Little impact from the sequester

July 2nd, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Washington Post reports:

Before “sequestration” took effect, the Obama administration issued specific — and alarming — predictions about what it would bring. There would be one-hour waits at airport security. Four-hour waits at border crossings. Prison guards would be furloughed for 12 days. FBI agents, up to 14.

At the Pentagon, the military health program would be unable to pay its bills for service members. The mayhem would extend even into the pantries of the neediest Americans: Around the country, 600,000 low-income women and children would be denied federal food aid.

But none of those things happened.

Sequestration did hit, on March 1. And since then, the $85 billion budget cut has caused real reductions in many federal programs that people depend on. But it has not produced what the Obama administration predicted: widespread breakdowns in crucial government services.

The Washington Post recently checked 48 of those dire predictions about sequestration’s impact. Just 11 have come true, and some effects are worse than forecast. But 24 predictions have not come to pass. In 13 cases, agencies said it is too soon to know.

The good thing about this, is no one will believe those who resist spending cuts (or in fact cuts in the rate of increase) much in future, as their claims of impending doom have been found to be Chicken Little doomsdaying.

At the U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, officials had said they would have to shut off 350 gauges that provide crucial predictions of impending floods. They didn’t. The real number is less than 90. What was cut instead?

For one thing, $2.7 million in conference expenses have been chopped since February.

And that would never have been cut, without the sequester.

Targeted spending cuts wee definitely preferable, but as the US Government could not agree on them, then the sequester is a worthwhile backup tool which has started to force even a minimal level of fiscal discipline on the USG.

Last time, it sent 469 scientists. The attendance for this fall’s conference has not been set, but Bales guessed it would be more like 350, for a cost of $350,000. “We are not investing in the future,” Bales said.

I think the future will manage with only 350 people at the conference!

But sequestration has not become a daily hassle for most Americans, and its effects on the economy have been softened by a stronger job market and low interest rates.

“It was more the unquantified predictions of calamity by politicians that were wrong,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, a research firm.

But now, the Obama administration will seek to make the threat reappear. In October, when the new fiscal year begins, so will another round of sequestration. The administration expects a $109 billion cut.

But no one will listen this time, and the small steps towards fiscal sanity will get bigger.

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An explosion in Texas

April 18th, 2013 at 4:07 pm by David Farrar

3 News reports:

An explosion at a fertiliser plant near Waco, Texas sent flames shooting high into the night sky, leaving the factory a smouldering ruin, causing major damage at nearby buildings and injuring numerous people.

There are unconfirmed reports up to 60 people may have been killed and more than 100 injured. CBS says authorities have told residents to leave the town due to the risk of toxic fumes from the plant.

The blast at the plant in West, a community north of Waco, happened shortly before 8pm and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles to the north.

The video looks appalling. An awful accident.

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US Senate blocks universal background checks

April 18th, 2013 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The US Senate has blocked bipartisan legislation aimed at tightening restrictions on the sale of firearms, a huge defeat for an angry President Barack Obama.

This morning’s attempt to ban assault-style rifles went down, too, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines faced the same fate in a series of showdown votes four months after a gunman killed 20 school children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The background check measure commanded a majority of senators, 54-46, but that was well short of the 60 votes needed to advance. Forty-one Republicans and five Democrats sided together to scuttle the plan.

Speaking to the nation after the vote Obama said a minority the senators decided “it wasn’t worth it” to protect the nation’s children.

“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” Obama said.”There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this. It came down to politics,” he said, flanked by relatives of the victims of recent mass shootings, some of whom wept during the president’s comments.

Universal background checks are, for me, a non-brainer. 90% of Americans support them. You want to make sure sales are not to convicted criminals, and the seriously mentally unwell. It is disappointing that even that modest proposal couldn’t get past the Senate.

The proposed bans on assault-style rifles and high-capacity ammo were never going to pass, and are far more debatable propositions.  But it is very hard to argue against universal background checks for gun sales.

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US Disability Benefits

April 8th, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

In case you needed convincing about the need for welfare reform, this story from the United States should help convince you.

It was an exclusive story for Planet Money on National Public Radio. It has had great resonance in the US, as it has exposed how great the growth in numbers on disability welfare has been.

Some key findings:

  • 14 million people a month now get a disability check from the Government.
  • In one county in Alabama, 25% of working adults are on a disability benefit.
  • That the proportion of those claiming a disability benefit with a difficult to test problem (back pain, mental illness) has increased from 18% in 1961 to 53% in 2011.
  • That some states have as many as 9% of their adults on a disability benefit.
  • Fewer than 1 percent of those who were on the federal program for disabled workers at the beginning of 2011 have returned to the workforce since then.
  • The disability benefit pays $13,000, just $2,000 less than the minimum wage, plus Medicare so some are better off financially not working.
  • The number of children on a disability benefit has increased seven fold since 1974 to over 1.2 million.
  • If these children with learning or other disabilities get a job, their parents lose the $700 a month disability check.
  • Disability welfare now costs $260 billion a year, and will run out of reserve duns by 2016.

People should remember this story, when Labour and Greens constantly say there is no need for welfare reform in New Zealand. Note that the numbers receiving the Invalids Benefit in NZ has increased eight fold since 1976 from 10,000 to 84,000. Now by no means should anyone conclude this means everyone on that benefit shouldn’t be there. To the contrary I know some people on that benefit who would love to be able to work, or work longer hours than they can. So we need to be careful not to stigmatize those who are in genuine need.

However as the US story shows, the growth in the level of such benefits has been massive, and I encourage people to read the full story about what happens when the incentives to be on welfare are greater than to be in work.

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Ross Sea protection

March 21st, 2013 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Michael Field at Stuff reported:

The United States and New Zealand have announced they are planning to create the world’s largest marine protected area.

The 4.9 million square kilometre Ross Sea MPA in Antarctica would be nine times the size of New Zealand.

The plan has been announced in Washington by new US Secretary of State John Kerry and the New Zealand ambassador to Washington, Mike Moore.

They were speaking at the screening the National Geographic Museum of The Last Ocean by New Zealand film-maker Peter Young. …

The US, the European Union and 23 other countries including New Zealand will decide in July whether to approve permanent protections for the Ross Sea and for a second area in East Antarctica, or to allow large-scale industrial fishing to continue.

An attempt last November to create the MPA at a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, failed. …

Key areas to protect include a full range of marine habitats; from the ice edge to deep oceanic basins. The proposal protects the ecologically important features and habitats, including winter ice-free areas, the entire Victoria Coast from McMurdo Sound to Cape Adare, the Balleny Islands, and almost the entire Ross Sea continental shelf.

The large bulk of the MPA, the general protection zone, will be a no-take area.

Under the proposal the toothfish fishery would continue in areas outside the MPA.

It is good to have the US and NZ in agreement, as previously there were different proposals.

And it is good they are proposing a vast marine reserve for most of the Ross Sea.

But there is still an issue of whether the marine reserve should include the entire Ross Sea – just as all of Antarctica is protected for scientific research, not just some of it.

I don’t think there is a shortage of other areas to fish. Some ecosystems should be left undisturbed, and Antarctica is one of them.

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United States in July

March 14th, 2013 at 6:37 pm by David Farrar

Myself and Auckland Girl are doing an almost four week road trip in the United States from 12 July to 5 August.

Any US based friends should yell out if they wish to catch up. I’ve detailed the rough itinerary on Facebook.

We’ll be in a 9 metre RV so are pretty flexible with the schedule.

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The new worth of US Presidents

March 3rd, 2013 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Wall Street has an article with the estimated net worth of US Presidents in current dollars. These are the ones that were worth over $50 million.

  1. John F Kennedy $1,000m (family trust)
  2. George Washington $525m
  3. Thomas Jefferson $212m
  4. Theodore Roosevelt $125m
  5. Andrew Jackson $119m
  6. James Madison $101m
  7. Lyndon Johnson $98m
  8. Herbert Hoover $75m
  9. Franklin Roosevelt $60m
  10. John Tyler $51m
  11. Bill Clinton $50m

I wonder what the NZ equivalent list would look like!

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Unlocking smartphones

February 1st, 2013 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

Pat Pilcher writes at NZ Herald:

Every once and a while a law is passed that really gives you pause for thought. One such example is an inexplicable piece of legislation about to come into force in the US that will see smartphone users unlocking their phones with the permission of their mobile service provider running afoul of the law.

This bizarre situation came about because the US government applied the same sort of loopy wisdom that you’d associate with walkshorts, cardigans and the public sector.

In a nutshell they worked out that smartphones could contravene the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Bizarrely this then resulted in laws being drafted so that while it is legal to jailbreak smartphones, it will become illegal to jailbreak tablets and even more annoyingly, illegal to unlock phones without permission from the telco you bought your phone from.

How ridiculous.

Whilst most telcos would argue that there is a solid commercial reason for this legislation, in that they’re wanting to ensure that the cost of a subsidised and heavily discounted handset is recovered from the duration of the customers mobile contract and don’t want the customer exiting their plan prematurely.

If they do, then you may have breach of contract. That is what they do in NZ – you have to pay more to change providers early on if you got a discounted handset. There is absolutely no need to have this as criminal law.

This is almost an abuse of law making powers. It will I am sure be widely ignored.

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Antigua vs US

January 30th, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The United States has warned the tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda not to retaliate against US restrictions on internet gambling by suspending copyrights or patents, a move that would authorise the “theft” of intellectual property like movies and music.

“The United States has urged Antigua to consider solutions that would benefit its broader economy. However, Antigua has repeatedly stymied these negotiations with certain unrealistic demands,” Nkenge Harmon, a spokeswoman for the US Trade Representative’s office, said.

The strong statement came after Antigua said it would suspend US copyrights and patents, an unusual form of retaliation, unless the United States took its demands for compensation more seriously in a ruling Antigua won at the World Trade Organisation.

“The economy of Antigua and Barbuda has been devastated by the United States government’s long campaign to prevent American consumers from gambling on-line with offshore gaming operators,” Antigua’s Finance Minister Harold Lovell said in a statement.

“We once again ask … the United States of America to act in accordance with the WTO’s decisions in this matter.”

Antigua, a former British colony with few natural resources, has knocked heads with the United States since the late 1990s, when it began building an Internet gambling industry to replace jobs in its declining tourist industry.

The gambling sector at its height employed more than 4000 people and was worth more than US$3.4 billion to the country’s economy, but it has shrunk to less than 500 people because of US restrictions, the Antiguan government says.

The United States said it never intended as part of its WTO commitments to allow foreign companies to offer online gambling services. In 2007, it began a formal WTO procedure to withdraw the gambling concession and reached a compensation package with all WTO members, except Antigua.

Antigua argued in a case first brought to the WTO in 2003 that US laws barring the placing of bets across states lines by electronic means violated global trade rules.

It won a partial victory in 2005 when the WTO ruled a US law allowing only domestic companies to provide online horse-race gambling services discriminated against foreign companies.

When the United States failed to change the law, the WTO in 2007 gave Antigua the right to retaliate by waiving intellectual property rights protections on some US$21 million worth of US goods annually, which was far less than the US$3.44 billion the island country requested.

The key thing here is that Antigua won in the WTO. It is hugely disappointing that the US broke the commitments it agreed to, when it joined the WTO. Australia lost the NZ case on apples access, and they have done the right thing and now allowed access. The US should have accepted the WTO ruling. By choosing not to, they owe Antigua compensation.

If the US wants countries to sign trade agreements with them, especially ones with intellectual property requirements in them, then they need to show that they will honour the commitments they agree to. Otherwise there isn’t much incentive for other countries to conclude an agreement.

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US gun views

January 30th, 2013 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

And in my final look at a Gallup poll, it is the issue of guns. They tested the nine proposals put forward by Obama and found each one had majority support – in some cases overwhelming. In order they are:

  1. Require criminal background checks for all gun sales 91%
  2. More spending on youth mental health 82%
  3. Increase training for Police etc on responding to armed attacks 79%
  4. Increase penalties for buying a gun for someone not authorised to own one 75%
  5. $4 billion on 15,000 more police officers 70%
  6. $30 million to help schools develop response plans 69%
  7. Ban armour-piercing bullets except for military and police 67%
  8. Reinstate and strengthen assault weapon ban 60%
  9. Limit sale of ammo mags to 10 rounds or less 54%

Only the first one and the last three are really about gun controls or restrictions. The background checks has huge support. The last three majority support but some significant opposition – 30% or more.

So does this indicate Obama will get it through Congress? Not a lot. Why? Because they do not ask how strongly people feel on an issue. Let’s say 60% are in favour and 30% against. But what will impact politicians is will those 60% in favour change their vote based on how they vote on this issue and will the 30% against change their vote?

And the reality is that those pro gun control feel pretty strongly on it, but are unlikely to vote for a Representative or Senator just because they voted for gun control. However those anti gun control regard it as a deeply personal issue where it is their rights being taken away. They will never vote for you if you vote against them on it.

The same logic applied in NZ on nuclear ships visit. It was possible to get a 50/50 split on the desirability of allowing nuclear powered (not not armed) US ships to visit. However repealing the ban would not gain you a single extra vote while for 5% to 7% of the population (mainly women) it would shift their vote. So a passionate minority can trump a majority.

Also of interest is the partisan split, on the nine issues. The per cent agreement from Democrats and Republicans on each is:

  1. Require criminal background checks for all gun sales 97% and 92%
  2. More spending on youth mental health 93% and 67%
  3. Increase training for Police etc on responding to armed attacks 87% and 71%
  4. Increase penalties for buying a gun for someone not authorised to own one 81% and 75%
  5. $4 billion on 15,000 more police officers 81% and 63%
  6. $30 million to help schools develop response plans 81% and 61%
  7. Ban armour-piercing bullets except for military and police 80% and 49%
  8. Reinstate and strengthen assault weapon ban 80% and 56%
  9. Limit sale of ammo mags to 10 rounds or less 74% and 39%

So of the nine issues, Republicans only really oppose the last one around size of mags.

Also of interest is given a choice of priorities, 65% of Americans said the focus should be on school security and mental health system and 30% on gun laws. So they support the measures but don’t think gun law reform is the priority.

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US views on abortion

January 29th, 2013 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

When I was at the Gallup site, there was quite a few interesting polls on issues. This is their Roe v Wade graph over time.

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Not a lot of change for 25 years of heat. Of course this is not the same as asking views on abortion laws, as you can be pro-choice and think Roe v Wade was a very bad judicial decision (as I do). But they ask on specifics:

  • Abortion legal under any circumstances 28%
  • Abortion illegal in all circumstances 18%
  • Abortion legal under certain circumstances 52%

So in fact only 18% of Americans think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. And while I am pro-choice I’m not sure even I would quite tick the  box legal under any circumstance as I would not support an eight month abortion unless the mother’s survival was an issue. Most Americans are actually in the fairly sensible middle.

So how about when abortions can happen. the results are:

  • 1st trimester 61% say should be legal
  • 2nd trimester 27% say should be legal
  • 3rd trimester 14% say should be legal

I’d be interested in seeing a similar question in NZ. The results might not be vastly different. I can’t imagine a huge number of people would say they support third trimester abortions. I note the official NZ stats indicate only 5% occur after the first trimester and that after 20 weeks, they will only occur if necessary to save life or stop serious permanent injury.

The point I’m trying to make is that while the issue is very political and volatile in the US, I’m not sure the overall opinion on legality is vastly different from NZ.

Finally they ask US respondents if they would call themselves pro-choice or pro-life and it is 48% pro-choice and 44% pro-life. What is interesting is the demographic differences of those who say they are pro-choice. They are:

  • No religion – 80% pro-choice
  • Democrat – 63%
  • Income > $75k – 58%
  • Under 30 – 54%
  • Women 50%
  • Men 47%
  • Catholics 48%
  • Republicans 28%

The small difference between men and women is unexpected (for me).

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Sworn in twice

January 20th, 2013 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Tomorrow Barack Obama gets sworn in for a second term as President of the United States.

43 men have served as President of the United States. Of the 43:

  • Elected twice, served full terms – 12 (including Obama)
  • Elected once, defeated – 8
  • Elected once, died in office – 5
  • Succeeded to office, retired – 4
  • Elected once, retired – 4
  • Succeeded to office, re-elected – 4
  • Elected twice, died in office – 2
  • Elected, defeated, elected – 1
  • Elected four times, died in office – 1
  • Elected twice, resigned – 1
  • Succeeded to office, defeated – 1

Worth noting that many of those who retired after one term, wanted to stand again but failed to gain their party’s nomination. However some were genuine retirements.

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Obama’s gun crackdown

January 17th, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

US President Barack Obama is proposing a new assault weapons ban and mandatory background checks for all gun buyers in a bid to channel national outrage over the Newtown school massacre into the biggest gun-control push in generations.

Personally I have no problem with either of those measures. You don’t need assault weapons for legitimate purposes such as hunting, target practice or even self-defence.

Obama’s plan calls on Congress to renew the prohibition on assault weapons sales that expired in 2004, a requirement for criminal background checks on all gun purchases, including closing a loophole for gun show sales, and a new federal gun trafficking law – long sought by big-city mayors to keep out-of-state guns off their streets.

He also announced 23 steps he intended to take immediately without congressional approval. These include improvements in the existing system for background checks, lifting the ban on federal research into gun violence, putting more counsellors and “resource officers” in schools, and improved access to mental health services.

Again, none of this looks bad to me. However I would note that I doubt any of these measures would have prevented any of the recent mass shootings.

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Obama turns down a death star

January 13th, 2013 at 9:23 am by David Farrar

The White House has a policy of responding to any online petition that gets more than 25,000 signatures. This one got almost 35,000.

Those who sign here petition the United States government to secure funding and resources, and begin construction on a Death Star by 2016.

By focusing our defense resources into a space-superiority platform and weapon system such as a Death Star, the government can spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering, space exploration, and more, and strengthen our national defense.

I would have thought the left would be fully in favour of this, as the ultimate fiscal stimulus. It would create jobs for every American!

The Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget has responded:

The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.

Actually they are working hard to spend more than ever. They could just print some more money to pay for it!

The Administration does not support blowing up planets.

Heh. Not even Pluto which isn’t even a real planet now?

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The fiscal cliff deal passes the Senate

January 2nd, 2013 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The US Senate has passed legislation early New Year’s Day to neutralize a fiscal cliff combination of across-the-board tax increases and spending cuts with a lopsided 89-8 vote.

Senate passage set the stage for a final showdown in the House of Representatives, where a vote was expected later Tuesday or perhaps Wednesday, which raises tax rates on wealthy Americans.

The Senate vote came hours after the White House reached a compromise deal with Senate Republicans.

The spending cuts are delayed just two months. The Republican compromised significantly on the revenue side (as did the Democrats to a degree). The real crunch will be whether the Democrats can agree to reduce some of the spending the Government is unable to pay for.

The Washington Post looks at the winners and losers to date:

Winners

  • Joe Biden – may set him up for 2016
  • Mitch McConnell – saved the Republicans from being blamed for tax increases for everyone
  • Obama – got a deal he can sign

Losers

  • John Boehner – couldn’t get the votes from his own team
  • Obama – his last minute campaign rally alienated votes he needs

The House has yet to vote on the deal, but the massive vote in the Senate suggests it should pass the House fairly comfortable. I’d guess 80% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans may vote for it.

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The fiscal cliff deal

January 1st, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

It looks like there will be an agreement to avoid the so called fiscal cliff. That is good in the short term for Americans, but the deal looks like it will do little to reduce the deficit – which is why such an unpalatable fiscal cliff was designed – to force the President and Congress to make their own steps to reduce the deficit.

AP reports:

The contours of a deal to avert the ‘fiscal cliff’ are emerging early today (NZ time), with Democrats and Republicans agreeing to raise tax rates on family income over US$450,000 a year, increase the estate tax rate and extend unemployment benefits for one year, officials familiar with the negotiations said.

That side of the deal seems like a reasonable compromise on both sides. In reality come 1 January all the Bush tax cuts had expired anyway, so for the Republicans they are no longer voting for any tax increases – they are just voting for what tax cuts to reinstate. There is a significant difference. They can not get the numbers to reinstate all the tax cuts – so the tax side of the compromise seems okay.

But with a midnight deadline rapidly approaching, both sides were at an impasse over whether to put off automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect on January 1, and if so, how to pay for that. Democrats want to put off the cuts for one year and offset the so-called sequester with unspecified revenue.

The Republicans are proposing just a three month deferral of the spending cuts. I think a year delay means they will never get agreement on a sustainable plan to reduce spending, so the US Government can live within its means. They need the pressure of a looming deadline.

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Australia on ANZUS

January 1st, 2013 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Greg Ansley at NZ Herald reports on some interesting Australian views during the US and NZ stand off on nuclear ships.

“Several Nato and Asean countries have said to us that, while disturbed by New Zealand’s policies, they regard the Americans as having over-reacted and as running the risk of creating a ‘laager’ mentality in New Zealand,” it said.

This is basically correct. The NZ policy was wrong, yet the US reaction was over the top.

Canberra did not accept New Zealand’s belief that it was not affected by a global superpower threat and that regional security did not require a nuclear capability.

With more than 40 per cent of its combat ships nuclear-powered – and “almost all would assuredly be nuclear-capable” – the US could not be expected to maintain two navies, one for global security and another for regional stability.

A fair view.

The Cabinet was reminded that the (former) Soviet Union was trying to gain a foothold in the Pacific and had turned New Zealand’s policies to its propaganda advantage.

The USSR was delighted by the anti-nuclear policy. It weakened the western alliance, and gave them hope the West would crumble. As it turned out, it was the USSR which crumbled as it was unable to keep pace with the West.

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Make Your Own Deficit-Reduction Plan

December 29th, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

The Wall Street Journal has a nifty gadget to allow you to work out your own US deficit reduction plan.

In my deficit reduction plan, I have $390 billion increase in tax revenues – but all through reducing deductions – not increasing tax rates.

I leave military expenditure alone, but cut $111b from annually appropriated spending.

I trim $525b from benefits or mandatory entitlements (mainly social security).

In total I reduce the 2020 deficit from $1.1 trillion to a mere $76 billion.

Sadly I project the US will not take meaningful steps to rein in their deficit and debt. They may hit the fiscal cliff, but will then do a deal by the state of the union. And I predict the spending cuts will be incredibly small and insignificant.

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Daniel Inouye

December 20th, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii died earlier this week. He was aged 88, and was planning to run for a tenth Senate term in 2016, when he would have been 92.

In NZ politics, there is a general feeling that your peak political years are the 40s and 50s. Once you make 60, the timer has started and in your 70s you become (in my view) almost unelectable. However in the US it is very different, with many people being elected to office in their 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s.

Inouye had been the President pro tempore of the Senate since 2010. That made him third in line for the presidency after the VP and Speaker of the House. In reality he would never have become President (except in a Tom Clancy novel) as no Speaker has even become President, but it is a weakness in the US succession laws to have the President pro tem in the line of succession  considering the position is always held by the longest serving Senator of the majority party.

Inouye has represented Hawaii in Washington for as long as it has been a state. They became a state in 1959 and he was in the House of Reps from 1959 to 1963 and a Senator since then.

He was a Japanese-American and served in WWII, once the ban on serving was lifted. Like many in Congress, he was seriously wounded and lost his right arm. War heroes do well in elections.

All in all an extraordinary life of service, especially representing the state of Hawaii for its entire existence.

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Gun control in the US

December 16th, 2012 at 7:52 am by David Farrar

When ever there is a mass shooting in the US, there is inevitably a debate on the gun laws in the US. I find the level of ignorance in the debate inevitably high.

Personally I like living in a country where the level of firearm ownership and use is relatively low, and the level of gun related crime is also low.

If you want to debate gun control in the US, you need to understand three things.

  1. The second amendment, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” does mean there are limits to gun control laws, but these limits are less than many realise.
  2. The United States federal government has little role in gun laws. Each state gets to set their own laws. This is the basis of how government was formed in the US.
  3. The level of firearm ownership in the US is so huge, that it is naive to think it could or would ever have levels of ownership down with countries in in Europe.

I say this not to defend US gun culture. I’m not a fan of guns. But if you don’t understand how a political system works, then calls for change are an (understandable) knee-jerk response.

Now taking the 2nd amendment issue first, this clearly places a limit on gun control laws. You can’t just ban private gun ownership. And there is no possibility the 2nd amendment will ever be taken out of the Bill of Rights. Now the 2nd amendment does refer to a well-regulated militia, but courts have ruled that this doesn’t mean that gun ownership is only allowed for members of militias (especially as there are none now), but was allowed for traditional purposes such as self-defence.

The 2nd amendments writers were partially inspired by the English Bill of Rights and the earlier common law.

In terms of the actual law, it is worth noting Connecticut has the 5th toughest gun laws of the 50 states. Specifically:

To buy a gun, Connecticut law requires residents apply for a local permit, typically with the town’s police chief, have their fingerprints taken and submit to a state and federal background check with a 14-day waiting period. To buy a handgun, residents also are required to take a gun safety course.

The state is also one of seven to have an assault weapons ban that specifically lists more than 35 semiautomatic and automatic weapons. It does not appear to cover the .223 caliber rifle used in Friday’s attack.

In terms of the culture, Americans recall that it is only through gun ownership that they won their independence from Britain. Now I agree 200 years on, they don’t need guns with individuals to overthrow a government. But the reality is that this cultural tradition is hugely strong in America, and you are never going to have the US with Europe or NZ style gun laws or levels of gun ownership. It is like wishing for the Easter Bunny.

That is not to say that there are not improvements that can and should be made to the gun laws, especially around automatic weapons. But don’t think for a moment that you will ever have a case where criminals in the US can’t get their hands on lethal firearms.

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27 killed

December 15th, 2012 at 9:11 am by David Farrar

This is terrible, almost beyond belief. The Hartford Courant reports:

Twenty-seven people, including 18 children, have been killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, according to the Associated Press.

The shootings happened in a kindergarden classroom. How insane does someone have to be to shoot kids?

Newtown, Connecticut is a fairly small town of 28,000 people. The impact on them will be beyond belief.

It seems the (now dead) killer, Ryan Adam Lanza, killed his own mother who was one of the teachers, and many of the kids were in her class.

So very very sad.

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The new Blacklist

November 16th, 2012 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

John Fund at National Review writes:

Angela McCaskill was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a school for the deaf and hard of hearing. She has now worked at Gallaudet for over 20 years, and in January 2011 she was named its chief diversity officer. Last year, she helped open a resource center for sexual minorities on campus. But she has now been placed on leave because of pressure from some students and faculty. Her job is on the line.

McCaskill’s sin? She was one of 200,000 people to sign a petition demanding a referendum on a law recognizing gay marriage, which was signed by Maryland’s Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, in March. The referendum will be on the ballot next month, and the vote is expected to be close.

McCaskill’s signature became public when the Washington Blade posted a database online “outing” all those who had signed the petition. Even though her signature indicated only that she wanted the decision on gay marriage to be made by the people and not by the legislature and the governor, her critics declared that it demonstrated “bias.”

Gallaudet University’s president, T. Alan Hurwitz, announced that he was putting McCaskill on paid leave because “some feel it is inappropriate for an individual serving as chief diversity officer” to have signed such a petition. “I will use the extended time while she is on administrative leave to determine the appropriate next steps,” said Hurwitz, “taking into consideration the duties of this position at the university.” Just last year, Hurwitz had praised McCaskill as “a longtime devoted advocate of social justice and equity causes.” But she is apparently not allowed to have private political views

That’s pretty appalling. Her saying this is a matter that should be put to a referendum does not impact her job at all.

One should debate those with opposing views – not try to get them closed down or sacked.

Similarly, Los Angeles Film Festival director Richard Raddon was forced to step down after it was revealed that he had donated $1,500 to “Yes on 8.” The festival’s organizer put out a statement saying, “Our organization does not police the personal, religious or political choices of any employee, member or filmmaker.” Behind the scenes, however, many of the festival’s board members pressured Mr. Raddon to resign. “From now on, no one in entertainment will feel safe making a donation as measly as $100 to a conservative defense-of-marriage campaign,” mourned Brent Bozell, head of the conservative Media Research Center.

Nor is the modern-day blacklist confined to the entertainment industry. Marjorie Christoffersen, manager of the famous Los Angeles restaurant El Coyote, resigned after El Coyote was subjected to a month of boycotts and demonstrations because she had contributed $100 to the campaign against gay marriage. Christoffersen, who had been with El Coyote for 26 years, insisted her stance had nothing to do with prejudice against gays, but rather was rooted in her Mormon faith. That didn’t impress the blacklisters. Fellow employees at El Coyote vouched for her kindness to gay employees, including personally paying for the mother of an employee who had died of AIDS to fly to Los Angeles to attend his funeral. That didn’t matter either. And neither did the fact that El Coyote sent $10,000 to gay groups to “make up” for Ms. Christoffersen’s contribution. The boycott continued, and the slowdown in business forced Ms. Christoffersen to leave.

It’s like boycotting the Mad Butcher because he said some nice things about John Key. Targeting people, and the business they work for, just because they made a donation to a cause you don’t approve of is not healthy.

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More US gerrymandering

November 14th, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

I blogged previously on some boundary gerrymandering in Pennsylvania by the Republicans. To make it clear both parties gerrymander equally enthusiastically, here’s a good article on what the Democrats did in California:

This spring, a group of California Democrats gathered at a modern, airy office building just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The meeting was House members only — no aides allowed — and the mission was seemingly impossible.

In previous years, the party had used its perennial control of California’s state Legislature to draw district maps that protected Democratic incumbents. But in 2010, California voters put redistricting in the hands of a citizens’ commission where decisions would be guided by public testimony and open debate.

So how to gerrymander the boundaries when you no longer have direct control?

The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players. To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests.

When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party. One woman who purported to represent the Asian community of the San Gabriel Valley was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho, and lives in Sacramento.

A bit like being a struggling desperate home owner, who happens to be the Labour Party Vice-President!

California’s Democratic representatives got much of what they wanted from the 2010 redistricting cycle, especially in the northern part of the state. “Every member of the Northern California Democratic Caucus has a ticket back to DC,” said one enthusiastic memo written as the process was winding down. “This is a huge accomplishment that should be celebrated by advocates throughout the region.”

Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party’s voter registrations have grown only marginally.

A very nice bonus.

The losers in this once-a-decade reshaping of the electoral map, experts say, were the state’s voters. The intent of the citizens’ commission was to directly link a lawmaker’s political fate to the will of his or her constituents. But as ProPublica’s review makes clear, Democratic incumbents are once again insulated from the will of the electorate.

They want insulation – they need a party list!

Read the full article – it is lengthy, but fascinating.

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The 237th Marine Corps Ball

November 12th, 2012 at 4:09 pm by David Farrar

I was very fortunate to be a guest of the United States Marine Corps for their birthday ball last weekend. It was held in the Amora Hotel Ballroom, and was a great night. They had a video presentation on the history of the Marine Corps, and various speeches as part of an interesting formal ceremony. Then after that the dinner and the dancing.

In the booklet we were given, they had some quotes from or about the Marine Corps over time. Some of my favourites are:

The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps! – Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States, 1945

Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don’t have that problem. 
Ronald Reagan, President of the United States; 1985

“Sometimes it is entirely appropriate to kill a fly with a sledge-hammer!” – MAJ. HOLDREDGE 

“Retreat Hell! We’re just attacking in another direction.” (Attributed to Major General Oliver P. Smith, USMC, Korea, December 1950.)

WARRIORS BY DAY, LOVERS BY NIGHT, PROFESSIONALS BY CHOICE, AND MARINES BY THE GRACE OF GOD.

The girls at my table like the last quote especially :-)

Melissa Lee with Major General Ron Bailey, the commander of the Marines 1st Division. I’ve never seen a Major General dance Gangum Style before. We told Melissa that we expected her to be very proficient at it, as she is Korean :-)

The US and Marine flags.

Cutting the cake!

Jordan and Stephanie having fun.

But not as much fun as these girls – that photo could have gone terribly wrong :-)

Everywhere they are doing Gangnam Style!

Oh yeah, I couldn’t resist a photo with Glee Girl either.

Many thanks to the Marines and the US Embassy for a great night. Lots of fun, and great to support a fine institution. Semper Fi.

All the photos are from the US Embassy Flickr account.

Best dancer of the night was clearly Dr Duane McWaine!

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Electoral boundaries

November 8th, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

I’m glad that in NZ electoral boundaries are drawn up by the Representation Commission, which is primarily neutral officials.

Thomas Lumley at Stats Chat notes:

 Article II, Section 16 of the Pennsylvania Constitution says that the Commonwealth’s 50 senatorial districts and 203 representative districts “shall be composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable.” It also says that “Unless absolutely necessary, no county, city, incorporated town, borough township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.”   

Now after reading that have a look at District 7 and especially District 12!

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