September 2008


With the 2008 Presidential campaign racing at Formula 1 speed and the current financial crisis at space shuttle speed, I think it’s time to review a book that I read over the summer, titled Where Does the Money Go?

Where Does the Money Go? is a layman’s guide to the US Federal budget by the non-profit, non-partisan group Public Agenda.   Now, I am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t know much about the federal budget before I picked up this book.  This book, though, made me realize that not only did I know nothing at all, but I truly believe that most people who speak in words of “entitlements” and “appropriations” and “government waste, fraud, and abuse” don’t really know what they are talking about, either.

In plain language, the authors carefully step through the government spreadsheets, explaining what each type of expenditure means to the average American and raising the issues and controversies surrounding the financing or elimination of the major government programs.  Some things that I learned:

Social Security, Medicare, and the Gigantic Pickle We are In

Together, Social Security and Medicare are a big problem.  No, I don’t think I stated that accurately enough.

Social Security and Medicare are a BIG PROBLEM!!!

First, because, today, they combine to make up about 30% of the budget.  Second, because they are entitlement programs as opposed to needs-based programs – you reach a certain age, you automatically get the money.  No questions asked.  It doesn’t matter how much money you already have in your personal coffers or how long you have been paying into the system; you get a check from Uncle Sam anyway.  Third, because the Baby Boomers (the largest generational population) are coming of age, average life-expectancy has risen, more medical care is needed as people age, and medicine in general is getting more sophisticated and expensive. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going.

Currently, there is a collection surplus to pay for all those drawing Social Security (due in large part because the majority of Boomers are still in the workforce). The real problem is that the surplus is supposed to go into a separate account so that there is money for the rest of us when we need it. However, for the last 4 decades, the government has borrowed from this SS fund to pay for government overruns. “Borrow” typically implies that someone will end up paying this all back. Not so. The government has been using the SS surpluses as part of general operating funds for the better part of 40 years. The SS fund, in large part, has been paying for our excesses.

It occurred to me this way – Gens X and Y are screwed. I will likely pay increased taxes into a system that I will likely see little benefit from.  At the same time, I will be saving and investing money into retirement accounts that I have (cross my fingers) diversified enough so that the money will grow large enough to live on, but be protected enough in case the kinds of major investment emergencies we have seen lately come to pass again as I inch closer to retirement (home prices falling, my 401K losing 21% of its value, as of this writing).   I will likely delay my own retirement until well into my 70’s, perhaps my 80’s, to be able to support myself.

In a strange twist, immigration could help us with this Social Security crisis. New workers coming in and having their wages taxed would infuse a “false generation” into the mix.  But immigration is even more controversial than SS, and it won’t solve all of the problems. A solution must be found and soon!

The Appropriated War on Terror

The current War on Terror is not being funded by the federal budget, but by appropriations.  Therefore, it doesn’t even show up in the general budget as a line item or category.  Appropriations and spending are generally tracked by the Government Accountability Office, but even they have a hard time following the many breadcrumbs that can give them a clue into how much we have actually spent in Iraq and Afganistan.  If we are so committed to the Global War on Terror, we’d better be truthful with how we plan to allocate money for this — or stated more bluntly, what we have to cut in order to pay for this.

The Old Waste, Fraud, and Abuse Lie

And we can’t “eliminate government waste, fraud, and abuse” our way out of this, either.  Working at a government agency, I see some waste, no fraud, and very little abuse.  The waste and abuse that I have seen, and that has been widely reported in the news media, amounts to tens of thousands of dollars – bad yes, but a drop in our $2.2B annual bucket.  Most of the people I work with take their jobs seriously and care about taxpayers money.  They talk openly about it in meetings and such.  It is often the rally cry for some mucky-muck who is trying to kill another mucky-muck’s pet project, so we hear about “safeguarding the taxpayer’s money” a lot.

If my experience is true across most government agencies, then I feel secure in the authors’ assertion that there simply isn’t enough waste, fraud and abuse committed within government agencies to make up the annual deficit, much less the $9T-and-counting debt.  Counting money in the thousands at this level is like losing pennies in the washing machine.  Yeah, if you collected enough of those pennies, you could probably buy yourself a nice cup of coffee over time, but you’re not going to save enough spare change to buy yourself a house on the coast or a nice 30-year retirement.

This week’s news of a potential $1T bailout of the financial markets is a much more disturbing development in the waste-and-abuse argument, in my opinion.

No Free Lunch

As you hear things throughout this campaign about fiscal reform, about how the candidates are going to expand or start new programs to help people with their credit or mortgage problems, bail out corporate giants so that the entire global economy doesn’t collapse, take care of our seniors (and eventually ourselves) by securing Social Security and Medicare, protect pensions, stay in Iraq, consider military action on Country Di Jour, etc., while simultaneously cutting taxes, be very afraid.

Basic checkbook balancing principles are in play, here.  If you don’t have enough income and you have bills to pay, your choices are to:

1. cut back on spending
2. earn more income
3. borrow money from lenders at interest

That’s it.  Don’t be duped into thinking we can heal the federal budget by cutting, say, the National Endowment for the Arts ($300M) or NASA ($20B) or by cleaning up your favorite wasteful government agency.  With an income of $2.66T, expenditures of $3T, and a debt approaching $10T, we are up a creek if taxes (in one form or another) are not raised.

In a nutshell, buy this book and read it before election day.  It is an easy read, it brings up issues that you probably haven’t thought of, and will expand your knowledge of the most basic and most primal government power so that you can follow the discussion and know when a public official’s idea is full of crap.

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For the last couple of days, I have been in the middle of writing two different posts. And as with most multi-tasking efforts, two posts take twice as long to write. But I’m breaking in with a different post today to refocus on something that personally affected me last night.

Brent and I went to see Arianna Huffington speak last night at the Lensic. When you buy tickets to see Arianna Huffington speak at the Lensic in Santa Fe, you know what you are going to get – a fire and brimstone sermon to the faithful. However, for me her speech was like a refocusing of the end goal; a coach pumping up her football team during halftime.

We all know that the goal is to win, but she reminded me that the costs of losing are so much more dire than just simply not winning. Losing this election and entering into additional years where the people – The People – have no voice in the type of political system that is imposed upon them is dire not just for our own liberties, but risks the further loosening of the foundational blocks that made this country so great for those that came before us. What legal professionals call “precedent-setting.” The systematic disintegration of the Constitution can be permanent if we do not act to stop this.

Therefore, today I make this pledge:

1. I will talk about the issues, and leave the petty stuff to People Magazine.

I will no longer talk about the candidate’s personal lives, their ages, their genders, their races, their hair color, or their pregnant daughters. I will no longer talk about how elitist someone is or how militant they come across, how many houses that they own or whether their wives are financing their election. Instead, I will talk about the issues. I will talk about what they say they will do, what they have said in the past that they would do, and how those things are and are not consistent. And I will talk about their experience and character, because those are also important indicators to their ability and track record of saying what they do and doing what they say.

2. I will criticize the media for showing both sides of an issue, yet not questioning the validity of the statements from the people who state them.

Journalists should be the watchdogs of history. They are in the best position to say when someone is rewriting one’s own history and rhetoric because they have the tapes.  As a country, we should have never gotten into a discussion about whether or not W had a war with Iraq on his agenda before 9/11 because we had the tapes of the second debate in 2000 where he said he was going to invade Iraq.

As a country, we should never get away with letting John McCain say “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” and then allow him to define “fundamentals” as “the American workers” when (A) we all know that that’s not what he originally meant, otherwise he would have said “workers” instead of “fundamentals” and (B) the workers of America cannot be “fundamentally strong” when the businesses that they work for are collapsing under the weight of an over-burdened and over-extended economy. We need both jobs and people to fill those jobs in order for the US economy to compete on a global level, much less aim for strong.

As a country, we should not allow Barack Obama to say that the surge in Iraq succeeded “beyond our wildest dreams” when the point of the surge was to calm violence long enough for the Iraqi government to stand up, get their bearings about them, and start controlling the violence themselves with their own government and their own police forces at the helm. This did not happen. Therefore, the surge in Iraq was a miserable failure. The media should be stating as much and reminding the American people X number of US soldiers have died and Xbillion dollars have been wasted since the surge was set in motion for a goal that never came to pass.

3. I will no longer entertain thoughts from friends, family, and strangers that voting for a 3rd party candidate is even an option in this election.

In 2000, Ralph Nader was blamed for “stealing” votes from Al Gore, which would have given Gore a clean win. At the time, 3rd party voting was our way of publicly protesting. “One vote doesn’t matter that much anyhow, and I’m pissed at the choices the top two parties have given me. I’ll show them.”

We are past this now. We know better. One of these two guys is going to win. Accept it. You have an option to throw your hat in for one of them. If you don’t like either of them and are officially “Undecided,” then do your civic duty. Research their platforms and plans on the top three issues that are most important to you, and decide based on whose plan you can stomach the most. Then vote for that person. A vote for a 3rd party candidate in THIS election is a vote to hand over your responsibility for the direction of this country to the rest of the voting public. Stop being a martyr and decide who you want more than the other. It is too important.

4. I will no longer have this blog hidden from the search engines.

Today, I admit that I kept this forum off of the search engines out of fear – fear that people won’t like what I have to say, fear that someone will harass me for my words, fear that I will say the wrong things and offend someone that I had no intention of offending. However, I have come to realize that I learn from other people who often say the wrong things and then have to think about, apologize for, and revise what they say. They learn to be more precise with their words and they learn to think more critically about a subject before spouting off about it.

I am taking a stand that opening myself up to the world and having strangers read my thoughts is less scary than the possibility of my voice not being heard – suppressing the possibility of changing someone’s mind about a topic and stifling the opportunity for intelligent discussion.

It’s been two days and I am still pissed off at Sarah Palin.  So when I found this story about the rehabilitation of Michael Vick’s fighting dogs (all of them pit bulls) at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah (one example of community organization), I couldn’t help but notice the absurd division of political rhetoric from reality.  Palin’s self-styled “Pit Bull with Lipstick” doesn’t quite fit in this context.  Pit bulls are too honorable and more redeemable than Sarah Palin.

On the other hand, maybe Vick’s dogs can be an example for Sarah.  Maybe with a little patience and kindness, and some dog treats and toys and a few scratches behind her ears, Sarah Palin can reconnect with her true pit bull nature and stop attacking citizen-led organizations that are accomplishing the things of which elected officials are incapable.

So, Sarah, with all due respect afforded to someone of such high position and stature — bite me.

I just got finished watching Sarah Palin’s speech at the RNC convention and the following is my visceral reaction (with limited editing).

“Community Organizing” v. “Executive Experience”

She seethed at the prospect that running a town as a mayor and running a state as governor was somehow better or more responsibility-laden than being a “community organizer.”

Coming from a “community organizing” background, I know a little bit about this topic. Community organizing is not about ordering people around, telling them what to do.  Laying down directives and threatening people with their jobs if they don’t do what she says.

Community organizing is about inspiring people to uplift themselves.  Finding a way to collaborate with people to get work done.  Community organizing is just that – ORGANIZING! – which entails working with people from diverse backgrounds and different attitudes, raising money from the people who have it and putting it to good use to solve the problems in the community, no matter the size or nature of that community.

Clearly, Governor Palin, within the borders of her small and insulated state, has absolutely no idea what “working with other people” actually means.  I was not wrong before when I criticized her inexperience as a small town mayor and small state governor.  This woman has never faced any REAL problems within her administrations that posed impossible answers to very difficult questions.  Her state is small and homogenous, and it is a lot easier to get an 88% approval rating in a state where everyone thinks the same way than it is when you have large populations of different ethnicities and backgrounds, dealing with gender issues and racial issues and immigration and poverty and hunger and violence and crime.  To the likes of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin, every problem is a nail because all they have in the toolbox is a sledgehammer.

There is more to fighting for your country than fighting it on a battlefield.  If you are willing to put your life on the line, then you should also be willing to put your ass on the line and help get your country back on track by helping your community get back on track.  If you are willing to fight for the safety and security of this country, then you’d better fight to make sure that captured terrorists are treated appropriately and humanely under, at the very least, the terms of the Geneva Convention.  If you are so secure in your position and your character, and you seek public office, then you should not be afraid of a diverse media digging around in your past and challenging you on your record.

How dare these people talk about tax cuts and then cut public funding to the local homeless shelter or domestic violence center.  How dare these people talk about character and then essentially spit at the feet of those who are trying to actually effect change – not just fear the neighborhoods and retreat to their gated communities and suburbs.   How dare they talk about God on Sunday mornings in churches across this land, and then sneer at community organizers who are actually doing something to uplift the poor and the meek that Jesus Christ talked about in the New Testament.  And how dare these people claim to love this country, yet are willing to dig the United States Constitution into the mud (along with our national reputation as the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free) with this line of “terrorists are waiting to attack America, and our opponent is worried that they aren’t being read their rights.” (Probably not a direct quote, but I don’t have a transcript in front of me.)

Hypocrites.  Every last damned one of them.

Sarah Palin is now the poster child for what has been wrong in this country for the past 8 years.  Leadership that is more about power and control than it is about selfless service to the nation.  She has inspired something in me that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were not able to accomplish.  Tomorrow, I am going to contact the Obama for New Mexico campaign and volunteer to my dying breath to make sure that this woman never sees any more of the White House than what any common tourist could see from a White House tour.

She and her lot are a danger to this country and I am not going to just sit on my ass and bitch about it on a blog.

The Democratic National Convention was last week, as was the announcement of John McCain’s female (not “woman”) Veep candidate.  We just passed the 88th year “since the 19th amendment struck down that restrictive rule,”  so I thought it appropriate to conduct a Week in Review of the three major female news makers of last week.

Michelle Obama

The DNC convention began with a controlled and groomed speech by Michelle Obama.  She was smart.  She was adoring of her husband.  She was a devoted family woman.  She performed as she was trained to.  However, because of her over-scripted performance, I really felt like something in her personality was lacking.

Then I read a blog post that summarized for me what I couldn’t quite express about Mrs. Obama’s speech: “We want the spouses of our Presidents to be smart, but not too smart.  Passionate, but not too passionate.  And to have opinions but not come across as opinionated.”  I, too, felt there was something of an emptiness in her words or delivery that seemed just a bit too “pleasing” and not entirely genuine.  This is how the game is played, however, and I guess she needed to play it safe.

By the way, cute outfit, but did anyone notice her traps?  Holy lord!  That woman works out!

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton

I have to admit.  I’m a Hillary Clinton fan, but I would not necessarily have voted for her because there were other candidates she was competing against whose politics I related with more (particularly concerning the War to Nowhere).  After the video tribute introducing her to the stage, however, a slow burn came over me.

Damn it!

The country and, later Barack Obama, made a huge mistake by not putting her name on the ticket.  I stayed mad for days – well, at least until I Obama’s speech Thursday night.  Hillary Clinton was the best hope to get a Vagina-American into the White House.  So frustrating. So disappointing. So close. . .

Governor Sarah Palin

I awoke Friday morning to the anticipatory drone of Veep buzz.  An early report that someone name Sarah Palin was going to be McCain’s choice. Apparently, I am not alone in not having a clue who she is – the news media seemed baffled and scrambled to wikpedia and the Anchorage Daily News to explain this unusual choice.

The first thing I felt at the announcement of Gov. Palin’s selection for McCain’s VP was panic.  The Republicans did what the Democrats failed to do.  Hillary supporters now have an iron-clad reason to vote for McCain.

Then I stopped.  I started researching Gov. Palin and found the following facts:

  • She is a 20-month governor of Alaska – a state with 670,053 people.  In comparison, New Mexico has almost 2 million and the greater Sacramento area has approximately 2.1 million.
  • 2 years ago, she was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population 8,471.
  • She supports gun rights.
  • She is against a woman’s right to choose.
  • She believes that global warming is not a man-made phenomenon.
  • She is for more domestic oil drilling, particularly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Now, the last four bullets are typically conservative.  Little shock there.  But when I look at the first two points on her resume – the less-then-half-term Governor of a state smaller in population than most major US cities and mayor of a very small town – I wonder what McCain is thinking.  Surely, Gov. Palin has not encountered the kind of major decisions that most elected officials grapple with daily, and her simple lack of time on the job makes me wonder what she could possibly bring to a VP position.

With all of the Republican women that McCain could have chosen from (Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Sen. Olympia Snowe, etc.), why Gov. Palin?  With all due respect to Gov. Palin, who I am sure is a very strong and capable woman, the last thing women need is some old man throwing a token female into the Second Most Powerful Position in the Country who is not qualified for the job and has a higher probability of failure should he die in office and she become the President.

So let’s see.  Pick an unqualified woman for the role, ignore all of the other possible female choices, and put her into a position with a high likelihood of disaster (i.e. setting her up for failure).  The only conclusion to make is that McCain thinks that we women (and most especially Hillary voters) will vote for anyone with a woman on the ticket regardless of her beliefs or experience.  And that, my friends, is an insult.

Good for Sarah Palin.  She is living the quintessential definition of having a “meteoric rise” to success. But shame on John McCain (A) for throwing away his opportunity to have a qualified Republican woman at his side, and (B) for thinking that “an ol’ woman will do” when it comes to luring away voters for Sen. Clinton.  It just demonstrates what little respect he actually has for women in this country.