Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Love of Books

As I've mentioned before, I participate in a tutoring program at my church. This is my 5th year with the program, and my 4th year with the same student. J---- and I were paired up together when she entered the program as a 3rd grader, and now she's in 6th grade. Time flies!

Her birthday was on Sunday, so Monday night after tutoring, I took her out for dessert to celebrate. And Teller's managed to out-dessert the ultimate dessert-atarian! She was overwhelmed by the richness of their Molten Chocolate Cake with raspberry sorbet.

It was a Good Time.

I like to give books to J---- as birthday and Christmas gifts. Mostly I've been giving her the books that were my favorites when I was her age. First, I gave her the Chronicles of Narnia books, and last year, I gave her Anne of Green Gables. So this year, Anne of Avonlea was one of the books that I bought for her.

I also found a recommended reading guide, which was really helpful. Since J---- has read all of the new Nancy Drew books from her school's library, the guide book suggested Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach. I also picked out a jewelry-making instruction book / kit that looked fun.

(And because I think that it's really important to teach kids about money, I also bought Complete Idiot's Guide to Money for Teens. But that's a tutoring/mentoring aid, not a birthday gift. J---- usually finishes most of her homework before tutoring, and she doesn't really need to work on basic math or reading skills, so we're going to devote part of each tutoring session to reading this book and talking about money.)

This year, I decided to include a letter with J----'s gift. I thought I ought to share it here, in honor of all of the people who gave me books when I was a kid:
Dear J----,

I wanted to tell you a little bit about why I buy books for you as birthday gifts and Christmas presents. The first reason is that I’m your tutor, so I think it’s good to give you gifts that are at least somewhat educational. But that’s kind of a boring reason.

The other reason is because I love books. I have always loved to read, and that’s something that I want to share with you too. (When you love something, like reading or skiing, of course you want to share those activities with people that you care about!) Many of the books that I have given to you are books that were given to me by people who loved me.

My step-mother gave me the Chronicles of Narnia books when I was a little girl, because she also loved those books when she was younger. I’ve read them dozens of times, and I still re-read them every couple of years, because C.S. Lewis’ stories are more than just fairy tales. He was a very wise man who wrote some important books for adults, but adults can also learn from the stories that he wrote for little kids.

I bought you the Anne of Green Gables books because my grandmother bought those books for me. My grandparents used to go to Prince Edward Island for their vacation every year, and my grandmother bought the books for me while she was there. My grandmother loved history, especially the history of the United States and Canada, and I remember her house was filled with books. One of her hobbies was studying genealogy, and she discovered that she had an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.

So these books are a sort of heritage that I want to pass on to you. In addition to being great stories, they remind me of people who loved me. And I hope that when you think about these books, you’ll also remember that I gave them to you with lots of love!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Who lets these people write for the New York Times?!?

How High Gas Prices Can Save the Car Industry offers this ridiculously naive proposal for bailing out the automotive industry:
"One way to do that would be to establish a price floor of $3.50 per gallon on gasoline. If the price drops below that, as it recently has, the federal government would impose a variable tax to bring the price up to $3.50. If the price goes above $3.50, then the tax disappears. The money raised by the variable tax would be used, at least in the short term, to provide loan guarantees to the auto companies. (To ease the burden of higher gasoline prices on low-income taxpayers, some of the revenue would be provided to them as tax credits or vouchers.)"

I don't need a degree in business or economics to know that this will never work. Gas stations compete on price. If you artificially prevent them from doing that, then why should they make any attempt to keep their prices down? If there's no competition from the gas stations across the street, then of course they're all going to set their prices at $3.50 a gallon, and the government will get nothing.

Let's assume for just a minute that the government has the authority to determine exactly how much profit that each company is permitted to take, as a percentage of their revenue. (We'll ignore for now all the reasons why this is a colossally bad idea.) Here's the problem: The government can't force a company to keep their overhead costs down. Only competition can do that.

And that's exactly what's happening to the automotive industry right now.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Big, Bad Bailouts Revisited

Another article on the bailout debate:
It is all a reminder that the biggest threat to a healthy economy is not the socialists of campaign lore. It’s C.E.O.’s. It’s politically powerful crony capitalists who use their influence to create a stagnant corporate welfare state.

If ever the market has rendered a just verdict, it is the one rendered on G.M. and Chrysler. These companies are not innocent victims of this crisis. To read the expert literature on these companies is to read a long litany of miscalculation. Some experts mention the management blunders, some the union contracts and the legacy costs, some the years of poor car design and some the entrenched corporate cultures.

There seems to be no one who believes the companies are viable without radical change. A federal cash infusion will not infuse wisdom into management. It will not reduce labor costs. It will not attract talented new employees. As Megan McArdle of The Atlantic wittily put it, “Working for the Big Three magically combines vast corporate bureaucracy and job insecurity in one completely unattractive package.”

Generation Y is excited about this election because their votes helped put Obama into the Oval Office. On one hand, this is a great thing, because now they're no longer feeling disenfranchised by the election process. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that what they're about to experience is disillusionment.

In my opinion, it doesn't really matter who's elected as President, and it doesn't really matter who's elected to Congress. At this point, they're all equally bad. The only thing that Republicans and Democrats work together on is spending money that this country doesn't have, and Obama isn't going to be able to turn things around overnight, even assuming that he wants to. Maybe that sounds horribly jaded, but let me explain where I'm going with this.

As I've said before, "People do what you pay them to do." And our politicians aren't getting paid to represent the best interests of our country. (Well, they are, but not really.) Instead, their re-election campaigns are financed by lobbyists for special interest groups like the automotive industry, the pharmaceutical industry, tobacco companies, and teachers unions.

Now I do think that lobbyists have the potential to serve a valuable purpose. They can do research, and gather facts, and present logical arguments for new legislature. I don't have a problem with companies paying lobbyists to present their case to Congress. But I strongly object to the fact that lobbyists spend millions and millions of dollars to buy the votes of Senators and Representatives. How can politicians possibly put the best interests of America over the special interests of industries when their careers are being funded by lobbyists?

So until we have real campaign finance reform, all we're going to get is more of the same-- Our government will continue to fork over money to the industries that provide the biggest kick-backs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Big, Bad Bailouts

I just got home from another trip to the Rust Belt. Living in Cincinnati, I don't feel like we're experiencing a true recession. (For sure, the parking lot at the mall is crammed full on Saturdays.) But up in Saginaw, you get the feeling that the recession is firmly entrenched.

My company has several customers in the automotive industry-- Not the Big Three automakers, but their sub-tier suppliers. So in the past few months, I've had the privilege of meeting lots of intelligent, hard-working engineers who work for these companies. These are people who get excited about designing steering columns, seat adjustment mechanisms, and wiring harness connectors. And ultimately, all of their livelihoods are controlled by the "leadership" at GM, because when GM stumbles, every sub-tier supplier also takes a financial hit.

That's the tragedy of the latest bailout debate that is currently being discussed in Congress. In essence, it comes down to this: How many millions of people should lose their jobs because GM's management has been willfully stupid for the past 20+ years?
General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.'s and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, G.M. threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers.

(And here's another reason why I equate SUV's with being willfully stupid.)

I am NOT in favor of bailing out GM. Frankly, I think they probably deserve to go under. But I also believe that if that happens, thousands of hard-working engineers will lose their jobs, and it will be an enormous blow to our (already wounded) economy. I don't know what the right answer is.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Confessions of an Undecided Voter

I was one of the Undecided Voters. I went into voting booth on Tuesday still unsure about who I was going to vote for, so I skipped the first question and filled out the rest of my ballot. Then I came back to the big decision. I seriously considered voting for the Libertarian Party of Ohio. (But I didn't.)

I still don't know what I would do if someone came up to me today and said, "You are responsible for casting the deciding vote. You alone have the power to decide who becomes the next President of the United States." I'd be in trouble. I really don't know if I would decide for Obama/Biden or McCain/Palin. In fact, if I had the power to do it, I would probably go back to the old method of picking the top candidate from one party as President and picking the top candidate from the other party as Vice President. I'd actually feel pretty good about that, except that I'd have a hard time deciding which of them should be Thing One and Thing Two.

In the end, the matter was decidedly settled by many people who are clearly more decisive than I am. (Despite the fact that Time magazine just published an article about how the Cincinnati area is a Republican County, the vote went to Obama by more than 5 percentage points-- 52% to 47%.)

The point is of this blog posting is that I'm not an Undecided Voter because I haven't given it serious thought. In fact, I'm probably guilty of over-thinking the whole situation.

Here are some of the reasons for my quandary:

  • I'm mostly a Republican.

    I believe that "Government is the least-efficient way to do just about anything," so obviously I believe in minimizing government programs and reducing taxes. I believe that our healthcare system is broken, but I don't think that socialized medicine is the best fix. I'm generally anti-abortion, although I can also see that sometimes painful decisions have to be made between the lesser of two evils. I wish that the Republican party would focus more on environmental issues and stop pandering to lobbyists for big industries, but overall, I'm much more of a Republican than a Democrat.

  • The Republican Primaries

    Early in the primaries, I was pulling for McCain. I liked the fact that he was an advocate for immigration reform. I agreed with most of his decisions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The Democratic Primaries

    I really don't like Hillary Clinton, so I thought that the Democrats made a good choice when they (finally) picked Obama.

  • The Presidential Debates

    When I watched the debates, I thought that Obama had more poise than McCain, and his statements were more coherent, but when I thought it over later, I agreed with more of John McCain's positions on the issues.

  • Sarah Palin

    When they introduced her, I had doubts about her qualifications. Two years ago, Sarah Palin was mayor of a township the size of my hometown, which is actually a village, technically. But I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. Then I watched the Vice Presidential debate, and I was appalled by her cutsey-ness.

    Ultimately, it comes down to this-- As a woman, I am offended by the fact that John McCain picked an under-qualified woman and expected us all to jump for joy over the blatent tokenism.

  • The McCain Campaign

    I grew increasingly cynical about McCain's campaign strategy, which seemed to consist exclusively of making up pseudo-facts about Obama's voting record. I think McCain has some good ideas, but I'm baffled as to why he never took the time to explain them in a rational manner.

  • The Phone Calls

    Because we live in a battle-ground state, we have been receiving 4-5 election-related phone calls every day for the past week. I work from home, so I was extremely annoyed by the constant distractions. By Monday, I was ready to scream, "I'M NOT VOTING FOR ANY OF YOU!!!" (But most of the calls were pre-recorded messages, so it wouldn't have done any good.)

  • The Dream

    I participate in a tutoring program for kids from Cincinnati Public Schools. On Monday night, all of the students were really excited about the election. It's so cool to be able to tell these kids, "You can grow up to be anything you want to be, if you're willing to work to make it happen." Barak Obama is exactly the kind of role model that these kids need to see, and I'm proud to live in a country where part of Martin Luther King's dream has finally come true:
    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

    Even if Barak Obama were to accomplish nothing else in his career, that's a truly awesome legacy.