In the Mirror
In the Mirror

The Missing Fiscal God Particle

Blog From
June 15th, 2011

Last week, the hopes of physicists everywhere were dashed again. The elusive Higgs boson particle remains elusive. Without going into a bunch of boring science, the Higgs, also known as the “God particle”, is a major big deal. It’s never been seen and there is no evidence that it actually exists, but it has to be real. Why? Without it, much of what we believe about physics is wrong. The mystery particle is the glue that holds our theories together. So, scientists are looking for it everywhere. Good luck to them in their search. Otherwise, they’re staring at a very steep learning curve.

Like modern physics, there’s a missing God particle in our national fiscal model, the glue that holds it together. But, unlike physics, the existence of the fiscal particle is no mystery. We’ve all seen it. The only puzzle surrounding it is that politicians of every stripe ignore it. You can’t find the particle in any of their machinations about the broken economy, the underfunded entitlements or the ginormous national debt. Until it’s factored in as part of the solution, whatever they come up with will eventually fall apart.

What is the fiscal God particle? Personal responsibility. The thing that drives individual goals, determination, hard work and achievement. It’s the antithesis of the self-absorbed, and shortsighted, notion that your neighbor gets to pay for your bad choices.

What does personal responsibility have to do with the state of our fiscal health? The biggest financial mess facing us today is the debt. The government spends trillions more dollars than the amount of revenue it collects. The biggest share of the spending spree is on entitlements. With the first wave of the baby boomers starting to empty that cupboard, and healthcare costs increasing annually, things are going to get beyond worse. And the Obamacare price tag, whatever that ends up being, is not yet included in these calculations.

At least five plans claiming to have the answer to our debt problems have surfaced. Each is a combination of spending reductions and tax increases, among other things, although they vary widely on what to cut and where to increase. There’s the Obama proposal, the Ryan budget, the Domenici-Rivlin plan, the Congressional Progressive Caucus offering and the President’s Debt Commission thing. Anyway you look at it, solving the debt crisis isn’t going to be easy.

Enter personal responsibility. How about reducing spending significantly by reducing the demand for the services it funds? As an example, take a look at the impact of obesity on healthcare costs. In 2006, obesity increased Medicare costs by $1,723 per obese individual and Medicaid expenditures by $1,021. Private insurers paid $1,140 more for each obese insured. In the case of Medicare, these cost differences amount to $46,000 in additional expenses over the lifetime of each obese individual.

Meanwhile, Medicare coverage is expanding to cover anti-obesity treatment. That’s a good news-bad news thing. Reducing obesity is a good thing but the cost associated with the new treatment increases the Medicare price tag. The treatment’s efficacy remains to be seen.

Over the past few decades, obesity has become an epidemic in the U.S. According to the CDC, the number of obese adults doubled between 1980 and 2008. The number of obese children tripled in the same time period. By 2009, over one-third of adults and 17 percent of children in America were obese. These skyrocketing weight gains show no sign of slowing down and they’re escalating healthcare costs right along with them. If Americans continue to pork up, obesity will amount to 21 percent of all healthcare costs in seven short years.

Whacking 21 percent off of healthcare costs is a huge plus while allowing them to increase without bound is irresponsible. If the needle stops in the obese zone when you step on the scale, it’s past time to get a handle on your weight problem. Push yourself away from the table before you bury your neighbors in your healthcare costs. That’ll put the God particle back into the fiscal model.

Next up, the high cost of smoking.

See you in the mirror.

Posted in In the Mirror



In the Mirror

To the GOP: Get a Handle on the Tea Party

Blog From
June 1st, 2011

(Article first published as To The GOP: Get a Handle on the Tea Party on Blogcritics.) If the GOP learns only one lesson from it’s latest scalding by the Tea Party, it had better be this. Get a handle on the ‘baggers before they put you in the country’s rearview in 2012. Last week, a Tea Party candidate played the familiar role of spoiler in a race that saw the Republican contender defeated in a GOP stronghold. Granted, the Democrat margin of victory was slim and plenty of Mediscare tactics were in play. But, the Republican would have won if the ‘bagger had not split the GOP vote.

The Republican leadership correctly identifies the Tea Party as a bigger problem than Democrat mismessaging on entitlements. They’re just not sure what to do about it. The immediate challenge for them is the fact that the ‘baggers have no national organization to grapple with. There is no official leadership or party structure. No authoritative committee to lobby.

The Tea Party has been described as a populist movement. In terms of formal association, it’s less than that. It’s a belief system embraced, with varying degrees of emphasis, by amorphous groups of local voters across the country. There is a national coalition but it’s a loose collection of self-styled conservative thought leaders with no control over Tea Party regulars. ‘Bagger candidates pop up in regions with local backing. Or the locals decide to endorse an existing contender who, by virtue of that support, is labeled a Tea Party candidate.

To be sure, national political figures like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann sometimes appear as Tea Party spokespersons. But, that’s by invitation rather than claim of right. The Party is definitely a hodgepodge, which makes getting a let’s-talk-turkey handle on it difficult.

Meanwhile, although only 5 percent of the Tea Party is Democrat, it is doing more damage to the GOP than to Obama’s party. For every Marco Rubio, there’s a Joe Miller, Sharron Angle and Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell. The latter two Tea Party wunderkind blew excellent opportunities for Republicans to boot a weakened Harry Reid and claim Joe Biden’s long-held seat. Believing negotiation is capitulation, Tea Party activists insist their congressional representatives toe a hard-line. But, when the game goes on with, or without, you, taking your ball and going home is foolish, especially when it reduces a voting majority. This kind of stuff is enough to make the old guys living in trailers in the desert see “Democrat Conspiracy” stamped on every teapot.

In 2012, the ‘baggers will lack the voting power to beat Obama, but they stand a fair chance of shooting down the national GOP candidate. Undaunted, they seem to believe in the conservative radio talk show wisdom of 2008. Namely, that a Republican defeat would be good for the Party. The reasoning then was that the GOP had moved too far from its roots and needed a severe course correction. Living life in the left lane for a few years was supposed to be just the jolt needed to right the Party ship. The idea, then as now, is idiotic. Just look back over the past twenty nine months. Predictably, the cure has been worse than the disease, as the Stimulus and ObamaCare loudly attest. There has to be a better way to fix ideological drift than Obama as president.

So, how do Republicans get a handle on the Tea Party? Keep them in the GOP fold, of course. Make Republican candidates attractive enough to support. But, there is a medium-to-large size risk in doing that, which is turning off independents. While the Tea Party might bring defeat to the GOP, independent votes are necessary for victory.

The answer to the dilemma is convincing enough of the electorate, regardless of party affiliation, that small ball is the smart government play. Reduce its size and power, but don’t abandon the little guy in the process. Obama’s biggest appeal is the nannyism in his big government vision, a shades-of-gray mediocracy. It shouldn’t be that hard to paint a much more attractive picture of an equal opportunity meritocracy. On the other hand, for a party very mediocre at communication, it may be too tall an order.

See you in the mirror.

Posted in In the Mirror



In the Mirror

Immigration Reform: Dollars And Sense

Blog From
May 18th, 2011

Last week, President Obama went down to the border looking for some immigration reform support. He was in a bind because he’s at least three years behind in his promise to get it done. So, you’d think he would have been at least courteous to those who seriously question the type of reform he’s been fiddling around with. After all, like the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And given the congressional majorities, he will need help from across the aisle to get anywhere near fulfilling his 2008 campaign promises to Hispanic communities.

But, smarts just isn’t up Obama’s alley or the truth, either, for that matter. He went out of his way to mock Republicans and praise himself for making the border more secure. Of course, he failed to mention that more security and effective security aren’t the same thing. It must have slipped his mind that only 44% of our southern border is under our operational control. Of that, only 15%, or less than 7% of the whole, has effective security. That 7% amounts to 129 out of 1,954 miles on the border. 129-and-done is not a winner on many security scorecards.

One fact can be gleaned from Obama’s speech. He doesn’t want immigration reform before the 2012 election. He apparently intends to use the lack of it as a political hammer to beat up his opponent on the campaign trail. Angling for perceived political advantage is SOP for a President who’d rather dither than lead, insult than resolve. And a lot easier than putting specifics in a bill for public consideration.

Since Obama isn’t serious about reform, the rest of us have to do the heavy lifting. Most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants come across our southern border and end up in the unskilled labor pool. Currently, they cost taxpayers over $110 billion annually primarily from their consumption of social services. Amnesty, Obama’s clarion call, would make that painful economic reality dramatically worse. Citizenship bestows even more social benefits than unskilled illegals enjoy today. By one estimate, if the current illegal immigrant population is granted citizenship, their retirement benefits alone will cost U.S. taxpayers over $2 trillion. At the same time, their income would put them among the 47% of U.S. workers who pay zero dollars to the IRS. So, the cost of the increased benefits would have little revenue offset.

Plus, rewarding illegal immigrants with citizenship is a solution that fails repeatedly. Today, 25 short years after the last amnesty grant, the number of illegals has quadrupled. The continual prospect of amnesty draws them like a magnet across a border that we apparently cannot effectively secure. It’s time to shut that lure down permanently.

In these days of severe budget shortfalls and persistently hard economic times, we can’t afford to kick immigration reform around like a political football. So, here’s our serious solution in three words: temporary worker visas. An appropriately structured guest worker program for unskilled labor is the only thing that makes economic dollars and sense with fairness to everyone. Those visas exist now, of course, but the rules require some modification in light of recent experience.

For example, is temporary worker status a path to citizenship? No. DREAM Act? Dream on. Anchor babies? No more. Welfare benefits? Since the status is temporary, families should not be allowed to accompany workers into the country. The social services allowed to these guests would, therefore, be limited. Temporary visas can be issued to the illegals here now who qualify. As for the rest, it may be impractical for the U.S. to deport millions of people at once. But, they can always decide to relocate themselves, a decision made easier by the termination of gratis social services. In any case, they must leave when the family member’s visa expires.

What about the “fairness” cry in favor of amnesty for illegals? It’s an upside down argument. The inquiry should be what’s fair for those who foot the bill, not for people who decide to live off of them. Politicians who make the fairness claim are of the same mindset as those who promised gold at the end of the entitlements rainbow. And then proceeded to bankrupt our major welfare programs.  We can no longer afford their largesse. Passing our bucks stops here.

See you in the mirror.


Posted in In the Mirror



In the Mirror

Hurray For Waterboarding

Blog From
May 4th, 2011

Not surprisingly, Osama bin Laden was nailed through information gained from interrogating terrorists. It led to a trusted associate of the world’s most wanted terrorist. From there, finding bin Laden was a matter of locating that individual and tracking him to al Qaeda’s leader. It took years to get the job done because of the elaborate security procedures that protected bin Laden. But, last Sunday, Osama got his. Good riddance to the man mislabeled a mastermind for pulling off 9/11. It just isn’t that hard to figure out how to murder unarmed civilians.

The interrogation techniques used to gather the information leading to bin Laden’s demise have been intensely criticized for several years. These harangues are almost as voluminous as the write-ups on 9/11 and fall into two categories: the techniques are inhumane and, my personal favorite, they don’t yield desired results.

Both of these arguments are tortured. Interrogation techniques are, by design, stressful and painful. They’re a type of heavy-handed negotiation: we’ll stop the pain if you tell us what you know. That being said, methods resulting in death and broken bones are definite no-no’s. Inflicting severe physical and mental suffering is frowned upon. But, severity is a function of duration as well as degree and varies by method.

For example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the terrorists who named the trusted associate, was allegedly waterboarded 183 times. Obviously, something that repeatable isn’t damaging. It is very nasty, as it simulates drowning, but that is the whole point. No pain, no gain.

As for tough interrogation not providing reliable information, of course it does. Certainly, the interrogation of a single individual may not yield the truth for a number of reasons. But, when several people at different times provide the same information during interrogation, it’s a pretty safe bet they’re telling the truth. That’s what happened here.  Osama’s most trusted courier was identified from statements given by assorted terrorists undergoing painful interrogation, including waterboarding. Three cheers for that.

The anti-interrogation proponents, such as those cited above, claim the techniques actually elicit false information from those interrogated. Apparently, the methods they describe are not what our armed forces and intelligence agencies use because our guys got the truth.

The final piece of the puzzle was pinpointing bin Laden’s exact location. Why was U.S. intelligence so confident he was in the courier’s Pakistani compound? Turns out, Osama was betrayed by the same tell that gives politicians away: an exaggerated attempt to cover up what they want hidden.

The truth of a situation is often learned from elaborate efforts to conceal it. The denial becomes so overblown that, rather than obscuring reality, it points to it like a flashing neon sign. In our search for bin Laden, the Abbottabad compound was the flashing sign. The security around and in it was so tight, and so out of proportion to the neighborhood, that something was very clearly amiss.

The entertaining, if entirely expected, fall-out from bin Laden’s death are the conspiracy theories springing up like flowers in April. Such as, he’s still alive and well since, not only is there no body, we cooked up a too elaborate excuse to explain why not. Or, he was killed, not because he resisted, but because Obama didn’t want the embarrassment of Eric Holder fighting for yet another civilian trial. Or, Osama’s body was flown to DC for scientific study into the psychopathology of cowardice.

I’m partial to the last one. It would shed some light on the behavior of our spending-crazed politicians, too.

See you in the mirror.

Posted in In the Mirror



In the Mirror

Politicizing The Debt: Obama’s Re-election Gamble

Blog From
April 20th, 2011

Last Wednesday, President Obama took another stab at talking about the debt and what he plans to do about it. The next day, he kicked off his re-election campaign in Chicago. The timing of the two events was not coincidental and that’s unfortunate. It’s past time for this President to take the debt seriously instead of using it as a prop for his political ambition. Nothing makes that clearer than Standard & Poor’s downgrading its outlook on U.S. Treasury securities from stable to negative because of the debt crisis.

Obama’s speech was just another pitch to his base, reminding them that they all need to stick together through the 2012 election. And they loved it. Self-styled liberals gave the President high marks for defending the modern social welfare state. They praised his promise to end “unnecessary and wasteful tax-giveaways to the wealthy”. They delighted in his commitment to expand government spending.

Obama’s play to keep his base in line is a gamble the rest of us can’t afford. No viable economic model sustains his plan for debt reduction. The big revenue source in his proposal is, of course, increasing taxes on the rich. Today, he defines them as the top 2% of wage earners, couples making more than $250,000 annually. Effective in 2013, Obama would increase their tax rate by 4.6%. Typical of political posturing, the planned tax hike harms both the targeted taxpayers and the economy, while having no budgetary upside. It is simply pain without gain.

In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, the top 2% paid $477 billion in taxes. Even tripling that liability would not zero out this year’s $1.6 trillion deficit, let alone touch the $14 trillion national debt. Obama’s tax line in the sand, rather than having any fiscal benefit, is just a touch of class warfare to get the re-election juices flowing.

Really balancing the budget by raising taxes requires significant rate hikes for all taxpayers not just the top wage earners. The top tier rate would go up from 35 to 88 percent. The middle tier would increase from 25 to 63 percent. And the lowest level would rise from 10 to 25 percent. This ugly truth underscores the fact that spending cuts, not tax increases, are the weapons necessary to slay the debt dragon.

The debt is intertwined with other bad economic news all of which makes Obama’s bid for re-election more of a crapshoot. The March unemployment rate stood at a very unhealthy 8.8%, relatively unchanged from the previous month and still well above Obama’s once promised limit. He’s not very good at forecasting favorable economic times or keeping a lid on bad ones.

A related issue is GDP growth. In order to make substantial improvements in the unemployment rate, it has to be sustained at more than 3% for several consecutive quarters. But, the last time we saw that happen the White House was barely a twinkle in Obama’s eye. Worse, predictions for this year’s first quarter GDP growth now fall in the 1.5 – 2.0% range, well below the 2.9% rate in 2010’s fourth quarter.

The reasons for the downturn are several: higher commodity prices, rising energy costs, weak durable-goods orders, a still bleak housing industry, flat wages, increased consumer savings, tightening fiscal policy, and reduced credit availability. So much for the staying power of 2009’s debt-ridden stimulus program, heralded by our President as the answer to our fiscal problems.

What should Obama be doing instead of politicizing the debt in order to rally his political base? He should be making the difficult choices that our current fiscal horror show requires. Like it or not, this means Ryan-deep spending cuts. We’ve suffered through more than two years of the President’s political pandering and social engineering. He should give capitalism at least the same amount of time to get us back on our feet. Refusing that play is a sucker’s bet.

See you in the mirror.


Posted in In the Mirror



In the Mirror

The Picture On The Box

Blog From
April 6th, 2011

On a Sunday news show last weekend, one of the regulars was criticizing the Republicans’ 2012 budget proposal before it was even released. His gripe was that it doesn’t raise taxes on the “rich”. Of course, it doesn’t raise taxes on anyone, but that wasn’t his complaint. The guy thinks the rich, whoever they are because he didn’t throw out a figure, have to pay more because they’re not paying enough. As far as he’s concerned, they never pay enough.

Wow, really? Here’s a better idea. Before we force fit pieces of our fiscal jigsaw puzzle together, let’s take a look at the picture on the box. What are we supposed to be assembling? So far, our two political sides haven’t figured that out. They’re focused on different actions, if they have an action plan at all, rather than addressing the basic question. They’re both concentrating, sort of, on the debt, which is beginning to sound the death knell for our economy. But, that staggering load is just a symptom of what’s wrong. If we manage to get by it this time, what then?

To weather the current storm, Dems insist on raising taxes while the GOP’s weapon of choice is the axe. Which one is right depends on whether we’re taxing too little or spending too much. Was the news guy just being a liberal knee jerk or do the feds actually need more revenue? The answer lies in the purpose of the federal government. The picture on the outside of the puzzle box is of government as it’s supposed to be. That picture should determine the actions we take today and everyday.

In our federal tax history, government spending has driven the tax burden, not the other way around. We’ve never tried to figure out what a fair tax is and spend according to the revenue it generates. Instead, spending is the whip that makes the tax horse run. Unfortunately, for generations, federal spending has been motivated by political gain for one party or the other. Rather than a disciplined exercise with the big picture in mind, it has become a hodge-podge of mainly welfare handouts. That tactic, which we’ve come to accept as the norm, serves politicians well. But, it has brought us to the brink of financial ruin.

So, what should the federal government be doing? Here are some choices:

– According to the White House website, government exists to enact the will of the people.

– According to a basic liberal tenet, government takes care of people.

– According to me, government supplies a few common services that the states can’t provide as well.

We all know the will of the people thing isn’t right. Back in the day, the people’s will was used to deny rights to large groups of citizens. After quite a while, the courts stopped that nonsense. But, the majority is perfectly capable of making bad choices again. Then there’s today. The “will of the people” has become a pat phrase politicians use to impose their will on the people.

As for taking care of people, Uncle Sam makes a pretty scary nanny with those long legs, the scraggily beard and bony, pointing fingers. That’s because the Constitution, which provides for equal rights and equal protection, is not about making people equal. As far as the feds go, people are assured equal opportunities, not equal results. It’s up to them, as individuals, to make something of themselves. And if they don’t, that’s on them, too.

So, what’s the federal government about? It’s about providing a common defense, facilitating interstate trade, enforcing Constitutional rights and not much else. The massive federal welfare programs should simply end. Make the states responsible for their own residents. Let them be like Massachusetts with its big social programs and high tax rate. Or they can be among the many that are trying to claw their way out of the money pit.

Either way, we stop the nasty practice of burdening the responsible with the foolishness of the irresponsible. Isn’t that a nice picture?

See you in the mirror.

Posted in In the Mirror