Thursday, December 26, 2013

The War against Boxing Day

Today is Boxing Day.  It’s doesn’t involve gloves, rings or a round that start and end with a bell.  According to Wikipedia it is “traditionally the day following Christmas Day when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts from their bosses or employers, known as a ‘Christmas box.’ … It is believed to be in reference to the Alms Box placed in places of worship in order to collect donations to the poor. … This custom is linked to an older English tradition: since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts and bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.”  In modern day America the day is mostly when people flock to the malls to return or exchange gifts received.
Over the past several weeks the media has feasted on “The War Against Christmas.”  It is a notion perpetuated by a handful of colorful personalities who claim that the “politically correct” are out to take the “Christ” out of “Christmas ” – or something like that.  Throw in claims of Santa being of one race, creed or color and it’s been a cornucopia of nonsense.  Way back in 2005 Congress even voted on it:  “The House ‘strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas’ and supports Christmas symbols and traditions.“  Christmas now represents two different things.
There is the commercial, Santa-driven, economic Christmas that uses nostalgia, tradition as a way to mark the occasion.  It drives a huge part of the global economy.  You don’t have to be of a particular religious denomination to participate in holiday parties, “Secret Santa’s” and other such festivities.
Then there’s the Christian, religious observation of Christ’s birth, preceded by Advent – a 4 Sunday period of contemplation before the “coming” of Jesus, and followed by Christmastide – more commonly known as the 12 Days of Christmas – from Christmas to the Epiphany. 
Of course while there are two focuses – they are not mutually exclusive. 
And there is no war on Christmas.  There’s no bloodshed, combat or pain like in a real war.  It's more of  a disagreement about how much prominence one definition should have over another.  Where there has been a total deterioration of tradition, however, is in the spirit behind Boxing Day…of taking care of those who take care of us.

The service class today is not Downton Abbey-esque.  Today it is made up of professionals in a range of sectors – from restaurants and hospitality to support staff in offices to health care workers.  At a time when we debate how sacred to make a holiday – let’s take a moment to acknowledge those who help us.  Thanks to all who give of yourselves to others. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013


200 people on an enclosed metal tube chit chatting away on cell phones is one form of purgatory.  (It might even be more effective than water boarding.)  It’s hard enough for me to endure a flight when two strangers get seated together and one tries to pick the other up…or one decides to share their life’s story with another.  Shrinking personal space between seats and the ever creative fee structure makes getting from point a to point b more and more of an endurance test.  With the acknowledgement that cell phones do not interfere with flight operations, various government agencies began hearings last week  are considering lifting the ban on phone calls.  Congress has even voted to ban the calls. 
Do we really need the U.S. Government to determine whether citizens can make a phone call?  Or where it's permissible to talk?  It’s bad enough that the NSA tracks the calls, who’s call who, for how long, etc.   I’m not advocating the use of phone calls in the air.  I’m just not sure that the FCC or the DOT or some other alphabet agency should be deciding.
Why not let the airlines decide?  Delta announced yesterday that even though it is illegal under federal law to have a cell phone conversation in flight, they would nonetheless ban them.  There is a cost to add equipment, weight to that machinery that will increase the cost of fuel per flight.  On the other hand many customers may like the ability to ring or text somebody and let them know that they’re early, late or on-time.  One airline might want to be the friendly-chatty airline, while another promotes their “silence is golden” ride. 

Amtrack (as well as many international trains) have “quiet” cars – areas designated as no-talk, no-cell phone areas.  Given the airlines penchant for fees, they could charge extra to be in a non-talk area…or even extra to be in a talk-designated area.
Capitalism works when the marketplace is allowed to make decisions.  Government should not be dictating when phone calls can be made.  Airlines could even work with wireless companies to have a surcharge on calls made in-flight if they wanted to...a perfectly justifiable use of ‘roaming’ fees.  And let's not forget that for many years phones were embedded in the back of seats for people to swipe a credit card and chat with whomever.  There wasn't an outcry then or a demand for Government to ban those calls.  Weren't those people obnoxious too?
The airline industry is over-regulated as it is.  If a passenger talks back to a flight attendant, that is a federal offense, punishable by huge fines and even jail time in a federal prison.  That seems excessive.  Why not let an airline decline service to a customer who has been problematic in the past?  That would solve the issue in a heartbeat, and keep the punishment proportionate to the crime.
Do we really want to jail citizens for making phone calls?  There is an over-criminalization of annoying behavior.  According to the Washington Post Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO issued a letter: “Passengers engrossed in calls would miss safety announcements and terrorists could use phones for coordination.”
If terrorism is going to increase because phone calls area allowed on planes, then the world is in even worse condition than the histrionics already claim.  It’s annoying, it’s probably even a bad idea – but it shouldn’t be illegal and it won’t put the nation’s security at risk.  The hyperbole and panic of lawmakers is more annoying than a boor sitting next to me chattering away for 6 hours.  Let's let the market decide as a small gesture that the U.S. economy is still capitalist driven and not centrally decided by the State.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fueling the fees

Winter Wonderland hit much of the country this past week through various storms.  The first major snow and ice-storms of the season remind commuters of the inadequacies of the transportation system.  Having driving across the US over the past couple of years I found most of the roads in pretty lousy condition.  To help remedy the situation Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) last week announced his sponsorship of a bill to raise the gas tax 15-cents per gallon and have those funds allocated towards road and highway improvement.  This would be a near-doubling of the current 18.4 cents a gallon.  Each State, of course, adds their own tax and fee.
Alaska boasts the lowest tax at 26.4 cents while New York charges 69.6 cents, just .6 cents more than California.  Combined with the Federal tax the NY and CA more than one-quarter of the cost of a gallon of gas is going towards the fee...and it doesn’t seem to be nearly enough.  The Federal excise fee raises approx. $25 billion a year and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s annual budget (expenditures) is approx. $72 billion.
The Washington Post story reports:   “Congress hasn’t dealt seriously with the funding issue for 20 years,” Blumenauer said. “With inflation and increased fuel efficiency, especially for some types of vehicles, there is no longer a good relationship between what road users pay and how much they benefit. The average motorist is paying about half as much per mile as they did in 1993.”
For years one of the arguments for higher gasoline taxes was environmental.  The more it cost to drive then it was likely to encourage carpooling, push manufacturers to come up with more fuel efficient vehicles and generally save the world.  According to Wikipedia, hybrid auto sales in 2011 hit 2 million.  According to the Congressman that’s had such an impact that more money is needed because fewer fees are being collected.
There’s little question that the U.S. infrastructure is in need of some significant overhaul.  ASCE’s quadrennial report card on U.S. infrastructure grades the country at a D+:  “Infrastructure is the foundation that connects the nation’s businesses, communities, and people, driving our economy and improving our quality of life. For the U.S. economy to be the most competitive in the world, we need a first class infrastructure system – transport systems that move people and goods efficiently and at reasonable cost by land, water, and air; transmission systems that deliver reliable, low-cost power from a wide range of energy sources; and water systems that drive industrial processes as well as the daily functions in our homes. Yet today, our infrastructure systems are failing to keep pace with the current and expanding needs, and investment in infrastructure is faltering.”
The Executive Summary of the report claims nearly $2.2 trillion in unmet projects – nearly the entire budget for the entire U.S. economy for one year.

Government has a vital role to play in public infrastructure.  It is one of the (few) things that the state should be doing for the citizenry, and therefore it should be funded fully.  Funding should come based on usage.  Rather than an arbitrary fixed amount per gallon, why not a percentage?   When the 18.4 center per gallon was instituted, the average gas price was $1.11 a gallon – so the tax was 16.5%.  Today’s average gas price is $3.30 – so instead of a tax of 5.5% at 18.4 cents, the same allocation would be generating $0.55.
There’s very little that Government does right – and an efficient and effective spending of tax revenue on infrastructure projects is unlikely in the current design of Government.  That, however, is a different problem and issue that should be remedied separately. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Malevolence Mirror

On November 27, 1978 Harvey Milk and George Moscone were murdered, vaulting Diane Feinstein from a Board Supervisor to the Mayor of San Francisco.  More than a political advance, the way that she handled the issues put her in the good graces of many – and allowed her to build a moderate reputation and the respect of many constituents.  She held that position for a decade, then after a narrowly lost Gubernatorial bid, was elected Senator for California and has been reelected four times.  In the 2012 election she claimed the record for the most popular votes in any U.S. Senate election in history, having received 7.75 million votes.  I voted for her in three of the four elections and even contributed to her campaigns.  At 80 she is the oldest currently serving Senator.  Despite her popularity and positions of power within the Washington establishment – her performance this past weekend shows that her time is up.
On CNN’s “State of the Union” this past Sunday, Candy Crowley  asking, “Are we safer now than we were a year ago, two years ago?”  
“I don’t think so,” Feinstein replied. “I think terror is up worldwide, the statistics indicate that. The fatalities are way up. The numbers are way up. There are new bombs, very big bombs. Trucks being reinforced for those bombs. There are bombs that go through magnetometers. The bomb maker is still alive. There are more groups than ever. And there is huge malevolence out there.”
“So, senator, I have to say, that is not the answer I expected. I expected to hear, ‘Oh, safer,” Crowley said.  So would I, especially given:
·         US Intelligence spending has doubled since 9/11 to more than $56 billion per year – according to The Guardian
·         Nearly 5 million people (1.6% of the population) of the US hold security clearances – according to The Atlantic
·         1.4 million people hold Top Secret clearances – according to The Atlantic
On the 12th Anniversary of the 9/11 bombings, TheWashington Post ran a comprehensive analysis pulling data from Government’s own published findings showing that the frequency and impact of terrorist attacks in the U.S. have dropped dramatically since 2001, to the point of being statistically negligible in the past several years.
“In the last five years, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack have been about 1 in 20 million (that's including both domestic attacks and overseas attacks). As the chart above from the Economist shows, that's considerably smaller than the risk of dying from many other things, from post-surgery complications to ordinary gun violence to lightning.”
Senator Feinstein has been a staunch supporter of George W. Bush’s and President Obama’s policies.  As Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee she has endorsed the secret courts that do not allow those charged to know of their charges, be represented by counsel or have any of the other Constitutional protections we assume all defendants have.   This court also directed private companies to turn over consumer information without any warrant or probable cause.  Billions of dollars are spent on intelligence and are not transparently reported to the public. 
So despite the huge allocations of money, the statistical decline in attacks – the Senior Senator from California believes that the U.S. is in worse shape security wise than two years ago?  The easiest way to solve that is to eliminate the programs that she’s endorsed and supported and return America to the freedom it extols to others.  And that begins by looking at the malevolence she claims is there and look instead in the mirror.