Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Idea for the day

Federal tax forms currently allow people receiving refunds to have the money deposited directly into their checking or savings accounts. The forms should also give people the option of direct deposits into Individual Retirement Accounts or similar accounts. Refunds feel like “free” money, so this idea makes it easier for Americans to boost their miserable saving rates for retirement, instead of making refunds burn a hole through taxpayer pockets. I bet financial institutions would gladly pay for the right to receive the deposits.

If I get motivated I may write Ben Stein about this (a celebrity who’s geeky enough to choose “increase retirement savings!” as his pet cause).

Not that this refund option would have been available to me this year, unfortunately…

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Smart, weak-jawed humans still make mistakes

The New York Times Magazine section has an interesting article on the evolution of human intelligence (registration required for viewing). The article focuses on a discovery reported last month that geneticists have determined a gene mutation 2.4 million years ago made our human ancestors lose the large strong jaw found in apes and earlier hominids. Those large jaws had required a skull crest to anchor the muscles, and the idea is that losing the jaw and crest made it possible for the human brain to expand. The expanding brain could use tools more readily, so losing the massive jaws needed for eating tough food (and maybe for fighting) was not the disadvantage it would be for a small-brained animal. The rest of the article discusses competing theories for why intelligence evolved in humans.

The mistake, in my opinion, is in this paragraph: The great mystery about all these competing mechanisms is why they should have worked only for humans. We are hardly unique in being a social species; bumblebees, parrots, dolphins, elephants and wolves also live in groups, but none of them have participated in cognitive arms races. Dolphins should not be included on a list of species with small brains relative to humans. Many dolphin species have a brain mass to body mass ratio comparable to humans. It is also unlikely that their brains are simply the minimum size needed to hunt fish. Sharks also hunt fish, and while sharks are highly evolved in their own way (warm-blooded, give live birth instead of eggs), their brains are puny. Something that caused the cognitive arms race in dolphins also needs explaining.

(For more information on the jaw mutation, read Carl Zimmer's website article Chew on This. Something's wrong with his site as I write this, but scroll down to the late March postings, or click here and you should land near the posting.)

Friday, April 23, 2004

Upbeat environmental reports about President Bush!

Umm, just kidding about the headline here. The one and one-half reports worth mentioning deal with Bush's record to date and his promises for the future.

On his record for federal land preservation to date, this very good article from the San Jose Mercury News (free registration required for viewing) basically says he's the worst president in over 100 years. Bush has established 3 national parks, the fewest established by a president since 1901 (and two of the parks are historical parks with presumably marginal environmental value). Bush has designated 500,000 acres of federal land as wilderness, as compared to Ronald Reagan's dedication of 10 million acres. More specifics in the article, but the idea is clear.

I had thought the Democrats were exaggerating when they argue that Bush is the worst environmental president in history - and they are!! He's only the worst in 104 years.

The not-so-good article that's half-worth mentioning is an AP report carried by the Washington Post, saying Bush plans to recreate, improve, and protect 3 million acres of wetlands. The fine print is that one million of the three million acres is slated to be "protected." The government already has the job of "protecting" wetlands, so that is an empty promise. "Improving" applies to another million, but large improvement projects are already in the works, so he could be taking credit for something already planned. Improvement could also be extremely marginal and still count under his plan. The million new acres could be good, unless he's counting the wetland restoration projects already in the works.

But the kicker is this paragraph: "The Bush administration made it a goal to meet the "no-net-loss" goal of wetlands among each of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 38 U.S. districts - formed by watersheds and not state boundaries - rather than acre for acre, said Benjamin Grumbles, acting head of EPA's Office of Water. " The way I read that statement is that if your particular Corps district is ahead in wetland creation (such as here in the Bay Area because taxpayers forked over $100 million to buy thousands of salt pond acres and convert them to wetlands), then your local developer can rip up all the wetlands he wants without mitigating the damage he's causing. The taxpayers didn't buy those salt ponds to make money for people destroying wetlands. I hope this Bush administration promise is fixed.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Okay, maybe a little humor now...

From The Onion

Libertarian Reluctantly Calls Fire Department
CHEYENNE, WY—After attempting to contain a living-room blaze started by a cigarette, card-carrying Libertarian Trent Jacobs reluctantly called the Cheyenne Fire Department Monday. "Although the community would do better to rely on an efficient, free-market fire-fighting service, the fact is that expensive, unnecessary public fire departments do exist," Jacobs said. "Also, my house was burning down." Jacobs did not offer to pay firefighters for their service.

(It's satire, just thought I'd mention that.... As a libertarian sympathizer, I have to make fun of the ones who go too far.)
The wealthy versus the superrich: guess which side Bush is on?

The federal Alternative Minimum Tax is on a course that will pit the moderately wealthy against the superrich within the next several years, with the Bush tax cuts being a deciding factor as to which side will win. The bottom line is that even relatively wealthy people with incomes in the $100,000 - $200,000 range may pay less taxes under Kerry than they would under Bush. We'll see if this is recognized anywhere.

Can't do this without a boring background paragraph first. The AMT was designed to ensure that very wealthy taxpayers would not be able to pay little or no income tax on the basis of deductions found in the "regular" income tax, so an alternative calculation is also used, and taxpayers must pony up the difference if the AMT is higher than their regular tax. Two problems: the tax rate used to make sure only the rich got caught by the AMT was not indexed to inflation, and a large exemption meant to protect the moderately wealthy will become smaller starting in 2005 (background articles for the facts in this paragraph are here, here, and here). Nineteen thousand people paid the AMT in 1970, 2.6 million pay it today, and 30 million will pay in 2010 unless the law is changed, according to taxpayer "advocates". That 30 million figure is a strawman, however - Congress will not let the AMT catch 30 million people. The question is how extensive a fix Congress will do. A fix that limits the AMT to its current level will cost $600 billion up through 2010, and who knows how much more after that.

The year 2010 is the magic date - Bush's tax cuts will magically expire then as well. Actually, expiration is also a strawman. Congress will extend the cuts in some form, the question is to what extent the cuts will be made permanent. This is the conflict between the wealthy and the superrich. Will the AMT catch 2.5 million people, 4 million people, or 10 million people? The 7.5 million who might escape the AMT are the moderately wealthy whose fate depends on whether the Bush tax cuts favoring the superrich will be moderated enough to allow a fix of the AMT.

I hope the Kerry campaign picks up on this - one would think the moderately wealthy would provide some balancing power against the incredibly rich. The question is whether the 0.5% richest in America are more politically powerful than the remaining 99.5% of the population. Close call.

UPDATE: The Democrats are starting to see the issue, reading these sentences buried in a NY Times article: The Democratic proposal on marriage-penalty relief, sponsored by Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, would have included additional tax breaks to protect two-income couples from the alternative minimum tax. But it would have paid for the tax cut through a new surcharge of 3.6 percent on people who earn more than $1 million a year, which would have raised $207 billion over the next 10 years.
The Republicans rejected this idea, and instead voted to increase the budget deficit by $105 billion over 10 years to pay for a marriage penalty tax cut. This suggests their strategy on the AMT may be to simply fix it without paying for it, and add the cost to the budget deficit. I don't think that's viable though, so they will still have to choose between moderately wealthy and the superrich.

Monday, April 19, 2004

The Best, Worst Case Scenario for Iraq

This posting by liberal blogger Matt Yglesias comes pretty close to my current opinion of the Iraq venture. The war would have been justifiable if done by a more competent and ethical American leadership, according to Matt, but predictably awful results have come out of the Bush administration. Matt concludes he was wrong to have supported the war.

Personally, I had a lot of hesitation about the war and especially about Bush, but after my experience in Burma I would not lightly pass up the chance to throw out an entrenched dictatorship. I never went as far as Matt in supporting the war, and as an unimportant private citizen I kept my option of not making up my mind. Funny enough, I still haven't made up my mind, but I'm leaning towards Matt's view. I do think my anti-war friends should note that Iraqis may not agree with them, however. A BBC poll of Iraqis last month found that more Iraqis think the invasion was right than wrong. What Iraqis think now may be another question. What they will think in January when we hopefully have a competent president is even less promising. This isn't an easy issue.

Pulling out immediately like the far left wants would be disastrous. The UN will not march in without heavy military support, and it won't get that support from anyone else if the US cuts and runs. If the US had provided military support under UN authority from the beginning, that might have made a huge difference to Iraqis and to other nations that could have provided support. I'm no longer certain that this solution will still work in 2005 under a Kerry presidency (or a Bush presidency when he gets truly desperate). It might not work for the simple reason that the UN won't accept this radioactively hot potato being handed to them. What then?

Our choices would be to stay in an increasingly hostile quagmire, or get the hell out. Of the two, the latter is better, but the best, worst case scenario then means partition of Iraq. The result would likely be a semi-democratic, authoritarian Kurdistan in the north (hopefully without a civil war between the two main Kurdish parties); a semi-democratic theocracy in the Shiite south, and a Somalia-like state of anarchy in the Sunni center. Hardly cheering, but it may be the best we can get.

Last thought - I'm not sure this worst case scenario is really worse than a continuation of the Saddam regime. So I continue to sit on the fence.

UPDATE: A new poll of Iraqis has come out. From CNN: Asked about the planned June 30 transfer of power from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to a transitional government, 58 percent favored a caretaker panel chosen by the United Nations, while 20 percent said it should go to the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Thanks for coming by

I'm backdating this post to make it the first one on the blog.

This blog is about politics and science policy primarily, and occasionally about whatever science issues interest me (mostly biology and space), some economics and history, and then anything else I feel like writing. And occasional movie and book reviews.

My editing policy: I will make non-substantive changes (fixing typos, etc.) at any time to posts without making note of the changes. Any substantive changes more than 15 minutes after I put up a post will be expressly noted as a change. I give myself 15 minutes because I sometimes spot mistakes only right after I put up a post, and I assume no one is likely to see the post in that short interval before it has been corrected.

My politics are generally left-libertarian, with some exceptions. I pretend to myself that I'm open-minded so I do try and learn from new information.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, work for an environmental organization, and have a background in environmental law (also as a failed-but-unrepetant inventor). Rather than write about my field, this blog seems to be about areas where I'm an amateur.

Visitors and comments are very welcome. If you post comments on old posts I might never see them, so go ahead and make fun of me in them - I'll never see it. I do try to check and respond to comments on recent posts.

If you want to email me, please go ahead: schmidtb98 (at)