tempered, which would give it a Mohs hardness of a bit over 6. In the video the guy used a coin (I wasn't really paying attention to what coin, but they all have a hardness just under 3), keys (made of cheap steel, probably a hardness of 5 or so), an aluminum can top (2.75), and a box cutter. I couldn't see the box cutter blade but knife steel is normally around 5.5 and titanium is 6. Around here there is a lot of granite in the dirt, which is between 6 and 7.

So his box cutter didn't make a scratch, but if you got dirt in your pocket it might. Gravel or setting it on your granite counter top almost certainly would.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

impermanence, and acceptance


Before I really get into this story, I need a little bit of background. About a month ago we took Andrew to Chuck E. Cheese. On the way in they stamped our hands with a rotating integer stamp using some pigment that fluoresced under black light. This allowed them to check that we left with the kid we came in with. He noticed this, and noticed them checking it on the way out, and then had a fit in the parking lot because it went away.

So yesterday we went to the Atlanta Zoo. One of the first things we did was to visit the Pandas. On the way out they had a little thing that stamped the back of Andrew's hand. He was very excited about the stamp, but it was running out of ink to begin with and as the day drew on it faded. On the way out a very tired Andrew who had missed his nap by about 3 hours complained vociferously that his bear was gone. It happened we were headed back that way so we went back by the Pandas and he got two more bears, one on each hand. Mommy also got one on her hand and he excitedly proclaimed that "Mommy has bear, Andrew has two bears."

From there we went to the petting zoo. He enjoyed the petting zoo thoroughly, but after the petting zoo he had to wash his hands. Now he liked this too, but it worried me a great deal because it completely washed off the bears. After this he rode a Merry Go Round with Mommy and then washed his hands again. He did not, however, notice the disappearance of the bears.

Fast forward about 5 hours and he's laying in his bed, calming down, and he gets a bit excited and tells me "I have...two..." and, as he looks at his hand gets a deadpan look. He then got a half smile and calmly told me, "They're gone."

Now at this point I was just relieved that my very, very tired son wasn't having a total meltdown at bedtime. As I've had more time to think about it, though, I'm more and more surprised. What changed between the first two stamps and this one? My first thought was maybe he learned from the first two stamps that they go away, but I'm not very accepting of that. My current theory is that perhaps he felt we were beyond the ability of effecting his wishes, much like David breaking his fast after God took his child from him.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The National Media

The Christian Science Monitor has a story about the media coverage of the Jena 6. I haven't really followed the story that closely because honestly I never had any faith that the national media was getting it right. The thing I found interesting about the Monitor story, though, is this line:
In fact, I have never before witnessed such a disgrace in professional journalism.
I wonder if it occurred to the author that maybe the reason is that it's the first time he's been personally involved in a story that made it to the national media. Katrina was known to be a media disaster. Every piece of technical information in my field I've ever seen reported by the national media has been wrong. A friend of mine who is a lawyer said he sees the same.

If the media gets it wrong whenever you intimately know the facts, why do you assume they get it right when you don't?


Andrew 'Camping'
Originally uploaded by christophercraig
It's probably been a few months, but Andrew recently started pretending things, which is extremely cute. For instance "I'm a mommy lion, you be daddy lion." Anyway, he got this little play tent for his second birthday and we set it up inside every once in a while. This week we got it out because he's really wanted to go camping, but the new baby doesn't fit very well with that plan.

After getting me in this little tent with him he got his play camp stove and made me some eggs. He then turned his little battery powered camp lantern off and declared that it was dark outside and we needed to go to sleep. His lantern didn't really change the amount of available light at all, since the tent is in our well lighted living room, but now that it was out, it was clearly dark outside.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The oldest Constitutional debate

I said earlier that if there was one thing I would change about the Constitution it would be to clarify "general welfare". This may not actually be the oldest, but it goes pretty far back.

The spending clause says "The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States..." Thomas Jefferson and James Madison interpreted that as grating the Congress the power to raise money in order to fund the exercise of powers otherwise enumerated, a position that would seem to be consistent with the Convention, given that they rejected a proposal to explicitly authorize the federal government to spend on internal improvements. Alexander Hamilton, who supported that proposal, interpreted it broadly enough to cover anything (including, say, a bridge serving a small island or a monument commemorating Woodstock) though he later brought his view more in line with Monroe, who believed it covered only those expenditures that were "general" in nature, as opposed to benefiting groups in specific geographies.

Notably Hamilton's view was shared by John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and cost both of them re-election as the people rejected this expansive power. Given the history of Congress restricting its spending in line with a thought that they were allowed only to do those things ennumerated, going all the way to the Civil War, it seems clear to me that Jefferson captured the meaning intended by the Convention. I can't help wishing, though, that they had expressed that intent more clearly. It is perhaps true that even if they had said taxes may be raised "for the execution of powers herein enumerated" the New Deal Court would have found some way to finagle a general spending power much as they created a power to regulate anything which might appear in the same book as interstate commerce, but at least if the Convention had used clear wording I could clearly say the Court was wrong.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Those poor farmers

Those of you who know me know I despise federal farm subsidies. You probably could have guessed that from earlier posts as well. They're not at the top of my list of programs to cut, but they're close.

If they gave money to keep small farmers in business, I'd still oppose them. We don't have federal programs to keep TV repairman or elevator operators or any number of the other industries that have become useless in our modern society, I don't see why we should take money from individuals who have adapted to a modern economy so we can keep inefficient farming mechanisms in place.

Having said that, that's not what farm subsidies do. NRO has an article today stating that the fourth largest recipient of your farm tax dollars is the Arkansas Department of Corrections. I don't think they would go under if I stopped paying them to farm (or maybe not to farm).

The end of that article has a quote from Collin Peterson (D, Minn) telling us that if we don't understand agriculture we should keep out of their business. I don't understand TV repair either, but I still oppose my money going to someone not repairing my TV.


I've frequently observed Andrew and his two year old friends hording toys and such to the point where they don't actually get to play with them because they are too busy making sure no one else takes them. This seems to me to be normal human nature and certainly one of the problems with the love of money is that the desire not to lose it causes us to miss out on many joys.

Over the weekend, though, I saw something new to me which I'm sure is also human nature, but which I've never seen before and which I guess we all grow out of. We were at Bruster's and Andrew took about one bite of his ice cream cone and pronounced himself done. He goes through stages on ice cream; sometimes he devours it, and sometimes he just licks it a couple times. Anyway, having decided he was done he handed it to me. I gave it to mommy and she asked him if he wanted to throw it away and then took a bite. He said yes, but complained at her, "Don't eat it!"

So in this case he didn't want the ice cream cone anymore. He was perfectly willing to throw it away (and did in short order) with the full understanding that things which go into the trash do not come back out, but it was unacceptable to him that someone else enjoy his refuse.

Before this instance I had always presumed that he (and all other two year olds I've met) fill their arms with toys because they might want to play with those toys, much like the fabled monkey who will not pull his hand from a trap because he wants the bait within it. This instance calls that interpretation into question, though. Maybe the motivation is even more base than that; perhaps it's simply a desire not to see others benefit from his things.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

When did he get so big?

"Hi, Pe-er"
Originally uploaded by christophercraig
Amanda was commenting the other day that all the blogs she reads have cute pictures and I need one to be consistent. I asked if I should post it under the general welfare clause.

Anyway, I often look at Andrew and wonder when he got so big, but never as much as the last three weeks. I swear three weeks ago I could pick him up and carry him up the stairs without straining my back; three weeks ago he also looked like a toddler.

Now all of a sudden, we have this little baby and Andrew suddenly got really heavy and started looking like a kid. It's eery; he gained almost no weight in the 10 months from his second birthday to Peter's zeroth (hmm, you would think it would be his first...) but now in three weeks he must have put on at least 5 pounds. I promise, he's heavier; I just can't prove it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The worst amendment

There are very, very few things about the Constitution that I would just outright change. There are lots of very important areas where reasonable people can differ, with enormous consequence, and I would certainly like to see those clarified, but that's not what I mean here. Here I'm talking about things in the current Constitution, as amended, that are just plain wrong.

The first and foremost among these is the 17th Amendment. If I could change one thing about the Constitution, it would be to clarify the meaning of "general welfare". If I could change two, though, the second would be to get rid of the 17th Amendment. I'm doubtful that a repeal would actually fix the problems its passage created, but I'm confident that leaving it in place would be a disaster. The idea of directly electing Senators was thought of in the Constitutional convention but it was believed that, in the words of Roger Sherman "the senators, being eligible by the legislatures of the several states, and dependent on them for re-election, will be vigilant in supporting their rights against infringement by the legislative or executive of the United States."

In other words, the Senate was seen by the framers as one of the principal bodies protecting the states from massive federal overreach. If the Senate allowed the federal government to do something crazy like building projects directly for the counties then the states would pull their Senators and Federalism would be preserved. If, on the other hand, the Senate becomes just another House, but statewide, then its occupants are better served using pork to buy votes for reelection.

This brings me to another problem with the amendment. The Senate has become much more a rarefied institution since passage. You might expect that the good ol' boy network in the state legislature would be more likely to pick a career politician for the Senate than the people would. You would be wrong. The state legislature is a rather small club. Chances are they all know each other and chances are very good that whomever the majority of them send to the Senate they actually know, at least by reputation. They're going to pick someone who will actually try to accomplish what they think the state needs and protect the rights of the state. The populous of the state is another matter. To get a majority election in the state the most important thing is money and government experience to get the right contacts. As a result, since the passage of the amendment (and actually a bit before since several states found ways to popularly elect them before passage) the Senate has become a very rich club that is very unlikely to be recalled, so long as they can continue to bring home the bacon to the right constituent groups.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Changes that we don't need

I'll still get to changes that might make sense tomorrow, but first I wanted to deal with some changes the Constitution doesn't need, though the government might.

The first is the commerce clause: "Congress shall have the power ... To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." There's a legitimate debate about whether "commerce" meant economic activity or diplomatic as well as business communications, but that's not a real issue with current jurisprudence. The big problem with the commerce clause is that in 1937 the Hughes court ruled in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (301 US 1)" that Congress had the right to force an interstate company to accept union labor at a particular plant in Pennsylvania under the commerce clause. Things got worse shortly after in Wickard v. Filburn (317 US 111) when Mr. Filburn was fined by the US government for harvesting wheat in excess of the Federal government's allotment for his own personal use. They continued this way until 1995 when, in US v Lopez (514 US 549) the Court ruled that only those things that "substantially affect" interstate commerce could be regulated as interstate commerce. Lopez brought us closer to a sane understanding of the term, but if the Convention had meant to regulate things "substantially affecting" interstate commerce, they would have said so. The Federal government may only legitimately do things which are necessary and proper for the regulation of actual interstate commerce. I could accept making all internet kiddie porn illegal because it's impossible to regulate just those internet connections that cross state lines; I can not accept making all marijuana illegal because somehow Angela Raich growing her own for medical use makes it impossible to regulate interstate sale. I should note, I don't, like some conservatives, hold the Judiciary responsible for this misrepresentation of things. Senator Feinstein was reasonably surprised when the Court struck down Congress's attempt to regulate guns in schools given the Court's treatment of it for so many years, but Congress had to pass unconstitutional legislation for the Court to affirm it.

This is not true of my second class of things that don't need to be changed in the Constitution, but do in government. That is rights the Court has created out of whole cloth (though generally using substantive due process). The earliest of these I know of (though there could certainly be earlier ones) is the right to free contract established in Lochner v New York (198 US 45). The first action after the so called "switch in time" was to strike this down. I agree with that because such a right exists nowhere in the text of the Constitution. The modern famous example of this is the right to privacy which has lead to a right to contraception and a right to abortion. If we feel we need a national right to privacy (which is a ridiculous intrusion on that states' police power, particularly given its extension to abortion. If a medical procedure performed at a commercial clinic involving probably half a dozen people once you include the paperwork and insurance is too private to be regulated, it's hard to imagine something that can be.) we should amend the Constitution to create one, but I obviously don't think we should.

A New Constitution?

In my wandering through the internet today I managed to find
an article in the LA Times by a guy who thinks we should rewrite the Constitution. I rather like the one we have, but I can think of some changes I wouldn't mind making. I might outline a few of them tomorrow, today I'll just say why I don't like his:

The War Powers Balance -- I like his idea of mandating that the President has 6 months to take action before he requires a declaration of war by the Congress. I don't, however, like his followup that with war declared he needs reauthorization every 6 months. If we go back in our history I doubt any war was popular 6 months in. If the prosecution of a war was left entirely to popular opinion the cost of DDay would almost certainly have been too much to bear, especially in today's media culture. If the congress had to reauthorize our support every 6 months then any other country would be moronic to ally themselves with us because the chances would be almost certain they would be hung out to dry in a year or so when things got really bad.

The representative nature of the Senate and the electoral college. He presents these as two issues, but they're really not. If we are a national government then they make sense, but if we have a federal government (which I, obviously, prefer) then it makes sense to give power to the states as states and not just divide it among the people.

Non-natural born Presidents -- I have no problems with this, but I won't really lobby for it, either.

Monday, October 8, 2007


In an odd coincidince a friend asked this morning what happened to the mentality found in "The Grapes of Wrath" where people would do anything to avoid the indignity of taking a government handout, and I somehow managed to come across this post on Volokh. I find Ilya's argument weak.

I'm not exactly a libertarian, but I do support a much smaller government than the one we currently have, especially at the federal level. Though I oppose all sorts of government programs, I have no problems driving on federally funded roads, eating foods that were probably funded in part by ag subsidies, taking government college scholarships, or working at a state school. I've even taken state unemployment insurance before.

My disagreement with Ilya is that my opposition to policy wouldn't change even if they were given to a small group. If the Federal government were reduced to one of very limited powers, I would stand by Crockett's constituent in opposing the allocation of funds for a Georgetown fire, even if I lived in Georgetown.

One possible defense for taking government benefits for services I oppose is that it is not the benefit I oppose, but state involvement in it. If some government agency decided that my transportation was so important I could steal a car to do it I could not morally countenance that as I believe theft is wrong. I don't think interstate highways are immoral and I certainly don't think driving on them is, I just think the people of Alaska and Hawaii shouldn't have to pay for a great highway system to connect the suburbs of Boston. My taking back roads to work every day isn't going to give the people whose money was commandeered to build and maintain I-75 their money back.

Related, it's possible that I oppose the benefit, but not at the cost that is going into it. If that's the case, and if my partaking doesn't significantly raise the cost, then I would be consistent in using it. Going back to Davy Crockett, Georgetown was given a fixed sum of $20,000 to rebuild. If I opposed taxing the national populace for that, but was offered $2000 I don't see it as being immoral to take it, given that I oppose the tax of $20,000 which is going to be done regardless of my actions. Similarly I have a job with a state university working on computers. I would rather see universities be private for two reasons: the first is that state universities frequently charge poor people who aren't going to get a chance to go to college (particularly via the lottery) so that they can send relatively rich kids to college; the second is that having the state run them means the state can control what is taught. My quitting my job and running computers for a private company isn't going to help with either of my two complaints.

Another reason is that like it or not, the government charges me for certain programs. At the very least I see no problem with taking money from those programs if they are fully funded. I'll use GA state unemployment insurance and my pension as examples. I think both unemployment insurance and pension funds (public or private) are a bad idea. If I were given the option of buying into such a program I wouldn't take it. But I'm not given the option. Money is taken from me every paycheck and stuck into a pension fund and an unemployment fund. It seems reasonable that if I come to have a use for one of those programs I wouldn't be hypocritical in taking out money just because I didn't want to put it in. This doesn't extend to things like Welfare or Federal Flood insurance, though. It might seem like paying premiums on Federal Flood Insurance justifies my taking money out if my home gets flooded, but the overwhelming majority of that money comes from taxing people whose houses aren't in a flood plane at all. The actual premiums are just an attempt by the fed to recover a small portion of their costs.

A third possibility is that I'm justifying hypocrisy. I'm pretty solid in my belief that these programs are wrong, and I would vote to get rid of them even if it were a personal loss to do so. It could be, though, that I'm just not sufficiently attuned to the shame I should have at taking money from the government.

Friday, October 5, 2007


There's a lot of traffic in the political blogs and news this week about S-CHIP being vetoed. I'll go ahead and say I'm glad it got vetoed, but not for the reasons most Bush supporters are.

One of the main arguments you hear for why the program got vetoed is that it supports people who aren't children, and people who are easily making enough to pay for healthcare. One of the figures Bush has produced is extremely misleading (almost lying) in that it's a maximum income that was requested by New York state, but turned down by the program administrators.

That brings me to my reason for not liking it. The Constitution reserves powers not explicitly granted to the Federal government to the states. To get around this congress is taxing individuals and then giving the money back to the states in a "partnership" where they take money from citizens of the state and then give it back, as long as the state agrees to certain conditions.

If New York wants to fund healthcare for people making $83,000 per year, they should do that. Figure out how to tax the people of New York to pay for it. If Georgia or Massachusetts thinks people eligible should pay for their own health care unless they're at the poverty line, then they can give their citizens the tax benefit that goes with such a minimal plan. Then we can see the results of 50 different programs and stop this useless arguing about what effects of such and such a program might be.

My problem with S-CHIP (and most other Federal programs) isn't that it's wasteful, it's that if each state chose to do it their own way we might learn something about what works and what doesn't. I'm pretty sure that's what Publius had in mind, too.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

"Total" Watering Bans

Because of droughts, Cobb County has recently gone to the highest level of water restrictions, GA EPA water restriction level 4. This is a "total" outdoor watering ban. This means that you cannot water anything outdoors, including newly planted grass.

Oh, except if you're in one of the classes that the EPA exempts, including:

391-3-30-.05 section (5)

(a) Professionally certified or licensed landscapers, golf course contractors, and sports turf landscapers; during installation and 30 days following installation only.

(b) irrigation contractors; during installation and as needed for proper maintanence and adjustments only.
(h) power-washing
(k) car washes

So if I plant my own lawn I can't water it even during the first 30 days, but I can still pay someone to power wash my driveway, something I couldn't do legally myself since we got to drought level 2.

I dislike any type of outdoor watering ban, even a basic even/odd system, and would prefer that the cost of water just be jacked up until the supply meets the demand. I understand that people have a basic need to keep the toilets flushing and be able to take a shower and make dinner. It's fairly easy to get an idea of what a person's consumption is and subsidize that. If the average person uses 2000 gallons of water per month to survive, charge a $10 per person flat fee for up to 2000 gallons and then jack the price up after that until you aren't using more water than you're getting in. Yes, a bunch of car washes and pressure washers will go out of business. Yes people might not have as pretty a lawn, but if you really don't want people using up water, that's the only fair way to do it. If it's worth $50 to get your car wash, pay that. If it's not, don't. Just don't tell me I can't do X because we don't have enough water, but you'll waste thousands of gallons doing Y.