This did not deter us from our determination to enjoy being in the same zip code with manufactured minor celebrities who could not be heard above the screaming. At least we could see them on the grainy projection screens on each side of the stage. The large screens reminded me of sweet, sweet television, but without the clarity.
Two enthusiastic girls in front of us brought a huge sign that obscured my view of everything but my own clenched fists. I don't mean to be unkind, but even without the signage, these girls chewed up a lot of real estate. They were excited to be within mortar distance of actual celebrities. After letting them have their fun, I finally had to tap them on the shoulders and give the "WTF???" crotchety old coot look. This dampened their enthusiasm for a full half minute before they felt it was time to ignore me and blot out my view of the stage again. It is unlikely they are Dilbert readers, but I still think it is funny that they went to the show hoping to see unimportant celebrities while one was tapping them on the shoulder and wishing they were dead.
Still, I have to say it was worth it just to see (sort of) David Archuleta belt out a few tunes that blew the doors off the stadium and sent 8,000 young girls into premature ovulation. The winner of this year's American Idol, David Cook, ended the show with a demonstration of natural superstar charisma that was a joy to experience.
But television is good too.
As you know, fairness is a concept that was invented so that children and idiots could participate in arguments. I was reminded of this when thinking about taxes. According to one source, the people in the top 1% of incomes pay more federal taxes now than at any time since 1979:
The reason the top 1% are paying more taxes is because they are earning far more money than before. So while the rich are paying a lower percentage than during Clinton's time in office, they are paying more in dollars under Bush.
In other words, each rich person is subsidizing more poor people than ever. Still, each rich person has more left over for himself than ever. If you are on the side that says that isn't fair, what percent of a rich person's income do you think should be distributed by threat of force to those in need?
Keep in mind that a person making ten million a year can get by on one million a year. So is there any good reason not to take 90%? Think about all the people it would help.
I am not what you would call outdoorsy. If I wanted anything that was outdoors, I'd hire someone to bring it inside where civilization lives. I like my shirts ironed and my plants made of plastic. If I have to go outside, I put on so much sunscreen it forms an encounter suit. I'm fully protected from all contact with nature unless an industrious mosquito tries to penetrate my hull. They usually give up in an hour or two.
Anyway, on my recent trip to Branson, we were staying at a hotel with both an indoor and an outdoor pool and spa. You already know which one I used. As I sat in the hot tub, inside the air conditioned building, I realized I was a full two layers away from nature, and I liked it. The air conditioning protected me from the heat outside, and the warm water of the hot tub protected me from the air conditioning. In time, the hot tub became too hot, and I wished I had some sort of thermos suit I could wear to take the edge off.
It's probably a coincidence, but on the way to the airport the next day I was nearly struck by lightning. It looked like a warning shot, but I'm going to call it a coincidence.
I've only once donated money to a politician, and it was McCain. But that's because I made the mistake of telling one of his fundraisers, a friend of mine, that I'd donate money if the surge "worked." Admittedly that was more like paying off a bet than supporting a candidate. But time does seem to be vindicating the surge strategy, no matter what you think of how we got into the mess in the first place.
For the record, I would support a Republican candidate in the mold of Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California. As far as I can tell, he supports whatever is common sense and good economics (as experts advise him), doesn't care much about what anyone does in his or her private life, and favors science over superstition. I'm sure he's made his share of policy boners, and you will be happy to point them out, but I use him more as an example than anything else.
In my last post I joked that Obama wants to take my money and give it to people who don't work as hard as I do. As with all gross generalizations, there are plenty of exceptions. But how does it hold up as a generalization?
When I was a kid, I was mowing lawns, working on my uncle's farm, shoveling snow, washing dishes, waiting tables, and anything else I could do to save for college. Meanwhile I worked hard enough in school to graduate as valedictorian, getting a few small scholarships that helped a lot. My mother took a job on an assembly line to help pay for my college, while my dad worked his job in the post office during the day and painted houses on nights and weekends.
In college, I generally had two or three jobs along with my full course load. After college, at my first job, I got in the habit of waking around 4 am so I could put in a good twelve hours before going to night school to learn computer programming. I tried several times to use my meager programming skills to start my own business while continuing to work full time. I almost always worked nights and weekends trying to get ahead.
Eventually I got into graduate school and worked full time while taking classes nights and doing homework most of the weekend. That was the hardest three years of my life, work-wise.
And then there was Dilbert. For the first six years I kept my day job and made Dilbert comics nights, weekends, and holidays. I didn't take a day off for about ten years. At one point I was doing all of that plus writing a book that became The Dilbert Principle. The only time I saw the sun was walking to the mailbox. And I believe that all of that hard work was necessary for the good things that happened.
The average work week is something like 35 hours. For most of my work life I worked about twice that much. I'm writing this blog post on the 4th of July, and have several deadlines to satisfy. So yes, as a generalization, Obama promises to take a large chunk of my hard-earned money and transfer it primarily to people who don't work as hard. That's just a fact.
I keep seeing stories about the ignorance of the general public. You usually see this sort of story around election time. The stories typically involve statistics about, for example, what percentage of voters can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (It's John Roberts.) The point of the stories is that the average person is clueless.
While I agree with that point, how does it help the average person to know the name of the Chief Justice?
Another statistic I have been seeing lately is that ten percent of American voters think Obama is a muslim. Your first thought might be that this misunderstanding could influence who becomes the next president of the United States. But ask yourself if any of the people who think Obama is a muslim are likely to vote for a black Democrat under any circumstance. I'm guessing that the ignorance of those voters on that particular point will have no impact on anything.
Realistically, it doesn't matter if you think the sun revolves around the earth as long as you wear sunscreen. Most ignorance is benign. That's lucky because any individual knows a vanishingly small percentage of the things that other people collectively think is important.
If you step it up a level, and consider how many voters understand the complexities of international trade policies, or economics, or national defense, the stakes are higher. If the country gets any one of those things wrong, it's a disaster. But experts always disagree on the complex issues. When knowledgable people can't agree on the best course of action, there's no reason to think ignorance will get you to a worse place than knowledge. The only thing you can know for sure is that the ignorant people wasted less time reading about things that didn't help.
Amazingly, the government still functions, albeit inefficiently, in spite of all this ignorance. It does this simply by observing what didn't work last time and occasionally trying something new next time. Apparently that is enough to limp along. It works for ants and it works for us. Or at least I think it works for ants. I'm actually quite ignorant about ant behavior, but notice how it doesn't matter?
When it comes to picking our next president, I can't decide if I prefer the smooth-talking, inspirational candidate who promises to give my money to people who don't work as hard as I do, or the old, short, ugly, angry guy with one good arm who graduated at the bottom of his class and somehow managed to shag a hot heiress and become a contender for president. It seems dangerous to underestimate that guy.
The inflation rate in Zimbabwe just hit 4 million percent. Some people say it is only 165,000 percent, but they are just being stupid.
The tragic situation in Zimbabwe is no laughing matter. That's true for most of the world. So I try to avoid reading any news that would educate me. Nothing good can come from it. But for some reason I broke my rule and allowed myself to read a story about Zimbabwe's 4 million percent inflation rate. Now all I can imagine is a villager with a zebra cart full of cash trying to buy a turnip, and the vendor says, "That was yesterday's price. Today it is two zebra carts full of cash." And I try not to laugh because zebras are funny, yet this is no laughing matter. It's all making me tense.
I don't know how well the school system in Zimbabwe is preparing its citizens, but it takes a lot of math to plan a trip to the market. "Let's see, that's four million percent inflation annually, convert to a daily figure, calculate the time it takes to get to the market, and QUICK, LOAD THE ZEBRA CART!" If you paused for an unscheduled stop at the unspeakably horrible poop hole, you'd have to start all over.
Yeah, I think I've said enough.
This idea targets The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I don't have any relevant education in those fields, and I haven't done any research, so I know I need to come up with something big to get the judges past their bias for competence. My idea needs to cure a whole lot of problems. Anything less would be begging for the award committee to snub me once again.
My idea is this: A web site that collects extremely detailed lifestyle habits from volunteers all over the world, including the type of food they eat, how they exercise, exposure to sunlight, and lots of other things. These volunteers will also enter data on any health problems they encounter, from a sniffle to a broken hip. The data would be available to the general public, without association to the identities of the people, so amateur researchers can mine for patterns. For example, we might find that people who have a diet rich in a particular vitamin or mineral don't get cataracts, or tinnitus, or shin splints, or whatever.
This idea is cobbled together from several other ideas floating around in the ether. Most recently, I was wondering why my allergies inexplicably went away in the past year. The only thing I changed, as far as I know, is taking magnesium supplements, and there is some scientific evidence to believe that could help. But it might be something else, such as drinking more Diet Coke than usual. If the database I described already existed, doctors could check to see if people who take magnesium supplements, or drink lots of Diet Coke, have fewer allergies.
I read a book called The China Study that is a lot like this concept, but with less detail than I am proposing, and limited to China. The data from China showed that people who ate a plant-based diet hardly ever got the most common killer diseases such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. This past month you might have seen a number of media reports about other research that supports that same point. Wouldn't you like to know if most of the health benefit shown in The China Study came from particular plants? Personally, I don't want to eat any more kelp than I need to.
The other source of inspiration for my idea is the stories about amateur astronomers who have been given access to the vast unviewed archive of pictures of space, so they can help find any anomalies. You'd think that would be boring work that no one would volunteer to do, but apparently so many people are volunteering that the servers initially couldn't hold the load. I think that in a world of 6 billion people, it wouldn't be hard to find a few million who are willing to record their lives in great detail, knowing it would have so much benefit to humanity. And volunteers might end up finding solutions to their own health problems along the way.
The database would do more than discover what prevents health problems. It would also tell you what lifestyle elements promote good moods, or lead to high performance at work, in school, or in sports. It might tell you what elevates testosterone, what improves sex lives, and what keeps you looking younger. The potential is vast.
I'm hoping the idea is so good that someone will build the web site. If you decide to do it, I promise to thank you by name when I am in Stockholm accepting my award.
One day we went to something called a "water park." I had never been to such a thing and was excited about the prospect of standing in line for 45 minutes in the sweltering heat for an opportunity to spend 12 seconds sliding down a watery tube while clutching my prescription sunglasses and wondering how many cartoonists had died doing exactly this sort of thing. It takes me a few days of vacation just to get into the proper attitude, which I gather is something along the lines of not caring if you live or die. I have a bad habit of stubbornly clinging to my preference for life over death, and I am told this interferes with my ability to have fun.
Take the roller coaster, for example. At one theme park we visited, the roller coaster tracks were supported by old pieces of wood nailed together by, I am guessing, inebriated hillbillies. When I ask myself what sort of engineered structure would make me feel safe, I generally think of materials created for NASA, or perhaps some sort of steel beams forged in the furnaces of Mordor. But wood? To me, wood is in the same structural category as playing cards and toast. I decided we "didn't have time" to ride the roller coaster.
What I liked best about Branson was the relaxed atmosphere. Tee shirts and sneakers were the dress code everywhere. I stood in line behind a man who had a shirt listing the five reasons "Beer is better than women." If you are familiar with this line of thinking, you know that several of the reasons are obscene. But in Branson, home of fried pies and stuffed critters, everyone took it in stride, including his wife and daughter who were with him, and who are apparently not better than beer.
You might have seen on the news that it has been raining a bit in the Midwest. I thought I knew what rain was all about until I experienced it Missouri style. From our hotel room we had a good view of a lake, or maybe it was a river. It might have been a side street. It's hard to say. Anyway, we could see a number of boats tied up to a dock. The only wrinkle is that the entire dock and all the boats were floating down the river, or lake, or side street, until they plowed into another dock. In California it hardly ever rains so hard it ruins our boats. I was impressed.
My family stayed for another week to visit in-laws in Arkansas. I had to come home and write blogs and make comics. On the way to the Springfield airport, at about 4:30 am, I tried navigating my rented Ford Taurus through sheets of rain and a Midwest lightning storm of Moses-like proportions. I was the only idiot on the road, and there were few reflective markings to tell me where the winding road ended and the beginning of my three weeks stay the bottom of a ravine began. Luckily the lightning was so frequent it illuminated the road just often enough that I could scream and yank the steering wheel in the nick of time.
One bolt of lightning actually struck fairly close to my car. Let me tell you, if you have never been in the immediate vicinity of a lightning strike, it is a real pick-me-up. I won't need caffeine again until sometime around 2030. And I wouldn't want to be the next poor bastard who rents that Ford Taurus.
Over the past two days, with my posts and your comments, we concluded that voters can't tell which candidate for president of the United States would be the better choice for growing the economy. I actually learned quite a bit through the comments.
My favorite comment was from Tigerfan who said, "When McCain says he doesn't understand economics, people seem to infer he must be an idiot. In fact economics (real economics, not the nonsense you get on talk shows and business hours) is very, very difficult and involves a great deal of complex math. They don't hand out Nobel Prizes for knitting after all."
That summed it up nicely. Our real choice is between two candidates who don't understand economics. And they both want to govern a country full of people who also don't understand economics while thinking they do. That makes the old, senile guy the only person in this scenario that isn't deluded or lying. He tells you up front that he doesn't understand economics.
This made me question my assumptions about the cost of the war in Iraq. Common wisdom is that Obama would pull American forces out of Iraq quicker than McCain prefers, thereby saving a few trillion dollars. But is that how you estimate the cost difference between the two candidate's positions on Iraq?
I think you have to do an "expected value" calculation. In other words, you would value a 50% chance of spending a hundred dollars as if it were fifty dollars. With so many unknowns, that is the only rational approach.
So if, for example, you think the realities in Iraq are that Obama is only 20% likely to draw down troops faster than McCain, you have to value the potential savings as only 20% as large as they could be. That's still a lot, but 200 billion isn't a trillion.
Second, you have to add an "insurance" value to McCain's approach of keeping relatively more forces in the area for a relatively longer time. There is a non-zero chance that having a robust base in the area, and a war hawk as president, would prevent future terrorist threats to the homeland. That has to be worth something. For example, if you think McCain's approach has a 1% chance of better protecting against an attack that would seriously damage the economy of the United States you would calculate the value of staying in Iraq at 1% of that potential destruction. That's a lot.
But you have to balance that theoretical benefit against the "making things worse" aspect of keeping military force in Iraq. Would a major long-term military presence just give the terrorists more reasons to attack the homeland? That depends if you think terrorists could hate the United States less as long as the U.S. supports Israel, which both Obama and McCain do. And of course the U.S. will probably never leave Afghanistan. So I think you have to assume the terrorists' incentive to attack America is permanently pinned at the maximum level no matter what happens with bases in Iraq. From an economics basis, the "might hate us more" element probably has zero value.
In addition, you have to consider the non-zero chance that a long-term American base in Iraq would support the fledgling wannabe democracy long enough (say fifty years) for a true democracy to emerge and become a model for other countries in the region. What is it worth to the United States to slowly "infect" nearby Iran and Syria with democracy? It seems like a lot.
You also have to factor in the economic stimulus of all the war spending. As much as you might not like boosting the fortunes of defense-related companies, that's a big part of the American economy. Cutting a dollar from the defense budget doesn't mean you have an extra dollar to reduce the deficit. When you take that dollar out of the economy, it can't get passed around to generate income taxes and sales taxes. Maybe you ultimately net ten cents in government savings by cutting defense by a dollar. I don't know the real number, but it is far less than a dollar.
The budget impact of the near term clearly favors Obama and his get-out-faster approach. The economics of the long term are unclear. McCain's approach is more of an insurance model; pay now so maybe you don't get in bigger trouble later.
I wonder if McCain's supporters have more insurance than Obama supporters. That would be an interesting poll. And I'll bet McCain's supporters own more stock in defense companies, which is in itself a form of insurance.