Sunday, April 12, 2009

Milking the system

Hey, folks, this is going to be hard to believe, but our government is paying for stuff they were never authorized to pay for. In 2001 they passed a law giving corporations an "alternative fuels" rebate, and somehow our major paper companies figured out they could add diesel fuel to a process that had never used diesel fuel before and qualify for the alternative fuels payment. There's more information on the Science blog.

How much is this boondoggle going to cost? How about $8 billion dollars? Disgusting!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Security

After 9/11/2001, our former executive branch created the department of homeland security, tasked with trying to fix the bumbling bureaucratic mess that was our previous domestic security apparatus. The NSA wouldn't talk to the CIA, and the FBI couldn't talk to either, and state, county, and municipal enforcement and services couldn't talk to each other, nor to the feds. Practically the whole 9/11 conspiracy was in the sights of one agency or another in the months leading up to the attack, but there was no one at the helm-- no one who could make sense of the whole thing, and no agency who could rise above the feuding and back biting to see the big picture. A new department sounded like a great idea!

Using the usual Bush/Cheney tactic of thinking big (meaning spending big money for off-the-shelf items), they came up with bomb-sniffing machines so big the airports could just route their baggage conveyors through them. Unfortunately, they missed a couple of key points: airports couldn't afford the 8-figure price tag of these behemoth contraptions, luggage in large airports didn't actually move through one central point, and oh yeah, the terrorists hadn't actually used bombs to wreak havoc and death. And they overlooked the larger, but cheaper-to-solve problem of the radios being tuned to different frequencies. But we may take some comfort in knowing we also have anthrax sniffer machines, and a huge supply of antidote. More antidote than anthrax, actually, but that's irrelevant.

Then the administration, reacting to Richard Reid, the feckless "shoe bomber," decided to make all passengers remove their shoes before entering secure areas of airports. They had already decided to scrap the wimpy and coddling "rule of law" and engage in extra-judicial kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture of terrorist "suspects" abroad, and launch unprecedented domestic surveillance of all electronic communication of every citizen of this country, contrary to some rather key Constitutional provisions. Mostly they got a cautious go ahead on these activities, because after all we were talking about the security of the USA here. And now we've got large, big-ticket security systems in place. And we've had no terrorist attacks.

But are we more secure? Have any of these big ticket, off-the-shelf, trade-show, purchase order security measures actually bought us any more security? Apparently not, as evidenced in this recent story from southern CA. Apparently it's possible to shut down the major communications of a very populous and important area of the country-- including 911 services, and police and fire phones, as well as everyone else's internet and phone services-- armed with nothing but a stick with a hook on the end (to open the manhole covers), and a hatchet (to "adjust the connectivity" of the fiber cables). Hundreds of thousands of people and businesses were basically without communication for the better part of two days due to an operation that was carried out by, apparently, one person. The point is the manholes are unsecured, and the wiring is exposed. And one fiber carries a lot of stuff. Oops! The department of homeland expensive gew-gaw spending-- err, I mean security-- has kind of blown it big time, and no one seems to be calling them on it. It seems to me the situation where a team of ten nerds could shut down virtually all common means of communication in the whole country is a serious threat. Of course we'll have to address it with a smaller budget, since we paid a couple hundred million apiece for those bomb sniffing machines that haven't been delivered to the airports yet.

And here's a lesson for Obama administration-- large, expensive, off-the-shelf solutions (supplied by corporate cronies) are not likely to address every problem we have. Some analytical thought (a resource in serious shortage in our previous administration) could make us more secure. The fact we have no planes falling out of the sky or buildings on fire is not indicative of success. It would probably be OK, and inexpensive, to secure some optical fiber inside of some steel sheathing.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Facing Economic Storm, Maine Legislators Whistle and Jingle Their Change

In a new legislative initiative, reported today in the Morning Sentinel, Maine legislators have displayed what can only be called uncanny callowness by proposing cutting the income tax by two percent and making up the difference by adding new sales taxes to ski lift tickets, movie tickets, meals and lodging, car rentals and dry cleaning.

This would, they suggest, move $160 million of revenues from one source to another. Their announcement indicated they estimate $75 million would be paid by out of state visitors. Might I suggest another explanation? This proposal will shift $160 million in state tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class.

There are many problems with the Maine state income tax, among others that it is too high. On the other hand, because it's based on income, it's progressive and it's reasonably fair. Maine citizens are among the highest taxed in the US. At the same time, the state is facing a staggering fiscal crisis because of job losses, property devaluation, and the rest of the fallout from our current economic malaise. The need to act is obvious. But this bill, by dropping some part of a fair and progressive tax (the more you make, the more you pay) to a "flat" tax on ski lift tickets or a movie or a meal out-- which is the same amount (and hence a higher percent of household income the poorer the purchaser) will just slam middle class families harder. Note: The truly poor don't take their families skiing or to the movies, they stay home and watch TV, for which they're already taxed a flat rate on their cable bill each month.

Maine legislators need to hear from the middle class, that efforts to change the sources of tax revenues by making them more regressive are not acceptable. The whining excuse that "more revenues will be raised from out of state tourists" doesn't cut it. We voted our legislators into office to be leaders and problem solvers. It's time they show some courage and leadership-- not just move their change around from one pocket to another. Please write to your representatives.