Shortlog - a log of everyday things



I had my first meeting with my advisor since I returned to Berkeley. I was quite nervous, particularly since I hadn't made any progress on projects since leaving town, and my subconscious attitude toward research had worsened. In three minutes, he managed to eliminate all of the negativity and frustration and worries that I had about classes and research and everything else. The next twenty consisted of planning who we'd contact for research plans, summer opportunities, and so forth. I left excited and feeling good.

UPDATE: I managed to fail to notice that the State of the Union Address that follows (and which I offer my extensive critique of) was the 2010 State of the Union, not the 2011 State of the Union. How embarrassing. Fortunately, most of the criticism still stands.

This evening, President Obama gave his State of the Union address. If you're an American and haven't watched/read it yet, please do so now. Besides, if you don't, you'll probably be a little confused by the rest of this blog post, because I'm going to go through some of the things that stood out to me. Feel free to follow along in the transcript.

Dad, I expect you to share your thoughts. I know you'll have some good insights; you always do.

"Next, we can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow." INDEED. America has done a ridiculously poor job of investing in infrastructure, as compared to China, Japan, and Europe. I wish we had better rail systems in more places. Whether Internet or phone service should be considered public infrastructure or not raises some interesting questions.

On clean energy: the success or failure of this plan will depend largely on how such clean energy systems are subsidized. On principle, I'm all for clean energy, and renewable energy. I believe it's the only viable solution for the very long term, and that eventually, energy will become the primary resource (and even currency) of the world. Unfortunately, we're not at a point where clean energy technology is efficient enough to recoup its own costs over its lifetime, and we do a great disservice by subsidizing production of clean energy (think commercial power plants) rather than innovation and research to make this technology more cost-effective. See this excellent Forbes article for some more background. The picture the data paints right now is that due to government subsidies, clean tech deploys ineffective technologies that do not recoup their costs, and since the companies are profitable (because of the subsidy) they do not bother investing in further research. So my takeaway: invest tons in clean energy research, not deployment. When it's good enough to be viable on its own, feel free to subsidize national deployment to promote adoption of the viable tech.

On exports: well, duh. The way you wind up paying off government debt is by selling things that other people want. And the way to do that is to create value. Note: intellectual property only counts as value when you're doing business with copmanies that follow your rules. Guess which developing economies aren't interested in following your IP laws? So yes, we need to up our exports.

"In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education." Indeed. The Jews figured this out centuries/millenia ago; they've always valued education, and that's why they've done rather well financially throughout history. Unfortunately, as a result of their success, they've aroused the anger and vengence of many jealous, less forward-thinking cultures.

"This year, we will step up refinancing so that homeowners can move into more affordable mortgages." I'm not sure I like this one so much. While I'm not interested in denying people a place to live, it's my understanding that a major factor leading up to the housing crisis was that people buying houses could get WAY more credit (and thus, buy way more house) than they should reasonably have been afforded. With the unfortunate American attitude of entitlement and living a luxurious life, these folks wound up buying more expensive houses than they could really afford. The result was foreclosures and the housing bubble bursting. While offering refinancing might be the compassionate thing to do, part of me thinks "you shouldn't have bought that much house, and you're getting what you deserve." Government offering to fix all ills produces a whiny, expectant citizenry, rather than a responsible one.

And on that note, healthcare. I don't know enough about the healthcare system to be a fair judge of most factors. However, this statement stuck out at me: "Patients will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber." I take some amount of issue with this - the US spends more on healthcare per capita than every other country I could find data for. (Source: EOCD Health Data 2010.) It seems odd, then, that given that we don't have nationalized healthcare (well, not really deployed in full yet) that we should be denying so many the "care they need." Ultimately, we have to put a price on how much we're willing to spend on a person - that's what insurance is, after all. If we can't afford to pay as much as we want to, then in the long run, yes, patients must be denied the care they need. It's not sustainable for a nation to do otherwise. I recongnize that the insurance system is inefficient and sometimes exploitative. However, the big picture facts remain the same - we can't afford to spend this much per capita on healthcare, particularly not by government mandate. Take a look at some of the European countries that are falling apart because they can't afford to live the way they want to. Another problem with universal healthcare is that once it's granted, there's really no way to reverse that decision, should it be economically infeasible.

Which brings us to the question of the deficit. This is where I shat a brick, to put it simply. "Now, if we had taken office in ordinary times, I would have liked nothing more than to start bringing down the deficit. But we took office amid a crisis." It's remarkably convenient how often there's a crisis in Washington. Or a war. On a poorly-defined concept that won't go away. Like the war on drugs. Or the war on terror. A hallmark of an authoritarian state is that it is in a constant state of emergency. I'm not saying we are under a police state, but I think that "crisis" is an excuse. But I digress.

"Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years." Excellent! But wait, there's more. "Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will."

What. The. <censored>. There can be no sacred cows in the budget. Let's examine the data, shall we? There's a fantastic infographic called Death and Taxes that gives a wonderful, easy-to-follow graphical presentation of the US government spending. While the main item in the graphic is the Federal Discretionary Budget, if you look to the far right, you'll see the pie-graph penny that represents the Total Budget.

We're spending a total of 3.834 trillion dollars, and we're slated to collect 2.567 trillion. While this alone is alarming, let's cross-reference the four items of spending we said would be immune to this government spending freeze. By the way, "spending freeze" just means no adding new expenditures. We'd just keep all our current spending levels.

National Security spending: 895 billion. Medicare? 491 billion. Medicaid? 297 billion. Social Security? 730 billion. That's 2.413 trillion dollars. That's 63% of the federal budget that we just said would be immune to a spending freeze (not even cuts!). And those four items alone are 94% of our receipts (income to the budget). Throw in the national debt interest (251 billion, which we can't exactly elect to stop paying), and you exceed 100% of our receipts. Boy, it's going to be awful hard to get spending in line with income when you're both cutting taxes and refuse to even freeze spending on costs that amount to greater than your entire income. Again: what the ****. This is not an adequate plan for restoring solvency to our nation. The whole speech lost credibility in three sentences.

"We've made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives." Oh, we've made investments, all right, but said investments have hardly disrupted any "plots that threatened to take American lives." Increased public vigilance and the attitude that plane hijackers are not just going to detour you to Cuba are what has stopped would-be terrorists. I've complained before about how the TSA doesn't actually provide real security, just security theater. On the other hand, they've increased government spending, which IS a major issue. And don't say "but this creates jobs for Americans!" because I will smack you down with the broken window fallacy.

"I'm also calling on Congress to continue down the path of earmark reform." Hooray. Can't happen soon enough. "But we can't stop there. It's time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress. It's time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office." Great. I'll believe it when I see it - neither party is exactly incented to limit their income from lobbyists, in kinda the same way that neither party is incented to make it easier for third parties to acheive meaningful representation.

There was a bit on how Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, and I couldn't help but think of Stuxnet at this quote: "That's why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise." It does seem likely that it was the U.S. and Israel behind that worm. I'd cite the NYTimes article directly, but they've decided to hide all their content behind a paywall. Pity.

State of the Union: some things good, some things misguided, some big promises that I'm skeptical about, and some that weren't big enough.

What are your thoughts? In particular, I'd love to hear where you disagree with my views and why, so we can all get a broader perspective on the tough issues of the day.

(Fun fact: this is the longest entry I have written, to date.)