Thursday, November 25, 2010

Yellow Alert

In the years since it was instituted, the terror color alerts have been among the dumbest things we have seen the government do. The risk was almost always yellow. Apparently a risk of yellow means less than a 1 in 2000 chance of a terrorist attack. However no one wanted to be the idiot who set the alert to green right before a terrorist attack. Every so often they raised it, but again it was useless. A verbal description of what happened and what people should do about it would serve better in all cases.

In a stunning bout of what could almost pass as intelligence by the U.S. government it was decided wasting a decade on such a silly system was enough. Yes, they are eliminating this useless system entirely.

Predicting the recession

I only personally saw one person predict the scale of this recession correctly. While in grad school I went to a great many energy lectures. At one of these in 2006, Kenneth Deffeyes gave a short talk about peak oil. In this talk, he predicted that the world had already produced the most oil it ever would, and the result would be the biggest recession we have seen in decades. He was just about laughed off the stage.

Somehow I think he got the last laugh on this one. So far his predictions both proved correct. We produced more oil in 2005 than any year before or since, and we had the biggest recession in decades. Apparently he has a new book out on this subject, I may actually go and buy this one.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Less Jobs!

One argument that always makes me cringe is the one saying we should fund renewable energy as a way to create jobs. The energy that creates the most jobs is the cheapest form of energy.

Oil makes the clearest example of this. Sure, when the price of oil increases oil companies hire more people. However: farmers must fire people, it costs too much to run their farm equipment forcing some out of business; Shipping companies must fire people, it costs too much to run the trucks and ships making many routes no longer profitable; Airlines must fire people, fuel costs are a significant part of their costs and they will fly less planes when oil is expensive; Chemical companies must fire people, with more expensive feedstock and processes they just won't be able to pass the costs on to customers. In fact, the energy which would create the most jobs would be that which is too cheap to meter.

The reason renewable energy is so expensive is that they must employ so many people. If it ever hopes to compete, it needs to create less jobs per unit of energy produced. Once it does this, it will no longer be a significant source of jobs except in areas with large export businesses.

Forbes had a recent article which brought back this rant.

Smaller Government!

On election night, I saw an interview with a newly elected Republican politician. In it, she said we should balance the budget by cutting spending. So, the news anchor proceeded to ask if she was going to cut program after program, amounting to a vast majority of the government spending. To every single program she answered no. Then she couldn't name a single government program that she was going to cut.

This is a shame, if Republicans want to be serious there are so many useless programs to cut. Programs which do nothing to make Americans safer, yet waste millions of dollars a year and intrude into the privacy of Americans. Near the top of this list is the TSA, although the DEA is right up there as well.

September 11th could only happen once. It is no longer possible to take over an airplane with box cutters. The passengers would fight to the death. Beyond that, securing the cockpit means that only a pilot is a real security threat to an airplane. Beyond that, there haven't even been any major bombings using truck loads of explosives, which are logistically way easier. Despite what people say, the terrorists are few in number and mostly incompetent. Even if a few planes a year got blown up by terrorists sneaking in bombs(an event that happens mostly in the imagination of paranoid people), so what? Nearly three million Americans die every year, we regularly have around 30,000 deaths a year from auto accidents alone. A few planes a year falling out of the sky wouldn't make the country so much more dangerous. There are far better ways to spend that money.

Luckily, people are starting to notice this fact. Forbes for example recently had an article arguing we should eliminate the TSA. Somehow I doubt any politicians have the guts to do the right thing however. Maybe they can at least eliminate these silly body scanners and pat downs though.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I rather like this quote from David Brooks in his recent article:

You also observe that America hosts the right kind of networks — ones that are flexible and intense. Study after study suggests that America is one of those societies with high social trust. Americans build large, efficient organizations that are not bound by the circles of kinship and clan. Study after study finds that Americans are not hierarchical. American children are raised to challenge their parents. American underlings are relatively free to challenge their bosses. In this country you’re less likely to have to submit to authority.

I remember Bill Gates once commenting that one of the biggest pieces of luck in life was being born in a country where young people are given a lot of respect. I doubt many countries would have allowed someone his age to take on so much responsibility simply based on his talent.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Simple Majority

This year two seemingly contradictory ballot measures passed in California. One requires the state legislature to get a 2/3rds majority to increase fees as well as taxes. The other lowers the requirement to pass a budget from 2/3 to 1/2.

At first I thought this was silly. Make it easier to balance a budget, but make it harder to do anything that actually would balance the budget? Then I thought about it. This is brilliant!

You see, now it only takes a majority to kill a program but it takes a super-majority to raise taxes. This means that the easier way to balance the budget is to cut spending! I am not aware of any other body of government that was designed this way, but I am at least hopeful for this one. A shame the ballot measures have tied the hands of the legislature so much that the budget will always be a mess, but a half dozen or so ballot measures such as prop 215 have justified the entire program. If there was just the requirement that all ballot measures be budget neutral, or make money for the state, than it probably wouldn't be an issue.

The state of California collects more taxes today than it did a decade ago. However I don't really see a sign they have done much of use with this additional money. Most of it seems to have gone to increasing the scope of our prisons, in large part because of the war on drugs. Or it has gone to healthcare, which in large part is just paying more money for the same services we got before, although some is real innovative but expensive programs.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


It really is remarkable how much Iraq has calmed down in the past three years. I just looked up the yearly U.S. military deaths for the war there:

2003 486
2004 849
2005 846
2006 822
2007 904
2008 314
2009 149
2010 57

While he got us into this whole damn mess, the surge in 2007 really should go down as one of the smartest things Bush ever did. We seem to be getting out of there in as orderly a manner as possible. The number of troops has fallen below 50,000 so I would imagine we will be mostly out of there in the near future.

Afghanistan is a completely different can of worms. Here are the same numbers for there:

2001 12
2002 49
2003 48
2004 52
2005 99
2006 98
2007 117
2008 155
2009 317
2010 416

Since 2006 every year has been worse than the one that proceeded it.

Senate Bill 1449

About a month ago senate bill 1449 was passed into law. This bill reduced the penalty for having less than one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. Now an adult arrested with possession will have no criminal record.

Prop 19 really drew attention from this, but it should be regarded as one of the big victories of the prop 19 campaign. Because it was so much more controversial it overshadowed any lesser attempts at decriminalization.

15 percent

Long beach now has a 15% tax on medical marijuana. This really is the path to the end of the war on drugs. Pretty soon, I guarantee that these cities will become dependent on these taxes. Once they are the local government will fight like heck to keep it legal.

3.9 percent

Every major newspaper and every major political candidate in the state of California openly opposed it. Youth turnout was nothing special. We still were only 3.9 percent away from passing prop 19! Next time I am out gathering signatures I will tell that to every person who laughs saying we don't have a chance. Considering few thought it would get on the ballot when I went to my first meeting last fall I am reasonably happy with how things went. Although not nearly as happy as I would have been with the extra 3.9 percent.

Voters under 40 supported it, voters along a line of counties from Oakland to Santa Barbara supported it. We lost Southern California though, albeit by slim margins. Of course inland areas mostly voted against it. The real problem is the over 65 crowd which opposed it by 3 to 1. Since they love to vote, this was a real problem. Still, it has gone from being parents who are the primary opposition to grandparents. A few more years of baby boomers retiring and I can't imagine we won't pull this off.

If a 2012 campaign happens I would leave most of the bill the same. One ounce in possession by anyone 21 and over, and twenty five square feet of production are both reasonable goals for legalization state wide. As is the often criticized plan to let individual counties ban sales and production. Once again, they should not touch any prop 215 laws and make the wording as explicit as possible(a lot of misinformation was spread about this during the campaign). Two big changes need to happen, one to make the hard core supporters happy, one to make businesses happy:

First, there was some very serious jail time given in prop 19 for anyone who provided someone under 21 with marijuana. Now that the state decriminalized marijuana I believe these penalties are higher than you would currently face. Tone it down a little bit. Several years of jail time should only be a threat if you are driving under the influence, performing an important public safety job while high, or were feeding it to unknowing neighborhood children; Otherwise the worst penalty for anything marijuana related should be a misdemeanor and a fine. It may actually be best to side-step the issue entirely, and just make any future ballot measure not change these laws, letting the legislature set whatever it feels is best. This would make supporters of legalization more comfortable voting for it.

Next, remove all restrictions on businesses that want to continue behaving in the way they currently are. Yes it is possible to set off a marijuana drug test a month after use, and it is unfair if a business fires someone who wasn't high at work as a result of this test. Still, save the fight for another day. Don't fight big business at the same time as you are fighting the Federal Government. Most of the anti-prop 19 campaign donations seemed to be groups concerned about this so changing it should be worth the 4% needed to pass in 2012.

An alternate plan would be to do nothing but legalize home growing 25 square feet, and possession outside of your residence of 1 ounce. Don't legalize sales at all. You lose the taxation argument for the proposition, but you just might get rid of a lot of the votes against. Also, there is no way in hell the DEA can chase down a that low level type of drug crime. They have so few agents all they can do is go after the big fish if CA legalizes.