Sunday, December 2, 2012

If You Don't Play, You Can't Lose

Heard the Powerball math on the radio the other day; it was a conservative talk radio station, so it goes without saying that all the math that follows here is racist and homophobic. 

So you pay two dollars for a Powerball ticket. Only half of it goes into the award pot. The other half goes to your state government, allegedly for education, though in your heart, you know full well what your public servants do with it:
When the prize is $500 million, that means the total revenue from tickets sold is around $1 billion. So you're paying a 50% tax right off the top.

Say you win the $500 million. If you take the lump sum, you get $327 million, but that's before federal tax. After the IRS gets its 25% cut, you're down to $245 million. Then your state tax kicks in. Virginia's is 4%, so knock another $13 million off. So now you're down to $232 million.

So on $1 billion in Powerball ticket sales, the government takes all of it except $232 million, right off the top. In other words, running Powerball gets the government an effective 77% tax rate.

But your government isn't done yet. That's assuming you don't spend all your winnings before you die (a surprising number of people end up filing for bankruptcy just a few years after winning a ton of lottery money, believe it or not). The death tax is currently 35% and applies to estates over about $5 million. So if you've spent only about $32 million before you take your long dirt nap, Uncle Sam gets at least another $68 million, and maybe as much as another $109 million if the full death tax is ever reinstated.

Conclusion: Don't complain your taxes are too high while you're at the 7-Eleven buying a Powerball ticket. There's a reason lotteries are called a tax on the numerically illiterate.

And speaking of innumeracy... You want a graphic idea what you're up against when you play the lottery? The recent Powerball odds of winning the jackpot were something like one in 175 million. In case you can't visualize what "one in 175 million" means, try the following thought experiment:

Imagine a row of 175 million pennies. Start walking along that row of pennies, and when the spirit moves you, pay your lottery agent two dollars and have him pick up a penny entirely at random from the row at your feet. You're hoping that the penny you just paid two dollars for is the single penny in that entire row of pennies that has the words, "Powerball Jackpot!" etched into it.

Image result for powerball jackpot!

Did I tell you that row of pennies would stretch all the way from Washington, DC to El Paso, Texas? That's 1,963 miles.

Yeah, your odds of winning the Powerball are about the same as your odds of picking out one particular penny in a row of pennies that's about two thousand miles long. 

Still can't visualize it? Try having a look at this.

 That's a pile of 100 million pennies. So imagine seeing a pile almost twice as high as this one, and plunging your hand into it and miraculously pulling out the Wonka Golden Ticket "Powerball Jackpot!" penny on your first try.

If you're rich enough to play the lottery, you're rich enough to just flush a couple of bucks down the toilet every morning.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Do You Do With A Great River?

Cunegonde and I recently got back from a Mediterranean cruise that included stops in Egypt and Israel.

Our two Egyptian tour guides - one each in Alexandria and Cairo - mentioned that their cities are having problems with increasing population. The cities are more and more crowded, traffic congestion and its attendant air pollution are getting worse all the time (a problem brought home to us during the nearly three hours we spent stuck in traffic in our tour bus during our day in Alexandria).

Most people know that the Nile River runs all the way through Egypt. Not many are aware that both Alexandria and Cairo have canals running through them.

Call me simplistic, but it seems to me that the answer to Egypt's overcrowding problem is as close as the Nile: run aqueducts and irrigation systems from the Nile out into the desert. Where there's drinkable water, people will follow.

I know the Egyptians hate the Jews who live next door to them, because as we all know, the Jews are responsible for all the ills of the world, not to mention being the both the cause of World War II and its loss by a major European power. But Cunegonde and I were both surprised at just how prosperous Israel is. You could drop Israel into the middle of Indiana and the only way you could tell there was something odd going on would be by looking at the funny lettering on the highway signs (okay, the Negev Desert looks more like Arizona or Utah). There are modern towns and cities everywhere, and in between them are farms, with fields and orchards growing all manner of vegetables and fruits. So the Egyptians should be able to do the same thing - and they wouldn't even have to become Jews to do it.

Yes, just build aqueducts and irrigation systems.

The Egyptians have a better idea what to do with their water supply.

Have you ever seen photos of a city in the middle of a garbagemen's strike? Trash all along the sidewalks and into the streets? That's Egypt. Except that the garbage isn't just in the cities. It's between the cities. Cairo and Alexandria are 120 miles or so apart, and there's trash on the road every inch of the way between them. There's trash all over the ground even in the city parks. During the two days we were in Egypt, I spotted a grand total of two trash dumpsters and one trash can about the same size you have in your bathroom..

Well, those same people who don't mind trash covering the solid ground where they live aren't shy about dumping it into their water supply. Remember those canals I mentioned? They're full of trash. In many places, the garbage pile is so deep that it effectively blocks the flow of water completely; the canal is literally turning into a landfill.

You see this filthy water and the thought crosses your mind that Cairo and Alexandria shouldn't have an overcrowding problem because everyone there should be dead of dysentery or typhoid or cholera. Our cruise ship advice was to not buy any food or drink from anyone on the street in Egypt. Hell, I was afraid to breathe the air (there's an old Tom Lehrer song in there somewhere).

One of the great rivers of the world, instead of being treated as a precious, valuable  natural resource, is used as an open sewer. And the government tells its ignorant people (school is compulsory only to age 12, according to one of our guides) that they're poor and wretched because of the Jews next door.

It's jaw-dropping, but understandable in a crazy sort of way in a country that has been ruled by kings, dictators, or generals for the last 4,000 years, that has no history of capitalism or liberal democracy, and where the populace is in the thrall of a religion that tells them their wretchedness is Allah's will and defiance of Allah's will is punishable by death.

So before you try to tell me that I'm killing Mother Gaia because my car doesn't get 40 miles per gallon, shut up.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The End of America's Manned Space Program

A few of the photos I got from Daingerfield Marina, just south of Washington Reagan National Airport.

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy promised we would send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth, before the decade was out. Nobody scoffed at him, and we did just what he had promised.

Today, Newt Gingrich says we should colonize the moon and he's derided as an idiot, or insane, or both. And he may be, because everyone knows we can't possibly colonize the moon; we can't even send an American into low-Earth orbit any more, because we are the brokest nation in history.

But we're told that if we don't want to buy birth control pills for 30-ish law students, it's because we hate women.
Flying over the Lincoln Memorial
The control tower at Washington Reagan National Airport.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Obamacare Through the Looking-Glass

There's glory for you!

“I don't know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant ‘there's a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn't mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,”Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that's all.”
-- From Alice Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

We have laws so people can be safe from arbitrary government. We have laws so people can know what is permitted and what is not permitted in a society. When you read the text of a federal law, you will see an entire section devoted to definitions. This is not just to keep lawyers employed; it is to allow people to understand exactly what the law means, so that they don’t unwittingly run afoul of the law. Government is bound by those definitions; you cannot be convicted of a crime if the applicable law does not define what you did as a crime in the first place. Without such provision, laws would be meaningless, and government could prosecute you based on whatever it decided the law meant today, without any regard to what it meant yesterday. The speed limit on a public highway can’t be simultaneously 35 mph and 65 mph. object can not have two identities. A tree cannot be a telephone, and a dog cannot be a cat. Each entity exists as something specific, its identity is particular, and it cannot exist as something else. An entity can have more than one characteristic, but any characteristic it has is a part of its identity. A car can be both blue and red, but not at the same time or not in the same respect. Whatever portion is blue cannot be red at the same time, in the same way. Half the car can be red, and the other half blue. But the whole car can't be both red and blue. These two traits, blue and red, each have single, particular identities.

The concept of identity is important because it makes explicit that reality has a definite nature. Since reality has an identity, it is knowable. Since it exists in a particular way, it has no contradictions.

Verrilli had to be careful, though. While he insisted that the penalty is not a tax for Anti-Injunction Act purposes, he is expected to argue as the case proceeds that Congress is within its authority to pass the health-care law in part because of its ability to tax.

“Today you are arguing that the penalty is not a tax,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “Tomorrow you will be back and arguing that the penalty is a tax.”

Do you see that? The Obama administration is arguing that, Aristotle to the contrary, reality does not have a definite nature, and that it can be self-contradictory. And that, consequently, laws can be literally without any objective meaning. Words mean not what the law says, but what the government chooses them to mean at any particular moment. You (and Alice) might ask whether the government can make words mean so many different things. The Solicitor General of the United States would quote Humpty Dumpty and reply that the question is which is to be master — that's all.

This way lies madness – and worse. When government can say that the payment that you must make if you refuse to get health insurance can be defined as two mutually exclusive things, that both A and Not-A can be simultaneously true, it is saying that government has the power to enact laws which you have no way of knowing whether or not you are obeying, because the government can make the law mean whatever it wants, whenever it wants, and select whatever meaning suits its purpose in prosecuting you, solely at its own discretion, whenever it sees fit. It is an attempt to impose tyranny, and, to the extent that it invites contempt for the law (and for the lawmakers as well) it is an invitation to anarchy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Snarky Enough for Mount Rushmore?

Particularly notable is Goodwin's repeated observation that Lincoln was quick to take the blame whenever things went wrong, and to pass along the credit when things went well. When an attempt to resupply beseiged Fort Sumter went awry, and Captain Gustavus Fox, in command of the mission, was inconsolable, Lincoln:

...assumed the blame, assuring him that “by an accident, for which you were in no wise responsible, and possibly I, to some extent was, you were deprived of a war vessel with her men, which you deemed of great importance to the enterprize. I most cheerfully and truly declare that the failure of the undertaking has not lowered you a particle, while the qualities you developed in the effort, have greatly heightened you, in my estimation.”

Lots of anecdotes like this one. You search in vain for anything Lincoln said that put the onus for his troubles on his predecessor, the inept James Buchanan, or on his opponents both in congress and out, or even his critics in his own cabinet. Did anyone ever inherit a mountain of troubles as high as that which Lincoln confronted? If anyone was ever justified in claiming repeatedly, “It's not my fault!” it was Lincoln.

By contrast, General George McClellan, in command of all the union armies in 1861, never took the blame for anything:

At the first whiff of censure, McClellan shifted blame onto any other shoulder but his own – onto Scott's failure to muster necessary resources, onto the incompetence of the cabinet, “some of the greatest geese... I have ever seen – enough to tax the patience of Job. He considered Seward “a meddling, officious, incompetent little puppy,” Welles “weaker than the most garrulous old woman, and Bates “an old fool.”

Lincoln eventually fired McClellan, who then ran for president against him in 1864. Lincoln won easily; his visage is today on Mount Rushmore; McClellan's is not.

President Obama got a laugh out of a Maryland audience on Thursday when he mocked the Republican Party in a speech, comparing their skepticism of alternative energy to the “Flat Earth Society” in Christopher Columbus’ day and President Rutherford B. Hayes’ apparent dismissal of the telephone. But while Obama thinks the GOP is in need of a science lesson, he may need to bone up on history himself.

In mocking the GOP, Obama cited an anecdote about Hayes in which, upon using the telephone for the first time, he said, “It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?”

“That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore,” Obama said. “He’s explaining why we can’t do something instead of why we can do something.” 

This is a first, as far as I know – a President of the United States of America mocking a deceased predecessor, not for the man's policies, but because he's allegedly a dumbass (in fact, Hayes was so impressed by the telephone that he ordered one installed in the White House). How very presidential, how magnanimous, how generous of spirit, how statesmanlike our president is!

Do you hear what Obama is saying? “Hayes isn't on Mount Rushmore because he wasn't smart like me!” No, you arrogant, condescending buffoon, Hayes isn't on Mount Rushmore because he wasn't as great as Washington and Lincoln. That's rarefied, august company, and it excludes some pretty accomplished men. Hey, Barack – John Adams and James Madison and Andrew Jackson called, and they want you to know you stink. And, by the way, President Buffoon, Hayes was wounded five times while serving our country during the Civil War, the war that freed your wife's ancestors from slavery, you ungrateful wretch.

I wonder if Obama thinks that by imitating George McClellan long enough and hard enough, blaming George Bush, Fox News, the Arab Spring and Japan's tsunami, China and India, Europe and Japan, congress, and, yes, even the Founding Fathers for all his troubles, he can get his face on Mount Rushmore, too.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pay No Attention to Everything I've Said and Done - I Want Lower Gas Prices!

Behold, the narrative has changed. Four years ago, gas prices were too high because Bush and his Republican henchmen were letting their buddies in the oil industry rip you off, and Obama was going to put an end to it. Today he’s telling us that after three years, he's decided that he's been helpless to do anything about it

We know there's no silver bullet that will bring down gas prices or reduce our dependence on foreign oil overnight… But what we can do is get our priorities straight and make a sustained, serious effort to tackle this problem.
More on that later. But meanwhile, now that gas is running about $3.75 a gallon for regular here in Northern Virginia, let’s have a look at what some other fluids cost (prices rounded to the nearest dollar, exclusive of tax; liters are treated as quarts for calculation purposes):
  • Milk: My local Safeway charges $4 for a gallon of 1%.
  • Apple cider is on sale at Safeway this week for $5 a gallon (it’s usually $6).
  • Beer: I looked at the cheapest of the cheap, i.e., Bud Lite. A 24-pack of 12-ounce bottles goes for about $18. Since there are about 11 bottles in a gallon, that works out to about $8 a gallon.
  • Dasani water: A one-liter bottle will set you back $2.39 or about $9.50 a gallon (I couldn’t decide whether to round up or down…)
  • How about wine? I’m not talking about some 94-point RobertParker-rated Napa. I’m talking about the classic “Three-Buck Chuck,” available only at Trader Joe’s under the Charles Shaw label. It goes for (duh) three bucks per 750 milliliter bottle. That’s about ¾ of a quart, so a gallon of cheap wine will run you about $16.
  • Mouthwash is basically almost 100% water, with a few chemicals added. A one-liter bottle of Listerine costs $5.32 at Walmart, or about $20 a gallon (check the list of active ingredients – they total up to about ¼ of one percent).
  • Starbucks coffee (you knew I was going to get there, didn’t you?): A 12-ounce cup costs about $2, or about $25 a gallon.
  • I have an old soft spot for Virginia Gentleman bourbon, which is far from being the best around, I'm told (I'm not really a bourbon drinker). It costs $12 per 750-milliliter bottle, or about $64 a gallon.
  • Contact lens cleaning solution: A 10-ounce bottle of what amounts to distilled water with a little salt and trace amounts of other chemicals will run you $17. That’s a cool $217 per gallon.
You might have noted that these are all products that don’t have to be sucked up from a mile under the ocean or from Arctic wastes or from stinking deserts owned by religious fanatics who hate us almost as much as they love the money we give them so they can wage jihad against us, products that don’t have to be shipped from overseas to U.S. refineries and once refined, shipped hundreds of miles to your local gas station, that aren’t subject to thousands of government regulations that discourage production and drive prices up. Hell, a lot of them were produced within fifty miles of your home. And yet, somehow, their producers all charge you more than what you pay for gasoline, and you don’t bat an eye, beyond the occasional kvetch about Starbuck’s. Nine-fifty a gallon for water, for crying out loud!

Still, it really stinks when you find yourself burning fifty bucks a week at the gas pump. And you know what? President Obama is right when he says there are no quick fixes, that “there’s no silver bullet that will bring down gas prices...overnight”

That’s a wonderful bit of misdirection, the kind that he excels at. It’s the classic strawman debating trick – attacking an argument that no one is making. If anyone running for public office has said we can slash gasoline prices overnight, he’s managed to keep it out of the newspapers. But Obama pretends that person exists anyway, 1) hoping that you don't notice, and 2) hoping that you conclude that your president is a really thoughtful guy.

Yes, Mr. President and Master of the Bloody Obvious, we know there’s nothing you can do to slash prices overnight; we knew it before you decided to show us how wise and thoughtful you were by pointing it out to us like we're a bunch of second-graders. But there’s plenty you can do - and have done - to keep prices high for years on end. For example:
  • You can appoint a Secretary of Energy who, even before being confirmed, stated he would like to see us pay the same for gasoline as they do in Europe; markets love that kind of talk. 
  •  When a rig drilling for oil a mile below the ocean’s surface blows up, you can stop issuing permits to drill for oil anywhere in the ocean, including water just a few hundred feet deep. 
  • You can sic the EPA on an oil company after they've bought a lease and spent billions developing it, only to be told they can’t get a permit to drill because doing so might raise air pollution to near (not “over,” or even “at,” just “near”) legal limits in the Arctic in the area around the drilling site. You think that lost investment isn’t going to show up at the pump next time your constituents fill up? 
  • You can forbid the construction of a new oil pipeline after three years of studies showed construction would likely have insignificant environmental impact.
  • You can get your friends in the non-Fox news to report that you’re finally allowing new oil drilling leases, while carefully concealing the fact that while you’re letting oil companies buy the leases, you’re not going to lift a finger to actually allow them to drill. Kinda like getting the first and last month’s rent from your new tenant but not allowing him to move in.
  • While running for president, you can state from the get-go that you want gas prices to rise.
  • And finally, you can suck up to the Muslim fanatics running Iran (who hate you, by the way) as they use the billions we send them to build nuclear weapons. You can remain silent when Iranians protest in the streets after government-rigged elections, hoping that your display of goodwill will turn fanatics into reasonable people. You can wring your hands and do nothing when Iran thumbs its nose at you in the development of their nuclear program. Markets hate uncertainty; when the supply of a commodity becomes more uncertain, the price goes up. Iran is either going to get a nuclear bomb or Israel will launch a war to stop them; either way, the effect on worldwide oil process will be catastrophic – just the talk of an Israeli strike in the past few weeks has bumped gas prices up.  A strong United States, led by a strong president, could have stopped this. I’m just old enough to remember when another Democratic president said: 
...we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
 Today our president tells us:
...what we can do is get our priorities straight and make a sustained, serious effort to tackle this problem.
The problem is not that there is no silver bullet that can solve our problems overnight - if there were, any imbecile could be a good president. The problem is that you not only haven't "made a sustained, serious effort to tackle this problem," you haven't even looked for a water pistol, let alone a silver bullet. Don't tell us you want lower gas prices, because by word and by deed, you've spent the last four years proving you want higher prices, not lower.