Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sports: Being an LA Sports Fan

Well, what can you say?

The Ducks and Kings were bounced from the NHL playoffs.

Of the six games the Kings and Sharks played, three went into OT indicating the two teams were pretty evenly matched. Not bad considering how the Kings had some late in the season injuries and pretty much limped to the finish line. Wait until next year!

Dodgers have been doing better on the field and perhaps with MLB trying to wrest control of the team from McCourt, things will get better off the field. Nonetheless, the Dodger brand has been badly tarnished.

Meanwhile, the Lakers could be nearing the end of their run with Kobe injured and the Lakers seemingly unable to summon the will to play a full 48 minutes against the upstart Hornets.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Politics: What are taxes for?

Taxes serve three purposes:
1) Raise revenue for government purposes
2) Subsidize activities the government believes (rightly or wrongly) to be beneficial for society
3) Redistribute wealth

Redistribute wealth
Current workers pay Social Security taxes to pay benefits to retired individuals.
Current workers pay Medicare taxes to fund health care for the elderly.
High income earners pay income taxes that funds various programs that may or may not benefit them directly.

Subsidize activities
Are homeowners considered a special interest group?
One deduction in the tax code is interest payments to service a home loan. Thus, the tax code is subsidizing this activity.
Are workers who get health insurance from their companies special interests?
Health insurance benefits from employers are not taxes as salary. Thus, the tax code is subsidizing this activity.
Are people who donate to charity a special interest group?
One can deduct donations to IRS recognized charities. Thus, the tax code is subsidizing this activity.
Any deduction or credit one claims on the 1040 is a subsidization of that activity.

Raising revenue
Government taxes the people to raise revenue to spend it.

The debate needs to be on how many of the current functions are proper.

Government has proper functions in society. I don't advocate getting rid of all the discretionary spending portion of the budget but it could use a trim (e.g. agricultural and energy subsidies go to the politically connected while education and housing are rightly local matters).

We need to talk about the big dollars in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense.

Interest on the debt is big but you can't stop paying the interest on the debt without a calamity on the financial markets so you can't really do anything about that one except borrow less so that part doesn't keep getting bigger!

Defense needs to be trimmed (listen up GOP).

Social Security and Medicare needs to be trimmed and re-organized because we should not promise benefits for our seniors we can't realistically pay for (listen up Democrats).

Funding of Medicaid is morally defensible because that is for the poor (listen up GOP). However, the way its organized could use some work (listen up Democrats).

The debate also needs to be on whether the tax code should have so many credits/deductions to subsidize certain activities.

Most forms of taxation are FLAT and impact rich and poor alike. This is not true of the income tax.

As a practical matter, I think the income tax system should be tiered progressively (i.e. higher income pays a higher percentage). I think the cap on Social Security taxes (currently at $106,800) should rise and eventually be lifted. I think most credits/deductions should be phased out over time.

Taxes should be primarily about raising revenue for needed government functions and much less about subsidizing activities the government deems desirable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Politics: Do the rich pay "enough" taxes?

That is a question people often ask with the assumption the answer is, NO!

But the question does require two assumptions:
What is the definition of rich?
What is enough?

Thus, leaving aside "who is rich" and "what is enough" questions, what can we say about this taxing question?

This item
suggests that the bulk (97.3%) of the income taxes are paid by those in the top 50% of the population. Looking at the other part of the bar graph, 58.7% of all income taxes are paid by just 5% of the population.

Thus, with regards to income tax, the rich do pay a large share of the taxes.

However, as any average working person knows, we also pay Social Security taxes and Medicare taxes.

Turns out Medicare tax is essentially a FLAT TAX on income for all employers/employees of 1.45% for employer and 1.45% for employee. Thus, the Medicare tax falls on all people equally.

However, the Social Security tax is a FLAT TAX on income up to $106,800 with 6.2% on employers and 6.2% on employees. Thus, for folks earning $106,800 or less, we are all taxed the same. But if one earns more than $106,800, those extra dollars are not subject to the Social Security FLAT TAX, thus the effective rate for them falls as they earn more.

Of course, someone earning over $106,800 is taxed in the 25, 28, 33 or 35% tax bracket depending on total income compared to the 10 and 15% bracket for the less well heeled.

Then there are SALES taxes levied at the state/county/city levels which hits all people. And there are PROPERTY taxes which hits all people who own homes. There are GAS taxes at the pump that are paid by anyone who drives. There are alcohol and tobacco taxes for those who partake.

There are specialized taxes on dividends and capital gains which are at rates in some cases lower than income tax rates. However, dividends and capital gains are generated by the purchase of mutual funds and stocks and other investment vehicles usually with income that has been taxed once already.

As you can see there are many tax mechanisms that the population pays: no one escapes the TAXMAN as described in the Beatles song.

And it turns out that most taxes are of the FLAT tax variety (i.e. as a percentage the same for everyone) with the income tax as progressive (i.e. higher rates for higher income) and social security tax as regressive (i.e. lower rates for higher income) above $106,800

The really big question is how much government do we want to pay for?

Revenues need to match expense. But since they don't, there is DEBT. This DEBT is paid out of future tax revenues and is a "tax" on future generations.

A secondary question is what types of tax systems to use.

The more complicated the systems, the more likely there will be honest mistakes, legal tax avoiding actions and outright tax evasion.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Theology: Passover and Easter, When?

Saw this item today.

I knew that Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples prior to his death on Good Friday and Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

What I didn't know was that Matthew, Mark and Luke offered that description but that John stated that Jesus died on the day of preparation for the Passover (Friday) which results in a special Sabbath Saturday that was also a Passover remembrance.

Thus, it appears confusing and contradictory!

The article
offers this explanation:
Humphreys' research suggests Jesus, and Matthew, Mark and Luke, were using the Pre-Exilic Calendar, which dated from the time of Moses and counted the first day of the new month from the end of the old lunar cycle, while John was referring to the official Jewish calendar of the day.
.......
If the Passover meal and the Last Supper did take place on a Wednesday it would help explain how the large number of events that the Gospels record between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion were able to take place.

With the help of an astronomer, Humphreys reconstructed the Pre-Exilic calendar and placed Passover in the year AD 33, widely accepted as the year of Jesus' crucifixion, on Wednesday April 1.

That means if modern Christians wished to ascribe a date for Easter based on Humphreys' calculations, which he has been mulling over since 1983, Easter Day would fall on the first Sunday in April.


If this analysis correct, Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples as described in Matthew, Mark and Luke on a date (Wednesday) that was different then the establishment Jewish community of the time which celebrated it on Saturday which was what John was referring.

I look forward to seeing if some other scholars I check out on these theological matters agree with this proposed explanation.

UPDATE: Here you can hear Humphrey's explain in a BBC interview.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

LA Scene: LA Phil's Importance of Being Earnest by Ades and Barry

The review from the professional (LA Times Mark Swed) was positive.

The reviews from the comment's section of Mark Swed's report were mixed.

The fact that the concert hall was no where near full meant that many had voted with their feet by either not showing up for their subscription concert, trading out of it or not buying this show in particular.

We went with some trepidation. But as a subscriber since 1999, I had been exposed to some contemporary musical programs and had more often than not enjoyed them. Thus, we went with an open mind to see the show.

It was awful.

Imagine the sound of singers trying to sound like roaring lions? Or was that cats coughing? Or dogs choking? Imagine watching two musicians cracking plates in garbage cans and cranking wind machines. I had to wonder what the singers and musicians thought when they first got the music score? Do they actually like to do these kinds of programs? Or do they figure, well its a paycheck?

Below is the letter I am sending to the LA Phil.

April 9, 2011

Los Angeles Philharmonic
111 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Dear LA Phil,

I have been a subscriber since 1999 and my ticket package (currently FR3) has usually included one concert a season devoted to contemporary music. Over the years, more often than not, I've enjoyed those concerts. Thus, I'm not reflexively opposed to contemporary music. I have admired the astute judgement of your program planners that resulted in musical choices that “pushed the edge” without going over the edge.

However, last evening, the Ades-Barry project The Importance of Being Earnest was well over the edge. I recognize that when an organization commissions a work they must permit the artists considerable freedom to pursue their ideas. However, it should be noted that the “customers” can vote with their feet by leaving the performance or not showing up.

I did not know what to expect and came with an open mind. But within 5 to 10 minutes, a number of people started to leave the concert. We would have left as well except for the fact we didn't want to climb over a half-dozen people to get to the aisle. Suffice to say, we did not return for Act III.

Because of the high quality performances of familiar works and tasteful selection of less familiar and new works, the LA Philharmonic enjoys a vast pool of good will. However, such rapport with the subscribers and audience should not be taken for granted or abused. Hopefully, blunders like The Importance of Being Earnest will remain the exception.

Thanks for a mostly wonderful 2010-2011 season. I look forward to 2011-2012.

Sincerely,
The LA Phil has a clearly marked and labeled new music series called Green Umbrella.

I don't attend those because having heard some new music on the radio, I know I am not likely to enjoy or be interested in that type of programing.

Over the years, I have come to trust the LA Phil programing staff in regards to their music choices beyond the traditional Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and other crowd pleasing favorites that they mix in to the general subscription packages. Some have been quite enjoyable or at least thought provoking. Examples: Salonen's farewell concert, an Ades led concert, Concrete Frequency Festival, Stucky's Second Concerto for Orchestra.

Importance of Being Earnest was dreadful.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Non-profit of the month: May 2011 - KOCE

With KCET breaking away from the PBS network, PBS retains its presence in Southern California through KOCE. Thus, I go to 50.1 to get my PBS Newshour, Washington Week, Nova, Nature and American Experience.

Whether you think PBS should get Federal funds or not, go support your local PBS station if you watch it.

My feeling is that PBS Federal funding should be reduced and used to support stations in rural areas where the support base is smaller. In big metro areas, viewer support should be adequate to carry the weight to keep them on the air.

Non-profit of the month: April 2011 - KCET

Grew up watching KCET: Sesame Street, Mr. Rodger's Neighborhood and Nova.

As an adult, I enjoyed MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser, Washington Week in Review, American Experience documentaries and documentaries by Ken Burns.

Alas, KCET couldn't or wouldn't make a deal with PBS over financial issues so they have now become an independent station and lost access to a lot of the shows I enjoy on the PBS networks.

By all accounts, KCET is struggling financially even more so now.

Nonetheless, I still find my remote hitting 28.1 periodically because of Huell Howser and So Cal Connected and international news feeds on 28.4.

Therefore, I'll make a contribution to KCET.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Politics: Pick a number ... Rep. Ryan picked 20%


It isn't rocket science: one must balance spending with revenue.

Rep. Paul Ryan selected revenue as 20% of GDP and proposes that spending go down to 20% of GDP.

Of course, he and his plan is being attacked! Shocking, eh?

Would those who oppose his plan please pick a number?

UPDATE: Below is a screen grab from a CBO analysis of Rep. Ryan's plan.


Looks like Rep. Ryan split the difference ... spending is almost 24% GDP and revenue at 15% GDP. The middle ground would be 19-20% bringing down spending 4-5% and bringing up revenue 4-5%.

We need to decide how much government we want. If we want government to be 30% of GDP (baseline scenario - wonder if that is what happens if nothing is done to current policy? Alternative scenario has spending greater than 40%.) then we need to have revenue rise (double) to more than 30% GDP to begin to pay for it and begin to pay down the accumulated debt.

Will his critics come up with a number?

UPDATE: Cato weighs in on his proposal. They feel it is positive step to begin the conversation on restraining spending. But they do have a few complaints. Excerpts:
Ryan doesn’t provide specific Social Security cuts ...
Would rather see Ryan’s Medicare reforms kick in sooner ...
Ryan adopts Obama’s proposed defense (security) savings, but larger cuts are called for ...
Ryan includes modest cuts to nonsecurity discretionary spending. Larger cuts are needed, including termination of entire agencies ...


UPDATE: Of course, in the confused language of Washington DC, draconian cuts (what they are saying of the Ryan plan) are actually not cuts but reductions in growth! This item at Reason of a segment on Bloomberg explains.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Politics: Just how much is $61 billion in cuts? Yet another view ...

Imagine the hot dog vendor charges $3.81 but then says, "Hey, I'll cut my prices and sell it to you for $3.75, would you buy it now?"

That is what cutting $61 billion dollars from the US Federal budget is equal to on a percentage basis at the food truck on the construction site.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Technology: The Challenges of Green Energy

The "PR" of Green Energy is very good: good jobs! clean energy! saves the US economy! saves the world!

Of course, most things are never quite as good as advertised.

Why would anyone want to throw cold water on Green Energy?

Well, the reality is that Green Energy bumps its head up against the laws of physics and it costs lots of greenbacks (dollars).

This item I found at the Cato web page is a reprint of an item in Forbes magazine.

Excerpt:
green energy is diffuse ... the entire state of Connecticut (that is, if Connecticut were as windy as the southeastern Colorado plains) would need to be devoted to wind turbines to power the city of New York.

Sad to say, the land footprint of a traditional power plant is much smaller than a wind farm. And building wind farms out in the ocean is very challenging and expensive. I wonder how many acres of solar panels would one need to match one good old fashioned natural gas power plant?

Excerpt:
it is unreliable. The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine when the energy is needed. We account for that today by having a lot of coal and natural gas generation on "standby" to fire-up when renewables can't produce.

The CAL-ISO manages the electricity needs of California and they have cool graphs of what is happening on a daily basis. As one can see there are peaks and troughs from the wind and solar portions of the electrical portfolio.

As long as solar and wind account for only a small portion of the electrical generation portfolio and the system resource curves and demand curves don't get too close, one probably can live with those peaks and troughs. But when the lines get close, the electrical grid will need a more stable source of electricity; hence, backup generation capacity from gas and coal.

Excerpt:
once the electricity is produced by the sun or wind, it cannot be stored because battery technology is not currently up to the task. Hence, we must immediately "use it or lose it."

Without battery technology, the peaks and troughs of wind and solar will need backup generation in case of a power crunch.

The Green Energy movement is hesitant to embrace nuclear power for philosophical reasons and the practical radiation risk as highlighted in the recent problems in Japan. But nuclear doesn't produce greenhouse gases so in that sense it can be included in the green category.

Unfortunately, nuclear, in addition to the radiation risks, does pose some financial challenges too. Because of the radiation risks, plant design has to be very good thus nuclear has very high initial capital costs which this item over at Reason discusses.

Excerpt:
While the nuclear industry in the United States has seen continued improvements in operating performance over time, it remains uncompetitive with coal and natural gas on the basis of price. This cost differential is primarily the result of high capital costs and long construction times. Indeed, building a nuclear power plant in the United States has cost, on average, three times as was originally estimated.

Am not in the energy business but clearly there are some very big challenges out there!