Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

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What can be done about gasoline prices? Turns out, a lot.

March 11, 2012

This article by John Merline in Investor Business Daily outlines a number of ways the price of gasoline, or at least the rapid climb in the price we’ve seen recently, could be reduced.

Some of the price increase is caused by the loss of several refineries. But most of the increases in price are due to Federal government taxes, regulations, and fines. Read the article for the full list.

My favorite: recently, according to the article, “Congress left in place a 2007 law requiring increasing amounts of ethanol (including so-called advanced biofuels) in gasoline, rising to 36 billion gallons by 2022.”

The article continues: “In any case, the law has cost refiners almost $7 million in fines this year after they failed to add 6.6 million gallons of “advanced biofuels” as required. The problem is these advanced biofuels don’t exist commercially, and nobody’s sure when they will, which means even bigger industry fines going forward as the mandated use increases.” (Italics are mine.)

I don’t use this term usually, but WTF? The Federal government is collecting fines from refiners because the advanced biofuels it has mandated don’t even exist? Am I crazy, or is this completely insane?

I’m very afraid that we as a nation are sitting at home, watching basketball on our big flat-screen TVs, while the folks in Congress run completely amuck. What has caused us to feel so disenfranchised that we do not hold these people accountable for their actions?

I suppose that is for another post, isn’t it? I’d be interested in any answers you folks out there have for my question. Come on, you have the time…at over four bucks a gallon for gas, you sure as hell ain’t goin’ anywhere!

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“Atlas Shrugged Part 2” – why so much gnashing of teeth?

November 25, 2011

The independent film of the first third of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is out on DVD and Blu Ray in time for Christmas giving. It was a small-budget film, with a cast of lesser-known actors. I had some misgivings about it before it came out. I couldn’t see how it could be set in the near future and work, seeing as how the book was published in the 1950s and was set “approximately” in the 1970s.

She made it all work, and we can still read it today and understand that it was written when the Communist threat of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc countries was very, very real. Translating that to today, or a few years from now, was a dicey proposition.

Somehow they made it convincing enough. I found it internally consistent and easier to follow if I didn’t constantly try to compare it to the book. The Rand’s magnum opus was over a thousand pages and even six hours of film – three movies – will not be a thorough rendering of the book.

That doesn’t mean it can’t convey the main themes Rand presented in the book. So far, I think it’s doing so and doing so in an entertaining way. It’s been hammered by the critics, of course. They are primarily not the audience for a film such as this, anyway. In fact, I would hope that it makes the smarter ones damn mad. Any “progressives” who have some intelligence should feel very uneasy with the things said in this movie. I thought the writer and director focused it correctly to make sure Rand’s theme came out unambiguously.

There has been a lot of talk on the comment sections of the sites for both Part 1 and Part 2, and others, about how the film was poorly marketed, poorly this and poorly that. Not true! It was marketed and placed in theaters independently. It was probably the only way to get it into theaters. There was a lot of talk about how it didn’t make enough money in the theaters. Hasn’t anyone every heard of DVD sales?

A lot of smaller films have very limited release in theaters, and then go quickly to DVD. The DVDs sell over a longer period of time, sometimes by word of mouth more than anything. Eventually the money comes in and everybody gets what they need.

I guess the producers have been thinking of putting some “name” actors in Part 2 to give it more marquee value. There are a lot of Hollywood actors who wouldn’t have anything to do with this film, of course, because it is completely at odds with their politics. The idea that that people won’t see these films unless there is an Angelina Jolie in it is, in my view, flawed.

I thought the cast did what the cast should have done in Part 1 – they became the characters. I didn’t think of the actress playing Dagny as Taylor Schilling, but as Dagny. Rebecca Wisocky (I had to look her name up) was particularly good as Lillian Rearden. Even Grant Bowler, as Hank Rearden, was really pretty good – although I still think he is too short!

Too many “name” actors can’t be “character” actors – Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, even Liam Neeson just can’t (or couldn’t) change enough. This movie is about the ideas, played out by specific characters who typified particular things. That shouldn’t be clouded by “Oh, wow, Liam Neeson was so good as Liam Neeson.”

If you’ve not seen it, get the DVD. Or on Blu-Ray. In any case, right about now, this is the perfect book and film for all Americans to read and see.

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Things I learned on vacation…

June 20, 2011

View from our room - sweet!

We spent a few days at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas this past week. It was a gorgeous place, with the best greenery and landscaping I’ve seen since our little trip to Hawaii a few years ago, and maybe better than most of the places I saw there. Debbie did some serious research (totally unknown to me) and surprised me with my “graduation trip.” She’s the best wife in the known universe!

The whole place had this kind of attention to landscaping and great maintenance.

It was hot. Around 90 every day, which doesn’t seem like it would be too bad, but being on the beach, it was pretty humid, so if there wasn’t a breeze blowing it was pretty uncomfortable. Luckily for us, there was a breeze at least part of the time – not as much as we would have liked, at under 10 mph pretty much the whole time, but usually it was enough. Of course, it was summer, so one day we got chased off the beach because of the likelihood of lightning. Nothing close by, though.

I was surprised somewhat by the extremely wide variety of accents. I assume the majority of folks we met working at the resort were native Bahamians, but some sounded very King’s English, some almost Jamacian, and some had no accent at all, not even sounding like our local “Chicago” type of accent!

The Atlantis resort is a city in itself and had apparently transformed tourism in Nassau over the last 15 years. It employs somewhere between 7500 and 9000 people, depending on who you ask. The folks we met were uniformly polite, helpful and seemed genuinely to be glad we were there. Now, tourism is their lifeblood, but I’ve been a lot of places where that makes little difference to the employees, and some places where I would swear they wanted you to stay away. No so at the Atlantis whether by good training or sincerity, or both!

Our goal was to sit on the beach. Period. We didn’t do a lot else. Sometimes we went to one of the pools. The highlight of the five days there was our experience with the dolphins. They have a full-blown dolphin habitat there, and apparently hired away a senior staff person from Sea World to help them set it up and run it. Smart move; it’s very well done and. We had a great time. The dolphins are very well trained and appear well cared for. Some of them were rescued from the zoo in New Orleans after Katrina. Their habitat there had flooded and they were released into the wild. They were found and taken to the Atlantis. Since then they have been playing with the guests and having kids – “our” dolphin was a 4 year old daughter of one of the Katrina dolphins, and there was a four month old swimming around us, doing what toddlers do – being inquisitive and looking for attention. She was about 5 feet long and the cutest little thing!

Me with my 4-year-old friend!

The other big attraction at Atlantis is the ginormous set of aquaria. There are several, and they are divided by types of fish, of course. The main aquarium wraps around the Royal Towers, the big middle towers in the complex (and where we stayed). Pretty much anything you see relating to the Atlantis shows one of the inside windows to the aquarium. They are beautiful. The conceit is that the Atlantis is built on ruins of the lost city/island of Atlantis, so the aquarium has a lot of mock ruins of a pseudo-Egyptian look in it. There is also a tunnel called “The Dig” that follows around the snaking aquarium and it contains not only windows to the aquarium, but other “artifacts” from the “excavation.” Oh, and a gift shop, of course!

An artifact left by the Atlantean civilization, or something

The highlight of the main aquarium for me was a huge manta ray, with a wingspan of at least six or seven feet.

Big ol' manta ray...

There were, of course, lots of pretty little fishes, too:

Pretty, aren't they?

Some distance away is a separate aquarium, with its own tunnel system, that contains the predator fishes:

"Nice shark, pretty shark." - Londo, "Babylon 5"

Separated a bit farther away, in another set of shallow pools, were a couple of hammerhead sharks and this critter:

This one is about six feet long or more!

Yep, a sawfish! There were a couple in the predator tank, but they tended to stay on the bottom. This one was in a very shallow pool, fenced off by itself. We wondered if it was pregnant. It turns out sawfish aren’t sharks, but are actually related to rays. They bear their young alive. Maybe if they were born near the sharks they would be eaten. That didn’t keep this one from looking for a way out:

Looking for a way out?

Anyway, the place was really beautiful, and we had a great time. They had taken care of all the touches, like this sculpture:

Fountain in front of the Royal Towers

The only problem with the trip was that we used Bahamasair to travel Fort Lauderdale to Nassau and back. They take “island time” to the extreme. We arrive late to Fort Lauderdale Friday night by almost two hours for no logical reason. The plane we were to use was late in arriving at Nassau, but once we were on the plane we sat for about 45 minutes for no reason, all for a 45 minute flight. No apologies or explanations from the flight attendants, no beverages, no nothing. And they fly the oldest Boeing 737s I’ve ever seen. There may be older ones in service but if so, I’ll bet they’ve been upgraded. I know the one we flew on the way out was a dash 200, and those are older than most of the people on board! (They started building dash 200s in 1968!)

I don’t recommend them, obviously. The Nassau airport is undergoing a $400 million renovation and it’s pretty nice, but nobody wants to be in any airport for a couple of extra hours for no reason. As much as I’ve griped about Southwest, they would have been falling all over themselves apologizing for a delay like this…even United would have been better, I think!

Fort Lauderdale has been nice. We like the Marriott Harbor Beach, which has its own stretch of beach because it’s far enough south of the public beach area, and the hotel has been recently renovated. The new restaurant, Sea Level, is actually very nice without breaking the bank.

Marriott beach, looking south

Speaking of money, yes, prices at the Atlantis were high. Sometimes they were ridiculously high, even for resort prices. First, all transactions seemed to be in US dollars.The Bahamas, with some handwaving, has pegged the Bahamian dollar as equal to the US dollar. That seems to be a little shady to me, but with the income of US dollars in tourism (considerable) and the US dollars flowing out as they buy imports from us (also considerable), they are probably pretty locked to us, like it or not.

You can’t do much with cash at the resort, though. Most everything can be done as a room charge. That makes it easier than caring cash or credit cards around to the beach – except the beach umbrella guys don’t work for the hotel, and they do cash only! Even the restaurants and shops in the little shopping area outside of the resort are connected to the resort and will take room charges.

If you are careful and check around, you can keep from going broke at the outdoor restaurants near the pools, generally by buying the meals instead of just a sandwich. For example, a hot dog is $ 6.50. (Yeah, I know!) but the meal, with a drink and fries, is $ 7.00. The indoor restaurants are expensive, but the food is generally excellent so you don’t feel completely ripped off.

Update once we’re home: OK, I’m perplexed. American Airlines is the only one of the major airlines expected to not make a profit this year, in spite of the extortion of the bag fees. The major airlines collected over $ 3.5 billion in bag fees last year. Still American couldn’t have more than two people working at the checkin at Fort Lauderdale? Really? We had to get our own boarding passes and check in our own bags using the self-service kiosk, then stand in line for a half an hour just to give the bags to the attendant! (That was with them giving priority to those who were late for a flight leaving for Dallas in a half hour – whose fault was that? – and the first class passengers, who did not have a separate attendant, of course.)

We bit the bullet and paid the $ 25 for each of two bags going home because we didn’t want to try to squeeze them into the overhead bins. Of course, since most people don’t do that, boarding takes longer, the flight attendants nag everyone about what goes in the overhead bins and what doesn’t, everybody brings everything on board with them including small animals and chicken cages, and people in general are more pissy once the plane takes the 15 minute trip to the end of the runway. (I’m not exaggerating here. I thought we were driving to Pompano Beach. I expected to see the Goodyear Blimp, which lives at the airport there.)

The Goodyear Blimp's home, taken from the Blimp!

I won’t gripe about our delay due to a thunderstorm that passed through the area – that’s to be expected. But everything else they could do stupidly, they seemed to. For example, why by the nine billion names of God do they board the plane front to back? It only about doubles the time needed to get everyone on board. Right next to us, Jet Blue was boarding back to front, making sense to me.

I swear, American Airlines is being run by idiots. Southwest was run by smart people, then they got greedy. Now they keep telling us how cool they are, but they’re rapidly becoming no better than anyone else.

This will probably mean if I fly AA again they will lose my luggage. Oh well.

Enough of this! I have work to do! And this makes it sound like I was unhappy! Other than the flying nonsense, it was a greeeeaaaaat vacation! And my wife is the best ever!

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Henry Rearden’s speech from his trial

April 13, 2011

I don’t know who the narrator is for these excerpts from “Atlas Shrugged,” but the creator of the videos references the Blackstone Audiobook. That one is done by Scott Brick and this is NOT Scott Brick, who  does, in my opinion, just a fair job of performing the book. This narrator does an excellent job with this excerpt. Listen carefully. While Rand is criticized often for being wordy, this speech is very clear. Segments like this are why the book took Rand most of a decade to write.

 

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Here’s a great advertisement for “Atlas Shrugged – Part 1”

April 13, 2011

I don’t watch “Mad Men,” but apparently this is from the show.

The film comes out this weekend.

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Okay, this is simpler than you think…

March 7, 2011

I was listening to a bit of Sean Hannity’s radio show tonight, and he had a caller from Texas who apparently used to live in San Francisco. He still has family there and was trying to explain Federal budget cuts to them. They apparently had that knee-jerk liberal reaction that if any cuts were made, anywhere, elderly Americans would be eating cat food.

This is not rocket science, people. (Oh, and rocket science isn’t so difficult any more; it’s rocket funding that’s the challenge.) Follow me as I go through it step-by-step.

First, cutting 4 per cent of what we are now calling the “discretionary” part of the budget is chicken feed. We really need to cut ten or more per cent to actually see it have a positive effect on the economy. The libs would have heart attacks with that one, which might be a positive effect right there.

Go take a look at the Federal budget, even just an overview, sometime. It is almost impossible to comprehend. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to attack – you can only deal with a small part of it at a time, and each part is guarded by its own interest group.

That whole thing about a balanced budget amendment used to sound good to me. But a balanced budget, with taxes so high it strangles business and cripples taxpayers, is still an abomination. First the beast must be cut down to size.

Cut ten per cent of that part of the budget, maybe three per cent of the whole budget, and there will be some serious job losses in the public sector. We’re talking thousands of Federal jobs. It might be enough to temporarily cause a jump in unemployment, but then, after a while, the magic happens.

Tax rates go down. Investment goes up. Venture capital people open their wallets up again and new businesses get started, thrive, and grow. People buy things again, because they have more money and they no longer think it could be taken away from them tomorrow. (A huge factor in the current economic mess is that businesses started to hunker down even before Obama’s election, figuring he was going to raise taxes big time. They shed jobs as a pre-emptive strike, which depressed the economy some, then he spent a colossal bundle of bucks he didn’t have, which showed them they were right…and that they would be paying higher taxes for years to come. Who would be crazy enough to hire more people in that environment?)

As the budget decreases more each year taxes can be reduced, and a really magic thing happens: tax revenues go up. Yes, up, with lowered rates, because business is no longer being strangled so much. It’s worked that way several times in the past 50 years when we cut taxes – in fact, pretty much every time we cut taxes.

Now at this point the temptation in the government to steal more from the producers kicks in again. This is when fiscal and regulatory restraint is most difficult. Instead, take more and more of the restraints off business, and the tax revenues will increase without increasing taxes. (For example, let’s sit down with the Big Book of EPA Regulations with a big pair of scissors, shall we? A bunch of that stuff can be cleaned up by executive order, you know. Not all of those regulations were directly a result of legislation from Congress, and if they were, they can repeal them ten times faster than they approved them in the first place.)

I’m going to be real libertarian at this point. By this point most Americans will be able to see what real prosperity can be. Think about it – if we could cut your taxes, all of them, by 25 per cent, the trickle-down would probably increase your actual take-home pay by 50 per cent. It can be done, folks!

Those out-of-work Federal (and State) employees? The private sector is booming now; business is hiring all over the place. Sure, some of them will have a hard time, because they never really worked before. Most, though, will be able to make it in the real world, and they will be far happier for it!

This is not a fantasy, friends. This is what America is about, or was, before it became rich enough to become a target, to be systematically looted by an entire class of people that grew, like a cancer, for the last sixty years. Through the 1950s and 1960s it became apparent that the American economy was ripe for the picking. The movement grew slowly and quietly under the guise of names like “the Great Society.” Over the last two years it came out into the open, but some people still don’t believe the monster really exists.

We can kill the monster and put us back on track. We can do it in a hurry. A couple of elections of the right people – call it six years, tops – and we can be well on our way back the the American dream. We need to keep bringing in grass-roots candidates like the Tea Party folks who have the guts to cut the bloated Federal budget and cut deep. They need our continued support so the media can’t say Americans are losing faith in them. I’m not requiring that they are Republicans. They can be of any label. They just need to be people smart enough to know that looting our bank accounts is morally wrong, and that the size of government is so incredibly beyond our ability to comprehend that we must do something immediately to bring it under control before it kills us and enslaves our children.

We also need viable candidates to replace those pseudo-conservatives who lack the courage to do what’s best for America. But that’s another story, folks…

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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Back To The Moon…When?

March 5, 2011


In December of last year Baen Books published this book, a fictional account of America’s return to the moon, using the Constellation system NASA had been working on. Travis S. Taylor, whom I’ve spoken about before, is a not only a “hard science” kind of science fiction writer, but a for-real rocket scientist, with multiple degrees in engineering, optics, and physics. Over the years Doc has worked for a variety of companies on space flight programs, and is based out of Huntsville, Alabama. Besides, he still looks like a college kid:

Doc Travis

He co-wrote this one with Les Johnson, who is the Deputy Manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA Marshall. It’s as close to the way a real flight might be as possible, written by two authors with such great credentials in the manned space flight business.

Les Johnson

You would expect the book to be dry, the characters cardboard, the dialog forced. Sorry, not so – Doc doesn’t have the poetry of language of Harlan Ellison or Spider Robinson, but he does a darned good job of writing a fine story. It has a lot going for it, and the fact that it is based on real, or planned-to-be-real hardware just makes it that much better.

The book was written just before Obama and his minions essentially killed the Constellation program last fall. In the Afterword, Doc talks about the funding NASA receives. Essentially, NASA has received about fifteen to twenty billion dollars a year every year since the mid-1960s, with the peak being in 1965, when the hardware was being built for the Apollo missions. Doc ran the numbers. To maintain that kind of funding today, NASA should be receiving OVER ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR to make up for inflation over the last 40 years. Yep – we’re running it on one-tenth the funding it used to have, and about a third of that is servicing the ISS, and another third the unmanned missions.  It didn’t leave much.

NASA’s plan was to take longer. More money, progress faster. Less money, go slower. That’s why getting to the moon took eight years the first time and was projected to be fifteen to twenty this time. (I won’t even get into the story that supposedly the plans for the Saturn V were destroyed to keep it from competing with the Shuttle.) We have no heavy-lift capacity; we have to build that. We have some newer technology, but it has to be applied, tested and man-rated for reliability. We don’t want to send two men on a shoestring and bring them back with 200 pounds of rock. Three or four men, staying a couple of weeks on the lunar surface, makes more sense. Constellation was a cheaper follow-on to the Shuttle to service the ISS as well as serve as the backbone for all travel up to and including the moon – and using that as training and R&D for Mars missions.

The Altair lander on the moon

Then Obama drove a stake through its heart. This was just after throwing hundreds of billions of dollars around in the “stimulus” programs. I’m not covering all of that. Buy Doc’s book, and read the afterword. (You can get the book as an ebook from Baen Books for six bucks!)

Luckily, some of the contracts NASA had with contractors didn’t allow them to just shut Constellation down immediately. They had to finish delivering some hardware and NASA had to pay them, so some hardware is still being built. It’s possible to turn this thing around. In fact, with another few billion a year, it could be kickstarted and really be going again inside of twelve months.

Or two years, at least, after an election. I’ve not heard a Republican presidential pseudo-candidate say anything about space exploration, though. It’s our only chance – we know where Obama stands.

“But Stimps, you say you lean far Libertarian? How does that connect with wanting to spend more tax money?”

There are a few things we should spend tax money on: national defense. Maybe a system of national roads – I see the strategic importance of the Eisenhower highway system. Embassies, passports, immigration control, border control, etc. I think probably we can spend a little on things no private company can finance, either because of no profit motive or it’s too big to handle, but that’s the slippery slope, isn’t it? We built a strategic missile defense, then used the same technology – the same missiles – to put weather and communication satellites into space. It’s a major spinoff of defense spending nobody ever talks about. They just bitch if the weathermen don’t predict a snowfall down to the inch.

How about GPS satellites? Granted, they could have been lofted by a private entity, but how would you charge people for their use? Each device would need a way to monitor GPS activity. It could be done, but practically everything from cats to trucks is trackable by GPS now – mainly because your tax dollars put the satellite system in place and doesn’t charge anyone for its use after that.

Companies like SpaceX are developing their own hardware but all the R&D done by NASA has helped immeasurably. I mentioned a few weeks ago a 1920s wind tunnel study of wing airfoils by NACA, the forerunner of NASA. It provided the data used by designers of aircraft for the next forty years at least.

On the other hand, they didn’t use that data to regulate which airfoils you could use on your planes, did they?

It’s the regulations that strangle us…

Constellation Ares Launch - but when?