Monday, July 24, 2006

LaLa CDs

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Tranquility Base

I was listening last week to the Space Shuttle making its final approach and landing after a successful mission. They played the conversation between the Shuttle pilot and NASA leading up to the landing. I love how calm they are about everything. It almost sounds like they are talking in their sleep. They say things like "speed is 750 miles per hour" in the most tranquil voice. I also love how, if they say that the landing is scheduled for 9:11, the wheels touch down exactly at 9:11. I think it would be cool if every job went so smoothly and without drama.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

How to Convince a Liberal That the New York Times is a Liberal Publication

I have had surprising difficulty in recent years getting Liberals to agree to one of the more obvious facts about journalism that has emerged during my lifetime, which is that the New York Times is a Liberal publication.

Below is a Socratic dialogue I invented which demonstrates how to logically explain this phenomenon to Liberals. Note: If your Liberal colleague does not agree to the five statements below, then they are too Liberal and unreasonable to participate in this argument and there is nothing further you will be able to do in this regard.

You: Would you agree that a good way to define a center, or moderate, outlook is that it represents the average American, somewhere about mid-way between the Liberal (left) view and the Conservative (right) view?
Liberal: Sure

You: Would you agree that if someone is generally left of the current political mainstream in their viewpoints then they can be described as "Liberal", and if someone is generally right of center in their viewpoints then they can be described as "Conservative"?
Liberal: Yes

You: Given the victory of the incompetent George W. Bush over war hero John Kerry in 2004, would you agree that the general viewpoint of the average American is currently a little right of center (Conservative)?
Liberal: Yes

You: Would you agree that the New York Times is fair and balanced, and can generally be described as being toward the center of the political mainstream?
Liberal: Yes

You: So therefore you would agree that the New York Times currently has viewpoints that are generally left of the average American.
Liberal: Right

You: Thus, compared to the viewpoint of the average American you agree that the New York Times is liberal.

(Now repeat for The Washington Post)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Price of Justice

Here are two fundamental American values that I think generally serve as an overall detriment to the quality of our society:

1. It is better to let n guilty people go free than wrongly convict one innocent person
2. It is better to let n ineligible people vote than to wrongly disenfranchise one person

Sure, I will concede that to err on the side of precaution and protecting individual liberties the acceptable value of n should be greater than 1. But I think as a society we have adopted values for n that are too high.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Saving Social Security

Given my expertise in the field of social insurance programs, I guess it is time that I commented on what should be done about Social Security.

What Are The Facts That Can Not Be Disputed?
Social Security has no trust fund (lockbox).
There are going to be many more retirees per worker when baby boomers start retiring than there were when the program was created.
The current benefit formula generally gives a much higher monthly payment to the rich than it does to the poor.

Is There A Problem?
The Republicans say there is a problem because at current levels of SS taxation, benefits are expected to far outweigh taxes in the not too distant future. Whether or not you agree that this is a problem just depends on how you feel about raising taxes to pay for the promised benefits. If your rule is that SS taxes must stay where they are, then there is a dire problem because there will not be enough money to pay the promised benefits.

The Democrats say that there is no imminent threat, so we'd better wait to fix the problem until at least such time that we can get some Democrats running Congress.

I say that there is absolutely a problem, because if nothing is done too much of our annual federal budget in the future will have to go toward SS benefits and it will cripple our government and our economy. Basically, this small safety net has grown to a huge liability that will be a massive part of our annual budget if it is not adjusted.

The Trifurcation Fallacy
The trifurcation fallacy is very commonly heard in the media from people like Tim Russert on Meet The Press. Basically, they say that you must do one of three things to save SS - (1) raise taxes, (2) raise the retirement age, or (3) cut benefits. But that completely overlooks the option that we have been doing and will continue to do, which is to effectively pay for SS benefits by taking money away from other areas in the federal budget.

What Should We Do About The SS Problem?
The first and most important thing that we must do is create a segregated SS trust fund. Every year we should value that fund and compare it to the benefit obligations to measure the shortfall (or someday, surplus). We should project future annual contributions to the fund that are equal to the current SS payroll tax. Then we need to systematically cut the benefit formula and raise the retirement age (whichever is deemed to be more desirable to the country's values over time) until the projected liabilities match the projected funds. This fund can be used only to pay benefits to entitled individuals and the government should be banned from using funds in the SS trust for any other purpose. Doing these simple things will solve the entire problem by definition, without requiring an increase in SS taxes. Note, there are some relatively painless ways to cut the benefit formula. For example, don't cut benefit for current payees, but change the formula to use a smaller Cost-of-Living factor when determining future benefits for younger people. Another option would be to change the formula to pay more to those who need it the most. Either of these options would be generally acceptable and result in huge cost savings.

The G W Bush Approach
There are two issues with SS that most people want to talk about. There is the critical solvency issue, which I discuss above. There is also the less important issue of how the money is invested. This is a sexy issue for politicians to talk about because SS has historically had lower investment returns than most other ways of investing money, which is frustrating to the ordinary Joe Q. Nascar.

President Bush has unfortunately muddled the situation by trying to address both issues at the same time. Thus, any reasonably solvency ideas he has are combined with the concept of private accounts where people can invest their own money. This has created a lot of unnecessary opposition to the latter, and thus everyone has thrown their hands up and given up on solving the bigger issue.

What Will Happen?
Probably nothing for a while, since unfortunately the option of "do nothing" exists and has only subtle implications. The best we can hope for is that a future administration will reach a point where they have a strong majority in Congress and can get some of the above solutions enacted. But since senior citizens are the most likely cohort of Americans to vote, and they do so decisively, it may be that the majority of our resources go towards supporting the elderly (SS, medicare, etc.) for a long time - possibly until we have a major war or similar event to require a shift in budgetary priorities.

What Dreams May Come

Some random thoughts on the movie "What Dreams May Come", which we watched on Saturday.

warning: spoilers below

Hmm, a story about a character called "Christ"y who does the following:
- heals a sick child
- dies
- is resurrected in heaven
- steps down from heaven, gives up everything he has to seek the salvation of a person

I wonder where they came up with this story idea? Hint, the bottom of hell is shaped like an inverted cathedral.

This movie is among the most visually stunning I have ever seen. The entire movie, up until the end, is unique and thoughtful. But sadly, the ending is completely vapid. It would be interesting to see if the book from which the movie was based has this same empty finish.

It seems like there are so many good movies with lame endings. It is easy to blame "Hollywood studios" for this, but if the book has the same problem there is not much you can do. Da Vinci Code comes to mind as another book with a somewhat unfulfilling ending. Maybe the problem with us is that we expect too much from endings. I heard once that if you can't think of a good last line to a story you are writing, you've already written it. Maybe people just try too hard to wrap up everything in one happy finish, instead of just being happy to have created a good story that just ends when it ends and that is that.

When I saw Clerks, I remember there was a deleted scene (the last scene of the movie) where the protagonist gets randomly shot at the end of the film. Apparently, they decided to cut that scene and Kevin Smith said he was glad that he cut it. But in some ways I think that scene would have added to the film, so I don't think it's a no-brainer that it should have been left out. In general, I will always prefer a non-conventional ending to a standard one - as long as it is not contrived and does not make me feel used as a viewer. Of course, this is why it is so hard to make a truly good children's movie - the ending needs to be predictable or you will have a lot of angry parents on your hands.