The Closet Moderate: February 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Defense Budget

One of my enduring frustrations has been the way this country approaches defense spending as a political issue. Since no politician wants to be called an America-hating sissy by his peers, Congress tends to rubber-stamp defense appropriations and we spend a lot of money on stupid projects that aren't relevant to our strategic needs. I'm not going to go off on a lefty rant about how we spend more money than the rest of the world combined, or bitch about how our defense budged prevents us from spending more money on education, or something similar. Well, our global predominance is based on two things:

1. The fact that Europe essentially destroyed its economic and military might in the early to mid-20th century with a series of brutal wars from which the USA emerged relatively unscathed.

2. The fact that since 1945 we have provided security guarantees to the richest parts of the world--Europe and Northeast Asia--relieving a significant portion of their defense burden and allowing them to prosper economically.

Make no mistake, the reason we're able to do #2 is that we have the biggest, baddest motherfucking military machine out there. Snuggled under our nuclear and conventional umbrella, those nations have little or no reason to compete with us militarily and strong incentives to cooperate with us on matters ranging from foreign policy and defense to economic policy.[+]More

That said, there's smart defense spending and stupid defense spending, and the Obama people seem to have figured out which is which. While I love crazy-ass fighter jets as much as the next red-blooded American, there's no reason to think that we're going to be getting into dogfights against, uh, the Taliban airforce any time in the near future. Similarly, while the six-year-old boy in every man loves the idea of a "stealth destroyer," the Zumwalt DDX has been a joke for a while now. The Obama folks also recognize that the Burke-class destroyers we've got are pretty fuckin' badass and half the price of the Zumwalt.

The new administration is also scaling back our missile defense spending. Now, I know, everybody loves missile defense. According to official US mythology, our fake and stupid space-laser missile defense system destroyed the USSR, etc., etc. That's not true, but it's a story for another day. The problem with missile defense is that it makes the rest of the world very nervous because it undermines the MAD paradigm. So, if you're going to upset the post-1949 security equilibrium, you'd better have a system that works. And even if you do have a system that can perform a task as difficult as hitting a bullet with another bullet, it's probably best not to kick off that initiative by taking an enormous, steaming shit on Russia's front porch.

As a final note, a long time ago a professor of mine told me that what wins wars is grunts with rifles. Nothing I've seen over the past 9 years (FCS, the RMA, etc.) has given me any reason to doubt the wisdom of those words. I remember talking to Waldorf in 2002 about the idea of cutting our useless third-world-impoverishing, free-trade-hindering agricultural subsidies and plowing that money into higher salaries for the men and women who are willing to take a bullet for this country. We both agreed that it was politically impossible, but it looks like this crazy new President is going to try.

It's about fuckin' time.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Loopholes and technicalities

Turns out President Obama is not just for vague things like "hope" and "change" and "responsibility." He's also come out recently against "loopholes" in the tax code. Well, that's a relief. I suppose "waste and inefficiencies" are next on the chopping block. His only opponents in this crusade quest will be the pro-loophole, pro-waste party, a/k/a, Congress.

When I hear this kind of simpleton politics from people who don't know better, I don't say anything, but as a former Senator and law professor, Obama knows that what's a loophole and what's not is very much in the eye of the beholder, except in a few rare instances. Loopholes were originally those things that allowed crafty tax practitioners to take advantage of some mistake or unforeseen possibility in the tax code. Congress usually fixes these pretty quickly.

What Obama means by loopholes isn't terribly clear, but I suspect it's along the lines of when some criminal gets off "on a technicality." People speak as though these things are random events, like a meteor striking your house. They're not; they are the law. Congress (or in criminal law, the Supreme Court) put these things in on purpose.

What we should do is reform the whole Tax Code and remove some provisions that make it complicated and allow rich dudes to not pay any tax. These things aren't loophole, they're decades of Congressional back-scratching given to their rich buddies and favored industries. They're the green bullshit the Dems just put in, the ridiculously favorable oil well depletion schedule the Republicans favored years ago, and the mortgage deduction that all smarty-pants Manhattanites (renters, all) decry.

Targeting tax havens, on the other hand, is a more concrete proposal from the President, but legislation is not the answer. A better idea is to treat the Cayman bankers like we used to treat pirates, as hostis humani generis, and take those flyspeck islands over. Now, that's change I can believe in.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle!

For all you closet moderates out there, there's been some good news out of California. Normally, when a rightist says "good news out of California" he means it has finally slid into the ocean, and when a leftist says "good news out of California" he means there have been new advances in the technology of smoking weed, but when a moderate says it, take notice. In the sausage factory that is the California budget process, among the insider wheeling and dealing has emerged a solution, not only to their 2009 budget impasse, but also to the ridiculous condition of state and national legislatures in a two-party state. In exchange for going along with the Democrats' budget, State Senator Abel Maldonado has gotten the Dems to promise to put his jungle primary bill on the ballot.

The jungle primary, often called the "non-partisan blanket primary" by prosaic nerds, requires that all candidates to run in a single primary, with the top two advancing to the general election, regardless of party. Nate Silver's site explains the math better than I could (I took "Math and Society" for my distribution requirement in college) but the result of such voting systems tends to be a race between two candidates who reflect the middle of the community's political spectrum, rather than forcing voters to choose between a rightist militiaman and a leftist libertine. It also occasionally allows a third-party or independent candidate to sneak into the mix.

Needless to say, both major parties hate the idea. Shockingly, California's much-manipulated and much-maligned (by me) initiative and referendum system might be the way to get this measure passed. This is actually the sort of thing the Progressive* authors of California's constitution meant to happen, as opposed to all the absurd shit that usually finds it's way onto the ballot.

Needless to say, the Closet Moderate will follow these developments closely, and hope that California might lead the way into a moderate, mushy-centered tomorrow.

*By "Progressive," I mean the Progressive movement of the 1910s and 20s, not the modern-day synonym for leftist.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Dear Slate bloggers

The next person to jokingly put the term "logistical regression" in quotation marks as if it is some sort of unfathomable concept will be beaten to a pulp by my invisible bloody two-by-four. The shameful mathematical retardation of you and your degenerate, keyboard-monkey peers is not a laughing matter.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Hollywood predictable?

I am loathe to write about the movies or about math, especially since so many of my fellow bloggards are better at high-level math than I, but this post on Nate Silver's intrigued me. He predicted that the Tampa Bay Rays would win 90 games, and he got the electoral vote count last year closer than anyone else. But the Oscars? Hollywood isn't just irrational, it's anti-rational. Can such behaviors be predicted? I didn't think anyone with an Oscar vote worked according to any system that can be represented by a formula. We shall see. By which I mean: I may read the results on Wikipedia the next day.

On a related note: does anyone out there recall how I can figure out a triangle's angles when I know the lengths of the sides? I'm building a bookcase into a room with a sloped roof, and I'd rather not do it by eye if possible.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

This book, which is not out yet, has been burning up the internets with its hilarious name and concept. My wife pointed out that it has excellent cross-gender appeal, so all of our readers should be interested. I have decided that the best thing about it is the catchy name, which I also think should be a new internet "meme". I give you, in the spirit of the Mcsweeney's list, "X and Y and Zombies":

Hannity and Colmes and zombies
tax and spend and zombies
shock and awe and zombies
mac and cheese and zombies
Being and Time and Zombies (by Martin Heidegger and Seth Grahame-Smith)
Turner and Hooch and Zombies
lions and tigers and bears and zombies, oh my!
huey lewis and the news and zombies
love and marriage and zombies
rock 'n' roll 'n' zombies
fear and loathing and zombies
lock and load and zombies


More on tax cheats

Ok, now I am going to talk about the tax problems of Mr. Geithner and Mr. Daschle (pictured at right, looking appropriately contrite). TaxProfBlog has directed me to a New York Times colloquy on the subject. A bunch of folks more famous than I give their opinions, but since we have a blog, we can add our opinions to the list as well. (New Media!)

I don't think anyone who makes a mistake on his taxes should be excluded from all offices of the United States government for the rest of his life. After all, people do make mistakes and the tax code, prolix and convoluted as it is, invites error. What bothers me is that the "mistakes" always seem to involve paying less tax, never more.

What's more unfortunate, from my point of view, is that the nominee I would have voted for if I were a Senator, Geithner, has the tax error that is the most egregious and self-serving. Daschle, for whom I would likely not vote, has made a "mistake" that was less obvious, though still, I suspect, purposeful. What they have in common is that they're both rich enough to afford an accountant to avoid all this difficulty, yet both chose to stiff the American people rather than put forth the effort of talking to a CPA for an hour or so per year.

UPDATE: Daschle is out. Glad to see Obama is reading The Closet Moderate, like all right-thinking people.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Rose-colored taxes

I'm not going to write much about Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle's tax problem. It's not much different than that of any other politician who thought he was out of politics for good and started grabbing with both hands to make up for a life of careful law-abidance. It's objectionable, but I'm sure most career politicians behave the same way when they get sweet lobbyist gigs.

What is more objectionable, and more unusual, is those crazy specs. To wit:

It's like Sally Jessy Raphael and Harry Potter had a kid, and that kid became a bland Washington lobbyist instead of a cool wizard with a talk show. He may have sold out, but he retained one memento of his Hollywood-Hogwarts upbringing -- those wacky spectacles. That, and the invisibility cloak he hid his income under.