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Monday, January 29, 2007

I wonder

I wonder if this will post to my Blog? Evidently Blogger is now DEMANDING that I move to their new set up, since I can't access the Blogger Home page without being redirected to the  "move to the new blogger" page.

However, if I can keep posting by e-mail, I'll just forgo the inevitable for a while longer... If for no reason than to tick off the folks at Google.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Toothless Dog To Bite Bush

This week the President will be attacked by a toothless dog. Not exactly a scary proposition, but still it's the best that the ultra politically concerned congress can come up with.

With tens of thousands protesting the war, and celebrity protesters like Sean Penn and "Hanoi" Jane Fonda present, you'd think Congress would feel emboldened to do something meaningful with their vote on the Iraq war.

No, instead of taking a real stand, and cutting off funding for the war, Congress will instead debate (as though they have meaning) a few non-binding resolutions saying the President's policy in Iraq isn't in the best interest of the U.S.A.

Both GOP and Democrat(ic) members will introduce resolutions that have no effect, other than to say "We don't like the policy, and we are weak willed ninnies".

But why, with public support for the President so low, and the war even lower, don't they do something meaningful? The answer is simple, there is a Presidential election next year, and keeping Iraq as an issue is more important (to them) than actually doing what they believe to be right.

Secondly, they aren't at all sure that a good outcome will happen if we abandon Iraq, and not only in Iraq. Iran is a major concern, and while the Congressmen and women would like us to believe the whole world will love us if we leave Iraq, they know that Iran is relishing the idea.

Iran, for those who haven't paid attention to anything but Iraq in the Middle East, has been building quite an arsenal over the last decade. They have threatened at times to close the Strait of Hormuz, where a good portion of the worlds oil is shipped, and in the past shot tankers trying to leave (think back to the 1980's). In fact, the tanker war of the '80's is what originally ramped up our presence in the Gulf.

The weak-willed in Congress knows that the only reason Iran doesn't try similar tactics, and to take over a weak Iraq, is US presence there. By cutting off funding for Iraq, they'd also be removing the only thing that keeps Iran at bay in the Gulf.

Going into 2008 the last thing the Democratic majority needs is a (huge) spike in oil prices, brought by a policy they voted for, and an imboldened Iran flexing it's muscle in the region.

So instead of taking what they believe to be the morally correct action in Iraq, they will instead take what is the politically expedient action, say a lot, and do nothing.

That folks, is what we elected last November.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Bush Goes Left

While many folks are touting the "market based" health plan the President described this week, the truth is that as a whole, it's a pretty liberal idea.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, proposed decades ago that (employer provided) health coverage should be considered taxable income. That is a big part of the President's plan. To pay for the $15,000 ($7,500 for singles) tax break for insurance premiums employer provided plans would become taxable income.

Supposedly the "market force" part of the plan is that you, as the consumer, would look for a cheaper plan at work, to reduce your tax burden and maximize your deduction.

However, a lot of that is beyond the employees control. Most companies work through one, maybe two insurers. So while you might be healthy as an ox, and not need much coverage, your employer's insurer of choice may not offer the economical choice you are looking for.

The flip side is you might just be a heart attack waiting to happen, or have issues that keep your premiums higher. Because of that you end up with a higher tax burden due to the cost of coverage.

The best advice for young, healthy folks is to take minimum coverage, and open an HSA to cover deductibles, etc, and enjoy the tax breaks. For those who need more coverage, you probably should take it, but still take the HSA, to help with the tax impact that those higher coverage costs may add to your taxes. (I'm not a tax planner, seek professional advice on these ideas if Bush's proposal goes through).

The funny thing about this whole thing is that Democrats hate the idea, though it's similar to ideas they pitched while Clinton was in office. Probably more proof of Bush Derangement Syndrome. Even when he proposes one of their ideas, it's wrong because he pitched it.

Instead, they'll say that a single payer system (Think Canada and Britain) is the solution, even though Canada is changing their system because it's inefficient, and been found unconstitutional there. Britain has a single payer system, with market based help available for those who can't stand the idea of 6 month waits for MRI's and treatment.

For the record, I do have insurance, but not provided by my employer. For tax reasons this proposal would be a god send for me, as my premiums are low, and out of pocket. I'd see a huge tax break, probably moving me down a bracket come tax time.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

THIS is an Issue?

"You've got to be shitting me" is a phrase I heard often as a youngster in the blue collar world. Normally it's used when someone would tell a tale (often over a brewed or aged beverage) that sounded a little too big to be true.

Today, when I read the Washington Post article "President's Sin of Omission?", the phrase was the first thing to come to mind.

It seems the left is upset the President said "I congratulate the Democrat majority", leaving off the "ic" in Democratic.

This is, to the left, a huge insult. Understand, that these are the same people who have mocked Bush for 7 years about his mangling of the English language. They've called it a "calculated insult", "demeaning", "nails on a chalk board". At the same time, they like to poke fun at his use of the language.

If that slip in the State of the Union is worth 590 words on page 1 of the politics section then the country is in much better shape that we all thought.

If the Daily Kos folks and Center for American Progress are going to spend this much energy on something this small, then we, as a country, must be in much better shape than their websites would have you believe. So maybe it's time to quit listening to them at all.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Union

It's sad, but I probably won't watch the President make his State of the Union address tonight, or listen to the Democratic response to it. I figure there has to be something good, like Iron Chef America or Mythbusters on instead.

When I get up in the morning and turn on the news, I'll be bombarded by the talking heads. The newpapers will all have their take, and I'll be able to get the transcripts online and read it for myself, without the constant interruption from Congress either applauding or booing.

Years ago I made my kids watch the SotU and other such things, so they'd understand politics a little better. I understand them well enough to know I can get the message by reading the transcript.

Here's my synopsis of what will transpire, though. Bush will toss a few grenades, but mostly carrots to the Democrats. They in turn will toss mostly grenades at him, with one or two carrots so they can say they aren't "always" confrontational.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

More Into The Fray

While Hillary got the headlines this weekend, by announcing (like we needed one) that she's running for President, today Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico tossed his hat into the ring.

While Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards are the front runners for the Democratic nomination, Richardson isn't someone who should be counted out. Of all of the folks running, from any side of the aisle, he's got more governement experience, and foreign policy experience. His time at the UN, and his work in Korea, and Sudan, and other places around the world gives him an edge in an area that will probably be the centerpoint of the 2008 election.

Richardson should appeal to most Democrats who are looking for both experience, and electability. Clinton has one, Obama the other; Richardson definitely has the experience, and my guess is as people come to know him over the next year he may capture the electability crown too.

He's anti-Bush on Iraq, very Democratic sounding when he talks (wrongly) about the economy, and has an appeal that many Democratic pollsters love, he can attract hispanic voters because he's hispanic. Since they've become the largest minority in the country having someone who can attract that bloc will become increasing important as the election approaches.

My guess is that as Clinton's negatives become more and more clear, and Obama's lack of experience becomes an issue, many in the Dem camp will look towards Richardson.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Goodbye Art

Art Buchwald died today at 81, in a way I'm sure most of us hope we can go, on our own terms. Art was given weeks to live last February when he decided against dialysis for kidney failure, and instead went home, then to a hospice. Instead, he held out for a year, and even wrote a book about the experience.

According to friends he had a last wish, "I just don't want to die the same day Castro dies", which kind of sums up the way Art thought.

Art was an icon to me. Growing up I learned about comedy from guys like Steve Martin, George Carlin, Freddy Prinz and the like. But I learned about humor from guys like Art Buchwald, and Alan King, who knew the difference between comedy and humor.

As a old teenager and a young adult, I read many of Art's books and a lot of his columns. He lead me to Dave Barry and P.J. O'Rourke, people who were humorists, not really comedians. They all did something similar, taught me to look at many serious things from the lighter side, and I think that ability has served me well over the years.

If you get a chance, go to the library (that big building full of books and free internet access) and check out a few of Art's books, especially his earlier political commentary, which puts even things like Watergate and Viet Nam in proper perspective.

UPDATE: Art's final column, which he wrote before he died, is now up on the Chicago Tribune website (registration required)

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Wal-Mart Wins Again

A 3 judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals shot down Maryland's health care law aimed only at Wal-Mart today.

It's not a surprise, Congress passed ERISA, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, to keep companies that operate in multiple states from having to navigate 50 different sets of rules on benefits for employees. Maryland knew that when they passed the law, but decided keeping labor unions happy was a better idea than following federal law.

So far every state that's tried passing a "Wal Mart" benefits law has lost the court battles over it. That hasn't stopped the folks from organized labor from asking more states to pass such laws, but hopefully another court loss will get states to realize that it's a losing proposition.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Time To Negotiate

Robert K. Brigham has an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning, telling us "The Time To Negotiate Is Now"; and he's wrong.

The truth is the time to negotiate with Iran and Syria to try and get them to quit supplying weapons, knowledge, and bodies to the Iraq insurgency was probably 2-3 years ago, when they might have had some motivation to listen.

At that point, with a GOP controlled Congress, and reasonable public support in the US for the war, they'd have had reason to look at any carrots we offered, fearing the stick we carried.

Today, with a Congress set on failure in Iraq, and a public that doesn't grasp the consequences of such a failure, Iran and Syria have no reason what so ever to negotiate in good faith with us, or anyone.

Brigham's idea of backing off on support of Israel to gain favor with the two biggest terrorist sponsor in the region is pure insanity. Iran and Syria have both showed a willingness to feign cooperation with the international community when it will buy them time for something else; then completely abandon any pretense of caring what the world thinks of them when it suits their interests.

Syria proven this by closing Hezbollah offices in their country to gain favor with the UN and others; at the same time they funneled weapons to the Palestinians, and money to Hezbollah candidates in the PA to help put them in a position of power.

Iran is less subtle, they just tell the world to screw off on a regular basis, knowing that because of dependence on Iranian oil, and the money they get from Iran for weapons, China will block any meaningful UN actions against them.

Yeah, these are the guys we should negotiate with.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

My Government Wants Me To Smoke!

The state of Illinois, where I currently hold residence, is once again looking to ban smoking in all public places.

Personally, as a smoker, I could care less. I don't die from not smoking in restaurants, and I don't hang out in bars very often, so that isn't that big a deal either.

But with all the public area smoking bans, some states even looking to ban smoking anywhere but one's home, etc, you have to wonder, why not just outlaw cigarettes all together? I know that the cheapo generic I just lit is shortening my life, the government and (now) tobacco industry make no bones about the fact that the nicotine in the smokes is addictive. Why are they still for sale?

The answer is of course, MONEY! Oh sure, the government will feign interest in my health by passing a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, but the truth is, they kind of hope I keep lighting up.

With states getting anywhere from $0.07 to $2.02 per pack in tax money (as of 2006), smoking is good for the state coffers, and since it's a "sin tax" most folks agree with it.

Colorado, for instance, collected nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in taxes on smokes last year. If they quit allowing cigarettes to be sold, they'd have to jack up other taxes by $50 per year for every man, woman and child in the state. Not a palatable idea for most state legislatures. That was with a tax of only $0.84 per pack (right in the middle as far as states go).

Washington State, at $2.02 per pack collected over 320 million dollars in state taxes (plus 25 million more on other tobacco products). Since they have no state income tax, to make up the money they'd have to either look to increasing their already high sales tax (6.5%) or find some other way to make up that revenue. Try and sell that idea to "Joe Public", and I'm sure it won't fly very well.

So, next time you see me light one up, instead of telling me I'm killing myself, pat me on the back, and thank me for keeping your sales and income taxes lower by buying cigarettes!

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Same Old Song and Dance

I know, everyone want's something profound on the Bush speech from last night, or the reaction to it from Democrats last night and today.

The fact is, nothing profound was said by anyone last night or today. It's pretty much the same old same old from both sides. I agree with the President's plan, but it was not a big surprise, though I will say I think it's about 18 months too late.

The reaction from the other side of the spectrum was as expected. Hearings, threats of cutting off funding, and claiming that somehow abandoning Iraq will cause the country to suddenly come together and sing Kumbaya.

Nope, nothing profound, just more of the same from everyone.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Vietnamization of Iraq

For those who don't remember the word "Vietnamization", it referred to the idea that the US was going to train more South Vietnamese troops, and once again become advisors in the war in Southeast Asia.

It was a plan devised mostly by President Nixon, but because of public pressure, and congressional drumbeating to defund the war. For those who don't remember, it was the point at which we gave up on Viet Nam, and allowed the South to be overrun by the north.

In Iraq, it is the Congress that is pushing hardest for Vietnamization of the country. When the President mentioned a troop surge to curb sectarian violence to House and Senate leaders, hearings were moved up a week or two on Iraq. Many members are now hinting at defunding Iraq, forcing a withdrawl due to lack of funds.

Once again Congress would like to see an ill-equipped and not ready for prime time Army take center stage in a war where a well equipped and trained Army is having difficulty. They don't see the parallel to Viet Nam, or that this is still a recipe for disaster. What they see is poll numbers, the least sound way to set policy.

The President's plan, which has been leaking from Democratic leaders officers since he briefed them makes sense. Add more troops, and as the number two general in Iraq said, deal with both Sunni and Shi'ite militias, then pull back when it's easier for the Iraqi's to handle Baghdad makes more sense, even if polling doesn't support it.

Even if it makes more sense, and is probably the right course, don't expect Congress to go along with it. To the new leadership the short term political gains of forcing withdrawl means much more than the long term consequences of a stable Iraq.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Promises, Easy To Make

The newly minted Congress is finding right off the bat that all of those campaign promises they made are harder to keep than they figured.

It starts with what seemed the easiest thing to get, the minimum wage increase. Evidently there aren't enough democrats on board with it to get it through, so now they are looking at a tax cut for small business to lure GOP votes to pass it.

The problem is they also passed a (watered down) Pay Go rule for new tax cuts, so they have to find spending cuts to pay for the tax cut to get the minimum wage increase through.

The Pay Go rule, which was touted by many is turning into a headache for all in the House. They've promised to cut student loan interest rates by half, but now won't be able to do it at once, instead phasing it in over five years. They promised to eliminate, or at least soften the alternative minimum tax (ATM), but have to find at least 50 billion a year in cuts or new taxes soften the ATM, or 100 billion a year to eliminate it.

Paul Ryan of Wisconsin mocked the new congress, saying they've put the American people on a collision course with a tax increase. He is right, and the Democrats know it, but don't know how to deal with their own rules, and their own campaign promises.

I predicted a few months ago, before the election, that whoever had control of congress for the next two years would have issues with the economy going into the 2008 elections, because economies are cyclic. The Democrats, in 48 hours, have started brewing a perfect batch of "get un-elected" beer for 2008. A slight downturn in the economy, with tax increases included, will be used as fodder to show why their programs don't work to keep America moving.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Congress and Iraq

One of the things I seldom do is agree with Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post, however today I'll have to say that the blind squirrel of WaPo commentators found a nut.

In his latest column he laments the "first 100 hours" legislation that is the hallmark of Nancy Pelosi, a bunch of feel good stuff to show how compassionate the Democrats are. As he noted, "Pelosi could toss in a couple of bills supporting motherhood and apple pie while she's at it."

What Nancy hasn't talked about is what got the Democrats into power, Iraq, and Eugene notes that soon they'll have to confront that war, and figure out the House's stand on it. I agree with him completely, but probably for much different reasons.

Mr. Robinson, and E.J. Dionne both have columns today about what Congress should do about the war, and how they aren't sure how to handle the President's upcoming strategy announcement for it.

Dionne's column talks of the Senators who are considering a "revisiting" of the war authorization vote of 2002; in other words holding a retroactive vote on going to war. It's an interesting concept, because if they just "deauthorize" what they already did, it basically amounts to cut and run without the stigma of that phrase (yet).

Others talk of defunding the war, or congressional resolutions declaring they want us out.

If any of this seems like deja vu all over again, it's because it's the same arguements and reasoning that were used to withdraw from Viet Nam and leave the South hang out to dry, and eventually fall to the north.

The Democrats tiptoed around Iraq in the elections, with very few who won calling for immediate pull out, or other such options that will now be debated by congress. The truth has always been that is what they favor, and now that they are in power, the question is will they have the fortitude to vote for and, and accept the consequences of the votes.

Robinson may have hit the nail on the head with this observation of a possible outcome in Congress; something he disagrees with, but knowing politics is probably as likely an outcome as any:
Given that the Democratic Party's fortunes keep rising as Bush sinks deeper into the Iraq quagmire, political expediency might tempt the new leadership in Congress to let the president have his way and reap the rewards in 2008.

I truly believe the new leadership may take this exact course, and then wonder why their ability to lead gets questioned in 2008 at the polls. Why? It's the easiest course for a congress that wants to not screw up before the next big election.

The other options above, defunding the war, revoting to deauthorize the war, etc, all have the potential to fill the TV and papers with stories of a true civil war in Iraq, and much more instability in a region we still depend on for 25% of our oil.

It opens the door for Iran to assert itself more heavily in the region, possibly even repeating the tanker wars of the 1980's, and us being neutered and having no ability to deal with it due to congressional action.

When faced with those option, the new Congress is more likely to vote for the status quo, and complain about it, than take any real action on Iraq until they get through the next elections.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Minimum Impact

George Will has an excellent column today about the problems with the minimum wage, and why raising it's a bad idea, and having one is a worse idea.

Most people disagree with the idea of no minimum wage, for the reason it was instituted in the first place, businesses will take advantage of those who need work by paying too little for their services. Of course, just looking at current wage data shows that to be false, only about 1.9% of the workforce earns the minimum wage, meaning that by and large business is paying more for labor than required by law.

In yesterday's Washington Post, there was another article on the same issue, though looking at the minimum wage hikes in various states and how it affects the businesses that have to pay it. More correctly, how it's going to affect the employees who get the government mandated raise.

What it points out (as I did after the election) is that the employees who are supposed to benefit from the raise probably won't. Instead, to keep costs down, the employers will shorten work hours as much as they can for many people. Smaller businesses employees will be affected more than larger one's who have more wiggle room to cut other costs.

Going back to Will's column, he points out a lot of the truth in the minimum wage that we don't hear from feel good legislators who need to prove their compassion for the little guy. Things like 60% of the folks earning minimum wage are in households earning $40,000 or more per year, and only 1 in 5 minimum wage earns lives in a house below the poverty line.

This month, and in July, a number of states are raising their minimums, 70% of the workforce already is in a state with a minimum wage higher than the federally mandated one. In December it will be interesting to look at the unemployment rate in those states, especially for younger workers. My guess is history will repeat itself, and we'll see a sharp jump in that number. Generally a 10% raise in the minimum wage gets you a 5% increase in the number of unemployed who were formerly receiving that wage. How much is the increase helping them?

Illinois, and a few other states want to take the minimum wage one step further, and index it to inflation, guaranteeing an annual raise to those earning that amount. Another feel good thing that will instead be a disaster if implemented, especially for counties that are near state lines.

While Wisconsin is a tax hell, if a small retailer can open in a state where the labor costs is 10-15% less, it makes up for the tax issues, and suddenly business finds a reason to move north, or west to Iowa, or East to Indiana.

Like anything else, labor is something governnment probably should stay out of. We've proven with steel tariffs that while intervention might help a few of the intended recipients, the unintended consequences are generally more severe than the original problem.

30,000 steel workers had their jobs protected by the tariffs, while 225,000 in the ancillary industries ended up in the unemployment line. A minimum wage hike, especially one that happens every year will have the same effect on businesses over time. Low wage jobs will move out of states, and they won't be able to figure out why.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Next Victim of The Curse

Sometime in the next few weeks a new victim to a fairly recent curse will emerge. There have already been two people who have fallen to the curse over the last few years, and now someone else will be asked to step up and take it's wrath.

The curse I speak of isn't some goat in Chicago, or Bambino in Bean Town. No, this curse has only been around since 2001. It claimed it's first victim in 2003, and the next this morning. It's the curse of Michael Vick.

Vick is arguably one of the three or four most talented athletes in the NFL, but he's a very average quarterback, who hasn't lived up to huge expectations. That fact shouldn't really surprise people, though. The game has been redesigned over the last 2 decades to favor the passing game, and Mike Vick isn't a great passer.

In the 1950's he'd have won MVP's regularly running from a single wing or wishbone, or T formation. Unfortunately, it's the 21st century and being a QB who can rush for 1000 yards isn't really important, you have to be able to throw for 3500, and Mike hasn't shown he can. He has flashes, games with 3 touchdown passes or 300 yards passing, but then follows them up with a 40% passing game for under 150 yards.

Part of the curse also goes to the management of the Falcon's, who bestowed a $100 million dollar contract on a guy with a career passer rating of under 78, which is horrible for a "star quarterback". Because of the big money they've put on him, guys like Jim Mora and Dan Reeves have been dumped, for not getting "the most" out of the franchise player.

Mora, this year, probably got the most you'll see from Vick as a quarterback, 20 TD's, 16 turn overs (13 picks, 3 fumbles), 2500 passing yards and 1000+ rushing yards, but no playoff spot.

So, sometime in the next month, as I said above, someone will be hired to become the next victim of Mike Vick, the coach killer (as Jim Mora Sr. called him). A great talent but not talented enough at his position to carry a team, and with management not willing to bring in the rest of the pieces to make it so he doesn't have to.

I feel sorry for who ever it is that will spend the next three years making excuses for the Falcons, and Mike Vick.

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