Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day - misc. comments

I voted today, and happily it didn't take long. I had been seeing all sorts of reports of record turnout all over the country, people waiting 10 hours to vote, people lining up at 3AM, etc. Frankly, it was quite scary thinking of the prospect that I might have to wait so long. Luckily we have a reasonably small precinct here, and when I got to the polls about 10 minutes before open, there were only about 15 people in line. Once the polls opened at 7AM, it only took me 15 minutes to get through everything and back to my car.

Last night I was watching TV, and it was nothing but a last minute flurry of ads. I'm not even sure if I saw a single ad that wasn't a campaign advertisement. Lots of the same ones over and over and over. A few of them got to me, because they seemed like they might be inaccurate. One of the ones that really bugged me was trying to urge people to vote against Michigan proposal 2, which is intended to allow research using embryonic stem cells to be funded by tax money. The ad tries to make the case something like "supporters say it won't increase your taxes, but then how come it says that tax money can be used...that is BS". The logical error on their part is astoundingly obvious. It doesn't need to raise taxes, as what it is doing is saying that if you get tax money to do your research, you can now use any portion of that funding to include human embryonic stem cells in your research. The deceit in the ad is clear as day (to me, at least), but I'm sure countless people will fall for it.

Which brings me to my next point. We currently have truth in advertising laws, but there is no such thing as a truth in campaigning law. I know such a law would be a difficult thing to define and enforce, as you can always pay anyone to do a study and conclude that you are telling the truth. Still, with the outrageous number of outright lies I've seen this election, it feels like something needs to be done. I'm just not sure what. All I know is that, when telling blatant lies is so often the most effective strategy to get elected, then democracy is largely meaningless?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween 2008: I am the Banana King

It's been a long time since I went out (or even just dressed up) for Halloween. The last time I can remember was 18 years ago. Well, my youngest niece just turned 14 months old, so this was her first time going out for halloween. My wife and I decided we wanted to go with her...I just needed to come up with an idea for a costume. After thinking through a number of ideas I couldn't come up with anything. Then one night, a group of us were introducing a friend to the silliness that is Charlie the Unicorn. Then suddenly it dawned on me...I will be the Banana King.

Now, if you aren't familiar with Charlie the Unicorn, then let me be the first to introduce you to the insanity that is Part 1 and Part 2. I got my idea for the Banana King from part 2, though I suggest watching part 1 first (just to better understand things).

Now, in the video, Charlie the Unicorn is actually the Banana King. However, I didn't really want to go around as a unicorn with a crown, as nobody would have any clue what I was. The king unicorn? The unicorn emporer? It just wouldn't make sense. Second, as a guy, dressing up as a unicorn is kind of...odd. Finally, I just don't know that my sewing skills would be good enough to make a unicorn costume.

Instead, I decided to take the concept of the Banana King and go my own direction...create what I would envision it like if somebody explained it to me. With that, I decided to make myself a giant banana with some appropriate accessories. I figured that way, even if people didn't know about Charlie the Unicorn, at least they should be able to get the basic premise of my costume right. They'd know what I was, even if they didn't understand it.

I started by looking at what banana costumes were available on the market. What I found was the same outfit that was being sold by everyone, but I thought it was quite lame. I thus decided to create it from scratch. It took me under a week to do the entire thing (5 evenings plus half a saturday).

The costume itself was just made from white and yellow fleece with some stiffening material sewn in, and a bit of stuffing to fill the bottom and top sections. The basic design was a banana half peeled. After making the main part of the costume, I added a crown (which I bought from the costume shop). I made a magical amulet from some balsa wood, painted with gold metallic paint, with some plastic jewels glued on, and put on a gold chain. I made 3 mini banana which were just the same as the main outfit but miniaturized, with some pipe cleaners for arms/legs and mouth drawn on a piece of fabric and glued onto the body. I put one on my back, one on my shoulder, and the third was free so that I could carry it around. Finally, I put a banana in my ear, which was just another mini banana, half peeled, but without the top peeled part or the arms/legs.

Here's some photos of the finished outfit:

So how well did the costume go over? Pretty good. I won a $50 iTunes gift card in a contest. I got tons of comments on it, including many "best costume of the night" comments. Almost everybody figured out right away that I was the banana king (or at least I'll give them full credit for guessing king banana). Yet it was the type of thing where they knew what it was, but it didn't make sense, so they had to ask to be certain. A few people at first thought I was....well, let's just say they thought I was something else (not that type of crown, folks). The funniest part is they were all ladies that thought that. I also ran into a guy dressed as a gorilla.

Yet, in all of that, nobody actually knew exactly what I was. Very few people I talked to had any clue about Charlie the Unicorn, and the few that knew hadn't yet seen part 2. So, in that respect the outfit was a bust, but it was tons of fun and very rewarding overall.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe the Plumber can't afford $600 in tax - Part 2

Last night I posted about the silly notion that Joe can't afford to buy a $250K business because of a $600 tax increase.

Now I've found an interview Joe did with Fox News. In this interview, he states that he's middle class too...that the houses in his neighborhood range in price from $90K to $140K. Joe says that after he buys the business, he'll be staying put in his house because he can't afford to buy more.

What the hell is Joe talking about? If you can't afford more than a $140K house on a $270K income, then things are way more wrong than I thought yesterday. Let just use some outrageously conservative estimates to look at this, to see just how ridiculous this is.

Joe earns $270K. Let assume that his total overall taxation is 50% of his income. That means his take home will be $135K. Now, lets assume that Joe sets aside a very healthy $30K each year for retirement. He's now got $105K. That $105K has to cover both his mortgage and his living expenses.

So let's think about this. Lets assume that Joe was irresponsible and cashed out his home, and owes the full $140K on his mortgage. Heck, no...let's go further and assume his house WAS valued at almost twice that value pre-housing-crash (lets say $240K) and that he irresponsibly cashed out every penny of equity. Lets also assume his credit wasn't too hot, and that he was only able to score an 8% mortgage.

With those figures, Joe can have his house paid off in only 5 years by paying $4866.34. That's less than $60K per year. If we take that off of his $105K available, that means after paying taxes, after saving a huge amount for retirement, and after paying enough to eliminate his mortgage in 5 years, Joe STILL has over $45K available to live off of. That's almost what most middle class people make BEFORE taxes, retirement, and mortgage.

Again, remember how conservative I'm being here. His combined taxes will be less than 50%, without doubt. His mortgage is most likely less than 8%, and he most likely doesn't owe $240K on his house. He will most likely not contribute $30K to retirement, and he will most likely keep his mortgage a lot longer than 5 years. Most likely Joe will have something like $100K left over after taxes, mortgage, and retirement.

So now, I can only come to one conclusion. If you can't do much better with that amount of money left over to live off of, and if that $600 additional tax is going to make it impossible for you to buy that business....wow! That's all I can say, just wow! You have to be absolutely TERRIBLE at financial management to not be able to live quite comfortably off of that.

The only other explanation is that this guy has been seriously mistaken or misled about just how much he's gonna be hurting under Obama's plan.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Joe the Plumber can't afford a $250K business because of $600 in tax?

Tonight during the debate, Joe the Plumber became a topic more often than I cared to hear. The part of it that really sounded absurd was the notion of Joe can't afford to buy the business because of the increase in taxes.

During the discussion between Joe the Plumber and Obama, Joe mentioned that the business makes about $270K per year. As Obama stated, the first $250K would stay the same. It is only the additional $20K or so that would be taxed at a rate 3% higher. If you figure that out, a 3% increase on $20K comes to $600.

So let me get this straight. You may not be able to afford to buy a $270K business because of a $600 tax increase? If that's the case, something is really wrong in the financial management here. If you can't handle a tax increase of 0.2% (which is how much $600 on $270K works out to)...if that's the deal breaker for you, then I've got news to give you. Something else has gone WAY wrong, and that something else is obviously the deal breaker.

In addition, as Obama mentioned, that $600 may be more than offset by Obama's other credits for health care expenses and capital gains reductions. (Edit: Not to mentioned the possibility of increased revenue as his customers have more money to spend due to their tax decreases)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

I'm not electing a Vice-Debater

Tonight in the VP debates, Palin proved that she can be an excellent debater. She did a great job. I'll admit I was disappointed not to see a train wreck there. I nearly popped up a bowl of popcorn in anticipation of an evening of comedy. I didn't get that. Palin put on a respectable performance, and anyone just seeing how well she talked had to be impressed.

However, when I go to the polls in November, I won't be electing a Vice-Debater. I'm electing a Vice-President, and that's an area she fell far short. A good debater knows how to completely change the topic when it's something they don't have a good answer to, and that's what Palin did. However, the goal wasn't to see how well she could talk without getting tripped up. The point was (at least to me) to see how well specific questions could be answered (which she completely failed to do on MANY occasions). Otherwise, why even bother having questions? Why not just a 90 minute free for all chat?

The point was to flesh out each candidate and see what they are made of...see how they will hold up to a variety of measures of their job as vice president (and more importantly, their potential future job as the actual president). It's really no surprise that Biden crushed her on those grounds. Considering the backgrounds, I'd expect nothing less. But to tone this down to the least common denominator, as everyone seems to be doing, and see who won on that measure? Well, to me that reminds me of no-child-left-behind, commonly referred to as no-child-gets-ahead. By putting so much value on how Biden measured up (or rather, down) to Palin's level of ability completely disregards the fact that his abilities are so much greater.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Palin contradicts McCain on Pakistan - even after debate

At the first presidential debate, one of the points John McCain disagreed with was Obama's willingness to make cross border attacks into Pakistan. The day after the debate, CNN captured video of Sarah Palin in public answering questions from random people.

In the video, about 10 seconds in, somebody asks Palin if she watched the debate last night, and she replies that she did. Later, at the 1:10 mark, somebody asks "Should we do cross border from Afghanistan to Pakistan". Palin replies "if that's what we have to do to stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should". It would seem that she didn't watch the debate as carefully as one would hope.

Also slightly amusing in the video is when the lady at the cash register asks Palin what her name is. She's been probably one of the most famous people in the country over the last month, yet some people have no idea who she is. I'm sure it could happen to anyone, yet it's still a humorous tribute to just how much of an unknown this lady is.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

UPDATE - Claim that Obama supported bridge to nowhere is inaccurate

This is an update to yesterday's post. Thanks to a post by digger joseguia, I was able to track down a statement direct from Obama, made in a letter he wrote to the Chicago Tribune a month after the vote was cast. In short, his reasoning directly matched what I suggested as option 3...it wasn't fair to single out one state to be the bearer or responsibility for funding:

Others intent on cutting spending have pointed to Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" as a wasteful project. I agree and believe that it represents the first type of project we should cut. But it's wrong to single out one state's pork project. If we're serious about shared responsibility, let's eliminate all pork projects in all states. To find $50 billion in tax breaks, we could postpone a planned tax break for millionaires, and we could temporarily roll back one of the tax cuts for those who make an income of more than $2 million per year.

I believe this quote makes it clear as day that he was not in support of the bridge, as he went on record as saying it is wasteful and "represents the first type of project we should cut"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Claim that Obama supported bridge to nowhere is inaccurate

Recently it has been talked about here and there that Obama/Biden are hypocrites for criticizing McCain/Palin over the Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska (aka the bridge to nowhere) , because, in fact, Obama and Biden both voted against an amendment that would removing funding of the Alaska bridge. This story has today made its way to the be the headline story on CNN. It didn't take long for the article to show up on Digg and get all the Anti-Obama fans riled up about it.

Well, not wanting to just be a blind Obama supporter, I decided to actually do a little research on the matter. However, before I get into that, I want to make an important point about the topic. The thing that is missing from the debate on this issue is the fact that Obama/Biden weren't criticizing Palin for supporting the bridge...they were critizing McCain/Palin for LYING by saying that Palin was against the bridge when clearly she was in support of it. This was not a case of saying "I am innocent but you are guilty". It was a case of saying "do not even try to pretend like you are innocent".

With that important matter out of the way, let me get to the more important point about why the claim about Obama supporting the bridge is misleading, if not outright inaccurate.

Possible reasons to vote against the amendment

The vote in question here was a vote against Senate Amendment 2165 to bill HR 3058. The amendment was not an amendment to remove funding for the Alaska bridge, but was actually a bill to shift funding from the Alaska bridge to the Twin Spans Bridge in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Now, you might think "big deal...it's the same thing", but it is not. There are at least 3 possible reasons for which one could choose to vote against such an amendment:

1) You are in favor of funding the Alaska bridge
2) You are against the funding of the Louisiana bridge
3) You are against the shifting of funds from one to the other

Option 1 is what everyone seems to want to assume, but as I did research I do not believe this is the reason that Obama and Biden (along with 80 other Senators) chose to vote against the amendment.

Option 2 - Against the funding of the Louisiana bridge

Option 2 sounds very unlikely on first glance. After all, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and the whole nation was crying out to do anything we could to help them out. So why would it be that 82 members of the Senate would be AGAINST reconstructing the bridge in New Orleans?

Reading through the Congressional Record gave me some insight into the matter. I'm not sure of the easiest way to provide a link to the relevant pages, but if you follow this link, it will take to you a brief summary. You can then click on the links for the pages I reference below.

The funding being addressed by HR 3058 was non-emergency funding, or funding that is part of the general budget. On page S11630, Lisa Murkowski (the Junior Senator from Alaska) explains that the reconstruction of the bridge in Louisiana is actually eligible for federal emergency funds.

I wish to talk about a couple of the facts that Members of this body need to know. If, in fact, what we intend to do here, if, in fact, this amendment is intended to provide for reconstruction of the twin-span bridge, it is eligible for emergency repair funds. Negotiations for its repair are already underway between the State of Louisiana and the Federal agency. I am confident that this bridge will be repaired without needless damage to the project from any other State. And if, in fact, there is a funding mechanism that we need to resolve to help make this happen, I am certainly willing to participate in that. I think all of us would be willing to participate. If we need to do something to make this project move forward with the funding mechanism, we can help with that.

In other words, the bridge was already in the process of being granted emergency funds so that it could be rebuilt without affecting any other projects. This actually is a very sensible stance to take. It is a stance that almost any business or organization will take. If you can get a project completed with special bonus funding, then you take that instead of raiding the general fund.

I think this point alone would be enough to justify voting against amendment 2165, but let's continue on and look at the 3rd option.

Option 3 - Against the shifting of funds from one to the other

Like option 2, this sounds unlikely. What is wrong with shifting funding from a less important project? Well, once again, statements in the Congressional Record give some insight on this matter. In it, Ted Stevens (the Senior Senator from Alaska) makes a very important point. Taking funding from one state (and only one state) in order to give it to another state is both unfair and unprecedented.

On Page S11629, in reference to Senator Coburn from Oklahoma, who authored the 2165 amendment:
Mr. President, the highway reauthorization bill recently passed the Congress. It was several years in the making and the result of a compromise. Now one of our colleagues feels it is his responsibility to rewrite portions of that bill to achieve his goals, not those that are expressed in the law itself.

Unfortunately, the manner in which the Senator wishes to do this has no impact on his constituency or any other constituency except Alaska. I fought for statehood as a member of the Eisenhower administration. I have been here now almost 37 years. This is the first time I have seen any attempt by any Senator to treat my State in a way differently from any other State. It will not happen. It will not happen.

Later, he continues on to page S11629:
The amendment that is before us now will affect only Alaska. It will help Louisiana. We want to help Louisiana but not solely at the expense of Alaska. That is not a way to treat a sovereign State. This is something on which I think every Senator must examine his or her own conscience. What would they do if they were faced with the proposition that only their State's allocation of funds under a protective program would be taken and given to another State at the time of disaster?

On page S11630 Senator Murkowski says:
But when we are singled out as one State, saying, Your project is not worthy; of all the other projects out there we are going to go after yours, it is not the time to be sitting back and saying we can compromise on this, we can make a deal.

And on S11633 she continues:
If the suggestion were made to our colleagues that everybody gives a little bit, everybody gives a little bit on your transportation projects, that is okay. As one of the 50 States, we can deal with that. We can certainly accept that. But to see we are looking at one State--first it was one project, now it is two projects--this Senator cannot accept, will not accept a proposal like that.

Senator Stevens continues:
I am willing to try to work out a system so that all States contribute to assisting our sister State in Louisiana and recognize their prior need for money, but I am entirely unwilling to take money from Alaska only. I think the Senate ought to have that on notice.

I will put the Senate on notice--and I don't kid people--if the Senate decides to discriminate against our State and take money only from our State, I will resign from this body. This is not the Senate I came to. This is not the Senate I devoted 37 years to. If one Senator can decide he will take all the money from one State to solve a problem of another, that is not a union. That is not equality and is not treating my State the way I have seen it treated for 37 years.

On page S11636 Senator Murkowski concludes:
Mr. President, the Senator from Oklahoma who has just spoken, who is the author of this amendment, has indicated we need to be making sacrifices. I do not think anyone in the State of Alaska feels we should not be contributing, but we do not feel in the State of Alaska that it should be coming entirely from one State. This amendment puts the sacrifice on one State.

I urge rejection of this amendment.

And Senator Stevens concludes:
Mr. President, I would add to my colleague's comment to say this concept is a concept that every State should think about because if it can be done on a bridge, why not do it on any type of event where a Senator would like to have money for their State, but they say take it from another State because they do not need it. I made a statement earlier today that in my 37 years I have never seen this. I have never seen a request that money for a disaster be taken solely from a project in one State to help a disaster in other States.

We are a disaster-prone State. We have more disasters than any other State in the Union. Remember our 1964 earthquake. We have tsunamis. We have all types of disasters. But we have never tried to take moneys from other States to meet our costs.

I urge the Senate not to start this process.

The point being made throughout all of this is that, this isn't a matter of funding the New Orleans bridge, but rather a matter of singling out one state to be the sole bearer of responsibility for funding an emergency in another state. I believe this is perhaps the most influential factor in the debate, and probably what caused 82 senators to reject the amendment.

Obama's and Biden's votes

So why did Obama and Biden vote the way they did? Well, as far as I can tell, they don't have any statement on record as to why they voted as they did. However, from what I've seen of the Congressional Record, it seems much less likely that they voted as they did because they favored building the bridge in Alaska, and much more likely that they were opposed to using non-emergency funds for New Orleans when emergency funds were available, and also opposed to singling out one state to bear the burden of sacrifice.

In summary, claiming Obama and Biden voted in favor of building of the bridge in Alaska in misleading, and probably even incorrect.


I've posted an update to this article that contains a quote directly from Obama on this matter, making his position on the bridge to nowehere, and his reasoning for this vote, clear as day.