Wednesday, February 29, 2012

And Now for Something Completely Different: Investing!

Update. (below)

I don't pretend to know a lot about investing, even though my own personal view is that I'm good at it. Or lucky, or a bit of both. If I've made some good decisions about where to put my money, it might have been driven by the fact that I was, for thirteen years, from 1996 to 2009, a weekly tech columnist. Always in search of new stories, I discovered online trading quite a bit ahead of the curve. I began trading stocks on the Internet when TD Ameritrade was called eBroker. Anyone remember that?

I also discovered early that I could buy into mutual funds online and even set up my own IRAs. But enough of my credentials. I maintain that I'm not an expert investor, but I'd rather do it myself than pay some suit to do it for me, a tendency that has led me to do all my own plumbing, electrical work, remodeling, car repairs, cooking, etc. since I enter adulthood a zillion years ago. I'm not a control freak, just someone who can take care of himself and save some bucks. Study a bit, do the best you can, and know when you're outnumbered. The Internet was invented for people  like me. Love the inner tubes!

I don't know what it's like having a 401(k), since I was a teacher in my late career, with money set aside for a pension. I did have 403(b) and 457(b) options, which I highly recommend to any teachers out there. Find yourself a tax-deferred annuity and fund it as close to the maximum you can afford. At retirement, you can roll 457s straight into rollover IRAs. My 403(b) will take up to six years to roll over. I was a little misled on the accessibility of that one, but it's mainly a waiting game to avoid early-withdrawal penalties.

Anyway, use annuities to defer taxes just as you should use IRAs to do the same thing, while also taking the IRA contributions deduction. Lower income folks should slip taxed money into Roth IRAs because they don't have as much taxable income to protect, but I could never see the value of paying tax before its time if you've got taxable income you can shelter. Now that I'm retired (less than a year ago), my income is WAY down, so distributing a little money in dribs and drabs has me paying less taxes than I would have twenty years ago. At least that's the theory until I hit 70 1/2 when minimum distribution requirements might force more taxable withdrawals.

It might seem that I've gotten off-topic, but actually this is the order in which you should approach investing. First, take advantage of setting up retirement accounts that defer taxes, as above. Second (or actually maybe first), pay off debt. This is huge. Don't carry credit-card debt or car loans while your savings in the bank are paying .5 percent interest. It's useless. I can't speak for the people barely hanging on after getting laid off -- too terrible to contemplate that pain! -- but if you're employed, can have a decent lifestyle, and can build for the future, don't finance an extra lifestyle boost with credit. More than one friend of mine used home-equity loans to pay for his pre-housing-bubble lifestyle only to find his home under water when it didn't have to be. So, please, save up and then go to Cancun.

Then, if you still have money to invest, the first step is to determine your risk/reward quotient. When you're young, risk is okay because you can often ride out the bumpy stretches. Later, go for more prudent investing. A good rule of thumb is more stocks early, more bonds later. Also, you need to decide the amount of work you want to do before making investment decisions.

I don't have the quotes handy, but over the years I've learned that the best investors only invest in what they can understand. Warren Buffett lives by this rule and has done quite well. In my case, as a tech writer, I felt safe in tech investments and even survived the tech bubble intact (more or less). If you don't have much personal confidence or time for research, just go to one of the great fund families and buy stock index funds. I like Vanguard. But Fidelity, SPDRs, and other low-cost fund families have a lot of options.

The Vanguard 500 Index Fund or Fidelity's equivalent, the Spartan 500 Index Fund, are good choices for stocks. Vanguard has a number of choices that automatically diversify, like their All-in-one funds or their core funds. They have newer products that have goals based on your probable retirement date, called Target Retirement Funds. They all look like they'd do the trick.

My approach, because I've taken it recently, has been to go for a few all-stock funds with high yields or dividends, such as the Vanguard Dividend Growth Fund and Vanguard Equity Income Fund. I've also grabbed some balanced funds, like Vanguard's Wellesley and Wellington funds. And, because I want to be in bonds, I bought some high-yield, investment grade bond funds, tax-free California municipal bond funds, and even the Vanguard GMNA Bond Fund, which contains mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by the U.S. government. I also slipped in some world market equity funds, like Vanguard International Value Fund and Vanguard International Explorer Fund, even though they're a little riskier than I'd like. Obviously, as a retired person, I'm going for safer funds that provide an income stream from dividends and high yields, while adding a little risk because I can take it. I'm hoping for a longer time horizon! I've always been an optimist...

Another great product that I gotten into that might not be good right now is a fixed-interest-rate annuity. I locked in a 5.35% rate five years ago, and it'll flip over to a 3% rate in July, which is pretty good these days. You might look into a variable-rate annuity because nowadays interest rates have nowhere but up to go. I was also careful to lock myself in for only five years because I wanted access to the money in retirement. If you think you can afford a longer term for a better payout, go for it.

Finally, I've used TreasuryDirect to buy a particular kind of savings bond from the U.S. Treasury called an iBond. This is an inflation-protected bond that matures in 30 years but can be cashed out without penalty after five years. It's also tax-deferred and exempt from state tax. I've been earning an average of 5-6% on these bonds, and I'll be able to cash a third of them per year starting this year, though I'm letting them ride because it's some of my most secure and profitable investments. BTW, the underlying rate is set twice a year in May and November, which is your fixed rate based on the Consumer Price Index, and then the rate adjusts twice a year for the non-fixed rate, again based on the CPI. In the end, inflation can never devalue these bonds. You can buy these through most banks, but I like buying them online.

I still have my brokerage account, in fact a couple of them, where I trade equities. More about that in another post, except to say I'm not a day trader! Buy and hold is the way to go for the vast majority of us (that excludes only the brave and the stupid...).

Update. When I say I don't know a lot about investing, I'm not being completely honest. I know something about it and know how to avoid many of the pitfalls the individual investor is prey to. So, rather than go into a long explanation, all of the suggestions and guidelines I talk about above are based on what I do know about safe, effective investing. What makes me think I don't know as much as I would like to comes from reading The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz's excellent blog, which is dedicated to macro influences on the micro events of the markets. Also, Paul Krugman's writings at his The Conscience of a Liberal at the Times or Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand keep me informed of macro developments, as do all the economic blogs in my blogroll to the right. To me, there's no sense in investing without having some idea of where the national and world economies are going. I'm not saying you should time the market, but waiting eight months for an equity-based annuity to go up by 10 percent before rolling it over to your IRA because you highly suspect the economy is going to go up based on in-depth study of the macroeconomic environment going forward is what I call a smart move. Doesn't always work, but when it does, you're happy you bothered to figure out the likely trends. So study what the big boys and girls in economics are thinking. It's better than going to a hack financial adviser on Main Street. Meaning no offense, none taken, I presume.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Religion: The Heart of the Debate?

As religion overtakes the presidential race on the Republican side, it threatens the national debate as we move closer to November. How long Barack Obama can avoid the furor is anybody's guess. For now, we'll have to put up with the wild accusations from Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich. Ron Paul doesn't seem to roll that way. Libertarianism has enough to distinguish itself without going all "Jesus is my savior" on us.

When the Republicans find out you've had five husbands, man, are you in trouble.

Guiding question for our discussion: Did the universe begin approximately 15 billion years ago for the express purpose of culminating in the one glorious birth of an individual named Jesus in Galilee 2000 years ago, one we should regard as saving the human race and to be followed and praised for all eternity?

Nice story, but, uh, no.

As Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich mud-wrestle to show who's more committed to Christ than the other -- Isn't it odd that most of the discussion is not about saving mankind but about whether women should have sex without being required to bear a child? -- the Republican Party reverts from a group of white men who are obsessed with lowering taxes on the wealthy into a group of white men obsessed with girly parts and what not to do with them.

Yeah, uh, can't wait till these guys get in charge. And I'm a white man. Imagine how the women feel. The Republicans are disinterested in researching that. Just ask Darrell Issa.

Darrell Issa's panel of experts on women's issues.

By the way, here's the woman Darrell Issa silenced at his hearing on contraception:

No wonder they silenced her.

Curiously though, what's the math here? Cede the women's vote, the black vote, the Latino vote, the LBGT vote, the youth vote, the Northeastern vote, the West Coast vote to the Democrats, while the Republicans go after, uh, who's left? Oh yeah, Southern white Christians and as many freaked out seniors as they can muster. That's a strategy to rely on.

Karl Rove must be soiling himself. But I digress.

Verbal rundown:

Mitt Romney--"Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the president hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda – they have fought against religion."

Translation: Men ought to control what women do with their icky parts.

Rick Santorum--"The president has reached a new low in this country’s history of oppressing religious freedom that we have never seen before. And if he doesn’t want to call his imposition of his values a theology, that’s fine. But it is an imposition of his values over a church who has very clear theological reasons for opposing what the Obama administration is forcing on them.”

Translation: Men ought to control what women do with their icky parts.

Newt Gingrich--"Across the planet today, the forces of religious repression are on the march and this administration has intellectually disarmed. It has morally disarmed. It is incapable of describing what threatens us..."

Translation: I want to fundamentally, literally, transform the way men control women's icky parts, period.

Ron Paul--"I will use my constitutional authority as President to stop the enforcement of all regulations relating to ObamaCare, including the new HHS regulations forcing all employers, even religious or church-affiliated ones, to provide coverage for contraceptives and RU-486 as part of their health insurance plans."

Translation: I'm not that interested in women's icky parts. I just want women to pay for their own goddam pills. Oh, and no abortion.

James Carville must be going into convulsions. 1992: It's the economy, stupid. 2012: It's the uterus, stupid.

No, folks, it's the stupid, stupid.

"I don't know the question, but sex is definitely the answer."

Update. Mitt Romney's tack toward the far right side of the religion/contraception debate doesn't seem to be working:
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may have had the best performance on the debate stage in Arizona last night, but Thursday morning wasn't as great -- Romney dropped to 39 percent in Rasmussen's nightly tracking poll of a potential matchup between he and President Obama nationally. Obama got 49 percent, giving him a ten point lead. The Ras tracking numbers use 500 autodial interviews a night and average the results over three days.
  This turn in the debate is, unsurprisingly, doing badly among women:
Unfortunately for him [Romney], it seems he’s still suffered a precipitous drop in support among women voters.
Quinnipiac University released new numbers on Wednesday that showed a troubling trend for the former governor. In three months, he’d gone from a positive split on favorability with women (33 - 30) to a substantially negative one (30 - 45) in Quinnipiac’s numbers.
 Keep up the good work, guys. (Thanks, TPM)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Misunderestimating the Constitution, Contraception Edition

 The First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The current debate about the federal government's right to design regulations concerning contraception and women's access to it suffers from a few misconceptions. These misconceptions are widespread. The GOP isn't reinventing the wheel of misinterpretation of the First Amendment, though it's painfully obvious that they've grabbed the mistaken view and run with it, suiting their purposes just fine.

For the sake of clarity, let's state at the offset that there is a contradiction in the phrases in the Amendment, known as the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. One is slightly at war with each other, which opens the way to misinterpretation. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,..." is very clear. There shall be no state-adopted religion, which implies rather clearly that no religion may be favored. The result is that government must operate from a secular point of view.

When President Obama, through his Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, issued the regulation that all businesses must offer insurance that covered contraception without co-pay, it could have been expected that there would be little controversy, since the regulations were similar to those in effect under the Bush administration and echoed the law in 28 states.

It's appropriate that churches and their affiliated activities that are directly connected to their congregations be exempted. Forcing churches to violate their tenets in the very course of the practice of their religion would be improper, although the Supreme Court had no problem banning peyote from Native-American religious practices. So there is precedent for criminalizing religious ritual (see Employment Division v. Smith). Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, saying that "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." [my emphasis] And Scalia is a Catholic.

What's the big freaking deal?

The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment makes it clear that the federal government may not apply the religious beliefs of Catholicism in crafting laws or regulations. That would violate the Establishment Clause. Here's how Wikipedia explains it:
The establishment clause has generally been interpreted to prohibit 1) the establishment of a national religion by Congress, or 2) the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another. The first approach is called the "separation" or "no aid" interpretation, while the second approach is called the "non-preferential" or "accommodation" interpretation. The accommodation interpretation prohibits Congress from preferring one religion over another, but does not prohibit the government's entry into religious domain to make accommodations in order to achieve the purposes of the Free Exercise Clause.
 Clearly, then, the government has a right to ignore the canon law of the Catholic Church when issuing regulations. It can, however, accommodate the religious views of a church when it deems it prudent.

I think we can agree that requiring businesses that are operating in the public sphere and employing workers of multiple religious heritages to provide contraception without cost is well within the Constitutional prerogatives of the federal government and is in keeping with the Establishment Clause. A case can be made that the Constitution requires the Obama administration to take the position it originally did.

Obama then confronted the expected backlash from the Catholic Church, driven in large part by the U. S. Council of Catholic Bishops, by offering an accommodation: Catholic hospitals, universities, and agencies operating in the public sphere would not have to provide these preventive services to women, but all insurance companies would be charged with the obligation of including these services cost-free in all their packages, including ones purchased by Catholic hospitals and agencies.

This is very much in keeping with the Free Exercise Clause. Catholics can remain free of using or promulgating the use of contraceptives. Thus they avoid what, in their eyes, is sin. And women's health choices would not be weakened.

We're obviously quite a modern group, don't you agree?

This wasn't good enough for the bishops, again not unexpectedly so. It is, however, the best the bishops could have expected. Even the head of the Catholic Health Association, Sister Carol Keehan, was satisfied:
The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions. The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed.
 In conclusion, Americans who understand their Constitution should all concur that President Obama hit the sweet spot between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. It's no wonder that the vast majority of Americans (and Catholics) agree.

Obama 1, Bishops 0

It's a crying shame that the bishops -- and, remarkably, the Republican Party and its presidential candidates -- are on the wrong side of this issue. Their misinterpretation and disregard for the First Amendment is very telling. The Republican Party may pay a price for such backward thinking. As for the bishops, a true-life good ole boys' club if there ever was one, they can take a hike. Their congregation, 98% of whom admit to using contraception at some point in their lives, already have.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Romney's Dilemma: The Road to the Nomination Runs through Bats**tcrazyville

The Lion in Winter: I'm holding my breath until you nominate me.

Since Mitt Romney's campaign -- and its success or failure -- is constantly being judged by whether or not he is electable, inevitable, establishment, conservative enough, or capable of exciting enthusiasm, we end up being mesmerized by the whys and hows of his failure to yet be coronated as the true presumptive Republican nominee.

This incessant questioning has thrown fairy dust in front of our eyes, so we can't see the obvious. I offer this hypothesis: Mitt Romney is considered the most electable -- even by the Republican base -- precisely because he is not as delusional as his Republican base. Which begs the question: How then can he win the nomination?!

Beats the hell out of me. All the movers and shakers of the Republican party want the most electable Republican to be the nominee, as that's the way the game has been played heretofore. That's why they're called the establishment candidate. These candidates play by the rules, wait their turn, and act like nice Republican players by following the Reagan Rule, which states a Republican never attacks a fellow Republican.

That this establishment road to the nomination has delivered the one-term elder Bush, the thrashed Bob Dole, and the pretty-well-thrashed John McCain hasn't dimmed the party's enthusiasm for the tried-and-true way. Parenthetically, the one two-term Republican presidency since Ronald Reagan was the marginally elected George W. Bush, who has become the Republican Who Must Not Be Named.

Yet here we are again, with an "electable" establishment Ken Doll slip-sliding his way to becoming the establishment nominee. So why is he having so much trouble getting there?

It has nothing to do with the first black president! Just ask our black brothers and sisters.

Here is the utter core of the math: Mitt Romney is the electable candidate precisely because he's not as conservative as his base requires him to be. Were he actually conservative enough to be the darling of a quivering, enthusiastic base ready to die for him in the election, he'd have to be what liberals affectionately -- and rightly -- refer to as batshit crazy.

What have all the not-Romneys -- Bachman, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul -- been? Yeah, batshit crazy. And why has the mantle now fallen, most convincingly, on Rick Santorum? He's the most levelheaded-sounding of the residents of batshitcrazyville. But for sure, he's from there all right.

He's even got some of that Ken Doll healthy look, although I have yet to see the Sweater Vest Ken Doll on the shelves.

There is a not-Romney Ken Doll!
Who would have thought that the rock and the hard place between which Mitt Romney finds himself would be the crazy base on one side and the not-really-conservative-wink-wink-nudge-nudge on the other, where he needs to be to win the election? In this mixed-up mess of things, the base is itself squeezed. The same people who demand him to be "severely conservative" also demand that he be electable. Mutually exclusive qualities, I'm afraid.

So what's Mitt to do? So far, it's been to smile, say he's the most conservative person ever, not put forth any clear policy directives that would let people know what he really thinks, or say anything that sheds light on who he really is -- especially about his Mormonism -- and instead say wildly fantastical things about Barack Obama as a way to fire up his base, you know the one that wants him all in and not all in at the same time. And to add insult to injury, he's abandoned the Reagan Rule big-time and attacked his not-Romney adversaries mercilessly, destroying them and driving his own unfavorables through the roof.

There was a moment just after securing the nomination in 2008 that John McCain looked at the polls and said, "I'm screwed." He knew he was establishment, and that it wasn't enough. So in his desperation he went for the loopiest running mate he could find, Sarah Palin. How'd that work out? (They're even making movies about it now.)

Let's say Romney wins the nomination -- not a given -- but let's say he does. Who does he pick for a running mate? Marco Rubio? Not bad. A Latino (actually a Cuban-American, a real difference). Great for Florida, but how does that fly in Arizona? Texas? Any border state? Iowa? Okay, Rick Santorum. That's going to win over the women's vote (hint: not!). How about Paul Ryan? The Republicans won the seniors vote in 2010 with Mediscare. You can't do that in 2012 with Ryan on the ticket.

Anyway I look at it, Mitt Romney's screwed. He's too sane for the nomination, or to win it he has to tatoo "batshit crazy" somewhere on his body and accidentally Tweet photos. If he does that, he's unelectable. Oh, well. That's his problem, not mine.

I'd tell them the truth if I thought it would work.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Komen for the Cure and Other Fiascoes

I'm not sure how many different stories I can make up on this one. Let me ask Mitt.

Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan B. Komen for the Cure, has set a new standard for mishandling a policy position. Her basic tenet seems to be that if what you say causes a backlash, redefine it -- even to the point of reinventing it -- until one works. If it still isn't acceptable, then find a way to do a 180° in such a way that people are unsure if it's really a 180°.

I don't want to restate what should be apparent to everyone who follows the news, but quickly here are the facts:
  • Komen said it was ending support for breast cancer screening at Planned Parenthood.
  • It gave a number of reasons, which evolved, to say the least, over the course of 48 hours.
  • Brinker said, among other things, that hiring a fervent opponent of Planned Parenthood, Karen Handel (former Georgia Secretary of State and failed Republican gubernatorial candidate) to the post of vice president for public policy had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to defund Planned Parenthood.
  • A Huffington Post investigation found that Karen Handel was the "prime instigator of this effort."
  • Today, Karen Handel resigned from her vice-presidential post at Komen, taking (some) responsibility for her part in this debacle.
(Full disclosure: I went to Komen's Facebook page and added my negative response to several posts that attempted to temper the blowback against the Planned Parenthood decision. I also did the same at Yoplait's Facebook page, decrying their support of Komen.)

I applaud the (apparent) success of activists on the Internet for showing once again that appropriate use of social media -- as exemplified by the pushback against SOPA and PIPA -- can be a powerful force for good. I also suggest that we assume that Komen for the Cure has lost all credibility and is not to be trusted. This is an opportunity to hold any non-profit's feet to the fire and smoke out either the hucksters or the originally well-intended that have become so complacent or smug that they forget their original missions. This seems to be the case with Komen:

Only 19% dedicated to research? I'd say more on research and less on pink ribbons.

As we move forward, everybody should keep their eyes on Komen. If they are truly faking their 180°, let's nail 'em, folks, okay?

Romney told me, "Time heals all wounds, and obscures policy positions." I hope he's right.

Update. We likely haven't heard the last of Karen Handel, but this article in The Nation makes it apparent that Komen for the Cure luckily may have. However, given Handel's political style, Komen may yet rue the day, another day, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert.

What Are My Policy Positions?

I spend a fair amount of time at this blog criticizing policymakers, especially the Republicans. It's easy to criticize Republicans, mostly because for the last three years, they actually don't have any policies, other than attacking anything that Barack Obama tries to do. But I just read a post by Ezra Klein at WaPo, and he, instead of attacking Mitt Romney for his gaffes, decided to attack his policy positions. Good one, Ezra.

So, I thought, since I concur, what exactly are my policy positions? Here are some of them, as clearly as I can express them. Mind you, I have no influence on public policy other than this modest blog, but all of us do well to examine and speak our beliefs clearly. So, here:
  • Taxes: I believe in raising them for all rate levels except those below the median income level. How far below is hard for me to establish, but let's say no increases for those below 200% of the poverty level. That guideline would establish that rates for a family of four making less than $46,100 should get no tax increase. All tax credits for the working poor should be maintained. This means that essentially the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire in their entirety. We might want to phase that in to prevent a shock to the economy, but the goal is to get back to the pre-Bush rates. Then, all unnecessary subsidies to oil, gas, and ethanol should be ended, as well as farm subsidies. Finally, the estate tax would be restored to pre-Bush levels, obviously, and the capital gains tax can remain at 15%, as far as I care, because that would really help middle-income retirees, especially those with only 401(k)s. The trick would be to eliminate the loopholes that allow the kind of abuse that let people like Mitt Romney to get paid in capital gains and thus avoid the earned-income rates. That could be accomplished with a Buffett Rule. I would also not be opposed to simply taxing capital gains as income, similar to interest income.
  • End our wars ASAP. We're nearly out of Iraq, and Afghanistan is winding down. Wind it down faster, even faster than Leon Panetta just announced. Also, cut off aid to Pakistan and let them know that we favor democracies like India who are our actual allies. I know, we're freaked about Pakistan having the bomb. They use one or allow one to get used, they get blown up. Let them know that through quiet, non-hysterical channels. Also, stop with the warlike talk on Iran. Negotiate, negotiate. Talk to everyone. Talk to Chavez, Castro, Kim Jong Un, anyone. Look at what's happening in Burma. Progress can be made without bombs. We can't blow EVERYBODY up. Diplomacy works.
  • If we get our revenues up and our defense spending down, use the money available for social safety-net programs. Go to a single-payer, Medicare-style program for everybody. Period. Increase payroll taxes on people and businesses up to the amount they formerly either paid or received in benefits. Use that money for expanded Medicare. Make Social Security solvent forever by raising the threshold for taxation. That's an easy fix. Also, Medicaid and the Veterans' health system should be folded into the greater Medicare system and with it the funding sources. Even the military's current health system can join Medicare.
  • Also, I'm both a Keynesian and an infrastructure freak. I lived in Japan and have been back there twice in the past decade. I know what good infrastructure looks like and how it's paid for. It can really help drive economic growth. I also believe in SUPERTRAINS like Atrios of Eschaton, and like Atrios, I believe in walkable cities. He lives in Philly, a town I visit a lot, and it's walkable with reasonably good local transit. I live in the Bay Area, where transit is pretty sucky. I chose to live in Sonoma, a small town where I can walk to shops, bars, restaurants, my gym, library, you name it. I get in my car mostly if I'm leaving town. There's a couple of exceptions, but mostly that's the way I feel about transportation. I lived in the Netherlands back in the early 70s, and I never forgot what it was like to get on a bicycle freeway to go to work, or to hop between their numerous local villages on a Saturday afternoon. Have bike, will travel was my motto. It was perfect for Tokyo. Not good for hilly towns, I suppose.
  • It's beyond controversial to believe in green energy. The entire country should not only be installing solar panels on every available rooftop, but we should also be building recharging stations as fast as we can. I myself bought a VW Jetta TDI, which gets over 50mph on the highway and up to 44mph in mixed driving. But my real strategy is to wait until I'm off warranty to convert the engine to biodiesel, which should be available at every recharging station, as well. I'm also a proponent of nuclear energy and think the Nevadans are being hysterical about Yucca Mountain. But I don't live there, so it's easy for me to say. I'm also for increased hydro-electric, wind, wave, tidal, any alternative to fossil fuel. I'm for declaring a total end to mountain-top removal. I'm not against fracking, but it's got to be better regulated. Right now I don't trust the frackers. If trust can be established, fine. I hate tar sands oil and wouldn't support anything that increases its development. We can do an end-around with green energy. What if it costs more? No problem. What we would gain in lower healthcare costs and general healthiness would go far in equalizing costs. If we jump in headfirst, I bet we'd be surprised at how far we can go with alternative sources and how far down the costs can be driven.
  • We need to establish a rational trade policy with China. We don't have to be afraid of them. If they're dumping solar panels, place punitive tariffs until they wise up. Don't worry about a trade war. They need us more than we need them, and that's ultimately true. As for the yuan, it had better be properly valued, or we get tough with them on it. How? Here I draw a blank. I don't know how we pressure a country to free its currency. Demand that it allow the market to set the rate?
  • I heard Ralph Nader on Yahoo! TV the other day making a case for how Democrats could take it to the Republicans in 2012 and win the election, even retake the House. One of his recommendations was pushing for raising the minimum wage, which he said was more than $2.00 less in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was in the late 60s. I agree -- that it would be an effective form of economic stimulus -- and that it would be good politics. So put me down as an advocate of a true living wage for all. Raising the federal minimum to over $10 won't produce any millionaires, but it might lift some out of poverty.
I could go on, as there are many more policy prescriptions of value. But this post is long as it is. I'll review and revisit this theme again soon.