Helicopters and the Budget

The city of Indianapolis recently announced that they were cancelling use of police helicopters, to save $1.4-ish millions.

Locals complained that this is terrible and demonstrates that the city does not care about public safety.

I suggest that this is not nearly as obvious as it might seem.

By all means, helicopters are “sexy”, but that certainly isn’t good enough to justify it!

Helicopters can help solve some specific problems quickly, but there are perhaps three metrics by which they mayn’t actually be worthwhile.

  • Do they solve more crimes? If not, then that is a strike against choppers.
  • Do they merely catch some perps more quickly. Is faster truly worth the money? Do faster catches save them from extra crimes being committed? That may be nice for would-be victims… How does it actually affect the budget?
  • What would be the expected outcome from the addition or loss of the equivalent money spent on cops on the ground?

After all, it may be that a dozen extra guys (and ladies) walking or driving beats, 8 hours a day, 200-some days per year, may do more good than an aircraft sprinting around for a couple hours a day.

The answers are in the details…

Refusing Terror

As observed in Bruce Schneier’s blog, we are running into the grand problem that the terrorists are winning because our society is acquiescing to their attacks.

The terrorists don’t necessarily care if people get killed; blowing things up, killing people, and such, are merely tactics to a goal. The goal is that they want us filled with terror, and that’s what’s happening.  When we are fearful, they have succeeded.

America has had the moniker “Land of the Free, and Home of the Brave” – the responses to terrorism are smashing away at both of those. This isn’t to say that there aren’t brave people; the handling, by police, emergency services, and the military demonstrate that they have plenty of men and women that are plenty brave.

The trouble isn’t a lack of brave people to cope with emergencies.  The trouble is that the rest of the people are getting fearful and panicked.  That is leading to ridiculous results, going as bad as the recent airboard mutiny, where passengers, suspicious about a couple of passengers that they thought may have spoken Arabic, left the plane, refusing to fly until security personnel removed the “offending” passengers.

This was, in reality, a case of not-terribly-latent racism, combining with incompetent suspicion and paranoia, preying on the fears that people are not refusing to accept. The “aviation expert” observed that “We are in a paranoid time, but vigilance by ordinary people is important.” I disagree – this situation demonstrated that the paranoid vigilance of incompetent ordinary people causes real problems.

There were complaints after the incident of the “underpants bomber” that President Obama did not do enough soon enough; it seems to me that he should have consciously waited a while, so as to demonstrate a refusal to be drawn into a panicked response, and then emit a speech including the following sorts of points:

  • Happily, security preparations were good enough that this particular incident did not go very badly.
  • Unfortunately, as there are an unlimited number of possible targets, it is effectively impossible to secure them all, as hard as our fine people may try.
  • The goal of terrorists is to instill terror – whether there is destruction is incidental.  If we, as a people, are shaken by this incident, then they have succeeded, even though there was no death or destruction.  The successful injury to our spirit represents success to them.
  • We must not minimize the hurt to the individuals injured by terrorist events – we must help and support them.
  • But we must not allow the possibility of injury to destroy our spirit.  When the American people succumb to the fear mongering that was the goal of the terrorist, we commit three errors:
    1. As a nation, we allow them to succeed
    2. We injure ourselves. The cost of wasted time that results from some of the panicked reactions has been enormous, and the time wasted can never be regained.
    3. We dishonor the efforts and preparations of our armed forces when we panic

There’s a pretty awesome blog entry on this here. The awesome quote:

This is seldom highlighted in a country perversely convulsed by, and that can’t seem to get enough of, fantasies about being besieged by terrorists.

“This” being that about the only thing that didn’t cause more fatalities than terrorism was shark attacks. And yes, indeed, the popularity of the TV show “24” demonstrates the fixation on this fantasy.  Things that regularly cause vastly more fatalities than terrorism include:

  • Alcohol whether via
    • Alcohol poisoning
    • Fatal injuries resulting from intoxication
  • Violent deaths stemming from the recent economic troubles, whether due to
    • Job loss
    • Foreclosure
    • Inability to pay rent
  • E Coli bacteria
  • Car accidents
  • Airplane crashes due to
    • Pilot error
    • Inclement weather
    • Structural failure
    • Improper maintenance

Republicans seem happy to find any reason they can fabricate to say that Obama is a bad president; I think that the fact that he didn’t make a firm statement about this situation points to him being weak. It is possible to work past weakness, but it requires effort…

Phantazmic

This “multimedia” presentation at Disney Hollywood Studios is terribly muddled.

It has Way Cool technology. Notably, they use lasers to project scenes onto clouds of water mist, then add zooted characters, many aboard little ferries or sprawled across a constructed mountain. Lots of cases of Mickey “teleporting” around.

Unfortunately, the story leaves a lot to be desired. It starts auspiciously, essentially with the intro to Fantasia. If they continued down that road, it would seem super to me.

Alas, they instead muddle it all up. Mickey falls into his dreams, with the two possible directions:

  1. Presenting his happy dreams, or
  2. His nightmares.

This misses 3, heading down the sensual/sexual road, of course! Not that that would be a good part of the “family-friendly” facade, so I’ll not knock Disney overly for this lack!

Unfortunately, this is where the never-ending muddle begins. Apparently, Mickey dreams assortedly about Pocahantas, Beauty and the Beast, where “battle” bits of the tales are presented. Then, the scary nightmare emerges with evil dragon, genie, and witches cry jeopardy. A very peculiar world view that does not make much coherent sense.

Of course, as this is all Mickey’s dream, he trivially “pops the bubble” to assert a happy ending. Evidently, Mickey’s nightmares are not terribly persistent! Rather unlike the sorts of nightmares that keep adults up at night…

The Curious Rightward Swing of the Republicans

I have been watching the rightward swing of the Republican Party with some confusion.

On the one hand, they lost the popular vote to the Democrats. That surely suggests that the Republicans are further to the “right” than the American people as a whole, and that they should be developing more centrist policies, right?

But the Fall 2009 elections have shown the party shifting to the right, not towards the centre.

This has been striking me as a suicidal move, that the Republicans are headed in a direction that will make them less and less relevant, less and less capable of offering meaningful opposition to the Democrats. No doubt Democrats would be rather pleased at that, but it seems a bad thing to me not to have a loyal opposition. (I suspect the major parties in Canada and the US are getting less and less keen about considering opposition to have merits: another story…)

Possibilities seem to include:

1. The Republicans essentially need to crash and burn before something new appears.

It is possible that this is so, but it seems unlikely that the players would be just letting things burn. Thus, it is plausible that this is happening, but as result, not intent.

2. They can’t get a new policy direction until they have new leadership.

Unfortunately, the Liberal implosion in Canada shows the problem in this – they have spent the last couple years desperately trying to tell Canadians that the New Conservative Party is bad and that we should give power back to the Liberals. Unfortunately, without explaining their policy proposals, people have little concrete reason to imagine them a good choice… And this is not unlike the Republican’s challenge…

Perhaps what needs to happen is for the GOP to elect new leadership, who having shown they know how to “speak (to the) right,” may then be trusted by the party to make the compromises required to win an election. Which happen to mandate a bit of a swing to the left…

Proper Guarding

I was reading The Airlords of Han, the Nowlan tale about Anthony “Buck” Rodgers, written back in the 1920s.

It has exceptionally good presentations of military tactics, miles better than TV and Hollywood nonsense.

The one that particularly caught my eye was how the Hans guarded Buck when he was captured. None of the usual TV nonsense – they had two sets of guards:

  1. Firstly, a guard at his side. As we can always expect, even on TV. Close enough to usually stop the prisoner. But with the risk of being overpowered, of course!
  2. Secondly, a layer of guards that are forbidden to get within reach, but no more than 40 feet away. Too far away to be overpowered.

Buck does not overpower these guards to escape. And my intelligence is not insulted :-).

The “Han” of this tale are evil, but they are not idiots. Unlike Hollywood writers…

Adaptive Tax Policy: Enemy of Budgeting

The simple principle…

Since western democracies have come to eschew “head taxes”, generally in favour of
A) Sales taxes (of sundry forms!)
B) Income taxes
C) Of late, governments have gotten keen on charging fees for services (as for passports, licenses, and such)

People of varying political stripes may argue over the individual merits (or demerits) of these, for instance over whether or not they are progressive or regressive taxes. That may matter, but not for this argument…

In troubled times like these, there is a good thing about all of these sorts of taxes (contrast with relatively fixed property taxes…) which is that taxation naturally falls when the people haven’t as much money to pay out as taxes.

I have heard complaints levelled notably at Stephen Harper that he didn’t lower tax rates to help people during these times. I disagree – the tax systems (at least at Federal and Provincial, and in the US, states) are already designed to reduce the tax burden.

When incomes and spending increase, tax collection will naturally increase, as a direct consequence, and this is a good thing.

Unfortunately, we now come to budgets…

Governments try to set budgets, and talk of balancing them, and all of the preceding represents a direct enemy to that balance.

When the budget is set, they do not know what sales and income taxes will truly come in, and tax collection amounts are sure to be affected by factors that will not emerge until later. The practical effect is that these levels of government are fabricating wishful tales whenever they claim anything about balancing of budgets.

Municipal governments have a somewhat different situation – property taxes tend to be more stable. Which is less helpful than one might hope, when municipalities are responsible for welfare coverage – that throws in a nice dose of postfacto variability to prevent predicting the balancing of the budget.

In any case, this indicates that the “balanced budget” idea is chasing a mirage.

So what shall we do, if balancing budgets is nonsense?

Simply: budgets should recognize the inherent sources of variances, and provide reserves to either add to (in good years) or to draw on (in bad years).

Providing reserves requires that there is a regular plan to charge a little more taxes to allow for this. This is anathema to today’s “neo-conservatives,” but that is another story…

Given reserves, it’s fine if there’s an extra snowstorm to clean up after – reserves were meant to cover such things. In a “light snow” year, it’s fine that there’s a surplus, just as a “heavy snow” year does not demonstrate incompetence of the politicians.  (Other things could, of course!)

Inconceivability

The “lack of imagination” problem I wrote of last year is clearly a real, ongoing phenomenon.

Our society seems to be falling into the kind of tyranny envisioned by Huxley in Brave New World, rather than that of Orwell. We get so distracted by the flurry of Twitters, YouTube videos, and blogs that interest us that we are too busy to even notice the absence of reasoned political debate.

I am not sure how I can get at (nay, even that it exists to be gotten) objective reporting these days.

All I can get, in reporting, on Obama, seems to have either a Democratic or Republican political slant. Both varieties tend to be so biased as to make them unuseful.

Likewise, in Canadian political reporting, I see little real information – only pro-Liberal or pro-Conservative (or anti-one-or-the-other) propaganda.

Unpopular Truths About the Lending Crisis

Firstly, not everyone deserves to keep “their” home, even if this is not politically tenable.

If you can’t afford to own your home, that is unfortunate, but that doesn’t mean you should still get to keep them.

Whether you like the Bible or not, there’s a pretty good passage that is mighty relevant, Luke 14:28-30:

For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.”

The problem is getting blamed on “predatory lending,” but for every dollar worth of that corruption, on the part of bankers and realtors, there was also a dollar worth of predatory borrowing on the part of average individuals that didn’t “count the cost”, who, more than likely, lied about their income, and took out loans that they should have known they could not repay.

It is easy and convenient to blame this all on people in New York City that you don’t know; it is far harder to accept that your realtor, and your local “mortgage officer,” and YOU were jointly responsible for collusion to fraudulently take out loans that you could not repay.

The Enron “crisis” showed that the big accounting firms are capable of really big lies; the mortgage crisis demonstrates that the same morality has permeated society a lot more deeply than that.

Why “Lack of Imagination” is a problem

My previous blog entry discussed a problem of “lack of imagination,” specifically that many people suffer from the problem that they cannot even imagine how it is that a “thinking person” might vote for some party that they consider somehow heinous.

  •  Many acquaintances in Toronto cannot fathom how anyone would ever vote Conservative
  • The same population appears unable to grasp how anyone  would ever vote Republican, in the US
  • There are also demographics that cannot fathom what kind of person would vote for either of the Clintons, or that “dangerous I-heard-he-might-be-Muslim” Obama, or Canadian left-leaning parties such as NDP or Green.

Now, I know folks who have been strongly associated with one party or another, and I’ll give the caveat that I do not intend this to be a criticism of them.  Once you have chosen to commit to particular involvement with the “party apparatus” of one party or another, it’s actually pretty important to stay with that choice.  Someone who has committed a significant portion of their personal time (paid, or not) shouldn’t easily change their vote.

I don’t anticipate that members of the respective caucuses of the various parties can have all that useful an ability to imagine correctly about “political bubbles” that differ from the one that they live in.

However, most people aren‘t that committed to any particular party, and are subject to the vagaries of the periodic swings of population attitudes between one preference and another, and it seems to me that it’s good “economics” to be prepared to consider political positions other than some single absolutist one.

Notably, if you wouldn’t even imagine the “other party,” then neither party has much reason to listen to or care about your views, desires and needs, neither the party you vote for, nor the ones you wouldn’t consider.

  • The party you would never vote for doesn’t need to worry about your opinion, because since they can’t get your vote, there’s little point in soliciting  your opinions.
  • The party you do vote for  also does not need to worry about you very much, since, particularly if you don’t believe any alternative exists, they can’t lose your vote.

There’s a lot of room there for nobody to care about about your opinions.
I was living in Texas during the campaign that brought George W Bush into the US presidency, and could see this pretty clearly in the way TV ads differed from state to state.  The Republicans knew they had Texas wrapped up, and as a result, didn’t bother airing many political ads, as it would be unlikely to influence many votes.  The very same thing was true for the Democrats.  Neither were competing for votes in Texas.

To a goodly degree, there are some ongoing parallels in the present campaigns in both Canada and the US.

  • The “right-leaning” parties have stronger constituencies in rural areas
  • The “left wings” are stronger in large urban areas

There will doubtless be some battlegrounds where the parties “duke it out” for dominance, but to a considerable extent, the parties will ignore (for practical purposes) large portions of the nations.

I believe that this is a problem; with the fairly close splits (in both countries!), the results of both elections are likely to involve certain portions of the populations being dominant over other portions of the population.

  • If the Conservatives win, rural regions, and, to a considerable degree, the West, will control the House, and urban areas will correspondingly not be particularly well represented by new government policies.
  • If the Liberals should win, then, as the opposite hand, urban regions would be over-represented, and rural concerns under-represented.
  • In the US, a Republican presidency leaves those “more on the left” underrepresented, and a Democrat presidency does the obvious oppposite

There is an essential difference between the two countries, in that Canada is presently unlikely to see majority governments, and the resultant need for coalition prevents a “winner” from dictating quite as much over- and under-representation.  Minority rule is an interesting topic for another time!

It seems to me that voters that aren’t part of party apparatus could get a lot more value (which smells like economics, of a sort) if they did consider  “swing voting” much more seriously.  All the politicians have good reason to value your vote if they consider it to be possibly theirs.

People should ask, and perhaps tell their would-be politicians what they would expect them to do in order to gain their votes.  I’m not suggesting vote-buying; part of the political process is, legitimately, telling your would-be candidates what you wish them to do, as your representative.

A Common Problem: Lack of Imagination

I have been noticing some essential parallels between US and Canadian political views that very successfully cross all kinds of political lines, that amount to people having a supreme lack of imagination.

I happen to live in Toronto, an urban area which has tended to vote a mixture of Liberal and NDP, with a certain amount of Green mixed in.  In my own riding, the Liberals took a staggering lead with about 63% of the popular vote.  My acquaintances tend to mirror the tendancies, with mostly a mix of Liberal and NDP.  The “lack of imagination” bit is that they clearly cannot imagine voting Conservative.

In contrast, my parents grew up in the West, and spent their early adulthood years around Edmonton, and the bulk of the extended family lives, these days, strewn across Alberta and BC.  (That used to be Alberta and Saskatchewan, but there has been a tendancy to migrate westwards to the pleasant climate of BC.)  They came from rural areas, and still have family in such places.  And there is a concommittant “lack of imagination” that, as an aggregate, what they cannot imagine is how anyone could vote Liberal or NDP.

I spent 1996-2001 living in Texas (in the DFW region), which was the “home of GWB,” and while I certainly did hear reports to the effect that he mightn’t be the “sharpest knife in the drawer,” the tendancy there generally was that people cannot imagine voting Democrat.  But even that is quite an oversimplification of things; most people I knew were not originally from Texas, and had very little in the way of longer term perspective.

One buddy was an exception: he certainly did fall into the “pro-Republican” camp, but could step back to his grandparents’ perspective to have a somewhat broader view, and he observed something interesting, namely that things have changed in the last 50 years.  Around 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson was the last president to come from Texas, and it is useful to observe that he was a Democrat.  Apparently there had been family discussions about this, and evidently, back in the 1960s, it was as unimaginable for a Texan to vote Republican as it would be for them to vote Democrat today.

I have not spent “quantity time” in any of the Democrat-biased states, but have certainly observed a consistent indication that there are large populations that consider it “inconceivable” to vote against whatever is their bias.

There is something extremely troublesome about this:  I am watching our respective populaces fragment into sets of people that cannot imagine having votes in common with one another.  They’re not much worth polling; they’re not worth lobbying; there’s no persuasion that they imagine could work on them.  (Mind you, Texas swapped polarities, so it’s obviously not as “inconceivable” as they imagine!)

We’re certain to have large population blocks that are not represented.  In the US, we’ll either see next year a Republican president that doesn’t reflect the desires or attitudes of almost 50% of the voters, or  we’ll see a Democrat president that doesn’t reflect the desires or attitudes of the other almost 50%.

The “lack of imagination” is also troublesome.  In order to understand what’s going on in their own country, I would contend that people need to engage their imagination enough to grasp why other people would vote for the “evidently unimaginable.”  There aren’t so many “moustache-twirling arch-villains” running for office that it ought to be so unimaginable.