Archive for December, 2007

Ghost of Christmas Past

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

At the ripe old age of 35, I received for Christmas, for the first time in at least 20 years…

… a genuine bona fide toy.

I am now the proud owner of a real (*ahem*) Sonic Screwdriver.

Unfair to FairTax

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

Pundit Jay Bookman, writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has penned an article entitled Huckabee’s fantasy FairTax feeds on workers’ frustration. I should note that his column is named, simply, “My Opinion”. That name, at least, is honesty in journalism; as the article is heavy on opinion, and sadly short on facts.

You know what? This calls for a good hard fisking!

There is indeed a cult member among the frontrunners for the GOP presidential nomination. But it isn’t Mitt Romney, the Mormon from Massachusetts, despite what some in the evangelical community might tell you.

Ooh, hey! Nice twofer there. Let’s start in with the name calling while simultaneously name calling by proxy1 a different Republican candidate. Is every group you don’t like a “cult”?

It’s Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher, former Arkansas governor and fervent believer in the cult of the FairTax.

“Cult” Counter: 2

For those unfamiliar with the FairTax creed, it goes something like this: Let us go forth and abolish the federal income tax, the estate tax, corporate taxes, capital gains taxes and payroll taxes, as well as the IRS. Let us then replace all those taxes with a 30 percent national sales tax collected on all services and goods, from a new house to chemotherapy treatments to a gallon of milk.

If we do that, economic heaven is within our reach.

“Creed”? “Go forth”? “Heaven”? You, Sir, are mixing your metaphors. Is it a cult or a religion? (Or are those the same thing to you?)

Beyond that, we also have our first factual inaccuracies: “…a 30 percent national sales tax collected on all services and goods…” First, as this is a replacement for the Income Tax, which is measured as an inclusive, not exclusive, tax, the only fair “apples to apples” comparison is to also measure the FairTax as an inclusive tax. As such it is 23%, not 30%.

That is: If I earn $100,000, and pay 25% income tax, the government takes $25,000 and I keep $75,000. $25,000 is 25% of $100,000 (inclusive tax), but 33% of $75,000 (exclusive tax). The FairTax works like this: if I spend $100,000 for something, the government takes $23,000 in taxes, and the retail seller keeps $77,000. Measured in the same way as today’s existing income tax, $23,000 is 23% of $100,000. Apples to apples, the FairTax is a 23% inclusive tax. Calling it a 30% tax is a distortion of the plan, and just a way to spread some FUD.

Second, it is not a tax on “all services and goods”, but all new, retail goods and services. Used or resale goods (from clothing to houses) are not taxed. Environmentalists should love this plan, as there is a strong incentive to buy (and thus re-use) used goods.

Or, as Huckabee says, “when the FairTax becomes law, it will be like waving a magic wand releasing us from pain and unfairness.”

That does sound wonderful. Don’t we all want to be released from pain and unfairness? Don’t we all yearn for a magic wand that would bring such a glorious day to pass?

Sadly, though, there’s this little matter of reality. Reality says taxes are going to hurt, and no magic wand will ever change that. For time immemorial, taxes have been perceived as unjust, and nothing will change that either.

So… what, your “reality based” outlook insists that taxes must remain as painful as possible, or they’re no good? You’re right — there’s no such thing as “no taxes” if you’re going to have any government at all, but there is a lot of room for a lower tax burden. A huge part of the current tax burden is the cost of simply figuring out how much you owe. Billions of dollars are lost to the sheer bureaucracy of the IRS and it’s 100,000-plus page long tax code.

According to Huckabee and other proponents, the FairTax will raise just as much revenue as the current system. They also believe that, somehow, almost everyone will pay less in taxes.

At the least, they will not have to pay those aforementioned billions of dollars in compliance costs. Retail businesses will be the only ones filling out federal income tax returns.

They believe that under the FairTax, the economy will grow at double-digit rates, interest rates will fall, exports will boom and the Falcons will win the Super Bowl.

OK, they don’t really mention the Falcons. Even the FairTax magic wand has its limitations.

Yes, Yes, Yes, and… Hey Look! A monkey!

In effect, the FairTax is the tax equivalent of those automobile engines designed to run on water. It sounds great, but it doesn’t have a chance of working.

“Don’t sell the bike shop, Orville! It’ll never work!”

The proposed 30 percent sales tax, for example, wouldn’t come close to being revenue neutral. A tax commission convened by the Bush administration found that eliminating just the federal income tax ? leaving all other federal taxes intact ? would require a sales tax of at least 34 percent, a finding backed by other economists.

Here’s I’ll just quote Neal Boortz, who (literally) wrote the book on the FairTax:

What Bookman either doesn’t realize, or doesn’t want you to know, is that the president’s tax reform commission was not permitted to consider the FairTax as it was written. They first were compelled by their own rules to rewrite H.R. 25, and then they considered the idea as reformulated by them!

Back to Bookman’s article:

To a cult, of course

“Cult” Counter: 3

the scorn of nonbelievers is transformed into proof that their cause is righteous; likewise, outside criticism is typically dismissed as the work of conspiracy. In this case, the FairTax cultists

“Cult” Counter: 4

dismiss the findings of the Bush tax panel on grounds that it was stacked with liberals.

Uh huh.

See above. If you’re going to examine a plan, don’t change the plan first. Study it as written.

The FairTax cult also boasts its own holy manuscript, in this case “The FairTax Book: Saying Goodbye to the Income Tax and the IRS,” by radio talk show host Neal Boortz and his congressional sidekick, U.S. Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.). Cultists

“Cult” Counter: 5

insist that the book, like the Bible, is inerrant and answers all doubts, and that all who read it will earn enlightenment.

I don’t think the book is infallible, but I do advise actually reading it before writing at great length about how the author doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

The fantasy nature of the FairTax is perhaps most glaring in its approach to enforcement. Advocates believe that under their system, tax fraud would essentially cease to be a problem and that the new system would almost enforce itself, allowing the IRS to fade away.

Again, did you read the book? Tax fraud would not disappear, but it is a lot easier to police several thousand retail businesses than three hundred million individuals. Also, the IRS becomes obsolete not because enforcement is unnecessary, but because the states would be doing the enforcement.

But we all know human nature. Ask yourself how many people would be lured into the black-market economy to avoid paying a sales tax of 30, 40, 50 or even 60 percent on expensive items? The FairTax cult says very few ? maybe they’re counting on that magic wand again.

The fiipside of that is that drug dealers and foreign visitors would enter the tax system. When a drug dealer buys a fancy new car, he pays taxes on it. When a Japanese tourist buys a camcorder in New York, he pays taxes on it. Currently, neither of these people pay into the income tax system.

As for black market sellers, well… you’re right. There will always be people trying to buck the system. But again it is a lot easier to police retailers than individuals. Police will somewhere along the line notice that so-and-so is buying a bunch of wholesale goods and never officially selling them. This kind of market already exists on products with prohibitively high sales taxes.

By comparison, do you, Mr. Bookman, believe that nobody cheats on their income taxes?

The grassroots fervor for the FairTax is fed by a growing and all-too-legitimate frustration among working-class and middle-class Americans, a sense that they’re working harder than ever yet losing ground every year.

You forgot to mention upper-class Americans, who are most certainly frustrated with taxes. Lessee… “working” (i.e. “lower”) class, middle class, and upper class. That would be “All Americans” are frustrated with the current system… and rightly so.

Huckabee isn’t shy about appealing to that frustration, not just with the FairTax but with other rhetoric as well.

Oh my God! A politician who promises to do what people want! The Horror! My Eyes!

However, under the FairTax, those folks would end up paying significantly more in taxes, while the tax burden for the wealthy would fall dramatically. It would victimize the very people who look to it for salvation.

People at or below the poverty line would pay nothing under the FairTax. You conveniently forgot to mention the prebate, did you? Simply put: every single American citizen (and legal alien) would receive a rebate once a month for the amount of taxes on spending at the poverty level. Thus poor people pay nothing. Don’t worry, those eeeevil rich people will still pay the FairTax every time they buy caviar or a new yacht. They’ll get the prebate too, but it will be pocket change compared to a yacht! Heck, they spend that much in a week lighting their cigars with hundred-dollar bills.

Let us not forget that the removal of multiple layers of embedded taxes (that is, layers of income tax that hit at all levels of manufacture and distribution of goods) will lower prices, as, again, the FairTax only applies at the retail level, on new goods and services. Price drops will effectively balance out the increase caused by the tax itself. Thus prices will remain much the same as they are, but everyone’s buying power will increase because we’ll all be taking home our entire paycheck.

The real reason leftists don’t like this plan is because it would represent the single biggest return of power from the Federal Government to The People since the Declaration of Independence. Lack of government power means it’s harder to institute socialist schemes. When the country’s citizens no longer have to submit detailed financial information to the government, that makes it a lot harder for politicians to engineer their multitude of social experiments in the form of social programs. When the IRS and its thousands of exceptions and loopholes are eliminated, it’s far more difficult for politicians to buy votes by passing new loopholes that even further complicated the current bloated system.

The FairTax, like other cults, plays its followers for suckers.

You’re projecting, man. It is you playing your readers for suckers.

Power to the People!

[Update: Missed it at the end there… Cult Counter: 6]

1: “name calling by proxy”: v. the act of indirectly voicing a negative statement about another person (name calling), generally while feigning that you are not doing so, by referring pointedly to name calling by others. Ex: “Some people say he’s a criminal.” The “playing innocent” aspect of this is often enhanced by an explicit statement that you are not name calling, but simply pointing out that of others. This can be detected when there is no reason to mention the negative portrayal in the first place, except for the sake of it being mentioned. Ex: “I don’t actually know, but many people say that my opponent is a drunk.”

Magic Science

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Jeffrey Harrell has an interesting post up regarding the realistic science of Battlestar Galactica. I haven’t watched the most recent season of BSG (gonna get the DVD though…), but I do like the relative realism of the science, as far as it goes.

Pretty much any time you have a fictional universe in which people are traveling between solar systems in dramatically interesting periods of time, we’re looking at “magic” technology, in the Clarkian sense that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In this sense, we’re really not talking about “realism” so much as “verisimilitude”. It doesn’t follow science, but does a good job of seeming to do so.

For example, when the ships “jump” to another point in space, we’re talking about ginormous amounts of physical matter popping out of existence in one place and (instantly?) reappearing some vast distance away. Nothing in modern science can explain this, but that really doesn’t say in any absolute terms that it is _impossible_ — it’s just impossible within the terms of what we know now. Two thousand years from now when we’ve harnessed wormholes for travel (a la Farscape), and are using captured black holes for power sources (a la Doctor Who), today’s “impossible” things are going to be included in science kits for children.

There are two elements of “magical” tech (at least) that we know about in BSG:

1) They can travel faster than light, as exhibited in their “jump” technology.
2) They have harnessed the power of gravity.

Let’s look at that second one for a moment.

We know that to some extent the people of the 12 colonies have gravity control, as evidenced by the simple (televisually convenient) fact that they walk around normally on board their ships. They’re not scooting around in near-freefall going from handhold to handhold — there is a distinct “up” and “down” on board their spacecraft, which appears to pretty consistently equate to their planetary norm.

I referred to this a moment ago as “televisually convenient” because it makes filming the show a lot easier. Without it, virtually every scene not set on a planet (that is, most every scene) would be a special effects shot. Just about every TV show set in outer space ever made follows that same conceit: Star Trek, BSG, Farscape, Doctor Who, Buck Rodgers, you name it. Artificial gravity. People walking around in space ships that conveniently share the same gravity field as, say, a studio lot in L.A.

So we know why they do it. But if we’re going to examine the show as a scientifically plausible universe, as Jeff attempts to do, then this technological feat cannot be easily dismissed. Artificial gravity is a big deal. These people have harnessed a fundamental law of physics. In the universe as we know it, there is only one thing that produces gravity, and that is the presence of mass. It takes a hunk of matter the size of our entire planet to produce the amount of gravity that we think of as “normal”.

That means that if a space craft has an “earth normal” gravity field allowing people to walk around normally, there are only a few possibilities:

  1. There is an incredibly huge or dense chunk of matter somewhere in the middle of your ship, and all decks are arranged roughly concentrically around it. That of course means that to move, you’re pushing around an almost Earth-size mass. In addition, you either must have a really huge ship, or you’re _still_ manipulating gravity to keep that mass from crushing your ship in on itself. (Note: The actual size of the mass to create an Earth-equivalent gravity field varies with the distance of the decks from that mass, as well as its density). Not very practical on multiple levels, and I know of no show that has used this method.
  2. Your decks are all perpendicular to the movement of the ship, and the ship constantly accelerates at a speed that produces one gravity of force. Not entirely implausible, but it would take a long time to get anywhere, and this system would be highly susceptible to turbulence or unexpected course changes. Again I know of no show that uses this method.
  3. Spin the decks around the center of the ship, and have the crew areas oriented so that “down” is concentric away from the center. A false “gravity” is formed by centripetal force. This has been used occasionally in science fiction, probably most famously in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Plausible, but not commonly used. Note you need a pretty big ring to spin, as a too-small ring will do bad things to the people standing in its “gravity”.
  4. Some sort of heretofore unknown, unexplained, or technobabble-ish “magic” science. That is science so advanced that we 21st century Earthlings can’t explain it with what we understand of physics. Most sci-fi shipboard gravity falls into this category. Battlestar Galactica certainly does.

So… as interesting as it can be to try to examine that show in terms of real science, and as much as the show does coincide with real mathematics (as evidenced by Jeff’s post), we are at some level dealing with “magic” science, and the ability to directly manipulate gravity, alone, has significant consequences for Jeff’s discussion.

He talks about G-forces and the limits they impose on acceleration. If you can manipulate gravity, you can effectively eliminate inertia, and thus G-forces. If I want my ship to accelerate forward at 100 gravities (which would be fatal to a human being), I can impose an artificial gravity field within the ship that pulls people forward at that same 100 gravities, and that would have the effect that the people in the ship don’t even feel the acceleration. Again, this seems common in popular sci-fi. (Actually, if you can readily manipulate gravity, you can use that as propulsion by making your ship “fall” towards its destination!)

I remember reading a book somewhere along the line (perhaps one of the Honor Harrington series) in which a saboteur specifically kills the crew of a ship by rigging the inertial dampeners to cut out at the height of acceleration, thus causing them to be instantly crushed into jelly by massive g-forces.

A fun-but-silly example of this same “magic tech” is the show Doctor Who in the 70s, in which the Doctor (as portrayed by actor Jon Pertwee) drove around in a vintage automobile into which he had installed an inertial dampener. There he is in this old open-top roadster accelerating at incredible speeds and stopping on a dime. I always loved that juxtaposition of old technology with advanced future tech — those kinds of touches are one of the reasons I am still a fan of the old show.

Getting back to Battlestar Galactica — Jeff openly admits that the show deals with “magic” tech, in his references to the ships having “magic engines ” and such. I do like it when writers keep within certain pre-defined bounds, I just think that such verisimilitude becomes really dicey as soon as you introduce any unexplained high tech. Larry Niven wrote an essay at one point about the difficulties of writing science fiction mysteries — if it’s a locked-room murder, for example, how do we know some alien didn’t just “psychic” the guy to death, or whatever? This type of thing became a significant weakness in Star Trek — after a while it seemed that they could solve any problem by whipping up some vaguely-plausible-sounding gadget, or making some sort of never-before attempted deathray out of the deflector array. The show lost a lot of tension when you knew the resolution was just a technobabble miracle away.

The aforementioned Honor Harrington series of books (not TV) by David Weber are another excellent example of verisimilitude in science fiction. Throughout the series, he gives solid explanations of how the technology in his universe works, and doesn’t stray out of the boundaries he sets up for himself. The tech becomes intimately tied into the methodologies of warfare in the series, and he manages to keep the battles interesting and diverse at the same time.

Personally I think any science fiction (or fantasy for that matter) does pretty well with this if they manage to be internally consistent. Set the ground rules, and then you can legitimately do “unreal” thinks so long as you follow your own rules. The worst thing a writer can do is to get the characters into a bind and then get them out of it by pulling out some cure-all gadget at the last moment that has no basis in what came before. The worst example I can think of of this is the end of the movie Cool World (a distinctly fantasy movie in the vein of Roger Rabbit) in which the main (human) character is killed in the climactic scene, but then one of the subsidiary characters turns to another and conveniently mentions that if a human is killed by a cartoon, they become cartoons themselves. Voila! Main character is not only saved, but this solves several problems that he’s been trying to over come for the whole movie. This is mentioned only at the critical moment at the end of the movie, but stated as though it’s something commonly known to anybody — yet if anybody had known it at the beginning, they could have skipped the whole movie by doing it at the beginning.

I think this gets into one of the defining factors of what separates good science fiction from the garbage — respect for the intelligence of the viewer, and a solid standard that things have to make logical sense. Science fiction is largely the art of inventing dramatically interesting “facts”, but maintaining the relationships between things in a way that keeps with reality. Okay, some dude makes a time machine — I can accept that. You don’t have to explain precisely how it works; but the consequences of going back millions of years and stepping on a butterfly had better make sense, or you don’t have a story. In the case of Battlestar Galactica, there are several “magic” aspects of the universe, but the glue that holds them all together is strong characters, and a universe that still makes logical sense after you accept the inclusion of the defined impossibilities.

Edward K., this one’s for you.

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

Ed ol’ pal, I sw this an immediately thought of you:

A Squirrel in Armor

Now I just need to find a squirrel sailing a little boat. In armor. An armored boat, not the squirrel — that would be silly; if he fell in he’d drown.