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Thursday, March 10, 2005


"The Drugs I Need"

Some things are funny more because of who says them than for what they are. A pretty good example is this little cartoon from the Consumers Union. That's right, the same good folks who publish Comsumer Reports magazine. Check it out (but make up your own mind).


The Irony of Dan Rather

It's all over the news. Even on Fox News, anchors and correspondents wince over Rather disgrace, his faithless "friends" in the CBS pantheon, and the lost glories of his 40 year, interminable career. Much of this empathy, I believe, derives from their sense of fellowship, all members in the clubhouse of broadcast news.

The more moderate of these brothers-in-arms do not actually defend Rather, instead being content merely to express distaste for the spectacle - though by doing so, of course, they participate in it.

But there are a few who are strong Rather partisans, and as such go much further - they do not defend so much as counter-attack. Each attack seems to follow the same logic, which goes like this: Rather is a good solid guy who made a mistake - a mistake then seized upon by those who hate him, who used it to destroy him.

They are naturally appalled by such behavior.

Sadly, the irony of this defense is lost on them. At the bottom of all fuss is the question of whether or not George W. Bush showed up for work for a month or two at the end of his military career. If he didn't, it was a mistake. Not a big one - he would only have been flying a desk - and not an important one - he was honorable discharged after a successful enlistment.

Now consider this: Rather and his producer Mapes had been actively pursuing this story, trying to hang this mistake on Bush, for five years. There was no evidence, no direct testimony, nothing but second-hand rumor, but they were undeterred.

Not only that - thye had actual, hard news about the Bush serice - that he had volunteered to go to Viet Nam, but, because there were already enough experienced pilots in his squadron, he was turned down. Have you ever seen that reported? Well, check out page 140 of the Complete Independent Panel report on CBS News. CBS not only suppressed that potentially significant story, on the air they actually twisted it to imply the opposite! What could motivate such behavior if not irrational hatred?

And thus the irony: Bush is a good solid guy - even his critics admit that. He might have once made a mistake, long ago. But whether he did or not, whether the mistake mattered or not, it was seized upon by Rather et all, who hated him, and tried to use it to destroy him. Ah, irony.

One final note: there are two difference between these situations: small matters that surely won't matter to Danites, but might matter to you.

First, Rather's critics didn't bring him down - his stonewalling is what brought him down. It evaporated whatever credibility he had left like a blowtorch on a raindrop.

Second, we still don't know whether "Bush's mistake" ever happened. But there is no question about Rather's mistake. It was on TV.


Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Paper Napkin

One night, while messing around on the web, I happened upon a link to The Paper Napkin Email Rejection Service.

I'm not sure how I found it. Possibly it was once a Daily Link on BBSpot.com - a "satire" site which used to really be pretty funny, then got political and not funny. It's back to being a little funny, sometimes; but in my opinion, it still hasn't come back.

Eh, maybe it's just me.

But that's beside the point. We were talking about papernapkin.

The site describes the service - so go read it, and ignore me, if you're really interested - but the short version is: if you send the site email, the site mails back a form-letter rejection.

In theory, this is useful not so much to you as it is to some else who finds you scary or creepy. They can just give you an email address - any address - of the form address@papernapkin.net, pretending that it's theirs. Later, if you try to continue the romance via email, the papernapkin site replies with the form-letter, automatically rejecting you for them.

I thought the idea was clever enough - a cute, only-on-the-web kind of idea. But what really caught my attention was a request by the site owner. He already had a rejection letter, but he wanted to a better one, so he asked people to submit replacement candidates for his approval.

You do see the irony, don't you?

I couldn't help myself. I banged out a note and sent it in, fully expecting to the obvious result - a nasty rejection letter.

Imagine my surprise when instead the site owner wrote back, and said that he loved my letter, and wanted to use it! I think he fixed a typo or two, but other than that, the letter stayed pretty much as I wrote it, and started being emailed to world's clueless Romeos and Juliettes.

Even more amazing to me: as of this writing, my letter's still there. I wrote the thing back in August, 2004 - six months ago now - and whole time the site has continued to solicit for even better rejection notes. But somehow my little letter has managed to hold on.

What really gets me, though, is this: If you google my name (i.e., "solarrhino"), you'll see a few items: this blog, the handful of slashdot comments that didn't get modded down into oblivion, and some posts on various other forums. But of the remaining items - the ones that other people wrote - the only writing of mine that you see mentioned is - you guessed it - the Paper Napkin rejection letter.

So a rejection letter that I hammer out in two minutes finds at least some small acceptance in this big wide world, while emails, postings, and essays that I really care about are just lost in the void.

It's not that I'm all torn up about it. It's nice, of course, that anything I've written had been noticed. I do find it ironic... but I like irony.

It just happened to cross my mind today, and, since I should be busy doing more important things, I decided to write about it. After all, isn't that what a blog is for?

Friday, March 04, 2005


About Social Security

A letter to Rush Limbaugh:

Dear Rush,

It mystifies me why people act like Social Security is hard to fix. To me, it seems pretty easy. It only needs three steps:

1) Make social security a real "Pay as you go" system. No more phoney surpluses that just get wasted by Congress, and no more worries about deficits. Instead, every year, estimate what Social Security will cost that year. The calculation this isn't hard - birthdays are pretty predictable.

2) Pop the cap on the payroll tax.

3) Tear up all the "trust fund" T-Bills

The net effect would be a much lower SS tax rate. Low income people would pay less, middle income people would pay about the same, rich people would pay more.

Of course some, like yourself, would pay a lot more. But before you blow a gasket, consider this: 20% of Americans pay 80% of all taxes (I heard that somewhere). Unless the system is fixed, the debts created by the current system, which spends the excess SS dollars and prints T-bills, will have to redeemed out of the General Fund. That means that 80% of that debt already belongs to you top-20%ers!

So what do you get out of it? Well, get this: you can tear up all the T-Bills already created! If the system becomes a real pay-as-you-go system, there is no need to ever redeem all the "trust fund" T-bills that have already been printed. This reduces the national debt immediately, stimulating the economy and helping everybody.

This idea is almost too simple - I need to think of a complication. Oh wait, here's one: the SS tax is currently paid by two sources: employees and employers (and the self-employed, but let's ignore that for now). A fluctuating SS tax rate would mess with employers and employment. That doesn't seem like a good idea. Lowering the rate would make employees cheaper for employers, but if there is no need to do that now - and we seem to be able to manage our unemployment just fine at the current rates - why on earth would we need it at a time when employment is so good that SS rates are that low? On the other hand, if we actually ever had to raise the rates above the current levels, it would make employees more expensive, possibly raising unemployment and thereby actually increasing the problem in the next year.

Fortunately, that's easy to fix too - just put in the law that the rate for employer contribution will remain constant. The only exception would occur if the rates dropped so low that just the employer contribution alone is enough to cover it all. Not a bad problem to have, right? So why worry? I worry because any politician - past, present, or future - will think that the natural solution is to leave the employer rate fixed, and let Congress buy votes with the excess! Since we don't want that to happen - we both know that the best government is the smallest government, right? - the law should be written right from the start that, if the system ever starts generating excess dollars, then the employer rate has to be adjusted down - AND NEVER RISE AGAIN.

Of course, that puts all the fluctuations on the employee side of the paystub, but that's okay. In fact, it's good - people need to pay more attention to these things.

What I really like about this solution is that it brings us all more closely together. Let's say that some rich CEO somewhere off-shores a bunch of high-paying American jobs. If that happens today, the other CEOs come and sit at his knees, hoping to learn from him. But under the proposed system, doing the same thing will directly raise the SS rates on the rest of the rich guys. Maybe they'll all stop playing golf with him. Hey, I say hit them where it hurts! On top of that, maybe this would push us all to work harder and closer together, to encourage every American to achieve their highest potential... thereby lowering rates and making life better for everybody.

In return for sharing this great idea with you, all I ask in return is that you don't complain (too much) about the unfairness of it all. It is unfair, but my sympathy is low. Until these last few years, I've spent my professional career in the worst of all possible worlds (SS-wise): earning right at the cap. Every year I paid just as many dollars as the richest man in the country, and at as high a rate as the poorest. Was that fair?

As for personal accounts: they could fit in this scheme, on top of this scheme, or be completely left out. Personally, I think they are a great idea, because they build wealth and grow the economy. "Left out" is trivial, and "on top" is easy - lowering the rates would leave lower-paid workers more money that they could save. Even the most complicated approach, making private accounts part of the system, is still pretty straightforward - if a payer chooses to put part (or all) of their contribution (but not their employers contribution) into a private account, their benefits would be reduced using by the appreciated value of the T-Bill it could have purchased. Just apply the appropriate actuarial data to that appreciated value, and reduce his check accordingly.

It's important to exclude employer's contribution from the personal accounts, for two reasons: 1) so that some money always goes into the system to meet current obligations, and 2) so that everybody earns at least some government-backed benefits. You and I both know that this later is irrelevant - if any stock market index fund earns less than T-Bills over a 30-40 year period, does anybody really think that the government will have money to pay benefits to anyone? - but we have a lot of soft-hearted voters who worry about things like that, and won't pass anything that doesn't address it. Personally, I blame women's suffrage.

If personal accounts are in the system, it raises rates in the near-term (because current outlays remain the same), but it lowers future rates (because it reduces future outlays). That would be a very good thing, given the demographic trends. If personal accounts would raise current rates too much, then put a annual dollar cap on the personal account. Sucks to be rich, of course - you'd be the ones to hit the cap - but in the long haul an "ownership society" will pull the poor toward the rich, making them more sympathetic to the needs of business - and that's worth something, isn't it?

Well, there it is.. What do you think? Pretty good, eh? And I didn't even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night!



About Immigation

An email to Bill O'Reilly, discussing the flow of immigrants across the southern border:

Dear Bill,

While I understand your frustration with the border situation, your solution - deploying the National Guard - is politically impossible. It just isn't going to happen.

Why not instead promote an idea that would work, and gives everybody something? Use the carrot and the stick. The US should offer guest worker status in exchange for a background check. The carrot is the right to live and work in the US without having to look over your shoulder. The stick is that, trying to enter the country illegally, or being caught in the country illegally, disqualifies you from getting citizenship or a guest worker card FOREVER.

Such a solution would have to be phased in. First, create the system to quickly do background checks. Convince Mexico and as many other nations as possible to tie us in electronically to their criminal databases. Ideally, we would want to take someone's fingerprints, and immediately get a record of their convictions, both here and abroad. Some countries might hesitate to help, but I think Mexico, the most important country, could be persuaded. After all, they want a freer immigration policy more than anyone.

Second, establish a screening facility at the border. Make it easy and quick for guest workers to come in, get checked, and get cards. Easy and speed are important parts of "the carrot".

Third, start processing every illegal caught trying to enter. Collect their fingerprints and other identifying characteristics, and enter them into the system. Then explain to them that, by trying to enter illegally, they have just forever disqualified themselves from legal entry, and deport them.

Fourth, establish background check facilities around the country for resident illegals to use to get guest worker cards. Provide a grace period - maybe two years - for everyone to get screened. During the grace period, illegals caught in the country get entered into the system and deported, but are not disqualified. However, if they try to re-enter illegally, or if they are caught after the grace period has expired, they are disqualified and either deported or jailed - it probably depends on the numbers of offenders.

The point of the background check is to weed out recognizable security threats. Many things could be screened, but at the very least we should check for:

- known links to terror groups
- convictions for drug trafficking
- convictions for violent crimes

Obviously, this system won't catch a lot of terrorists - they won't submit to the background check, they'll still try to come in illegally. But the bulk of the people, those who "just want to put food on the table" will submit to the screen and stop flooding across the border. This will reduce the scale of the immigration problem to a point that the border control, augmented by technology, can possibly handle.

Just as obviously, this will produce a flood of legal immigration. I'm sure the numbers will be enormous. That's a pity, perhaps, but not all bad, especially in a country where the birth rate is at or below replacement levels. Someone has to pay for the Social Security system, after all. Just kidding. Seriously, security always has a price, and guest workers (lots of them) might just be the price we have to pay.

So there you have it: a carrot and stick system that gives everybody something, and doesn't require a military presence on the border.

Although this is a long letter, I hope you will consider the idea, and if it passes your "spin" filters, give it some exposure. We at least need to stimulate discussion, because we aren't getting anywhere now.


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