Sunday, July 31, 2011


I've always wanted to say that.

Actually, there is important breaking news to report: Senator Mitch McConnell says that both sides are "very close" to a deal on the debt crisis. Unless, of course, they're not ... as recent history shows that when one side claims progress on a resolution of the crisis, the other side immediately denies it.


So, there may be a resolution of the crisis, or there may not. If there is a resolution, chances are that it will be one which will just prolong the agony so that we can have the sheer joy of watching this ludicrous circus play itself out yet again in a few months. Therefore, I'm not going to get excited just yet. And, of course, as Fareed Zakaria eloquently points out, the damage to the nation and its reputation has already been done, regardless of what our inept elected reprehensives do at this point.

But just to lighten things up a little...

My friend Ed (that would be Ed the attorney, not Ed the professor emeritus of microbiology) shared this wonderful piece on his Facebook page the other day. We don't normally think of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal as a source of funny stuff, and there's a reason we have the old expression, "sober as a judge," but the ABA journal recently published a comment from Judge Martin Sheehan of Covington, Kentucky, who was pleased that the parties to a lawsuit had agreed to settle out of court. Judge Sheehan said that the settlement

“...made this court happier than a tick on a fat dog because it is otherwise busier than a one legged cat in a sandbox and, quite frankly, would have rather jumped naked off of a 12-foot stepladder into a five-gallon bucket of porcupines than have presided over a two-week trial of the dispute herein, a trial, which no doubt, would have made the jury more confused than a hungry baby in a topless bar and made the parties and their attorneys madder than mosquitoes in a mannequin factory.”

The judge is said to enjoy spiking his comments with interesting quotations ranging from "Shakespeare to Pink Floyd." I think I'd like him.

And that's all for today. Let's come back tomorrow and see if we still have an economy. And jobs. And a country whose legislature isn't a laughingstock.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cartoon Saturday

With three days to go before the United States government runs out of money and goes into default on its debts, House Republicans united long enough to pass a useless plan to end the impasse over raising the nation's debt ceiling ... knowing that it had no chance of being approved by the Senate; a 10-year-old Arizona girl suffocated after members of her family locked her in a box outside her family's house; labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa disappeared on this date in 1975, and his body has never been found; Congressional buffoonery in the debt crisis has led to the worst week on Wall Street in more than a year; and in Libya, a key leader of the rebels fighting the forces of He Who Shall Not Be Spelled was assassinated by his own troops (he probably knows what it feels like to be John Boehner).

Just another week that makes you yearn for the release of Cartoon Saturday.

While Agnes and I both love to cook, we also enjoy eating out. Here are a few riffs on the theme of fancy restaurants to lead off this week's collection ...


And you know you're in a really fancy restaurant when ...

Sometimes, though, you don't want to go out for dinner, but you don't want to cook, either. This can lead to its own problems, as Yoda discovers in this cartoon ...

Two cartoons riffing on the theme of cranky old farts, of which one I am, hmmm (imagine the Yoda inflection there) ...

Why we shouldn't let children watch too much television ... and why people who write commercials for certain products should find a new line of work ...

Life in the information age ...

Those evenings under the stars just aren't quite the same any more, are they ...?

And finally, sometimes you just can't win ...

And so ends another week here in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac. I'm planning to enjoy the weekend, since I may not have a job after Congress brings down the economy on Tuesday ...

But don't worry ... you have the 2012 elections to look forward to, when you can elect a whole new group of useless buffoons to replace the ones we have now. Lovely thought, isn't it?

Have a good day and a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Awful Puns, Related Trivia, Political Rants, and Some Good Ideas

Mike has been on a roll lately, having found an evidently bottomless well of hideous puns. If you haven't had the opportunity to groan in agony over them, you can do so here and here. Come back when you're done throwing up.

Back again? Good, because why should Mike have all the fun? I was going to save this horrible pun for tomorrow's Cartoon Saturday, but I figured we all needed something besides Congress to groan at this morning:

Now, Dear Readers, it occurs to me that some of you may not be of an age to understand just how horrible this pun is. For you (and for me, because it's one of my favorites), here is the reference ...

You may also recall our discussion of Zip Codes from earlier this month, which will help you make sense of the part of the lyrics which goes,

Return to sender, address unknown.
No such person, no such zone.

Postal zones, of course, being the precursors of Zip Codes, which were what we used before we had Zip+4. Which you knew if you read my earlier post.

Okay, enough of all that.

I just can't let a day go by without the political rant you've come to expect. Here are two great cartoons that need no further explanation ...


Finally, here's an article that is well worth your reading as Congress lets the economy spiral down the drain: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans.

That's all. Have a good day. Come back tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday. More thoughts then.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Something Else to Worry About

Well, it looks as if there's pretty much no chance of Congress pulling its head out of its rigidly political backside and coming up with a plan to solve the immediate budget crisis, so there's not much point in castigating them any more. I'm just in absolute awe of people who can look into the camera with a straight face and tell me what the American People want. The American People want you to do your damn jobs and fix the immediate crisis so you can move on to what we really want - jobs and a measure of economic and health security.

Can you hear the echo back from the intellectually and morally empty Congressional canyon?

Okay, so it doesn't do any good to bitch about our useless Congress any more. In any case, there are worse things to worry about, believe it or not. Read on ...

I'm about 75% of the way through a fascinating and frightening book titled Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, by Spencer Wells. If anything could make me feel more queasy than the Congressional circus, it's this.

Mr Wells' basic thesis - if I may be allowed some gross oversimplification in the interest of brevity - is that the vast majority of the problems we face today (epidemic disease, overcrowding, global warming, government, obesity, and mental illness, among others) are the result of a single decision made many thousands of years ago: the decision to change from a semi-nomadic hunting-gathering lifestyle to one based on agriculture and the breeding of animals for food. Although I am certain that there are many scientists (and many, many conservative Republicans) who will poo-pooh the ideas in this book (especially the concept of shared human responsibility for global warming), I found Mr Wells' ideas logical, compelling, and well-researched.

The bottom line: the things we do today in the interest of making life better and solving immediate problems may have unintended consequences that may not manifest themselves for decades, if not centuries or millenia. Read the book and get worried. As if you needed something else to worry about today.

On a somewhat more entertaining front, the winners of the 2011 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced. The Bulwer-Lytton Contest, of course, celebrates the sort of terrible writing popularized by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of the famous opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night..."), and each year generates some wonderful howlers. You can read the major results at the link above, but to whet your appetite, here is the winner of the 2011 prize:

"Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories." (submitted by Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, Wisconsin)

And the vanes of my mind continue to turn, moved by the hot wind blowing from the uncivil and ill-informed arguments on Capitol Hill.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - getting back to Pandora's Seed for a moment, I wonder if the mass extinction of certain large animals ... like the GOP elephant (politicus intransigentius) ... might not be a good thing. Hmmm...


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Department of Foreign Affairs

One of the most difficult jobs in the world today must be that of United States Ambassador to (insert name of country here). Your days would be filled with having to explain to incredulous audiences in your country of assignment why the government you represent is acting like a three-ring circus, except not in an entertaining way. You would have to smile and explain that this is just the give and take of representative, democratic government, and that the President and the 535 buffoons at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue really aren't hell-bent on wrecking the country, deliberately ruining its economy and reputation, and making it look like Freedonia to the rest of the world.

That's one reason I'm not looking forward to our trip to Germany next month for Agnes's class reunion ... having to explain the slow-motion train wreck of our government to truly puzzled people who used to look up to us.

But let's get back to those poor, credentialed Ambassadors out there trying to represent the U.S. of A. They'll probably be trying to take some time out of their busy days to celebrate the birthday of what we know today as the Department of State.

Yes, Dear Readers, the State Department was was created on this date in 1789 when President George Washington signed a law establishing the United States Department of Foreign Affairs, making it the first federal agency created under the newly-adopted Constitution. The Department of Foreign Affairs had evolved from the previous Committee of Secret Correspondence, which was headed up by that acknowledged master of foreign affairs (wink, nudge), Benjamin Franklin.

At the time, the capitol of the United States was located in New York, and Congress was carrying out its business (they actually used to do that, you know) in New York City Hall. The Department of Foreign Affairs was headquartered at Fraunces Tavern, on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, where the Treasury and War departments were also located. The Secretary of Foreign Affairs was given "the custody and charge of all records, books, and papers" of the government - essentially making him the archivist of the United States as well. In September 1789, the department was assigned additional duties and renamed the Department of State.

President Washington named Thomas Jefferson, who had been representing the United States in Paris, as the first Secretary of State. By the time Jefferson was able to return from Paris to take up his new job (in March, 1790), the State Department had moved to a new location in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ... unless there happened to be a yellow fever epidemic, in which case the department operated out of Trenton, New Jersey.

Did you follow all that?

Today, the State Department is headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton, employs tens of thousands of people, and has embassies and/or consulates in every country except North Korea, Cuba, Bhutan, Iran, and Taiwan (to avoid irritating the somewhat larger China to the west). You can see a full list of U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions here, and learn everything you wanted to know about the State Department here.

So, sail on, oh ship of state! Happy birthday! Enjoy all those foreign affairs, ha, ha. And good luck with explaining to the rest of the world why they should respect us when the government you represent looks like something out of ... well ...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Hi, I'm Collateral Damage!

I had a half-hour to waste last night, so I decided to watch the dueling speeches from President Obama and House Speaker Boehner outlining their respective positions on continuing the destruction of the nation's economy and reputation.

I believe Mr Obama won on points, but neither man gave me much hope for a satisfactory outcome of the current standoff.

Mr Obama's address was presidential in tone and hit all his talking points. He laid out the history of how we got to the problem we face today, acknowledged the blame of both sides, called for shared sacrifice, mentioned "corporate jet owners and oil companies," and lamented the fact that we live in a time when compromise has become a dirty word. He warned that "We can't allow Americans to become collateral damage to Washington's political warfare." I also liked his lines about "the same partisan three-ring circus here in Washington," and his contention that Americans had voted for "divided, not dysfunctional government."

Mr Boehner also hit all the standard Republican talking points. He referred to taxes as "job-killing," blamed "Washington" for the nation's ills, rather than accepting any specifically Republican shared responsibility, chanted the Republican mantra - "That is just not going to happen," and blamed the President's failure to accept Republican terms for the problem.

Here's one look at where the debt problem as come from ... it's a chart from The Atlantic Monthly, based on data from the Congressional Budget Office and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

You may also want to read this interesting editorial from The New York Times: How the Deficit Got This Big.

Yes, Dear Readers, you and I have become collateral damage in the childish and irresponsible standoff between our political parties. But take heart! You may lose your job, your health care, and your standard of living, but if you just wait long enough, the effects of tax breaks enjoyed by corporations and the wealthy will eventually trickle down and make things rosy for you.

Less than a week to go before the government default deadline. The damage to our national reputation has already been done. The complete moral and intellectual bankruptcy of our political parties is on display under bright lights. It's government by sound bite instead of sound logic.

That's all I have to say for the moment. I have to get ready to go to work. At least, unlike so many Americans, I still have a job, at least for the next year - I was notified yesterday that my position was not one of the ones cut in the most recent round of reductions to my contract.

We may be regrettable collateral damage to ass clowns like Grover Norquist and our elected reprehensives, but we're Americans who have a right to expect good government. Too bad we're not getting it, and aren't likely to get it any time soon.

To paraphrase a grouchy old Lieutenant Colonel I knew years ago, the only difference between this circus and the Ringling Brothers' circus is that in the Ringling Brothers' circus, all the clowns are smiling.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Dot-Dash-Dot-LOL, IMHO

There's no point in ranting about Congress any more, so I'm going to leave it for today. I couldn't do a better job of making our elected reprehensives look bad than they're doing on their own.

Instead, let's take another trip down Today in History Lane: it was on this date in 1837 that British inventors Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone demonstrated the first commercially viable electric telegraph.

The idea of using fast-moving electricity for communication had long been recognized, but it was considered impractical because the technology was dependent on ideal weather conditions, too easily disrupted by natural phenomena, and didn't have sufficient range. Some ideas actually worked, but weren't practical, including a complicated device that used a separate wire submerged in a glass tube filled with acid to receive each letter of the alphabet and each numeral (that's 36 separate tubes, in case you were counting). The person receiving the message had to watch the tubes and record the letters as the acid in the appropriate tube bubbled from the electrical stimulation. Another design worked over longer distances, but it could only transmit two letters per minute - a bit slow for rapid communication.

The telegraph system designed by Messrs Cooke and Wheatstone used six wires connected to five needles, which pointed to letters engraved on a plate. They first demonstrated it successfully on this date in 1837, sending a message between Euston and Camden Town in London - a distance of 2.027 kilometers (about 1.26 miles). Two years later, the Great Western Railway installed the system over a 13-mile stretch from Paddington Station to West Drayton. Six years after that, Cooke and Wheatstone's electrical telegraph was used by police to help catch a murderer who had escaped on a train ... they telegraphed information about the fugitive down the line, enabling the distant police to arrest him when he left the train at his destination.

The telegraph became truly viable for long-distance communication with the invention by Samuel F. B. Morse of the code that bears his name. Morse Code used combinations of long and short electrical pulses transmitted by an operator who tapped out the dots and dashes using a key ...

The telegraph, which required wires to transmit signals, eventually yielded to practical wireless communication with the work of Guglielmo Marconi ... you can read an interesting and exciting tale of Marconi's work and how his wireless system helped catch the fleeing murderer Dr H. H. Crippen in Erik Larson's story Thunderstruck.

Today, of course, we don't need telegraphs, Morse Code, or even Marconi's wireless. We have Blackberries, Wi-Fi, 3G, 3GS, 4G, and SMS. Instead of communicating across the miles on overhead wires with combinations of dots and dashes, we communicate across the table with text messages on smart phones.

IMHO, that's for the birds ... who, by the way, were the ones who actually invented tweeting.

And that's all for today. Perhaps a miracle may happen and members of Congress will actually communicate with each other, whether by telegram, telephone, SMS, wireless, smoke signals, or whatever ...

But I'm not holding my breath, and neither should you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Of Congress and Amy Winehouse

You wouldn't think that Amy Winehouse and the US Congress had much in common, but they do.

Singer Amy Winehouse died yesterday at the ripe old age of 27 after a short life marked with drug and alcohol abuse and the utter waste of brilliant talent. She was the poster child for everything you can do wrong in life, with her last major appearance in the news being a result of being booed off the stage at a concert at which she was so drunk, stoned, or otherwise incapacitated that she could barely stand, much less sing. My favorite of her songs said it all:

Self-destructive behavior isn't limited to the abuse of drugs and alcohol by celebrities, of course. We can see plenty of it today in Congress, where reckless and irresponsible - dare I say childish - focus on political dogma is driving the nation to the brink of economic disaster. When the entire business community, the major credit rating agencies, the government of China (which, sadly, holds a very vested interest in the outcome) and the great majority of the American people are united in demanding that Congress get its political head out of its backside, it's amazing to see the shameful and self-destructive behavior go on apace. Our elected reprehensives may try to depict themselves as taking a moral and ethical high road, but this is how most of us see them today:

Amy Winehouse is dead, and the real talent she had has died with her.

There may actually be some responsible behavior left in Congress, hidden deep within individuals cowed into submission by unelected and unprincipled ass clowns like Grover Norquist and the hyperpartisans of the far right and the far left, but I've given up on looking for it. So have even calm and level-headed persons like my blogging friend John, who always has a good word for everyone.

Five grandchildren that I love are going to inherit a country that doesn't look anything like the one I proudly served for 23 years in uniform.

If anyone needed to be booed off the stage, it was Congress ... not Amy Winehouse. And I'll be doing plenty of booing in the 2012 elections.

And that's all I have to say for today.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cartoon Saturday

And another week goes down the drain of history ...

91 people have been killed and hundreds injured in apparent terrorist attacks in Norway; Republicans have once again walked out of debt reduction negotiations with President Obama ... and House Speaker John Boehner will not even return the President's phone calls; bail has been set at $1 million for a California woman accused of cutting off her husband's manly part and tossing it into the garbage disposal; 41 persons are believed to have been killed in a bus fire in China; and the National Zoo in Washington, DC, has announced that giant panda Mei Xiang is not pregnant. In a related story, House Republicans immediately added "confirmed panda pregnancy" to their list of demands for a deal to increase the debt ceiling.

Yes, another week in the whirling cesspool of Disneyland-on-the-Potomac comes to an end. Aren't you glad we have Cartoon Saturday to help you get over it?

On top of everything else, the weather has been extraordinarily hot here in Northern Virginia. How hot was it ...?

The Borders Bookstore chain finally went out of business this week, having been unable either to develop a good business model for the print-vs-digital economy or find a buyer for the company. Which leads us to a series of cartoons about books ...

And ...

And, for reading in those locations where you may not want to risk dropping your book or your electronic reader into an unfortunate spot ...

We can't let a week go by without a few cartoons featuring awful puns ...

And ...

The search for a compromise debt reduction agreement between Congress and the White House has been complicated by the need to find a way that doesn't anger any political constituency, and that allows everyone involved to avoid any personal responsibility for the action or its consequences. This may be an accurate picture of the behind-closed-doors negotiations...

There are probably going to be job openings on Capitol Hill sooner than we think, but who would be the right choices to fill them? Hmmm ...

There are many ways to interpret the old expression, "It's a dog's life." Nessa asked me to post this one ...

And finally, we have yet another cartoon going out to everyone's favorite 14th-century maiden, craziequeen ...

And so it goes for another week. It's still miserably hot and humid outside, which isn't conducive to doing any work in the yard (which, nevertheless, desperately needs it), so I may try to spend the day in the air-conditioned house trying to convince my new iPad to talk to my old wireless keyboard. Geeks on Parade! - film at 11.

Have a good day and a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot Enough for Ya?

It's hot.

The East Coast is roasting under what's known as a "heat dome" - a combination of weather factors involving high pressure and hot air that sits on top of a region and bakes it mercilessly.

Of course, the combination of high pressure and hot air is much worse here in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac as Republicans and Democrats face off to try and decide who is the most pigheadedly irresponsible, but it's hot just about everywhere. Our heat index yesterday afternoon was 110. Today, it's going to be 115, and the "excessive heat warning" has already been announced ... it goes from 10 AM to 10 PM.

Yes, it's hot.

How hot is it?

Hot enough to melt a wicked witch.

Hotter than a two-dollar pistol.

It's ... well ... hot, hot, hot ...

It's almost enough to make you nostalgic for last year's snowmaggedon...

Almost. The heat is awful, but at least we don't have to shovel it.

Have a good day. Stay cool, and come back tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday. More thoughts then.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Vive le Difference!

The day is off to an ugly start - our coffee machine is acting up and doing nothing but squirting grainy brown sludge into my waiting cup. I hope this is not a harbinger of things to come.

Being thus thrown off my stride even before 5:00 AM, I'll just fall back on an old item from my ya-ha collection ... I don't remember if I've used this one before, but if I have, that's too bad ... it's still funny. And pretty much accurate, as far as I can tell.

How to tell Republicans from Democrats

Democrats buy books that have been banned somewhere.
Republicans form censorship committees and read them as a group.

Democrats give their worn-out clothes to those less fortunate.
Republicans wear theirs.

Democrats name their children after currently popular sports figures, politicians, and entertainers.
Republicans name their children after their parents or grandparents, according to where the money is.

Republicans tend to keep their shades drawn, although there is seldom any reason why they should.
Democrats ought to, but don't.

Republican boys date Democratic girls. They plan to marry Republican girls, but believe that they're entitled to a little fun first.

Democrats make plans and then do something else.
Republicans follow the plans their grandfathers made.

Republicans sleep in twin beds--some even in separate rooms.
That is why there are more Democrats.

Any other differences I missed? Leave them in the comments.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The $32 Million Question - Take Two

Yesterday in this space I delivered a heartfelt rant about the amount of money raised and spent on political campaigns. If you read it, you know that the article which sparked the post really raised my hackles.

Well, I raised some hackles of my own. My old friend and former co-worker Andy sent me an e-mail last night with his comments, which took issue with my position. Of course, I had to answer him. I suspect the debate will go on, as neither of us appears to have convinced the other of his righteousness. Here's the exchange between us ... I don't think Andy will object (and it will help keep me from having to develop something new for today) ...

Here's what Andy said (the italics are his own):

"I have to disagree with Bilbo on the thirty million dollar question.

"First, your complaint confuses their money with our money by wrongly equating coercively collected taxes with voluntarily contributed funds. That's comparable to saying charitable contributions (which also reflect individuals’ political preferences) should instead be coercively collected by the government. With the exception of the unwise and probably unconstitutional Presidential campaign fund (see recent USSC ruling on Arizona’s public finance law), campaign contributions are not the nation's money any more than the change in your car ashtray.

"Second, you seem to overestimate what the nation could do with that amount of money. In reality, it's not much. For example, it’s about $5.33 for each of the 6.2 million K-12 teachers, according to the 2000 census, or $2.83 for each of the 11.4 million employees in the broader “educational services” bucket in 2010 census. Your grandchildren wouldn't benefit much from that level additional government spending.

"Third, the campaign spending is a $32 million private sector-funded stimulus. And, more than likely, the vast majority of funds raised at this point are from the super (if not to say over-) wealthy and the big industries and evil unions. Hell yes, milk those fat cats. Perhaps some jobs will emerge from this stimulus. And it's a pretty cheap stimulus: Thirty-two million dollars is less than 11cents/person – it’s not even our money.

"I should hardly need to say this, but: Fourth, this private spending is the expression of various first Amendment rights to speech and assembly. (My concern is that parties pay for the services, including use of government-funded equipment such as voting machines and school gymnasiums, for their activities such as primaries. They have a right to assemble, but we as a nation have a right to "just compensation" for use of GFE [Government-Furnished Equipment]).

"The phone-hacking scandal in the UK has revealed the extent to which British political parties are in-bed with the press, a cozy, incestuous relationship nurtured by the UK's strict campaigning rules that limit private individuals' and parties' ability to campaign. This creates a political speech vacuum that the media easily dominates. With limited independent ability to make their case to their constituents, politicians needed a pliant media, and so became pliant to the media. Access peddling goes both ways. And that's the reason most media outlets in the US love public campaign financing and travesties like McCain-Feingold. It's comparable to economic rent-seeking. For sooth, a pox upon both of their houses."

Here was my response:


"First, I never equated - or intended to equate - "coercively collected" taxes with "voluntarily contributed funds" (leaving aside for a moment the fact that many of those "voluntarily collected funds" are contributed by unions who don't always take the wishes of their memberships into account when bankrolling candidates of any particular party). My point is simply that the money - regardless of source - could be spent for much worthier causes.

"Second, I've worked in the government long enough to understand that $32 million is pretty much decimal dust, although to a person struggling with a mortgage, medical bills, and multiple low-paying jobs it's quite a fortune. The point isn't the amount as much as the use to which it's being put.

"Third, you can consider this a "private sector-funded stimulus" if you like. I'm sure that there will be some jobs created - temporarily - for sign makers, vocal artists to record mass-dialed phone messages, and hookers to service all the people who flock to the conventions. And it's interesting to me that the "super wealthy and big industries and evil unions" are more willing to spend millions to elect the most advantageous candidate than to pay an equivalent amount in taxes to support the government services on which they - as much as you or I - rely. After all, somebody has to pay for all those agricultural subsidies and tax breaks for businesses.

"And finally, yes, you can interpret private spending on political campaigns as an "expression of various first amendment rights to speech." I personally think that's a stretch in many cases. At what point does Bilbo donating $50 to his congressman's reelection campaign equal the impact of a corporate lobbyist donating $250,000 to that same congressman? Whose voice do you think is more likely to be heard ... whose speech is more free, if I can ask the question that way? When vast amounts of corporate money flood into particular campaigns, does their free speech outweigh mine? It sure looks that way to me.

"You and I are never going to agree on this. All your points are valid, but they all miss the point: that all this money could be better spent, and that the ability of special interests to - quite literally - buy elections makes a mockery of the democratic ideal of free speech and the empowerment of the individual voter.

"Maybe you can look at all this and rationalize it. Me, I'm just completely disgusted and - for the first time in my life - truly ashamed of my country."

Okay, that was the exchange between Andy and I. He's one of the smartest guys I know, and I always enjoy arguing debating with him, even when I think he's as wrong as he thinks I am. You know where I stand on all this, but what do you think? Is McCain-Feingold a "travesty?" How about the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision? Do you think your voice is being heard?

And what would you spend $32 million on?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Things that Make You Go "What the #%$!"

Anybody want to see Bilbo get spun up? I didn't think so. But since it's my blog, I'm going to go ahead anyhow.

Yesterday, I read this article in the Washington Post - "2012 Presidential Race: Expense Reports Give Peek at Candidates’ Priorities, Styles." Here's the bottom line quote from the article:

"Taken together, the candidates burned through $32 million for telemarketing calls, posh hotel rooms, makeup artists and myriad other expenses, even with the first ballots still half a year away."

Yes, Dear Readers, those who would convince you they should be your next president have - so far - spent thirty-two million dollars on efforts to win the 2012 election.

At a time when brain-dead intellectual zombies in Congress are beating their political chests and dragging the nation toward an economic precipice in search of trillions of dollars in budget cuts, politicians are spending huge sums of money on a quest for power ... in the words of Senator Mitch McConnell, to "make (Mr) Obama a one-term president."

What could the nation do with thirty-two million dollars? Help provide health care for children and seniors? Pay our teachers a decent wage and improve our schools? Support our police, firefighters, and other critical first responders? Help begin to repair our crumbling infrastructure?


That thirty-two million dollars - and the many tens of millions of dollars that will follow them over the next year - will pay for annoying robo-calls, stupid and blatantly twisted television ads, hundreds of thousands of trashy roadside signs, and noisy, useless party conventions.

If you ever wanted an example of why the country is in the toilet, here it is.

When Shakespeare wrote the immortal line for Romeo and Juliet in which a disgusted, doomed Mercutio shouted "A plague on both your houses!" he wasn't talking about Republicans and Democrats, but but he might as well have been. I don't think I've been this disgusted with our political class in a long time ... and, as you know, that's saying something.

My grandchildren could benefit from thirty-two million dollars in schools, health care, clean air and water, and properly-funded public safety.

Instead, they'll get robo-calls, television ads, and yard signs.

A plague on both your houses, indeed.

Have a good day. Get really angry. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Deep in the Heart of Taxes

At the risk of triggering howling mobs of Grover Norquist-inspired anti-tax zealots waving torches, pitchforks, and signed copies of their "taxpayer protection pledge," let's discuss taxes.

I have written often enough here about the subject of taxes and tax policies. You can go back and read the last one here, and if you do you will be able to see where I'm beating the same drum and plagiarizing myself today. You can sue me. Here are my latest comments ...

Let’s go back for a moment and review Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which says:

“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States…”

That seems pretty clear to me: Congress can spend money, and impose taxes to get the money to spend. We talked last Friday about how difficult it is to cut spending. Today, let’s talk about the related problem of raising revenue (a word which sounds less ugly than taxes).

Here's the bottom line: governments need money to operate. They can raise that money in one of three ways:

1. Collect taxes (generally, the major source of government operating revenue);

2. Charge fees for government services (such as the money you pay to get a passport issued, or the stamps you buy to get your mail delivered); or,

3. Borrow against the credit of the nation (politicians like this, because it's painless ... taxpayers don't see it until it's too late).

There's a fourth option, too, which is simply to print more money, but economists (to the extent they can agree on anything at all) tend to agree that this is a bad move.

Yes, Dear Readers, taxes represent the major source of revenue that any government needs to operate. Not to put too fine a point on it, the power of a government to levy taxes, and the willingness of the population to pay them, are critical to the functioning of a nation. Problems arise when:

1. The government uses the power to tax for purposes other than generation of operating revenue … for instance, for social engineering (that is, programs or incentives intended for the benefit of a specific ethnic or religious group), or currying favor with specific business or special interest groups;

2. The population perceives that the power to tax is being used improperly (for example, to benefit – or punish – specific individuals or groups) or is being levied unfairly (for example, for the benefit of the politically well-connected or a socio-economic elite); or,

3. The government fails to communicate to the taxpayers why a given level of taxation is necessary, and does not justify this to the population. The power to levy taxes doesn’t mean much if those who are taxed don't understand why the taxes are necessary and what their stake in paying them is, giving them an incentive to avoid payment.

What should the characteristics of an ideal tax system be? Nobody will ever agree on this one, but I would suggest the following:

1. It should bring in sufficient revenue (when combined with borrowing and fees for services) to operate the government, pay its debts, and provide a reasonable cushion for unforeseen emergencies;

2. It should be fair (that is, no one segment of the taxpaying population should bear a larger burden than any other). This, of course, leads to much debate over what constitutes fairness, but we’ll get to that in a minute;

3. It should be transparent and understandable to the average taxpayer (that is, the average taxpayer should be able to calculate what he or she owes based on a set of simple instructions); and,

4. It should not be used for any purpose other than the raising of revenue to operate the government … not as a tool for social engineering, a source of political patronage or reward, or anything else.

Let’s talk about fairness as it applies to taxes. What makes a system of taxation fair? Reasonable people (if you can find any nowadays) can disagree on this, but I suggest these as yardsticks of fairness:

1. Tax rates should be as low as possible consistent with the needs of the government;

2. Every individual, regardless of their amount of income level above a minimum subsistence level, should be required to pay, and every business should be liable for a tax on its profits;

3. Taxes should not be negative; that is, no taxpayer should receive refunds or payouts in excess of taxes actually paid; and,

4. The tax rate should be progressive; that is, not based on a flat percentage of income. I believe this is reasonable, because (for instance) a rate of 10% on a taxable income of $1000 will hurt that individual much more than the same rate applied to a taxable income of $1,000,000. Yes, I know this is heresy, but I think it's simple common sense.

Looking at all of the above, it comes as no surprise that the American system of taxation is hopelessly and utterly unfair, inadequate, and useless. There would probably be no need for the tax increases that so enrage Republicans if the entire system were trashed and rebuilt from the ground up. I contend, as do people smarter than I in the arcane mysteries of economics, that if all deductions and special incentives were eliminated, tax rates could probably be dramatically reduced and still bring in far more revenue.

This is unlikely to happen, though, because I predict that the extreme Republican right will maintain that elimination of deductions and incentives will equate to a net increase in the tax burden of those who are lose those deductions and incentives. And, of course, no one will want to give up their prized and cherished tax advantages, even if the net result is that their taxes will be smaller in the long run. Because - and here's the ugly truth - Americans no longer trust their government and their elected representatives to do the right thing ... or, at least, the right thing as they define it through the prism of their ideologies.

Yes, it’s probably true that tax rates can be reduced, but only if two things happen: spending is reduced to align with income; and deductions and incentives are done away with so that a larger pool of money is subject to a smaller tax.

Good luck with all that. I’ve given up on anyone in a position of power and authority doing any serious and dispassionate thinking about this issue.

What do you think about taxes and tax reform? Remember, before you answer, that there are children who read this blog.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Even More Great Moments in Editing

I was going to follow up my post on spending cuts from last Friday with a post today on taxes, but I don't have the tax one quite ready yet. Thus, rather than coming off as half-baked, I'll go with quarter-baked and do something else instead. I hope to have the tax post ready for tomorrow. Who wants to think about taxes on the weekend, anyhow?

How about some more items from the "Great Moments in Editing" Collection? ...

From the unfortunate juxtapositions section comes this odd wedding announcement ...

I thought this one applied to a random member of Congress, except that there are 535 of them, and there's little chance of finding one that's competent ...

This one, however, actually does. Apply to a member of Congress, that is ...

Not the sort of snacks I'd buy, even on sale ...

And then there's the overspecialization in bathroom tissue (I'm not going to go with the obvious reference to Soylent Brown) ...

We can always count on the great state of Texas to lead the way on important social justice issues ...

I know that some old folk remedies can be effective, but you've got to draw the line someplace ...

I think it was Theodore Roosevelt who once said that when the roll is called in the Senate, the Senators don't know whether to answer present or not guilty ...

I think some money might be able to have been saved on this study. No, wait! It probably was...

And finally, from the Marquis de Sade's yard sale ...

And that, Dear Readers, is all for today. Enjoy what's left of your weekend.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cartoon Saturday

If you can't decide whether to laugh or cry at Congress, try Cartoon Saturday ... we'll help you laugh through the dumbassity (I made that up). Here we go ...

President Obama ratcheted back his expectations for the budget "negotiations" with Congressional Republicans from "grand bargain" to "at least avert Armageddon;" an exotic animal owner in Ohio was killed in a freak accident in which ... oh, let's just let the headline speak for itself; the United States has recognized the Libyan rebels as the "legitimate governing authority" of that unhappy nation; the spreading phone-hacking scandal around media mogul Rupert Murdoch continues to make heads roll as the CEO of Dow Jones and the head of Murdoch's British newspaper empire have both resigned; and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has returned to Cuba for chemotherapy in his struggle with cancer (whatever drugs this ass clown has been taking all along have obviously been better for his politics than his health).

Oyez, oyez! All rise for Cartoon Saturday!

How about a few hideous puns to start off this week's collection? I thought these were especially groan-worthy ...

Not bad enough? How about this? ...

Or this? ...

Here in Northern Virginia, we're steeped in both Civil War and Revolutionary War history, and the reenactment of various major battles is a big deal. But many years from now, what will be the equivalent for those of us who fought in the Cold War? One wonders (this will be a lot funnier to those of you who are of my generation) ...

Two cartoons riffing on a similar theme ...

And ...

Two cartoons taking off on the ubiquitous Facebook ...

And ...

As businesses try to maintain profits by squeezing more and more out of the same number of workers rather than hiring anyone new, the effects are being felt ...

And finally, middle-age catches up with all of us sooner or later, particularly when we enjoy our desserts a bit more than we perhaps should ...

And so goes another Cartoon Saturday. Today will be a busy day ... I desperately need a haircut so people will stop telling shaggy dog stories about me; the garden needs weeding (again); books need to be returned to the library (and more checked out); laundry needs to be done; and grandchildren need to be visited and played with. I'm tired already. I think I'll eat breakfast and go back to bed.

Just kidding.

Have a good day and a wonderful weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.