Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Greeting And Confession

I actually spent a not-insignificant amount of time today on Facebook, seeking advice on how to properly glaze and bake a ham bought on sale for a ridiculously low price last night.

For the record, though: this seeking of recipes did NOT entail any sort of traditional-femininity domestic-goddess thrifty-housewife-type bullshit on my part. I didn't learn to cook out of any fondness for traditional values; I learned because I was hungry and broke, and figured knowing how to make tasty, nutritious food on the cheap was a good way to save money and STICK IT TO THE MAN. When I cook from scratch, I stir with one hand and raise my middle finger with the other.

/fight the power
/with a well-stocked spice rack
/I'm celebrating the resurrection of a god-man I don't even believe in by roasting and eating a pig's butt

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Unbelievable Wrongness of Facebook's Ad Algorithms

If you have a Facebook account, you've probably noticed the "Sponsored Posts" and "Suggestions Pages" in your news feed lately. And if I lived in England I'd be tempted to sue Facebook for libel based on those suggestions--seriously, Facebook, what the hell did I ever say or write to make you think I'd "like" one of those nasty bigoted anti-gay-marriage groups with the word "Family" in the title? I rant about this at length, over at the Daily Dot.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Gleaning Comfort from their Faith

It must be comforting to convince yourself God hates the same people you do. That way, your hatred becomes a virtue to embrace rather than a character flaw to overcome.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Homeless People: Why Don't They Just Live In Their Summer Cottages?

As a journalist myself, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Chana Joffe-Wait, who wrote this article for NPR's Planet Money. The thing about being a journalist is, sooner or later your editor will order you to write on a topic you know nothing about; in such cases, the best you can do is quote some reliable sources and hope the end result isn't too egregious.

Anyway, after reading the article "Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America," it's obvious that Joffe-Wait is lucky enough to know absolutely nothing about American-style poverty. And if all you knew about America's disability system came from this article, you'd assume that all 14 million "disabled" Americans are actually lazy slackers who could work if they wanted to, but chose instead to subsist on miserable poverty-level handouts 'cuz they're so lazy: 
People who leave the workforce and go on disability qualify for Medicare, the government health care program that also covers the elderly. They also get disability payments from the government of about $13,000 a year. This isn't great. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you at most $15,000 a year, and probably does not include health insurance, disability may be a better option.

But going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work. Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That's the deal. And it's a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.
Really? All 14 million Americans chose that deal? None of them were forced into it via being too disabled to do anything better?

Maybe Joffe-Wait really does believe this. She was, by her own admission, absolutely shocked, shocked to discover that lots of jobs are far more physically demanding than "reporter for NPR":
One woman I met, Ethel Thomas, is on disability for back pain after working many years at the fish plant, and then as a nurse's aide. When I asked her what job she would have in her dream world, she told me she would be the woman at the Social Security office who weeds through disability applications. I figured she said this because she thought she'd be good at weeding out the cheaters. But that wasn't it. She said she wanted this job because it is the only job she's seen where you get to sit all day.

At first, I found this hard to believe. But then I started looking around town. There's the McDonald's, the fish plant, the truck repair shop. I went down a list of job openings -- Occupational Therapist, McDonald's, McDonald's, Truck Driver (heavy lifting), KFC, Registered Nurse, McDonald's.

Gee, who woulda thunk that Hale County, Alabama has less cushy jobs available than the East Coast megalopolis stretching from Boston down through Washington, DC?

Still, truth be told: there really are some lazy slackers out there, abusing the system. Surely there are some lazy sponges sucking up disability payments because they figure poverty plus unlimited free time is better than a middle-class existence where you sometimes have to work. I personally have known one or two such people, in my time. But I confess: My outrage level over such matters has dropped like a stone since last summer, when I moved to northern Virginia, suburb of the Imperial City, which has the highest concentration of welfare recipients in the world. 

Except local welfare recipients are called "federal contractors," and instead of poverty-level pittances they're given enough taxpayer money to ensure that my new home county has the highest median income in America. Take all the disability money the feds spent in the entire state of Alabama last year, and I doubt it will even cover the cost of one floor of that glossy high-rise Bechtel building, or corner office on the Northrop Grumman campus or whatever. And the disability folks aren't justifying their money by giving the military and paramilitary cops all sorts of shiny new kill-toys to use on people, either.

If the Cadillac-driving welfare queen of Ronald Reagan's speeches really existed, I'd have more respect for her perennially pregnant self than I do for the "gainfully employed" and outrageously wealthy consumers of tax money I see in northern Virginia every day. If I committed the maximum amount of welfare fraud feasible for an ordinary woman like me -- say, hide my car, savings account and all other assets from the government, then convince them I'm the disabled unemployed single mother of two dozen special-needs children -- my total lifetime fraud payout will still be less than what we spend to keep the military in Afghanistan for half a minute. (And my hypothetical welfare fraud wouldn't result in death for any innocent Afghan civilians, either.)

But, anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, such welfare queens are actually quite rare. Most people who limp along on subsistence-level disability payments would surely be ecstatic for the chance to give up their checks in exchange for an awesome (and physically untaxing) job writing for NPR. Or even for a dull-as-dishwater desk jockey job in some cubicle maze of a bureaucracy's office. Even being a chronically underemployed blogger/journo like me would be a vast improvement--no, I don't make much money, but I can make it sitting down and at least I have the possibility of making better money someday, which the chronically disabled do not.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Good News From The Supreme Court

In the Kirtsaeng v. Wiley case, the supreme court ruled 6-3 today that we Americans still have the right to  buy and sell secondhand books. I discuss the court's ruling over at the Daily Dot.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Another Aspect of Industrial Decay

Until nine months ago I lived in central Connecticut, southern New England, in cities that were very, very rich a hundred years ago (when America was still the world's manufacturing powerhouse) but have been in steady decline since before I was born. I spent a dozen years and more living surrounded by a patina of industrial decay I hardly noticed until I moved to a place notable by the exact opposite: a shiny new suburb in northern Virginia, the outermost suburbs of the federal city of Washington, DC (though my household is employed entirely by the private sector, not the feds).

No surprise: even the poorest suburbs of the imperial city are much, much richer than are the decayed remnants of America's industrial cities. But as poor as my old Connecticut stomping grounds are (especially compared to my new and less-affordable neighborhood), the Nutmeg State's economy is downright booming compared to the utter poverty to be found next door in Rhode Island.

Today's Washington Post has an excellent story about one particular town, Woonsocket, with more or less the same history as hundreds of other New England cities: used to be prosperous, then the factories closed. Now, as the Post reports, the town's economy is based not on the old factory jobs (or any jobs at all, really), but on a monthly infusion of federal food-stamp benefits.

As with most such cases, the family in the story has made its share of poor financial decisions--owing $75 to a tattoo parlor, for example. And yet, as with most such cases, those poor financial decisions don't really matter all that much--if the family had the extra $75 for the tattoo, how much difference would it really make?

It's not a lazy family; both parents work, they just aren't paid enough to live on. They can't move to where the decent-paying jobs are, because moving costs money and if you can't afford a one-time bill of $75 (even for an unnecessary frill like a tattoo), you sure as hell can't afford to move to a different part of the country, pay the deposits on a new place to live and support yourself and your family until you get your first paycheck. So they can't afford to leave but things will never improve if they stay; one of the cruel ironies of post-industrial wasteland economies is, the more desperately a city needs new industries, the less attractive it is for any industry to settle there. The parents would be better off if they weren't parents (at least not at such a young age), but now that the kids are here, what if anything can be done to raise their parents even into the lowest ranks of the lower middle class?


Cyprus: Run, Banks, Run!

I am neither an economics major nor a user of hallucinogenic drugs, so I simply cannot understand the rationale behind the bank bailout in Cyprus: anybody with a Cypriot bank account will have their deposit reduced by 6.75 percent if they have less than 100,000 Euros in savings, 9.9 percent if they have anything more. The theory, I suppose, is that people who managed to save money should be punished to benefit those who went into debt. The theory further supposes that it's no big deal if depositors lose faith in Cypriot banks, even though the law just ensured that cash in hand is worth up to ten percent more than "cash" in a bank account, not to mention better-protected from capricious government confiscation.

Disclaimer: I have no money in Cypriot banks, only a savings account in the USA. It's a fairly large-ish sum of money (though not large enough to qualify for Cyprus' ten percent confiscation rate) because I have been living cheap and squirreling money away for several years now, in hope of one day buying a non-bubble-priced house. Also: as a freelancer with an unsteady income, I know damned well the importance of having a fat emergency cushion to catch me if I fall.

As an American who would like to one day buy a house to live in without taking on exorbitant amounts of debt, I am already miffed by the American mantra "A healthy economy requires ever-rising housing prices, because current homeowners who wish to sell are obviously the only Americans with financial interests worth considering." I do not agree that a constant (but allegedly low) rate of inflation is a good thing. So I'll admit: I do have a dog in this fight, regarding the question "Should the economy encourage people to be savers or debtors?"

I disagree with these policies, but still, I kinda-sorta understand the rationale behind them, understand why some economists are pushing for higher American home prices, or support a constant rate of inflation. But I do not understand the rationale of taxing Cypriot savings accounts, and basically teaching all current Cypriot adults the lesson: "You must never, ever trust your money to a bank, because the government will raid your account anytime it needs money." Why the hell is this supposed to be a good idea?

I don't see anything about a similar tax on stock or investment accounts. Not that I'd support a reduction in Cypriot stock portfolios, of course ... but at least a partial confiscation of Cypriot investment accounts would be less regressive than this confiscation from plain savings accounts. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Utter Popelessness

I hope the college of cardinals offers the pontiff gig to Lenny Kravitz, because having the world-spanning Roman Catholic Church led by a black Jewish pope will make racist conspiratorial Stormfront types go absolutely bananas.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Rand Paul's Filibuster Proves We're Farked

I don't always agree with Rand Paul but he's on the side of the angels today; as I type this he's almost twelve hours into his Senate filibuster against John Brennan's appointment to head the CIA. Paul's stance is that using drones to kill American citizens on American soil without a trial or any oversight should not be allowed, which somehow makes him a controversial figure in today's America. I don't know how this will play out, but even if Paul succeeds in keeping Brennan out of the CIA director's chair, that doesn't necessarily mean any aspects of the drone program will be scaled back.

Time flies when the constitution's falling apart; it's a little over two years now since I wrote a column about Jesse Ventura's then-current lawsuit attempt against the TSA (he lost, along with the rest of America), and said this: "Desperation is when once-proud and free Americans like me are reduced to pleading, 'Save us, Jesse Ventura, you're our only hope.'" And now, on a far worse civil-liberties violation, I'm reduced to making similar pleas about Rand Paul. Yet even if he succeeds, I'm not convinced anything meaningful will change.

In other news, TSA is letting people carry penknives on flights again, as we could before our collective freakout after 9/11, and everyone's acting like it's some great leap forward for freedom--you still can't fly unless you assume the position and submit to a fondling first, but once you arrive at your destination you may whittle at leisure with your very own Girl Scout knife.

EDIT: Former governor and presidential candidate Gary Johnson posted this on his Facebook page:
In all the excitement about the extremely justified filibuster of Brennan's confirmation by Sen. Paul and his colleagues, let's not -- as much of the media is doing -- overlook the reason for that filibuster: We can't get a straight answer from the Administration to the simple question of whether they believe it is OK to execute an American citizen with NO due process. Unbelievable.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Romney Update: Still An Idiot

Wondering how former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is doing? In an interview released last weekend, Romney confirmed that he's still a clueless and bigoted idiot. Romney said nothing about civil liberties or constitutional rights; he blames his loss on the popularity of Obamacare. Quoth the Mitt: Obama won by promising "generous" gifts to "the African American community, the Hispanic community and young people."

Economic trivia: "Obamacare" is, among other things, an enormous transfer of wealth from impoverished twentysomethings to prosperous retirees and AARP members. The gifts Obama has bestowed upon the younger generation include higher (and mandatory!) insurance premiums, higher unemployment rates, and more opportunities to go over their head sin bankruptcy-proof student debt. What are these alleged "gifts to young people" Romney keeps blathering about, and how are they any worse than the lush corporate welfare programs Obama and Romney both support? For that matter, how is Obamacare any worse than the Romneycare it was cribbed from?
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