Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Living within our means: How I solved the budget (Spending Cuts, part I)

As I mentioned last post, the New York Times has a neat budget puzzle game on their website. This time we'll examine the spending cuts my phantom administration would have enacted (or, depending on the vicissitudes of fate, the cuts my future administration will enact). I will review the options in the same sections found in the NYT puzzle. Today we look at Domestic Programs and Foreign Aid. Please note that financial figures are set in the following format (savings in 2015/savings in 2030).

Domestic Programs and Foreign Aid


Cut pay of civilian federal workers by 5% (14b/17b): It's not that I hate government employees, far from it. But the federal workforce is huge and, although nobody gets rich in the civil service, the benefits and job security are competitive with or superior to that in the private sector. So I figured that while it is a bit of a hardship, ultimately this was one cut that could be endured.

Reduce the federal workforce by 10% (12b/15b): Reducing the size of the federal government is more of a polemic than anything else these days, as people don't seem to realize that shrinking the workforce will not affect how much the government does, just the speed at which it manages to accomplish it. A slower, slightly less responsive government is the cost of a smaller workforce, but ultimately I feel it is an acceptable loss.

Cut 250,000 government contractors (17b/17b): Government contractors provide a range of services, sometimes with lower cost to the tax payer, but often times at the same or even higher rates. Where the contracted work is of a particular and specialized nature with either a limited duration or fairly infrequent application, it makes sense to obtain contractors. But as a supplement or replacement for ordinary federal employees, contractors seem like a bad deal. They get the axe.


Foreign Aid (17b/17b): I elected not to cut Foreign Aid by 50%. Foreign Aid is a popular whipping boy, especially among teabaggers and the conservative press, but it is really some of our best spent money. As any basic textbook on diplomacy can tell you, power comes in two different kinds; hard and soft. Foreign Aid represents a particularly useful form of softer hard power. It is a way to reward friends, punish enemies (by its absence), induce or promote change, and remedy the effects of disasters, wars, and inhumane conditions. For a relatively minuscule portion of the federal budget, we basically purchase a stake, and there for a say, in the fate of other nations. To say nothing of providing humanitarian assistance to those in need. Especially in a post-Iraq War, where the limits of military power have been clearly demonstrated, Foreign Aid offers a cheap and persistent form of influence.

Earmarks (14b/14b): I decided to keep Earmarks, even though I believe their projected cost is inaccurate, as it fails to take into account the likely fact that they will probably cost more in 2015 and 2030 than they do now. That being said, Earmarks are another kind of federal spending that has received a lot of ill-informed criticism. While many Earmarks are poorly conceived, unnecessary, or the product of simple old fashioned corruption, painting them all with that brush is unfair. In many cases individual members of Congress are aware of a particular need in his or her district, and the Earmark represents a relatively easy method (within the context of the legislative process) to address the issue. Furthermore, Earmarks are one form of federal spending that genuinely does help stimulate local economies, and in that regard they are one of the more effective stimulus methods available to the federal government (remember that even once we are out of this period of general economic hardship, there will always be areas and regions with slower growth). While Earmarks should probably be subject to great scrutiny, and the outright boondoggles should be prevented, as a whole I find them an acceptable, and even at times useful, evil.

Eliminate Farm Subsidies (14b/14b): This was a hard cut not to make, as the majority of Farm Subsidies go to big corporations and stymie free trade by keeping US agricultural prices artificially low. With that being said, cutting the subsidies are likely to cause food prices to rise somewhat, and the burden of that increase will fall disproportionately on the poor. Thus, even though the money goes to the rich, cutting it hurts the people we are trying to protect. Additionally, while the majority of the subsidies flow to huge agricultural conglomerates, small and family farms also benefit.

Other cuts to the federal government (30b/30b): This miscellaneous option proposed cutting funding for smaller agencies, educational and research expenditures, and other ancillary government endeavors. I elected to keep them because federal funding for research, development, and education are already woefully inadequate. Reducing the money available for national parks or the Smithsonian, which are already a tiny fraction of the federal budget, will reduce the quality of services available to the public.

Cut aid to states by 5% (29b/42b): Currently many of the states are in dire fiscal straits. My home state of California usually seems to be the one making headlines in this regard, but we are hardly alone. While there is truth in the claim that the individual states did it to themselves, that is neither of much comfort, nor particularly helpful. Aid to states primarily helps fund social programs. Cutting it would disproportionately impact the poor without solving the structural issues that put the states into the red in the first place. That's punishing Peter to scold Paul.

Well, that's it. Tune in tomorrow (or whenever) for Part II of my spending cuts.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Budget Czar for the Day

The New York Times has a really interesting feature on their website right now. Called the Budget Puzzle, it puts you in the position of determining exactly how, through a mix of spending cuts and tax raises, to balance the federal budget out to the years 2015 and 2030. Although the model is no doubt incredibly simplified, it puts into stark terms our national financial realities. It is also, though this may be more an indication of a personal psychosis than anything else, sort of fun.

You can see my plan here. Tomorrow (or when I get around to it) I'll post an explanation as to why I made the spending cuts I did, leaving tax hikes for a third post. I'm sure you're waiting with baited breath.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Santa's late delivery

There was a package waiting for me today at my office. Now, given my inordinate (and, what with my generally pleasant personality, inexplicable) number of enemies, I was naturally suspicious. However, it turned out to be a belated holiday gift.

Wrapped in about twelve pounds of excess shipping material were three cans of chocolate-coated potato chips. Apparently every holiday season Needless Markup produces them in a particularly cholesteric example of the conspicuous consumption to which NM serves as a kind of temple.

Although you won't find these things on the approved list of foods for any kind of reasonable diet, they sure are tasty!

Friday, December 25, 2009

You'll shoot your eye out!

While the loss of an ocular organ seems unlikely, given the nature of the gifts I received, one should never discount human ingenuity.

Anyway, here's what I got from various friends, family, and other assorted well-wishers:

Some clothes
Some money
Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio
A biographical work on Thomas More, statesman, philosopher, and Catholic bigot
A book on the Somme and another on Ancient Rome
A nice pen
Gift cards
A Star Wars lego tie fighter (the one Vader flies in Star Wars)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pointless Factoid XXIX

The California State Bar establishes Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements for practicing attorneys. Failure to complete the requisite amount of CLE can result in disciplinary action.

In other and completely unrelated news, I have about two weeks to finish some twenty hours of legal study...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

More than meets the ire

Last night I saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Now, when you go into a movie like that you're not exactly expecting a masterpiece. You understand that the limitations of the genre and, more crippling, the target audience combine to guarantee a mediocre viewing experience. But you hope that cool fight scenes and an interesting character or two shroud the essential shallowness of the film. This time? Not so much.

Transformers was not, at least, an unmitigated failure. The acting is tolerably done, which on the scale of action flicks, is practically Oscar worthy. I am not the biggest fan of Shia LeBeouf, but this movie plays to his strengths, and he is able to carry much of the film. The redoubtable Peter Cullen is a treat to longtime Transformers fans and recent converts alike as Optimus Prime. But the best performance is put in by Sam's parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), especially Ms. White as the mother.

That is, however, part of the problem. Transformers seems to suffer from an identity crisis. The film has a strong comedic foundation, with both amusing scenes and witty one-liners. But these flashes of mirth seem, sandwiched as they are between meaningless metallic mayhem and overblown dramatics, stolen from another movie. Micheal Bay seems to believe he can transform his movie between action, comedy, and drama at will, but the transitions are stilted and ultimately detract from those parts of the film that work.

Fight scenes are supposed to be the highlight of an action film, but it seems that the modern trend illustrates a direct correlation between the amount of CG and the degree of dullness. It can be at times difficult to distinguish the silver Decepticons from each other (poor characterization of the villians is a general theme among the two Bey Transformers movies), and even when you can tell, you don't care to make the effort because it doesn't matter who just shrugged off the latest atom bomb.

I don't want to give away what, in an impressive illustration of ambition, aspires to be the plot, but it does such a good job of hiding that I feel compelled to mention that if you don't at least look for it, you might not find it (though I doubt you'll miss it). The portrayal of Megatron as a loyal and conspicuously obedient servant (and the continuing failure to cast Frank Welker, the original voice actor) would infuriate any true fan of the 80's cartoon. Soundwave is finally in this movie, but he's a freaking satellite, when they could have easily made him a CD player, and he doesn't sound like he used to either.

Sadly, even with all our technology and the ability to merge CG robots seemlessly with the real world, we've yet to make a Transformers movie superior to that from 1986. Perhaps even worse, this is also true of the soundtrack. However dated and (even at the time) annoying the mid 80's power ballads may be, at least the animated film had more than one song. Revenge of the Fallen pushes that new Linkin Park tune so aggressively you expect an advertisement for concert dates is coming next.

See it, if you have to. But don't expect any more than meets the eye.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Grey skies are gonna clear up

Alright, so it's been a little mopey and pathetic around here, even for me (which is saying something). So I have committed myself to ensure that at least the next few posts are somwhat less dark and miserable. Stay tuned for mirth and other diversions!