Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!

What better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than with giving your wife a Kalashnikitty T-shirt! (Thanks Eric, perfect delivery time!) Yes, she received the flowers too (she said she only wanted flowers, but I know better), and we already had the Saiga. Our next mission will be to take photos of us in the Kalashnikitty T-shirts at the Hello Kitty Ferris Wheel in Kaohsiung, Taiwan!

If you're interested in getting your own Kalashnikitty T-shirt, Eric sells them 3-4 times a year, so I'll let you know when to email him next.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Shooting Range Trip

Yesterday, my wife kicked me out of the house. OK, she didn't kick me out, just when I suggested I go shooting, she was more than happy to let me go. She had a surprise she wanted to prepare for me and it was easier to do with me gone. So I developed a plan in my mind. I had a series of things to do to work on some shooting skills.

1) Shoot hand thrown clays with the single shot 20 gauge. I shot clays for the first time over Thanksgiving and found out that my skills at "Duck Hunt" don't transfer over so well. So much for video games "honing" my killing instincts. I figured hand tossing them would be easier to get my tracking/leading skills practiced so I can impress my brothers the next time we shoot clays. Plus, I didn't want to have to reset the clay thrower each time.

2) Try out the CZ-82 that I just obtained. This was dependent on the store having Makarov ammunition.

3) Test out the bore sighter I recently purchased using the Saiga 7.62 and Highpoint 9mm Carbine.

4) Shoot the crap out of an old computer case filled with stuffed animals. The computer case is from our old computer in which I sold off all of the components and probably made 25% more than just selling the computer (Ebay is great!). The stuffed animals were once my kids. I intend to use most of them for the cannon, but after practicing with the cannon in January, one stuffed animal can survive multiple flights! So I combined these two. Computer case with stuffed animals.

So, I loaded up the car and I was off. There is lots of snow on the ground and it was just below freezing. Good day to go to the range, mainly because no one is there. The one I went to is about 25 minutes from my house and off the beaten path. There is usually not much traffic to bother you and on cold days there is usually not many others. As I drove past the rifle and pistol range towards the shotgun range, I saw no cars parked. Good sign. No one was at the shotgun range either.

Now, my first fear was getting stuck in the snow of the gravel lot. The road in had nicely packed snow which allowed me to drive comfortably at 50 mph, normally without the packed snow I can only do 35 mph. However, since the parking lot for the range had so little usage, there was only tire tracks in the 4 to 8 inch deep snow. In fact, I think I saw my tire tracks from when I was here last month. So I began by doing some donuts, peeling out quite a bit and generally clearing the area so that I would have an easier time of going forward from a stop. Then I carefully backed into a spot.

It was looking good. I opened the back door and carried my box of clays to one of the shotgun positions. All I needed now was the 20 gauge and the shells which were locked in my trunk. One thing to understand here is my car is 18 years old. The automatic trunk release did not work when I bought the car 8 years ago. In the last year or two, the trunk has remained stuck shut even when the key turns and the proper application of mechanical force needs to be applied to open it while maintaining the key in the "Open" position. So when I turned the key and it was stuck I expected this. I applied the proper force and the trunk opened.

I did have a sick feeling, and as I looked at the keys in my hand, my fear had been realized. The key had broken off in the lock. But at least the trunk was open! I did mention before on JayG's blog that I don't have a cell phone. When asked what I would do if I was stranded somewhere, I said I would walk (sort of like what they did for the last 500,000 years of human history).

I stood for a moment and had a quandry. As I mentioned before, the shooting range is rather remote and it could be a while before someone drove by (no one was going to be stopping though). I could start with my shooting plan and then flag a car down or I could start walking. I decided that it would be most responsible to do the shooting first and then worry about a ride home. After all, there were around 2-3 thousand rounds of ammunition and a half dozen firearms. So, if I was going to have to abandon the car, (I wasn't going to trek down the road with a couple of rifles and shotgun slung over my back and some pistols in my belt) it would be best to use up the ammunition so that on the unlikely chance that some miscreant did decide to wonder out into the boonies, break into my car, and steal some firearms, he'd still have to stop at WalMart to buy ammunition. Besides, I could always remove the bolts, slides, and cylinders and the firearms would be pretty useless (and that is a lot less weight to carry).

I pulled out the 20 gauge and a box of shells and headed over to the shooting station. I had decided to use the single shot, since it was very light so I could comfortably have it ready with one hand, and I bought it for $35 so if it got ruined in the snow, it is not a great loss. I may just abuse the thing one day to see what extent I can take it and it will still fire. I don't like to see guns destroyed (that is one of the saddest things to see on Mythbusters), so I don't plan on it any time soon.

I was using #7 steel shot (because that is what I had in the ammo cabinet - yes, I have an ammunition cabinet, it also happens to be the gasoline, motor oil, and any other flammable/explosive stuff cabinet that I don't want the kids to easily get their hands on). The trick with shooting clays is to line the barrel up with where the clay is going to be when they meet. Unlike what you may have learned from Hollywood, a shotgun does not throw up an impenetrable curtain of lead. A good rule of thumb is that the shot will spread about 1" for every yard. I estimate that I was throwing the clays about 10 yards in the air and out another 10 yards so depending on where I took my shot, I had a spread of 10-15".

What can make shooting clays difficult is that they are moving in three dimensions (and if you think about it, so is the shot). If the clay is still rising, you want to be pointing slightly above it, if the clay is falling you want to aim below it. Add to this a horizontal movement factor and that if as the angle the shotgun to the ground increases (i.e. pointing more upward), you need to compensate by pointing more above the target.

Mathematics wise, I can figure out the ballistics on paper, the reason why I am not competing in the Olympics is because you have to put that in practice, and you don't have to know jack about math to get into the Olympics. Practicing worked well. I was hitting about 2/3 of them and even had a string of 6 with no misses. It is very satisfying to see clays explode into dust. You definitely know when you have hit them.

While I was going through the first box of shells, a truck started coming down the road. I set the shotgun down and ran out to the road. (It is usually not a good idea, especially in rural parts of the country to run at vehicles while holding a firearm.) The man was nice enough to let me use his cell phone and my wife said she could be out there in an hour or so. We chatted briefly and he went on his way while I went back to practicing.

After a box of shells, I would go out on the range and pick up unbroken clays (no sense in leaving them out there without having served their purpose). Then start a new box. After two and a half boxes (about 65 rounds) I had made it through half of the box clays (about 45). I still had 10 rounds left and decided to try something different. I had a computer power supply with a big long strand of cords. The cords made a great handle to throw and I shot that a few times. Birdshot doesn't go through the metal case.

After finishing off all of the shotgun ammunition I had brought, I had another dilemma. I couldn't drive down to the rifle and shotgun range, and I had at least another 45 minutes until my wife got there. To wait in the car would be really boring (since there was no key to start the radio). So I made a compromise. You're not suppose to use rifles and pistols at the shotgun range (hence the name "Shotgun Range"), however, I was in dire circumstances. So I made a compromise. I decided I would only use the revolver (that way there would be no brass flying everywhere).

So I set up the computer case and started plinking away. I was using a European Arms Bounty Hunter .22 LR Single Action revolver. It has fixed sights. I was very pleased with how accurate it was (even with bulk ammunition). I was able to make a 1 inch group of six at about 7 yards.

Also, the ammunition wasn't penetrating the computer case (except after multiple hits in the same location. The baked on coating did make for a decent shoot & see target as the dark gray enamel would be chipped off, leaving a shiny dent. I went through about 150 rounds until my wife got there and was able to practice two handed (isosceles and weaver), strong hand, weak hand, point shooting, and rapid fire (which is fun with a single action). With the key from my wife, I decided to come home. I'll just have to save the computer case with plush toys for another day.

Turns out, she left the cheesecake recipe lying out which I saw as I washed my hands. When she asked after dinner and revealed her cheesecake if I was surprised, I had to admit that I saw the recipe lying out. She was mad (she has been trying so hard all of our marriage to surprise me).

Friday, February 12, 2010

OMG! It's a Threat to National Security!

All right, this threat to national security is getting to be a little boy who cried wolfish. Michelle Obama recently stated that "childhood obesity" was a threat to national security. Well, I guess it is in good company. I would have never thought that some of these were threats to national security:

With all of these, one has to wonder what ISN'T a threat to national security? And who gets to be the final arbiter of what is and isn't? Perhaps we need a "Threat to National Security Czar" to sort it all out. Maybe we need a standardized definition of what a "threat to national security" is? Of course, if we did that most of the boogey-men would go away.

I am just going to start laughing at anyone that mentions "threat to national security." If anything can be construed as one, then the phrase is meaningless and just being used to scare people into action. It only took about 50 years of using the race card before it became meaningless. The national security card has bested that by becoming meaningless in less than 10 years. What's next?

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Federal Budget - Federal Debt

This is one of a series. For the other parts click on the links below:

The Federal Budget - Social Security and Medicare
The Federal Budget - My Budget

Debt is a big word in this country. Right now we are sitting on $12.5 trillion of actual debt (and another $10-20 trillion of defined benefit debt based on current law). Back in the 80's and 90's there was talk of cutting the debt in half. Now all we hear about is cutting the deficit in half. So let's start by defining those terms.

DEBT - the amount of money that the US owes.
DEFICIT or SURPLUS - the difference between receipts and outlays for a given fiscal year.

Now, some people think that the DEBT is calculated by adding up all of the DEFICITS (or SURPLUSES). If you are one of those, you would be wrong. That is because the DEBT is composed of two parts: public and intragovernmental. The PUBLIC DEBT is debt instruments that are held by parties outside of the federal government: Savings Bonds, Treasury Bills, etc. The PUBLIC DEBT is held by corporations, foreign governments, and individuals (like me and you). Pretty much anyone or organization in the world can buy PUBLIC DEBT.

INTRAGOVERNMENTAL DEBT are debt instruments held by other government controlled entities (like the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds). Basically, excess receipts (above what is paid out for the year) in the government trust funds is loaned to the government (yes the same government), and in return a trust fund bond is received. Governments can do this since they have the power to print/create money. You and I and every corporation out there would go to jail for fraud if we tried such a thing with our trust funds.

So how would this look in the real world. Let's say I make a promise to my kids to pay for their college. I get a job delivering pizzas to get the extra money. And, I get a piggy bank for them and put $9,000 in it a year (all of the pizza money is earmarked for my kids college). Since they don't have any college expenses right now, I then borrow that $9,000 from their piggy bank and put a piece of paper that says I will pay them back $9,000 +3% each year in interest. I have basically created $9,000 of INTRAFAMILY DEBT.

Let's go back to the DEBT and the DEFICIT/SURPLUS principle for a minute. Each year the big thing to talk about is the DEFICIT - mainly because the DEFICIT has gotten so large that it eclipse's the DEBT of the 80's (in 1984 the DEBT was $1.56 trillion, in 2010 the DEFICIT is projected to be $1.55 trillion). The goal Obama has proposed is to cut the DEFICIT in half, which would still make it larger than any year except Bush's last year budget (2009). DEFICITs have become the natural state of the American Government.

But what about Clinton's Surplus (or the Republican Congress' Surplus depending on how you look at it)? Again lets go to the definition. The SURPLUS happened because the US had less outlays than receipts. Now, in our personal world, we look at oulays and receipts as expenses and income (or revenue). This is where it gets a little hazy. The government (by law) has promised money to certain trust funds (for instance SS) and in some cases has even set aside taxes which (by law) can only be used for those trust funds. These taxes are part of the receipts. However, the excess for the year from the trust funds is loaned to the government (by law) and can then be used for whatever spending is wanted.

During Clinton's second term, the budgets showed a SURPLUS (less outlays than receipts) each year (1998-2001: I include 2001 since the fiscal year starts in October of the previous year). However, the DEBT went up, because a portion of the outlays were "financed" with the excess money of the governmental trust funds. In other words, the PUBLIC DEBT (selling of Treasuries and Savings Bonds) may have gone down, but the INTRAGOVERMENTAL DEBT (SS Bonds) went up by more than the PUBLIC DEBT went down. Hence, total DEBT still went up. In fact, total DEBT has gone up every year since 1940 except 5 ('47, '48, '51, '56, and '69).

How would this look in real life? Let's go back to our example. We'll assume that I have a $75,000 home loan and $45,000 of IOUs in my kids piggy bank (a total of $120,000), and I bring in $22,000 a year ($9,000 from pizza money and $13,000 from my regular job). My first kid just started college and needs $8,000 a year. So, I pay that and borrow the other $1,000 (increasing my IOUs to $46,000). This gives me with $14,000 ($13,000 + $1,000) to spend freely. If it was a Clinton year, I would only spend $13,500. So total outlays was $8,000 + $13,500 = $21,500. Therefore, I have a SURPLUS of $500 which I then apply to the home loan. So my total DEBT is now $75,000 - $500 + $46,000 = $120,500. Even though I had a "SURPLUS," my total DEBT went up because for accounting I am mingling the promised college fund (i.e. Social Security and other trust funds) with my regular finances (the rest of the budget).

Unfortunately, this is an Obama year, so the result is much different. Kid still needs $8,000, I still borrow the extra $1,000. However, I also need to take out a home equity loan of $17,000 to finance the remodeling that I am doing. So, at the end of the year I have receipts of $22,000 and outlays of $39,000 ($8,000 + $1,000 + $13,000 + $17,000). A DEFICIT of $17,000, although our total DEBT went up by $18,000 ($17,000 + $1,000). And if you want to have my numbers more closely reflect reality, just add seven 0's on to each one.

Now, can you really count the IOUs in my kids' college fund as debt? If you want to argue that no, it is fake anyway then look at the consequences. I tell my kids I am welching on the promise and they get all huffy. Since I am there dad, they can't get rid of me, however, they do eventually go off to college and work their tails off to pay for it. They don't ever trust me again, particularly with money matters and come to visit on the occasional Thanksgiving or Christmas. I grow old, and spend my lonely last years in a retirement home because my kids don't really like me and aren't going to pay for some nicer digs.

OK, so what about from a government standpoint. In theory, the government can just do away with the trust funds and make all of those IOUs worthless. In practice though, you would have to get 218 Congressmen, 60 senators, and a president to go along with it. None of these people would ever have a glimmer of ever holding public office again, and more than likely would face death threats if not actual assassination attempts (people get a little crazy when you take away their duely "earned income.") The chances of that happening are 0.

So what is going to happen? Well, when the second child goes off to college and I now need $16,000 a year, I can always get another job delivering pizzas. Except that there isn't not enough demand for that and all of the prime pizza delivering time is already being taken up by my 1st pizza delivery job. So eventually, I am going to have to start using my regular income. But we have already shown that is not enough, and so I'll have to take out another home equity loan.

Of course the bank isn't going to lend me money forever (just like investors will eventually stop buying US debt). At some point, they will say that my house isn't worth the risk of another loan. For them it is easy, they have a tangible point. For the real world, there is no known value that people will stop buying US debt, however, it is there somewhere as the debt grows faster than the economy, we get closer to it.

When that happens, the government still has another trick up its sleeve that I don't. It can print money. Now, with my laser printer and the right paper I could make an approximate facsimile of US currency and might even pass it off to the colleges as real money (kids DON'T try this at home - it is called counterfeiting and is illegal). Of course once they find out, the game is up and if they don't throw me in jail the minimum the college will accept is a certified bank transfer.

When the government continuously adds money to the supply, the hoi poloi eventually get nervous and inflation can happen. Rampant inflation. Not the late 70's type of inflation. We're talking Weimar Republic inflation right before its demise. Or Zimbabwe inflation. It is really the financial death spiral of a government. The paper money becomes nearly worthless, so more of it is printed until it gets to the point that the paper itself is worth more than the amount denominated on it. Lots of bad things can happen during this time.

So, let me introduce a term I made up: CUMULATIVE PRIVATE DECREMENT. The cumulative private decrement is a measure of the sustainable level of public debt (I exclude intragovernmental debt because it would make it look so much worse and all intragovernmental debt is funded by the private sector in the end). The % Private Decrement is first calculated by adjusting the % change in publically held debt and the % change in private GDP (GDP - government spending). The cumulative value is then added over a given period of time. I chose 1950 as my starting point since the budget figures for debt start in 1940 and I didn't want to start in the middle of a war (it tends to make the numbers look a lot worse since there is always massive spending during a war).

Basically, what this means (if I did my math right) is that public debt has increased 465% more than the economy as a whole has since 1950 (and really since 1970). From 1950 to 1970, debt growth was actually slightly less than the growth of the economy. This is sustainable. A government can increase its debt indefinitely as long as the means to service that debt (growth of the private sector) is also increasing at the same or faster rate. However, since 1970 the US has steadily increased its public debt at a rate that exceeds the economic growth of the private sector. The disappointing part is that the budget outlook for the next five years continues this trend. Public debt is expected to increase faster than private GDP. In other words, the situation is only going to get worse. And that's before you add in my less rosy predictions from The Federal Budget - Spending Projections.

Where the tipping point is, I don't know. I don't have plans to sell off the US Savings Bonds that I have. Then again, I don't have any plans to buy more in the immediate future either.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Brown Truck O' Goodness!

The Brown Truck O' Goodness (read UPS) came today. In it was a nice brown 2nd day air package addressed to me, that required an adult signature. And inside was the black steel of a CZ-82. Fully functional, with two twelve round magazines. And I didn't sign it.

For those who don't know, I obtained my FFL C&R License last year. As such I am legally allowed to buy certain firearms online and have them delivered right to my front door. The C&R License came about as a result of the 1968 gun control act. Basically, before 1968 there was not much regulation of firearms dealers. Anyone could open a Sears catalog and buy the firearm of their choosing and have it shipped to them. The 1968 gun control act instituted the licensing scheme we have now.

So to sell firearms you need one type of license, however for collectors (such as myself) they created the Curios and Relics license. This license allows us to purchase firearms off of the Curios and Relics list (in a nutshell firearms over 50 years old), without having to go through another licensed dealer (which would increase the cost of the firearm). As such, we have to submit to a background check and are subject to inspections (not more than once per year) by the ATF.

The great thing about C&R firearms is there are so many of them (and perfectly functional too). One of the things that the Russians and Germans were good at (particularly when they had planned socialist economies - yes the Nazi's were socialists) is producing far more firearms than they could possibly use. The CZ-82 is the Czech version of the Soviet Makarov. It was produced up until shortly after the end of the Cold War.

An important part of having the C&R is it allows you to buy handguns across state lines. Without one you would only be able to buy them within the state that you reside. By being able to buy across state lines you are able to shop around and get the best price. That is free market capitalism (buying and selling communist guns), although it is rather disappointing that you need a license to engage in it.

Another "stick it to the man" point is with a C&R License you are able to bypass certain state laws. For instance, where I live you need a "Pistol Purchase Permit" to buy a handgun. However, for C&R guns since it falls under Federal Law, you don't need one when using your C&R License.

In semi-related news, my wife received her passport as well. It is a lot thicker than mine, although mostly because the jacket is triple thickness to have room for the microchip that is in it. We are wondering though why they didn't send her birth certificate back with the passport. In case you didn't know, when you apply for a passport you have to send in your original (or a certified copy) of your birth certificate. It is a little unnerving not having a clue where your birth certificate has wound up. If it isn't here by the end of the week, we are going to have to raise some Cain.

So there you have it, because of our gloriously efficient government I can have fully functional firearms shipped to my front door and they get the privilege of losing a primary form of identification (that most identity criminals would pay money for)!

UPDATE: The birth certificate came today. At first I thought maybe the application went to one center and the birth certificate went to another (you know, so that you could create more jobs). Nope. Both came from the same place. The passport came Priority Mail, the birth certificate came First Class.

The Federal Budget - Spending Projections

This is one of a series. For the other parts click on the links below:

The Federal Budget - An Introduction
The Federal Budget - Federal Debt
The Federal Budget - Social Security and Medicare
The Federal Budget - My Budget

Projections of receipts and outlays are usually done for five years (plus the current year in progress) for each budget report. There are some hunches that I have about the projections based on my theory of government and bureaucracy. For this, I gathered together the projections from the last 10 years of budgets (2000-2009).

1) The receipt projections will be higher than actual receipts.

This is relatively easy to show. On average, the 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 year estimates were 4% to 6% higher than the actual amounts. The current year estimate is about 0%. This makes sense, during the current year, you have a much better idea of the economic situation and revenue (tax receipts) is a fairly good correlation to the economic situation since 90% of receipts are from corporate and individual income taxes or social security taxes. Whereas it is difficult to predict booms and busts 5 years and even 1 year in the future.

2) The outlay projections will be lower than actual outlays.

This is also relatively easy to show. Estimates of outlays start at 10% under actual 5 years out and slowly decrease to 2% above actual in the current year. In other words, politicians get cold feet on a small portion of their spending during the current year as they are hammered about deficit spending.

An additional tidbit is that politicians tend to be overly optimistic on both ends, but consistently so on outlays. For the 50 estimates (10 years x 5 year outlook), 28 receipts were optimistic (predicting more receipts than actual). The difference is in the magnitude though. Optimistic predictions averaged 14% (i.e. they estimated 14% more receipts than actual) while pessimistic predictions averaged only 7%. On the flip side, only 3 of 50 estimates for outlays were optimistic (i.e. less outlays than actual) with an average of 3%. The pessimistic estimates were off by 8%.

The graph below shows the average receipt and outlay differences and their cumulative effect on the deficit predictions. Negative values indicate that the estimate was less than actual.

Now that I have a rough idea of how the projections have worked historically, I can make my own estimates of how the future budgets will look. So, I added up the FY11 budget deficits (the difference between receipts and outlays) and found that for 2010 through 2015 there is a projected total deficit of $5.8 trillion. Compare that to my guesstimate of $7.7 trillion without a year below $1 trillion. This is done by adjusting the budget estimate by the average difference that was found for the previous 10 years. Its not rocket science.








One last point is to look at the rosiness of the projections. Politicians don't want to say that the economy is going to be in the dumps for 5 years, so every budget that comes out may have it declining for a year if we are in a recession, but then it snaps back better than ever. 2009 saw a year over year change in receipts to the federal government of -17%. 2010 is projected to change by 3% and then 2011 is estimated to increase by 19% (i.e. 2011 will bring in 1/5 more money into federal coffers than 2010) and then by another 14%in 2012 . How realistic is this? Well, in the last 50 years it has happened once 1977-78 (19% and 12%) and 1969 it went up by 22%. This time, the budget expects it to happen during the same time as a major tax increase (or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts). How has the receipts of the country faired with major tax increases to dramatically increase revenue? Well, 1993-94 revenue increased an average of 7.5% each year, 1991-92 revenue increased an average of 4.5%, 1942-43 revenue increased an average of 66%, 1936-37 revenue increased an average of 23%, 1932-33 revenue decreased 21%, and 1917-18 revenue increased an average of 135%.

So, it appears that in times of a World War, raising taxes will increase revenue (of course if you look at the size of the tax increases during those times, they far outstripped any tax hike we have now). However, other issues were in play as well. In World War I, the income tax was new and it was relatively easy to include a whole bunch of the population that previously had not been paying taxes into the tax system under the guise of patriotism. In World War II, the Social Security taxes were just ramping up and people are more willing to pay taxes to finance a war. Other than that, major tax increases have only had moderate effect (nothing close to the 16.5% average that is estimated in 2011-12). In fact, based on the 1932-33 numbers, this tax increase could result in a large decrease in revenue.

In conclusion, the spending projections (and accompanying receipt projections) are a fantasy. They only faintly resemble reality, but that is what is used to make promises of "X billion invested over the next X years." In the end, a current Congress cannot bind a future Congress to do anything.

The Federal Budget - An Introduction

With the FY11 budget coming it I thought I would do a blog about it. After looking it over, I decided to divide it into a series of blogs. So here are links to the four parts:

The Federal Budget - Spending Projections
The Federal Budget - Federal Debt
The Federal Budget - Social Security and Medicare
The Federal Budget - My Budget!

The first thing to understand about the budgeting process for the federal government is that it isn't anything like budgeting for a company or yourself. Definitions of terms are very important. So I'll try to define them as I go through. Some may argue that the budgeting process is designed to hide what politicians don't want us to see. This assumes that the federal bureaucracy is an calculating, efficient, well-oiled machine! This flies in the face of everything we see the federal bureaucracy (or any bureaucracy) do for that matter.

I am a firm believer in the idea that the government and its bureaucracy is slow, dim-witted, and wholly inefficient. Furthermore, I would postulate that this is exactly the way that the founding fathers intended. As such the government is incapable of "hiding" information from us. The best it can do is obscure it with their bumbling. They can't even do this very well.

Frankly, the two areas of government (politicians and bureaucrats) have competing interests based on a similar goal. Politicians, by and large, want to be re-elected (job security) and must hide information from the public that would hinder their ability to be re-elected. Bureaucrats want to keep their jobs, and in so doing must produce something to justify it. Their products (i.e. reports) invariably have the exact information that some politician doesn't want you to have. It may not be in the most convenient format, and it may be rather redundant (hence production of even more reports of the same, ergo job security).

The annual Budget Report is a perfect example of this. Year to year, probably about 50-75% of the report is identical. Once you get back to the historical tables (where comparisons can actually be made), you find that the same information is repeated about 30 different ways. And most of those show the complete ineptitude of the federal government.

Why is the federal government so inept and how can we make it efficient? Well, that assumes that you want it efficient in the first place. As I said previously, our federal government was designed to be slow and inefficient. The Founding Fathers did not want to have power focused at the federal level, but rather at the state level. As such, they gave a limited set of powers to the federal government. All others were reserved for the states or the people (note not given; rights can be delegated to a government by people; government gets all power from the people and therefore has no ability to take away rights, only infringe them; this is true for all governments throughout the world, those people who knowingly accept the infringements of their government are accomplices to it).

For about 100 years, the states guarded their powers jealously from the federal government. Unfortunately, through times of crises like the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, those powers were ceded to the federal government by the states. This then increased both the amount of federal spending and the amount of federal taxation.

How we fund our government has radically changed. When the Income Tax amendment was passed one of the arguments for it is that it would only affect the rich (doesn't that sound familiar). When Social Security was enacted, it wasn't targeted to the entire population, only a small subset (the rich and their employees). In the last 75 years, how we fund our government has radically changed.

Based on the OMB historical numbers, in 1934 more than 70% of the government's receipt were through excise taxes, gift and estate taxes, and customs duties (except for estate taxes, all voluntary activities that one could choose to participate in). Approximately 15% of the government receipts were from individuals in the form of income taxes and social insurance or retirement taxes. By 1970, those roles had been reversed and in 2009, more than 80% of government receipts are from individuals and less than 8% are in the form of excise taxes, gift and estate taxes, and customs duties.

So read on in the series to see my thoughts about the federal budget.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vocabulary Fun!

The English language is great. It has more words than any other language on earth. There are rules that are routinely broken. And the language is constantly in flux. Add to that the richness of idioms and "Bob's your uncle!" you have expressions that are non-sensical the majority of English speakers, but make perfect sense to small segments of the population.

I never did like learning about English. It was the most mind numbing subject I had in school. Unfortunately, going to public school I had to have English each and every year all the way through high school (thank goodness I tested out of all English classes for college). As such, I worked to have fun in English.

It started in 4th grade. I remember for one extra credit assignment we were given a list of 30 some odd words and told to see how many we could use in a single sentence. Not paragraph, sentence. Oh yeah, and the sentence had to make sense. That was my kind of assignment. Basically, the teacher has challenged me with something that cannot be done. So, having a problem with authority figures, I set out to prove him wrong. And I did. It took me about an hour to formulate the words into a sentence (we could use extra words like articles and conjunctions just no extra "substantive" words), but I did it. It was a monstrosity of a sentence that definitely could be divided up into multiple sentences, but it made logical sense and used all of the words.

Boredom in English class followed me throughout middle school. In seventh grade I remember writing a report entirely from the perspective a lamppost. Probably much to my teacher's chagrin, I used creative writing as an outlet. Yeah, I could be given a creative writing assignment and be completed with it in 10 minutes. And frequently they were over the top. The kind of stuff that if you put them all together you would swear that I had schizophrenia. Not only that, I was very prodigious in my work. Where someone would be satisfied with 5 pages, I would turn in an assignment that was 10 pages.

In eighth and ninth grade I had a class "Autonomous Learner" that was perfect for my attitude. Basically, we got to learn about what we wanted for the semester. Each student presented a plan to the teacher at the beginning of the semester and then we got to run with it for the semester. I'm not sure what other projects I did but one was on Iraq and the other was about DisneyWorld (can you see the schizophrenia?).

The report on Iraq was written the semester before they invaded Kuwait, and it in I predicted that they would invade Kuwait. Now before you thing I am some sort of national security genius, there were a lot of people predicting that Iraq would invade Kuwait. Reviewing over the news sources available at the time gave all the facts one needed to draw that conclusion. I followed this up with a riveting short story about the US ambassador to Kuwait having his daughter kidnapped by the Iraqi Republican Guard. The DisneyWorld semester was not near as exciting, but I know far more about DisneyWorld than I ever thought possible.

I'm not sure my 10th grade English teacher knew what to do with me. The one piece of writing that stuck out was a Japanese Epic about the descendent of a ninja who must return to his roots in order to save the world. The girl that I traded stories with to grade (she read mine and I read hers), was not at all impressed. In fact, she didn't understand it at all. That's OK, I didn't understand hers. In World History, she also didn't understand how my friend and I (who were playing the role of Israel) were able to conquer the entire Middle East (minus Egypt because they played nice), all while the students playing the part of the Americans were trying to decide whether to come to the aid of Israel after we took a pre-emptive strike. It was a risk like game that our teacher had made up complete with 4 ft x 8 ft game board.

Anyway, later in high school I would definitely reach an apex. In the Bible Belt of Oklahoma, one of my first English writing assignments included a requirement to include a reference of religious literature (aka Bible - it was unspoken but clearly understood that is what the teacher meant). Again, having the problem with authority that I do, I decided to outdo myself. I included references from the Torah, New Testament, Koran, Book of Mormon, Bagavad Gita, a saying of Confucius, and a Navajo legend. I mentioned to the teacher that there were at least a dozen other references I could have used, but felt that they were too esoteric. No other assignment that year required a religious literature reference. Not sure if that was by design or because of my turpitude.

Twelfth grade saw an explosion of writings. At one point a friend of mine had collected all of them into a binder as the pre-cursor of a book. They involved everything from ramblings of a drug crazed insomniac, to the description of a Pyrrhic battle between a troll and an ogre, to poetry that described what the underlying meaning of the peom was (there was none - which is what the closing line said). My favorites though, were for the asinine books we had to read. Jane Eyre is the only one that comes to mind (probably since I have blocked the memories of the others out of my mind). I never read Jane Eyre. I admit it. I couldn't even get through the Cliff Notes on it. I did however write a fantastic report "The Roller-Blade Conspiracy." It was a detailed account (from a first person perspective) on how some of my friends had colluded to keep me from reading the book so that I would fail. The teacher loved it and even read it in class. Alas, since I didn't do the actual assignment, I still got an F.

The pinnacle of my writing for the year was near the end of the year. We had been reading (in my case casually glancing over) "great" works of literature throughout the year. Now it was our turn to do a juxtaposition of three pieces of art. They could be any medium of art: music, movies, books, sculptures, etc. Our assignment was to identify similar themes between them and describe how those could be interrelated. We had about a month to work on it. After two weeks we had to turn in an outline to our teacher. I'll admit again, I procrastinated until the period before (not the day before, the class before). During Biology while the instructor was going over the ADP cycle of energy production, I wrote up my outline.

My three works of art were: 1) the book "Cardinal in the Kremlin" by Tom Clancy, 2) the movie "Dave", and the song "Blood on Blood" by Bon Jovi. From the description above, you might guess that a lot of thought was meant to be put into selecting "art" that was related. I basically wanted to prove the point that looking for symbolism and themes was worthless, since the descriptions and ideas that constituted one's analysis were so amorphous that they could reliably be applied to just about anything. The reason I chose the three was, I had just finished reading the book, the movie was the most recent movie I had seen, and I love Bon Jovi so included one of my favorite songs that I don't think was ever released as a single.

My teacher was skeptical to say the least of my outline, but let me proceed. True to form, the night before the report was due, I wrote it. The entire thing. And I still was in bed by midnight. And this was in the days before the internet could be used for research. My report ended up being 5 pages longer than the next longest report. I'm not sure if the teacher read it or just weighed it and assumed there must be some substance to it. But I received an A+! (Which probably helped me pass that class).

Now, in spite of not having English in college, I still had plenty of opportunities to have fun. I remember one activity I was at where we were writing stories en masse. Basically, for 2 minutes (or five minutes) you write a story and then pass on the paper to the next person to continue on the story, and on, and on ... It was rather humorous because we were sitting boy-girl-boy-girl and by coincidence most of the girls were liberal arts, education or business majors and all of the guys except one were engineering or computer science majors. Without coordinating our efforts, the guys managed to sabotage the frilly love stories that the girls started with and confuse them with our technical jargon about nuclear reactor theory and the operation of MOSFETs. It was a blast to read the stories out loud in the end.

The crowning writing achievement of my college career took place in my final semester. It was senior project and because of when I graduated, I got stuck on a project I didn't want. So I picked the team that was most applicable across other industries: fasteners. I already knew a lot about fasteners as I had become the "thread expert" at work (threads as in screws, nuts, and bolts). Now, most of the senior project reports were made up of 5-6 teams and entailed a final report that was about 200-300 pages long. At the mid-term, our fastener team dropped off our copy of the fastener section to the team lead. He asked how long it was (hoping for somewhere around 20 pages). "67 pages, without the charts and graphs that go in the appendix." His mouth dropped open and then he said, "You guys wrote 67 pages about screws?" Yep, and that was only the half of it.

My wife was due to give birth at the end of the semester so I had convinced my team that it was in all of our best interest to finish our section of the report in as short an amount of time as possible. So the day before Thanksgiving, our section was done: 131 single spaced pages of the report with an additional 75 pages of charts, graphs, and references to boot. All about screws, nuts and bolts (and various other fasteners that were going to be used on the project).

So, after loathing English for all of my elementary and secondary schooling, now I find myself writing more in one month for work than I wrote in all of high school. But it is not without it's fun. One time in high school, I was able to convince everyone in the class to use the word "plethora" in a short composition that would be read at the front of the class. In a play on that, most of my writings are written at about a 10th grade level (by design). I always try to push the envelope and include words or phrases that are not commonly used. Words like "ergo," "heft", or "complicit." Usually these get axed in someone's review of the report before it gets published. A month ago, I wrote up one 2 page report with the phrase "post hoc." Latin phrases never get through and my associates all agreed that it would get changed before publishing. However, on the day of publishing, I looked at it and "post hoc" was still in the published report. Victory to me!

Today, a co-worker and I were discussing the acronym SMART in relation to goals (specific, measureable, accountable, reasonable, timely). We decided that there should be an acronym for DUMB that is opposite to describe bad goals. I took it upon myself to create one. In 20 minutes I had it ready:
Dispensable - can be eliminated with little or no consequence
Unrealistic - the goal is not a reflection of reality based on the resources and circumstances
Mal apropos - it is out of place and untimely
Boundless - there are no true limits to it

After seeing this I have decided on two new goals: 1) get "mal apropos" published in a report and 2) use the acronym DUMB in a published report. These cannot be done by trial and error as the editors have memories and after they have rejected a word in one report, they are not likely to allow it again; so I have to wait for the right moment when there is no other way to describe it. "Mal apropos" will be much easier (although difficult nonetheless) because it is French phrase and doesn't have the derogatory tone the DUMB has. But I will try and report back on my success!