Saturday, April 23, 2011

Green Up Day

I have split feelings about Vermont's Green Up Day. I have been living in Vermont for over a decade. Because neither my wife nor I have any roots in Vermont, I often get asked why we moved here. I usually say something about the high quality of life or the beauty of the landscape or the sense of community I have here. I often mention that we don't have billboards here nor do we have Adopt a Highway. We have Green Up Day instead. People take time out of their busy schedules to clean up their own roads. They gather the kids, put on their old clothes and gloves and head to the ditches. This is a great thing.

Green Up Day was started in 1979 by Governor Davis. Only 10% of it, currently, is funded by the state. The rest is funded by a non-profit called Green Up. It is always scheduled on the first Saturday in May. This year it is May 7th. We pick up our green plastic bags and sign up for a stretch of land at the town office then we are ready to go. I volunteer with the Westford middle school kids who Green Up the Friday before so that they do it on school day. I wait by the town garage near our dumpster to collect and co-ordinate the trash. We give out prizes for the most interesting piece of trash. On Saturday, I clean up my road and sometimes a sliver of route 128 if I have the energy left. People drive by, honk and wave giving me a thumbs up. I've been in Westford for about 5 years and I can think of 100 people already that know my name. I often forget this until Green Up Day when I hear those beeps and see a neighbor I know behind the wheel. It is a good reminder of why I moved here.

On the flipside of this, Green Up Day brings me down a bit. I spend a good part of that Saturday each year picking up cigarette butts, beer cans, soda cans, hard liquor bottles, fast food wrappers and lottery tickets. By the end of the day, as my back is crying in pain, I feel a real disdain for that slice of humanity that can't keep their trash in their cars. I realize that some of the trash is accidental trash that flew out of someone's window or garbage can. But we have all been on the highway while watching that lit cigarette get thrown out the window. Who are these people? Why do they think this is okay? This makes me angry. Each year a sin tax makes more and more sense to me even if it would only be used to fund Green Up Day. It works for me. Tax the hell out of them.

Recently, Vermont's current government representatives sparred over the sin tax, namely a tax on cigarettes. The tax would fund Gov. Shumlin's new healthcare proposal. The problem with this is that having a healthcare that is dependent on people smoking doesn't seem to be very forthcoming. If people decide to stop smoking where will your revenue stream come from? One of the arguments against the sin tax is that it will drive business over the border into tax-free New Hampshire, but wouldn't it drive the litter into New Hampshire as well. This works for me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

An Historical Perspective on the Federal Budget

Much is being said about the federal budget. Such large numbers seem so abstract. I find a historical perspective helps me understand the actual numbers.

Very few president have actually decreased the federal budgets. Presidents during great crises always increase spending. Lincoln during the Civil War, Wilson during World War I and FDR during WW II, George W Bush for his two wars all increased spending drastically. All but Bush increased taxes to pay for those wars. Presidents after big crises usually cut the budget but never bring them down to the previous levels before the crisis. If you take into account the average amount spent during Presidents terms, you get some interesting numbers.
  • John Adams was the first $10 million president.
  • Lincoln was the first $1 billion president. He inherited a $66 million budget and by 1865, at his death, it was $1.2 billion. This is a huge amount of money in 19th century dollars. This is an increase of 1800%, the largest in our history (including our current president ... so far). Lincoln had a civil war to pay for.
  • Wilson increased the budget six times ... World War I.
  • FDR is the first $50 billion president ... World War II and the Great Depression.
  • Eisenhower was the first $100 billion president.
  • Nixon was the first $100 billion ... Vietnam.
  • Reagan was the first $1 trillion president.
  • George W Bush was the first $2 trillion president ... his two wars.
  • Obama is the first $3 trillion president ... his two inherited wars and a recession.
You see a trend? Spending rarely goes down. If things continue at their current clip with the Obama administration, he will be the first $4 trillion president. As a nation, we usually like the spenders. Taft is our biggest cutter ... you don't see him on Mount Rushmore. Of all the presidents on Rushmore, the only cutter is Jefferson and he is probably more popular for his role in the Revolution than for his time in office.

After reading this, you might expect that I am a bit outraged by the Obama administration but I am not. I remember my Keynes, you don't cut government spending during a recession. You get through the recession and then you cut. Our continual participation in these wars is much more of a concern of mine. I am also quite a bit more upset with the tax cuts for billionaires which do nothing for our economy ... but that is a thought for another day.

After the recession is over, I agree, we should cut the hell out of spending. This seems to be something that everyone can agree upon. The question is how much and what to cut. My thoughts about spending are fairly simple. You spend now for savings in the long run. You spend on education on a federal level now because a decentralized department of education is a recipe for disaster and a poorly educated populace is far more expensive than an educated one. An educated populace creates innovation, jobs and votes responsibly. An uneducated populace is not innovative, is unemployed and commits more crime. Schools are cheaper and more productive than prisons.

The amount of money the US government is spending is scary even for a whacked-out liberal like myself. This is such a hot topic that some politicians are actually crossing the third rail and actually considering cutting defense spending and entitlements. It is about time don't you think? Everyone seems to want the government to cut spending but whenever anyone brings up something to cut, they freak out. Not my NPR, not NASA, not the EPA .... okay, I love all three of these. But these are tiny budget items. Even NASA is .1% of the federal budget. Nothing should be touched until our military spending is cut in half. Until then ... why the hell is anyone talking about cutting NPR funding?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It Appears That I Am a Fan of Tom McCarthy

I love learning that an artist that you like is somehow connected with another artist that you had no idea even knew each other. Like one day I learned that the singer Norah Jones was sitar player Ravi Shankar's daughter. I used to listen to his live album during lonely evenings when I was in college. Now I hum along to his daughter while relaxing with my wife to jazz in the evenings. It just blew my mind when I learned that they were related.

This happened to me today but in a different sense. I learned that an actor from one of my favorite shows, the writer of one of my favorite films and one of my favorite directors is all the same person: Tom McCarthy.

My love affair with McCarthy's film started when I saw The Station Agent on DVD. It is a small film about average people that is both profound and moving without being trite or boring. Quite a feat, right? A few years later I was in Manhattan with my wife and we were looking for a relaxing evening. The movie theater selection here in Vermont is abysmal so I always to try to catch something interesting while in NYC. We saw the poster for The Visitor and went to see it because it was the same director of the The Station Agent. Again, a great film. This week I saw Win Win ... loved it. They are usually about people who normally wouldn't meet thrown together by an uncomfortable situation.

Since he also wrote those three films, it is not surprising that he wrote the Pixar film, Up. The same theme applies here, two people thrown together who would normally never meet face a difficult situation and come out really caring for each other.

Today I heard him interviewed and I heard him mention his acting career. I was curious so I looked him up. I recognized him as the character Scott Templeton on the HBO series The Wire. The Wire is probably the best cop show ever made. Each season the series took on a different aspect of the city of Baltimore. First season was about the cops, second season the dock workers, third season the drug dealers, fourth season the schools and the fifth season the media. Tom McCarthy was only in the fifth season. He played a journalist from The Baltimore Sun that lied about, and even, invented his sources. Like everyone else on the show, he was superb.

So I guess it is official. I am a Tom McCarthy fan.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Shores of Tripoli

If you attend any "patriotic" events here is the States, you have heard the "Marine's Hymn." This is the song that starts with

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli ....

The "Halls of Montezuma" is obviously in reference to the Mexican-American War where the US took Texas from Mexico. But the reference to the "shores of Tripoli" has always been a mystery to me. Why the heck were the 18th and 19th century military involved with Libya? That sounds more like a modern headline than something that Jefferson had to deal with.

Apparently, this is in reference to one of our lesser known wars, the First Barbary War. Libya at the time didn't exist as a nation. Tripoli was loosely governed by the Ottoman Empire. The Barbary pirates (on the northern coast of Africa) were notorious for hijacking ships on the Mediterranean Sea. They demanded $225,000.00 ransom from President Jefferson in 1801, an annual fee that they expected as like a toll to use the Mediterranean. Prior to Jefferson's presidency we had been paying $83,000 which was still a lot of money at the time. The war lasted four years and the end results was that the US would pay $65,000.00 annually.

I put the word patriotic in quotes above because I challenge the current use of this word. All too often patriotism is tied to war and the military. I reject this. I find this to be sad and a little sickening. When I think of the things that I like about about the US ... our military history does not come to mind. What comes to mind is our spirit of independence and innovation. It would really please me if I went to a "patriotic" event and people were reading Whitman and Twain or singing Bob Dylan and Paul Simon songs. If only when we celebrated patriotism, we'd celebrate the inventiveness of Thomas Edison, Steve Wozniak, Woody Allen or Elias Howe. There are so many other things to celebrate about this country other than our military might.