Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Florida and Texas Suck

"Dwight Howard leaves California for Texas, taking less money but perhaps more after taxes"

"LeBron saves $25M in taxes, signing with Miami over NY"

We get it, $20M in income in Florida is the same as $22M in New York or perhaps not because...

These articles are completely misleading! I'm sick and tired of seeing articles discussing the benefit of low taxes without mentioning the most important impact of those low tax policies:

Taxes Pay for Things

explaining why Florida and Texas suck:

Let me enlighten you.... clicking the links and reading the articles may shock you.  (I'm not going to talk about the old people in Florida or the Bush family in Texas, only things that suck because taxes are so low):

Low, Regressive, Taxes:
Taxes pay for things, and income taxes are either flat or progressive while sales taxes are regressive.  So though Texas and Florida don't have state income taxes, they do have sales taxes, both about 6%.  Sales taxes are regressive because as a % of income, poor people pay a much higher % in sales taxes than the wealthy. So Texas and Florida have decided that as a policy, in order to generate enough revenue to balance their budgets, they will use a tax regime favors the rich over the poor. Texas and Florida obtain about 50% of their revenue from sales taxes, California and NY are around 30%. Thus, before we even get to what the lack of taxes pay for, Texas and Florida already suck.

Taxes buy things, like services, health care, infrastructure, regulations:
In Texas cops were caught feeling up women's private parts. They investigated and found that the practice is widespread? Why did it take so long for Texas to figure out this was happening or investigate? Probably because they don't have a very strong internal affairs department. Why did this happen in the first place?  Because taxes pay salaries, and in Texas and Florida cops are paid about 17% less than those in California or NY.  Taxes also pay for education and training.

Isn't it Police Rule 101 that you don't chase a car through crowded streets?  How many untrained Texas police officers does it take to realize that high speed chases end in horrible accidents?

How about this story out of Florida. Police shoot at unarmed, innocent man, 15 times, in his own driveway, mistaking him for a car thief.  Then the police chief has the balls to say the police acted properly.  Of course, the 60 year old man was black, while the cops were white. In order for the police to be justified in their actions, their assumption that everyone is an armed criminal must be true. If that's the case, then you definitely don't want to live in Florida.

Six weeks later, Florida cops in the same town broke into a home w/o a warrant and shot the owners dogs because they were pursuing a suspect in the area. The only evidence cops used to enter the home w/o a warrant and kill the couple's dogs was that their garbage bin was overturned.  If you want to live in Florida, go ahead.  From my view, it sucks.

Taxes pay for things, and support the rule of law. I'll avoid the entire Trayvon discussion except to say that George Zimmerman's lack of trust in law enforcement to do its job by contributed to the event's outcome.  Then the inability for law enforcement to actually do its job after the incident contributed significantly to the case going national.  Without taxes paying for services, you get local militias, neighborhood watches, and untrained vigilantes roaming your streets.

There aren't just vigilantes - there are just guns. Everywhere. (Man pistol whips Dunkin Employee) The Brady Campaign gives Florida 5 pts for gun prevention law and Texas 6 points. New York and California got 64 and 80 pts.

If you want to be safe while driving, don't drive in Texas or Florida.  The traffic fatality rate in Texas was 11.75/100,000 and 12.58 in Florida, both higher than the national average in 2011. In California, our most populous state, it was 7.04 and in NY it was 6.05.  A similar trend carries for alcohol related traffic fatalities (same links have the data).  This all goes back to lack of education, lack of regulation (police) and the vigilante/individualism attitude in those states. Feel free to enjoy the low taxes, I hope you don't die in a car wreck.

Years ago, some idiot in West Texas decided to build a middle school right next to a fertilizer plant. In many states, this would not have been allowed. But in Texas, it was no problem.  The company was able to file an emergency plan saying it had no fire or explosion risk even though when it did eventually exploded in March, killing 15 people and injuring 160, it had 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site. I'm not surprised the company didn't disclose this to local or federal agencies, because that would be an infringement on freedom or something and regulations kill jobs or something and you don't mess with Texas or something.  The plant did have $1M in liability insurance, even though by Texas law they weren't required to have any. (WHAT?!). Now this kind of thing could happen anywhere, but companies specifically move to Texas to avoid regulations that could protect us from tragedy.  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the most likely agency to do anything about such violations, and just before the explosion, Texas officials had voted to reduce regulation even further, hoping to cut the agency's budget. The plant did not have regular inspections, its prior one was in 2006, and it didn't even have sprinklers.  REGULATIONS COST MONEY, REGULATIONS PROTECT PEOPLE, thus TAXES PROTECT PEOPLE.

Texas has the highest percent of uninsured people in the country, at 25%, (FL at 21%) compared to California and NY at 14% and 15% respectively.  Florida's numbers are of course helped by the significant elderly population who qualify for federal care while all 4 of these states have significant immigrant populations, so that impact washes to an extent.  If you exclude the elderly, Texas is dead last at 27%, vs 24% for Florida (4th worst).  For children, the disparity is still large at 17% and 16% in FL vs 11% and 8% in NY and California because Florida and Texas don't want to help young children, who don't have insurance through no fault of their own, by raising taxes. 27% of Texas citizens that have a job are still uninsured.  This is a huge burden for the state's hospitals, which must treat the uninsured regardless of if they can pay... and it creates a spiral of higher and higher insurance rates for those who have insurance, and are subsidizing the uninsured. Uninsured people still get sick, and still use the services, so Texas and Florida have decided to keep taxes low, not provide insurance, and then as a result, people end up paying anyway.

You know Florida sucks when someone creates a blog called "Florida or Russia" where you have to guess where the F-ed up event took place. I don't even know what to say about this story...where Florida youths just disappeared at school years ago and now they're digging up bodies on the school grounds.  Perhaps with more $ and oversight, the govt could have done a better job protecting its young citizens.

But seriously, Florida men are the worst.  Florida women are pretty bad too.

I'm not saying higher taxes are a cure all...or that income taxes are the best way to raise tax revenue (I prefer land taxes)...or that high tax states can't have their problems...

If low taxes were such an amazing thing, why wouldn't every state cut taxes to zero...b/c you'd have no state at all.  States must fund themselves, some fund themselves more than others...and some fund themselves with taxes on the poor, while others spread it out. Some underfund basic services, and some don't.  Like so many things, you get what you pay for, and if you aren't paying much in Florida and Texas, you aren't getting much.

(This post likely ends any Presidential aspirations I may have had)

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Miley Isn't the Problem

The most offensive part of Miley Cyrus’s dance at the VMA's (3:40 in) was Robin Thicke and his "Blurred Lines" song. (Unless you considered her dancing racist, but that's another, longer post).  I though Miley’s dance was over the top, obnoxious, and silly. It had the right wing in an uproar but even the liberal media was not impressed.  To me, she was just being the poor singer and dancer w/little sex appeal that she's always been.  Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is by far more offensive; let me explain, I'll start out slow.

By his own admission, one of Robin Thicke’s favorite songs is Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up."   No wonder many say "Blurred Lines" is a complete RIPOFF of Gaye's song. Apparently, it took Robin only 30 minutes to “create” his little tune.  Obviously, Thicke didn’t create anything; he took a tune and copied much of it. Robin is so worried about the similarities he filed a lawsuit LA to have the court rule that he didn't copy Marvin Gaye's music.  The Marvin Gaye estate has apparently rejected a six figure buyout.  This isn't even the first time he ripped off Marvin Gaye. Some say "Trouble Man" has the same tune as Thicke's "Million Dollar Baby."  Ok, a rich white guy ripped off a beloved African American musical legend, that isn't so bad is it...well, we're just getting started. 

Have you listened to the actual lyrics of the song? If you do listen/read closely, Robin Thicke is basically singing about a rape fantasy.  To paraphraise.... She’s a good girl, and needs liberating from her current boyfriend and he wants to have rough dirty sex with her. She doesn’t outwardly want it because she apparently can’t hear what he’s saying, but he knows she wants it… thus the blurred lines. Sing it with me.  "Is it rape? Is it aggressive sex? Blurred Lines!"  Thicke actually defends this by saying its about a pick up artist (like himself) and the blurred line between what a girl wants to do (be a good girl), and what she ends up doing (sex w/him). According to him, its not about rape, its about degrading women. Duh!  Here's the WSJ on the subject.

If you were thinking that Miley’s actions were offensive to women, why don’t you have a look at the “Blurred Lines” video (RATED-R, NSFW, but a must watch for you guys).  He has naked women running around him while his name is flashing on the screen "#THICKE" with balloons in the background saying "Robin Thicke has a big dick." It's pretty f-ed up.
Miley’s poor twerking abilities are nothing to be offended by compared to the music she was twerking to.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Things We Learned in Costa Rica

It isn’t easy to tell the difference between a police officer or person of authority and someone who is just telling you to do something and/or go somewhere.

A soda is like a Costa Rican diner.  No one knows why it’s called a “soda”
Locals say “mucho gusto” as “you are welcome” instead of “de nada.”  They’re so formal.

Cats can get pregnant before 6 months old.
Does the rice trick work with salt water damage to a phone?  We’ll find out!?  (Update: it does not)

Casado is the traditional meal of beans, rice, fried plantains, and a meat or fish.  It comes from the word Casa, which means house, as in this is what the man wants on the table when he gets to his house.
Park anywhere there is room

Buy tire insurance and wear your seatbelt, it is going to be a bumpy ride
There are very few radio stations, and even fewer ones with “American” songs. (or songs in English)

Black sand does not stick to red toe nail polish, but does make your feet sparkle.
It’s hot, so drink your drinks before they get warm

Thus, every drink really hits the spot
There are stray dogs everywhere, but they are very well behaved and seemingly trained to play well with tourists.

When dogs have to eat off of strangers plates, they learn to be very polite.
Don't go to Costa Rica if you don't like dogs.

The ketchup is Heinz, but tastes nothing like the US version. #horror
Abbie loves mud, as long as it’s worm free.

After applying mud, let it dry, then wash it off, before getting into the hot spring.
An easy test to know if you’re sunburnt or not, jump in a hot spring

If there is a random tree growing in the middle of the road, it may have a sign on it warning that there’s a tree in the middle of the road.
Abbie can fall asleep on the bounciest gravel, pot hole filled roads (she did twice!)

Breathing in air filled with volcanic sulfur results in headaches.
On Rincon de la Vieja, there are probably more ants than humans in the world

Driving toward a volcano, it looks like it is on fire with smoke coming up from the trees.  But it’s a volcano, so it probably was on fire.
There is a type of “bunny” that lives at on the volcano that has no ears or tail.

Throwing rocks at snakes is a good way to see if it’s alive.  It was.
Whether on a tropical volcano, in a tropical rain forest, at a tropical resort or on a tropical beach, make sure you turn off lights in your room at night before opening the door to avoid deluge of bugs

On that note, when watching the sunset from your balcony overlooking the ocean, close the windows before the sunsets.
Tube tops and boogie boards do not go together.

ATMs are not widely available
Playa Samara is a home for hippies - young and old & surfers

Hammocks abound, and w them, hammock pictures.
Day 4 and we still don't know the differences bw the 3 types of imperial beer despite drinking it 6 times

Ice cream should be easier to find.
Hertz maps don't have road names or numbers. Google "directions" are pretty worthless, but signs aren't bad…as long as you know the name of the towns that are in the direction you are going

People live in fairly remote areas - more than you expect.  The bus system must be excellent.

You know the wedding is going to be awesome when…

The mini fan, the TV channel with pictures of the happy couple, the bottle of rum in your room, the suggestion to buy alcohol at the airport to avoid expensive hotel alcohol, the included buffet breakfasts, the three nights of parties. But most importantly, Wi-Fi included! 

You know your hunch was right when you witness…
3 inches deep of rose petals to walk down , the conversion of a ballroom and lounge into a rain forest, 10 hours of non-stop music (alternating DJ’s and bands), 10 hours of non-stop food (sliders at 2am anyone?) fireworks (obviously)

Here’s a little video from the volcano – Rincon De La Vieja

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rationalizing the Irrational

I’m trying to understand my feelings after the tragic events in Boston yesterday.  I understand why I feel so much shock pain from this event and from events like it, such as Newtown and 9/11, but I don't understand why I am less emotional about similar, but more common, tragedies.

Rationally, all premature death is tragic, and equally so.

For example, during the last week, 106 Americans lost their lives to gun violence, including 12 children. In one instance a three-year-old shot himself, in another, a four-year-old shot a six-year-old. Shouldn't those deaths, or all 106, be a national news and national tragedy?  What about the 30 people killed EACH DAY by drunk drivers? Should we lower our flags to half-staff for them or only for those killed “more tragically?” Don’t they deserve a moment of silence in congress? Rationally, they all should be the same. But mentally, I just don’t feel that way and I believe that most of my fellow Americans similarly don’t feel that way.

I struggle with why, in my mind, one death seems to mean more than another death.  Or perhaps it isn't about the loss of life at all, but rather about the loss of liberty, the shattering of innocence, in which a slice of Americana dies that we can never get back.

Obviously, Newtown was worse than Boston. In fact, to me personally, Newton may have been worse than 9/11. I just can’t imagine anything worse than 20+ elementary kids being killed execution style. For some reason, there’s a need to categorize this as a terrorist attack, or something else, as if that will give it more meaning.  Maybe if the origins are bad enough, we'll start another $3T war. I hope not. I guess I don't understand how we all felt equally energized to spend $3T on a war to avenge the 3,000 that died on 9/11 but we aren't all equally energized to spend $1.5B requiring that all cars have a Breathalyzer you must blow into before the engine will start ($100 per 15M cars sold annually).  Presumably that would save 10,000 lives a year and cut driving deaths by more than 25%. Isn't a family killed by a drunk driver just as tragic?

But back to why are some tragic deaths different than others.  Would Newton be a bigger deal if there was better video?  If it was a bomb instead of a gun? Are bombs just scarier?  Is 9/11 such a big deal because we’re pissed about the buildings as well as the dead people… if it’s just about those who lost their lives, then we should be really upset about the 31,672 people who died in 2010 from guns**, shouldn’t we? Yet we undertook $3T in wars due to one, but do nothing about the other.  And I understand that, I feel pissed about 9/11 much more than I am about random gun violence... but rationally should I?  I don’t think so…but I feel so.  This tragedy is huge from a mental standpoint, but “only” 3 people have died…twice that many die in car accidents in NYC every week. So why do I care about these 3 people?

Maybe we feel differently about events like Boston because they feel “preventable” but as we know from car regulation, drunk driving awareness, and from gun statistics, those types of death are preventable as well.

What’s interesting to me is listening to one of the trauma Dr’s talk about the events of the day.  “We were prepared, we deal with trauma every day.” To them, while the number of people they saw may have jumped, they actually do this stuff all the time.  The rest of us only see these large, videotaped events, and not those tragedies that do actually happen every day and are equally tragic.

This directly relates to a similar feeling we all have, the fear of dying in a terrorist attack. We think about it often, especially when flying.  Yet even if there was a terrorist attack every year in NY that killed 100 people, you’re still much more likely to be killed in a car accident or homicide in this city.  So, why don’t we fear those possibilities more?

I literally think about the terrorist possibility, no matter how remote it actually is statistically, to the point that I emailed my wife about it last week. “If I die in a big national tragedy, don't allow politicians or anyone who doesn't know me to attend or speak at funeral/memorial.” This was the rational part of my mind trying to overcome the irrational possibility that is so statistically unlikely I shouldn’t be thinking of it. The rational side doesn’t want my tragic death, after an easy life of luxury, to be “dramatized” when I rationally know I’m not that important. Rationally, there are more tragic things in this world than a guy who’s had quite possibly the luckiest and easiest life ever, dying early. . . Like the 800 million people in the world that have no access to clean water.  That’s a FUCKING tragedy.

I’m not exactly sure what point I’m trying to make here but let met summarize. . .

1)     All tragic death is tragic

2)    Some tragic death matters more than others

3)    I don’t know why
**I include suicides b/c the mortality rate of gun suicide is so much higher than by any other means .... 90% mortality vs 3% for drug overdose.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Benny Explains – Post Office Edition

The post office “posted” a $16B loss in 2012 and everyone with a podium is talking about how to fix it.  Obviously, one of the main reasons the USPS is losing money now is because volumes are dropping. Email has replaced letter writing and online bill pay continues to crush the check writing industry. 
The obvious solution to falling revenue is cutting costs.  This requires cutting delivery hours, busting unions, cutting benefits. In fact, these are not solutions to the “problem” but instead solutions to the symptoms. I put “problem” in quotes because unless you want to change the entire nature of what the post office actually does, there may not be a problem at all. 

To help “solve” the problem, the post office decided to cut Saturday service, which will save it some money, but that won’t fix the fundamental problems facing the post office.  Of course, today, “cost conscious small government republicans” passed a bill to keep Saturday service (but that’s another article on how they’d rather bust unions than actually cut costs).  Cutting Saturday service, cutting benefits, gutting unions, are all just attempts to treat the the symptoms of unprofitability, and they do not address the actual cause of the problems (or perhaps there are no problems).

Unions, Overpaid Employees, Out of Control Benefits are Not The Problem:
Fact: The USPS has had “high benefit” union employees for years, and yet it enjoyed a profit as recently as 2006. Technically, the post office was supposed to run at cost, not make a profit, and set prices in order to achieve that profitless goal.

Fact: The USPS would have been profitable every year until 2009, if not for a change in law in 2006 (before Dems took over), which required the USPS to prefund 75 years of pension benefits over a 10 year period. (Basically, the USPS has to put $ into a fund that will cover every current employees full pension - including 22 year olds - instead of putting that $ in over time). No other government agency was put under this onerous mandate to “overfund” billions of dollars a year. This law was designed for one specific reason. . . . It would turn a profitable organization with a large powerful union into a loss center, creating the political will to bust that union.  In hindsight, the USPS became unprofitable anyway, but this bill exaserbated the issue.
Fact:  While you may have heard that the USPS is bloated and has way too many employees, since 2000, the employee count has dropped from 900,000 to 600,000.  That is substantial.

Fact: The United Parcel Service (UPS), the USPS’s largest "competitor," has 400,000 employees of which 250,000 are unionized employees. This company generated $5B of cash flow last year and it is worth $80B. (You will understand later why I put "competitor" in quotes)

However, If we exclude the impact of the pension accounting change, and the fact that employee costs have been cut substantially, the USPS was still unprofitable in 2012. Why?

The actual problems at the USPS are due to its very nature as a government entity, which gives it monopoly power over your mailbox and subsequently government regulation of that monopoly. It has nothing to do with overpaid employees, pensions, or unions. 

Basically, there are 3 structural reasons (which have nothing to do with employees) that explain why the post office is not profitable. They are easily fixable … as long as you change the definition of what the post office is and does.

First: The post office doesn’t set its prices. The price of sending a letter or package is set by the Postal RegulatoryCommission, which is an independent establishment of the executive branch.  It actually has to accept or reject (which it does sometimes) any rate increase request from the USPS. Thus, as a consequence of the “monopoly” the USPS is given over our mailboxes, it can’t set its own prices. Sending a letter in this country is so absurdly cheap. Think about it, you can send a letter from NY to Hawaii for 46c and it will get there in 3 days. If you tried to send that letter via FedEx, it would cost you $46 or 100x more (UPS is $39)! Any for profit entity would use dynamic pricing, charging more for distance, and location.  A for profit company with mailbox access would likely charge something like, $1 for a letter in the same city, $2 in the same state, $4 to another city within 200 miles, $10 to a rural area within 200 miles and $20 for everywhere else.  Bang, profits…But if you want 46c letters to anywhere in the country, then you’ve got to be ok with huge (Subsidized? Socialized?) losses at the post office.

Second: The post office must deliver to every mailbox every day. Do you know how absurd that is? Half of the USPS routes are unprofitable, yet by law the USPS must deliver mail. In a city, one mailperson delivers to 10,000 mailboxes. In a small rural area, that drops to about 200. Assuming 2 pieces of mail a day (USPS delivered 68 trillion 1st class letters in 2012 = ~2 per day per household assuming 100M US households), those rural routes generate only $62,000 in revenue, barely enough to cover 1 salary let alone any transportation and overhead costs. Similar to how city customers subsidize telephone access for rural customers through USF fees (Universal Service Fund) on your phone bill, profitable city postal customers are subsidizing rural cost centers.  Any for-profit company would just cut every unprofitable rural route and easily make $$$…. But if you don’t want half of the country to be cut off from the “daily deliver to your own personal mailbox” system, then you’ve got to be ok with huge losses at the post office.

Third: The post office is legally not allowed to compete with for profit companies. The post office is a government monopoly which gives it sole access to your mailbox. As a regulated monopoly, it is not legally allowed to compete. FedEx and UPS were born from this restriction. They figured out which part of USPS services were the most profitable (shipments) and stole that business. When FedEx created overnight delivery, the USPS couldn’t respond with their own offer and just lost business. "Competitors" can see if something the USPS does works well, and poach it while the USPS is not allowed to do the same.  If the USPS was allowed to actually compete with FedEx and UPS, of course it would be profitable. It would offer overnight rates, and cushioned envelopes, and worldwide 3 day delivery. FedEx and UPS both have unionized employees as well, and FedEx is worth $34B while UPS is worth $80B. But if you want to give the USPS its monopoly power, unregulated, then FedEx and UPS will be less profitable, will lay off employees, and smaller delivery services may go out of business. 

The next time someone screams “unions!” “pensions!” “overpaid employees!” just tell them  that with a few simple changes, the US Postal Service would be very profitable.  However, if they want 46c mail to be delivered to every house in the US every day by a company that legally isn’t allowed to compete, then yes, that company is going to have to be subsidized by the government. Ask them which of the three structural flaws they’d like to get rid of.