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The Ten Trillion Dollar Decade

Monday, April 14th, 2014

It’s Tax Day tomorrow. Waiting till the last moment to file because you’ll have to write a check?

It hurts, but you must be financially better off than the federal government, which itself owes $17.5 trillion, all because Congress and the President refuse to balance budgets.

In the last ten years, according to a convenient Department of Treasury website, the federal government’s debt has not merely doubled, it has ballooned … by more than $10 trillion.

During the Reagan Administration, we were aghast at the idea of a “mere” one trillion dollar debt. I remember “No Trillion Dollar Debt” signs.

Waving signs didn’t help.

But something’s gotta give. As J. D. Tuccille writes, “you have to think that it’s going to occur to people that the United States government seems neither willing nor able to stop borrowing, and to start paying the sum down, even a little bit.”

Debts must be repaid, with interest. That goes for the last decade’s additional ten trillion tonnage of “bricks” now hanging over our heads.

Writing your check to the government isn’t made any more pleasant by pondering how paltry your payment is compared to what’s needed to make a dent in the debt. Moreover, even amid constant talk about “cuts,” federal government spending continues to increase. Thus, getting out of debt is not about writing checks to government. It’s about government writing fewer and smaller checks.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Cold Contempt for Common Sense

Friday, March 7th, 2014

It began when a science experiment at a Minnesota high school set off a fire alarm. One of the students, Kayona Tietz, was swimming at the time. Her clothes were in her locker.

Because the alarm was unplanned, a teacher ushered Kayona outside without letting her retrieve her clothes. All she had between her wet swimsuit and the five-below-zero weather was a towel.

Once outside, to be protected ASAP from the cold the 14-year-old could simply have sat in one of the faculty-owned cars. Everyone knew this. Nevertheless, ten minutes passed before she was allowed to do so, by which time she was suffering frostbite. A teacher felt it necessary to first acquire permission from school administrators for an exception to rules obviously inapplicable to the circumstances. Eventually, also, a teacher lent Kayona a jacket . . . but not immediately.

What happened immediately is that her classmates huddled around to keep her as warm as they could. Apparently they lacked the training to blindly follow rules intended to protect students as morally superior to, well, actually protecting their classmate.

A girl got frostbitten because school personnel were complicit in a bizarre and dramatic loss of common sense. One needn’t “review procedures” to prevent such things. One need only use common sense (and be free to use it!) The inane regulations may have originated in some bureaucrat’s cubicle. But those on the spot were responsible for their own judgment.

Or lack of it.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

A Trumped-up “Consensus”

Friday, February 28th, 2014

“A co-founder of Greenpeace told a Senate panel on Tuesday that there is no scientific evidence to back claims that humans are the ‘dominant cause’ of climate change,” the Washington Times reported yesterday.

But what about that grand consensus — “97 percent” — of scientists saying the exact opposite?

Well, economist and legal theoretician David D. Friedman wrote, this week, that one of the most famous citations about the climate change consensus is the result of some, uh, data fudging.

Friedman chased down the origin of that infamous and oft-repeated 97 percent figure through three papers, all available online. Despite the high tone of certainty, the scientists who collated information from surveys of other scientists did not find that “over 97% endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.” At best, a huge cohort of these scientists agreed that humans merely contributed to global warming. Very different.

Friedman concluded that the main author responsible for the strong interpretation of weak findings,  John Cook, told “a deliberate lie.”

This scientist’s misrepresentation of “the result of his own research” doesn’t prove that Anthropogenic Global Warming is true or untrue, of course. But it does suggest that the “consensus” so much talked about is shaky indeed.

I began the week talking about our reliance upon experts to gather, analyze and report on information honestly and reliably.

And how horrible it is when they let us down.

The climate change we need is in the culture of academic responsibility.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Point Those Fangs Elsewhere

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

The death of Pentecostal minister Jaimie Coots, from a rattlesnake bite to the back of his hand, sure rattled William Saletan, at Slate, who took the occasion to make a point about how dangerous . . . guns are.

In “A Nation of Snake Handlers,” Saletan cleverly regaled us with stories of youngsters and others who died playing with snakes. But he had deliberately swapped “gun” with “snake” and “discharge” with “bite,” taking accidental gun deaths and turning them into snakebite deaths, to get our attention: “We are a nation of gun handlers, as reckless as anyone who handles serpents.”

In one year, he reports, there were over 12,000 gunshot fatalities. Americans own over 300 million guns. What to do?

I’m not going to tell you that the solution to this madness is to pass another gun law. . . . We need more than laws. We need to change our culture. We must ask ourselves whether the comforts and pleasures of owning a firearm are worth the risks. Having a gun in your home is far more dangerous than having a snake.

No one wants gun accidents. But “[h]aving a gun in your home is far more dangerous than having a snake”? Really? Hardly anyone owns poisonous snakes. But Americans own millions of guns, with comparatively few accidental deaths.

Sadly, Saletan played switcheroo with the stat on those 12,000+ gun deaths. Only a few were accidental (in 2010, the number was 606). Most were homicides.

The rule for handling snakes and guns is: peaceful people don’t point them at others. (Better not to point them at yourself, either.)

Respect danger. Respect the rights of others.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Thoughtful Kindness?

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Bumper stickers. Now that’s free speech. Which I love. But that doesn’t mean I love all bumper stickers. Sure, some are cute, funny, occasionally brilliant. Others are just crude.

But my least favorite bumper sticker might surprise you. The bumper strip that ticks me off the most reads:

“Practice Random Acts Of Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty.”

Now, most folks who put this one on their car are nice. They’re thinking about “kindness” and “beauty” — so, I’m certainly not gonna say anything if I see them at the market.

But . . . why waste kindness by doing it randomly? The random implies heedlessness, thoughtlessness. How much better to be provident in kindness, thinking ahead and in context.

Should the purse-snatcher really benefit as much or more from our kindness as the little girl in the neighborhood who is always helping us with our groceries?

Should our lazy, good-for-nothing brother-in-law get what time we have for kindness or should it go to someone who will take our kindness and turn it around into even more kindness?

Now, I’m not suggesting anyone be unkind to anyone. But precisely because practicing kindness is so important — it’s the glue that holds a friendly society together — it is worth taking the time to recognize and reward good behavior. Rather than bad. Or just sticking the dial on “random.”

And how can beauty ever be senseless?

How about a new bumper sticker: “Practice Thoughtful Acts of Kindness and Sensible Acts of Beauty”?

Happy New Year!

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

This installment of Common Sense first aired in November 2006.

Stop Digging

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

When it comes to pension systems, the State of Illinois appears shovel in hand, digging to the bottom. The state’s five public employee retirement systems face a combined unfunded liability of $100 billion dollars; they have only 40 percent of what they need to pay the benefits politicians negotiated with public employee unions — the lowest funding level of any state.

The Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago-area paper, calls a spade a spade: “The shortfall is due largely to decades of legislators skipping or shorting the state’s pension payments — a practice that allowed them to spend that money elsewhere.”

Today, Illinois’ legislators will trudge into Springfield for an expected vote to fix the broken system.

“This deal was made by Speaker Madigan and other politicians behind closed doors,” charges Illinois Policy Institute CEO John Tillman, who fears it makes matters worse.

The bizarre attempt at a fix allows the Legislature to be sued before the Illinois Supreme Court if it fails to make its required ongoing contributions into the pension fund.

The legislation also contains a guarantee clause prioritizing pension payouts before most other state spending. As Tillman says, “Not caring for the poor. Not public safety. Not education.”

And a much ballyhooed option for employees to switch to a 401(k)-style plan turns out to allow only 5 percent of employees to so choose, blocking the rest.

Pay what was promised, but stop digging! Move new workers to 401(k) style plans they can own, with employer contributions handed over every pay period.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Bankruptcy, Not Bailouts

Friday, February 1st, 2013

America’s bailout economy started many administrations ago, but really went Big Time under President George W. Bush . . . and then went Enormity Time with President Barack Obama.

The Washington Post provides the latest in bailout news by noting an inter-departmental squabble:

The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program said Treasury approved all 18 requests it received last year to raise pay for executives at American International Group Inc., General Motors Corp. and Ally Financial Inc. Of those requests, 14 were for $100,000 or more; the largest raise was $1 million.

Though this is all quite scandalous, don’t expect policies to change or heads to roll — barring a joint Tea Party/Occupy uprising. The nature of the modern “regulatory” state is clear: government bureaus are quickly captured by the industries they aim to regulate. It’s an old story. The revolving door between business and bureaucracy is as well-established as between journalism and politics.

So why do we have bailouts?

  1. They show that politicians are “doing something”;
  2. They mimic the welfare state logic of “helping the poor” (if, with caustic irony, by stuffing the wallets of the rich);
  3. They aggrandize the showy machinations of the legislative and executive branches at the expense of the branch of government designed to handle massive business failure, the courts.

Perhaps Americans shouldn’t have voted in either an MBA grad (Bush) or a constitutional lawyer (Obama). Maybe what the country needs is a bankruptcy lawyer in the White House.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.