Sunday, December 30, 2012

Farewell 2012

I know there's one more day but its time to say no to 2012. I will remember this year as a particularly good one for many reasons. One reason (perhaps a bit trivial) is that I'll think of it as a year of toys. Here's what toys entered our orbit:

The tablet on which I write this post.
A Roku player
A new laptop
The gadgets on our new minivan
A Wii

We're pretty blessed if we can count these good things. Perhaps 2013 will be a year in which we take some toys out of our lives.

Or maybe its time to repurpose the find I've used top buy toys. Perhaps it should now be for adventures or experiences. Maybe 2013 is a good year to stay a bucket list. It's not morbid. If I start planning now I've got time to do it with and a lot of great people top accompany me.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Another TINSTAAFL Moment

Ruth Marcus warns her readers that her op-ed on inflation indexing would be boring. Perhaps it's a sign of economic nerdiness that I found her piece quite compelling.

As a nation we're stumbling over bills to what we thought had been free lunches. (My cryptic title is an abbreviation for There is no such thing as a free lunch, a cornerstone of economic thought.) According to Marcus, our federal government has generously but imprecisely calculated price level changes. This practice has allowed Social Security recipients to essentially get raises from year to year in their benefits. In other words, Social Security benefits rose in real not just nominal terms. Meanwhile, taxpayers received a break because when tax brackets change from year to year in overstated amounts, individuals' tax bills are rising at a rate slower than their income might be. The economic jargon for this, I guess, would be that the methods for calculating changes in tax rates was going in reverse of bracket creep.

Okay, let me pull out of economic nerdvana. There's an interesting point in what Marcus shows regarding chain-weighted CPI adjustments. For years recipients of Social Security and taxpayers for federal income tax have been getting a small bargain: getting more than the benefits were designed to deliver or paying less than the code intended, respectively. Fractions of a percent, when compounded and when of billions of dollars, add up over time. And those dollars contribute to our deficit. Fixing this imprecision will pinch millions of Americans.

Marcus is illustrating an interesting phenomenon that is symbolic of much else in our political and economic life. As citizens and taxpayers we are accustomed to getting more from government than we put in. It's true with Social Security benefits where we draw far more than we contribute. It's true of income taxes where we squeeze every last deduction out of our returns. It's true of our real estate taxes (at least in Southeastern Pennsylvania), where we pay a bill based on millage of our appraised property value, and our appraised property value is sometimes less than 20% of what the real estate market determines our houses are worth. It's true of our public services, where we expect exceptional services for minimal prices.

And so our fiscal cliff approaches, and no deal is in sight. No wonder. Perhaps 2013 is the year we start realizing what the lunch costs.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Returning to normal times

Liturgically it's still Christmas. The calendar says it's December 26th. My heart cannot listen to Christmas carols anymore. Therefore, Christmas is over and we can return to normal life.

Though the news is a bit stale, I feel compelled to comment on the National Rifle Association's press conference from last week, the one in which they mentioned the idea of thwarting acts of terror in schools with armed guards.

What an awful idea. It would make schools feel like police states rather than safe harbors for adolescents and children. It would increase the chances of an accidental firearms discharge. It would do little to thwart an armed-to-the-teeth intruder set on doing massive harm. And, economically, it makes almost no sense. Schools have hard enough time fighting for funds as it is. Taxpayers aren't willing to support the salary and training necessary for well-trained armed security at our schools.

Stepping away from my reactions as a teacher, I can't help but think the NRA squandered a chance to advance 2nd Amendment freedoms. There are 300 million firearms in the country, nearly one for every citizen. We stand a better chance making tragedies like last Friday's less common if we elevate the expectations and standards for gun ownership. The operation of a firearm requires sophisticated training: not just in the use of the weapon but in understanding when it should be used. Why can't the NRA back some sort of extensive training for the purpose of gun ownership licensure? Shouldn't the standards for owning and operating a firearm be commensurate with the level of training we expect from truck drivers or heavy equipment operators or airline pilots? Wouldn't professionalizing firearm ownership lend credibility to those who want to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights.

And wouldn't such a system of licensing make the NRA look like legitimate problem solvers rather than zealous adherents to a gun-rights orthodoxy.

Of course licensing isn't something anyone could afford in terms of time or money. So be it.

The NRA's reaction is ordinary in the context of our political times, however. Politicians of all stripes seem to adhere to orthodoxies that trump any pragmatic consideration of a middle ground on important debates. Ross Douthat commented on this sad, dysfunctional trend last week in The New York Times. Ways to minimize tragedies, either spectacularly awful ones like those in Connecticut or suffocatingly boring ones like managing our nation's resources, will elude us as long as the politicians we elect adhere to polarizing fundamentals.  

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Tragedies like those which befell Newtown defy understanding and simple explanation. The heart aches. 

Ross Douthat of the New York Times wrote a stirring piece today regarding the tragedy. 

I'm humbled by what took place there. Humbled because it seems Newtown's schools took all the right steps and its adults tried to shield and protect. All those protocols, efforts, wisdom couldn't prevent 27 from being murdered. 

Education had to refine its practices regarding such events of terror in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, and perhaps schools will once again go through the processes of making sure this doesn't happen again. But we cannot make any guarantees. We, educators, can make outcomes more or less likely, but we can never guarantee an outcome. Accepting our inability to control every situation requires humility and grace. Sadly, we'll move on from the Newtown tragedy unnerved by the reality that there is little more that school, or any other school, could do to prevent those murders. 

So, we pray to a gracious and loving God. We pray that God keeps our children safe in school (and everywhere else they go), and keeps us safe in our places of business and in our homes. We pray that God helps us see others as humans worthy of God's love as well as ours. We treat others with kindness and compassion. Praying and treating others compassionately is within our control, and is what we can do in a world in which tragedy sometimes comes from circumstances we cannot try to control. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

An early Christmas present

Just like my wife gets excited over an edition of Us whose cover promises all sorts of stories, The Economist sometimes puts out an issue filled with gems. The cover promises stories about technology and Abraham Lincoln. Then I stumbled on a great analysis of excessive college costs. And, best of all, a brilliant cartoon about the wars between Amazon, Apple, Google, etc.