Monthly Archives: November 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Here’s wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving Day. I’m thankful that the Puritans managed to emigrate to America to escape persecution in England, but were eventually prevented from persecuting Quakers and other religious sects once they has established themselves in America. The result was religious tolerance for a country full of dissenters. I give thanks that we can all agree to disagree without killing each other, at least most of the time.

Oh, and if you are a Vegan, enjoy that tofu turkey, or whatever it happens to be!

Vegan Turkey

Vegan Turkey

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The Mouse Tax

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

I wrote this in a moment of excessive pessimism about the growing welfare state. It isn’t that I’m against charity for those in need or for funding of programs that benefit society as a whole. I just don’t think we can afford everything that people think they deserve–at least not yet. But I think (hope) that technology will eventually provide the means by which we can produce enough goods and services to meet everyone’s basic needs after the robots take all our jobs. But I predict that it’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

If you give a mouse a cookie, he will want a glass of milk.
If you give him a glass of milk, he will also want a free supply of cheese.
If you give him free cheese, he will want a free school lunch to go with it.
If you give him a free school lunch, he will want a scholarship to go to college with you.
If you give him a scholarship, he will soon want forgiveness on his student loan so he can get out of debt.
If you write off his student loan, but he still can’t find a job because he studied the History of Cheese, he will want extended unemployment benefits.
If you give him extended unemployment benefits, he will get sick and tired of looking for a job and will want disability benefits.
If you give him disability benefits, he will want free health care to ensure he and his little ones stay healthy.
If you give him free health care, he will want subsidized housing to get out of his dirty little mouse hole.
If you give him subsidized housing, he will also want a full exemption from income taxes.
If you give him a full tax exemption, he will also want a child care credit to help take care of all his little mice.
If you give him a child care credit, he will still want social security benefits.
If you give him social security benefits, he will want amnesty so he and his mice can finally become citizens.
If you grant him amnesty and make him a citizen, he will want to vote.
If you let him register to vote, he will want to increase taxes on the rich and middle class workers to pay for all of his benefits.
If you promise to increase taxes for everyone else and increase his benefits, he will vote for you and will live happily ever after.
If he lives happily ever after, his children will have to deal with the eventual economic collapse, but who cares? It’s not his problem.

If You Give a Pig a Party

If You Give a Pig a Party

Fowl Genetics

Big-Breasted Turkey

Big-Breasted Turkey

Turkey Day will be coming soon, so it’s a good time to talk turkey. The modern American big-breasted “super turkey,” after all, may foreshadow of the future of human genetic manipulation. You see, the turkey we eat today isn’t the native turkey our forefathers ate at their first Thanksgiving meal shortly after they colonized the continent. The mass-produced turkey most of us eat has been bred specifically to have extremely large breasts, which is considered to be the most desirable part, at least in this country. I happen to be a thigh, butt and wing man myself.

Wings are now in especially high demand as well. If we could breed turkeys with large breasts and four wings, we would probably have the ideal product.  In a large taste test that pitted the new breed of turkeys against many natural “heritage” breeds, consumers overwhelmingly preferred the “heritage” turkey breeds over the super big-breasted turkeys. Unfortunately, I guess size trumps taste on livestock breeders list of most desirable characteristics.

Breasts

Breasts

Anyway, there is also a downside to having large breasts, as most big-breasted women will tell you, and I’m not talking about the excessive unwanted attention of male turkeys, which also applies to women. I’m also not talking about taste, which may or may not apply to big-breasted women, since it has probably never been studied, at least not formally. The real problem is that these super-sized turkeys are no longer able to breed naturally. Their breasts are just too large and get in the way of procreation. Yeah, it sucks to be a male turkey these days. Our entire population of turkeys has to be artificially inseminated just to continue to reproduce. Maybe a longer penis is in order for the next generation of turkeys to make them self-sustainable creatures, but for now, livestock producers seem to be satisfied with just the big breasts.

These super-sized birds are also dim-witted and disease prone, requiring antibiotics to prevent a variety of sicknesses. Eighty percent of the antibiotics produced in the US are used on livestock, not people. So, not only do they taste worse, but we also end up consuming antibiotics that can only spell trouble for our own bodies, especially when they promote the rise of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Thanks so much for breeding a better turkey that poses a health risk for the entire population. I can only imagine how appalling these Frankenstein turkeys would seem to Charles Darwin.

Kim Kardashian's Butt

Kim Kardashian’s Butt

What about big butts? They haven’t quite caught on yet, but it’s still the first piece I go for. Yes, I’m still talking turkey. Some people like big butts on people too. Some women even like it so much on themselves that they are willing to undergo plastic surgery to make them bigger. Big breasts might be the first choice for enhanced female parts, but butts are quickly coming up from behind! How long will it be before we move from enhancement surgery to permanent genetic manipulation? Given the rapid pace of genetic science, it’s probably not that far off, and I suspect that enhanced human body parts are going to be at the top of the list after replacement organs. Will the future of humanity look more and more like Kim Kardashian? I’d like to say it isn’t so, but it just might. All it takes is money and a willing mad scientist.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there are plenty of good things that can come from genetic treatments or manipulation, assuming we take it slowly to try and avoid unanticipated consequences of messing with something we know very little about (our own bodies). The FDA is already reviewing mitochondrial manipulation technologies being developed to replace the nuclear material from human eggs or embryos with donor material to allow people to reproduce without passing on serious inheritable diseases. This could be a minor first step into the future of genetic breeding.

Favorite Dog Breeds

Favorite Dog Breeds

We’ve been breeding pets for thousands of years the old fashioned way and have come up with some pretty interesting breeds that people love and serve specific purposes. People just aren’t satisfied with the generic wolf dogs given to us by nature, so I suspect we will not be satisfied with the human features we’ve been given once we find ways to produce alternatives.

Human races used to be very distinct before the advent of cheap and easy transportation led to a massive increase in population mobility and more liberal societies encouraged the rise of multi-race families. Over a long period of time, this inter-mixing could eventually lead to the evolution of humanity into a generic race-less society. The only thing that might stop this trend is deliberate racial isolation or genetic manipulation designed to create distinct new breeds.

Elizabeth Banks as Effie in Hunger Games

Elizabeth Banks as Effie in Hunger Games

If technology is eventually used to change human characteristics, what will future human breeds look like? Will they be have over-sized butts that encourage correspondingly over-sized penises? Will they have super-sized breasts that result in overfed, obese newborn babies? Will we see a market emerge for super-sized brains, hearts, or muscles? What about different colors of skin, eyes, lips, or hair? Choose an attribute and somebody will probably want to enhance it somehow. Want to be an Olympic powerhouse in gymnastics? Breed short, muscular kids. Want to compete in basketball? Breed tall, fast kids. Will we all get the same enhancement? I doubt it. Variety is the spice of life, and I suspect that human breeding will eventually result in a variety of new creatures. Would a future Elizabeth Banks prefer to look like Effie in The Hunger Games or as her present self?

Elizabeth Banks as Herself

Elizabeth Banks as Herself

We may specialize into new breeds that emphasize athletic ability, brainpower, beauty, or social skills. Maybe the future will be like the movie Divergent after all, only our fate will be sealed through selective breeding instead of self-selection. What if you don’t like the selection that your parents made for you? Will you be allowed to diverge?

Maybe we should ask the aliens how they handled the genetic manipulation of their race or races. How are those big heads and tiny bodies working for you? You don’t seem to like big butts. Do you still even bother with sex? If you had a do-over, what would you change? Hmmm, maybe they are working on genetic experiments right now and we are the guinea pigs.

Alien Breeds

Alien Breeds

Genetically Modified Turkey

Genetically Modified Turkey

Her Holiness

God is a Woman

God is a Woman

Is God a woman? I realize this is a meaningless question. How can an all-powerful, all-knowing being of energy have a gender? But I’ve heard it discussed enough to know that people want to know the answer anyway, so let’s give it a go. Think of this like you would small talk at a party–meaningless but pretty much unavoidable.

Obviously, we can’t look at physical features to give us the answer, so we have to compare his or her actions with those of human characteristics that we would characterize as either masculine or feminine. What other measure is there? Sure, the ability to give birth to creatures (not to mention the entire universe) is a strong feminine indicator, but what else? Please forgive any blatant male/female stereotypes used in this analysis–it’s all I have to go on.

Death Penalty for Adultery

Death Penalty for Adultery

Perhaps most indicative is the tendency to change her mind. Should adultery be punished by death? According to the Laws of Moses In the Old Testament, it was a definite yes. In the New Testament, Jesus emphasized compassion and forgiveness. But then Mohammed in the Koran goes right back to death. So, what is the real deal? Even if one or more of these religions are wrong and she was misquoted, she certainly has done nothing to clarify the rules.

God's Warning

God’s Warning

Now that I’m a parent, I understand that we don’t always want our kids to know what will happen if they break the rules. We would rather deter them by implying serious consequences, but don’t necessarily want to have to follow through in the event of a breach. So, being too specific can force you to do something you don’t want to do or make you look like a pushover for not following through, thus reducing the chance that you will be able to deter future bad behavior. So, is god fickle when it comes to punishment or just trying to confuse us like a parent who isn’t as strict as she wants us to believe? If she is deliberately changing the rules just to keep us uncertain, that is pretty bad parenting. After all, we’ve been killing each other over such unclear rules for centuries, which completely undermines the concept of deterrence. No, I don’t think it could be on purpose. I think god must really be fickle.

Meteor Strike

Meteor Strike

Let’s look at god’s demand that we worship her. I think that says it all. Yes, there are guys who think they deserve to be worshiped, but it isn’t exactly the norm. Men prefer to be admired for their accomplishments and their ability to compete and win. Or at least for their ability to knock you senseless. If god were a man, he would probably be more inclined to intervene in human events just to show off. I know that some of you think he already does so every time he throws a hurricane, tornado, or tsunami around, but I don’t think that is how a guy would do it. If god wanted to show mankind that he is “the man,” it would be a bit more dramatic. A meteor taking out “sin city” would be good. Or maybe O.J. Simpson and his attorney bursting spontaneously into flames in front of the cameras just after acquittal. That would definitely make everyone stop and think.

Six Day War Celebration

Six Day War Celebration

If the Jews really are the chosen people and god were a man, I think he would also act a little more like a sports fan. When the Israelis kicked butt in the Six Day War, did anyone feel the ground shake or the winds howl? Were the clouds painted red, green, and purple? Did the victorious soldiers get laid like rock stars? After the first big victory in two thousand years, I would expect a bit of celebration, unless they aren’t the chosen people anymore. But would a guy ever really give up on his home team after such a big comeback? I don’t think so. No, I think god just isn’t much of a sports fan or maybe he has switched to a new team (see the part on fickleness, above).

Worship Your Woman

Worship Your Woman

Women, on the other hand, love to be worshiped. The reason doesn’t necessarily matter. In fact, if you give her a reason, she will probably question you in detail about why you love her, which might lead to doubts about your actual devotion and motivation. “So, are you saying you only love me because I look good in a bikini?” Be too specific and you might just end up in the doghouse. It’s better to just worship her without reason or complaint, which also seems to be what god really wants. It’s rule number one in the Ten Commandments for a reason. It doesn’t matter how much of a jerk you are most of the time, as long as you worship her, you’ll probably be OK.

Would a female god encourage Muslim men to worship their women at the same time they force them to cover their bodies from head to toe and stay at home to keep them safe from all the other sex-crazed men? Are men just expected to completely lose all self control when they see an attractive woman? I think most women would say yes. Men are weak and just can’t help themselves. She knows this and has made appropriate rules.

Sexy Burkas

Sexy Burkas

Does god really believe that hiding female sexuality even works to help keep them safe? When it comes to sex, men have pretty good imaginations and aren’t always too discriminating about what is under the curtain. So, it might not help much, but it could at least shift some of the drooling and harassment away from the hot babes to the less attractive ones. A male god would certainly have dispensed with the monthly hormone surges and either increased the female sex drive to match those of men or increased the proportion of women to men to promote polygamy.

As far as I’m concerned, god is acting a lot like a woman. Of course, what does that really mean anyway? Will she be especially pissed off at men in particular considering the way they have treated women throughout most of history? Would a female god favor women over men? Considering how women don’t always treat other women very well, I’m not so sure. Mothers are also probably more prone to having a favorite son than a favorite daughter. Jesus really could do no wrong, I guess, even when he disregarded her previous laws. So maybe that’s why men have been able to get away with so much mischief.

Will there really be a harem of 72 virgins waiting in heaven for every Muslim man or is that just a cruel joke? Men might just end up doing all the heavenly housework. Somebody’s got to keep the place looking good. Considering that men have to leave their second brains behind when they die, will they even have any more interest in virgins? Tell me it isn’t so, mother! Pretty please?

Welcome to Heaven

Welcome to Heaven

Insure Me to Death

Forrest Gump's box of chocolates

Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates

As Forrest Gump’s momma used to say, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you will get.” That begs the question, is there a way to buy chocolate insurance? You know, just in case you get a box full of crappy pieces. You can buy insurance for just about anything else today, so why not? I just got suckered by my mobile phone carrier into buying iPhone insurance, which I now greatly regret, but more on that later.

Not only has the variety of products and services available for purchase expanded exponentially, so has the variety of insurance products. If I was worried or paranoid enough, I think I could probably spend every dollar I earn on insurance. It seems like a never-ending list of offers for insurance against real or perceived risks. Let’s list some of the more common types of insurance available to individuals, not to mention less common products such as kidnapping insurance for high-wealth individuals.

Divorce Insurance

Divorce Insurance

Types of Personal Insurance Products:

  • Medical insurance
  • Dental insurance
  • Vision insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Short-term disability insurance
  • Long-term disability insurance
  • Critical illness insurance
  • Accidental death and dismemberment insurance
  • Business travel accident insurance
  • Personal Travel accident insurance
  • Accident insurance
  • Auto insurance
  • Homeowner or renter’s insurance
  • Liability insurance
  • Legal insurance
  • Identity theft insurance
  • Mortgage insurance
  • Title insurance
  • Travel insurance
  • Divorce insurance
  • Tuition insurance
  • Interest rate insurance
  • Pet insurance
  • Credit insurance
  • Burial insurance
  • Flood insurance
  • Individual Product insurance
  • Social Security (insurance)
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Workers compensation insurance
Amish Barn Raising

Amish Barn Raising

So, you get the idea. We are constantly bombarded by offers for insurance. This was not a common practice for our ancestors. If something really bad happened, they were either SOL or obtained the assistance of family, friends, and neighbors. Speaking of neighbors, the Amish still prefer the old ways. They insure themselves as a community. Your house just burned down? No problem. The community gets together to build another. You can’t afford your hospital bill. No problem. The church pays the cost. Your house burns down again? Um, I suspect they will look at you cross-eyed but probably still get together to build you another house. After that, it might be problematic. I’m not Amish, so I just don’t know the protocol.

Anyway, in 1965, Congress passed a law to exempt certain Amish and Mennonite religious orders from the requirement to participate in Social Security, Medicaid, and other government-mandated insurance programs. They are now also exempt from Obamacare. That’s right. Don’t you wish you lived in a tight-knit community now?

Jesus is my health insurance

Jesus is my health insurance

Some religious groups believe that insurance represents a lack of faith in god and an unwillingness to accept his will. But I suspect that few people are hard core enough in their faith to believe that god actually wanted to blow their house down and doesn’t want them to try and build another. Instead of using commercial insurance products, religious communities often simply insure themselves as a way of sharing risk. It’s a great idea if you can stop unsavory people from taking advantage of everyone else. Our government and the insurance industry have a hard time detecting and stopping fraud or risky behavior, which is a major driver of insurance costs.

Here are some thoughts I had on some new insurance products I might be able to sell:

  • Gambling insurance (because you know you’re going to lose, right?)
  • Plastic surgery insurance (for celebrities who just can’t help themselves)
  • Tax insurance (for tax cheats who bet on IRS incompetency)
  • Pregnancy insurance (it’s illegal to buy children, but you get the full health “claim” if you turn it in)
  • Election insurance (for politicians who can’t help but take inappropriate selfies)
  • Food insurance (why bother with a lawyer over food poisoning if you can just file a claim?)
  • Bad decision insurance (this one is great for everyone; it gets you a do-over)

Back to the problem of over-insurance that most of us have. Most financial advisors will tell you that insurance is only appropriate for protecting you from low-probability catastrophic loss. Things like a serious illness or destruction of your house. If your car is expensive enough, that would qualify too, but not if you have an old rust bucket. It isn’t useful for things you can easily afford to replace. I should have learned my lesson about buying product insurance after I tried to get Best Buy to fix a CD player on warranty. After three failed attempts, I finally gave up trying to get them to fix it properly or replace it.

Mobile Phone Insurance

Mobile Phone Insurance

So, it was out of character for me to accept the iPhone insurance offered by my carrier, AT&T, last month. A 64GB iPhone6 costs about $749 new if you have to pay full price, but for only $6.99 per month, you can be protected from any kind of loss or damage. Because I have teenagers who seem likely to mistreat their device, I grudgingly accepted the offer. But now I regret it. I should have insured my own family myself.

Within a month, one phone was terminally trashed due to a liquid leakage that got into the iPhone. Great, I thought! I’m covered and it only cost me $6.99 for the first month plus a $199 deductible. That’s a $543 savings, which is the best you can do! How wrong I was. Here is what I didn’t know.

First, the insurance provider that most carriers use is Asurion, which has a horrible reputation for providing non-functional reburbished replacement phones. Yes, you are most likely to get a refurbished phone, and a lot of them still have problems. So, you might never get a completely working phone or, if you do, it may take a long time to get one that is new or like new.

AppleCare

AppleCare

Second, Apple offers AppleCare for only $99, which covers all phone replacements for only $79.

Third, even if you didn’t buy AppleCare, Apple offers non-warranty repairs or replacement at reasonable prices. An iPhone6 battery replacement is only $79, a screen replacement is only $109, and it is only $299 to have the entire phone replaced. And that is for a new iPhone6, not a refurbished one! That means the Asurion insurance is really only saving you $100 maximum, minus the cost you paid for the monthly premiums, but you get a refurbished replacement that might not work. In the worst case, it costs you more than an Apple repair and you still have to pay the monthly insurance premiums.

Because I’m a bit of a geek, I decided to make a chart showing the cost of monthly premiums compared to the cost of buying a replacement for an uninsured iPhone6 from Apple for $299, which is the worst-case situation for someone with no insurance. Each colored line represents the insurance cost for 1 to 6 people. Each gray line is the cost of a full replacement phone.

For a family of 6, you pay enough in insurance premiums over 24 months to pay for three new iPhone6s (total loss claims) or nine screen replacements! For a family of 4, you pay more than enough over 24 months for two new iPhone6s or six screen replacements! For a single individual, it takes longer to pay enough in premiums to cover the cost of a new phone, so it is more of a risk. Still, if you are single, you ought to be able to save enough to cover the cost of one phone. It is obvious that a family can easily insure itself against small losses such as this.

Cost of iPhone insurance vs. cost of a replacement

Cost of iPhone insurance vs. cost of a replacement

Protection is Peace of Mind

Protection is Peace of Mind

So, why do we buy insurance on small stuff? I suspect it is just about marketing and fear. It often sounds like a good deal because we think the risk of loss is high while the cost seems low, but it’s really a very bad financial move. I received a replacement device from Asurion via FedEx the day after I filed the claim, and it was wrapped as if it were a new iPhone. Great-I thought! But the battery would not hold a charge, so I knew it had to have been refurbished. So, to avoid weeks of further hassle, I sent it back, cancelled my claim and bought a new replacement from Apple for $299. The insurance wasn’t even worth the cost of one monthly premium and the deductible. I prefer to never have to deal with this, or any other product insurance company, again. I’ll insure myself, thank you.

Burial Insurance

Burial Insurance

So, the next time someone offers to insure that new gadget you just bought, politely say no thanks—I don’t need the hassle. Or, you can just shop at return-friendly stores like Costco. They will take just about anything back, no questions asked.

Family Prison

The Risk of Strong Government

The Risk of Strong Government

Should family members be imprisoned for the crimes of their relatives? Of course not! That kind of crap happens in North Korea and other dictatorships, but not in the good old USA.

Should family members be forced to pay fees or have their property seized for the crimes of a family member, or even when nobody is charged with a crime? Of course not! What if it helped to win the War on Drugs? Not even then. Most Americans oppose the seizure of property without a conviction, but I’m sorry to tell you that is exactly what has been happening. Oh, and by the way, many Americans also believe that the war on drugs has been a failure that has done nothing but cost us $1 trillion, resulted in 45 million drug-related arrests, and left 2.3 million citizens in prison.

Failure of War on Drugs

Failure of War on Drugs

For years, the families of prison inmates have had to pay exorbitant rates for phone calls with their loved ones in jail. I can hear some of you now—tough luck. “If you do the crime, you have to do the time.” Sure, but this isn’t about crime and punishment. This is about the people who didn’t do the crime, but are still paying a needless price for that crime. It is about mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands and wives, among others. In other words, it is about ordinary Americans who did nothing wrong and just want to have some kind of contact with their incarcerated relative. But our government has treated this as an opportunity to generate a profit.

For years, phone companies were allowed to charge over a dollar a minute in a country where the cost of phone calls has plummeted to nearly nothing. In the case of Internet phone calls, the cost really is nothing. Finally, in early 2014, the FCC imposed rate caps of $.25 per minute for debit calls and $.21 for collect calls. It is still probably too much, but is a huge victory for what was, in essence, a financial penalty imposed on the families of prisoners.

Why did these rates ever exist in the first place? I’m sure you can guess the answer. The correctional institutions chose telephone service providers that offered commissions, aka kickbacks. Yes, they shared in the profit and used it as part of their budget. So, the prison system helped to finance itself by charging the families of the inmates. Sounds like a minor issue, but it isn’t to the families involved, who often cannot afford the phone calls. But it is more than just the cost that bothers me. It’s the principle of how we treat our citizens, whether they are in jail or not.

The phone companies and the prison system colluded to make this happen, over years of objections from the families. Why didn’t Congress do anything to stop this? What politician wants to stick up for the rights of prisoners? Apparently, few to none. Sure, our founding fathers thought enough about the issue of crime and punishment to include a prohibition on excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, but apparently no current politician was willing to face this issue. So, my hat is off to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the unelected Chair of the FCC, for listening to the families and finally changing the regulations, even though they had to fight the telecommunications companies in court when they tried to block the new rules. Congress should be ashamed of itself, once again, for ignoring an issue affecting some of our most vulnerable citizens. This case shows that Congress cannot be relied upon to stand up for the rights of all citizens.

Asset Forfeiture

Asset Forfeiture

But there’s more. In just two years, Philadelphia law enforcement authorities have seized the homes or cars of almost 500 families. The law allows them to seize property that is connected to the sale of illegal drugs. If anyone within the house is charged with the sale of illegal drugs, including a child or a visitor, the government is legally able to seize the house, even if the owners had no knowledge of the illegal activity. They can even seize a car that a person drove away in after committing the crime of shoplifting.

In some states, the property owner has to be convicted of a crime before the assets can be seized, but this is not the case in all states. Pennsylvania has been very aggressive when it comes to seizing the assets of innocent citizens.

A 2014 Washington Post investigation has found that thousands of motorists and others have also had property seized. Some have even had property seized even though they were not charged with crimes, and have been forced to go to fight in court to get it back.

The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing civil asset forfeiture program allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired. That’s right, it sounds a lot like a complete disregard of our Fifth Amendment rights. It is like search and seizure of property without due process of law.

Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights):

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Cost of War on Drugs

Cost of War on Drugs

As you might imagine, most Americans strongly believe that someone needs to be convicted of a crime before their property can be seized. They also don’t like to pay taxes to fund an unwinnable war that is partly being financed by violations of our constitutional rights.

I’m afraid I don’t have any good news to end this post. The government can seize your stuff even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Sounds like another reason to try and roll back the growth of government and end the war on drugs.

Who Wants to End the War on Drugs?

Who Wants to End the War on Drugs?

NOTE: This post was originally a guest post on the Nonsense & Shenanigans blog. I’m including this copy so that it can be edited, as needed, in the future.

No Rain Tax for the Shire

The Shire

The Shire

News spread quickly through the Shire today as the inhabitants received word that the central government will not apply the new Rain Tax to their hobbit homes, provided that they continue to bury them underneath the ground and do not pave their porous dirt and rock roads.

To date, Maryland is the only state to impose the rain tax, otherwise known as the Stormwater Remediation Fee, to home and business owners who have “impervious units” of surface area that is claimed to contribute to the problem of contaminated water reaching the Chesapeake Bay. The rain tax permits counties to impose a tax based on the square footage of buildings, driveways, or other man-made materials that do not allow rain to be absorbed into the ground. Not all counties in Maryland are affected and some charge more per impervious unit than others.

Rivendell

Rivendell

The debate continues as to whether or not Rivendell should be granted a similar tax exemption. While it clearly does possess many impervious units of surface space, most of it was constructed off the sides of a mountain waterfall, extending from steep inclines. The elves claim that their structures have had no impact on the environment, including the purity of the water flow, and that they are not responsible for any man-made problems.

Minas Tirith

Minas Tirith

To date, Minas Tirith has been the most severely affected by the new tax. Although it covers a relatively small horizontal space, it consists of 100% impervious units and has been proven to cause a massive water runoff problem in the valley. On the bright side, some say the stench of the runoff of human and animal excrement, not to mention decomposing plant and animal matter, is enough to kill an orc! Yuck!

Orc

Orc

Legislators had been expecting a bit of blowback from Mordor, but aside from a bit of smoke and rumbling, the fortress has so far been unexpectedly quiet.

As Paul Harvey would say: “And now you know the REST of the story.”

All is Quiet in Mordor

All is Quiet in Mordor

 

New Tax Schemes

New Tax Schemes

2 Swings and You’re Out!

Congress is Broken

Congress is Broken

Some people consider baseball to be a slow game. A hitter can stay in the batters box indefinitely if he keeps fouling off the ball. There is theoretically no limit to how many pitches he can use up until he either gets on base or gets out, but the current record is 20 pitches for a single at bat. The pitchers end up getting frustrated and tired and the fans do too. What would happen if players only had two swings in which to hit the ball? Not two strikes–just two swings. I think they would probably try and make them as productive as possible. If nothing else, the game would move along quite a bit faster. What does this have to do with politics? Maybe nothing or maybe everything.

From what I’ve read, most American voters now support the concept of term limits for elected office (usually 75-80% in polls), but it is very difficult to get legislators to legislate themselves out of a job. Even New Yorkers favor re-imposing term limits after Mayor Michael Bloomberg managed to get the city council to extend the term limit from two to three years in spite of two voter referendums in 2008. Why should we wait for legislators to approve term limits? We the people can decide if we want term limits and we don’t need a law to make it happen. If enough candidates for public office stand up and pledge to hold themselves to term limits, the pressure will build until it becomes common practice, the expected norm, a defacto standard, or whatever else you might call it. So, I’m asking all candidates for public office to take a pledge to voluntarily limit themselves to 1-2 terms in office. For the US Senate, I would say 6 years (1 term) is enough. For the House of Representatives, 4 years (2 terms) sounds like enough. After that, they have to agree to take the same amount of time (1-2 terms) off before running again.

Term Limits

Term Limits

Why do I support term limits?

During the first 150 years of this country’s history, term limits were unnecessary. Turnover in the U.S. House of Representatives was routinely over 50 percent and short terms kept representatives relatively responsive to the public. Over the last few decades we have experienced reelection rates averaging over 90 percent (including voluntary retirements), creating a class of career politicians who have insulated themselves from the public will and who have grown less and less representative of the people and more dependent on special interests who offer fringe benefits and campaign financing.

Term Limits: Vote for Different People

Term Limits: Vote for Different People

This is often blamed on the high cost of running a campaign effective enough to challenge an incumbent’s name recognition. Ultimately, however, it is the fault of American voters, most of whom are too unmotivated to learn enough about the candidates to make an informed decision or even to vote at all. This is why educating our kids to understand American history and to be good citizens is so important. However, since we can’t quickly or easily change the knowledge and behavior of voters, we can at least try and level the playing field by making it easier for someone new to run for office. Term limits will help to discourage people from becoming “career politicians” and make it easier for ordinary private citizens to run for office. It isn’t a perfect solution, and does not guarantee better results, but I think it is better than what we have now.

To discuss more about the pros and cons of term limits, I would like to debate three distinguished Americans who have opposed term limits. Fortunately, I have found a way to travel backwards through time to make this possible.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (The Federalist, #72)

“Nothing appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill-founded upon close inspection [than term limits]…. One ill effect of the exclusion would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior. There are few men who would not feel much less zeal in the discharge of a duty when they were conscious that the advantage of the station with which it was connected must be relinquished at a determinate period, than when they were permitted to entertain a hope of obtaining, by meriting, a continuance of them.” 


Rebuttal by Earth Visitor:

“Mr. Hamilton: While I agree that inducements to good behavior are necessary and that term limits do not help to induce one to better serve the public, the majority of inducements today come from special interests, who offer money, travel, and other perks as well as campaign support at election time. The inducements available today to serve the ordinary citizen are relatively negligible, so it is no wonder that most politicians feel little zeal in serving the needs of a powerless electorate. I would greatly prefer the service of a private citizen who has already earned high regard who knows that he has a limited amount of time in which to make a difference, than someone who knows he will be reelected year after year even if he commits a serious breach of ethics or ignores the wishes of a majority of the people he or she was elected to represent.”

James Madison

James Madison

James Madison (The Federalist, No. 53):

“A few of the members, as happens in all such assemblies, will possess superior talents; will, by frequent re-elections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt they will be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them.”

Rebuttal by Earth Visitor:

“Mr. Madison: You are correct in asserting that a few elected members will, by frequent re-election, become masters of the public business, but I would assert that in so doing, they have also become slaves to the special interests who toil daily to subvert the interests of the people to that of their own fortunes. These masters of public business have, in fact, become rulers over the people rather than guardians of their interests. The snares that endanger us today are those laid with the aid of these members of long standing, who have long been captured by special interests and now seek to increase their power by subverting and controlling the new and inexperienced members as well.”

John Adams

John Adams

John Adams (A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America)

“There is no right clearer, and few of more importance, than that the people should be at liberty to choose the ablest and best men, and that men of the greatest merit should exercise the most important employments; yet, upon the present [term limits] supposition, the people voluntarily resign this right, and shackle their own choice…. [T]hey must all return to private life, and be succeeded by another set, who have less wisdom, wealth, virtue, and less of the confidence and affection of the people.”

Rebuttal by Earth Visitor:

“Mr. Adams: The ability to choose the ablest and best men and women is, of course, of the utmost importance to the survival of democracy. Yet, the fact that a majority of the people now agree upon the need to voluntarily impose such a limit is a testament to the depths to which our elected officials have fallen in the public esteem. Are we to believe that the best and ablest men are almost always those who currently serve in office and that, should they return to private life, we would not find a single replacement of equal or greater caliber? Can you assert that those who spend most of their life holding public office, with no experience in business, the arts, medicine, or other walks of life, are truly wiser and more virtuous? I must submit that the confidence and affection of the people towards such officials is now dangerously low, but the people feel so powerless in effecting a change that they must resort to a voluntary infringement of their own right to choose. As we so wisely stated in our Declaration of Independence, whenever any form of government becomes destructive, it is still the right of the people to alter or abolish it and institute new government.” 

Take the Pledge!

I’m asking that every candidate for public office make some kind of public written statement committing themselves to no more than 4-6 consecutive years (1-2 consecutive terms) in office. This can be on a blog, a web page, in their campaign literature, or anyplace else they care to publish the pledge. I’m also asking voters to stop voting for politicians that exceed the desired term of office. The very survival of our democracy as an effective form of government is at stake. Do I believe this will actually happen? No. Do I think it will work as intended? No, but it’s a start. To actually effect real change, we also need to reduce the power of elected officials to grant favors to special interests.

The Founding Fathers were not professional politicians

The Founding Fathers were not professional politicians

Going Postal

Going Postal

Going Postal

Do postal employees deserve the label “going postal” that has now become a common reference to any incident of crazy violence in the workplace? If I had to put up with the crap that the US Post Office gets from everyone, I think I’d have gone postal a long time ago. You see, the USPS exists in a kind of purgatory, caught between the federal government and private industry, where it is punished for failures that are forced upon it and prevented from achieving too much success.

When I started to write this post, I originally had intended to rail against the incompetence of the US Post Office and their inability to operate without losing billions of dollars. I’ve never been a fan because their tracking system often doesn’t work, they don’t have drop boxes for parcels like UPS or FedEx, they often refuse to accept packages that have printed labels dated the day before, and they won’t even let you print some kinds of postage from their web site, forcing you to go to a third party service. It never seemed as though they were able to do things well and the customer service usually sucks. However, I had to admit that they do manage a huge, and relatively efficient, national service for mail distribution.

But when I looked into the details, I found that my common perception was wrong. Many of their problems appear to be the result of restrictions imposed by Congress on an agency that might otherwise be free to invest in service improvements and innovations.

Benjamin Franklin, Postmaster General

Benjamin Franklin, Postmaster General

The USPS is a regulated but independent agency of the US government that is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality. It is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the US Constitution. It traces its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress, where Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General.

Contrary to popular belief, the USPS has not directly received taxpayer-dollars since the early 1980s, with the minor exception of subsidies for costs associated with disabled and overseas voters. The US Post Office has experience losses in the past several years, but they are mostly unrelated to the direct costs of running the postal system. They are related to unprecedented mandates that Congress imposed with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006.

USPS Pre-Funding of Benefits

USPS Pre-Funding of Benefits

This act obligates the USPS to pre-fund the present value of future health care benefit payments for 75 years into the future, but to do so within a ten-year time span. This adds up to about $5.5 billion annually for a business that can only break even at best and has no pile of profits from which to draw. No other government organization is subject to such a requirement and no private organization pre-funds benefits to such an extent. The rest of the government does not pre-fund health care benefits at all, and only 38% of Fortune 1000 companies pre-fund at a much lower level of 37%. The USPS also does a better job of funding its pension program. It funds 100% of its needs, compared to 42% for the rest of the government and 80% for the average Fortune 1000 company. Yes, the USPS is still losing money, but most of the losses come from this Congressional mandate.

Why can’t they break even or make money? Are they just incompetent because they are a lame government bureaucracy weighed down by expensive unionized employees? That is what we have been led to believe and I will admit that is what I thought. The truth is that the post office already offers some of the lowest rates in the world, but cannot charge what it actually costs to provide mail service, since postal rates are regulated by Congress. It also has been prevented from innovating whenever private businesses run to Congress to put a stop to potential competition.

Online Payment Methods

Online Payment Methods

A USPS plan to develop an online payment system in 2000 was stopped by Internet industry competitors. Just think about how many people use electronic payments such as Paypal today, a service that generates billions in profits annually for eBay. Paypal earns even more than eBay gets from its online auctions! Imagine how much money the postal service could have made while preventing fraud by making electronic payments contingent upon the successful delivery of a package that they carried and insured! Today, wary consumers have to use third-party intermediaries to ensure that they do not get ripped off by unscrupulous buyers or sellers, which is a far less efficient system.

USPS plans to install public copy machines at post offices generated objections from office supply stores. Sales of phone cards, postal meter cartridges, money transfers, and other initiatives were stopped by other private competitors. And, of course, rivals such as UPS complained about parcel delivery, ultimately leading Congress in 2006 to restrict USPS to mail delivery.

The USPS has partnerships with FedEx and UPS for “last mile” delivery because it charges less, which is a kind of subsidy for these private companies. In fact, more than 30% of FedEx Ground shipments in 2011 were delivered by the post office. This is because the USPS provides service that is cheaper than what UPS and FedEx can provide for many locations, but is restricted from charging a higher rate.

When the Postal Service launched an extremely effective ad campaign showing that its express mail service was just a fraction of the price charged for overnight delivery by UPS and FedEx, competitors took them to court to have the ads stopped. They lost in court, but then ran to Congress, which forced the Postal Service to pull the ads. Is this fair competition that helps consumers? On one hand, Congress chastises the USPS for losing money and failing to operate like a business. On the other hand, it prevents the service from actually running itself like a business in order to at least break even.

Privatizing the agency in whole or in part is likely to lead to higher rates for some locations because it actually costs more to deliver to rural destinations. UPS and FedEx have no requirement to deliver mail at the same rates to rural destinations and they have no obligation to service an area at all if they don’t think they can make money.

To me, the USPS is like the poor step-child of a government that will not take responsibility for its care, yet places heavy burdens on it and whips it when it fails. Congress will fall all over itself to please large private businesses in order to gain their favor and generate campaign donations. But when the post office tries to shine brighter than its step-siblings in industry, it is reprimanded and put back into its place.

What does the US Post Office provide that nobody else does? First, in 1792, a wise Congress established a mail system that was protected by law. Many white-collar criminals have been convicted of mail fraud, a federal offense that does not exist when private carriers are used.

Air Mail Delivery to Rural Idaho

Air Mail Delivery to Rural Idaho

Second, it provides universal service, even to extremely rural locations. They still even deliver mail by airplane to residents living along the Salmon and Selway rivers in Idaho.

Rural delivery may not be quite as important in a digital age when most communications can be transmitted electronically. However, the country still lacks a secure digital communications infrastructure backed by the legal protection afforded to mail carried by the postal service.

Several international postal services already provide a protected email system. Israel provides a secure email box for government communications. This isn’t just a technical issue, it is a legal one. For years, faxed copies of signed documents were not legally recognized. Other forms of electronic signatures have since been recognized, but their status varies from state to state and country to country. The law has been lagging technology for years.

The United States, which first developed the Internet, should have been the first to provide a legally-protected electronic messaging and document service to all. Instead of treating the USPS like an unwanted step-child, maybe Congress should provide it with a mandate and the needed body of law to legally protect the security and validity of digital information. Some private companies already provide electronic delivery services, so it’s my guess that even if the postal service tries to enter that market, they will be immediately foiled by Congress.

When you exist in purgatory under the thumb of Congress, no good deed goes unpunished. Ben Franklin himself would go postal if he were around today to watch Congress slowly kill the agency he championed at the founding of the republic.

We have met the enemy and he is us

We have met the enemy and he is us

I guess the lesson I take away from this is that our government cannot do anything well when it has to compete with private enterprise. This is not because government employees are totally incompetent. It is because industry will seek to influence Congress in order to undermine an agency’s ability to operate effectively and to innovate. To quote the Pogo comic strip character, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” To be more precise, it is our increasingly corrupt representatives in Congress.

If we want an effective and innovative government, we either have to privatize a function completely or establish a monopoly. However, to avoid the problems inherent with any monopoly, we should require that monopoly to outsource some of its work with competitive contracts and establish a system that promotes intra-government competition, accountability, and transparency.

USPS Privatization

USPS Privatization

In the case of the US Postal Service, we need a balanced approach instead of pure privatization. I think the time has come to end the monopoly on first class mail but to also set the USPS free of Congressional control. However, this is what the private carriers want because it will let them take the most profitable parts of the mail delivery business. So, if we want to keep down the cost of first-class mail and provide guaranteed mail delivery to unprofitable rural areas, then the government has to issue competitive contracts to carriers that bundle first-class and rural delivery services with other high-value express and package delivery contracts. We can make them an offer they just can’t refuse, so to speak. UPS and FedEx, among others, can make a profit while still being forced to meet the universal service obligations to our citizens. I think the USPS is efficient enough to survive and thrive and consumers will ultimately get better service at a reasonable price.

Post Office Automation

Post Office Automation

What if the USPS and private services such as UPS or Fedex could offer First Class mail alternatives? They could install their own automated ATM-like devices and locking mailboxes with an automated system that alerts you when mail has been sent to you or has been placed in your mailbox. Or maybe they could offer an E-class mail system that allows anyone to send an electronic version of a letter, pamphlet, or newsletter and have it automatically printed out and delivered on the same day by the local delivery facility. If senders allow the option, customers could opt to receive such mail via email or the web and get a partial credit for the printing and delivery costs. Most information has already gone electronic, but many businesses still send paper, especially when sending bulk mail to a wide geographic area.

Maybe they could offer a delivery service that comes with an unsubscribe option to let you reject junk mail or catalogs by scanning a barcode into their smartphone app. It would tell the sender to take you off their mailing list or automatically redirect future unauthorized mail into a recycling bin. I’m so overloaded with unsolicited catalogs that most of them already go directly into my recycling bin, but result in a huge waste of time and resources. Or maybe you could scan the code to subscribe to an electronic catalog that can be automatically downloaded to your computer or tablet instead of the paper copy.

If we want to extend current legal protections to physical mail or electronic mail delivered by other carriers, then they could be offered contracts only if they meet government-specified rules for first-class mail or email.

However, all of this will probably never happen. Congress has no real interest in serving consumers. They are too busy serving and protecting the interests of private companies, which benefit from the existence of a hobbled postal service that can’t effectively compete and has to take on all the most unprofitable delivery services. I’m just waiting for the day that people start to go postal on Congress!

Go Postal!

Go Postal!