Thursday, January 31, 2008

Your tax dollars are coming back to you

Your Federal government is hard at work, making sure you have the right equipment to watch TV when they turn off analog broadcasting next February. From the WSJ:

Consumers can buy set-top converter boxes to make old televisions play digital signals, and Congress has set aside $1.5 billion to help consumers pay for the converters. Consumers who subscribe to cable or satellite services don't have to do anything. Earlier this month, U.S. residents could begin applying for two $40 coupons to help pay for converter boxes, which are expected to sell for about $50 to $70 each. The coupons can be ordered at or (888) DTV-2009.

I would only change one sentence:
Congress has taken $10,000 each from 150,000 taxpayers to ensure continued audiences for soap operas, Oprah!, and American Idol.
which is, of course, one of the enumerated powers of Congress dictated by the Constitution. I'm quite sure it's in there somewhere, if you just look hard enough.

Edit: Those converter boxes might be arriving just in time to sit atop unused TV sets, if this article's prediction is correct:

American TV networks have lost almost a quarter of their audiences because of the Hollywood writers' strike, according to new figures, and executives fear that “orphaned” viewers may never return.

The Nielsen ratings organisation found that US viewership for last week's opening of the 2008 TV season was down 21 per cent compared with the same week last year, when new episodes of hit shows such as Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy were aired.

The article goes on to document the lingering effect of the last writers' strike -- it is estimated that 10% of the network TV audience just never came back. The long-term effect of this idiotic strike will be fewer dollars for everybody -- the networks, the production companies, and, yes, the sainted, long-suffering writers. The writers may or may not get their additional portion, but the pie will undoubtedly be smaller.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bad news from Iraq

Guess what the recent bad news from Iraq was:

Widespread sectarian violence -- nope;
Infiltration by foreign fighters -- sorry;
Lack of a de-Baathification law -- been done;
Roaming death squads -- oops, not that either.

No, the pressing problem harshing Iraqi mellow is ... high housing prices in certain neighborhoods. Headline: Baghdad's housing boom; subhead: With violence down, home prices are up as displaced Iraqis flock back home. For many, however, the cost is too steep.

The horror ... the horror. Some Iraqis cannot live where they want to, due to economic considerations. Others are forced, due to scarcity, to hurry up and make offers on houses in which they're interested. Still others, unable to afford the down payment, actually have to wait and save money before they buy.

(If you're a renter, you may not understand the last paragraph, but if you've bought a home, chances are that you're familiar with some or all of the above. Home buying is a tradeoff in so many areas -- location, timing, price, mortgage rate, condition, neighborhood -- and that's true in the US as well as Iraq. Why the LA Times thinks this is newsworthy at all is beyond me ...)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Uh, Governor Schwarzenegger?

Whenever once and future President Clinton (male) calls, and wants to work on something with you, it may be not such a fine idea.

Today's NSaFI: Getting people out from under the thumb of those nasty payday lenders and check cashers, co-authored by the Governator and President Bill. The check-cashing firms charge fees to turn paychecks into cash, and the payday lenders charge confiscatory interest rates for short-term loans. These are apparently profitable businesses, because there are a lot of them, and therefore they must be destroyed. (Although I do have to give Bill Clinton credit -- he's proposing incentives to get people to use banks, rather than just outlawing the paycheck firms. Hillary would just try to take 'em out with legislation.)

The article cites lots of studies that make ridiculous assumptions -- here's a howler:

And consider that, according to a new Brookings Institution report, as much as $360,000 in pre-tax wealth could be created if the average, full-time unbanked worker invested in the stock market what he will spend over his lifetime paying to cash his paychecks. That would allow one of those workers to finance about 25 years of retirement at his current standard of living.

Yeah, like that's going to happen. That $360,000 will never see the stock market -- it'll go for cigarettes, beer, and lottery tickets. (Not all bad, as the cigarette and beer manufacturers, distributors, and convenience-store clerks need income too. The lottery is just a tax on the poor, which goes into the state treasury to be mostly wasted, but that's another post.)

These businesses serve several legitimate purposes, other than just fleecing the poor as the article contends:
  • The presence of a lot of check cashers and payday loan places means that you're probably in a bad neighborhood, and should not stick around, nor even consider living there. They are everywhere, of course, but they seem to be much more numerous in crime-ridden neighborhoods. If you can see inside the store, and the cashiers are protected by bulletproof glass, then you're probably in a really bad neighborhood.
  • Banks and other financial institutions require lots of steps to open accounts (due, in part, to the post-9/11 USA Patriot rules to prevent money laundering). It's a hassle. There's something to be said for paying the check-cashers' fees just to avoid that hassle. Give the people what they want, and all that.
  • Financial institutions also require valid photo IDs for cash transactions, new accounts, etc. Those who don't have photo IDs which would pass inspection at a bank (hint, illegal aliens undocumented-Americans) have to use the check cashers, who are in effect levying a fee for not having a valid ID. Seems like a win-win situation to me.
I'd never use one of these places myself, but it just doesn't make sense to try to put them out of business.

Edit: El Rushbo talked about this issue in the first hour of the program today, and he got a call from a gentleman who has apparently been blacklisted for 10 years from opening accounts banks, because his ex-wife had bounced too many checks on their (presumably) joint account before his divorce. I'd read about this before, but forgot until I heard this call on the Rush 24-7 podcast. Apparently there is an organization called ChexSystems that acts as a clearinghouse for serial bank-account abusers -- but according to this page, which has information on ChexSystems, the lockout period is supposed to be only five years from the last incident. (In fairness to Rush's caller, if banks told me to FOAD when trying to open an account, I probably wouldn't go back again either.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Peters for President juggernaut thunders on ...

... in today's WSJ (free link): Gas Taxes are High Enough, by Mary E. Peters, US Secretary of Transportation. I'm already behind her run for office, so she didn't need to convince me, but I'm glad to see this kind of reasoned opinion get a broader audience.

One initiative I didn't know about is an attempt to fix I-495, at least in the Virginia section:

Just last month, Virginia announced that it had reached agreement with private investors to construct some of the most sophisticated, variably priced lanes in the world on the Capital Beltway. The symbolism of that project's location should be lost on no one.

Indeed, it is not lost, especially in light of the epic traffic failures endemic to the DC area. Never having lived there, I can only imagine the daily horror of driving there. I've been in the area enough to see two idiocies up close: the HOV-only restriction on Interstate 66 (not some of the lanes -- the whole publicly-funded Interstate highway is restricted to carpools at times); and the enviro-wackiness regarding the Potomac River, specifically the fact that no new bridges can be built across it between Point of Rocks, MD and the Beltway, which just forces ever more Maryland traffic onto the Beltway.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Reading Mark Steyn's America Alone, I came upon the following reference to a topic that never fails to depress me [link added, not in original]:
Photographed from above, the body bags look empty. They seem to lie flat on the ground, and it's only when you peer closer that you realize that that's because the bodies in them are too small to fill the length of the bags. They're children. Row upon row of dead children, over a hundred of them, 150, more, many of them shot in the back as they tried to flee.

It was a picture from the Beslan massacre -- the pupils of a Russian schoolhouse, taken hostage and slaughtered in September 2004.
It's been over three years since this atrocity, and it still occupies a large place in the dark, ugly part of my brain. I can't enter an elementary school gym without thinking about explosives wired to the basketball hoops, all hooked up to a dead-man's switch held by a terrorist. To attack adults is bad enough -- but to intentionally target elementary-school children by the hundreds is evil beyond words. Why any part of the rogue Chechnya province still exists, starting five minutes after their "leader" claimed responsibility for the massacre, is a mystery to me.

I suspect this reaction is due to the fact that I have kids in elementary school. I'm amazed at the amount of security designed into the new elementary school near me. Locked doors are the rule, not the exception, and normal entry to the building is possible only through the front office. The hallways with classrooms can be further isolated from the main building, using alarmed doors. This isn't my old school, for sure -- but then again, when I was in elementary school, the worst thing adults could imagine in an elementary school was chewing gum, not plastic explosives.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I can't find anything I disagree with in John Stossel's column today. He cites the systems that government has created -- in both transportation and organ transplants -- and shows why they don't work. Instead of an outcry against the failed systems, though, all we get is hand-wringing and jealous sniping from the command-and-control types who are inherently suspicious of free-market solutions.

Government is doing such a poor job in so many areas (Social Security, education, energy policy, etc.), but yet there are always those who want to give over more aspects of their lives to government control. I'd seriously appreciate hearing from people who think government is always the best answer -- I just can't wrap my mind around that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Useless Bureaucrats Want You -- To Pay 13% More For The Privilege Of Driving

Transit panel urges 40 cent gas-tax hike

Can't say I'm surprised. A bunch of government "transit experts" sit around in meetings for months, and wind up advocating ... wait for it ... tax increases:

Under the recommendation, the current tax of 18.4 cents per gallon for unleaded gasoline would be increased annually for five years - by anywhere from 5 cents to 8 cents each year - and then indexed to inflation afterward ...

And what do they want to buy with this? Let's critique their wish list:

... to help fix the infrastructure,
Sorry, too generic. We need more details here.
expand public transit
NO! More empty buses, paid for by the drivers who have to sit behind them in traffic, are not the solution! Public transit systems that cannot self-support should be shut down.

and highways
YEAH! That's what I'm talking about. Remember, folks, that freeway lane miles are the most efficient form of transit that exists. Not light rail. Not empty buses. Not van pools. Just miles and miles of beautiful, wide-open concrete!

as well as broaden railway and rural access, ...
BZZZT! Rural areas don't have traffic problems, by definition -- if they had traffic problems, they'd be urban areas.

The report also calls for rebuilding and expanding the national rail network to meet a growing demand for alternatives to congested highways.

Partial credit here. I agree with the idea of offloading freight transport from trucks to rail where it makes sense to do so. If you're transporting stuff from the ship to the warehouse, rail makes some sense -- but how do you get the stuff from the warehouse to each individual store?

Passenger rail, on the other hand ... meh. Just look at Amtrak, which loses money serving beer, and you know all you need to know about the viability of passenger rail in the US.
But the 12-member commission's proposals, which are expected to cost $225 billion each year for the next 50 years, face internal division. The commission's chairwoman, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, and two other members oppose gas tax increases and were issuing a dissenting opinion to the report calling instead for private-sector investment and tolls.
Mrs. Peters, you and your fellow dissidents have my vote in any election in which you choose to run. This is (finally) the right solution -- if a particular piece of road is too congested, then you need to crank the price up on that road at peak times until that congestion is alleviated. That forces each individual driver to make the economic decision as to whether it's worth it to pay that toll; or pick an alternate route, make the trip earlier or later when the toll is less, or change plans to avoid the trip altogether. The toll revenue can then be applied locally, where it can do the most good.

The full commission's recommendation -- a broad, nationwide tax, dumped into the various Federal slush funds, to be allocated to each Congresscritter's pet project back home -- is a non-starter.

Workers of California, rejoice!

Your government has saved you from those mean employers who wouldn't let you take lunch or smoke breaks. The Man can no longer keep you down. The following urgent memo popped up in our time recording system recently:

Effective immediately, all salaried non-exempt and hourly employees in California should be confirming (certifying) that they have taken or waived (if applicable) their meal and rest breaks prior to entering their attendance hours ...

I love the "waived (if applicable)" language -- to save you from The Man, your California government can force you to be at work 9 or 10 hours, so that you get all your breaks in, even if you wanted to work through lunch, take no breaks, and bail 8 hours after you arrive.

The free market, which apparently has just closed up shop in CA, has an elegant solution for this. If you don't like your employer's break policies, find another job; if you don't want to find another job, then you must by definition like your employer's break policy. Either way, there is no role for government here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Car Talk

While researching the links for the previous post, I noticed that Car Talk has entire shows now available for free podcast download; previously, they only made about 10 minutes of their "call of the week" available for free; the full-show download required payment ($2 / month or thereabouts).

And on the subject, in case you didn't notice, the Car Talk guys Tom and Ray provide the voices for the Rust-Eze company representatives in the Disney/Pixar movie Cars. Which I've seen (partially) dozens of times, since I have kids, and they must be entertained at all times ... 8^)

Talking back to "This American Life" - episode #322, Shouting Across the Divide

Over the weekend, I spoke with my pastor about podcasts. He recommended NPR's This American Life (the RSS feed for which can be found here), hosted by Ira Glass. I thought I'd give it a shot, and what follows below is my reaction to it.

I should state up front that I'm not a huge NPR fan, although I do enjoy Car Talk and Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! Both of these programs tilt a bit leftward for my tastes -- although nowhere near as far left as the NPR "news" programs -- but they're mainly entertainment (and as often as not, also educational). I think it's a disgrace that there are still taxpayer subsidies for NPR and PBS at all, in the age of Internet podcasts and streaming audio; satellite radio; and digital radio and TV broadcast, none of which are subsidized to the extent that NPR and PBS are. Left to compete on a level playing field -- and yes, that includes those icky advertisements, not just insufferable pledge drives -- I believe that the left-leaning programs on NPR would be gone in short order, as was Air America. With dozens of choices in the media, I don't believe Americans will pay to hear how much America sucks and is unfair.

Which brings me 'round to the subject of this post. Episode #322 is the story of an American Muslim woman ("Sari") and her family, including 12-year-old daughter "Chloe". "Sari" grew up in the US, married a Palestinian immigrant from the West Bank, lived in New York for a while, and eventually settled in some unnamed East Coast town where the kids could play outside. Life was wonderful.

And then came September 11, 2001. "Sari" and her family started to experience anti-Muslim backlash. People gave her the bird while she was driving in her hijab. Neighbors started looking askance at her. Her car was vandalized, and a note left in it indicating that the family should leave the country. "Sari" tucked the note away in her purse, got the car fixed, and went on with her life as though nothing had happened.


Um, "Sari", some redneck asshat breaks into my ride, I'm on the phone with The Man right now. You know what I'm sayin? The heat? The Five-O? Oh, never mind. Call the frickin' police, dear. That's why they get paid. At the very least, you'll need the police report number to file an insurance claim -- and maybe they'll knock on a few doors and scare the bejeeezus out of whichever redneck neighbor did the deed.

Anyway, after that, life in Unnamed Town settled back down for a few years -- until a few years later, on the anniversary of September 11th. "Chloe's" class was handed a book on the 9/11 attacks, in which it was intimated that Muslims were responsible for the attacks, and that Muslims hated Christians and Jews. (That first bit was also in the 9/11 commission report, BTW, though maybe not stated in a way that fourth-graders could grasp.) When "Sari" complained to the principal about the book, she was told that it was a district-wide reading assignment, and that there was nothing that could be done.


You should have been at the next school board meeting with that book in hand, "Sari". If it turns out that it wasn't a district-wide policy, then the principal is a liar and should lose his Christmas turkey for the year. If it is a district-wide policy, then you casually mention that you're a Muslim, that you've never been to flight school, and that you had no wish to harm any of the Christians and/or Jews in the meeting, and would they please knock off purchasing this kind of crappy book in the future? KTHX. Maybe you win, maybe you lose, but at least you get it out on the table.

Of course, that's the only bad thing that happened, right? Oh, my, no, the rabbit hole deepens ...

"Chloe" starts to take abuse from her classmates, who call her a "Nasty Muslim" and tell her to go back where she came from, etc., etc. In the emo manner of all fourth-grade girls throughout history, "Chloe" decides that long-held beliefs must give way to popularity with the mean girls, and renounces Islam. (It should be noted that such apostasy is grounds for death in a number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, but not in Unnamed Town, and in any event, probably not for 9-year-olds -- yet.) The family declines to celebrate Ramadan that year, and keeps the whole Muslim thing on the down-low. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. The 4th grade teacher, who we'll call Mr. Ned Flanders, declares that the class will read one Christmas book per day in December. "Chloe" is particularly disturbed by the candy cane lesson, in which Mr. Flanders states that the J-shape represents Jesus, and the white and red symbolize Jesus' purity and blood, respectively. (Mr. Flanders apparently does not spend a lot of time on Snopes, but he's probably too pious to let facts stand in the way of a good Christian urban legend.) Net effect of the lesson is that only Christians who believe in the power of Jeeeee-zus will be saved, and all others shall be cast out into the Pit of HELL to BURN!!!

Of course, this does not sit well with "Chloe", who tells "Sari" about it, resulting in a meeting with the principal. The principal agrees, and presumably tells Flanders to tone it down, and we all have a happy Christmas (void where prohibited, your results may vary).

First day back from Christmas Winter Solstice Break, Flanders tells "Chloe" that she needs to transfer to another class, since this one apparently makes her uncomfortable. She runs from the school, gets home, buries herself in her bed, and won't come out. The next day, she returns to school


Why the hell did you let her go back the next day, "Sari"? Obviously, something was wrong, and it probably had to do with school, since that's the place from which "Chloe" fled in such a funk. Think, woman!

Anyway, the next day, "Chloe" heads back into class -- only Flanders has already told the class that "Chloe" is gone, so now everybody's wondering WTF "Chloe" is doing there. "Chloe's" BFF comes to explain the situation, and comfort her, and everything is sorted out.

In the meantime, "Chloe's" siblings reveal that they have been teased by their classmates as well. Shortly thereafter, "Chloe", having transferred to another classroom, tries to hook up with her BFF in the hallway. BFF pretends not to notice "Chloe". Then, in the lunchroom, "Chloe" talks directly with BFF, who, in a gesture of Islamophobic rage ...


"Chloe" is devastated. She drops out of school. The district pays for a tutor for "Chloe" for the rest of the year. The Justice Department (!) gets called in, spanks the district hard on the backside (diversity training! performance goals and oversight of Mr. Flanders!), and the school is once again declared safe for humanity.

Well, that just wasn't good enough. "Sari" sought a transfer to another school in the district, but, though they searched every building, officials were unable to absolutely guarantee that no elementary school child in any building would not act like elementary school children do, and that "Chloe" would never be teased again. That left just one choice -- they had to move. They were forced to leave.


Uh, "Sari", you're a stay-at-home mom -- ever heard of homeschooling? Or maybe you could get a job, and pay for private school tuition? The public schools do not yet have the sole right to educate your children, dear. This is America. Nobody forces you to do anything (except pay taxes upon fear of imprisonment or confiscation of property, but that's a different post.)

But the move didn't come without a cost. The husband, Mr. Wonderful West Bank, wanted to move the family back to the garden spot from which he had barely escaped with his life. "Sari" called bullshit, so Mr. WB took off, leaving her as a single mother with five kids, and presumably no child support checks with a Palestinian return address.

So the story ends with "Sari" working two jobs, never seeing her five (!) kids, and asking them to write her letters about their day, which she reads late at night through a puddle of tears.

OBTW, in one quote, "Sari" says "I have to believe this [how the family was treated] was a fluke.". Then she turns around and says "It's a sign of our times. It's happening all across America ... We hear stories of different things going on, in schools and places of employment ..."


No, dear. You are alive, and you are still free to make your own choices, and your kids are healthy. Just because your life sucked for a while, it does not mean that America sucks.

Oh, and Ira, and NPR in general, just because you can find one sob story, caused by public school idiocy and kids being cruel, does not mean that America sucks.