January 25, 2011

More examples of the poor being taxed to benefit the rich

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Government, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:42

Gregg Easterbrook isn’t a fan of flying cars — at least, not flying cars that are fuelled on pure government subsidy:

General Motors has emerged from bankruptcy and taken initial steps to repay its federal bailout money — two good bits of news, although the taxpayer remains on the hook for many billions of dollars extended to GM. Specialty electric-car maker Tesla Motors also had a successful initial public offering and is being celebrated as some kind of testament to the entrepreneurial spirit. For Tesla, this is pure PR.

Tesla is capitalized via a $465 million no-collateral federal loan. This means that if Tesla goes out of business, the taxpayer will take the loss, while if Tesla becomes a hit, its management and private investors will keep all the profit. The company bought a factory in Fremont, Calif. The Department of Labor made $19 million in special payments to workers there, federal taxpayers subsidizing the Tesla labor force. The firm’s electric cars entitle buyers to a $7,500 tax credit, plus sales tax exemption in many states, meaning Tesla marketing receives significant subsidies — average people are taxed so wealthy Tesla buyers receive extra discounts. Compared to its size, Tesla is more heavily subsidized than General Motors at the low point. Basically, the company’s existence is a giant raised middle finger to the taxpayer.

And what’s the product? A $109,000 luxury sports car that accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, the speed of the hottest Porsches. Such speed has no relevance to everyday driving; rather, it is useful solely for road-rage behavior such as running red lights and cutting others off. Taxes forcibly removed from the pockets of average people now fund a rich person’s plaything. I dread the moment President Barack Obama has his picture taken next to a Tesla, as if throwing the public’s money away on this toy for the Silicon Valley rich were an accomplishment.

The other absurd vehicle in development is the Terrafugia flying car, which just won exemption from a federal airworthiness safety standard. Surely you will feel secure when a flying car exempted from safety standards buzzes your neighborhood, especially when you learn that another federal waiver means the pilot needs only 20 hours of experience before he or she takes off. Maryland, my state, requires 60 hours behind the wheel before receiving a driver’s license. But fly after 20 hours? Hey, wheels up! Surely few of these accidents-looking-for-a-place-to-happen will sell on the free market. So — scan the horizon for a bailout. The Terrafugia company just got a piece of a $65 million military contract to research a flying Jeep-like thing; don’t hold your breath. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, defense contracting is the last refuge of bad business plans.

Tesla note: The car is well-named, for although Nikola Tesla was an important inventor and a key figure in the development of commercial-scale alternating current (he had one of the basic ideas for getting electricity to homes), he also was a relentless self-promoter, not shy about exaggeration. The famous photo of him in his Colorado Springs laboratory, reading a book as electricity crackles around him, is a double exposure — that is, faked. Tesla’s plan to allow global wireless communication using Earth’s magnetic field was, let’s just say, a long shot — he worked, of course, before satellite-relayed signals were possible — and his claim to be able to deliver electricity to businesses through the air never made much sense. If Tesla were alive today, he’d drive a Tesla.

Terrafugia was last heard from lowering their expected capacity, while raising their prices back in September.

Margaret Wente: Harper has found the “sweet spot” in Canadian politics

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:14

Margaret Wente is sympathetic to her Liberal friends:

I’ve been feeling kind of sorry for my liberal friends. They can’t stand Stephen Harper. They wince when they hear his name. And yet, in spite of his disagreeable personality, his grip on power is stronger than ever. He has lasted an improbable five years. He has run the longest minority government in Canada’s history and held office longer than Lester Pearson. Aaargh!

On the radio Monday, a Liberal academic was explaining just what makes Mr. Harper so despicable. He’s been stealing Liberal policies! Now that’s dirty. Everyone was certain he would move the country to the right. Instead, he moved the party to the left. He racked up stimulus deficits by the billions and expanded the size of government. He pleased the people by handing them deductions for their kids’ hockey gear. He even quashed an unpopular foreign takeover — only the second veto of a foreign bid in 25 years. The Financial Post went nuts. Who does this guy think he is — Maude Barlow?

Put another way, for everyone who’s attacking Mr. Harper for being too conservative, someone else is attacking him for not being conservative enough. In politics, this is known as “finding the sweet spot.” Both the Liberals and the right-wing National Citizens’ Coalition, which he used to head, are accusing him of reckless spending. Even Peter Mansbridge challenged him for failing to live up to his small-c conservative ideals. (I wonder how the conversation would have gone if Mr. Harper had slashed the CBC.)

Wente may well be right, but I wonder how long Harper can keep the small-c conservatives happy while he does a very credible imitation of Paul Martin’s Liberal government. They wanted a change, but this is a change in labels, not in actual policies.

To be fair, Harper has been able to provide a more distinctive foreign policy than Martin would have done: his outspoken support for Israel is more than enough to set him apart from his Liberal predecessor. On domestic issues? The difference is much more in tone than in substance. On some issues, Michael Ignatieff is running to the right of Harper, which unnerves his own party no end.

Russian army still suffering from Soviet hangover

Filed under: History, Military, Russia — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:47

Strategy Page reports on the troubles the Russian army is still experiencing twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union:

Russian efforts to reform and upgrade its armed forces have, so far, failed. The basic problem is that few Russian men are willing to join, even at good pay rates. Efforts to recruit women and foreigners have not made up for this. The Russian military has an image problem that just won’t go away. This resulted in the period of service for conscripts being lowered to one year (from two) in 2008. That was partly to placate the growing number of parents who were encouraging, and assisting, their kids in avoiding military service.

But there are other problems. The latest crop of draftees are those born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That was when the birth rate went south. Not so much because the Soviet Union was gone, but more because of the economic collapse (caused by decades of communist misrule) that precipitated the collapse of the communist government. The number of available draftees went from 1.5 million a year in the early 1990s, to 800,000 today. Less than half those potential conscripts are showing up, and many have criminal records (or tendencies) that help sustain the abuse of new recruits that has made military service so unsavory. With conscripts in for only a year, rather than two, the military is forced to take a lot of marginal (sickly, overweight, bad attitudes, drug users) recruits in order to keep the military and Ministry of Interior units up to strength. But this means that even elite airborne and commando units are using a lot of conscripts. Most of these young guys take a year to master the skills needed to be useful, and then they are discharged. Few choose to remain in uniform and become a career soldiers. That’s primarily because the Russian armed forces is seen as a crippled institution, and one not likely to get better any time soon. With so many of the troops now one year conscripts, an increasing number of the best officers and NCOs get tired of coping with all the alcoholics, drug users and petty criminals that are taken in just to make quotas. With the exodus of the best leaders, and growing number of ill-trained and unreliable conscripts, the Russian military is more of a mirage than an effective combat (or even police) organization.

The genomic treasure trove of Quebec

Filed under: Cancon, History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:36

Thanks to relatively thorough genealogical records, the people of Quebec are of great and growing interest to genetic researchers:

One of the great things about the mass personal genomic revolution is that it allows people to have direct access to their own information. This is important for the more than 90% of the human population which has sketchy genealogical records. But even with genealogical records there are often omissions and biases in transmission of information. This is one reason that HAP, Dodecad, and Eurogenes BGA are so interesting: they combine what people already know with scientific genealogy. This intersection can often be very inferentially fruitful.

But what about if you had a whole population with rich robust conventional genealogical records? Combined with the power of the new genomics you could really crank up the level of insight. Where to find these records? A reason that Jewish genetics is so useful and interesting is that there is often a relative dearth of records when it comes to the lineages of American Ashkenazi Jews. Many American Jews even today are often sketchy about the region of the “Old Country” from which their forebears arrived. Jews have been interesting from a genetic perspective because of the relative excess of ethnically distinctive Mendelian disorders within their population. There happens to be another group in North America with the same characteristic: the French Canadians. And importantly, in the French Canadian population you do have copious genealogical records. The origins of this group lay in the 17th and 18th century, and the Roman Catholic Church has often been a punctilious institution when it comes to preserving events under its purview such as baptisms and marriages. The genealogical archives are so robust that last fall a research group input centuries of ancestry for ~2,000 French Canadians, and used it to infer patterns of genetic relationships as a function of geography, as well as long term contribution by provenance.

Did Ayn Rand experience “delivering oneself into gradual enslavement”?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Liberty — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:29

Patia Stephens investigates whether Ayn Rand and her husband ever took social security or medicare benefits:

Critics of Social Security and Medicare frequently invoke the words and ideals of author and philosopher Ayn Rand, one of the fiercest critics of federal insurance programs. But a little-known fact is that Ayn Rand herself collected Social Security. She may also have received Medicare benefits.

An interview recently surfaced that was conducted in 1998 by the Ayn Rand Institute with a social worker who says she helped Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor, sign up for Social Security and Medicare in 1974.

[. . .]

According to a spokesman in the Baltimore headquarters of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Rand and O’Connor were eligible for both Part A, which provides hospital coverage, and Part B, medical. The spokesman said their eligibility for Part B means they did apply for Medicare; however, he said he was not authorized to release any documentation and referred the request to the CMS New York regional office. That office said they could not locate any records related to Rand and O’Connor.

Neil Gaiman on feeling like a ghost

Filed under: Australia, Books, Media, Quotations, Randomness — Tags: — Nicholas @ 07:13

Neil Gaiman wrote a book that came back to haunt him the other day:

There were a couple – a man and a woman, both in their twenties at a guess, both short and dark-haired, looking into a shop window, with their backs to me. The woman had a tattoo on her shoulderblade – writing – and because I cannot pass writing without reading it, I glanced at it. Part of the writing was covered by a strap.

But I could still read it. And I knew what the words covered by the strap were.

The tattoo (thank you Google Image Search) was a lot like this (which is to say, the same content, and similar typeface, but probably not the same person. I’m already trying to remember if it was the left or the right shoulderblade):

(I took that photo from here.)

I read the tattoo, read words I had written to try and exorcise my own small demons eighteen years ago, and I felt like a ghost. As if, for a moment, under the hot Sydney sun, I was only an idea of a person and not a real person at all.

I didn’t introduce myself to her or say anything (it didn’t even occur to me to say hello, in all honesty). I just walked home, through a world that felt flimsier and infinitely stranger than it had that morning.

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