Why Should I Care about Economics? Part 1

11/29/2005: There is no easier way to either (a) clear a room or (b) put everyone to sleep in record time than the mere mention of the word “economics”. Unfortunately, it should matter to everyone, because–no matter what your station in life, no matter what country in which you live, no matter how you choose to live, economics impacts your life.

How can the “study of scarce resources that have alternative uses” matter to me?

Let’s say you are like the average American who pays $400 per month in car payments. Assuming that loan term is 60 months, that’s $24,000 you will pay out of pocket.

Many will look at that and say, “So what??? Tell me something I don’t know!”

Here’s the other part of that $24,000: that was only the amount you paid out of pocket; you actually paid more than that.

Let’s say that instead of paying off a car for 60 months, you paid $400 per month into a bond fund that grew at 5% (a very conservative bond fund). At the end of 60 months, you would have $27,202. that $3,202 represents an opportunity cost. That is the benefit you gave up to buy that car. Instead of having $27,000 in your account, you poured $24,000 down the drain. Had you invested it at 8%, you would have had $29,390; at 10%, $30,974.

Let’s take that $400 per month to a different level. Let’s say you invest that much per month into a private account for 40 years.

This is what you would have:
At 5%: $610,000
At 8%: $1,396,403
At 10%: $2,529,631
At 12%: $4,705,909

Why is this important? This is all about your future. Few Americans are saving for retirement, and yet Americans have high expectations for their retirement years. That $400 car payment can be the difference between retiring rich or retiring in poverty.

I am on the verge of completing an MBA project in which our team is studying the social security crisis. And make no mistake: (1) there is a crisis and (2) it’s worse than you’re being told.

Most reputable sources–regardless of political persuasion–agree on that point.

In spite of the political wrangling, here’s another wrinkle: there are no easy solutions to the problem. Almost every proposed reform involves (1) cutting benefits or (2) raising taxes.

Even the partial privatization scenarios do not fix the problem, because they will impact net revenues. Similarly, investing the social security surplus into stocks and corporate bonds will open a whole new can of worms by adding significant risk in return for higher returns.

Even if those reforms cause revenues to increase, there is no indication that Congress will not waste that increased surplus for their pet spending projects.

But there is one reform that can work: individuals can take responsibility for their own financial futures.

That will not happen until Americans declare war on debt and start building wealth through rational, prudent investing, and begin to hold Congress accountable for their hideous spending.

THAT is why you should care about economics.

Fred on Everything: Fred Opines on Evolution

11/25/2005: Someone at Vox Day’s blog referred me to FredOnEverything.net. His writings are fascinating. In this one, he provides a pretty reasonable assessment on evolution. Keep in mind that he is not a creationist.

I tend to look at things like an engineer, because that’s what I studied in my undergraduate life. I’m familiar with the design of aircraft–aerodynamics, structural analysis, and thermodynamics–and also with control systems. Anyone who has suffered through a control systems class can appreciate the mathematical complexity of even the simplest control systems. (Hint: you’d better be up on your differential equations for a class like that. You’ll be using Laplace Transforms, undetermined coefficients, variation of parameters and even the Runge-Kutta method for solving the necessary equations. And we’re just talking the easy ones.)

So, pardon me when I compare the flight characteristics of birds with that of airplanes.

(1) Birds don’t need a runway to take off or land. In the engineering world, we call that Vertical/Short TakeOff and Land (V/STOL) technology. It is very difficult to design a plane for that capacity. It is also difficult to fly such planes. Just ask a Harrier pilot.

(2) Birds can sweep their wings forward and aft. This technology is very complicated from an engineering standpoint, as we have only designed a few airplanes with swept-wing technology, most notably the F-111, F-14, and B-1. These planes were expensive to develop, and are very maintenance-intensive. (The F-111 has been retired from service.)

(3) Birds have an aerodyanamic efficiency that rivals airplanes. They even spend less money maintaining their airworthiness than our best companies do.

(4) Birds can vary the curvature of their wings. We call that variable camber in the engineering world. This allows aircraft to adjust the wing for takeoff/landing conditions verus straight, level flight. Designing the controls accordingly is not easy and–without computers–is an exercise in iteration hell. But birds don’t know that. 😉

(5) Birds have excellent navigational systems. They don’t require computers–or air traffic controllers–to tell them where to go.

(6) Birds don’t need pilots to fly them. Even our drones need controllers on the ground, as our airplanes don’t have minds of their own.

(7) If you’ve ever been crapped on by a bird, you’d notice that they also have accurate bombing systems.

If man-made airplanes are a product of design (and some mechanics will debate this), then a reasonable person can look at natural airplanes–birds–and conclude that some higher intelligence was working on this.

Now…let’s talk a little bit about control systems.

As anyone who got through the first ten minutes of a biology course konws, every organism has homeostatic controls. Homeostatic controls allow the organism to maintain homeostasis; i.e., the conditions which allow the organism to live. For humans, that involves a multitude of things such as blood pH, body temperature, and blood sugar. These are very precise, too: small, sustained variations in blood pH or body temperature can be fatal. A diabetic who misses an insulin dose can die if blood sugar levels are too high.

Homeostatic controls are examples of feedback control systems. Such systems use feedback as a means of regulating the behavior of the system. This is why you sweat when you are too hot, or shiver when you are too cold.

Feedback control systems are also used in your automobile (your cooling system) and your home (thermostat). In industrial plants, such systems help maintain environmental parameters. On an airplane, navigation systems and autopilots are feedback control systems.

Mechanical feedback control systems are extremely complex. Even something simple–like a thermostat in your home–requires significant precision to design.

Now consider that every organism has these types of systems. But instead of programmable logic devices, we are talking biochemical processes that involve complex proteins, ions, chemical receptors, and enzymes. Each of these systems works with outstanding biochemical precision. And each is fundamentally different. (The body temperature of a human differs from that of a cat or a dog.)

If mechanical control systems (thermostats, autopilots) are products of design, then a reasonable person can look at biological systems that have similar form (feedback controls) and conclude that there was probably a higher level of intelligence involved.

I cannot scientifically prove that any more than an evolutionist can prove that s*** happens macroevolution. But to call one “faith” while calling the other “science” strikes me as dishonest. Both are matters of faith, as neither can be proven by the scientific method.

No Dog in the Fight over Christmas: Don’t use Molech to promote Yahweh

11/25/2005: Now that Thanksgiving 2005 has come and gone, we are in the homestretch toward Christmas.

‘Tis the time for more spending, more fruitcake (on second thought, strike that thought), more fat men in red suits, Christmas plays, and other festivities associated with Christmas. The ACLU will also have a field day, pontificating what is–and is not–proper expression of Christmas holiday sentiment.

Some conservative writers have railed against the secularization of America by the likes of the ACLU. Other writers–correctly–point out that the secularization of Christmas and the promotion of pseudo-holidays (Kwaanza) are efforts to undermine Christianity and Western culture. Many Christians have reacted by taking the fight to the leftist establishment and demanding reform in the judiciary. Ergo, many right-leaning Christians are lining up to defend Christmas.

I see two issues here:

(1) Left-wing secularists undermining Christianity and Western culture in America and
(2) Is it really worth defending Christmas?

To the first, Americans should be rightly concerned. The very notion of freedom from a Constitutional/Declaration of Independence standpoint is Western all the way. Denying the Christian influence of American culture would be a grand mistake. Christians drove the move to free slaves. It was Christian influence that made post-civil war reconciliation between North and South possible. Christians are leading the global fight against human trafficking. While Christians have many negative contributions to history, far more is their positive contribution. The Academic/Secular Left seeks to blot out these contributions through revisionist history. In addition, many in the left wish to turn America into a Third World country and destroy all semblance of free markets. On top of that, many of them undermine Christianity because that stands in the way of their social agendas.

Christians should rightly oppose these elements, realizing that no political party will provide all the necessary solutions. The hope of the Christian lies in the crucified–and resurrected–Messiah.

However, I don’t have a dog in the fight over Christmas. It is not a Biblical holy day; it is in fact a Pagan holiday with Pagan symbolism with a veneer of Christianity. Mistletoe and Christmas trees are hardly Christian in their origin. Taking Pagan elements and proclaming them Christian makes no sense to me. Christians should pick their battles wisely, and I am not about to defend a Pagan holiday in order to advance Christianity. That does not strike me as a Biblically wise thing to do.

That said, I am amused by civil libertarians who are offended at Nativity scenes on city/state/federal properties. They have a special phobia for Christians that borders on pathological.

Cool it, Vox

11/23/2005: Vox Day is one of the sharpest minds in the blogosphere. Combining the analytical expertise of an Ivy-leaguer with a Christian libertarian ideological bent, he’s usually right. When he’s at the top of his game, he has few equals.

Unfortunately, he is very arrogant and slanderous toward many conservatives who should otherwise be among his allies. Recently, he and Ben Shapiro got into a nasty spat over United States military actions. Shapiro is an ardent supporter of the war in Iraq, and supports further military action, whereas Vox strenuously opposes the war.

Vox challenged Shapiro–who is a 21-year-old law school student at Harvard–to put his money where his mouth is and join the military. In the exchange that ensued, Vox attacked Shapiro with implicit gay-baiting and suggested “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” (Emphasis mine.)

I opined against those attacks.

Now, Vox is in a long-standing spat with Michelle Malkin over her book In Defense of Internment, in which Malkin makes a case for modern-day threat profiling in the global war against terrorists (GWOT) by providing a framework for understanding the internment of Japanese Americans who resided on the West Coast in World War II. The spat has descended into a slingfest, which now has Vox calling Malkin a “liar” and referring to her with such derogatory terms as “Me-So Michelle” (which is tantamount to calling her a slut) and “media whore”.

Vox is a smart man, but this level of personal attack against Malkin–a fellow Christian, by the way–reveals a lack of maturity on his part. Having read Vox’s columns for quite some time, I hate to say this, but I think he’s jealous.

Ben Shapiro, after all, is only 21, and has written two outstanding books. Malkin is also widely published and has written three fine-selling books.

On one hand, he’s a first-rate intellect. He is so smart he can run circles around 99% of the population, but this has gotten to his head. When people challenge him, he ridicules their arguments and treats them like crap. That may arouse his loyal fans, but he ends up forgetting the Christian in his Christian libertarian label.

If he’d take a little bite off his fastball, he’d have much more positive effect.

Tone it down, Vox.

“I Won’t Beat my Wife Anymore”: Politicizing the Torture Issue

11/23/2005: Gary Haugen is a hero of mine. As President and CEO of the International Justice Mission (IJM), he has led the efforts to combat human trafficking rings, and many girls have the prospect of freedom and healing because of the brave work of his IJM teams. In Terrify No More, he chronicles how IJM spearheaded the operation that busted the Tsvay Pak child prostitution ring in Cambodia. For that reason, when he opines in support of the McCain Amendment–which is more symbolic than substantive–Haugen’s opinions are worth consideration.

That said, Bush is right to oppose this “torture ban”, as it merely amounts to an, “I won’t beat my wife anymore” decree, which would give the Ted Kennedys of the world more cannon fodder.

Fact is, we already have a torture ban, and it is working.

In our current war, as with other wars, we have and continue to prosecute soldiers who torture detainees. In fact, compared with Vietnam, Korea, World War I, and World War II, our soldiers are the most disciplined in that regard in American history. That was one of the conclusions of the Schlesinger study, which Haugen cites.

Schlesinger also indicates that much of the torture–far less prevalent than it was in previous wars–is the work of “freelancers”. Even the Abu Gharaib abuses were the work of one renegade shift. Everyone in that case–in spite of the pre-trial hype–admitted guilt and conceded that this was not product of their training, and that no such torture orders were given.

Against this backdrop, we don’t need another torture ban any more than we need more laws banning rape. What we have now is sufficient. And to suggest that refusing such political action is less than Christian is, well, an unnecessary slap against people of faith who have a clear disagreement with political opportunists such as Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer.

Having said all that, I oppose torture for the same reason I support the war in Iraq: the Golden Rule. If not for my arthritis, I would be fighting in Iraq right now. I know–as a soldier wannabe–I would not want to be tortured by my captors (of course, I would not let them capture me alive, but that is a different matter). Therefore, I would not support the torture of my enemies, no matter how ruthless they may otherwise be.

However, it is relevant to discuss what constitutes torture. Some view Club Gitmo as torture, while I think it would make for a nice vacation resort. On the other hand, some reasonable people think making a detainee listen to Barbara Streisand for more than 15 seconds might constitute a capital offense.

At this point, I trust the military to prosecute this war effectively and fairly. I realize that some of our troops–as has been in the case in all wars in human history–will resort to subhuman activities.

However, our military has been reliable in the past at prosecuting such scoundrels. I see no reason to doubt that Pentagon will continue to do this.

Daly Quits

11/23/2005: Adjunct professor John Daly of Warren County Community College (WCCC)–who ripped a war supporter and encouraged the killing of officers by troops–resigned before the board of trustees could meet to decide what to do with him.

I wish he had stayed, and I wish the board would have kept him on board. The dirty little secret is that Daly is hardly a lone voice in academia. His e-mail–which contained a plethora of venom against capitalism and western civilization–shows you that hatred for all things American extends to fourth-rate professors at third-rate institutions.

Western civilization in general–and the United States in particular–are anything but pristine white historically. However, as the great scholar Thomas Sowell points out, compared to other cultures and civilizations, Western culture is superior to others in several respects:

(1) The whole notion of the equality of all people is Western.
(2) The concepts of freedom and liberty are Western.
(3) The whole concept of compassion for people in other nations is Western.
(4) The abolition of slavery was exclusively a Western movement.

As for capitalism, it certainly has many shortcomings; that is undeniable. But compared to what? Hitler? Mussolini? Stalin? Mao Tse Tung? Pol Pot? Castro? Khomeini? Assad? Kim Jong Il? As bad a slavery was in America–and it was pure evil–it pales in comparison with the treatment of African slaves in the Middle East or even Africa. Remember point 4: abolition of slavery was a Western phenomenon.

Even the “kinder, gentler” socialist countries–England, Germany, France, Sweden–are in deep hock: they are out of money. Sweden and England have pursued partial privatization of their social security systems. Sweden has deficits that make Bush look frugal. England is rationing health care and even prescription drugs–including Alzheimers’ medications (Wall Street Journal, 11/22/2005). In Canada, you’ll wait months for your MRI.

Instead, many history courses will focus on the evils of Western cultures, while ignoring the even greater evils of other civilizations.

Of course, these are the same winners who are trying to convince you that Islam is a religion of peace.

Daly Scared of being Terminated? Boo hoo!!!

11/22/2005: A few days ago, few people outside of New Jersey had heard of Warren County Community College. Today, WCCC is in the middle of a nasty controversy over an e-mail by demagogue professor John Daly.

In response to a student promotion of a soldier who was coming to discuss successes in Iraq, Daly fired off an email protesting not only our actions in Iraq, but enouraging soldiers to kill their officers. Has he been watching the 700 Club???

Now, trustees at WCCC are deciding what to do about the matter, and Daly is concerned that he may lose his job. He should have been concerned before he sent his e-mail to a conservative activist.

His defenders will cry about “academic freedom”, and proclaim Daly’s right to say whatever he wants. I agree: the First Amendment guarantees his right to make a complete ass of himself. Columnist (and UNC-Wilmington criminology professor) Mike Adams is correct in this regard.

However, if Daly does not have tenure, then WCCC has as much a right to fire Daly as Daly does to spew his nonsense. If you think this is any better outside of a free market economy like ours, then check your history and see how many professors were fired–even killed–in communist countries for simply expressing political dissent (let alone suggesting the murder of military leaders).

Daly needs to understand that words mean things, and actions have consequences. He has no business whining over the consequences of his speech. He can say what he wants with no fear of prosecution, but–in a free market economy–freedom of expression extends to employers as well as employees.

Personally, I hope WCCC keeps Daly. He is representative of a large sector of the Acaedmic Left, and people need to see exactly what their tax dollars are funding.

GM Cuts Plants, Jobs, and Accomplishes Little

11/22/2005: Yesterday, General Motors announced that they will be closing nine plants and eliminating 30,000 jobs by 2008. These cuts represent about 10% of the total worldwide GM workforce. Any student of business knows that such cuts were all but inevitable. Arguably, they were necessary.

Unfortunately, these new cuts–in and of themselves–will not make GM more competitive.

I say that because businesses rarely cut their way to prosperity. Cutbacks can be helpful if the company has an overall plan to improve product development, product delivery, and product economy, but–by themselves–cuts are useless.

On top of that, GM’s problems have less to do with its current workforce and more to do with its former workforce. Pension and health care benefits are costing GM more per vehicle than any automobile manufacturer. The average GM worker is old enough to be my dad (and I’m almost 40). In five years, a whole boatload of them will be retiring.

Wanna guess what GM’s pension liabilities will be like when that happens?

Five decades ago–when GM had 50% of the market share–pension and health benefits seemed to make sense. After all, companies could provide them in lieu of offering higher salaries. The costs of offering the benefits was low enough that economies of scale were not adversely impacted. Even as health care expenses and life expectancies soared over the years, GM still kept offering super-generous benefits, the bill for which will be due and payable in the near future.

Today, GM has less than 25% of the market share. Health care costs are an order of magnitude higher than they were 50 years ago. Life expectancies are almost 20 years higher than they were 50 years ago, so many retirees are living longer than pension actuaries had estimated. All of this translates into a looming mess.

Topping off matters, GM is not producing competitive products. In terms of economy vehicles, GM is at least seven years behind the competition. The Honda Insight has been out for more than four years; Ford and Toyota each have hybrid vehicles. GM still has yet to produce a state-of-the-art economy vehicle. The Hummer looks impressive, but its fuel economy is slightly better than an Abrams tank, and its quality is suspect. Like the old Cadillac Allante, the only thing “luxury” about the Hummer is the price.

Pontiac and Chevrolet vehicles are good, but their competition has comparable vehicles at lower prices. Cadillac is good, but Lexus is at least as good, or better. GM can no longer assume competitive advantage over Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, or even Ford. GM products have neither quality nor price leadership. The most profitable part of GM–General Motors Acceptance Corporation–is a finance unit.

Until General Motors begins making cars and trucks that people want to buy, I don’t expect the situation to improve.

How do I know these job cuts are no good? CEO Rick Wagoner still has his job.

Wagoner–and the entire executive team and board of directors–need to go. To be fair to GM employees and retirees, every one of those execs should receive the same cuts in their compensations that employees are receiving.