Thursday, January 31, 2013


I've been a supporter of equal rights for gays for a long time, but only in the last year or two have I gotten publicly vocal about my position.  I can remember discussing the issue of gay marriage with my father in the mid-1990s and being surprised to hear him say that he thought gays ought to be able to marry. His reasoning was that it would promote monogamy in the gay community.  At the time I found that to be a good reason, and to be frank the specter of AIDS was a lot more serious than it is today.

Today I think the idea that gays are more promiscuous than similarly straight people is mostly a myth, but I do find monogamy and the promotion of monogamy to be valuable for reasons I don't need to get into at the moment.  If that gets you to the point where you agree with me about the outcome--equal legal recognition of same-sex marriage--then I don't really care how you get there.

To me, though, it is a question of equality, fairness, and basic human decency.  Regardless of what you think about the morality or immorality of homosexuality, we ought to be able to agree, all of us, that those are decisions that people should be able to make for themselves and that we should respect those decisions.

[Poorly worded side comment excised; point saved for another day.]

What prompted me to write about this topic today was the news that Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle in the Andy Griffith Show and its spin-off, Gomer Pyle, USMC, and who has for many years sung "Back Home Again in Indiana" before the Indianapolis 500, married his (male) partner of 38 years in a ceremony in Washington, which recently put such marriages on an equal legal footing with male-female marriages.  Nabors is 82.  In a report, he said that he has been "out" to friends and co-workers for many years but has never spoken to the media about his sexual orientation.

Nabors is one of a growing number of celebrities who have publicly "come out" in recent years.  I don't think this revelation is much of a surprise to anyone who could read between the lines of his personal biography--I've seen him referred to using the "confirmed bachelor" euphemism--but it would be easy to lose the significance of his public act.  Nabors is a native of Alabama. He's closely associated with a television program that was considered "wholesome" even in the buttoned-down early 1960s. At 82, he's spent most of his life living in an American culture that until recently viewed his lifestyle as despicable.  I don't know how hard it was for him personally to come out publicly, but it would be understandable if it was the most fearsome thing he had ever faced.

It makes me happy to know that our attitudes on this subject are changing.  I'm happy that Jim Nabors could finally get the recognition his relationship deserves, if for no other reason than that at 82 he doesn't have that many years left. Of course, everybody deserves a little happiness.  And I'm hopeful that homosexuals in all states who have lived in the closet, whether for 5 minutes or 5 decades, will soon have the chance to lead open lives the way that we heterosexuals take for granted.

It makes me cringe to see actors called by their character names, but I'm going to make an exception just once and say, Shazam, Gomer...good for you.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Price of Admission

When I was a kid, maybe in junior high, the Billy Graham Crusade came to Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium (capacity about 53,000) for several nights.  As a churchgoing youth in a churchgoing family, I dutifully attended with my family.  Now, I have--and had--my disagreements with Billy Graham, and he is of course subject to criticism on a lot of scores, but I was impressed with the experience for what it was.  There was nothing obviously dishonest or smarmy about the whole affair.  It was remarkable because it was inclusive and free and positive.  I think they might have taken up a collection, but that's to be expected, I suppose.  Crusades, like armies, travel on their stomachs.  A contribution was requested but not expected.  And I certainly don't remember Billy Graham selling anything--at least not for money.

In March, a different crusader will come to Little Rock. Joel Osteen, TV preacher and peddler of prosperity theology, will put on his program A Night of Hope at Verizon Arena.

I don't have much use for what Osteen is selling.  (It's basically a Tinkerbell philosophy:  the idea that if you have enough faith, God will reward you with prosperity and health and the happiness that flows from them. No word on what conclusions one should draw from experiencing poverty and disease.)  The point is that he's selling it.  Tickets cost $15 each (limit 9) plus $7.85 per ticket in surcharges.  (I guess Ticketmaster has its hooks in everything.)  That says nothing of the concessions--books, t-shirts, and other wares.

You might legitimately question whether Joel Osteen is doing anything for anyone else besides parting them from their money, but there is no question that the "prosperity gospel" that he preaches has been very good for Joel Osteen.  Private jet, huge house, syndicated television ministry that reaches millions, plus a church whose regular Sunday attendance would just barely fit into War Memorial Stadium's seats.  It's hard to imagine.  There was a time when profiting from preaching was seen as unseemly.  Now Jesus is just another business, it seems.

A Night of Hope? Doubtful. But a Night of Hype? That seems like a sure bet.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Travel tips

I travel a lot for work, and while it varies some, I'm usually flying somewhere at least two weeks out of every month.  Over the last few years, I've developed a few habits that make the process of flying quite a bit easier. Invariably, I see people struggling to get through the process of flying. Usually, they don't fly very often, so they aren't familiar with procedures.  Older people tend to have problems in particular because they don't fly often and because unfamiliarity makes them uncomfortable.

When I fly, I have three simple rules.

1.  Get organized. Airports and airlines thrive on procedures, so if you want to make flying as painless as possible, you should learn the procedures and follow them.  Beyond that, the single thing that makes the flying experience easier is having a plan for getting you and your bags from your door to your destination. 

Your travel plan should be a set of lists that detail the procedures from getting from point A to point B.  Mine typically includes a set of travel documents (boarding passes, hotel confirmations, rental car confirmations, etc.), a list of items to pack, and a rough schedule. 

A lot of problems can be avoided by making sure you have enough time to do everything you need to do to get on the plane.  For example, do you need to park your car at the airport? If so, where are you going to park, and how do you get to the terminal? Sometimes it can take a long time to find a parking space, wait on a bus, and so forth.  Remember that you really need to be at the check-in line  by at least an hour before.

In any event, a detailed plan will help you navigate through the terminal quickly by keeping you focused.

2. Be prepared.  More than just planning, you should think about the actual process of getting through the airport.  For example, you should pack as light as you reasonably can.  I try as hard as I can to confine myself to two bags:  My computer bag, with all of my work papers, and a "roll-aboard" carry-on that has all of my personal items in it.  Sometimes that means planning to wash clothes during the trip. Sometimes it means bringing multi-use items--for example, if I need to wear a business suit twice during the trip, I might bring a navy suit plus tan trousers that I can wear with the navy jacket for the second day.  However you do it, packing light can save you a huge amount of time by allowing you to skip the check-in line.

At security, you can save a lot of time by putting all of your "pocket" items--wallet, keys, change, phone, pens, watch, jewelry--into your carry-on while you're waiting in the initial line at security.  Once your boarding pass and ID have been checked, those can go in the carry-on as well.  That frees you up to perform the truly necessary operations quickly once you get to the X-ray machine:  remove laptop from bag, remove belt and shoes, remove liquids bag from carry-on, etc.  Once I'm through security, I usually take a few minutes to get re-composed.

It helps to wear slip-on shoes and to keep your travel-day wardrobe simple.

Being ready to do what needs to be done, when it's time to do it, can speed you along. But looking like you know what you're doing pays other dividends--you can avoid the exasperated stares from more seasoned travelers, and you're less likely to get singled out for extra scrutiny.

That last bit was a tough one to learn for me.  There was a period when I kept getting pulled out of line at security for the hand pat-down. It got to be a joke with my wife, who complained that I was getting all the hot TSA action.  Finally, I was going through security in Atlanta one time with a lot of time to spare, and I got pulled out again, so I asked the TSA agent why I kept getting pulled out.  He said, "Body heat and sweat."  I'm a big guy, so I generate a lot of heat, and I sweat--especially when I've been running to get a plane.  Anyway, it turns out that the machines that do the body scanning pick up a lot of false positives from heat and moisture. 

That little bit of information caused me to change my routine.  First, if I'm overheated when I get to security, I take a couple of minutes in the restroom to cool off with a wet paper towel, and I make sure I have several paper towels available in case it's hot in the security line.  Second, I've changed the way I dress for airplanes--I try to fly at times when I can wear more casual clothes.  Since making those changes, I haven't been pulled out for significant extra screening even once.

3. Be nice.  Sometimes things go wrong. Flights get canceled or delayed. Gates get changed. Security personnel act surly. Other passengers will do things that are unfair or unreasonable.  (My personal pet peeve:  Unruly children flying in first class.  When I fly in first, I'm usually paying extra for the privilege, and it is unreasonable for parents to disrupt that by bringing children who can't behave into the first class cabin.  Sometimes those unruly children are teenagers, by the way.)  Travel gives us lots of opportunities to become tired and frustrated and for things not to go right.  Be nice anyway. It will be over soon.

More importantly, there will be times when you need help or a little extra consideration. And when there are others competing for that help, it doesn't go to the rude people first.

At the same time, don't be afraid to assert your interests.  Sometimes all that's required to get that extra consideration is to ask for it--not to demand it, not to threaten to talk to supervisors, not to pitch a fit.  Just ask nicely and explain why it would be helpful. Please and thank you go a long way.

I hope your travels go smoothly.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

It's not the guns (UPDATED)

If all they saw was the title, readers of this entry might be expecting me to make a different point from the one I'm making, so I'll ask the question straight on:

What keeps the government from imposing tyranny upon us?

There is at least a strong undercurrent in the national debate, if not an outright theme, that suggests that the reason why gun ownership needs to remain largely unregulated is because we need an armed citizenry as a bulwark against tyranny.

I find that to be the least logical of all of the pro-gun (anti-regulation) arguments.  I can certainly understand and respect the point that private individuals need guns for personal safety, because there are bad people in the world and there aren't enough police to stop them.  On an individual level, I think there is a pretty significant paranoid component to this view--people often believe that violent crime is a lot more prevalent than it is, and indeed violent crime is in a 40-year decline--but on the group level, the reality is that some violent crimes are going to happen and it would probably be useful to have a firearm if you were to experience one.  It's kind of like the lottery--it's likely that someone will win the jackpot, so you might as well buy a ticket in case it happens to be you even though you're probably just wasting your money.

There are a lot of other justifications, like the hunting argument, that I really don't have a problem with.

But when I hear somebody complain that an unarmed populace is subject to tyranny, I have to laugh out loud.

The U.S. government has the most advanced weaponry that the world has ever seen.  Our missiles and bombs are so sophisticated that--if he wanted to--the President could stick one down your chimney and reduce your life, and the lives of your family and your pets and your houseplants to a faint memory.  If you don't have a chimney, they'll just make one.  And that missile will be fired by a drone that's controlled by some kid in a comfortable, air-conditioned office building wielding an Xbox controller.  And it will happen before can you slip on your camo, load your pockets with packages of Jack Link's beef jerky, and attach your 100-round magazine to your AR-15.

So in your fantastical Red Dawn fever dreams, your guns are not what is standing in the way of the government steamrolling over you.

(Or, for that matter, the North Koreans, who might be crazy and inept, but you're no match for them if they should get past the American military by some miracle.)

What is keeping the U.S. from sticking a cruise missile in your stovepipe isn't the guns in your arsenal.  It's that we have an understanding that that kind of behavior isn't kosher.  We have free and frequent elections, and we have the separation of powers, and we have checks and balances.

And all of that pretty much boils down to one thing:  You can vote.  If you need a slogan:  It's not the bullet, but the ballot.

For that reason, I wish people were a lot less concerned about Barack Obama coming to take away your guns (he isn't) and a lot more concerned about the way that your vote is being systematically taken away by Republican state legislatures.  Did you know that Democrats, not Republicans, won a majority of votes for U.S. House races in 2012?  But because of gerrymandering--designing Congressional districts to favor one party over another--John Boehner is still the Speaker of the House.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that a House of Representatives that looks like the opposite of what the people wanted is a usurpation of your vote.  We should all be angry about that.

UPDATE: GC reader JM asks me to expand a bit upon that last point, and I'm happy to do it.  This has not been widely reported in the corporate media.  The truth is that Americans cast nearly 1.1 million more votes for Democratic Congressional candidates in 2012 than Republican candidates.  But because of aggressive gerrymandering in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and North Carolina--all controlled by Republican legislatures--Democratic votes have been packed into as few districts as possible.  It's not unprecedented--the Democrats were in a similar position after the 1972 election--but it is unusual, and it's anti-democratic (small d). Obama handily won the first three of those states and narrowly lost North Carolina, but the Congressional delegations in those states (5D/13R in PA, 4D/12R in OH, 5D/9R in MI, and 4D/9R in NC) certainly don't reflect it.

Far from considering this to be illegitimate, the GOP groups responsible for this condition are actually bragging about it.  Here's a report posted on the website of the Republican State Leadership Committee, summarizing how the GOP's efforts to control state legislatures after the 2010 election led to reapportionment in closely divided states being controlled by Republican legislators.

The larger point, I think, is that the very people who claim that the federal government is coming to seize their guns to impose tyranny are surviving as a political entity by suppressing and devaluing the votes of their opposition.  They couldn't be more wrong about the former, and they couldn't care less about the latter.  But we should.


I had a pretty great day four years ago today, seeing (on TV) Barack Obama getting sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, even if Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, working from memory, managed to flub his prompts on the Oath of Office.  And even if we had to suffer through the gasbag prayer of Rick Warren in the name of inclusiveness.

It was like reaching the summit of a high and dangerous mountain, to see a black man becoming the most powerful leader in the world.

But just as the goal of the mountaineer isn't just to get to the top of the mountain, but to get back to the bottom safely, we're on the home stretch of the descent.  Barack Obama wasn't just elected. He was re-elected, too.  And that's remarkable.

In a way, I think that breaking that big taboo, and not seeing the world end as a result, has helped us move forward and challenge other taboos.  It's now clear to me that same-sex marriage will be the law of the land everywhere in my lifetime.  We'll elect a woman President, too.  And a whole host of other ways that America can fulfill its promise of freedom and prosperity will come to fruition.

Barack Obama is not always the President I wish he would be.  And my country is not always the country I wish we would be.  But he and we are trying, and in the end that's what counts.  As Bill Clinton once said, there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what's right with America.  We can do this.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

No, he would have died in a hail of gunfire

When I was a (much) younger man, with higher tolerance for headaches, heartburn, and stupidity, I studied the fairly new phenomenon that was Rush Limbaugh with intense interest. I spent hours of downtime during my freshman year at college listening to him, all in the name of "opposition research." This was before the drugs addled his brain, or perhaps I should say before the drugs made his brain-addling permanent, and I was entertained even though I agreed with nothing the man said.

I even bought his megalomaniacally titled books--"The Way Things Ought to Be" and "See, I Told You So"--in hardcover, an extravagance I justified by buying them at a warehouse club for as little money as possible.

Somewhere along the way, my days filled up with more consequential and urgent matters, and I stopped being entertained.  But every once in a while, when I'm in my car alone between noon and three Eastern, I tune the dial to the Middle Aged White Guy Radio station in whatever city, town, or hamlet I find myself in, just to see if the old Nazi gasbag is still holding forth with specious logic.

(At 37, I am now dangerously close to those stations' core demographic, so I have to limit myself to no more than 10 minutes or so, lest I get tricked into buying a Select Comfort mattress, signing up for a Quicken Loan, or hiring a company to put granite veneers on my countertops or install helical piers to shore up my sagging house.)

I was not listening yesterday (January 18, 2013), but Media Matters was. (For the record, I do not envy the Media Matters operative whose job it is to categorize all of the outrageous things Limbaugh says each day. It must be like working in the Special Victims Unit in a major metropolitan police force--you can only do it for so long before they make you transfer for your own good.)

From the Media Matters transcript:
If a lot of African-Americans back in the '60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma? I don't know, I'm just asking. If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?
 That remarkable grouping of words probably would have escaped my scrutiny if I had not that very day watched a rerun of the Daily Show in which Jon Stewart recounted that some NRA-affiliated idiot had claimed that Martin Luther King, Jr.--who was of course slain by a Remington 760 Gamemaster .30-06 rifle--would have supported the NRA's efforts to eliminate the regulation of firearms.

Now, I'm in agreement with Al Franken:  Rush Limbaugh is, indeed, a big fat idiot.  (I admit to being a hypocrite about the fat part.)  But pens-and-pencils-down this takes the cake.

Let's unpack this a bit.  John Lewis is a genuine American hero who was indeed beaten severely on more than one occasion, and most notably at Selma in 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This is not John Lewis "saying" he was beat upside the head. It actually happened.  You can still see the scars on his head.

But let's suppose for a moment that John Lewis, in the midst of his nonviolent protest of racial segregation laws, decided that what would make his experience safer was a gun.  So, when the Alabama State Police were descending on the praying protestors that day, having fired tear gas and charging on horses, and were approaching John Lewis with a nightstick to inflict those injuries, what do you think would have happened when John Lewis drew his hypothetical gun?

Before you answer, bear in mind that the Alabama State Police were armed with guns themselves.

Do those troopers just turn around and say "never mind"?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Liar, liar, pants on...

Lance Armstrong is a terrible human being a human being who did a genuinely terrible thing. And, having seen some of his mea culpa interview with Oprah--don't you just love her?--I am convinced that he's still lying about what he did.

It makes me sad that he lied about doping. It makes me sad that he resorted to doping.

WaPo's fact-checker asks: Is Lance Armstrong the world's biggest liar?

He's a pretty big liar, and he took money for doing things that he couldn't have done without doping and without lying about it.  That makes him a fraud on multiple levels.

In the grand scheme of things, however, I find it hard to get exercised about it. (Get it? Exercised? OK, whatever.) It's a shame, but nobody died. 

I can think of a lot of lies that resulted in people dying.  Literally.  And I'm not going to get into semantics, as WaPo does, about whether it's "lying" if you believe that it's true.  We could look at the lies told to get us into a war in Iraq, if you want to get political.  Or we can look at the lies told by the anti-vaccine crowd, if you want to stay out of politics.  Both sets of lies have resulted in the actual deaths of actual people.

So if you're going to make a list of the biggest liars, I don't see how Lance Armstrong even cracks the top ten.

And in a way, that makes me sad, too.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Embracing the crazy

You can tell a lot about a president just by seeing what kinds of crazy conspiracy theories get attached to them.

George H.W. Bush was lucky to preside over the end of communism. When he used the term "new world order" to describe what was happening, he became known as a tool of the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, and the international banking conspiracy.

With Bill Clinton, it was "Arkancide"--supposedly the Big Dog was responsible for a large number of deaths among supporters and opponents--and the Branch Davidians at Waco.

George W. Bush was accused of blowing up the World Trade Center, and of allowing Saudi royals to leave the country in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

For Barack Obama's first term, the conspiracy was based around the idea that he was actually born in Kenya, and that his Hawaii birth certificate was a fake.

The new conspiracy?  That the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, were staged by the government to provide a justification for new gun control.

The one thing that all of these things have in common is that they aren't true.  Not one of them.  The last one is particularly crazy.  But that doesn't stop otherwise well intentioned people from believing in them.  When I hear of these theories, I think of the level of secrecy needed to pull them off...and I remember the old Benjamin Franklin quote:
Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Carmen Ortiz did not kill Aaron Swartz

It is no exaggeration to say that the internet community was sent reeling Friday with the news that Aaron Swartz, an internet entrepreneur, developer, and activist, had hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment.  Swartz, 26, was well known as an early co-owner of Reddit, a co-developer of RSS, an anti-SOPA/PIPA activist, and a strong advocate of free electronic access to information.

The prevailing thought, as far as I can determine, was that Swartz committed suicide because he was despondent at the fact that he was unfairly facing federal criminal charges that would potentially put him in prison for decades.  Those charges arose from Swartz's alleged use of unauthorized access to acquire, at no cost, a substantial portion of the contents of JSTOR, a database of academic journals that charges academic libraries large subscription fees, with the intent to distribute those articles via file-sharing networks.  The U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, said of prosecuting Swartz that "stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars."

Swartz was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a 1984 statute that criminalizes, among other things, unauthorized access (or exceeding authorized access) of a computer, as long as that computer is connected to a public network such as the Internet.

I don't doubt that the federal government was looking to make an example out of Swartz.  Speaking as someone whose job it is to enforce intellectual property rights, I have used that approach in the past.  Coming down hard on one operator to make a point to those who would emulate him is an effective way of reducing piracy.  I don't find there to be anything inherently wrong with that. And there are few higher-profile targets than Swartz was.

Suicide is a sad thing. It's unfortunate that Aaron Swartz chose that path.  Sometimes depression fools people into doing anything to end the pain. Despite all of his resources, he didn't seem to be able to ask for enough help.

But he is not dead because of federal charges. Carmen Ortiz did not kill him.

I disagree with the position that Aaron Swartz has articulated regarding freedom of access to information.  At its heart, I find his position to be an excuse to enjoy the fruit of others' labors. Suppose you owned a piece of (real) property that was a particularly pleasant place to be, and suppose you paid a lot of money to acquire that property and to build a house there.  And then someone like Aaron Swartz comes along and says that even though the property belongs to you, everyone who wants to spend time there should be able to come onto your property and use it as they want.

Would you be upset at that?  I know I would.

JSTOR offers "free" access to its subscribers--free in the sense that there are no predetermined restrictions on the scope and content of what its subscribers may access. But JSTOR exists for a specific purpose that its creators determined:  to provide libraries and institutions with easier, less expensive access to journals than would be possible if each library had to purchase its own subscriptions to those journals.  It is an arrangement to which all of the stakeholders have agreed, including the journals that own the content.

Swartz's unilateral decision was to breach that agreement, to abuse an opportunity for access to obtain as much of the database as he could--much more than he needed for research or educational purposes--and to make that information available to the public for free.  I am struggling to find a word to describe that activity that is not a synonym for "theft."  It is not unfair to prosecute someone for theft that they essentially admitted committing, even if they disagree that it was theft.  And as much as I might like to have free and unfettered access to academic journals--or, as is certainly more prevalent, to the latest Hollywood movies and television programs--the reality is that the cost of accessing these things helps to compensate the people who created them and the people who create the access.  They are performing a valuable social good, and they should be compensated according to the demand for what they make.  Stealing short-circuits that process and eventually deprives us all of that good.

If you can't wrap your head around Swartz's JSTOR problem, here's an alternative that's a bit simpler.  I pay Netflix $8 a month for the right to access as much of their database of movies and television as I'd like to watch.  But suppose that instead of accessing a reasonable amount for my personal use, I continuously download material from Netflix's database and capture it, so that I can make it available to anyone who wanted it for free.  If that were an OK arrangement, how long do you think Netflix would stay in business?  Do you think they would be able to pay for the original material they make?  Maybe we could do without Lilyhammer, but as a fan of Arrested Development I would be more than a little upset.

By all accounts, Aaron Swartz wasn't a bad guy. He was a leading-edge innovator. He was off-the-charts smart. He was passionate about his causes. He was a good guy who did a bad thing.  That meant he might have had to spend some time in jail.  If he killed himself because he couldn't face jail, that's on him, not on the people who were doing their jobs according to the law.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

GC Explains: Debt vs. Deficit

(First in a series.)

I was going to do the first GC Explains on the platinum coin concept ("Mint the Coin"), but that's an advanced topic and I thought we might want to take that in a few pieces instead of all at once.

I frequently hear people using the term "debt" and "deficit," in relation to the federal budget, in confusing ways. They are related but distinct concepts, and it's important to keep them straight if you want to make sense.

The federal budget deficit is the difference between the amount of revenue the federal government raises through taxes, user fees, and other sources--basically, any source of government funds that the government isn't obligated to repay to anyone--and the amount of money the federal government spends, in a single year.  When we spend more than we bring in, that's a deficit. When we spend less than we bring in, that's a surplus.

By contrast, the federal debt, also known as the national debt, is the total amount of money that the federal government owes due to borrowing.

Key concepts:

1. The federal debt was incurred to make up the difference between the total revenues and the total outlays.  That's basically the budget deficits of the past, netted against any surpluses, and all rolled into one number.  The federal debt is what the government owes on its bonds and other obligations.

2. Debt is only one of several tools the government can use to cover budget deficits.  The government can also raise taxes and fees, sell off property, or print money that is worth more than the cost of the materials used (a concept known as "seniorage").  Or it can cut the amount of money that it spends.

3. You aren't responsible for a "share" of the debt.  Politicians and pundits like to say of the federal debt, "That's $X for every many, woman, and child in America." Currently, that number is about $52,000, or about $204,000 for a family of four.  But don't worry--you personally don't owe the money, and no government agent is going to knock on your door one day and ask for the $52,000 you "owe."  The federal debt is a combination of 1-, 2-, 5-, 10-, 15-, and 30-year obligations. When they come due, the government pays them off out of revenues, or (more frequently) it borrows more money and pays off the old bonds, thus gaining more time to pay. Ideally, over time, revenues will rise significantly because of economic growth, or the value of that debt will decline because of inflation.

4. It's really easy for the federal government to borrow money.  In fact, people are falling all over themselves to loan the federal government money right now, at interest rates that are close to zero.  There are a lot of reasons for that, but the most important ones are (1) the federal government is obligated by Constitution to honor the debts it incurs; (2) we have the best economic system in the world (note that I did not say the strongest economy), and we have a long track record of being an economic powerhouse; (3) everybody agrees that U.S. government bonds are the safest investments in the world and that they carry very little risk, because we have always paid our debts in full as they have come due; and (4) we have a lot of natural and man-made resources to put toward generating economic growth that will allow tax revenues to pay off those debts as they come due.

5. Not even the government can spend money it doesn't have. For the government to spend money, it must first have that money, whether it gets it through taxes, user fees, other revenue sources, or borrowing.  If there is a budget deficit, generally speaking, the government must borrow enough to cover that.

Example. In 1982, the federal government spent about $745.7 billion, but it only raised about $617.8 billion in revenues.  For 1982, therefore, the budget had a deficit of about $127.9 billion. To cover that deficit, the U.S. government sold an equal amount in bonds--plus whatever was necessary to pay off bonds that were maturing during that time.  The net increase in the federal debt that year was therefore $127.9 billion.

Did you know? Over the last 50 years, the federal government has run a budget deficit 45 times and has run a surplus 5 times.  Every budget surplus in that time period has been under a Democratic president (one under Lyndon Johnson, and four under Bill Clinton).

Why it matters.  Debt matters mostly because the federal government has an obligation to pay it off at some point and because the federal government has to pay interest on the debt.  Money spent to service (pay interest on) and retire (pay off) debt is money that can't be spent on other things that we'd like to have.  Deficits matter because they contribute to the debt, and because debt matters.  Sometimes the government has good reasons for spending more money than the revenues it takes in--a sluggish economy, a need for infrastructure, a war that needs fighting. Other times, the federal government runs a deficit because the Congress wants to spend money on pet projects and to put off paying for those projects through taxes.  Over the long term, borrowing money is the most expensive way to buy things, so we should encourage Congress to exercise restraint, to keep taxes at appropriate levels, and to avoid spending on credit when it's not necessary.

I hope you understand a bit more about the terms "debt" and "deficit."

Do you have an idea for the next GC Explains?  Please post it in comments.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Blinded by anger

I'm not especially happy about the return of the employee half of Social Security tax to 6.2% instead of the 4.2% level where it had been for about three years.  It doesn't strike me as having been allowed to occur for any good reason.  But let's be honest about its effects.

A comment I read on Facebook:
Sorry for the all-caps, but that's how it was posted.  Let's unpack this a bit.  The person who posted this has just given us his base salary information--if he now pays $25 more per week in SS tax, that must mean he makes $1,250 a week, or $65,000 a year.  Not a huge salary, but not bad, either.  That $25 means he probably doesn't get to take the missus out to Applebees each week.  That's a problem for all of us, because when you multiply the effect of that across everybody who's affected, that's a significant hit to the economy.  I don't blame him for being upset.  Think of the poor uneaten riblets!

But the rest of it doesn't make any sense at all.  If he's an employer--and he may well be--then he is used to paying the "other half" of SS tax.  The SS tax is 12.4% of payroll and has been there since 1986.  (It's capped, of course, at a salary of $113,000 for 2013.)  The employee pays 6.2% and the employer pays 6.2%.  If you're lucky enough to be self-employed, you get to pay both halves.  But for 2011 and 2012, the employee share was reduced to 4.2%.  The employer share was not reduced.

So, when this jackleg complains that he "now [has] to match this tax from all employees," he's just being an idiot.  He never quit having to pay the full 6.2% employer share.  So he doesn't "now" have to match the tax increase.  His outlay is the same as before on a percentage basis.

Maybe I'm being unkind by calling him an idiot, but the all-caps doesn't do him any favors.

Anyway, the money that is raised by this tax increase?  It goes into the Social Security Trust Fund.  It's not spent on congressional raises.  Since SS runs a surplus every year--and will for quite some time--the excess is invested.  Because millions of future retirees will be counting on that money, it has to be invested somewhere safe.  And it's placed in literally the safest investment in the world:  Bonds issued by the United States Treasury, an investment so safe that we would have to amend the Constitution to allow for a legal default.

Good counsel

One of my favorite Supreme Court opinions is the concurrence of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California, an important free speech case from 1927. My favorite paragraph from that opinion is what I believe to be one of the finest explanations of and justifications for the freedom speech that has even been penned.  Justice Brandeis wrote:
Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law -- the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.
274 U.S. 357, 375-76 (1927).  I have seen over the last few years a growing influence of hate in our American society, as well as the way in which that hate menaces stable government, and there are far too many evil counsels and far too few good ones to remedy them.  My hope, in some small way, is to fall into the latter category.  This blog takes its name from what I hope it will be.