Dec 292008

I’ve often noticed those wood & styrofoam roadside memorials with flowers and handwritten signs for people killed in road accidents. They’re tacky but I love them because they show a piece of life where people just go and do things without getting permission from some government person. It’s a bit of life that hasn’t yet been standardized, bureaucraticized, and MacDonaldized.

Except in some states, such as California, Colorado, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, regulators have stamped out the personal initiative aspects. And now West Virginia is trying to do the same.

I didn’t realize until now that that the people who put up these memorials deserve one of the Leviathan Ankle-Biter awards. So I hereby present them with one.

And here‘s a link to Matt Frost’s article at The American Scene where you can follow the links to more information about them.

Dec 292008

For years — maybe even decades — I’ve been talking up the idea of a net-zero gas tax. Except I didn’t know it should be called “net-zero” until I read Charles Krauthammer’s article in the January 5 issue of The Weekly Standard. And it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve decided in my own mind that the countervailing tax reduction should definitely be in the FICA tax.

For most of these years it has been like talking to a brick wall. LeftLiberals don’t like the idea, because for the most part they don’t really care about the environment. What they care about is growing the government and increasing the opportunities for power and corruption, all of which can be accomplished much better with CAFE standards and carbon-trading schemes (and more recently, with big bailouts). Conservatives until very recently haven’t liked the idea because their heads have been stuck firmly in the sand. Libertarians don’t like the idea because of the word tax and because it requires government action. They can’t get it through their heads that you can’t have free markets without government action. (LeftLiberals also sneer at the idea using the same words: “What? I thought you people were against all government regulation.” But that of course is not the reason they oppose it.)

It has been in just the past few weeks that I’ve been reading a few articles here and there in which conservatives have been talking up the idea. And now Krauthammer has explained the case in full.

I would add just one point to Krauthammer’s suggestion of reducing the FICA tax to pay for it: I would take Barak Obama up on his idea to expand the FICA tax to include all income; however, it too should be a net-zero increase. This would really give lower income people the tax cut that he talked in favor of during his campaign, and it would remove a regressive tax from our system. Obama probably didn’t mean to keep his campaign promise, but let’s pretend that he really did and let’s hold him to it.

One additional reason is that the Social Security system is underfunded, much like the Madden Madoff system was. There will be a temptation to enact a big gas tax with countervailing reductions in FICA, and then to increase FICA to pay for Congress’s fraudulent promises on Social Security. Maybe that will have to happen to some degree, but I want all the wealthy, influential people to have a stake in that decision, and not to be sitting out the issue because it doesn’t concern their own pocketbooks.

Dec 202008

Headline from the Obama campaign organization (aka The Associated Press): “In Cabinet, Obama goes for experience, pragmatism”

A million bloggers have probably noticed that if he goes for experience and pragmatism, he isn’t going for [you guessed it]. The AP has an explanation for that.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Barack Obama has wholeheartedly embraced experience in choosing his Cabinet. That may seem at odds with the president-elect’s campaign theme of “change we can believe in.” But some Democratic activists and nonpartisan analysts say it makes sense, given the dire economy and public anxiety.

So let’s see if we have this right: When times are good, we need change. That must explain why that word was used so much during the campaign. But when times are bad, we need the same old, same old.

And to think that some of us were bothered by George W. Bush’s difficulties in expressing a coherent thought.

Dec 202008

“U.S. Throws Lifeline to Detroit”

That’s the miserable, Murdochized headline on the lead story in the weekend issue of the Wall Street Journal. It’s typical Murdoch — uninformative and opinionated, telling us things that nobody could possibly know.

I googled for other stories on what happened Friday to see if other newspapers did a similarly wretched job in describing the action of the Bush administration. I selected stories that purported to tell what the Bush administration did and omitted any that seemed mainly about peoples’ reactions. If there seemed to be two such stories from any particular news agency, I picked what seemed to be the main and best one.

Here are the results:

  • Bush throws lifeline to US automakers (Reuters)
  • Automakers grab loans, look to Obama White House (The Associated Press)
  • Auto bailout plan rolls in (Lake Expo, MO)
  • Chrysler, GM win a federal lifeline (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
  • Bush approves $17.4 billion in aid to automakers (Los Angeles Times)
  • Loans give GM, Chrysler 3 months (Detroit Free Press)
  • GM and Chrysler Will Get $13.4 Billion in US Loans (Bloomberg)
  • Bush announces auto rescue (CNNMoney)
  • Bush Approves $17.4 Billion Auto Bailout (New York Times)
  • Bush’s lifeline offers car firms the fuel to survive (The Age, Australia)
  • Bush orders auto bailout (London Free Press, Canada)
  • Bush unveils $17.4bn carmaker rescue (Rediff, India)
  • $17.4B bailout will halt automakers’ hemorrhaging (Indianapolis Star)
  • After Congress Refuses, Bush Gives $17.4 Billion Loan To US Carmakers (RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, Czech Republic)
  • Bailout approved: Automakers to get $17.4B (Salt Lake Tribune, United States)

I hate to have to say anything good about these two, but the Los Angeles Times and New York Times both had headlines worthy of the news profession. So did the Salt Lake Tribune, Radio Free Europe, and Rediff of India.

Note to the Indianapolis Star: You can stop the sales pitch and wild promises now. It’s a done deal.

Were any of these headlines worse than the WSJ’s? No, but Reuters and the Minneapolis Star and Tribune were just as bad. Maybe The Age of Australia should be in there, too.

Dec 192008

I had thought that whatever else you might say about Barak Obama, you had to acknowledge that he was an Internet-savvy guy. He used the Internet to raise tons of money. He used his Blackberry while John McCain was oblivious to such technologies.

Well, it turns out that Obama’s transition team has been Google-deprived, or it would have known better than to communicate something like this:

Only one outside economist contacted by Obama aides, Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, who served on President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, voiced skepticism about the need for an economic stimulus, transition officials said.

They contacted only one. What a narrow, cramped world they live in, as they and their media groupies are about to find out.

Those of us who ARE internet-savvy know it already. Representative John Boehner is compiling a list of economists who are stimulus spending skeptics.

HT to economist King Banion at SCSU Scholars

Dec 182008

It’s bad enough that one of these years I’ll have to retire from my day job. But to make it worse, there is the existence of things such as Boston College’s “Center for Retirement Research.” That in itself isn’t the worst of it. The worst is that it’s led by a director, Alicia Munnell, who has this to say in last weekend’s WSJ:

The 401(k) system has had a chance, and in my view, it has failed. As a major shource of retirement income, it has shown itself unreliable–a point the financial crisis has driven home.

For the record, my own retirement savings are not in a 401K, but in TIAA-CREF. But TIAA-CREF is similar in that it’s another defined-contribution system. Those plans are hated by people who hate markets and human choice. Here’s an example of the attitude you find, from the same WSJ article.

We’ve shifted the risk and responsibility for retirement onto individuals. The evidence is at best mixed on how well this is working out.

Somebody has a government-centric outlook on life, it would appear, if he views individual risk and responsibility as an aberration.

To be sure, not all of the WSJ article is anti-choice. There are some pro-choice proposals to make 401(k)s better and more available. But there are plenty of people who just don’t like humans taking over the government’s job of running their lives.

Their solution? Turn investment decisions and planning over to the financial geniuses who now want to invest in GM and the Big Three.

Dec 182008

It’s a good thing the WSJ buried this story on page A13: “France Credits Deregulation for Cushioning its Economy.”

It’s a sacrilege. It’s heresy. Will the reporters (Sebastian Moffett and David Gauthier-Villars) ever get any of those awards that journalists give each other if anyone finds out what they’ve done?

Speaking of the incestuous system of journalistic awards, here‘s from the latest issue of The Weekly Standard:

We mention this not so much because of our admiration for Leonard Downie Jr.-more about him in a minute-but by virtue of our interest in the ancient journalistic practice of logrolling, back-scratching, mutual admiration, or whatever it is you want to call the business of news insiders shamelessly awarding prizes to each other. Downie, as we mentioned, was editor of the Washington Post from 1991 until this year; his predecessor at the Post (as readers might have guessed) was the same Benjamin C. Bradlee for whom the Benjamin C. Bradlee Award is named. Which, of course, was just awarded to Leonard Downie Jr.

THE SCRAPBOOK infers a couple of things from this. First, it explains why, year after year, Pulitzer prizes in journalism are equitably divided among deserving recipients at, oh, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Second, it gives THE SCRAPBOOK some measure of hope. If this year’s Benjamin C. Bradlee Award goes to Benjamin C. Bradlee’s successor as editor at the Post, it stands to reason that, somewhere down the line, the coveted William Kristol Award might go to THE SCRAPBOOK! Of course, the fact that there is, at the moment, no William Kristol Award is not an obstacle: We’ll just establish something called the Scrapbook Foundation, and make its principal business the yearly presentation of the William Kristol Award, complete with a thousand-dollar-per-table banquet, C-SPAN coverage, and celebrity comedian/speaker.

Dec 172008

Is this a “mine is bigger than yours” contest?

Anxious to jolt the economy back to life, President-elect Barack Obama appears to be zeroing in on a stimulus package of about $850 billion, dwarfing last spring’s tax rebates and rivaling drastic government actions to fight the Great Depression.


If they want to play games, how about instead making it a “mine lasts longer than yours” contest? The way to do that is with permanent tax relief. Nobody is going to make long-term plans based on a short-term stimulus. In fact, this kind of wild stimulus behavior only adds to the uncertainty that is killing the economy now.

Dec 122008

There used to be the practice of “separate but equal.” Now we have “close but separate.”

NY Times headline: “Ex-Obama Fund-Raiser Was Close to Illinois Governor, but Kept Ties Separate.”

I presume it’s something like the old practice of bundling. In that case it wasn’t politicians in bed with each other, but young people who were given a chance to have “intimacy without sexual intercourse.”

BTW, the name Obama is in the headline, but the person the headline is talking about is Tony Rezko.

Dec 112008

Speed Gibson prodded me into using the Internet to find Caribou Coffee locations. I like to know where one can find a decent cup of coffee along our route from southwest Michigan to north-central Minnesota, where my parents live.

It had been some time since I tried using the Internet to do this. As I looked up the site I thought to myself, Sure, you can put in the name of a town and find the Coffee places within so many miles. But I want it to tell me where I can find coffee along our route.

And then I saw it on the Caribou Coffee page: Under “Find a Location,” there are the choices: “By City,” “By Address,” and “Along a Route” (!). Just what I wanted!

Now if only Caribou Coffee could make better coffee. I usually prefer it to Starbucks (too burnt), though the Starbucks quality is probably more consistent. But the last time I got a Caribou cup at Hudson, WI, I had to throw it out as undrinkable. There ought to be a rule that a person who doesn’t drink coffee shouldn’t be allowed to stand behind a counter and sell you coffee. (I don’t actually know that it was a non-coffee-drinker, but I can’t imagine someone who drinks coffee selling something that has gone bad.)

And coffee that might be OK with milk, ice, and whatever is not necessarily going to be good to drink straight. Not all coffee shops realize that.

Here is a quick summary of some memorable places where I’ve gotten coffee.

  • The best coffee I’ve ever had was a cup of Zimbabwe coffee in September 2003 at a coffee house in Millersburg, Ohio that has since gone out of business. My wife agreed. I don’t know if it was fresh roasted but it was ground fresh for us.
  • We just picked up an order today at Upson’s in Kalamazoo. Roasting day is Tuesday. I like the way Linda roasts, though some people might like it roasted not quite as dark. Unfortunately she doesn’t carry as big a variety as she used to. I get Sumatra and Costa Rica coffee there. I used to get Kenya AA as a special treat, and an Ethiopian until she said I was one of only two customers for it and she wouldn’t be getting more. This is where I get most of my beans.
  • Once in a while I order coffee from the Great Northern Roasting Company in Traverse City. The variety is not great, but Jack produces some exquisite roasts. He roasts just before shipping. I just finished a great cup of Tanzania Peaberry from his beans.
  • I get the coffee of the week from Sweet Maria’s now and then. It’s also where I order my french presses and other supplies. Maybe someday I’ll order a roaster from them, too. Roasting my own is probably the only way I’ll get some of that excellently complex Yemen coffee on a regular basis.
  • Last summer we stopped at Canterbury Coffee in Bellefontaine, Ohio. They have a big variety to choose from. (How come places like Caribou and Starbucks don’t offer choices of regular brewed coffee?)
  • Bella Caffe’ in Park Rapids MN will let you order a fresh-pressed coffee in a french press. I’ve long thought coffee houses should offer this. I’ll gladly wait 5 minutes for coffee to be fresh ground and fresh brewed to order. I discovered this place several weeks ago. But they serve you the press. Well, that’s not necessary. The thing to do is push the plunger after 3 minutes and immediately pour it into cups — not let the coffee sit in the press. But at least one can get fresh brewed coffee there.
  • Most Panera Bread places sell decent-to-good coffee, though I’ve found 1-2 places that try to skimp. Skimping on the coffee makes it bitter. I’ve had decent cups of coffee at MacDonalds, too, and have also had good coffee at Arby’s and Tim Hortons. But some people in these fast-food franchises shouldn’t be allowed to make coffee. I suspect they are non-coffee-drinkers.
  • At gas stations I sometimes put a little in a cup and sniff it before deciding whether or not to buy a cup. I’ve had really good gas-station coffee, but it tends to be a crap shoot where you lose more often than not. Coffee can be ruined by people who are too cheap and who skimp on the grounds, or who don’t clean their equipment properly, or who let the brewed coffee sit too long and let it go rancid. But at least there is the possibility of getting good coffee on the road these days. Most coffee nowadays is better than what you used to find 20-30 years ago. It’s certainly a lot better than the stuff I used to drink then.

Time to go brew another cup. What should it be? My personal blend of Sumatra-Costa Rica from Upson’s? Or should I break open the “Terruno Nayarita Mexican Natural” from Great Northern? Decisions, decisions.