Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the National Debt

This post is in response to my cousin's request for my comments on Mark Steyn's article, "The Sun Also Sets." I gladly accepted the challenge, because I need more challenges from my conservative friends and family. Before we begin, let's meet Mark Steyn.

Mark Steyn left school at the age of 18 to become a disc jockey. He also occasionally fills in for Rush Limbaugh, an ultra conservative blowhard who recently called a Georgetown law student a slut, leading to over 90 advertisers pulling their advertising on his show. These minor details do not take away from the fact that Mark has become quite the successful journalist, authoring several books. He's pulled himself up by the bootstraps quite well so to speak, a trait many conservatives find so great.

Mark begins his vigorous rant in his article by pointing out a hard fact that "Obama has run up more debt in three years than President Bush did in eight." This is an indisputable fact. Anyone can look this up. However, only an angry conservative would stop at that fact.

Let's explore a few others, shall we? The president who has increased the National Debt the most, by all measures, remains Ronald Reagen [skymachines]. The least... Clinton. In fact, in Clinton's last year in office, he successfully DECREASED the debt by 2%. George W. Bush followed that up with three consecutive years of an increasing rate of increasing debt, from Clinton's -2% to 5%, 8%, and then 9%. To Bush's credit, he decreased this rate over the next 4 years to 8%, 8%, 6%, 6%. But then the recession hit. During Bush's last year in office the national debt increased by 16% to 10.70 trillion. President Bush's final tally: an increase from 5.66 trillion to 10.70 trillion, an 89% increase over his two terms indicating an 11.1% average annual increase.

Now, let's put Obama's increase in perspective. As we all know, he inherited the presidency in a different time. Here is an excerpt from his Address to the Nation, July 25, 2011:

"As a result, the deficit was on track to top $1 trillion the year I took office. To make matters worse, the recession meant that there was less money coming in, and it required us to spend even more - on tax cuts for middle-class families to spur the economy; on unemployment insurance; on aid to states so we could prevent more teachers and firefighters and police officers from being laid off. These emergency steps also added to the deficit."

In light of this, the president has improved the horrible trend of increasing debt. In his first year of office, the increasing trend decreased from 16% to 15%. Then, to 14% in his second year. In his third year, 8%.  Using an analogy of a speeding car going toward a cliff, I would call this backing off the accelerator, perhaps going down to 3rd gear.  So, why does Steyn think "A second-term Obama would roar full throttle to the cliff edge" given this information?  Although Obama has run up more debt in three years than Bush did in eight, it has risen by 45% from when he started office.  Some may feel he will surpass Bush's 89% increase over his two terms, but not if Obama's decreasing trend continues. 

Steyn is not alone in thinking that "The president doesn’t see [running up debt] as a problem." Mitt Romney said at a rally in Cleveland, OH that Obama "didn't even mention the deficit or the debt" in his state of the union address.  I won't write down the six times that he mentions the debt and addresses a plan to fix it.  I'll let you read about it and see the ridiculousness of these claims for yourself [Politifact].

With all of these facts, I'm not trying to blame the debt on anyone. That doesn't accomplish anything. As the president said in the same address referenced above:

"Because neither party is blameless for the decisions that led to this problem, both parties have a responsibility to solve it."

I want to emphasize something the president says that we should all agree on.  Neither party is blameless.  Yet, Steyn easily points the finger at Obama.  There is a huge reason why Obama's budgets have not worked very well, and that is that the parties are deeply polarized, in large part because Republicans refuse to consider tax increases on those individuals earning $250,000 or more [Economist].  Mr. Obama wants to cut the deficit by 3.8 trillion over the next decade 1.4 of which could come from raising taxes on the wealthy. 

Obama again said it best:

"Democrats and Republicans agree on the amount of deficit reduction we need.  The debate is about how it should be done.  Most Americans, regardless of political party, don't understand how we can ask a senior citizen to pay more for her Medicare before we ask a corporate jet owner or the oil companies to give up tax breaks that other companies don't get.  How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries?  How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don't need and didn't ask for?" 

The bottom line is that both parties are to blame.  Both parties are at fault.  Democrats need to make a few more painful cuts to them.  Republicans need to accept a small tax increase that would bring in more revenue.  Why don't we see such compromise?  Politics.  Republicans cannot give in, because a reduced deficit means that Obama's chances of re-election would increase.  Democrats cannot give in, because the continued deficit means giving up the presidency.

Wouldn't it be amazing if our leaders and representatives made decisions based on what was good for the country and not based on power and control?  Unfortunately, that is a story only in fiction.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Obama's Documentary/Campaign Film

I watched the new 17 minute documentary by Davis Guggenheim, "The Road We've Traveled."  Narrated by Tom Hanks, I think it was very well made and I decided to share it.

It explores the president's most important decisions. Other than a few distorted facts that I mention below, it stays pretty straight with the facts. These facts won't win conservatives over, I'm sure, but it will hopefully energize a somewhat lackluster liberal constituency. Listening to Romney and Santorum talk energized me enough to vote against them. For me, Romney and Santorum themselves are Obama's campaign.

Beware of the claim that "17 million kids can no longer be denied for a preexisting condition" which is a cherry picking of the facts according to The same website also informs us that although GM and Chrysler has paid off their loans, it wasn't mentioned that loans to the old car companies have essentially been written off.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

On an American Attack on Iran

Israel is on the verge of attacking Iran, and has wanted to for a while now.  America is trying to avoid having to go to war again, but has Israel in their interests.  The recent attacks on Obama by the G.O.P. candidates made me want to understand what this controversy was about.

According to the Economist, Iran has 9 known main nuclear facilities (but a suspected 10), which we learned 10 years ago that they were building to produce enriched uranium.  What does "enriched" uranium mean?  Learning from the World Nuclear Association, two isotopes of uranium occur in nature.  The uranium we find in nature is around 0.7% U-235 and 93.7% U-238.   The U-235 stuff is what is used in nuclear reactors.  "Enriched" uranium is uranium with an increased percentage of U-235, usually in the 3-5% range, which is used for Nuclear Reactors.  Iran has about 4000 kg (4 metric tons) of uranium enriched to about 3.5%, and 100 kg enriched to 20%.  It takes 90% enriched uranium to make a bomb.  Let's look at the graph that I found on the World Nuclear Association website linked above (I hope they don't mind if I use it).

Let us view the curve as the steep hill of technological resourcefulness.  As you can see, to enrich uranium to the 4-5% range takes the technological resourcefulness equivalent of scaling a cliff.  Once there, it is a steep climb, but not as difficult to enrich uranium to 20%.  From there, it is a long leisurely walk, comparatively, to enrich it to 90%.  From what I've read, this is a nice easy, and probably not to far-off way of interpreting.  So, if Iran enriches the uranium it has already at 20% to 90%, it will be able to make about 4 bombs.

After learning about enriched uranium, which took less than about 5 minutes, I got a kick out of Thomas Joscelyn's analogy of Iran's enriched uranium to your neighbor's motorcycle parts.  He points out that if you saw your neighbor load a bunch of motorcycle parts into the garage and close the door, what would you assume he will do in the garage?  The problem with this analogy is that motorcycle parts can only be used to build a motorcycle (not an electric generator, say).  Enriched uranium can be used for two things.  Good energy and very bad energy.  So far, Iran has been using it for good energy.  However, this doesn't mean we should be naive to think they don't have their mind set on a bomb.   

One of their nuclear facilities is in Fordow, and is buried deep enough in the ground that some say it could not be destroyed by an aerial attack.  This facility has enough room to hold around 3000 centrifuges.  This is the main area of concern.  

We should be concerned about this because the leaders of Iran (Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) are fundamentalists, and it is dangerous for fundamentalist leaders to have access to nuclear bombs.  Let me take a moment here to point out that this is a great reason Rick Santorum should never, ever, EVER be elected president.  The Iranian leaders are also outspoken anti-Semites.  If they developed a bomb, Israel would feel the threat.

Just so you all know, Israel has a bomb and is capable of attacking. They attacked the Osirak reactor in Iraq back in 1981 and a reactor near al-Kibar in Syria in 2007.  Given they have made these attacks before, the question is why have they not attacked the reactors in Iran yet, especially back when the nuclear program in Iran was more vulnerable.  The answer may very well be that it must not be that easy of a decision. 

What is holding Israel and America back?  An attack will most likely only delay Iran from producing a nuke, not stop it.  Is it worse to just stand aside and let Iran produce a nuke unprovoked, or to attack and make them angry and have them produce a nuke in a provoked state of mind, but just delayed a little?  This is a tough question.  One that Obama is taking very seriously, and this is a huge concern of his.  An attack will almost ensure gas prices to explode putting the slow economic recovery we've been experiencing in danger.   I'm not surprised that G.O.P. candidates are wanting to do the provoking.  If it came down to going to war and Obama made that call, you could bet your ass the G.O.P. would completely shift their focus to gas prices and the economy again and not concede at all that this was what they were yelling for in the first place.

So what if we stand by and not do anything?  Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak fears that as soon as Iran has the 3000 subterfuges in place at Fordow, they will pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as North Korea did in 2003, and therefore cease all inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Two years after North Korea did this, they announced they had a bomb, which they tested a year later.  It is bad that North Korea has nuclear bombs.  It will be worse if Iran gets them.  This will cause a shit-storm in the Middle East.  Tough decisions lie ahead on this issue, and I don't envy the people that have to make these decisions.

It would be nice if a G.O.P. candidate conceded that these are tough decisions and that they would probably not do anything that much different than what Obama is currently doing.  They are simply too afraid to agree with Obama on anything, which would, in my opinion help them more than hurt them, this issue in point.  Doug Mataconis's article points out the Republicans' and Obama's few differences on this issue.   If a candidate wasn't eager to point out everything that they disagree on and instead conceded some of the things Obama does right along with their disagreements, this would ENERGIZE those on the fence without losing much (if any) of their own constituency.   This would almost guarantee a G.O.P. victory.  I hope that they don't take this advice, because I really don't want to see any of the current G.O.P. candidates as president. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

My Diet: Week 5

I had a breakthrough Week 5 finishing the week around 166.5lbs.  The weekend really helped in that I could stick with the diet and workout since I wasn't traveling and I was motivated by the previous flop of a week.  It also helped that the ROTC Frostbite Frolic 5K was on Saturday morning, on which I ran a 24:54.  That isn't too bad for the first race of the year. 

With only a pound and a half until my goal weight of 165, I've noticed something surprising: that I have more fat I could lose.  I could probably safely reach 160 and still have plenty of body fat.  I think I will maintain my current calorie intake for a while and if I keep losing, so be it.  Once I reach my original goal of 165, I will stop posting to facebook and be only accountable to my blog followers.

Contraception and the "Republican Method"

The Health and Human Services (HHS) Mandate has been a cause of much debate lately.  Through the Affordable Care Act, many private health care plans will have to cover women's preventative services without charging a co-pay.  This will begin in August, 2012, and the services include well women visits, domestic violence screening, and contraception [Fact Sheet: Women's Preventative Services and Religious Institutions]. On February 10, 2012, President Obama caved in to the backlash of the religious right and tweaked the original HHS mandate.  It releases the religious employer's requirement to provide contraception coverage.  An important point here is that the insurance company will still be required to offer contraceptive coverage free of charge.

To avoid all kinds of institutions claiming religion so they won't have to pay, some criteria needed to be established.  (1) It has religious inculcation as its primary duty.  (2) It primarily employs people of the same faith. (3) It primarily serves people of the same faith.  These criteria cover most small churches, but the larger Catholic hospitals will not satisfy these criteria [Jonathan V. Last, The Weekly Standard].  This, I believe, is the source of all the uproar among the right wing opposition.

The main argument of opposition is grounded in the first amendment of the Constitution, and in particular the first part which reads "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  In Jonathan Last's article (linked above), he mentions Cardinal Roger Mahony's quote, "I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience... This decision must be fought against with all the energies the Catholic community can muster." 

What the opposition has failed to do is to give me any kind of data, or offer any kind of evidence that would suggest HHS is making the wrong decision.  Upon recollection of the following cartoon, I came up with the Republican Method. 

The Republican Method goes like this: The conclusion is that Obama is wrong. What facts, evidence, or obscurities can be conjure up to support it?  It shouldn't be surprising that Republicans have chosen to flee to the Constitution for support, an important document that can be interpreted in more than one way. 

Obama says in his remarks on February 10, "Now, as we move to implement this rule, however, we've been mindful that there's another principle at stake here - and that's the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution.  As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish this right."  He clearly respects the Constitution and has taken it into consideration. 

The way Obama, many democrats, myself, and many others interpret the Constitution, an important document to all of us, this mandate in no way breaches the first amendment.  To Catholics, Republicans, and many others, it is a breach of the first amendment.  What we need to come to terms with is that if we use the Constitution alone, there is NO WAY of deciding who is right.  Neither side will concede.  What is the next course of action, if we are to resolve the issue?  My suggestion is the scientific method.  Let's look at the facts and evidence. 

What happens when women have free access to contraception?  R.M. who writes for the Economist, wrote an article that really helps answer this question.   "A large body of evidence shows contraception use has helped women avoid unintended pregnancies, which in turn has led to lower abortion rates, healthier babies, stronger marriages, and improved social and economic conditions for women."  He further emphasizes that studies have shown unintended pregnancies are bad for parental relationships, greater availability of contraception doesn't lead to an increase in sexual activity, hormonal methods of contraception are useful in the treatment of menstrual disorders, and oral contraceptives reduce a woman's risk of developing certain cancers. 

Cardinal George is quoted as saying [Ed Morrissey,] "even if contraceptives were used by a majority of couples only and exclusively to suppress a possible pregnancy, behavior doesn't determine morality.  If it can be shown that a majority of Catholic students cheat on their exams, it is still wrong to cheat on exams."  Cardinal George is equating cheating on exams with using contraception.  I think cheating on exams is bad.  But, if studies showed me that cheating on exams resulted in the evidence of the previous paragraph, I would change my mind about cheating on exams.  In light of all this evidence, Catholics and Republicans are ignoring it.  There is a word for that... when you ignore evidence and believe something to the contrary... oh, yes: IGNORANT. 

The Catholic Church, bishops, cardinals, and the pope should take this evidence as a sign from God.  They could put a stop to all of this ridiculousness if they simply interpret the Bible or God as suggesting "contraception is okay."  After all, 98% of Catholic women ages 15-44 who have had sex have used contraceptives.  It would be prudent if we could clear their names with God.