The Personal and Political Ramblings of one guy in Texas.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Tao of Harry Potter 

Last week I took my son to the latest Harry Potter movie. Much better than the second one, much much better than the first. But almost too much for a 6-year old. I had suspected as much, and my little one was wanting to leave at the very scary climactic part near the end (if you've seen it or read the book, you know what I mean). I had worried about that part, and only the fact that a friend of his had seen it and seemed okay convinced me to go ahead and risk it. In the end though, I had to convince him to stay, because I felt that it was good for him to see that it turned out all right in the end. Had we not stayed, his last thoughts would have been on the terror, not its resolution. Fortunately, it looks like I made the right choice (no nightmares that deal with the movie have turned up so far -- (crosses fingers)).

Seeing the movie caused me to re-read a couple of the five books. Prisoner of Azkaban itself, and Order of the Phoenix(OotP). I was struck by a couple of things. The first was that even though I had already read them (Prisoner twice) I was again sucked in, and reading almost obsessively.

The second was that OotP is really very different from the first four. It really lacks that sense of fun they had. And yet its still the sort of book that draws you in and has you reading at almost every opportunity. Its true how the books get progressively more grown up, deal with more complicated issues, etc., but OotP gives it to you in spades. And Harry himself is pretty much of a twit most of the time, not the very sympathetic character we're usually rooting for. Granted, its not like the fellow doesn't have his reasons.

But in addition to the rather oppressive atmosphere, the book has a couple of other flaws, which I can forgive but think its high time Rowling dealt with them. Once again, much trouble was created because Harry was unwilling to talk to people about what was going on. You'd think he would have learned by now. Sure, his early years did not provide him with good adult role models, but by now he should get it. Another flaw is the deux ex machina rescue. Yet again, Harry is in a position that is likely to result in his death, but a fortuitous circumstance saves his butt. That one is getting a bit old.

It will be interesting to see what Rowling will do next. Returning to the "fun" will be hard, seeing as Voldemort is honest and for true out on the prowl, Harry is old enough that "fun" can be uncomfortably adult in nature, and doggone it, after 5 years spending 11 months per in the wizarding world, there should be a lot of less of the "magical mundane" that will be there to fascinate him.

I'll be there though, waiting for my next day Amazon delivery, to see if she can pull it off.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Might Have Beens 

Lately I've been reading The Radical Center. On the days I didn't think of myself as a conservative, I liked to style myself a member of the radical moderates, so they've got me interested from the title aspect at the very least. At least one of their early points is how poorly the true political desires of Americans are served by the two major parties. Gee, where have heard that one before?

I couldn't help but wonder how today's political landscape might be different had H. Ross Perot either a) won the 1992 presidential election or b) not turned out to be such a controlling, meglomaniacal loon. I actually voted for the old crank in a fit of contrariness, an action I rarely admit to and have long regretted (though it made no actual difference to the elder Bush's prospects; I was living in Houston at the time). But what a tectonic shift that could have caused! And the 90's were arguably a good time for America to have gone through the sort of political upheaval and weirdness that a Perot victory might have created, what with a strong economy and a general (albeit somewhat false) peace.

We would have had to accept some serious downsides. Perot would have killed NAFTA, and probably a lot of other trade deals; important elements of globalization would have taken a major hit (Not to mention having to deal with a bantam-sized LBJ speechifying). I forget, now, the other downsides to Perot's announced policies or even what they were (weren't they down on immigration, for example?).

I simply wonder what sort of world we'd be in today. Would the Dems and Republicans have split? Gotten more entrenched in their own peculiar worlds? What of Clinton's New Democrats? Would protectionist Republicans and Democrats have swelled the Reform Party ranks, chasing off the religious Right but leaving the globalists wondering where to go? Would a pissed-off Left have created an American Green Party 4 years sooner? Would the Libertarians have actually gained real influence? The counterfactual possibilities are staggering.

It could have been good, it could have been horrible, it could have just postponed the day we'd find ourselves right back where we started from. But there are days I look out at the polarization of our extremes and wonder.

Monday, June 21, 2004


More on estate taxes in a couple of days (or tonight, who knows?), but first a matter of great cultural importance.

I don't get NASCAR. It's not that I don't get aspects of it; fast cars, racing, gearheads, element of danger etc., etc. What I don't get is the whole thing put together.

I went to the local IMAX with my 6-year old son to see the NASCAR "documentary" (in 3D! As an aside, the 3D process is pretty good, but after a while you sort of stop noticing it -- it would be interesting to have a 2D version nearby you could switch back and forth on to compare). It was an interesting enough film, telling some stuff that naifs like me don't know but which makes sense, about the engine work, and some stuff about pit crews, and the racing families, but nothing terribly earth-shattering.

I still do not get why so many people would willing to hang out for 4+ hours in the sun watching cars constantly turning left, even if it is at 150+ MPH. The infielders make sense; like tailgaters at a football game, they are there for the day long opportunity it affords to party. But there are a lot more people in the stands than in the infield, and however much beer you have to consume (at $5 or more a cup, I'd bet), it seems like an awful lot of trouble for the last 10-20 laps, when things really get tense and exciting (sort of like the NBA).

But NASCAR is huge, and growing. Can anyone tell me why? And don't give me any guff about the rich tradition and family atmosphere. Even if the drivers and crews and nice and down to earth compared to, say Shaquille O'Neill or Roger Clemens, how many people ever get close enough for this to matter? Is it something like baseball, where if you know what's up you can follow rythyms and hidden portents that give you something to do in between crashes?

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Estate Taxes 

Dave Fried is opining that there's no good argument against an estate tax, which of course is just silly. Are their good arguments for it?

The primary purpose of taxes (at least in my world) is to generate revenue for the operations of government. And it must be seen by the people being taxed as reasonably fair, or the widespread cheating will undermine its effectiveness. So any tax that does not generate sufficient revenue and/or is seen as unfair in some way is a bad tax.

In reading the thread on Brad Delong's blog that Dave pointed to, I noted with interest that pretty much no one there talked about the revenue generated by the estate tax as being important. And that is true. A perusal of the income sources of the Treasury over the 90's (i.e., pre-Bush and his lowering of the estate tax) shows that the average contribution of the estate tax to the government's coffers was about 1-2% of the total.

So the argument here isn't really about revenue, and that should automatically make a person a bit suspicious. Now its true there is nothing in the Constitution that requires taxes to be primarily about revenue, though traditionally the tax break has been used to do the social engineering.

The attack on estates seems to follow two main tracks; the first is that such accumulations of wealth are dangerous and amount to the creation of an American aristocracy, because wealth is power (which is true). Usually no evidence is presented to show how this has created bad government (though I suspect it wouldn't be hard), but some sentiment of the Founding Dudes is typically trotted out. Generally, it is forgotten that the Founders were many of them a landed aristocracy in all but name, and they might well have taken a dim view of confiscatory taxes aimed at wealth alone. That sort of thing happened in the French Revolution, and accomplished little good. Its worth observing that the United States did without a true estate tax for quite a little while (the current version was created in 1916. Others existed as short lived measures during the Civil and Spanish-American Wars), though individual states might have had them from very early on.

The second track follows a completely opposite line: that trust fund babies (as these sorts are typically known) just sit around and have a grand old time, wasting their talents and accomplishing little good. I've actually heard of studies that support this contention. And my primary response is "So what?" Plenty of non-rich essentially waste their talents and we don't especially care about devising tax schemes to stimulate them. And how many people is thing going to be? Several hundred? Several thousand? Out of a population of almost 300 million? A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but at least in the case of these people, its their choice, and I don't think a few thousand dilettantes out of hundred's of millions of total population is going to cause the ruin of civilization.

And note how these two points are somewhat contradictory. Inheritors are either wasteful and lazy, or they are policy-distorting fiends. The first is not something the government really needs to worry about. The second exists, but its not clear that its of sufficient moment to worry that much about either. There are some other arguments often put forward, however.

One often heard is that an estate tax would affect only a tiny proportion of the people. Again I say, so? The correctness of a particular law is generally not based upon the fact that it will only negatively impact a few people. Surely examples are not needed here?

Another line is that this accumulation is simply not taxed. Although taxed at a lesser rate, both dividends and capital gains on stocks sold face taxation. So unless our heir gains a huge pile of raw cash and stuffs it into several mattresses they are still going to face the tax man at some point.

Finally, we come back around to the issue of perceived fairness. Whether liberals like it or not, the conservative attack on the "death tax" was pushing on an open door. Even if they did stretch the rhetorical truth (and they did), the public was downright eager to accept the argument. Its that democracy thing.

So the arguments for estate taxes really boil down to only one that in my opinion has any sort of validity: That the accumulation of wealth by certain families is going to create bad politics. And it has not been demonstrated to my satisfaction that any estate tax that is palatable to the public will manage to stop these distortions, or that they are in fact sufficiently bad in practice as to demand the use of the blunt instrument of government tax policy on them.

Monday, June 14, 2004

I'm Back! Anyone Notice I Was Gone? 

Having survived a week of helping out with Vacation Bible School, Lutheran-style, I am back at the blog. Oddly enough, I know I'll have less time to blog because of taking care of Jake full-time, instead of just after school. This may mean I'll do a lot less political stuff. A good politics post takes a lot of time before you can even get to the writing of the post. So this may turn into more a "my life" thing. But not entirely. I do politics too much to ignore it.

Being out last week allowed me to miss the Ronald Reagan hate/love-fest. I'm always impressed but not surprised at how such figures can bring out such extreme opposites of reaction. Reagan put over 50 years of left-liberal rhetoric on the defensive, chose confrontation over accommodation in the Cold War, and changed the way conservatives dealt with government. Plenty there to react to. And plenty to argue over when it comes to the results of such activities. It may be another 40+ years before we get the definitive answer -- how many histories of World War 2 were written before the ULTRA secret was finally let out?

Among my projects for the next several months is deciding what to do with my life and time. Do I want to go back to work, for example? Don't have to right now, but I know that if a good job offer came around I would seriously consider it. But it would have to be a good job, not something sucky. And I don't mean pay, really. It doesn't have to pay as much as what I was making before, but it would have to be rewarding in some way for me to give up the simpler life I have right now. As the wife-unit put it, we're nice and comfortable, and all we would have to give up is a certain amount of extra goodies. She went on to say that she loved her job, and she didn't see why I shouldn't get to love mine as well, and couldn't imagine forcing me to take a job I disliked just so it would easier to buy a nice couch.

Am I lucky or what?

Thursday, June 03, 2004


Actually, turns out next week is the week I'm helping out at Vacation Bible School; but blogging is lighter than usual for a reason I did not expect.

With Jacob out of school, we no longer need to get him and us up at 6am; I've spent the last week or so sleeping in to the absolutely decadent hour of 7am. This leaves me a an hour to hour and a half less time in the morning to devote to this particular brand of narcissism. And since I've spent most of the last ten years getting up between 6 and 6:30am in order to make work by 7:30 or earlier, I'm probably better slept now than at any given point since his birth.

But this post is really a short one about NIMBY - Not In My BackYard syndrome. I'm sure you know what it means, so I'll dispense with the definitions, although technically what I'm feeling is more like Okay I'm Here You Can Stop Now.

How it applies to me is that I live in Cedar Park, TX, which is a town on the NW side of Austin. Its a town that is becoming a suburb, if it isn't already. Ten years ago it was mostly cedar trees. Even 4 years ago, when we moved in, the nearest major intersection to our house was brush on all sides, and the 2 mile drive in from the major highway was nothing but trees and brush.

Now all four sides of that corner have something on them; a small strip mall, a Walgreens drugstore, a gas station, and a grocery store strip mall. The corner with the gas station is about to get some sort of shopping area. We're hoping for an HEB grocery store, since we don't like the Randalls across the road.

I know that 5-10 years further on, that 2 mile drive (which is still mostly brush and trees) will be full of stuff. More housing, more stores, etc. etc. Up until now, the new development has been nice. Its made running errands much easier, much shorter. I know however, that at some point I'll feel like we've had "enough" new businesses come in that my life has been eased sufficiently and that I'll want it to stop. Leave as much trees and brush in place as you can, please.

Probably won't happen. It'll be solid concrete all the way out. And really, who am I to say otherwise? I was happy enough to get more until I thought my life was simplified enough. And its not like that cedar brush was all that exciting to look at.

So thats my rambling acknowledgement of hypocrisy for today.

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