Saturday, January 29, 2005

It's a Good Thing We're So Free

The most frequent on-the-job use of email seems to be the forwarding and re-re-re-forwarding of alleged humor and simulated profundity. I got one yesterday that I found thought-provoking ... but probably not in the direction that the sender intended.

It was a collection of one-line slogans -- electronic bumper stickers, really -- related to firearms and their proscription by law. You've seen lots of these before, I expect. A few examples:

An armed man is a citizen. An unarmed man is a subject.

Colt: The original point and click interface.

If guns cause crime, then pencils cause misspelled words.

Enforce the "gun control laws" we have, don't make more.

Ho, hum. Now, I own firearms, and I enjoy shooting. In fact, that's why one of my day-job associates forwarded this collection to me: he sent it to a small group of us who shoot together, usually one Saturday a month during reasonable weather (March through November, more or less). Passing around items like this is a kind of code. It reminds us that we're the Midwestern version of good ol' boys, and we're sure not anything like those pink-panty lib'ruls and bicoastal Democrats who want real men's guns taken away from them, because they're scared of guns. And indeed, I think there is truth in some of these little slogans, mixed with rather less wit than their authors would like to think.

But the one that flipped a switch in my Friday-afternoon-deadened mind was this:

The Second Amendment is in place in case they ignore the others.

"In case they ignore the others?" In case?

What amendment -- indeed, what part of the constitution -- have they not ignored? (Or "usurped," as our Founders would have put it?)

The men who wrote our constitution knew that, if we were to be meaningfully free, we would have to be armed. But that's not enough. Being armed is what a mathematician would call a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition, for political liberty. Other conditions are also required. He who would be free must be willing to fight, kill, and die to remain that way. He must also be willing to believe the evidence of his own eyes and ears when deciding whether "his" government is respecting -- or encroaching on -- his liberties. He needs to be willing to know and remember history, so as to have a standard to use in evaluating just how "free" he is. He may have to shut off the teevee and do some reading, and -- horrors! -- thinking, from time to time.

When tyranny comes, it doesn't have to be abrupt. If one's supervisors are clever -- and ours are damnably clever -- they bring it on a little at a time, and anaesthetize the sheep with benefits and prosperity. The big thing is to be gradual. One year is always just that tiny bit worse than the one before, but the transition is smooth and no one gets upset. Thus we arrive at today, where you spend half your year working for government in one form or another, and assure yourself that you live in the "freest country on earth." And we gun owners tell ourselves that if "they" ever decide to ignore any of those other parts of our dead-letter constitution, our dead-letter 2nd Amendment will put a stop to that nonsense right away.

Sure you should be armed. But it's no good if you won't open your eyes and see.

Monday, January 24, 2005

A River Runs Through It

In fiscal year 2004, the federal debt was 7.38 trillion dollars. The required interest to service this debt was 322 billion dollars. Trillions and billions are not meaningful quantities for peasants such as you or I, who might typically open our wallets to reveal a few singles, a couple of fives, a couple of tens, and a twenty or so. But I've done a little figurin', as they say, to bring some intuitive reality to this picture.

Envision the interest alone as a stream of bills flowing out of some Treasury building in D.C. Imagine this building ... broad granite steps leading up to an imposing main entrance, a limestone facade, lots of columns and other Romanesque architectural details. Now let's consider that stream of outgoing currency. Suppose it's only one bill wide, and the bills are exactly touching at the ends, making a seamless stream of cash. How fast does the stream travel? Well, that depends on how deep it is. The one I'm imagining is only one bill deep ... but we'll make it a twenty-dollar bill. After all, we don't want to seem cheap, and a convenience-store clerk still sometimes glares at you a little when you hand him a twenty to pay for your Diet Pepsi.

So, how long is a twenty-dollar bill?

Well, I opened my wallet just now, and -- would you believe it? -- there doesn't seem to be one there to measure. My choice is among three ones and a ten. (I get paid in a few days; I'm not always this broke.) The first thing I notice is that these bills have the same length. So I'm going to assume that a twenty-dollar bill is also that long. I measure a one-dollar bill and find that its length is 6.13 inches (to three significant figures).

Let's calculate the time rate at which twenty-dollar bills leave the Treasury. A year contains, on average, 365.26 days. So, the daily flow is $3.22E11 / 365.26 days = 8.82E8 $/day. Divide by 20 (to convert to twenties): 4.41E7 $20/day. Multiply by (1 day / 24 hr): 1.84E6 $20/hr. Multiply by (1 hr / 60 min): 3.06E4 $20/min. Multiply by (1 min / 60 s): 5.10E2 $20/s. Let's pause here to note that 510 twenty-dollar bills are flowing past, each and every second. That means they have to go pretty fast. How fast? Since each one is 6.13 inches long, the speed is 3.13E3 in/s. Converting that to the miles-per-hour familiar to every driver (I'll spare you the calculational details this time), that comes out to 178 MPH.

Now, bullets go a lot faster than that. So do jet airplanes. Race cars go faster than that ... but not much faster.

If you’d like, we can fiddle with the details. You say you'd like for the stream to take weekends off? (249 MPH.) How about the usual holidays, too? (257 MPH.) How about we only run the stream 8 hours per day, instead of 'round the clock? Now we're going fast: 770 MPH.

That high-speed stream of currency does not pay off the federal debt at all. It doesn't reduce the principal amount by one cent. It's just the interest. In fact, you can bet that it actually makes the debt bigger -- because we're borrowing to make part of the interest payments.

Well, I don't know about you, but that kind of bums me out. We've got to get those spendthrift Democrats out of power. Now, if we could just elect a good, solid, conservative, grownup, fiscally-responsible, limited-government Republican as our president ... and (I'm really dreaming now!) a Republican-majority Congress (both houses!) ... and maybe a Supreme Court with most of its members -- let's say seven of the nine -- appointed by those solid conservatives ... then I know we'd put a stop to this government hemorrhage of money. We must really have been completely crazy to have elected Gore in 2000!

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Inauguration Day! Hooray!

Today marks the solemnity and festivity of the Glorious Reinstallation of our Dread Imperial Sovereign, George II. His single moment of accountability has come and gone, and he has withstood it. So now, for the next four years at least, none shall hold him accountable by any means. O glorious day!

This seems like a good time to open that symbolic Bible, on which The Mighty and Unaccountable One, the Scourge of Turr'r, will rest his powerful hand at the moment of oathtaking. Let's open it to the Old Testament, to 1 Samuel chapter 8. In the interest of brevity, we'll excerpt from that chapter:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, "Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations." But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to judge us." And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day -- in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods -- so they are doing to you also. Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them."

So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who had asked him for a king. And he said, "This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. And he will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys, and use them for his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day."

Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, "No, but there shall be a king over us, that we may also be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight all our battles."

Wow. That is truly remarkable. Maybe George the Wee Emperor really is God's man for America. Surely he has fulfilled the prophecy.

On the other hand, I have not the slightest doubt that, had the bellicose Senator Kerry wrested the imperial purple from Bush the Younger, he too would have fulfilled the prophecy ... and seamlessly, too. With perfect continuity. Oh, how blessed are we, the fortunate sons and daughters of Democracy!

And now, I must go. I seem to have some chariot equipment to make. And my overseers are notoriously uninterested in excuses.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

One Insurgent Equals 5.8 Chickens

On CNN's website today, there's an interesting conjunction of two news stories. In West Virginia, a prosecutor has decided not to bring criminal charges against some chicken-processing workers who were "caught on tape allegedly kicking, stomping and slamming chickens against a wall." If convicted of felony animal cruelty, they could have been punished by three years' imprisonment.

Meanwhile, at Fort Hood, Texas, the jolly fellow that we saw in so many of those charming Abu Ghraib photos is being court-martialed. Charles Graner, the father of Lynndie England's love child (now there's the campus couple for you!), is answering to charges of "detainee abuse." From CNN's story:

A Syrian insurgent held at Abu Ghraib prison testified by video Tuesday that Army Spc. Charles Graner merrily whistled, sang and laughed while brutalizing him and forced him to eat pork and drink alcohol in violation of his Muslim faith.

An Iraqi detainee later told the court that he was among a group of prisoners stripped by Graner and other Abu Ghraib guards, stacked up naked in a human pyramid while female soldiers watched, and later told to masturbate.

"I couldn't imagine it in the beginning," Hussein Mutar, the Iraqi, said when asked how he felt during the alleged mistreatment. "I could kill myself because no one over there was stopping it from happening."

In other words, the chicken-plant treatment, more or less.

Now, of course we mustn't pre-judge Sgt. Graner. Maybe he's innocent. Maybe those wily "Baathist dead-enders," those artful concealers of WMDs, simply Photoshopped all those beauty shots and implanted them secretly as screen savers in half the Army's PCs. Maybe Michael Moore and Natalie Maines got together with Susan Sarandon and cooked the whole thing up. But let's suppose for a minute that it's true, and that Sgt. Graner's as guilty as sin. If he's convicted of everything, the CNN story tells us, he could possibly be imprisoned for 17.5 years.

Which means that -- calculated on the Imperial scale of justice -- an "insurgent" is worth (17.5 / 3) or about 5.8 slaughterhouse chickens.

Graner is said to be employing the Nuremburg defense: "I vass chust followink orders." And that, I suspect, is completely true. Not that it justifies his vile actions; it doesn't, and he should go down hard. But he should have company. Others should go down with him ... instead of being President or holding Cabinet seats.

A little more irony from the CNN story:

Defense attorney Guy Womack said al-Sheikh's testimony was good for his client. "It was the face of the enemy," Womack said. "It's very clear that he hates America."

Now, why would he hate America? Oh, sorry, I forgot ... I know my catechism. He hates America because we're so good. He hates America because we're so free. Eurasia is the enemy; Eurasia has always been the enemy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Bold Reforms -- Yep!

I see on CNN today that the administration is floating another Social Security trial balloon. Tinkering at the fringes of the Great Pyramid is a favorite pastime in both the Donkey and Elephant branches of the ruling duopoly. Minor tweaks -- and accusations of minor tweaks -- are seen as ways to gain temporary political advantage, as silver-haired AARPers are urged to vote, as they are famously wont to do, according to the twin stimuli of panic and greed. We can be sure, though, that the fiddling will remain very much at the margin, never approaching the heart of the beast. And it's the heart of the beast I'd like to consider today.

There was a time -- not so long ago, on the scale of human history -- when old people's needs were met by their children, in "retail" fashion: you took care of your parents, and I took care of mine. In a way, that's still what happens. Now, though, that "children" resource is (partially) collectivized. That is, the government throws everyone's children into a big common winepress and squeezes the juice out of them; then the government doles out the juice to the oldsters. Every one of them gets a drink, whether he "contributed" ten productive citizens to the vat, or no one at all, or a few non-working wastrels who are net consumers of juice.

Let's look at the incentives in the situation. An individual adult is clearly better off not to raise children. He will then enjoy much more disposable income while he's working, and can still live off everyone else's children when he retires. Obviously economic incentives aren't everything -- if they were, there'd be no children -- but they aren't exactly nothing, either. It is also true that the government offers counter-incentives that favor childbearing: personal exemptions for income, government schooling. These come far short of offsetting the actual cost of raising children, even in mere money ... saying nothing of the time, labor, and heartache involved.

Then, too, there is a principle involved. There is no Social Security "fund." Your "account" consists only of numbers. The money that you've paid in (and that I've paid, too) is long gone. It bought bullets, bombs, or votes. It bought crap and swill for pigs. As Ronn Neff pointed out so eloquently, there's no way for you to get back what you paid in. All you can do is receive money that the government has robbed from your children, your grandchildren, or your neighbors' children. You and I have been stolen from; does that constitute our license to steal from those who come after us, with the government as our torpedo? It's something to ponder; if you reach the same conclusion that I have, you too will be joining I'm Spartacus: A League of Honor.

The Elephant branch of the Corporate Party, when it isn't growing the government by prosecuting Wars on Drugs or Turr'r, loves to chatter about limiting the power, scope, and cost of the Gub'mint. (At least, they traditionally like to do that; going into the second term of Our Glorious Wartime Leader, I think even most of the GOP is a little queasy about small-government talk just right now.) Well, the pachyderms have the White House, both houses of Congress, and seven of nine sitting Supremes. You'll know they're serious about shrinking the D.C. carcinoma when they eliminate Social Security.

Don't hold your breath.