.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Monday, November 28, 2005

The US: more Kyoto than the signers?

While not a signatory to Kyoto, the US has actually done better in CO2 emissions than many green-oriented Kyoto signatories, according to this article. What the article doesn't point out is something I discussed in my first post to this blog: the US's population - and economy - have increased greatly during the 1990-2005 timeframe.

Since I'm skeptical about Kyoto's effectiveness and the notion that human-caused CO2 can be managed in such a way to influence climate change, I'm quite agnostic on these numbers. But it's interesting to compare: the evil US, led by an oilman, is beating such paragons of greenism as Spain and Canada without really trying - and is only slightly worse than New Zealand, for crying out loud.

If this doesn't proclaim the futility of state-mandated CO2 management through the temples of greenism, I don't know what will.

This post on The Brussels Journal discusses Europe's Kyoto adventures.

Old 403(b) found money: does this happen often?

This weekend, a check from UC Berkeley showed up in my mailbox. This was odd; it is far from typical for the University, my alma mater and my employer for a few years in the early 1990s, to send me any sort of check - as opposed to vast amounts of junk-mail and phone calls asking for money.

But apparently I had a 403(b) account while I was there that I had completely forgotten about. According to the statement, it had started with $300 in it, and it had grown to $2000 (!) over the past twelve years. Maybe I should put all my investments there! After thinking about it, I vaguely recall that the university had put me into the 403(b) plan just before I quit - two years after starting work there and enrolling in the plan.

Anyway, the University was switching plans so my old one was being closed. I happily put the money into my rollover IRA, while writing a check to cover the tax withholding as the university had withheld some state and federal taxes. I did some quick research and discovered that if I didn't cover the taxes, I'd get socked with more taxes on the taxes and a 10% penalty. (Odd that the dreaded Regents of UC find yet another way to get me to cough up a check, but I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.)

Had this check not showed up, I would have never known this money existed. I wonder how many people have little piles of money sitting around the world that they don't know about?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

On the inheritance tax

My own feeling is that the inheritance tax is a bad thing, but completely abolishing it is also a bad thing. My "plan" would be to simply declare that death is not a taxable event, but that all existing tax obligations pass through to the heirs of the estate along with the property they inherit. This would eliminate the need to liquidate property to pay taxes, and inherited property would be managed like any property, to be sold - or not - as desired by property owners.

An example of an existing tax obligation is a house. Let's say the now deceased owner payed $10K for a house, and it's now worth $100K. The person inheriting the house should inherit the capital gains tax due on $90K, instead of having the "capital gains clock" reset "for free" to $100K. If the person chooses to keep the house, they don't pay anything. When he decides to sell, his "tax basis" should be $10K. This rule would be similar for stock, interest in a business, etc.

On the other hand, if the guy inherits a bank account with $50K in it, he shouldn't need to pay any taxes, other than any that happen to be otherwise due on the money.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Our family had a low-key Thanksgiving, with the usual: turkey, some usual American sides, some Chinese food made by my wife, and pumpkin pie. We also continued a family tradition: we played Hand and Foot, a simple card game that mostly involves lots of shuffling and dealing. It's a nice game that isn't too competitive and is random enough that the better players don't always win; since my family tends to be rather competitive, this is A Good Thing.

This is the first "normal" Thanksgiving I've had in a while; last year, we spent Thanksgiving in Shanghai with the in-laws. My wife's aunt managed to hunt down a turkey in the peasant market, and we had a sort of American-Chinese Thanksgiving. We'll visit Shanghai again next spring.

In China itself, the closest equivalent to Thanksgiving is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which takes place during the Harvest Moon. It is in many ways celebrated like Thanksgiving, featuring family, food, and the harvest, although moon cake, not turkey, is the featured food.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

One of my favorite blogs

is 75 degrees South, about a meterologist living and working at the Halley Observation Station in Antartica. He posts occasionally about his adventures living through the winter there, and has some wonderful posts about penguins and other fascinating topics.

This is what's really fun about blogs; you can see and visit places you can't otherwise imagine, not only through the eyes of larger-than-life adventurer types, but also through the experiences of people that are otherwise regular Joes that you could imagine sharing a beer with. Check it out!

Being a dictator: the ten step plan...

Let's assume you are a head of state and want to govern as a dictator. What is the optimal way to go about it? This is a list of things you may want to do to cement your authority over your country:

1. Destroy the existing economy. This counterintuitive step has the useful effect of eliminating the financial underpinnings of potential opposition groups. A thriving economy will create pressures for change that will eventually drive you aside. Once the economy is destroyed, make sure that it stays destroyed by stifling regulation, destroying the idea of private property, and maintaining a capricious, hardline bureaucracy.

2. Make sure all wealth flows through your hands. After destroying the economy, you need to see to it that what's left of your national income flows through you to your supporters. Of course, once you've destroyed the economy, you'll need a source of income. If you're lucky, your country has oil or some other tradable commodity, but lacking that, a skilled dictator can always appeal to "the international community" for ongoing aid. Bonus points if you can run a global extortion racket by threatening to use nukes you don't admit to having to get aid, as well as printing fake currency and other criminal rackets.

3. Use wealth to reward your supporters and punish your opponents. You can give "money to the poor", and since they have little other means of support, they have to support you. There will be little incentive to support your opponents if they're poor and starving.

4. Maintain militias to keep order among the poor and make sure members of the militia get special privileges and favors. But don't be too hands-off - militia leaders need to be replaced occasionally to avoid the development of private armies that could threaten you. These militias should report directly to you and not the army, and it's best to maintain tension between the two so they squabble among themselves as opposed to coming after you.

5. As for diplomacy, maintain a strong presence at the UN. You'll get a sympathetic audience from your fellow dictators as well as the EU/France. The UN can be used to reward supporters with the chance to live large in Manhattan, as well as a way to gain access to crucial aid dollars. Avoid the governments of the Anglosphere - all they've got is money, and you can typically shame their governments and NGOs into giving you money no matter what relationship you have with their governments. The Europeans are less forgiving, but their politicians and diplomats are generally more bribable.

6. Be a "Man of the Left". Rant about capitalism and globalization, and demonize Anglo-Saxon money-grubbing. After all, the only entity with money in society should be the State, ably led by you. Be sure to discourse at the UN and other international fora on the evils of the capitalist West and how it's keeping your people down. Anti-Americanism helps here too: Hollywoodniks, left-wing academics, and other useful idiots will provide extensive cover for your ongoing "revolution". There's no upside in being a right-wing dictator, unless you happen to be somewhere the US needs bases, but a left-wing dictator can find suckers - er, caring and kindhearted people - anywhere on Earth.

Also, maintain a few Potemkin villages, featuring the pampered elite, complete with state-of-the-art health care "available to all". These can be shown to visiting Hollywoodniks, tranzis, and assorted intellectuals to demonstrate the excellent life your people lead in comparison to the decadent law-of-the-jungle that prevails in the West.

Destroying the economy and doling money out yourself will make you a poster-child for those who favor statism.

7. Don't be white. Being nonwhite means you can play up the racism and anti-colonialism angle to great effect at the above-mentioned international fora, and can appeal to colonial and white guilt to maintain cashflow. Your people are starving because of (insert blame whitey charge here), and are in need of massive aid, that you can be trusted to disburse for the good of your nation.

8. Grow a beard and look good in green.

9. Don't worry too much about dissidents. Since you're a featured Man of the Left, the cause of your dissidents won't be taken up by typically left-oriented NGOs, except in a token manner. Internal dissidents can be "freed" occasionally as needed to provide cover for countries giving you aid.

10. The usual stuff: make sure loyalist toadies are running everything, particularly where guns, tradable commodities, and foreign currency are involved. Ignore and encourage a bit of corruption; it'll keep them happy and give you an excuse to shoot them occasionally when they get too big for their britches. This also encourages some degree of "man of the people" street cred with the international media.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Saving money: I like I-bonds...

For medium-term money, my favorite way to save is the I-bond. While they aren't so suitable for short-term savings, they are good for medium-term saving, particularly if you ladder them in such a way as to avoid the penalty that occurs if you cash them in too early. Their advantages over normal savings vehicles:

o Typically higher interest rates. The I-bond has a "base rate" that is fixed over the life of the bond and an "inflation part" that adjusts every six months, based on the Consumer Price Index. The total interest rate on the bond is the base rate added to the inflation part. I-bond rates are usually 1-2% higher than the best money-market rate.

o You don't pay federal tax on the interest until you redeem the bond. You can also avoid all the federal tax on the bond if you use the bond to pay for educational expenses.

o The interest on the bonds is exempt from state income tax. If you live in a high-tax state like California, this can add up to a half-percent or more to the interest rate versus non tax-advantaged ways to save.

o You can get I-bonds for free (ie, without extra fees other than the money to buy the bond itself) from banks or from Treasury Direct.

In general, I-bonds don't pay enough to be a long-term investing strategy, but they are one of the best ways to do directed, medium-term savings.

White Flight from Cupertino?

Another interesting WSJ article, sadly behind the WSJ paywall. The general jist of the article:

o A culture of fierce competition in Cupertino schools - the article discusses Monta Vista HS and Linbrook HS (just across the border in San Jose) - driven by highly educated and hard-charging Chinese and Indian families is intimidating some whites out of local schools.
o The article discusses "whiter" Palo Alto, which is nearby and also viciously competitive.
o The article also covers Cupertino kids going to Bellarmine, which is a Catholic HS in San Jose (and where my brother went to HS).
o A point the article makes is that many Asians aren't particularly happy with this as it gives their kids a false read of the world outside Cupertino.

I'm not involved with Cupertino schools, although I feel that at least some of what the article discusses is true.

A key point the article doesn't discuss is that many longer-term white residents are leaving the SF Bay Area - and relatively few are moving in - due to high house prices. Asians seem more tolerant to high house prices - at least, if you look at the public purchase transaction records, you see lots of Chinese and Indian names as buyers and fewer Western European names. Cupertino, due at least in part to its excellent schools, is high-priced even by Bay Area standards: the cheapest single-family house in Cupertino in realtor.com at the moment is a 3 bedroom, 2 bath 1400 sq. ft, 53 year old house with a carport for $720,000. (Palo Alto is even more expensive.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Immigrants and welfare states

There was an interesting discussion on The Brussels Journal article on Right wing parties. I commented in a comment thread that Europe needed a libertarian conservative movement and a Barry Goldwater-type "conservative revolutionary". The replies on the thread were basically that it was about culture, not economics, and I was making the same mistake as the social democrats.

I agree that culture matters, but economics matters even more in some ways, particularly since it is quite difficult for the immigrants in France to find work or start businesses. Assimilating into a new culture is very hard, and if one is given an option that allows one to defer or not assimilate at all, most will take it. It's simply a rational choice, but one that leads to misery.

Assume you're a new immigrant to the US. What's more likely to make you study English and get a job? A government check and a government apartment, or "work or starve"? The "work or starve" approach isn't so feel-good, but it is the only option that will get you to accept the painful burdens of assimilation.

Now, assume you're a new immigrant to France. You're called a "refugee", get a check, and an apartment in a crappy area. There's no work nearby, but little need to work. How hard will you work to assimilate? You don't need to, and you are surrounded by people who didn't.

Welfare states make assimilation hard in many ways:

o The high tax burden makes the economy a poor generator of jobs in general, and jobs for immigrants in particular.

o The generous benefits make it easy to put off the heavy lifting of assimilation.

o A chicken-and-egg problem develops: few immigrants work, leading to a stereotype of immigrants in the society at large as lazy good-for-nothings subsisting on the backs of the taxpayers. Their children grow up in a hopeless state of a "rented life", without positive role-models or any connection to society other than the welfare checks, and end up in gangs and such.

Eventually, you have the situation that even capable, ambitious immigrants are refused jobs they'd otherwise be qualified for because of the stereotype.

And so, the road to Hell is once again paved with good intentions.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Saddam's WMDs


It's long, but extremely interesting reading...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Is there really an engineer shortage in the US?

This article (unfortunately behind the WSJ paywall) discusses this question and comes up with a valid point: companies have become so picky and fussy about minutae that they see themselves as having trouble hiring, but engineers who could definitely do these jobs are being skipped due to missing some skill or another - often fairly minor ones such as inexperience with a particular software tool (while experienced with other similar tools).

Here's a revealing anecdote from the article:

Despite the numbers, employers say they struggle to find the right person for openings. Earlier this year, Raytheon Co., Waltham, Mass., needed to find some systems engineers. Raytheon received 158 résumés. It eliminated 40 in the first pass because the applicants would not be able to get a security clearance, says senior vice president Keith Peden. Raytheon ruled out 90 more because the applicants lacked experience in the specific kinds of technology or markets the job required. That left 28. Ten dropped out because they would not relocate or had insufficient technical experience. Raytheon interviewed the remaining 18 in person, made three offers and hired two.

"What used to take two and a half to three months now takes five," says Mr. Peden. Raytheon's chief executive, William Swanson, says: "As a company, we are meeting our hiring needs. My concern is that the degree of difficulty in meeting those needs has gone up exponentially."

Given that I've been on both sides of the table, my feeling isn't that there's a shortage of people available who could do the job, given a few months of learning curve. What has happened is that engineering work has become more and more specialized, not just in the type of work done but the tools and practices used, so the chances of finding someone ready to "hit the ground running" has become less and less, particularly as you get to more senior levels.

From a career management perspective, this sort of thing poses Big Problems: the standard advice is to "keep up" with changes in technology and such, but what if the company you're interested in uses Clearcase instead of Perforce for source-code control and you "miss out" because of a resume-bot miss? Given the "search engine" approach to resume filtering, the ancient advice is even more appropriate now than ever before: don't rely on your resume; build up your network and get jobs the old fashioned way, through friends and contacts.

UPDATE: Here's a non-paywall version of the article...

Earthquake survival questions

I'm not sure what to make of this, but this article and this rebuttal of it as an urban legend is worth discussing by someone who knows What the Heck, particularly for those of us in earthquake country.

Certainly, when I was a kid, I was taught to get under a heavy table or whatever versus trying to run outside or curl up against furniture as the first link advises.

HT: Marginal Revolution

Monday, November 14, 2005

Two blogging greats mind-meld.

This commentary after the fact by Tigerhawk on Steve Den Beste's article on Iraq strategy from the beginning on the war is a very interesting read.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The California Republican Problem

As a lifelong Californian and resident of the southern San Francisco Bay Area, I love the place and will likely never move. Natural wonders abound, within a short day-trip distance, or overnight or an easy weekend drive away. We love to hike and backpack, and having lots of nature nearby more than makes up for the high cost of real-estate and such - at least for us. Also, Mountain View, CA is typically about 80 degrees in the summer and 60 in the winter, with relatively low humidity; our utility bills are rarely over $100.

We often toy with thoughts of selling our 1300 square foot "duet house" (a townhouse-ized duplex where each side owns its half) on a busy street in Mountain View in favor of a lovely McMansion that is located Somewhere Cheap; with the proceeds of the sale, we could pretty much buy one with cash. But those Somewhere Cheaps don't have the local tech companies that I work at, are usually far from international airports (my wife is from Shanghai and we visit the in-laws about once a year), and don't have much in the way of Chinese grocery stores and malls. Between that, the weather, and the fact that my extended family is here, I'd rather not move.

That said, a constant frustation is California politics. For whatever reason, states with large "creative" elements in their economies tend to be "blue" states dominated by Democrats and civil-service unions, and California is no exception. The once-powerful state Republican Party, that gave us Ronald Reagan, is a weak, pathetic thing that hasn't seated a governor in a non-recall election since the mid 1990s, and has an unfortunate tendency to nominate unelectable candidates to run for the office. (Arnold would have never survived a Republican state nominating convention; he's far too socially liberal.) The state Democratic Party is an entrenched, incumbent party in thrall to civil-service unions, identity politics hustlers, and trial lawyers, with all the rusty corruption and ideological silliness that comes from being The Ruling Party.

Making things even worse is the identification of state civil-service unions with their nominal function. That is, if you "support education", a common perception is that you have to do the bidding of the teacher's union, both as a politician and as a voter. The teachers' unions have come to be seen as super PTAs.

If I were advising the state Republican Party, I'd advise the following:

o Don't pretend you're in Texas or Oklahoma. Once you leave San Bernadino County, any resemblance to west Texas ends. The focus of the State Party must be economic opportunity and entrepreneurship, not cultural conservatism. Much of the state's electorate is aggressively secularist, so policies - like abortion - motivated by Christian conservatism are net losers in that they drive away otherwise interested voters. However, policies that emphasize choice and freedom and that contribute to cultural conservative goals could be winners, such as vouchers, charter schools, and other school choice issues.

o Californians are natively optimistic risk-takers, so curmudgeonism should be avoided whenever possible. Curmudgeonism is the sort of whiny conservatism that rants about "too many Mexicans" and that advocates buying gold for The End is Nigh. Remember Reagan: a sunny optimist who speaks to a bright future without being dour. Curmudgeon policy issues: anti-pornography, excessive concern with guns (fight for the second amendment, but don't go overboard; keep the NRA at arm's length), anti-immigrant politics.

o Work on the nonwhite entrepreneurial vote. Figure out a way to discuss border control as a crime and terrorism question, not coded racism. Also, improving schools, making it easier to start and run businesses, and law and order issues will work very well with everyone. Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, and Vietnamese are hardworking and entrepreneurial, and are largely ignored by the Democratic Party beyond the identity-politics crowd.

o Make it clear that civil service unions are employee unions, not public advocacy groups. One problem is that many people who don't pay much attention to politics think outfits with names like "National Education Association" are public advocates, not teachers' unions. Same for "Brotherhood of X", where X is some civil-service function.

If one thinks about unions, would one regard the UAW as the best advocate for the American auto industry? Not hardly. The same goes for civil service unions - in fact, more so, since "management" in civil service unions are the people themselves.

o The Republicans need a way to discuss education policy. This means that Republicans need to come with an alternate means of discussing education in the context of better public schools, if nothing else to counter the monopoly on policy debate currently held by the teacher unions. School choice is important, but not enough; without a means of at least discussing the direct improvement of public schools, school choice becomes a curmudgeon issue.

Update: on educational policy discussions, this article is quite interesting as a way to finesse the debate away from "how dare you question The Teachers!" to something more public-friendly and likely to work.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

How I voted in the CA special election

I voted today and sent in my absentee ballot. Here's my take on things...

Prop 73: Abortion waiting period and parental notification

This one was tough, although I voted against. I am not a big "pro-choicer" or "pro-lifer" (and I'm religiously agnostic), and am aware that situations exist where late-teen girls get in situations where they would have at least felt in danger if they were pregnant and were found out by their families. "Honor" killings of teenage girls are not unknown in California. Kill the kid or the mother? A devil's choice, I voted No.

Prop 74: Public school teachers, waiting period for tenure

Frankly, anything so opposed by the educracy has to be good. I don't support tenure for non-professors, so making it harder to get is a good thing: I voted Yes.

Prop 75: Union dues, restrictions on political contributions

We need to clean up California and weaken the iron grip the civil service unions have on the political system. There's lots of elements to this - including term limits - but weakening the influence of union money is crucial. I voted Yes.

Prop 76: State spending and school funding limits

This is similar to the "TABOR" limit in Colorado, and balances power better between the Legislature and the Governor. I voted Yes.

Prop 77: Change redistricting from legislature to judges

Personally, I'd like to see a random map generate the districts, subject to a minimum of clear and obvious guidelines. In any case, politicians shouldn't be allowed to choose their "voter set"; I voted Yes.

Prop 78, 79: Proposals for discount drugs via various methods

I voted No on both; this needs to be addressed at the national level or not at all.

Prop 80: Electricity Regulation

This has both good and bad elements; and is the highly complex sort of stuff that if we actually had a functioning Legislature, they'd be able to tackle. Also, a rule of thumb: when in doubt on complicated initiatives, my rule is to vote No. So, I voted No.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?