Saturday, April 23, 2011

Waste and the Budget

I suspect that Paul Ryan's infamous budget proposal will be voted down, or at least vetoed, considering the public outrage against it, but that will leave Congress stuck with the same jolly problem: how to cut spending without royally p!ssing off the voters.

It’s grimly amusing to watch the Republicans and Democrats fight over how to reduce the budget by goring each other’s oxen. Which program, they argue, shall we cut? Social Security or the military? Planned Parenthood or tax cuts for the rich? And it’s all pointless!

The single biggest expense of government is waste. I’ve worked for government in two states and I’ve seen this for myself. It was Senator McCain who noted, in public, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs spends 90% of its budget on its own bureaucracy and only 10% on the Indians. I can tell you from observation that the Welfare departments of the states spend 50% of their income on their own bureaucracies and the remainder on the poor. If we could just eliminate government bureaucratic waste we could save at least 40% of the budget, right there. And that’s saying nothing about waste caused by deliberate corruption.

Bureaucratic waste begins with the very language in which bills are written. The impenetrable legalese by itself creates excessive regulations. The excessive regulations create excessive paperwork to keep track of them. The excessive paperwork creates excessive numbers of clerks to deal with the paperwork. The excessive numbers of clerks create excessive numbers of managers to keep track of the clerks. That’s how bureaucracies are created, and grow, and gobble up our tax money.

Corruptive waste is caused by legislators and bureaucratic managers who create unnecessary departments and projects for the express purpose of spending money on their cronies. Who was it that made the Bradley Fighting Vehicle into a 17-year and multimillion-dollar boondoggle? Who votes for construction of unnecessary bridges while our existing bridges degrade? Whose idea was it to bail out the very same CEOs of banks and mortgage companies who created the current Depression? Who was it that looted the Social Security system, which was paying for itself before then, so that Social Security is running bankrupt now? This is how politicians themselves waste our money.

Yes, there’s much that can be done to prevent this.

1) Let every government – municipal, state and federal – in the United States go out and hire a lean, mean, clean and completely private forensic accounting company. Let them give those companies complete authority to go anywhere, question anyone and look at everything, with no complaints about “national security” to stop them. Order those companies to look specifically for both bureaucratic and corruptive waste, and bring reports and recommendations for reducing that waste back to the local, state or federal legislature – and then make the legislatures act on those recommendations.

2) Pass a simple law stating that no government agency, department, bureau, etc. shall print, use, maintain, etc. more than ten (10) separate and distinct bureaucratic forms. I’ve seen for myself that all the services performed by, say, the Welfare system could be performed for no more than ten forms, rather than the hundreds it currently employs. Less paperwork means fewer clerks, and therefore fewer managers. If we don’t want to fire those clerks and managers outright, let’s transfer them to more necessary and productive work – say, the Border Patrol – with reduced salaries.

3) Cut the salaries of all elected and appointed officials by 15%. It’s rather unfair to cut the numbers and incomes of the government’s foot-soldiers without asking the generals to share the sacrifice.

4) Pass a simple law which restricts government departments to no more than three levels of management. With the exception of the military, which has seven levels of officers, there is no organization which needs more than three levels of management to function efficiently. To eliminate waste we must stop having too many chiefs per Indian.

5) Do not allow legislators to pass regulations regarding any industry until those proposed regulations have been examined and approved by relevant civilian engineers. Most legislators know nothing about, for example, nuclear reactors; they should not write safety regulations for such reactors based on the glib claims of power-company managers rather than nuclear engineers.

6) Eliminate an old injustice by abolishing all laws restricting the possession of marijuana, or any other products of the hemp plant, and then tax all such products 5% at the point of sale. Also, “influence” all those “financial institutions” which are “friends” of government to “assist and encourage” start-up businesses processing and selling all the products of the hemp plant. Marijuana was made illegal in the first place precisely to stop hemp-industry development which otherwise would have created serious rivals to existing chemical, timber and pharmaceutical companies. We need those rivals now to restart our floundering economy.

7) Overhaul our tax system so that the poor are not taxed more than the rich. End the tax exemptions which allow the richest 1% of our population to pay no taxes at all, and raise the minimum-income level which obliges to poor to pay 15% of their income in taxes.

8) Close those 100+ overseas military bases that we no longer need, bring the troops home and put them to guarding our borders against illegal immigrants from anywhere.

Following these policies would cut at least 40% out of the governments’ budget, create new industries and new sources of income, without destroying any necessary programs.

Now, will any of our squabbling legislators support them?

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

Monday, April 18, 2011

Movie Review: "Atlas Shrugged" -- Better Than The Book

“Atlas Shrugged” Part One has been in the theaters for just three days now, and already the professional critics are panning it frantically – while the audiences love it. After seeing the movie, I can understand why the critics are so desperate to disparage it. The movie is better than the book, and probably will win more converts to Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

The original novel, which has been a consistent – and controversial – best-seller for more than half a century, is a thrilling, gripping horror of a badly-written book. Weighing in at nearly 1000 pages, it’s thought-provoking but slow, ponderous and talky. Rand, apparently never having heard the phrase “show, don’t tell” had no problem stopping the action of the story to insert 3-to-20 page speeches. Her characters were memorable, but not very deeply drawn. Her plot was original and intricate, but too often got bogged down in the speeches. In many ways, it was the mirror-image of Jack London’s unfairly neglected novel, “The Iron Heel”.

The movie avoids all those pitfalls, concentrating on plot and character, and replacing the long speeches with stunning visuals. For example, nobody has to describe Francisco D’Anconia as a “rich playboy” when a single shot shows him walking into a high-class restaurant wearing flashy clothes and fondling two equally flashy girls. The script is as quick and compact as the average CSI episode, and the camera-work is often brilliant. The scenes of the train rushing across the country at top speed, moving like a silver snake, are worth the price of admission by themselves. Possibly for just these reasons, the movie comes across as a film noir mystery thriller, which the book never managed to do. It also seems too short, despite its respectable 1 hour and 40 minute running time.

Because this is an independent film, produced on a budget ($10 million) which is incredibly cheap for an epic, it has a cast of mostly unknown actors who still manage to do good solid work. Likewise, a lot of stock footage – mostly of scenery and railroad construction – has been slyly and seamlessly inserted into the film. Even so, the camera-work is wonderfully Gothic in both the modern and original literary sense: using the environment itself to cast moods and convey themes. The film-crew had to cut corners to save money, but those corners are brilliantly cut. The cinematographer, director and scriptwriter deserve at least nominations for the Oscar.

Altogether, “Atlas Shrugged” Part 1 is a thrilling, gripping gem of a movie, far better than the original novel. Considering how Politically Incorrect Ayn Rand’s book was, it’s quite understandable that critics hired by the mainstream media are frantic to discourage potential viewers from watching it.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Money Matters 1.

Have you ever noticed how the four stages of money parallel the four stages of matter?

Barter, the direct exchange of goods and services, corresponds neatly to solid matter – which, in a very real sense, it is. Swapping one goat for a bushel of cabbages, or one goat for the labor of plowing three acres, is certainly a solid exchange. The advantage of barter is that it’s difficult, but not impossible, to cheat in such an exchange; a skinny sickly cow may be worth less than two goats, or one’s plowing may be of inferior quality – but in general the value of such exchange is pretty clearly seen and understood.

The disadvantage of barter is its clumsiness. If you’re a farmer who grows potatoes, and you have a toothache, you may have a hard time persuading the town dentist to fix your teeth in exchange for a lot of potatoes. It’s far easier to swap your potatoes for some kind of goods that everybody wants, and on whose value everybody agrees, and then go looking for a dentist you like. For this reason – some seven thousand years ago, as near as the archeologists can tell – people developed specie money, still called liquid currency. Even in that early age, everybody could agree on the value of certain useful metals – gold, silver and copper – so reliably equal weights of these could become trade-standards. The oldest form of money the scientists have found is uniform silver rings, made of extruded wire wrapped around a rod and cut at the same point. This is also, apparently, the beginning of the custom of wearing earrings; in an age before the invention of pockets, one’s ears were the safest place to keep one’s money. The advantage of specie currency is its fluidity; as in the example of the potato farmer, you can swap any goods or services for the trade-standard, and then exchange the trade-standard for anything else. The disadvantage is, again, that it’s difficult but still possible to cheat on its value – by giving short weights or less-than-pure metals. Still, such cheats are necessarily minimal, and liquid/specie money is generally as reliable as barter.

Sometime during the Middle Ages, modern banking was invented – and paper currency with it. It began with jewelers, who usually had big sturdy safes to protect their materials: safes where other people could rent space to protect their gold or silver money. The jeweler/banker would then give the renter a paper receipt for the stored coins, and the renter could then trade the paper receipt for goods and services as if it were the real coins. This corresponds to the gaseous state of matter, in that paper promises – like gas – can expand to fill all available volume. Paper receipts can be forged, or outdated, and otherwise make cheating easy. There are banks and whole governments today whose paper-promise money is backed up by questionable ownership of questionable goods – or by nothing at all. This is the stage where inflation(!) becomes common.

Finally we come to credit, which corresponds to plasma in that it takes constant input of energy to maintain it at all. Credit is all promise and no substance, maintained purely by faith: faith that the borrower will repay the promise with real money, and faith that the lender will – if not repaid – come after the borrower with the force of law. Obviously, credit can expand as widely as gas – and can collapse on no more than a loss of faith. Is it any wonder that the portions of our economy that were based on credit have begun failing? A sober reflection would show that they should never have existed in the first place.