Cliff Diving

3 12 2012

If you are considered a sentient life form and live in the United States, you should know about the “looming fiscal cliff”. In order to remain ignorant of the “fiscal cliff”, you would have to work very hard at avoiding any form of media for months on end- starting back in June. Since you are reading this on your computer, I can safely assume you might be aware of the existence of this fiduciary peril. Not many people really understand much beyond the nifty name, however. In order to do any trace amounts of justice to the topic, I’ll have to delve into some history. Try not to disturb the other students with your snoring.

Back in the bad old days (the summer of 2011), the US government was about to hit its Congressionally-set limit on how much money it could borrow. This is known as the “Debt Ceiling”. Historically, whenever the government approaches this limit, Congress harumphs loudly and raises its own credit limit. This is possible because Congress is apparently immune to cause and effect, rational thought, or any possibility of serving the public who hired them. The idea of living within our national means does not seem to have occurred to anyone in Congress, ever.

At any rate, raising the debt ceiling- particularly in the middle of a fiscal year- was never a big deal until the summer of 2011. That was when the opponents of President Obama decided to use what used to be a pro-forma action to get even with him for being insufficiently republican, or something. Despite a couple of centuries of nearly-automatic approval for raising the debt limit, the House of Representatives voted to play “chicken” with the country’s credit rating.

Mind you, a great many people whose business it is to know such things warned repeatedly that playing stupid political games over the country’s ability to borrow money would have consequences. These warnings had no observable effect on the Congress-critters who were dead set on using the issue to punish the president for some imagined transgressions. The credit ratings agencies which decide how much it costs to borrow money weighed in, warning that this sort of partisan dickery would lower the country’s credit rating, but Congress didn’t listen- even after the US credit rating was downgraded. The end result of this political bullshit? Glad you asked. First, it now costs the government more to borrow money, making our financial situation even less secure. Second, Congress decided to pass a law allowing our debt limit to increase if a certain set of conditions were met. The rest of the government agreed to meet those conditions, and the crisis was averted … sort of.

Those “conditions” in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling were pretty basic. First, Congress would have to form a special committee to negotiate budget and spending cuts to avoid such problems in future. This committee would be formed of equal numbers of democrats and republicans, from both Houses of Congress, and they had to come to an agreement by a certain date, or a bunch of extremely painful spending cuts would automatically take effect … more than a year later. If you think that all boils down to merely postponing the problem until after the next General Election, you have a lot of company in that opinion.

To no one’s surprise, the Super-Committee utterly failed to reach any sort of agreement, so- theoretically- a great many budget cuts would automatically take place on January 1st, 2013 (the so-called “Fiscal Cliff”). The problem, of course, is that Congress can always pass a law to nullify the law they passed earlier. The House republicans were confident that they’d win enough additional seats in the House and Senate (and possibly the White House) during the General Election to allow them to merely ignore the spending cuts by Congressional fiat.

Oops.

Contrary to the optimistic predictions of the republicans, they lost seats in the House and Senate and failed to win the Presidency. The ultra-faux-conservative “Tea Party” wing of the republican party took the brunt of the public ire, which might- theoretically- make it easier for House republicans to compromise with democrats and the White House to avoid the upcoming budget cuts. Early returns are in, and the same problems which prevented the “Super-Committee” from accomplishing anything are still in place. The Speaker of the House is still acting like he’s the one driving the debate, and is unwilling to compromise. The democrats are acting like they were the big winners in the General Election, and are pushing for concessions from the republicans. The People … well, we’re pretty much screwed no matter what happens.

One of the painful budget issues which start on New Year’s Day is the expiration of the “temporary” tax cuts from the previous administration. This means that everyone in the US who earns a paycheck is going to pay more in taxes. One group in the government wants to make those tax cuts permanent. Their opponents want to allow the tax cuts to expire, then re-instate them for everyone making less than $250K per year. Since neither side appears to be willing to budge on this, you can count on paying more in taxes in 2013. It will be mildly painful- basically returning to the tax levels from the end of the Clinton administration- but we, the People, have survived worse. It’s the rest of the slash-and-burn budget cutting which is going to really throw a wrench into the economy’s gears.

Here is the White House description of what is going to happen should the government go over the fiscal cliff. Note that, even in an official White House document, the President can’t resist taking a few partisan jabs at his opponents. Note also that Congress wrote a lot of exemptions into the budget butchery they approved. Things like Congressional perks are in no danger of having to make sacrifices.

Short version (the linked document is almost 400 pages long): Sweeping spending cuts to every single program in the federal budget go into effect on January 1st. These cuts will affect every program, no matter how important. The democrats are facing cuts to social welfare programs like Medicare, and the republicans are facing deep cuts in military programs. Everyone will feel the pain. Congress-critters will face lost jobs in their districts as government and military programs are reduced or eliminated. People on Welfare or Medicare will get less support from the Federal government and the States. Consumer Safety organizations will be forced to curtail inspections of workplaces, factories, and food-production facilities. The military will have to eliminate research and development of weapons systems and procurement of replacement parts. People will lose their jobs. The ripple effects from this sort of draconian budget cutting will slow the economy so badly we may slip back into recession and stay there for a long time. Among other things, our credit rating will take another hit, making it even harder for the government to borrow money.

Why is all this happening? Why is the government risking the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans on political brinksmanship? The short answer is the fact that our elected representatives are more interested in making political points than in doing the job they were hired to do (running the country, for those of you not paying attention).

Governing in a democracy- or a democratic republic like ours- is dependent upon compromise. Those who we elect to represent us in government are expected to do the work of keeping the country running. This involves providing basic functions which are beyond the ability of individuals, localities, or States to provide. Our elected representatives are expected to debate, negotiate, and compromise as necessary to provide these essential functions and services.  Despite that, our elected representatives spend most of their time trying to score points at the expense of their political rivals. The tone of political discourse has grown increasingly combative and strident over the last couple of decades. Both sides demonize the other, and issue public statements claiming that their political rivals are enemies of the people. This is hardly an environment conducive to debate, negotiation, or compromise. Why do they continue with this course of action, which is so profoundly at odds with their actual job?

Because we let them get away with it.

Too many Americans are willing to allow their elected representatives to commit any perfidy so long as they aren’t personally discomfited thereby. So long as they have a few perks of their own, too many Americans have been willing to let the government descend into partisan bickering and gridlock because there was something amusing or titillating on TV. Guess what, Sparky? The free ride is over. Best part? It’s your own damned fault.

So buckle in, everyone. We’re going for a wild ride over a fiscal cliff of our own making. Note that the safety of those buckles cannot be guaranteed, because the government regulators who are supposed to inspect them for quality were laid off. Enjoy the ride!

Wile-E-Coyote_falling

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Young Turks by Rod Stewart

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A Smattering of Miscellania

24 07 2011

When I post an article here, I prefer to focus on one subject- or at least, on a series of deeply inter-related topics. This gives me space to delve into the facts and occasionally extrapolate the consequences of those facts into the future. Sometimes, however, the topic du jour does not lend itself to such analysis and discussion, which would result in a very brief posting with commensurately less value. At other times, there are so many topics in the news that I have trouble providing the depth of focus those events deserve. This is one of those times.

NewsCorp

According to most researchers not directly involved on either side, Montgomery Burns’ Rupert Murdoch’s publications have been conducting illegal raids into the cell phones of newsmakers for a considerable period of time. Aside from being illegal, the information so gathered is unlikely to be considered newsworthy to anyone with an IQ higher than room temperature. The now-defunct News of the World, however, pandered directly to the prurient interests of the stupid. The editors of that rag therefore gleefully published every hint of salacious gossip they could squeeze out of those illegal downloads- and profited mightily. All that is bad- unquestionably immoral as well as illegal.

Those same researchers have concluded that many other publications and news organizations use essentially the same slimy tactics to draw in readers/viewers, and thereby increase their ad revenue. For this, they should all be lined up outside Parliament to answer for their misdeeds. NewsCorp’s goons went completely beyond the pale, however. Where Murdoch’s henchmen really jerked the trigger was when they hacked into the voice mail records of a missing girl who later turned out to have been murdered. Completely erasing any vain hopes that they might yet retain a few shreds of human decency, the hackers deleted some of the voice mails in order to allow more voice mails to be recorded for them to profit from. There is some evidence that NewsCorp personnel also tried to hack into the voice mail records of victims of the 9/11 attacks for the same purposes. If either claim is true, the perpetrators should be lined up against a wall and shot.

There is an unspoken bargain between the media and the public. We put up with many of their questionable antics as part of the price we have agreed to pay for unfettered access to the truth. In return, the media are supposed to report the facts and occasionally give their opinions on the significance of those facts. We have accepted that certain public figures will lose a significant amount of privacy as a result of this bargain, but those who become newsworthy through no fault of their own- like young women who get kidnapped and murdered, for example- should be allowed as much privacy as possible by the media. News organizations which breach this public trust should be scoured from the Earth with fire. The survivors should then take the lessons to heart, and we could then return to factual news reporting in lieu of the “journalistic, infotainment-like art product” we are now subjected to.

Putting the “Final” in Final Frontier

I’ve written about NASA before, and rarely in a positive way. In a generation, NASA went from the bleeding edge of space exploration to bumming rides into orbit from the Russians. The US has received great benefits from our exploration of space, not least of which is a lot of national pride. That pride has been misplaced for at least a couple of decades. NASA turned away from sustainable manned space exploration in favor of the shuttle program. If the shuttles had been used as originally intended- as part of a generational effort to send humans throughout the solar system- the US space program would not now be in its current sorry state.

Relying on private industry to return Americans to space will be a very long wait. The return-on-investment from space exploration takes a very long time, and the up-front non-recoverable expenses are enormous. There’s a reason the Russian, European, Chinese, and Japanese governments run their respective space programs- only government have the cash to undertake such dangerous work with the pay-off taking generations.

In their short-sighted ignorance, Congress is turning the country’s back on space. Never mind the material benefits we’ve already received from space exploration, just considering the military advantages of mastering space makes this decision a turning point in America’s destiny. We have stopped looking forward, and started turning inward. Historically, societies which do this tend to decline rapidly.

I’ve said this before, and it’s still true: Humans will explore and exploit the solar system. Those humans will almost certainly not be speaking English.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

When the news first broke about the carnage in Oslo, almost everybody immediately jumped to the conclusion that Islamic extremists were responsible. This could perhaps be understood, given that Islamic extremism gets most of the press these days. What is less understandable is the fact that few of those who publicly denounced the massacre in Norway as the result of Islamic fundamentalism have come forward to admit they were wrong. Another fact which is less than understandable is the relative paucity of news coverage on this side of the Atlantic. As soon as the bomber/shooter was revealed to be a right-wing christian conservative xenophobe, the coverage dropped off precipitously.

Granted, US news organizations are traditionally uninterested in news overseas which doesn’t involve Americans, but the speed at which this story dropped below the fold is astonishing. Apparently, you can;t sell newspapers or advertising space unless the atrocities are committed by muslims.  We need to get past this blind spot and face facts- there are a lot of loonie-toons out there. I guarantee that several people knew the shooter and many more read his facebook. Those people could have called attention to the fact that he had lost his ticket to the rationality train and this tragedy might have been prevented thereby. We also need to come to grips with the fact that almost every single muslim you meet is just an ordinary person going about his or her life just like you are. He or she is entitled to believe what they wish, providing their actions on those beliefs do not intrude upon the rights of others- just like you. I have no use for Islam, or any other flavor of religion. That said, my personal desire to have no truck with gods does not make me hate those who want to believe. Instead of focusing on the fact that another person might believe something differently than you do, try paying attention to how they act. Minding your own business is the very best rule for a civilized society. The fact that so many are unwilling or unable to mind their own business is direct evidence that our society is no civilized.

To Be or Not To Be

… in a world of shit. That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to ignore the manifold stupidities coming out of Washington or endure the intelligence-destroying fumes throughout the Logic-Free Zone in an attempt to forestall a global economic disaster.

Leaving my butchery of Shakespeare aside for the moment, the gaggle of criminal imbeciles we’ve elected to Congress are playing a game of Chicken- with the life and livelihood of most of the planet as the stakes. No matter who “wins”, we all lose. For those of you who don’t understand the extent of the crisis, let’s review a couple of basic facts:

1- The US currency is what is known as “fiat” currency. This means that it is backed up by nothing more than “the full faith and credit of the US Government”. In other words, you can buy something with a dollar because everybody agrees that it is a viable medium of exchange. There are some very good reasons why this is so, but there are risks.

2- The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. Translated, this means that the dollar is accepted all around the world for almost any purchases. Many other currencies measure their value against the US dollar. The US government makes a modest amount of profit from these facts, and our current consumer-based economy is absolutely dependent upon it.

3- One of the biggest outstanding debts in the US budget are Treasury bonds. The US borrows money by selling bonds, with a promise to pay the buyer back with more money than the original purchase. US treasury bonds are considered the safest investment on the planet, and everybody buys them. The US enjoys extremely low interest rates when borrowing money as a result of the stellar reputation of our bonds for safety. Congress- specifically, the House of Representatives- decides how many bonds the government can sell. This is known as the Debt Ceiling.

4- The Debt Ceiling was actually reached back in May of this year. This means that the US government can only pay out what is currently coming in. In order to buy more time before a default, the US government started cutting back on some functions to allow Congress to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government operating.

5- The US takes in about $200 Billion each month in revenues (taxes, fees, etc). We pay out about $330 Billion each month. Once we reach the end of our current reserves, many government functions will be completely shut down for lack of money.

In the event Congress fails to pull their heads from their collective asses, the President will have to make a whole bunch of difficult choices on which bill gets paid. Failure to pay interest on our outstanding debt  (currently estimated at $400 Billion per year) would cause economic upheaval all over the world. Leaving all that aside for a moment, it would also cost the US our current low interest rate for debt. Among other things, our annual debt-service payment would rise to somewhere north of $600 Billion per year. Any future borrowing would also be subject to higher interest rates, creating a self-perpetuating spiral of default and higher payments.

Now let us examine some of those real-world repercussions from a US default. Financial institutions all around the world would take a beating as customers try to convert their savings into usable forms. International trade would be severely affected for decades until a stable reserve currency could be created. US business would find it harder to do business overseas as credit dries up. Several million government workers- including the military- would suddenly find themselves going without a paycheck. Companies which provide goods and services to the government would stop getting paid and no new orders for their goods and services would be coming in. Furloughed government workers would have to dramatically cut back on expenses until the mess gets straightened out, and some of them will go bankrupt. The businesses which provide goods and services to those people would take a large financial hit from which many will not recover. The people thrown out of work as a result of this will all be looking for unemployment benefits, which the states will be unlikely to be able to pay. State services which are partially or wholly funded by the Federal government such as Medicare and Medicaid will suffer funding cuts, which will affect the services they can offer.

The ripple effects of a default would leave chaos and catastrophe in their wake, both here and overseas. Yet our elected officials are playing political games with the lives and livelihoods of billions of people at stake. Whether or not the debt ceiling gets raised, the stupid antics of the clowns-in-office is putting the country’s credit rating at risk. Our government’s inability to do their fucking jobs without playing political fuck-you games is a greater threat than any number of homicidal religious fanatics.

That’s All Folks

That’s all for this week. Don’t forget to stock up on booze, porn, and ammunition. You can use the ammo to protect booze and porn you’ll be trading for food.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People