I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Ten Trillion Pound Gorilla

Sometimes, I'll be listening to NPR talking about the political supression that goes on in other countries. The Russians, for instance, have horrible supression because Putin's party keeps all but a half dozen minor parties off the ballot. In Iran, all the candidates must meet the approval of the all powerful mullahs. In Egypt, candidates who are "radical" are disqualified from appearing on the ballot. And NPR reports that the citizens of these countries still support the ruling parties, and speculate it's because the media is controlled by the government. NPR. A news media created by an act of congress, is decrying state run media.

Which of these conditions isn't true, at least in parallel, in the US? Can you imagine going into a voting booth and having SIX parties to choose from? Here, the religious mullah's may not select the candidates (though some would argue that James Dobson and Pat Robertson certainly try), but the media mullahs decide early on who the serious candidates are and who the jokes will be and shape the race by reporting on it as a popularity contest. Money mullahs also have their say, though this time I was pleased to see that, on the republican side at least, money didn't prove to be the decisive factor. As far as disqualifying candidates from the ballot, I'm currently listed as "unafilliated" because the Libertarian party was decertified for failing to get 10% of the vote. But, why should any party or candidate get decertified? It's an electronic ballot these days. Does it seriously take that much more electricity to put ten candidates on the screen instead of two? The reality is that powerful people decide in advance who we get to vote for, and our choices wind up between corporate approved candidate A and corporate approved candidate B.

I mentioned that the election is reported as a popularity contest. It has to be--the differences in the issues between the "mainstream" candidates is trivial. They squabble around the edges on the nuances of who is more opposed to gay marriage, or illegal immigrants, or whether we should be using military might in Iraq, or whether we should have gone into Pakistan to get Bin Ladin. Our elections hinge on whether someone has a nervous laugh, or is too old, or attends church with a bigot. It's like we never get past the voting patterns of our high school class presidents. The candidates there might take a position on school lunches or allocation of parking spaces, but everyone knew they would have no genuine power to change things, and the election was going to come down to who was the most likable.

So, the election is going to come down to McCain and, probably, Obama. Neither of them has ever uttered a word about the biggest threat that America faces. They aren't going to. None of the mainstream candidates are going to. Because you can't get elected if you talk about the truth in America.

There's a ten trillion pound gorilla hanging off the great American skyscraper, and everyone is acting like they don't see it.

I'm talking about the Federal debt. Not the budget deficit, though this is related. The deficit is how much we're falling short each year in our tax collection versus our spending. The debt is how much we owe, and currently it's closing in on $10,000,000,000. Ten trillion.

Currently, we collect about 2.5 trillion a year in taxes. So, if we shut down the Federal government... we don't pay any federal employee salaries, we pay no social security, we leave our tanks sitting out in the desert and have our forces hitchhike home... and we still would need four years before we were out from under this debt.

Four years might not sound so bad, but the reality is that we aren't going to shut down the government. We're going to keep growing it. The interest on 10 trillion dollars ads up rather quickly. It's turned into a national reverse savings account. Since we run budget deficits, we are continuing to borrow money just to pay the interest payments on the debt. We've become a country that's akin to a household using its credit cards to pay its mortgage. If you were a financial counselor who saw a family doing this, you'd recognize that family was in a serious financial death spiral.

And you know all those billions we're spending "off book" to protect America by fighting a pre-emptive war? Well, if we went to war with China, or Saudi Arabia, they wouldn't need a single tank or bomb to bring us to our knees. They could just do nothing, and stop funding our debt. The real WMD's of the future won't be nuclear or biological, but financial.

You can look around at the supposed prosperity growth of America in the last twenty years, but we're more akin to the overdrawn families living in McMansions who've been living the good life by borrowing until they can't borrow any more. Then, someone loses a job, or an interest rate rises a point, or gas goes up a dollar a gallon in a year, and the whole facade comes crumbling down.

The longer we ignore the problem, the more difficult it will be to solve. And I worry we'll never, ever elect the people who would have the courage to solve it. To get back in the black, we have to do two things: Increase taxes and decrease services. Curiously, I don't notice any candidate running on that slogan.

Some modest proposals for increasing taxes: First, reinstate the estate tax at a newly draconian level. At heart, I'm a libertarian, opposed to taxing people just because they are wealthy. But, you know, sacrifices must be made. We're going for a decade with the estate tax slowly dwindling down to zero. The year you die is going to effect how much your family gets to keep--the longer you hold on, the better for them. So, why not keep this "changes by the year" philosophy, only instead of it going down, we spin a wheel January 1 to figure out the death tax amount for the year? And the wheel can have a lot of 100% slots and almost no 0% slots.

Second, we could have a "too much fame" tax. We could have a vote each year of the celebrities we're most tired of hearing about. Then, we'd just go and grab everything from the top ten folks on that list. Britney would be too broke to afford her brazilian waxes after a few votes. Rush Limbaugh could no longer afford to hire a housekeeper to score hillbilly heroin from. If you're a baseball player caught up in a steriod scandal at the same time you're closing in on a home run record, well, you'd better hope there are ten people more loathed than you are this year. If you do manage to get rich, you'd learn to keep your head low. The new rule would be, you can be famous, or you can be rich, but it's dangerous to have too much of both.

Cutting services: Step one, let's get rid of the military. Honestly, I have nothing against our soldiers. They've done a fine job. But, do we really need troops in a hundred different nations? In theory, the purpose of our "defense" forces should be just that... defending our borders. Making sure no hostile nation comes onto our shores and tries to grab, I dunno, whatever it is we make here in America. Our iced coffee drinks, perhaps. But we could do this with a much, much, much tinier military than we presently have. We just need to keep 50 nukes. Or even just say we're keeping 50 nukes, and we're not showing them to anyone, or saying where they're pointed. But, Portugal, if you mess with us... well, just don't is all.

As for our immediate borders, well, gee, the INS and border patrol are doing a bang-up job aren't they? I bet no more than a few dozen people slip over the border each year. What? How many? Oh dear. So I have an alternative to the current border patrol. We make it all volunteer. We ask patriotic American's to come on out to the borders and serve a week or two at a time patrolling. In return, they get to ride around in armed pick-up trucks and fire machine guns into the air while drinking beer. No terrorist in his right mind is going to face off against that. Mexican's (and the occasional Canadian) can sneak through now knowing that if they're caught it will be by professionals who will treat them respectfully and escort them back out of the country. With the drunken gun-toting volunteer force, who wants to chance it?

For the oceans, the deal would be similar, only it would be armed speed boats. Honestly, with the right recruiting posters, we not only wouldn't have to pay the volunteers, we could charge them a thousand bucks a week, and we'd still have all the manpower we need.

Obviously, my modest proposals aren't serious approaches to dealing with our problems. And yet, they are better proposals than anything I've heard from McCain or Obama or Clinton. They aren't talking about the debt because their fingerprints are on the credit cards. We were once the wealthiest nation on earth but both Republicans and Democrats have colluded to manage our finances in a way that would make even MC Hammer's business managers blush.

And, in fairness, while ten trillion dollars is a big number... trillions are normally not often encountered outside of discussions of astrophysics... the US economy is a creature of big numbers. Our gross domestic product is roughly 14 trillion. We owe a lot of money, but if we had to pay this debt, in theory it's not too late. But after 8 more years of a president who just doesn't talk about the problem? Where is the tipping point? If we don't take it seriously now, then when?


rastronomicals said...

Nothing not to agree with.

Actually there has been one politician on the national stage in our lifetime to talk about the crippling nature of our federal debt, and that was Ross Perot in 1992.

He spoke very directly about the problem, and it was so intoxicating to hear him speak about the problem and his real live actual proposed solution that I voted for him and didn't realize 'til later that he would have cut down our national forests. . . .

Perot was also a big NAFTA guy, too, bigger than even the Clintons, so he hardly would have made a great president all the way around. But I still don't regret my vote, even if it wasn't seen as the belwether of voter disgust about the deficit that I wished it had been.

Again, without glossing over Perot's flaws, it's still funny to me today how the media was able to turn perhaps our most serious candidate in recent memory and the only man courageous enough to speak about this enormous issue into a caricature and a buffoon.

James Maxey said...

Ras, I agree that Perot was the last candidate who treated this debt as a serious problem. Also, I'm pretty sure he was strongly opposed to NASA. One of his famous phrases is "giant sucking sound," which is what he predicted we'd hear if NAFTA passed, since Mexico would suck up all our jobs. (I don't blame NAFTA for our economic woes, by the way.)

I think that the biggest drawback of the Perot run is that it proved to other politicians that running using a lot of charts, graphs, and numbers, as Perot did, is a losing proposition.

Even sadder is, I don't think that politicians are underestimating the American public in assuming that most people don't care about the numbers and can't understand them if they did. American's on the whole don't possess the ability to analyze numerical data, so they tend to judge the numbers they believe by how much they trust the sources. Liberals believe the numbers they are told by, say, Al Gore. Conservatives repeat any numbers they hear from Rush Limbaugh as gospel. The numbers they hear don't matter in the least. If Rush made up numbers, like, completely imaginary numbers like wackzillion, and said that seventy wackzillion Mexicans sneak across the border every month, people would accept these as legit evidence of the crisis.

I wish I saw some way out of this. Back in the sixties, Kennedy made a push to bulk up math education in an effort to produce more rocket scientists. I suspect a lot of the computer geeks of the 80s were a product of this push. Now, I'd love it if there was just a push to get people to understand how to balance their checkbooks.

rastronomicals said...

Also, I'm pretty sure he was strongly opposed to NAFTA. One of his famous phrases is "giant sucking sound," . . .

I'll humbly stand corrected; as I was composing yesterday without remembering specifically it just made sense that Perot WOULD have been pro-Nafta, being a billionaire industrialist and all.

Silly me.

While I won't deny epidemic levels of innumeracy, I think the whole wackzillion thing is more a reflection of the whole talking points phenomenon. The way I understand it is that people spend some time deciding who they want to take their marching orders from, but once they decide, once the firewall is down, they simply parrot or act upon the talking points they're given, since they've previously decided to trust the source.

I'll admit to doing that kind of stuff myself. Being a well-kept liberal (at least on some issues), I'm on the FreePress.net mailing list, and when I receive one of their mass emails, I of course always have the option to do the voluminous research on small-market radio or whatever it is that day. But more often I'm simply gonna click the button to send the email on to my representative--because I've already decided to trust Free Press.

I've been on boards where members have made fun of let's say the Christian right for copying and pasting some partisan document into an online form and hitting send 10,000 times . . . but the left does it just as much.

And that doesn't mean either side is not smart; mostly it means they're just busy.
The system can be and is exploited: if Rush Limbaugh makes up some research, the wave is going to propagate some before it breaks. But eventually somebody's gonna say, "Hey wait a second! Wackzillion isn't even a number!"