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Random Fragments

November - December 2008

One Cheer for the One

No Free Lunches

Warming Feud

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

   One Cheer for the One - The election is now two weeks behind us, and time for some positive spin to the whole thing.  First and foremost is the whole race issue.  Recently, I have been watching the Ken Burns documentary on WWII, and one of the themes of the film is the pervasiveness of racial tension, separation and inequality.  Sixty years ago, blacks were segregated in the military, and largely relegated to non-combat roles.  The election of Barack Obama helps to signal a profound end to those days and who cannot help but celebrate that an imperfect America can continue to strive towards the ideals that were set out so many years ago?  The less that race, and gender, are divisive issues in our society, the easier it will be to extol the virtues of freedom and liberty.

     Although I voted for McCain, I must admit a sigh of relief that he did not win.  I think that his brand of conservatism is as equally dangerous as George Bush's "compassionate conservative" philosophy, which led to lots of government spending and distorted the Republican brand that was championed by the likes of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.  So, here are some random thoughts on why it might be OK that McCain lost this race . . .

Global warming nonsense.  McCain's embrace of the fear-mongering from the anthropogenic global warming crowd (that man is responsible for a warming of the planet) was most troubling to me.  With a Republican president willing to kowtow to that vision of increased government intervention and decreased standard of living, the Dems would have been unstoppable on this issue.  They may still be unstoppable, but at least the GOP can stake out an opposition claim, and over the next four years use it to leverage themselves back into power. 

Campaign finance reform.  Another travesty that clearly tramples on our rights.  Well, Obama didn't need to take the public funding that he promised he'd take, and McCain was badly outspent in this campaign.  Like the global warming issue, this may also be one that Republicans can rally around, without being diluted by a McCain presidency that would likely have continued to erode the rights to free speech.  Whatever the Dems do in this regard (e.g., revive the fairness doctrine to squelch conservative talk radio) will, in my opinion, backfire on them politically. 

The Supreme Court.  This was a big issue for me.  It would have been nice to have a President McCain in office to pick the next couple of members of the court, keeping our fingers crossed that he really did mean to appoint folks like Justices Roberts and Alito.  But, who knows?  He might have appointed another Souter, so it wasn't a slam dunk to me.  And, since the most likely retirements are liberal judges anyway (Stevens, for example), any Obama selections in this regard may not do much to tilt the balance of the court.

Politics is reactive.  With McCain continuing the GOP tenure in the White House, it is difficult to crystallize the differences between the two parties.  With him out, and the Republicans occupying a minority of the Congress, they will be the beneficiaries of the next political swing, when the electorate decides that they've had enough and that it's time to "throw the bums out."

The return to the regulatory state.  Another one of the major fears I have about the Dems running things in Washington, is the bandwagon effect of increasing regulation.  There have been rumblings about Obama chartering a "Newer Deal" ala FDR.  That would be an economic catastrophe.  But, with two foreign wars, that will still take years to settle down, much less solve, and with the federal budget bursting at the seams, and with an economy going through recession, we may just dodge a bullet on the regulatory front.  Rules by the EPA are likely to be strongly opposed in the current economic climate, as will proposals to regulate our way out of global warming.  And, while we have done much to deregulate banking, despite the turmoil in financial markets I don't really think that a return to the bad old Glass-Steagall days are in the cards.

     So, here's one cheer for Obama.  At least for a first term.

Monday, December 8, 2008

   No Free Lunches - This past Saturday was the annual luncheon of the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity.  This group had been the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers, but has merged into the AFP.  We first went to one of these luncheons in 2005 when it was held in the small meeting room at the Goldwater Institute.  It has since moved on to bigger venues, and this year was held at the Shriner Auditorium near Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.

     The event has morphed into a half day of activities, which is nice for us, since we have to drive down from Flagstaff, spending about five hours on the round trip.  The keynote speakers were Steve Moore, who has been to these luncheons in the past, and Dinesh D'Souza, pictured to the right with my better half, Cara Lynn.  We had met Dinesh at the AFP summit in the fall of 2007 and picked up a copy of his book on Ronald Reagan.  I always enjoy listening to D'Souza; he is a fascinating speaker and had intriguing insights on the current scene.  His satirical take on how America has two parties - a stupid party and an evil party - seemed almost too true to be funny.

     The purpose of this group is largely to promote lower taxes and a smaller government.  And, part of the argument that is made insofar as these goals are concerned has to do with understanding that there are no free lunches - the government can't just spend money without consequence.  Yet, we were encouraged to take advantage of a school tax credit available in Arizona that led my wife to muse about whether that wasn't somewhat paradoxical, in the least.  Upon some reflection, I think she's onto something...

     The school tax credit can be taken by anyone in the state, whether you have children in school or not.  The credit is a dollar-for-dollar tradeoff relative to your tax liability to the state.  That is, if I owe $4,000 in state income tax this year, I can write a check for $500 to a private school for a tuition program and have my tax liability reduced to $3,500.  The credit is pitched as, essentially, a free lunch.  And, on an individual basis, it is!

     But, we are smart people, aren't we?  If the state is planning on spending $1.5 billion and raises $1.5 billion in taxes, and then $100 million goes to these programs, then they are short by the same amount and will have to raise taxes (or borrow) to cover the difference.  In the extreme, if every single taxpayer took this credit, then we would each see our taxes raised by $500, and there is no tax advantage.  And, even when only a fraction of the taxpaying population uses these credits, there must still be tax increases to cover this difference.  Even where these taxes are widely spread, the lunch is still not free, no matter how you try to serve it.

     So, why should we support the use of this credit?  Granted, the use of the money seems more than worthwhile.  And, granted, the dollar amounts have been relatively small compared to the overall state government budget.  But, isn't there something wrong here, at least in principle?  We rail against all kinds of tax gimmicks, and this one sure looks like a duck to me.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

   Warming Feud - In late November, at a meeting of the Flagstaff City Council, two members, Joe Haughey and Scott Overton, voted against new city rules and regulations, aimed at builders, to reduce greenhouse gasses that are, of course, the leading cause of the most dire problem we face in the modern world - hysteria over global warming.  At the meeting, they both expressed skepticism about what Haughey called, 'this global warming-climate change thing.'

     Of course, this led to some disparaging letters, the first of which was written by Bryan Cooperrider.  For the sake of completeness, and because it is short, here is what he wrote:  "According to council members Scott Overton and Joe Haughey, the "science for global warming is not entirely conclusive." Good grief -- these two should be the poster kids for why science education in America needs to be strengthened! I challenge them to name one credible scientist (no, Rush Limbaugh is not a credible scientist) who says global warming is not happening. It is flat irresponsible for elected officials to make such ignorant statements."

     For years I have thought about jumping into this debate.  But, I don't have any expertise in global climate matters.  I am just a reasonably smart person, who can read and evaluate arguments.  But, it seems quite clear to me that the activists that are pushing this agenda have used fear and intimidation to carry the day, and not a careful examination of the science.  Well, I couldn't resist responding to Cooperrider's letter, so I penned the following, which ran in the December 2nd paper:

To the editor:

A recent letter writer challenged two members of the city council to back up their skepticism about the dire consequences of manmade global warming. I doubt, however, that the writer actually cares to know about scientific skeptics, much less a reasoned discussion/debate on this topic. Who are the skeptics with scientific backgrounds? Pick up a copy of Lawrence Solomon's fascinating book, "The Deniers," to read about some of them. From Dyson (flawed modeling) to Wegman (who dismantled the famed "hockey stick") to Akasofu (warming trends and CO2 level) to Solanki (the role of the sun in warming) and Jaworowski (the meaning of ice core data), it is clear that there is real scientific skepticism and many unresolved questions. Like, how warm has it gotten and what causes it? How well do we understand natural processes that cause warming? How good are the models that predict impending disaster? What should we do? Can we adapt to warming?

Interestingly, the shallow activists hardly ever support economic development as a "solution" to a worsening environment, even though it is quite clear that the richer we are, the more we are willing to protect and preserve the environment.

The shallow activist falsely claims a scientific consensus, that the only skeptics are conservative talk radio personalities, and that we must radically change our lifestyles, and living standards, to satisfy their sustainability fantasies. This viewpoint is anti-science and anti-reason and should be rebuked by anyone who is open to learning more about how the world really works.

     I did not pretend to have special knowledge in this area, but felt comfortable recommending a book about these "deniers."  Two of my colleagues actually made it a point to see me and comment favorably on my letter.  And, I also got a visit from Mr. Cooperrider!  He felt that meeting me was important and that I had misread his critique.  He claimed that the issue wasn't "man-made global warming" but just "global warming" itself.  I told him that it was unlikely that the council members were referring just to warming and that, while a bit sloppy, most people mean "man-made" even if they don't say it.  I thought more about his argument and penned an e-mail to him as a follow-up.  In fact, I re-read the original Daily Sun story, and in the second paragraph there is mention of the "doubt by two council members about the severity of global warming," which didn't question the warming, but just whether it was a dire problem or not.

     Then, on December 9th, there was a letter from Padraig Houlahan, who seems to be a pretty committed socialist, and writes occasional letters and whom I know from our association in the Coconino Astronomical Society.  He accused me of arguing against global warming (which, I wasn't) and that if I was going to accept the comments of skeptics, I should also accept the argument of skeptics in economics.  I replied on the web (you can see all the comments to all these letters by following the hyperlinks above) and tried to be civil and humorous.  I took exception to his notion that government is the solution: "I will grant you that the government had done a great job in the housing market, and is poised to finally restore efficiency to the automobile industry. It has a well-managed pension plan called “social security” and it is an excellent choice for the centralization of all health care in the U.S. Wait a minute . . . I don’t grant you any of those things. So, I will continue with my ongoing advocacy of free markets (and, of capitalism), arguing the case that government should be smaller and more limited and that markets should be freer."  His reply was not as courteous.  I made another reply, as did he, and I left it there.

     There were a few more letters in the paper, on both sides here, and the editor actually penned an editorial on the matter.  And, in today's paper, was a nice comment by David M. Monihan, Jr. that, "Rush Limbaugh . . . is a good entertainer, satirist and political commentator, but he's not a scientist. The only people I've ever heard refer to him as a scientist are liberals. That seems strange at first but then they seem to consider Al Gore a scientist."  Right on, David!

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