Friday, July 29, 2011

An Epic Fail

I haven't made a post in a while because (a) I haven't been doing much worth writing about and (b) I've been watching the budget debacle in Washington unfold with some bated breath.  (What is "bated breath", anyway?  Is it like sticking worms in your mouth?  Why would anybody want to do that?)  I think most of us try to ignore Washington politicians as much as possible, maybe more and more each year.  This year, however, what happens there has a very direct bearing on my job prospects (subject to a separate post very soon) and general economic well-being.  What is happening in Washington right now is, unfortunately, not staying in Washington.

Back in October of last year, during that particularly nasty and deceptive election season, I took a look at the federal budget and wrote a very lengthy post about it here.  Although the specific numbers have changed for the worse, the analysis and comments are as true now as they were then.  The key points:
- The last time a Democratic President was in office (Bill Clinton, remember him?), we had a very healthy economy and a budget surplus that was projected to grow to about $900B by 2010.  We could have paid down about half our national debt by now ...
- ... except George Bush and the Republicans changed all that.  He literally gave away the federal surplus in the form of rebates, slashed taxes (particularly for the wealthy), got us into two wars, grew the size of the federal government, and expanded entitlements (especially the hyper-expensive Medicare prescription drug benefit, which was enacted without identifying where the funding would come from, over the objections of the Democrats).  During Clinton's tenure, the federal budget grew 11%; during Bush's tenure, it grew by 104%.
- Since World War II, the federal government's share of the GDP has hovered around 18-20%.  During Clinton's last years, both revenues and expenditures were balanced.  When Bush left office, federal expenditures accounted for 24% of GDP while revenues were only 15%.  We had a $1.4T deficit, which was almost the size of the entire federal budget just eight years earlier.
- Obama's two budgets have not changed those proportions significantly.  Expenditures remained high and taxes remained low as part of a bipartisan effort to stimulate the economy out of a full-blown depression.
- To return the federal government to its normal level of about 20% of GDP, we would have to cut expenditures by over $600B per year and raise revenues by over $500B per year.  Cuts would have to come from discretionary spending (including defense) as well as mandatory spending (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid being the big three categories).  

Since I wrote that post, things have only gotten worse, and both Democrat and Republican lawmakers have been fiddling while Rome not only burned, but was sacked by the Vandals (aka, Tea Party).  The budget process has gone from nasty to vicious to careening out of control.  I blame the Tea Party.  They have been arrogant and ignorant to amazing degrees, have shown no respect for anybody who does not agree with them (which is about 80-90% of the American people), and keep demanding more and more. Obama, Senator Reid, and the Democrats have, unfortunately, given in on nearly everything they demanded, including massive cuts in discretionary spending and entitlement programs, as well as no tax increase.  Every time they do, the Tea Partiers just demand more.  So far, their approach has been to DEMAND, DEMAND, DEMAND. No negotiation.  No two-way discussions.  No consideration for anybody else.  Just "give me what I want or I'll wreck the economy."

Tom Friedman, the brilliant New York Times columnist, called them "the Hezbollah faction of the Republican Party".  He's being overly kind.

So here we are, four days from economic Armageddon (if you believe the hype), and I see no sign that a deal will be reached.  Note that "deal" is the word: there is no "compromise" anymore, just one side demanding unconditional surrender, and the other side trying to figure out how much to give away is too much.  Frankly, I don't see any solution for the foreseeable future.

The ball is about to land squarely in Obama's court.  Congress is not providing the financial means to carry out their own budget, so the Executive Branch will have to decide on its own how to proceed.  And, contrary to what some Tea Partiers are saying, there is not enough coming in to cover what needs to be done.  What'll happen?

I see one of two scenarios playing out.  In one, President Obama will invoke the 14th Amendment, which states:
"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned." 
This amendment provides Obama with constitutional grounds to ignore the debt ceiling limit, which is a law that is being used for political purposes in a way that violates the Constitution.  He could tell the Treasury to go ahead and continue borrowing as needed.  Obama has indicated that he doesn't particularly like this option, but he has not specifically ruled it out, either.

The other scenario is much more Machiavellian.  I have heard several political pundits say that Obama is the master of the "rope-a-dope", giving opponents lots of room to hang themselves.  Possibly that's what is going on now.  With the Tea Party not giving in on anything, Obama might just let them have what they say they want: a situation where the federal government can only spend what it takes in.  In last October's post, I noted that once you subtract mandatory spending (required by law) from revenues, there's only about $200B left for all government functions; but once you add in defense expenditures, you're running a half-trillion-dollar deficit before you spend a dime on anything else.  Since we don't bring in enough to fund our legal requirements plus defense plus anything else that the government is responsible for, the Tea Party's position would soon be exposed for the fraud that it is.

This would be a very painful lesson for the nation to learn.  It's similar to the approach that Roosevelt used prior to World War II: he knew that war was inevitable, but also that the nation would not mobilize effectively without a major shock.  I don't think he knew that Pearl Harbor was going to happen, but something would, and the public wouldn't swing to his support until it did.  He was right.  In this case, Obama might be giving the Tea Party what they want, knowing that the shock will awaken the country to the truth behind their claims.

I don't know that that's what's going on in the White House.  It seems like an expensive gamble to take.  But we'll see what happens here in just a few days.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

New Wheels

We got a new set of wheels the other day. I hadn't really planned on it happening, but sometimes life throws things at you and you have to jump.

To set the stage: for ten years, our two cars were a 2000 Land Rover Discovery and a 2000 Ford Ranger pickup. Last year, we sold the Land Rover and bought a Volvo V70 station wagon. We figured that the Land Rover was getting up there in miles (about 170,000) and it was going to get expensive at some indefinite time in the future. Then some friends decided to sell their beautiful Volvo, which Janis loved, so we sold the Discovery and bought the Volvo. It was pretty luxurious, got great gas mileage, and has many years of life left in it. All was well with the world.

Until last winter. Not only were we were clobbered with snow, but Janis started a pet-sitting business and some of her clients had driveways that absolutely required a 4WD vehicle to get up and down. Suddenly, the decision to sell the Discovery didn't look so good - maybe we should have kept it and sold the Ranger instead. But we hadn't and were stuck with the decision.

Now I'm going to be heading off to a new job soon (that'll be another blog post) and we're getting ourselves positioned for what's about to come. One of the decisions was whether to get a 4WD or AWD vehicle. Buying a new car was not on my list, but Janis felt strongly that she needed something that would get her around in another wicked winter. Suddenly, buying a new car was on my list. We looked at a lot of possibilities: trade in the Volvo for a good used SUV of some sort, buy a beater 4WD Jeep, or swap the old Ranger for something newer. We finally decided to replace the Ranger. A new(er) Ranger was out of the question: mine had been reliable, but Ford hasn't updated it in over 12 years and it's an antique design. Full-size trucks like the F150 are now the size that semi's used to be and they suck gas like it's water. After a lot of research, I thought the Nissan Frontier was going to be the best choice. It has a 300 hp V6, 4WD, excellent reliability, lots of room, and gets better gas mileage than my old Ranger.

So I started looking for a Frontier. A few days ago, I spotted an ad for one near here, in Boone, NC. It had what we looking for, plus it was a 2008 with only 12,000 miles on it, one owner, and a clean CarFax. Turns out the previous owner (actually, a leaser) was a guy with a big vacation home near Boone and only used it when he was in town. We went up to take a look, I drove it, and was hooked. We came home with it that night.

So now I have a new toy. It's in great shape, but there are a few things that I want to do with it, like put in a stereo unit that'll play my iPod, put a fiberglass lid on the bed, add a trailer hitch, and so on. Lots to do, but it doesn't have to be done right now. Before I get into personalizing the Frontier, I have to sell the Ranger. It's been a great truck and I'll be sad to see it go, but it doesn't meet our needs anymore.

Psst! Wanna buy a great used Ranger?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Life Drawing

Graphite on paper, 8"x10"

I went to a life drawing session on Monday night for the first time in three months. It felt good to get the eye and hand moving again, and I wasn't quite as rusty as expected.

Our model was a very interesting woman. She has been fighting cancer for some time and her body shows it: scars, no hair, and lots of lumps and bumps. Although her body shows it, her spirit doesn't. She's a bright, active, and cheerful woman who is enjoying her life and beating cancer. She chatted away with us about pretty much anything that popped into mind.

This was Ann's first time as a model. Although she's an artist, she'd never been to a life-drawing session before, even as a participant, and didn't know what to expect. Her decision to model was apparently driven by several factors. It was a way to confront the disease, to say "here I am, here are my scars, this is what cancer has done to me, and I'm still here." I think this is a brave thing to do for anybody. Our popular culture is so concerned with physical perfection that to show one's own very "imperfect" body, particularly one that has been mangled, takes a lot of fortitude.

In addition to confronting the disease, modeling was also a way to become comfortable with her own body. I think it's a bit frightening for a first-time model to step up on the stand and remove his or her robe in front of a crowd of strangers. What will these people do? Will they run from the room screaming in terror? Will they laugh? Will they accept me? It's a very scary moment. Imagine yourself in that situation and you'll get an idea of what a first-time model goes through. Contrary to popular belief, very few models are exhibitionists, in my experience, so something like nude modeling does not come naturally. I've had a number of models tell me that it helped them become more confident and comfortable, not only with their bodies, but with who they were.

It occurred to me that Ann is experiencing the same sort of thing that our wounded veterans are. Through no choice of their own, her body has been severely damaged and will show the damage for the rest of her life. But like most of the wounded vets, she's accepted the challenge, is fighting back, and making the most of it. I've painted wounded vets before as a personal and political statement. On Monday, I met a "wounded vet" that I'd like to paint just to celebrate her own personal victory.

And this was just an ordinary life drawing session.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


I haven't posted any pictures of my grandson in too long. Time to fix that!

These were taken at their recent vacation at Lake Powell. The little guy is growing up quite fast, isn't he?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

July 4th

I love a good July 4th. Ours, yesterday, was pretty perfect: a postcard of what it's like to live in America.

I got to do some painting for the first time in two months. It's a small image of our back yard. Exciting? Full of meaning? Deep and philosophical? Nope. My skills are pretty rusty at the moment, so this was just a simple exercise in putting paint on canvas again. I love our little back yard: our deck, the table and chairs, the plants, grass, trees, and all the little things that Janis has done to spruce it up. So I thought it would be fun to work from life, what artists call alla prima. Shortly after I got the thing blocked in, though, a thunderstorm moved in and made working in the backyard impossible. So I relocated into the garage and continued. After about two or three hours, the painting was about 60% completed. I'll try to finish it up this afternoon.

Last night, we went with our neighbors to the Asheville Tourists baseball game. What can be more American than baseball, foot-long brats, and locally-brewed beer? I really like going to minor-league games. They're fun, without the expense, stress, and crowds of a major-league outing. Ten bucks buys you a great seat. The staff puts on silly games between innings like three-legged races and "Jeopardy"-like questions with "gimme" answers, with prizes such as $10 off your next oil change at the local Kia dealer. Little kids are welcome, and who cares if they're not paying any attention to the game? Most adults aren't, either. They're probably people-watching, or drinking copious amounts of the locally-brewed beer, or yakking with their friends.

This being the Fourth, there were some extra features. The Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry (ABCCM) was the night's sponsor. ABCCM works with homeless people, particularly veterans. A few years ago, ABCCM bought and refurbished a defunct motel into a home for vets. They house and help the vets get back on their feet and re-integrated into the community. Last year, they helped 300 go from jobless and homeless to employed and living on their own. A commendable group. So, as the night's sponsor, ABCCM got to put out their message several times and arranged for some very nice ceremonies honoring vets.

Right in front of us were an old couple, probably in their 80's. She was in a wheelchair and he could barely stand, let alone walk. But during the National Anthem, they both stood up. They were leaning on their chairs and leaning on each other, but by God, they stood up for the National Anthem. How great is that?

July 4th is important to us for another reason. It's Soozee and Indy's birthday. Our two little dogs turned 8 years old yesterday. So I visited a certain booth at the stadium and during the game the announcer wished the twins a very happy birthday. Very cool!

It's an Asheville Tourists tradition to have a game on July 4th, followed by fireworks. And they put on a pretty good show. Unfortunately, the Tourists got beat, 7-3, but they played their hearts out. The fireworks after the game brought out the ooh's and aaah's and a big round of applause at the end. We got out of the stadium and on the road with no fuss at all and home to Soozee and Indy, where we had to throw their balls around for about an hour before they would settle down. But hey, it was their birthday, so they deserved it.

All in all, pretty perfect. Hope you had an equally fine holiday!