Category Archives: Government

Occam’s Law of Program Uselessness: The effectiveness of any government program varies inversely with the number of pages on which it is written.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My apologies to Mr. Occam for my shameless rip off of his exceptional work. In his honor, I’ll be brief.

Depending upon the source, the Constitution of the United States has fewer than 7,000 words, including all 27 amendments. The original document was handwritten on 4 large sheets of parchment and had approximately 4,800 words. These are rough numbers. I’ve never counted them myself.

In terms of modern technology, assuming 250 typed words per page, the entire Constitution can be printed on fewer than 28 8½” by 11” sheets of cheap, 20lb copier paper from Staples.

By comparison, the proposed healthcare plan from House Democrats has over 1,000 pages.

I rest my case.

-wf


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Con of the Day: “Obama urges patience on stimulus plan”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

And so the Associated Press headline read.* The President wants us to be patient. His stimulus plan will work. Just give it time.

Well, first, for it to work he’ll have to actually spend the money, which, for the most part, he hasn’t. As of July 8, only $90 billion of the $787 billion allocated has been spent – or is in “the pipeline” – which leaves a whopping $697 billion unspent.** The patience he’s asking for is with him and his administration for being such slackers, and has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the stimulus package if it had been implemented.

More to the point, what he’s doing is waiting for the economy to recover on its own, as it will, sooner rather than later, by which time he will have spent the stimulus money and take full credit for the recovery – as will the Democrats in Congress.

What a crock.

Suggested reading… “Occam’s Economics: A simple, back-of-the envelope plan to regenerate consumer spending – immediately.” which I posted Thursday morning, July 8.

-wf

*See the AP article on MSNC, “Obama urges patience on stimulus plan”

**The Washington Examiner, July 8, 2009, “First stimulus package spending at glacial pace; Obama wants another?”.


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The US Policy Against Assassination: Where should we draw the line?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

As we all know, it is against US policy to assassinate the leaders of foreign governments. My first reaction to this rule has always been positive. Killing anyone is a bad thing, even in self-defense. It may have been justified. It may have been necessary to save your own life, or the lives of family and countrymen, but it’s still a bad thing to have to kill anyone. I say this on moral grounds, intellectually speaking, having never found myself, thank goodness, in the position of having to take someone’s life to protect my own or the lives of others.

Government leaders are high profile people who are relatively easy to kill. Getting away with it is another story, but if you’re motivated and have sufficient resources at your disposable, it’s doable. Doable, maybe, but does it make any sense? Is a practical thing to do? We kill their President, they kill ours. What a mess. There are consequences, short- and long-term repercussions that are often unpredictable and counterproductive to our objectives. Moral issues notwithstanding, assassination is bad politics and no substitute for good foreign policy based on intelligent diplomacy.

So what’s my problem? My problem is that I’m not sure where we should draw the line. On a personal level, if someone threatens you with deadly force, with a loaded gun for example, if they present a “clear and present danger,” well, you have every right to defend yourself. In fact, you have the legal and common sense right to take preemptive action. You do not, in other words, have wait until you’ve been shot at to shoot back.

On a societal level, the police and our military overseas routinely hunt and often kill people who have demonstrated their willingness and ability to take the lives of innocents. A South Carolina serial killer – a lone gunman who was clearly not the leader of a sovereign nation – was himself recently killed in a shootout with a policeman. For similar reasons, our military, acting as our national police force overseas, has killed a good number of Al Qaida leaders and operatives – and is still aggressively looking for Osama bin Laden, dead or alive.

However many his followers, Mr. bin Laden is also not the leader of a sovereign nation. He’s a criminal, a murderer of innocents who routinely and repeatedly demonstrates his disregard for the lives of his followers and enemies alike. In every way I can imagine, bin Laden meets the criteria for a “clear and present danger” deserving of the use of lethal force, if necessary, to stop him. I have no reason to believe that bin Laden, himself, has ever killed anyone. Doesn’t make any difference, does it? Even if he’s never hurt anyone, personally, he’s recruited, trained and commanded his followers who have.

But what would happen if Mr. bin Laden was the not just a criminal on the run, but a head of state, the elected leader or dictator of a sovereign nation? …a head of state using national resources to recruit, train, arm and surreptitiously command followers whose demonstrated purpose is to kill innocent Americans and other nationals, perhaps including his own countrymen? Now what?

Our best, most civilized diplomatic efforts fair to even curtail, let alone stop the carnage. Other nations add their voices, but to no avail. Do we just let Mr. bin Laden hide behind his government title? If, heaven forbid, bin Laden or his counterpart in the Taliban were to seize control of the government of Afghanistan, is that it? Are they safe? Does the mantle of authority, democratically elected or not, somehow suddenly change everything?

Given that our government believed in the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction, was the assassination of Saddam Hussein out of the question just because he was the leader of a sovereign nation? If Kim Jong-il’s North Korea poses a real, clear and present nuclear weapons threat to the United States and our allies in the region, and we believe that he, personally, is the problem, isn’t a preemptive assassination a more rational solution than war? I’m not suggesting it, mind you, just raising the question.

If it was up to me, what would be the fine print in our government’s policy against assassination? I don’t know, and it bothers me that I don’t.

-wf


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Occam’s Economics: A simple, back-of-the-envelope plan to regenerate consumer spending – immediately.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Let’s talk about giving all $697 billion* of the first stimulus plan which has yet to be spent to the 14.7 million** people who are currently unemployed. Com’on. Think about it. I dare you to take this plan seriously.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to make some gross, simplifying assumptions:

(1) Ignore the substantial unemployment benefits the unemployed are already receiving.

(2) Overlook the fact that, while the unemployment rate is currently 9.5%, 3.5% is typical of a healthy economy. No recovery plan, in other words, needs to push unemployment to 0%.

(3) Pretend the millions of Americans who are still working, but who are under-employed as a result of the recession and whose family incomes are seriously depressed… I’m going to pretend these families are okay. (They’re not.)

These and other issues not elaborated here are obviously important considerations which will need to taken into account, but not right now. I just want you to focus on the core concept.

$697 billion divided by 14.7 million people is an average of $47,415 per person, tax free. I don’t know the pre-recession average annual disposable income of these families, and that could be a problem if it’s higher than $47,415, but I suspect I’m okay. We could, in other words, completely regenerate the consumer spending lost by the recession for a full year in one fell swoop just by giving what’s left of the first stimulus package to the people who need it most.

Simply put, what I’m suggesting is that we’d be better off giving our stimulus dollars to the unemployed whose needs are such that they will not hesitate to spend every dollar we give them. Give the money to them gradually over the next year until the natural process of economic recovery takes over. (We’ll handle the transition between receiving subsidies and returning to employment through a negative income tax to make sure they have a substantial financial incentive to return to work.)

Forget about public works projects and various economic development programs, the nature, duration and location of which may not be the most effective, most timely means of getting people back to work. Let’s ask ourselves, “What can we do that will have the most dramatic and most immediate impact on the economy?”

The simple answer is, give the money to consumers whose incomes have been so depressed (or eliminated altogether) by the recession that their propensity to consume is 100%. For all intents and purposes, they’re going to take every dollar you give them and spend it, immediately. They’re not going save any of it. They’re not even going to use any of it to pay down their credit cards and other debt except to make mortgage and car payments. And they are certainly not going to take months, maybe years to build something with it. They’re going to spend it. All of it. Right now. (This paragraph was excerpted from “A second stimulus package?!” which I posted yesterday.)

What? This is too simple, too straightforward a concept to work? Let me get this straight… We’re in a national economic crisis so severe that the Administration is considering a second round of $300 to $400 billion – more money we don’t have – even while $697 billion of the first emergency stimulus package remains unspent. I think a little simplicity that focuses our attention on the problem we’re trying to solve may be exactly what we need.

Is the idea too pure, too kosher for Congress because it doesn’t have any “pork”? My apologies, but I thought that was one its advantages. Are there implementation issues? Of course, but they’re almost certainly less than the mess we are now realizing with the stimulus funds we’ve spent, and still haven’t spent, so far.

I know it’s not the way Washington usually does things, but sometimes, the simplest, most obvious solution is the one that makes the most sense.

-wf

*The Washington Examiner, July 8, 2009, “First stimulus package spending at glacial pace; Obama wants another?”.

**The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Unemployment Statistics.


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Betrayal of Trust: Credit Bureau Profiteering

Sunday, June 27, 2009

Information about our credit behavior is provided to the credit bureaus by the various lenders from which we have borrowed money to buy merchandise and services, cars, houses, education, you name it. In turn, these credit bureaus – principally Equifax, Transunion and Experian –provide our credit histories to prospective lenders which we have approached to obtain additional or replacement credit – a new credit card, a car loan, mortgage refinancing, student loan, etc. Understandably, these credit bureaus provide this information subject to federal and state laws designed to protect us against its dissemination without our knowledge or authority.

This flow of information is carefully managed, and properly so. The more widely and more casually our credit histories are published, the greater the likelihood of identity theft. More to the point, the details of our financial lives should be nobody’s business unless we, personally, decide they should be. Credit reports are highly personal information that you and I need to protect. Not that big a deal, you’re thinking? Okay, who reading this would want to hand out copies of his or her credit report to your neighbors, family, friends, coworkers or random strangers you pass on the street? I didn’t think so.

Well, it turns out that the same credit bureaus which make a point of how trustworthy they are in virtuous compliance with every federal and state regulation – which they are – have been making more than a little money on the side in complete contradiction to the public trust.

Ever receive one of those advertisements in the mail from a lender offering you refinancing or debt consolidation? Of course you have. Some of them describe the services they offer by way of examples, unrelated to your specific situation, to describe the advantages of their programs, but others… Others actually show the precise amounts of your mortgage, credit card and other obligations to calculate how much they can save you. Wait a minute. You didn’t apply to these companies for credit. You didn’t authorize or know about the release of your financial data to these companies whose services you never solicited. And they have no right to your data because you don’t already owe them money. So how did they find out the amounts of your mortgage, credit card and other debt?

The simple answer is that the credit bureaus sold it to them, in bulk. They’re called “promotional inquiries” – detailed personal credit information, including basically everything on your credit report, which the credit bureaus sell to companies who want to make you unsolicited offers – and they don’t show up on your credit report. That they don’t show up on your credit report is good in that they have no effect on your credit score. The bad news is, because they don’t show up, you have no way of knowing that your credit history has been sold and who has it. It’s a secret, and not the good kind.

What’s the point? The point is that our federal government needs to do something, needs to do more to protect the privacy of our financial data to keep it out of the hands of marketing firms who, without our authority or knowledge, have no right to it.

-wf


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Keeping it simple: Medical Insurance for All Americans

Sunday, December 12, 2008

President-Elect Obama is asking all of us to send him our suggestions for universal healthcare. It’s a trick, of course, the objective of which is not to provide his new administration with ideas it will seriously consider, and hasn’t heard before, but to make us all feel involved in the process. People who believe they are participating in a decision tend to be more supportive of the outcome and feel better about their leaders for including them. It’s a concept I believe Mr. Obama first learned in Political Science 101, a class he apparently thinks the rest of us skipped.

Is President Obama or anyone on his staff going to read through the millions of e- and regular mail we might send him, or is he assuming we won’t bother to respond which is probably more like it? Will the people who offer their ideas be representative of the 40 to 50 million Americans who don’t have any or adequate coverage, or of the rank and file medical services providers who struggle daily with the administrative mess and costs of medical insurance processing, and with taking care of those who don’t have any? Do any of us regular people really know what we’re doing, myself included? Of course not. Like I said, it’s a trick. I’m not fooled, but then I like to write and I’m certain the President-Elect reads the Wordfeeder religiously, so here goes.

We start by defining a minimum, but nonetheless sufficient level of medical insurance that we want all Americans to have. We define this “Standard Policy,” not only to take good care of us when we’re sick, but with equal emphasis upon preventive services which keep us healthier, which will improve the quality and length of our lives and, in the process, lower our total costs for healthcare, and increase the productively of our workforce. By “we” I mean our government working in conjunction with consumers, underwriters and medical service providers (doctors with their own practices and hospital management). It’s the challenge of consensus building Barack Obama was born to meet, or so he tells us.

We then require all medical underwriters to provide that policy for the same price – adjusted only for local economic considerations, the fact that it costs more to provide a given level of medical care in, let’s say, Manhattan, than in a smaller, less pricey community.

Everyone qualifies, for the same premiums, regardless of their medical history or current condition – as if the entire country were one large group.

All policy-related procedures, forms and other paperwork, including a guaranty of timely claims processing and reimbursement to service providers, will be standardized. All physicians and hospitals will be required to accept this insurance for the specific services it covers. Needless to say, the program has to be defined and priced in a way which enables the underwriters and service providers to make reasonable profits for the risks they incur and given the costs of the services they deliver.

The government then imposes a Medical Insurance PremiumTax on personal income. (I prefer a separate tax so that we can ask ourselves if we’re getting our money’s worth.) Like the income taxes we already pay, the lower our personal or family income, the less of that income we are expected to spend for medical insurance – as long as the total of these MIP taxes equals the costs of the premiums our government pays, plus the cost of program administration. (This is not to be a deficit spending program. Everybody, personally, is paying for the collective cost of everyone’s Standard Policy. The government’s only role is that of facilitator.) People and families with incomes below a certain level won’t pay anything, but will still receive the same Standard Policy from their choice of underwriters.

People will be free to pick any underwriter to provide Standard Policy coverage, policy premiums to be reimbursed by our government. Whoever wants better coverage, whoever wants more than what the Standard Policy provides will pay the difference out of his or her own pocket.

Underwriters will compete for our business because the Standard Policy is respectably profitable, if not wildly so, by virtue of the way the program is priced and because administrative costs should be lower, and for the premiums they stand to make on the extended coverage a great many of us will buy.

Doctors and hospitals should benefit from the uniform and prompt processing of claims in accordance with procedures they helped design.

And America? We benefit from having everyone covered at some minimum, but sufficient level. The advantages to our economy, by virtue of having a healthier workforce, will likely be many times greater than the net costs of our paying premiums for those who can’t afford them. Besides, it’s the right thing to do, helping to take care of those of us who are unable to take care of themselves.

So what do you think? Sure, getting everyone to agree upon a standard policy will be very tedious and take time, lots of it. We’ll be lucky to be ready to implement the program before the end of President Obama’s first term, but it’ll be worth the wait.

Think about how little I’m asking our government to do. Bring the three major players, consumers, underwriters and service providers, together to devise a Standard Policy, collect the taxes which is something our government does already, and pay the premiums to the underwriters we, the people, choose. It’s not only the least our government can do, it’s the most I want them to do. I want our government as far away from managing our healthcare as possible. I want to keep healthcare in the private sector, and leave it to the government to use our taxes to subsidize the development of improved healthcare technologies, and to protect us from consuming things that aren’t good for us.

What about all the companies, the federal and state governments that are used to covering at least a portion of the costs of medical insurance for their employees? Good news. Now they can find another way to give their employees reasons to work for them, while booking a portion of the savings they enjoy to their bottom lines or using it to help cover the costs of other government programs.

Did you notice that at no time have I suggested that businesses pay for this program? It’s no accident. I’m trying to level the playing field so that larger firms don’t have the advantage of being able to pay less for medical insurance they buy in bulk, the costs of which they can more easily pass through to their customers, while smaller companies can less easily afford to offer their employees comparable insurance benefits, and often don’t.

Unions will be a problem, but then unions are a problem. Witness their complicity in the demise of US auto manufacturing. If ever there was an organization whose time is up, it’s the UAW.

In fact, the biggest problem will be convincing businesses and underwriters that they’re no longer going to be doing business with each other – except, perhaps, when it comes to Standard Policy upgrades as employee benefits.

Problem solved, President Obama. That was easy. Now you can do something for me. Next time, try to remember that we elected you to solve our problems for us. The election’s over. Time for you to provide the superior management you promised. It’s time for substance over style. Patronizing the people by asking for our individual opinions on such a profoundly complicated and sensitive issue as universal healthcare is no way to prove you’re worthy of our confidence.

Why can’t I shake the sense that you’ve taken on way more than you can handle? Did you honestly think being a local Community Organizer and playing follow your party’s leadership for three years prepared you for all this? Next thing, you’ll probably be recommending public works projects to get our economy back on track. …Nah.


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Why Iran has every right to develop nuclear weapons.

“The moral high road to which we pretend to subscribe turns out to be something we live by on a highly selective basis.”
Wednesday, September 23, 2008

This is one of those pieces I almost didn’t write on the odd chance that someone who counts might actually read it and find my simple argument convincing.

I don’t like the government of Iran. I believe its leaders are reckless, dangerous people who pose a real threat to our friends, Israel in particular, in the region, to Western interests everywhere, and especially to the United States. I believe they have too little to lose, and way too much to gain from developing the technologies of terror. My fear is not so much that they would would use such weapons themselves, but that they might advertently or inadvertently disseminate their technology or the weapons themselves to others who would.

So on what basis do we, the United States, have the right to tell Iran that it can’t develop nuclear weapons? The obvious rationale would be that they represent a “clear and present danger” to our nation and its people in response to which we have every right to take preemptive action to defend ourselves. Neither common sense nor the law require that you wait until after you’ve been shot before protecting yourself, before preventing the shooter from pulling the trigger. But by what standard does Iran’s development of nuclear or any other weapons constitute a clear and present danger?

If, I don’t know, let’s say the Netherlands decided to develop its own nuclear weapons, would that constitute a clear and present danger? Would the international community demand that they cease and desist? Would we insist on humiliating them by inspecting their nuclear research facilities to make sure they were strictly for peaceful applications of nuclear technology? I doubt it, because we trust the Dutch, because they’re one of us. Developed. Western. Civilized, by our standards of course. Nice people. Tulips. Great tasting Amstel Light.

Suppose you’re, let’s say, black or Jewish, gay or, heaven forbid, all of the above. Despite laws which allow people in your state who have no criminal history to own guns, you have none. Guns make you nervous, and you’re opposed to them on moral grounds. Your next door neighbor, however, has no such misgivings. To make matters worse, he’s known to be an active member of some group that finds people of “your type” offensive and a threat to his own way of life. He has no compunction about expressing his dislike for you openly and aggressively. He hasn’t explicitly threatened you because there are laws against that, but he’s made it clear how he feels and plays with your fears with his rhetoric and body language at every opportunity, particularly in the presence of his friends who share similar beliefs. You’re understandably concerned, maybe even afraid. Maybe he won’t harm you himself, but there are people he knows who might, people he might encourage and support.

All that having been said, do you have a right to stop him from buying a gun, from exercising his legal, I dare say “sovereign” right to bear arms just because you find his beliefs and behavior objectionable, even scary? Perhaps you want to become an advocate for universal gun control, including preventing even you from owning a gun, but under what specific circumstances can you single him out, deprive him specifically and others sharing his points of view of their right to protect themselves against what they perceive, however misguidedly, as a danger to their way of life?

The moral high road to which we pretend to subscribe turns out to be something we live by on a highly selective basis. We have megatons of nuclear weapons ourselves and an arsenal of the highest tech conventional weapons on the planet – more than enough to scare the bejesus out of anyone, particularly a country like Iran that’s inclined not to trust our motives and knows we don’t like them. But they can’t have any. We pick who we defend and who we don’t – Georgia, for example, which Russia recently invaded – depending upon who they are and who we are defending them against. We basically do whatever we can get away with, based on the assumption that our judgment is generally infallible, and that ours is the only point of view that matters.

I’m not defending Iran and, believe me, I really don’t want them having nuclear weapons. For that matter, I don’t want anyone to have nuclear weapons, but that’s dreaming and off the point. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claims, on behalf of his country, to have the sovereign right to develop nuclear or any other weapons they believe they need to defend themselves. I don’t want to, but I have to agree with him. In the absence of any hard evidence of a clear and present danger, why doesn’t Iran deserve the same right to bear arms that we reserve for ourselves as a nation, and individually? And if there is such evidence, then aren’t we compelled to take tangible, hard defensive action immediately? The fact that we don’t, and that even Israel for which the threat is close at hand hasn’t, would suggest that evidence doesn’t exist.


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