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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Response to E-mail: 'Brilliantly Explained', Is Government Spending Out of Control?

Dollar SignI received an e-mail the other day with the subject line, 'Brilliantly Explained'. I've put it below the fold if you want to read it in full, but the summary is that it compared U.S. tax revenue, the federal budget, new debt, the national debt, and recent budget cuts. It then trimmed a bunch of the zeroes to put it into a perspective easier for most people to grasp - arguing that the current situation is untenable, and that we should cut the budget further rather than raise the debt ceiling (I assume this e-mail began circulating some time ago).

I haven't bothered to fact check all the figures given in the e-mail. Rather, I decided to take a step back and look at the big picture. Is spending by the government out of control?

Here's an interesting link to a website that shows government spending as a percentage of GDP, from 1902 on up to today. Note that these numbers include direct federal spending, as well as state and local spending.

Here's a link to the official Office of Management and Budget site that details federal spending.

Federal spending has actually remained fairly constant at right around 20% of GDP since 1950.

From the mid '50s through the '60s, total government spending was fairly constant at just under 30% of GDP. It began creeping up until the '80s, when it leveled off at around 35%, and then just recently jumped up to a little over 40% of GDP in 2009, but has been slowly decreasing since. The highest spending ever as a percentage of GDP (both total & federal) was during WWII - up close to 50%, higher than today's spending. (I know I've mentioned this before, but a majority of economists argue that that type of government spending was a major contributor to getting us out of the Great Depression, and that similar short term spending now would help get us out of the current recession. - Wikipedia)

So, for the past 60 years, about a quarter of our nation's history, federal spending has been nearly constant, and total government spending has been between about 30% and 40% of GDP. Granted, it may be a little higher right now, but it doesn't seem unsustainable.

Here's an article from Wikipedia on government spending.

That Wikipedia article has similar graphs, but it also has government spending per capita for various nations. The U.S. is below the average for the World's 20 largest economies. So again, it doesn't appear that spending from the government in the U.S. is exorbitant.

Here are some other links I've included on this blog before dealing with tax rates, both the history of taxes in the U.S., and comparisons to other countries.

These show a history of tax rates decreasing since the 1960s, reaching an all-time low under Bush Jr., but being almost as low right now under Obama. The comparison to other countries shows that the tax burden in the U.S. is well below that of other prosperous democracies.

So, looking at the history of government spending, there's nothing about current levels too out of line with the past 6 decades worth of spending or with other countries, but taxes, a major source of government income, have been decreasing. Nobody particularly likes taxes, but it seems like if we want to enjoy the types of infrastructure and services the government's been providing ever since we've been old enough to remember, we're going to have to suck it up and pay our fair share. What would be irresponsible and out of line with traditional monetary policy would be to call for further tax cuts that cripple the government's ability to pay what have been normal expenses for the past half century*.

*Don't get me wrong. I think there's plenty of room for improvement in how government money is spent. My wife works on a military base, so believe me, I've heard plenty about how wasteful the government can be. My main point is to avoid hyperbole. Government spending is not drastically out of line with the past, and so doesn't require drastic cuts. Modest cuts along with more tax revenue would get the job done, and get us back into our nation's traditional position.

It's also worth pointing out that the jump to spending over 40% of GDP occurred under Bush's tenure with 2 wars and a severe economic recession. You'd fully expect government spending to increase under those conditions.

And as one final note to address the original e-mail, it should be obvious that the debt ceiling is set in absolute dollars, not as a percentage of GDP. Such an absolute debt ceiling is going to have to be raised periodically just to account for inflation if nothing else.

Here's the full text of the e-mail I received that prompted this entry.

This rather brilliantly cuts thru all the political doublespeak we get. It puts it into a much better perspective.

Lesson # 1:

* U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
* Fed budget: $3,820,000,000,000
* New debt: $ 1,650,000,000,000
* National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
* Recent budget cuts: $ 38,500,000,000

Let's now remove 8 zeros and pretend it's a household budget:

* Annual family income: $21,700
* Money the family spent: $38,200
* New debt on the credit card: $16,500
* Outstanding balance on the credit card: $142,710
* Total budget cuts so far: $38.50

Got It ?????

OK now Lesson # 2: Here's another way to look at the Debt Ceiling:

Let's say, You come home from work and find there has been a sewer backup in your neighborhood....and your home has sewage all the way up to your ceilings.

What do you think you should do ......

Raise the ceilings...............,
or pump out the crap?

Your choice is coming Nov. 2012.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tulips for Tremor 2012 - Essential Tremor Fundraiser

Tulips for Tremor Circle LogoThe International Essential Tremor Foundation is having their 2012 Tulips for Tremor Fundraiser. Their goal is to raise $250,000 to help fund research to find the causes of and treatments to essential tremor.

For those unfamiliar with the condition, here's what I wrote for National Essential Tremor Awareness Month.

To quote from the International Essential Tremor Foundation, Essential Tremor, or ET, "is a neurological disorder that causes hands, heads and voices, and sometimes legs and trunk to shake." It is also referred to as familial tremor, benign essential tremor, or hereditary tremor.

To quote from Wikipedia, "ET is one of the most common neurological diseases, with a prevalence of approximately 4% in persons age 40 and older and considerably higher among persons in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Aside from enhanced physiological tremor, it is the most common type of tremor and one of the most commonly observed movement disorders." It's important to realize, though, that ET can occur in people of any age, even newborns.

Although there are some medications to treat the symptoms of ET, those medications are only effective in about 60% of people who suffer from the disorder.

To learn more about ET, visit the International Essential Tremor Foundation. Here are a few pages focused on information.

Go visit the Tulips for Tremor page to make a donation.

Back from Hawaii

I haven't posted in a week and a half because my family and I were on vacation - in Maui. I'll try to get some pictures up as soon as I can, but it's going to take me a little while to sort through them all.

Us in a Lava Tube on Maui

Us in a Lava Tube on Maui

We were there for a week and had a hell of a trip. Here's one more photo, from just offshore from where we stayed.

Us By the Tidal Pools in Maui

Green Sea Turtle in Napili Bay

Anyway, like I said, I'll get some pictures posted to my Photos section as soon as I can. And now that I'm back, I'll be back to blogging again shortly.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Old Testament - It's a Bit Strange

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismThe longer and longer I'm outside of Christianity, the more and more absurd it all appears. A friend of mine directed me to the following article the other day: 11 Things The Bible Bans, But You Do Anyway. It's what has become a somewhat typical list of some of the rules given in the Old Testament (OT) that are no longer followed by Christians, as a response to Christian cherry-picking of OT rules to condemn practices they don't like. Several Christians left comments to that article explaining that Christians were no longer obligated to follow OT rules because of the New Covenant with Christ.

On a certain level, I'm glad that Christians use this New Covenant rationalization. When you read the rules from the OT, some are truly horrendous. Consider Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which explains that "stubborn and rebellious" sons should be stoned to death, or Exodus 21:20-21, which explains how it's okay for someone to beat their slave since the slave is their property (they just shouldn't kill the slave), or Deuteronomy 22:20-21, which decrees death by stoning for girls not being virgins, or from that same chapter, verse 28, which describes a woman as a piece of property that a man can buy from her father. I could go on, but that's not the point of this essay. I'm glad that most Christians recognize these rules as immoral, and try to distance themselves from them with the New Covenant (in the modern industrialized world, at least - witch hunts are still tragically common in some parts of the world in accordance with Exodus, 22:18 or Leviticus, 20:27).

But invoking the New Covenant leaves a major issue unresolved - what type of a god would have created those horrendous rules to begin with? They're certainly not representative of a loving, forgiving god like most Christians profess to believe in.

I've seen various rationalizations from Christians for why OT rules were so much different than the New Covenant. One of the more common, ignoring the barbaric commandments and focusing on dietary rules, is that they were for the benefit of primitive people that didn't have as complete an understanding of the world as we do today. Here's one such example, The Dietary Law Today. The first objection is that these rules weren't as beneficial as some people would like to believe. Sure, pork can be contaminated with trichonosis, but meat from 'clean' animals can also be infected with parasites, and even a head of lettuce can be infected with E. coli. The risk is not so much in the specific types of food, but in the preparation. A better guidebook would have given directions to properly clean and cook food.

A bigger problem with the above rationalization, and with several other rationalizations concerning the OT that I'm not going to discuss here, is when you look at it in a larger context. Barring what some fundamentalists might say, the Earth is a few billion years old, and humans have been around for a hundred thousand years or so. The various books of the OT were only written on the order of a few thousand years ago (give or take for the different books). And the Hebrews certainly weren't the only people living at the time. So out of all the peoples that have lived over the millenia, God supposedly revealed himself to one small group, and gave them rules that applied only to them, but that none of the surrounding societies adopted. Obviously, given the successes of Egypt and Rome, it's not as if OT rules gave the Hebrews any earthly advantages over other peoples. It's not as if Romans were dying from food poisoning at much higher rates than Jews, allowing the Jews to conquer the Romans. And then, just a few thousand years after dictating all these specific but seemingly arbitrary rules, God just comes along and says that they're not important anymore. And by the way, all you Gentiles that never followed the rules to begin with, you can now become Christians and get into heaven, too.

So, the Old Testament just really seems strange. Aside from the utter immorality of the rules, it just seems so bizarre that a god would impose those types of rules for such a short period of human history, isolated to such a small group of people, only to later say that they didn't apply anymore.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Roots of Morality

I don't often have posts that are little more than embedded YouTube videos, but this one was too good to pass up. A few months ago, Frans de Waal gave a TED presentation: Moral behavior in animals. I'd highly suggest following that link to watch his full presentation, but one of the videos he showed has been pulled out into it's own YouTube video. The video is of an experiment with capuchin monkeys. These monkeys had been trained to return a rock that a researcher gave them in exchange for a treat. It's important to note that capuchins like certain treats more than others. A piece of cucumber is decent, but they really like grapes. I suppose it would be like the difference in getting a piece of hard candy from your grandmother vs. crème brûlée in a 5 star restaurant (or substitue according to your tastes). In this particular experiment, there were two monkeys involved, each in a separate cage, but adjacent to each other so that they could see each other. The first monkey returned the rock to the researcher, and received a cucumber in return as a treat. The second monkey returned the rock to the researcher, but received a grape in return, which the first monkey clearly saw. Next, the researcher went back to the first monkey, and again gave it a cucumber in return for the rock. Watch the video below to see the monkey's reaction.

This may not be a full sense of morality as developed in humans, but it's certainly a part of it - recognizing an unfair situation. It amazes me just how human like the monkey's reaction is. It reminds me of how a young child with poor impulse control might react.

Now, I know there are dangers in over anthropomorphizing, but really, when we're so closely related to an animal, doesn't it make more sense to think that their thought processes are at least similar to ours, rather than thinking that humans evolved all these brand new and novel characteristics in an evolutionary blink of an eye?

I'll note that I first saw this on Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True. Follow that link to read some good discussion of the video (along with some rather close minded remarks by one particular commenter).

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chick-Fil-A, Bigotry, and Rights

Chick-Fil-A, Bigotry, and Rights

Chick-Fil-AMost people have by now heard of the Chick-Fil-A brouhaha. There are a few issues related to it that I'd like to discuss. But first, just for anyone who hasn't heard of what's been going on - a few weeks ago, Chick-Fil-A's president and CEO, Dan Cathy, made the following comments on The Ken Coleman Show (source: Christian post:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'" Cathy said. "I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

The comments ignited a firestorm of protest and a bit of a scandal in their response. Opponents of marriage equality were understandably happy with Cathy's comments, and at the suggestion of Mike Huckabee, this past Wednesday was Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day, giving the chain record sales. Supporters of marriage equality came back with a Same Sex Kiss Day on Friday.

I have to say, I'm really rather surprised that this whole fiasco blew up so suddenly. After all, it's not as if Chick-Fil-A's position on marriage equality was a secret. In 2010, the company donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay groups. A local franchise in Pennsylvania donated lunches to an anti-gay marriage seminar, without any censure from the home office. Here's an article from 2007 in Forbes detailing the discriminatory practices of the company. And there are plenty of other examples of the company behaving badly. I'm not sure why these recent comments have caused such an uproar.

One issue is whether or not we should care about the political opinions of the heads of companies. Lots of people have crazy ideas, and if we limited our patronage only to those businesses run by people that we agreed with on every issue, there wouldn't be many businesses we could go to. However, some issues are more important than others, and wanting to deny basic rights to a particular segment of the population is certainly a big one. But still, just an ideological disagreement of opinion, in my mind, isn't enough of a reason to boycott an establishment.

The problem comes when the disagreement is more than just opinion, or just the actions of individual employees of the company. When the company institutes official policies that are discriminatory (go read that Forbes article), then I do start to question whether or not to support that company. And when they use company profits - money I paid them - to donate to such organizations as Exodus International or the Family Research Council (officially designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), then I really must draw the line. It's no longer just a difference of opinion, but giving financial support to bigoted organizations actively campaigning to deny people civil rights.

In fact, due to their policies and donation history, I've had my own personal 'soft' boycott of Chick-Fil-A for a few years now. On my own, I won't eat at the restaurant. However, if I'm with a group of people, and they decide to go there, I won't refuse. So, in the past 5 years, I'd guess that I've been to Chick-Fil-A 3 times. I don't think the slight profit on 3 chicken sandwiches has significantly contributed to the anti-marriage equality movement.

This is also one of the areas that's surprised me a bit in the coverage I've seen of this issue. So much of it has focused on Cathy's recent comments. Why hasn't their been more discussion of the company's donation history?

Unfortunately, this situation has brought out some bad reactions from politicians on the left. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, among others, have gone on record as willing to block Chick-Fil-A from setting up shop in their cities. Emanuel had this to say:

Chick-fil-A's values are not Chicago values. They're not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members. And if you're gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values.

And Menino wrote the following in an open letter:

There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it... I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston.

Sorry guys, but you can't do that. No matter how much you may disagree with Cathy, or how odious you may find the organizations Chick-Fil-A has donated to, it's their First Amendment right to do so. As public officials, you can't stop them from expressing their views, or try to block their business because of it. All of us private citizens are free to boycott the company in protest, but the government can't interfere.

Although I'm surprised that Cathy's recent comments set off such a firestorm, I suppose it may have been the trigger in a situation that was already at its boiling point. As I pointed out above, Chick-Fil-A's position on marriage equality has been no secret for quite a while, now, and their record of donations to bigoted organizations and hate groups is well documented. It was a bit disheartening to see such an outpouring of support for Chick-Fil-A's position on this particular matter, but it was also troubling to see left wing politicians wanting to infringe on Chick-Fil-A's First Amendment rights. For my part, I'll continue to avoid eating at the restaurant.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for July 2012

Top 10 ListAnother month, another chance to look at the server logs. There were no big surprises for the top 10 list this month. The top 5 spots remained completely unchanged from last month, and the next 5 had all made the list at some point in the past.

I actually checked the server logs a few days ago, and there was some last minute jostling for the last couple spots on the list. A few pages just missed making the list that might have made it had the month been a few days shorter - Programming, Ray Comfort: Quote Miner Extraordinaire, and Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 12. The first two of those have made the top 10 before, but it would have been the first time one of my God- or Gorilla posts would have made it.

Top 10 for July 2012

  1. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  2. Autogyro History & Theory
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Blog - Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber
  5. Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II
  6. Blog - Email Debunking - Tips on Pumping Gas
  7. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  8. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  9. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  10. Blog - Creation Museum/2nd Law of Thermodynamics

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