Saturday, January 24, 2009

Turn back, O man... opposed to, "Go West, young man."

Chicago Boyz, a great economics blog, raises the question of whether California has passed an important tipping point:

I think a threshold or tipping point exists in the ratio between the political power of those who pay taxes and those who consume taxes directly. After that tipping point is reached, those who pay taxes become the economic slaves of those who consume taxes.

The power of unions is intrinsic to the question; a union aggregates the concerns as well as the influence of however many members it has toward particular political and economic aims. Shannon Love, one of the boyz, notes that

California has ~2.3 million unionized government workers and ~18.6 million civilians. With so many people organized with a laser-like focus on increasing taxes and spending, the private working citizens of California find it nearly impossible to prevent government workers from voting their own paychecks.

And more:

As far as the state government is concerned, people in the private sector work merely so that they can be taxed for the benefit of the tax consumers. They’ve entered a condition not unlike like that of pre-industrial serfs.

Of course no one is being whipped, but in effect an ordinary citizen of California cannot get their desires for reduced state spending implemented due to the disproportionate power of the State’s employees and allied interest. It appears now that the government unions will not accept any solution to California’s budget crisis except increased taxes in a declining economy. Ordinary citizens have no choice but to either emigrate or just lie there and take it.

I'm conflicted. On one hand, my family and my husband's all live in California; we'd love to return there if we could, not just so that we could see them all more often but so that we could stop spending so much money and vacation time on our too-short, too-infrequent visits. Furthermore, California really is just about the best place in the country for people like us: pleasant climate, beautiful scenery, cosmopolitan all the way down to many of the small towns but still with lots and lots of wilderness ranging from unspoiled to complete-with-cabins for those who want flush toilets, all kinds of outdoor and indoor recreation readily accessible. But on the other hand... I don't really want our household to work for (sorry, bro) my brother's. Real estate, though down from recent years, is still too expensive for us to consider committing income to a mortgage when we have so little control over how much of that income will never hit our pockets.

From the Sacramento Bee, I see that Schwartzeneggar's proposal to have all nonessential State workers take one day off every other week, accruing vacation time but not pay for that twice-monthly furlough, has been axed by the State Controller as being outside the Executive's authority. And here, the Bee speaks with a labor leader from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) about what's "on the table" for labor negotiations in California's current serious budget crisis:

So what's changed [that Ms. Walker sounds "upbeat" about upcoming negotiations]?
Well, we've been trying to be part of the solution all along. But having the controller validate that furloughing isn't legal helps. Maybe now the administration is ready to sit down and have the hard conversation.


And money will be part of the "hard conversation"?
It hasn't been so far, but it has to be (now).

What about furloughs?
That I don't know. Certainly you have to recognize it's not something we'd bring to the table, but we're not opposed to talking about it. People need to recognize that we're not just people who take from the general fund. We're taxpayers, too. We understand what's at stake.

So are you saying that holding the line in terms of pay would be considered a win, given the state's money troubles?
That would be good, wouldn't it?

Emphasis mine. I don't get how we reconcile the last two Q&As: "We're taxpayers too, not just feeding at the public trough," and "It'd be good if our pay can stay exactly the same."

This is a loooooong post. But I love California, and its condition today saddens and frustrates me. Sigh.

Friday, January 23, 2009

That which works

Back in oh, freshman year of college or so, I had to do a paper on an important psychologist, with emphasis on his or her philosophy of treatment. Not wanting to go with the obvious, I chose William James, functionalist, who summed up his own therapeutic philosophy as "doing that which works." I'm a fan of that kind of thinking in many cases, but I do think it needs to be tempered by sane judgment and ethics. President Obama is taking a functionalist approach, it appears:

In practice, we know what this [Obama's statement was "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works"] means: Obama wants more federal spending, more federal regulation, more federal mandates, and more federal prohibitions. It means the president—like all presidents—wants more power.

And objecting that the Constitution limits his power, or that more federal or presidential power is inherently corrupting or destructive—that’s out of line. The only legitimate question to ask about the new powers the president wants is “whether it works.”

But that raises another question: Works for whom?

Tim Carney's question isn't the only one. Parents and schools could make a case for corporal punishment's "working" because yes, conditioning does actually "work" in terms of specific behavior change; does that make spanking, caning, hitting with a belt, ruler, or wooden spoon the right way to change a child's behavior? Or is it simply the expedient (and sometimes most satisfying) way, with possibly harmful longer-term consequences? (Not intending to get into a spanking debate; it was just the first example that springs to my mind. My parents spanked, wooden spoon method usually, and not frequently or as their first choice; they are kind and thoughtful people who believed with all their hearts that (a) they were acting in our best interests, and (b) they would do us worse psychological damage if they struck with a hand, because it'd personalize the action. My husband and I don't spank, which makes discipline of our children very challenging and repetitive sometimes, but we believe the research is in and have made our choice.)

So my question is not "Works for whom?" but "At what cost?" We've just been through seven years of argument about the cost of Bush's foreign policy decisions to our status in the world, our national identity, the Constitution... Are we supposed to pass on that question when the maker of the policy is not Bush?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

From a CBC News article, first one I found with an image worthy of the day. Congratulations, Mr. Obama, and God bless you and the United States. You're now entrusted with the hardest job in the world. All we can ask of you is that you wake up every day determined to do that job to the best of your ability.

Just a reminder...

...which I sincerely hope will not be required by my side of the aisle: Andy Levy's To-Don't list. An excerpt:

DON’T make it personal. We don’t need another Derangement Syndrome. We don’t need people doing things like emphasizing Obama’s middle name in a derogatory fashion. How anyone would think that’s beneficial to their cause, or to the country as a whole, is beyond me. Also, it’s not even clever. Neither are smushwords like BusHitler, or sillywords like Rethuglicans and Dhimmicrats.

DON’T use the word “divisive.” At this point, all that word means is “You disagree with me,” and the English language gets mangled enough these days.
...[and finally:]...

And finally, DON’T use the fact that many on the left behaved abominably for the past eight years as an excuse to behave the same way. America needs adults. And if it bothered you when they did it, it’s a good sign that you shouldn’t do it.

The husband and I got into quite an argument last night about the outgoing administration, I maintaining that Bush had been treated so abominably by the "loyal opposition" and its enablers in the media that it was impossible to tell what the American public's independent opinion of his policies and actions at the end of his tenure would have been, and my husband correctly, but infuriatingly, pointing out that BDS, ridiculous and unjustified as it is, was nonetheless the card the Bush administration was dealt and that it would live forever in infamy for not having done better against it. In other words, my husband believes that the Republican party over the last eight years managed to lose everything - House, Senate, White House, conservatives, moderates, everybody but the quixotic such as myself - because Bush didn't effectively get the party's message out. I believe that no Republican could have done so. He believes that a reincarnated Reagan could have. I don't know whether that's true; Reagan's time was two decades ago and lots has changed, not least the average age (and therefore era) of the media folk who run the 24-hour news cycle (another difference between our time and Reagan's).

But Levy's point, and it's a better one than either mine or my husband's, is that all of it now is history, and that Republicans must remember to act like the grownups they are, no matter how much we'd like to give in to our inner child as the other side has been doing for eight years.

And that's all I have to say about that. Phthththbthh.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Maybe things ain't so bad after all...

...if CBS thinks $35 is a "shoestring" budget for a home-cooked dinner.

The menu?
  • Beet Salad with Crushed Pistachios & Soft Goat Cheese
  • Lamb Ragu with Rigatoni and Fresh Ricotta
  • Greek Yogurt with Blood Oranges, Honey & Mint

Ahem. Let's start with the premise: that in a time of economic downturn, recession, financial catastrophe - take your pick - $35 constitutes an acceptably low dinner budget for a family of (I'm guessing, based on quantities) four. As several commenters in the (now closed) comment string point out, this dollar amount totals almost $13,000 a year - for dinners only. Whew! Some shoestring.

And next, the food choices: First let me say that I'd eat this dinner - oh, yes. It sounds delicious. But it doesn't sound like the way to train a palate, particularly a palate on a budget. When I say "train," I'm not talking about training someone to be a food critic, or an Epicure (God help us all if that horrible heresy is returning); I'm talking about raising children who will eat things. All kinds of things. This menu has, I freely admit, "all kinds of things" - and for every child I've ever known, would result in an awful dinner debacle and nonstop post-dinner begging for a "snack," because the child wouldn't eat half enough to feel satisfied until bedtime. Fights all night? Not my idea of a great evening, no matter how much this menu tries to promise that budget constraints needn't mean any kind of pain.

Here's a problem we have with our children: one "doesn't like bread." "It's too dry," he says, but won't use any kind of condiment or moist filling in a sandwich. Hence he rails against sandwiches for lunch. Of the three, only one eats macaroni and cheese in any form; the other two want, respectively, plain noodles with nothing on them and noodles with butter and grated Parmiggiano. All will eat lettuce and certain other salad veggies - but only one will eat only one kind of dressing. All will eat certain hot veggies - but none with any sauce whatsoever (except the butter their grandmother considers God's gift to all foods, no matter how often I tell her they actually like plain vegetables). The point: they all expect ALL food to be delicious, by their own standards, and have trouble downing anything they don't "love." What happens when they eat with a friend? Same thing that happens at our house when friends of theirs come over for dinner: as often as not, we have one of the Big Three, pizza, hot dogs, or chicken.

We are in a now two-year campaign to introduce them to the concept that you eat what you're given, always with the idea that a new palate-pleaser may be on your plate.

The way to accomplish this goal is NOT - repeat NOT - to give them an entire meal of "interesting" flavors. It's to give them a meal they can and will eat without complaint, with one or two twists. The CBS menu stinks for this purpose.

Furthermore. I was disappointed with some of the commenters because they proudly stated that they'd be happy with spaghetti and a can of tomato sauce, etc. - at which the CBS people will snort, roll their eyes, and immediately dismiss their underlying point, which is that CBS has no clue about a "budget" dinner. An alternative:

Make your own sauce. It's cheaper than jars, it's easy, a good tomato sauce can be made in the time it takes to cook the pasta, and if you have a windowsill for herbs you can really up the taste ante with those. A little olive oil, some crushed or whole plum tomatoes from a can, some crushed garlic, a little red wine if you have some that's been open, dried or fresh oregano and basil - I minced my summer basil and froze it in olive oil and now use that as the basis of any winter red sauce; dead easy.

If you're going to eat an expensive entree (or salad, or dessert), make the other courses simpler and cheaper. Spread that budget.

Don't eat dessert every night unless it's fruit (this one is, sort of). As for Greek yogurt? We referred to my hips as "tzatziki" for a good year after our long-ago trip to Crete because that's right where it went; I LOOOOOVE Greek yogurt. But lowfat yogurt, drained in a paper-towel-lined strainer, is a great substitute. And (everybody now) lots cheaper.

CBS, still bringing you quality stories... right?