Thursday, April 26, 2012

Free market insanity

I have been in a discussion today with someone who believes the biggest problem with America's health care system is too much government regulation. This person claims that before the government got heavily involved in the health care market health care was much more affordable. I have to say that he is correct. In the 1800's health care, along with pretty much everything else, was cheaper. The question is was it any good?

In the 1800's the health care industry wasn't run by scientists or doctors or even accountants. No, in the 1800's our more free market health care system was run by traveling snake oil salesmen who would pour whatever they could find into a bottle, put a label on it making all sorts of claims for what it could do, and then sell it without any concern about who it might hurt. Many people became addicted to cocaine and morphine which were sold freely as cure-alls. People were lucky if they lived past their 40's. Completely unsubstantiated and ineffective treatments gained great popularity, why? Because the market was free enough to allow all of this to happen.

I will freely admit that it is possible to over regulate markets, but over regulation is a lesser evil than under regulation. Sparse or non-existent regulations allowed markets to give us things like the 1929 stock market crash, credit default swap bubbles, housing bubbles, monopolies, baby cribs that allow children to become injured. A free market gave us Justin Beiber and Milli Vanilli.

Markets don't operate in our best interests. Removing regulations will not solve all of our problems. A free market doesn't lift us up, it reduces us all to the lowest common denominator because that is where the greatest profits are found. Regulations spur innovation faster than the market can. If the government tells you that you can't do something that has made you a lot of money you will find a way to change what you are doing much faster than you would if you were only motivated by market forces.

Market forces can provide us with great things, they can also be very destructive. If we ignore the bad and only see the good we will be destroyed by the negative impacts of relying strictly on the free market. We should be striving for balance when it comes to business regulation, instead it seems our nation has shifted to striving for insanity.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mitt Romney, the first speech of his new campaign

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Tonight Mitt Romney made his first speech of the general election campaign after winning the Republican primary contests in New York, Delaware,Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Yes, there are still a few states left that haven't held their primaries but Romney has, without a doubt, arrived at the point where it is safe to call him the Republican presidential nominee. So how was the speech?

Romney's speech was as interesting for what it didn't touch on as what it did. Through out the primary issues of importance to social conservatives dominated even though the economy is what most Americans say is the primary issue in this election. Rick Santorum made certain that social issues stayed at the forefront and it is no surprise that Romney, who is not seen as a strong social conservative, would choose to avoid these issues since they don't work in his favor with independent voters. It was surprising to see how little mention was made of the health care plan signed into law by President Obama that was based on the health care plan that was signed into law by Romney while he was governor of Massachusetts. This is a big issue with conservatives but a hard issue for Romney since he has to demonize his own health care plan to attack Obama's plan. My guess is that Romney is hoping that the US Supreme Court will eliminate this issue some time over the Summer. One of the most interesting things that the speech didn't touch on, as pointed out in the video clip by Rachel Maddow, is the ground in any of the states that voted. Romney chose to make his speech in New Hampshire, the same state in which he declared his candidacy in this election. It was a big signal, along with all of the "A better America begins today" signs, that this is the point in which the reset button has been pushed, the point in which the Etch-A-Sketch is shaken vigorously, and a brand new campaign begins.

I give Romney credit, it was a good speech. I believe the fact checkers will have a fun time with some of the things he said. "Those who promise to spread the wealth around only ever succeed in spreading poverty." a statement like this makes you realize that Romney is unaware that President Johnson's "War on Poverty" brought the percentage of the US population living under poverty to the lowest point it had ever been since we started keeping records about poverty levels and to a much lower level than it is today. But who cares about facts? This was a very Reaganesque speech that will have great appeal to many conservative voters as it talked about things like fairness in a way that makes sense to conservatives but that is lost on liberals. He also pushed an idea that I mentioned in a blog post a few weeks ago, that the Democrats are the party of survival, while the Republicans are the party of success. This doesn't mean success for everyone but unimaginable success for some. It appeals to the lottery ticket mentality of voting. Your chances of success might not be great if you vote for a Republican, but those slim chances are attached to something much more appealing than what the Democrats are offering. This concept, I believe, is a good one for winning independent voters and has served Republican candidates very well in the past. In our current economic situation I think it is a sensible tact for Romney to take.

So can the Obama team get out the message that Democrats have plans to allow a greater number of Americans to find success instead of the very few that the Republican plan will help? Can they turn Romney into a liberal who looks to have very few differences with Obama which would surely cost Romney conservative votes. Even Santorum once advised voters to choose Obama over Romney since at least we know what we will be dealing with if Obama is reelected. If the economy continues to improve and even picks up a bit more steam will any of this matter? If the economy takes a turn for the worse can Obama convince voters that Romney is thrilled that they are suffering more? Will Obama's charisma help him find victory over the Republican John Kerry? Will either candidate make a guest appearance on Glee? The next few months could turn out to be very interesting.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Earth Day, a different way of thinking

Tomorrow is Earth Day and many of us will be confronted with a tidal wave of information on how to live in more environmentally friendly ways. Take a careful look at this information and put a lot of thought into what you are seeing, reading, and hearing. Sometimes, when it comes to the environment, what seems obvious might not be completely true.

If you walk into your back yard or into a park or any other fairly "natural" area and mark of an area one acre in size. Research indicates in that acre that you could find around 425 million insects and other arthropods living in the soil and leaf litter in that one acre. 425 million! That doesn't even count the number of insects flying around in that acre. It also leaves out things like worms and single celled organisms or plants. It doesn't count any vertebrates that might be present like lizards or birds or mice. Counting only the arthropods living in the soil and on the soil we would come up with a number, in one acre, that would probably exceed the total population of humans in the United States. Think about that one acre of land and now think about the fact that the US is about 2.3 billion acres in size in total. I don't want to do that math.

The thing to take from this is that our environment is very complex. We are surrounded by living things and all of those living things affect all of the other living things around them. If you choose to live in an environmentally responsible way you have to realize that everything you do from the day you are born to the day you die will have an environmental impact and those impacts may surprise you.

So lets say you decide to start a new environmentally friendly lifestyle today. Where should you live? A rural area where you aren't surrounded by buildings but instead by mountains and trees or a large city where you might go days without seeing a tree? Some have suggested that living in a city, where you can make use of public transportation, where heating costs can be reduced since there are fewer single family dwellings and more multi-family structures, is the more environmentally sound choice. Others have found little evidence that urban dwellers create less impact. No matter which side you agree with you have to also understand that your carbon footprint isn't the only thing that has to be considered. I have done a considerable amount of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Along the vast majority of the trail you can camp anywhere that you like but it is always recommended that you camp in established camping areas. Why? Because the damage has already been done in these areas and it makes more sense to confine the damage to these areas instead of spreading it out. City living may or may not reduce your carbon footprint but it might help prevent further environmental damage in other areas. That dirty, crowded, city might be the most environmentally friendly place on Earth.

So maybe you won't change where you live, but maybe you should look at how you get around? If you bicycle or walk or take public transportation then good for you. But if like many of us you use an automobile to get around you might be thinking you can do better. Should you trade in the old mini-van on a fancy new hybrid? Probably not. Studies have shown that 12-25% of a conventional car's environmental impact occurs before the car ever makes it to the dealership where it is sold. Things like the mining of metals, the manufacturing process and the transportation of the car to the dealership are not easy on the environment. If you start looking at hybrids the numbers get even worse as you have to factor in the manufacturing of the high efficiency batteries these cars use. Your old mini-van dealt with these pre-sale environmental costs long ago and so, as long as it is in good mechanical condition, it is probably more environmentally friendly to stick with it even though it guzzles a bit of gas.

But the hybrid car commercials make it sound like they will save the Earth! Here is a newsflash for you, marketing is not science. If you go to an Earth Day celebration tomorrow pay close attention to who is sponsoring it. A respected university? Probably not. If you care about the environment look past the marketing.

There are a lot of other things that have to be considered that might seem obvious at first. Organic produce might not always be more environmentally friendly than traditionally grown fruit and vegetables, especially if it is shipped in from China or Chile. A local grower who uses an inorganic fertilizer might be the better choice. What are the environmental costs of the manufacture of solar panels? They might make sense in an area with coal powered electric plants but if your energy comes from hydroelectric production they might be the wrong choice for the environment. Everything that you buy to make things better involves something being made and in that process it can make things worse.

The best thing you can do for the environment might be to do less. Spend less, live with less, consume less. There is a huge environmental industry that wants you to think you can make things better by consuming more, for me this simply doesn't add up. The best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to reduce your overall footprint. If you want to save the environment then save in general. I support research and the development of new products that will help keep the Earth healthier, but we have to make sure when we buy them we are actually helping the environment and not just our egos.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Less is more...

This is not just another blog post from me. No, this is a political, economic, social, and spiritual manifesto. I hope it will cause you to think and I hope it will cause you to act.

The United States is a big country, not just in terms of geography and population, the US has a big psyche. We love most things big, big cars, big houses, big careers. It is probably not a coincidence that the idea that a perfectly sized woman's breast should fit in a champagne glass came from France and not the USA. Our desire for everything bigger has also grown over time. In the 1950's the average sized home was 983 square feet. In the 2000's that average had grown to 2300 square feet. We grew to love massive SUV's, we shifted our shopping trips from small stores to "big box" retailers, restaurant food portions have increased in size and our waistlines have grown with them. We like things big in America.

It isn't that we always embrace the grandiose. No, we want our government smaller and we pay lip service to appreciating small business. Of course our government keeps growing and we make it easy to support small businesses because we classify any business with less than 500 employees as small. This means that 99.9% of the businesses in the US are small businesses, it would be hard to not support them. So why do we like most things big but not all? People on the right see big government as a threat to the bigness they want in their lives and people on the left see big business as a threat to the bigness they want in their lives. It isn't that we hate anything big, we are just afraid that the largess of the things we dislike will reduce our ability to achieve the personal largess we are seeking. These exceptions prove the rule, in America, bigger is better.

So where am I going with all of this? I want you to think about small.

Today I was driving my car around town. I drive a 2011 smart car, currently the smallest car sold in the United States. Smart cars aren't terribly common where I live and so I have a lot of people walk up to me in parking lots to ask questions about my car. Most of the people are simply curious about my car, but at some point almost all of these conversations get around to the person who stopped me saying they could never own a car that small. They think the car has to be a death trap. Even when they see the considerable amount of space inside the car they can't believe it is practical. I have literally had someone tell me while they were sitting comfortably in my car that they could never fit in it. They just can't get past the small. After a round of these questions today I started thinking about why I drive a smart car. I didn't buy the car for the gas mileage, it is a nice bonus, but there are cars on the market that get better gas mileage. I'm not a big environmentalist so the low carbon emissions weren't a factor in my buying this car either. I have just been fascinated by smart cars since they were first released in Europe in 1998, but why?

I'm an old punk. I have had the piercings and tattoos and mosh pit injuries to prove it. I guess at this point in my life I have moved from being an old punk to being more easily recognized as a contrarian. I have exceeded the age limit to call myself a rebel, yet these tendencies, thankfully, die hard. I look at all things popular and accepted with a great deal of skepticism. I appreciate people and ideals that go against the flow, a smart car fits in with my contrarianism perfectly. Plus it is just a lot of fun to drive. The question is, why is a smart car such a perfect rebel, punk, contrarian automobile in our culture when it is so easily accepted in other parts of the world? Simple, it isn't big.

Small is threatening in our culture, we want everything bigger and so anything that glorifies the diminutive is nearly sacrilegious. Our desire for the grand means Starbucks can't sell you a small coffee. Our lust for the large means that we have to have the bigger car, the bigger house, the clothing with the larger price tag, and because of all of this we wind up with greater stress, larger levels of debt, and jumbo sized deficits of free time. We idolize big to such an extent that we start off our adult lives going deep in debt so that we can attend college, quite often not so that we can learn but so that we can get a higher paying job which will allow us to live large later in life. Size, in America at least, does matter.

We have to get away from this need for big. There are many reasons to do this, it can help our environment, it can benefit our local economies, it can lead to greater freedom, but I don't care about any of that. I want to live little because it pisses people off.

I once spent a few months hiking on the Appalachian Trail. I quickly learned to send home anything in my backpack that I didn't use every single day. When you are carrying everything you own on your back as you hike up and down mountains for 8 to 12 hours a day every ounce matters. I got down to the point that I could hike for a week, carrying my clothes, shelter, food, and everything else I really needed in a very small pack with a total weight of around 20 pounds. Other hikers looked at me with jealousy in their eyes. I was living little. I would go into a town to resupply and I could see the envy on the faces of the people around me. They loved the idea of having the freedom that I had but they couldn't drop their super sized lives and embrace the small. Living simply makes people angry because they want to do the same thing but they won't allow themselves to. They are trapped by the titanic proportions of their lives.

So how about you? How big do you live? Look around and see what you could reduce, what you could get rid of, how you could change things to make your life smaller. Live smaller and you will take away the power that other individuals have over your life. Live simpler and you will have more time to live. You don't have to go without anything that you need, you only have to get rid of things that you don't need, things that own you instead of you owning them. Do it for any reason that appeals to you, but if we all did it our nation would be in much better shape, physiclly, economically, socially, spiritually. Plus after the hippies and the punks and the goths and emos and hipsters our youth needs to find a new way to rebel. This is it, this is the way, us older folks need to show them the way, so if for no other reason we should all shrink our lives for our nation's children. They are our future after all. Hopefully our future will be much more reasonably sized than our present.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A little help for my conservative friends...

Came across this interesting story today,

Allen West: I've 'Heard' 80 House Democrats Are Communist Party Members

After reading the story I realized that I needed to help out my conservative friends. You see many conservatives today are making themselves look ridiculously silly, if not utterly stupid, with their repeated mis-use of words like "socialist" and "communism". You see these words are commonly used by conservatives to describe individuals or organizations or countries that don't fit the definition of the words. Conservatives seem to think that these words mean something bad but they seem to have no idea what these words mean. So, I am writing this a service to my conservative friends so they can avoid looking like idiots and realize that they need to find new words to attack us liberals.

From Webster's dictionary;

so·cial·ism, noun
1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

3 : a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

com·mu·nism, noun
1 a : a theory advocating elimination of private property

b : a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed

2 capitalized a : a doctrine based on revolutionary Marxian socialism and Marxism-Leninism that was the official ideology of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

b : a totalitarian system of government in which a single authoritarian party controls state-owned means of production

c : a final stage of society in Marxist theory in which the state has withered away and economic goods are distributed equitably

Since we now know the definitions of these words we can begin to use them correctly. First off Barack Obama is not a socialist or a communist. If he was a communist he would be for the total elimination of private property and would be working towards achieving that goal. Of course he has done nothing of the sort and he himself is a fairly wealthy individual who has shown no interest in giving up his personal fortune. So is he a socialist? No, not a socialist either. You see he is not interested in having the US government take over private businesses so they will be owned AND run by the government. What about the auto company bailouts? Well here is the thing, the government didn't buy Chrysler and GM and the government did not take over the operation of either of those companies. What it did was bailout the companies and take partial ownership of the companies in exchange for the bailout so it could hold the companies accountable. In June of 2011 the government got rid of the last small portion of Chrysler that it owned and has been consistently reducing the number of shares it owns at GM, something a socialist would never do. Furthermore the government was always divorced from the day to day operations of both of these companies, something that would fly in the face of socialist ideology. Therefore, Obama can not be a socialist as he had the perfect chance to be a socialist and turned it down.

We also need to look at a few other things the government does that are considered to be "communist" or "socialist" by conservatives. Medicare, food stamps, social security. These are all "social programs" and they are called social programs because they benefit our society. They are not socialist programs however because they don't involve the government owning AND controlling the means of production for any industry.

Countries like France and Germany do have some socialist aspects to their governments. Germany is part owner of Volkswagen and they do have some control over the day to day operations of the company. That is what socialism looks like, specifically it looks like one of the largest and most successful automobile manufacturers in the world. So as you can see, socialism doesn't always fail.

I hope you will be able to use this information to correct your mis-use of words like socialist and communist. I will also take this chance to tell my liberal friends that they probably need to eliminate words like "fascist" from their political discourse vocabulary. After all, we don't want to look as stupid as the conservatives do.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Sacrifice, why don't we care any more?

We used to talk about sacrifice a lot in this country. Multitudes of American men sacrificed their lives fighting for this country. During WWII many had to sacrifice their normal lives as family members went off to war and here at home gasoline and sugar and other items were rationed. After the war our country, as a whole, sacrificed a lot as we all worked together to pay off the massive debt we had built up coming out of the Great Depression and fighting the war. The people of this country knew that America was worth the sacrifice.

Yes, there was a time when we were willing to make the hard choices to do what was best for our country. When we were willing to work together, not just for the common good, but to protect those things that we, as a nation, hold sacred. That time seems to have passed.

We are still working our way out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but did those who were effected the least by this recession do anything to help those who were effected the most so that we could all benefit from a stronger economy? No. Those at the top of our economy sat by and watched their profits soar while millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes and their hope. Many at the bottom of the economic ladder lost everything, but it wasn't a sacrifice, they had no choice in the matter and sacrifice involves choice. The people at the top certainly didn't sacrifice anything and our economy faltered and stagnated as no one was willing to take the actions required to lessen the impact of the "Great Recession". No one was willing to sacrifice anything for our country.

On 9/11 our nation was brutally attacked by a group of individuals so driven by hatred that they would sacrifice their own lives to bring down America. We all looked to our president for guidance on how we, the average man and woman, should respond. What were we told? Go shopping. Our country had suffered the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor and our leadership said we should head for the malls. None of us could be bothered with any greater sacrifice than the cost of a new pair of shoes, and we kept the shoes.

We want our taxes lower while our debt is climbing. We want to cut spending, but only on the things that don't effect us personally. We want a strong military, but our own sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, shouldn't be the ones to serve. We want jobs brought back to our country, but we still want the low prices cheap, overseas labor allowed. We want it all, but we don't want to have to pay for it in any way, shape, or form.

Today is Good Friday. Christians around the world will reflect on what we see as the ultimate sacrifice, when Jesus Christ died, for us, on the cross. Jesus sacrificed his life for all of us. He died a slow and painful death so that we can have everlasting life. He suffered so that we won't have to. He paid the ultimate price for the ultimate gift to all of us. What have you sacrificed? What are you willing to sacrifice? We have benefited from living in this great country, are you willing to show your appreciation by giving back? Or are you one who simply takes, and then takes more. This is Good Friday. I want you to think about sacrifice.