Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My Idea Fixes This Problem

Ezra interviewed Larry Summers today. Part of their exchange:
...If you want to give relief to people that maximizes their capacity to spend, give them a debit card that expires in six months.

EK: That seems like a good idea to me. Why didn’t we do it?

LS: When I first heard that idea, I loved it. Then I thought about it more and decided I only liked it. It occurs to you that if you give Ezra a $500 card he’ll spend that, but on things he would have bought otherwise and he can save the money he’d have otherwise used for those purchases, so there’s little net impact...
My idea is to do this in conjunction with a Fed purchase of citizen debt, specifically student loans. This circumvents some of this problem by giving an additional incentive. The amount that goes on the debit card is equal to how much people pay to their student loan. While this could have the exact same effect (people eschew other spending), the cost would be essentially zero (the Fed prints the money) and the types of people who would otherwise figure out how to save are the same ones who would be most strongly incentivized to put more into student loan debt, which would have to be spent.

There are two necessary things to this: 1) it has to have a time limit (~2 years), and 2) at the end of that time any remaining debt is paid off as normal.

People who would not be inclined to save will spend no matter how the money is distributed. Those who are inclined to save and who are savvy enough to game the system, will game this system as well. The difference is that people who game this system may actually spend more than those who don't because there is actually an incentive here to shift away from savings to extra debt reduction with complimentary cash for buying things (for these folks it would probably be lots of durable goods or home improvement things).

Morons Abound

Just a funny read...in a "we're all doomed" kind of way.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Pulling Back the Curtain

I'm not exactly happy that some people seem to be waking up to the fact that Obama is more conservative (at least in reality) than Richard Nixon was, but I'm really kind of happy that people are starting to see it.

Also, too, this.

Should One Buy or Rent

Another post on the subject, because of another weird article. The post is this one which actually does a good job of countering out some of the issues in the cited article, which is another "renting-is-the-best-financial-option" article. The biggest point the post made was the the savings of renters are very likely to end up spent rather than invested, which is a very legitimate point, though it doesn't counter the math. There are some quick comments that do counter the math, however, that I think need expounding.

First: long term buyers, which--for all the noise about flippers and trading up and moving--are traditional buyers and are still (probably) the most common buyers--have much different math to look at than those who move every 8 years. The shorter the term someone looks at the more likely that buying is a bad idea, this is true even in cases/places where the monthly mortgage + interest + taxes payment is less than or equal to the rent thanks to closing costs.

Second: it is virtually impossible to get accurate equivalent rent information in an aggregate manner. Controlling for number of bed/bathrooms or square footage or style is helpful, but rarely a really good substitute. The best is to compare same house or side by side...say rental vs purchased condos in the same building/development. To the extent that such information is available, you can get a really good comparison, but that information is so limited that it can't be effectively used for broad comparisons. I know what my house purchase price was, but I only have a vague idea what it would cost to rent it. I can try and figure an equivalent rent from other places, but there is no way to effectively get at the equivalence. Specific amenities, location, and style/preference all factor in. On top of that, many people place extra value on having freedom to make changes/improvements which is rarely a possibility in a rental.

If this sounds like my trying to rationalize my purchase of a house, it is, but that is because these are rational points that were part of my purchase of a house. If 10 years down the road I sell and move for some reason, and the "investment" I made turns out to have not paid off as well as had I rented for 30% less per month today, then that'll be that. But the "investment" plan of purchasing my house was to someday own it outright and have a house that I could live in rent free. I hope that if it ever does come to pass that I need to move that I will be able to keep the house and rent it out to others in the meantime so that it will still be there as a place to retire to.

While there are certainly things that are beyond the control of an individual buyer, whether investing in a house pays off compared to renting has a lot more to do with the intents and actions of the individual buyers than it does the market as a whole.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Paradox That Isn't

Ezra does some nice policy work but this post on the paradox of presidential leadership is wrong on its face and completely ignores the obvious conclusion.

That a president taking a position polarizes that position making it not likely to pass (without lots of compromising away from it) is completely sensible. So too is it completely sensible that the power of persuasion is greater for the president than it is for pretty much anyone else. These are not in conflict. In fact they point to what should be the most obvious conclusion, and one that many people have complained that Obama really doesn't seem to get: the president should argue and persuade strongly, not for a compromise position, but for a position that is furthest away from his/her opposition as possible.

When Obama was trying to get health care done he should have been selling the American public hard on single payer, medicare for everyone, not exchanges and public options. That pulls the debate back to the center and compromise becomes easier for both parties. As it was, he staked out his position as the one between single payer and being rich and so made the conservative/Republican heath care plan that we ended up with seem like a liberal/Democratic plan to the majority of the American public.

The same was true of the stimulus, the same was true with the budget, the same is true now with the debt limit/deficit reduction debacle.

If Obama had staked his position out as an actual Democratic, liberal position, then it would not be nearly as hard for a compromise bill to get through. Democrats could say they still got some extra revenue from the wealthy, Republicans could say that they saved tax cuts for the middle class and cut government spending drastically. Voters would see Obama presiding over a compromise, and his base (the people he NEEDS to turn out if he wants to win reelection) would see him fighting for strong Democratic principles. (Incedentally, the GOP base would see them fighting as well...it really would be win-win, but it requires the president to stake his position as a liberal one, not as the compromise he truly seems to seek.)

If, in that scenario, the GOP still refused to grant anything, then the perception of them as intransigent and destructive to the country would be even stronger.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Follow up...

to the "If I Made $250k" post. A couple points that I wanted conveyed but didn't actually state:

Dividing that income by 2 does not mean everything takes twice as long. It takes much longer. The reason is that all annual expenses and fun doesn't get reduced by changing that number. Take home drops from $168k to ~$90k. The after tax, after living expenses take home plummets from $127k to $50k and the after fun number drops from $108k to $30k. Now, that is still a lot of extra money, but even with $0 contribution to savings/charity/misc it takes 15 months to pay off student loans rather than the less-than-half a year from before.

But even though savings and debt elimination take much longer, actual standard of living changed by zero. All of the extra money went to future ease, but the life I outlined at $250k looks pretty much exactly like the life I have now (with a few extra perks) despite a much lower income. I realize that some people would take the extra money and buy a bigger house or more extravagant car, but why?

As one makes more money the benefits follow: first, (for some) debt relief, second are various living standard increases, third is leisure increasing, and finally excess/luxury. Well below $250k/year only the last aspect actually changes with added income (and paying off existing debt faster is an excess...it's basically money you don't have something better to do with).

Friday, July 08, 2011

Why Taxes? Science and Education.

For all the complaining I do about finance and taxes and government the reason boils down to science and education. I think that education in general and science in particular are the most important things that government doesn't seem to have trouble cutting. At the state level it makes some sense that they cut education heavily when bad times hit: education is frequently the largest thing in a state's budget. The problem is federal.

We have massive entitlement programs (which I support) and an enormous military (which I think is way too pricey). Everything else is small by comparison, and yet every time that spending cuts are brought down it falls on everything else (which is actually non-defense discretionary spending). The result is that everything else actually has very little in the way of waste compared to the big ones that never get touched, which means that any cutting there really hurts.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

If I Made $250k...

Playing the "If I won the lottery" game is always an interesting exercise. I find that I can make use of about the first $1-2 million (lump sum) but that things get fuzzy beyond that and any money past $10 million is pretty much useless (even for investment) other than just giving it away. Altering the game to "If I made $250k/yr" is surprisingly similar...

Based on current tax law (federal, state, and local) and last year's deductions (most of which I would still be eligible for) my take home would be right around $170k, or $14,167/month. Let's make it $14k/mo and $168k/yr.

First off, are living expenses...
House - $1750/mo, $21k/yr
Utilities - $450/mo, $5400/yr (cell, tv, web, gas, electric & water)
Food - $600/mo, $7200/yr (groceries, restaurants, takeout)
Car - $2500/yr (gas, maintenance, insurance, registration)
Debt - $350/mo, $4200/yr (a bit over minimum payment)

Utilities are maybe a bit high, but not much. Food is certainly high (too many restaurants), but car is low (own outright) so that kind of cancels. That totals a bit over $40k/year or $3358/month, leaving nearly $10,640/month or $127,700/year. Time for fun...

Travel - $5000/yr
Other - $15k/yr (home improvement, clothes, entertainment, presents)

This is pretty nice living. Most of the country can't afford $5k in vacation travel per year and $15k on stuff. But even with that This still leaves nearly $108k ($9k/month), after taxes, left to spend/save. After paying taxes, covering living expenses and having plenty of fun I am left with a fair bit more than I make before taxes currently. I know pretty well what I would do with it: my student loan debt (currently ~$40k) would be gone in roughly 6 months (eliminating its inclusion above). The bulk of the rest--say $50k--would, in year 1 go to savings (house interest is low, and tax deductible) and charity. The remaining $18k I would use for various extras that I presently can't afford...hard to say exactly what, but probably some home rennovation work, some new furniture, a motorcycle, a road bicycle. Certainly it would also include some more for presents and others, but exactly how that would all get distributed is not so exact as the student loans.

But the inexactness of what to do with that money is kind of the point. After taxes, with all my living expenses covered and with lots of fun covered, and even with my student loans paid off and a large portion used for savings/charity, there is still $18k left over...in only 1 year of earning $250k.

If I were brining in this income I would own my house outright in ~5 years (just figure that $40k from the student loans going toward the house instead in years 2-5). I would be able to bank $0.5M within 10 years (at least $30k/year yrs 1-5, then $70k/yr for 6-10), which with investments and other savings/401k be around $1M in under 15 years.

This is a budget that Obama has promised not to raise taxes on (it is not over $250k/year, and deductions would bring it below even that). This is a budget that Republicans insist raising taxes on would be hurtful to the economy, a budget in which at least $70k is socked away and pretty much useless to the economy anyway.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Another Article on How $250k/Year Isn't Much

Articles like this one are beyond frustrating. Fortunately most of the commentors seem to be reasonable, but how the hell did that crap manage to get through and published? And why can't this writer and people who sympathize extrapolate back to figuring how a family of 4 making $50k/year gets by?

...Oh, and that family wouldn't see their taxes go up by a dime under Obama (which I think is the truly irresponsible thing).

Friday, July 01, 2011

Frustrating...More so if True

I understand why [feminists] get a bit bristly about shit like this. Sexual assault and rape are pretty damned big problems. Unfortunately, many trials come down to "he said - she said" arguments with little in the way of physical evidence (that can't be discounted by that argument). This means that the credibility of the parties becomes very important. Coupling this with a historical notion that erring on the side of caution means not sending a person to jail that is only "probably" guilty, means that it is very difficult to successfully prosecute even credible accusations of sexual assault.

Reading through the reader comments, however, is depressing. There is a very obvious bias that can be boiled down to a "sluts can't get raped" mentality that makes it remarkably easy for people in power, and people with wealth to abuse those who are without. It would be a shame if she was really peddling false accusations for some profit, because by and large accusers have more to lose and less to gain by their accusations than perpetrators of rape and assault do by their actions.

Eating Dogs

First: barring some dire need I don't see a reason to. That said, it's very odd to see how worked up people get (article: meh, comments: an insight into souls) about one kind of diet or other. It would be different if the people who are so strongly opposed to eating dogs were equally opposed to eating pigs, and some most likely are.

For anyone who really wants to try and get at a moralistic stance regarding what type of animal meat comes from there are ways to do so, and they are related to sustainability and efficiency. Unfortunately we eat too much meat in the US to deal with sustainability right now, and the one thing we should do is eat less of it. Still, there are differences between animals. In general, the higher up the food chain you go, the less efficient the meat you produce. This is why farmed salmon are bad--you have to feed them other fish--while farmed vegetarian tilapia are good.

With mammals, herbivores like cattle, sheep, goats, horses and deer do a remarkable thing for us: they convert food--greens like grass and most leaves--that we cannot digest into food--meat--that we can. Some omnivores, like pigs, can perform another complimentary task: they convert waste that we cannot extract nutrition from into meat that we can. Dogs cannot perform these functions and neither can any completely carnivorous animal (e.g. cats). Dogs essentially eat the same food we do, so raising them for meat is counter-productive.

So there is a sustainability/efficiency argument against eating dogs that will let you happily continue to gnaw the flesh off a pig's rib bone (as I, myself, am inclined to do). Of course, this is pretty much ignoring that we do not produce beef and pork in this sustainable fashion. While these animals are fed foods we cannot digest, they are also loaded up on corn that we can digest (maybe even better than cattle can). This is where I come back to saying that we eat too much meat.