Friday, October 28, 2011

Tax cuts for billionaires will not solve anything

Since the 1980s, Supply Side economics has been a staple of establishment economic thinking. Cut taxes for the wealthy, goes the argument, and the economy will grow.

Here's the problem. Right now there's plenty of supply. The Federal Reserve has been pumping money into the economy at an astonishing rate. The rich have the lowest taxes in modern history. Large corporations are sitting on piles of cash and are making quite respectable profits.

So... why has the economy not recovered? Well, ask why are large corporations sitting on piles of cash? Why are some banks suddenly asking those with savings accounts to pay maintenance fees on those accounts? Why are interest rates at absurd lows?

The answer is that nobody wants to spend the money. That is, corporations don't want to spend what they have, and banks can't find people to borrow what they have to set up new businesses. And nobody wants to do either because the problem right now is not supply, but demand. Demand is flat. People are worried about their underwater mortgages, and 9-16% of the country is looking for work and unable to spend money as a result. We all want to spend money, but we can't.

The argument for giving billionaires (or even the well off) even more tax breaks is that they'll stimulate supply, not demand. "Why tax the job creators" argue those proposing this point of view. Unfortunately, I can't see how the argument stands up in practice. Leaving aside the fact that business expenses can almost always be written off, the reality is that job creation starts with people affording to buy products and services. The more people who wave dollar bills shouting "I want!", the more jobs get created.

At this stage, our political establishment is obsessed with giving cash to those who don't need it, ignoring the problems of those who do, something that leaves us all the worse in the long run.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Not looking forward to the first US Presidential election where I can vote. Largely because it looks like both candidates will be far to my right.

I'm desperately hoping the Republicans will pick a moderate like Romney. Romney is an out of touch conservative, and he has a number of views I strongly disagree with, but I believe he's a good man at heart.

This doesn't mean I'll vote for Romney however. As I said, he's far to my right. Neither will I vote for Obama, such a vote would be unconscionable. To stand as a liberal, and then when in office to promote extremist right wing policies such as torture, imprisonment without trial, extrajudicial executions, and more wars, is beyond forgivable. He will not get my vote even if the alternative is a wacko like Bachmann.

Obama isn't Clinton. Clinton stood as a right wing Democrat, made an effort (albeit a poor one) to promote the policies he stood for, and didn't drift far from what he always claimed to be, certainly never turning into an extremist. Obama essentially prevented the left from having a voice by stealing it, by saying "Oh, you're against the more extreme aspects of Bush's regime? Vote for me, I'll change it!", and then doing exactly the same crap.

So I'll vote, but I'll probably either pick a third party that's genuinely moderate or left wing, or I'll write in a candidate.


Wouldn't I be throwing my vote away?

Well, no. If you feel the same way I do, then I urge you to do the same thing. Obama won in 2008 because he courted liberals, something that neither Gore nor Kerry were willing to do. And Gore and Kerry didn't because, despite real records of liberalism, both were stuck in the Beltway Feedback Loop where it was simply taken as read that liberals were irrelevant and a bad thing.

Gore learned the hard way that this was a stupid move when Nader took enough votes in 2000 to make it obvious that had Gore gone a little to the left on certain key issues, he'd have had enough support to swing the election in his favor. Nader is usually criticized for taking votes away from Gore, but I'm not sure that's true. It's not clear to me that everyone who voted for Nader would have voted for Gore in Nader's absence, it seems more likely that most of Nader's supporters would have stayed at home.

Kerry didn't have a Nader either, but he found himself in 2004 fighting an election against an awful President... and losing. Even in 2004, Bush had lost his post-9/11 lustre, and I couldn't find a single person who had anything nice to say about him, but Kerry quickly gained a reputation, fairly or unfairly, as an establishment hack, as someone who would simply continue in the same mold as Bush even if he said otherwise. And the attitude I sensed from most liberals was that, if they were going to vote at all (and it wasn't clear they were), it was simply to get rid of Bush. And that wasn't enough for many, when it was assumed Kerry would do the same things as his would-be predecessor.

Obama's betrayal means it's going to be harder for some years to find a Democrat who can be trusted by liberals. It'll mean someone will need to have decades of political activism behind him or her, with a track record of promoting liberal causes. There are people who fit that - Pelosi is a name that springs to mind - but I'm not sure they have what it takes to get past the primary stage, and, for example, Pelosi has had enough demonization from the right that she'd find it hard to get broad based support anyway.

Either way, Obama needs to lose. It has to be shown that it's not enough to pretend to be a liberal when you have no power, you have to at least try when you're in office. I can handle Obama failing to push through liberal laws through a hostile congress. I can't handle the continuation of Bush's security state. And I can handle four years of a Republican President if that's what's necessary to prevent it from happening again.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The bad-ass gun: a detour?

As a follow up to my last post, I'm thinking of taking a little detour.

Here's what's happened since I wrote that. I'm still liking the FAL as the "bad ass" rifle for my heroine although there are problems. Just as the AR-15's ammo is underpowered, I'm wondering if the full 308 is overpowered for what she wants to do. And yeah, there's the 6.8 SPC and 6.5 Grendel and stuff like that, but they both feel like hacks to me, designed more because the AR-15's magazine slot is too short for a mainstream round like a .243 Winchester or .270 Winchester than because they're trying to make it optimal. But that's an aside.

But I also know that what's made me interested in guns to begin with is how they work. It was looking at the description of how the AR-15 worked that made me turn from someone totally uninterested to someone absolutely fascinated pretty much over night.

And then I discovered there's a sizable community of people who build their own AK-47s.

Now, to be fair, "build" in this sense means:
  • Obtain a "parts kit" - basically an old military surplus AK-47 that's been dismantled and had the receiver removed and destroyed. Typical cost these days is around $300-400.
  • Obtain a receiver flat, or more likely, go to a FFL and get a receiver. If the former, convert flat into a receiver. More on that in a second.
  • Obtain a "compliance kit" which is essentially a bag of screws and other miscellaneous cheap AK-47 parts that are made in the US. This is because if you make your own firearm in the US, there's a numeric maximum on the number of parts you can include that weren't made in the US.
  • Put it all back together.
The receiver is the interesting bit. You can either buy a finished receiver, or you can make your own. If you go the latter route, the general concept is:
  • Order a flat online, which can be sent directly to your home. Flats are around $20, and they basically consist of a pre-cut sheet of metal with some holes drilled in it. Usually the flat is 1mm thick, and made of regular steel (carbon steel, nothing exotic.)
  • Measure it up and enlarge certain holes, etc, while the receiver is still flat.
  • You very carefully bend it, preferably using a relatively expensive press (a little under $200), but manual methods exist too. This is probably the part that's most likely to go wrong. It requires four bends, although two may have already been done for you. The two that may have already been done are on the extreme sides of the receiver, to make rails. The other two are bends where you'd expect them to be, to turn the receiver into a kind of squared U shape. 
  • You heat treat it. This involves using a blow torch to make the metal round certain drilled holes glow red, immediately after which you throw the entire thing into a bucket of motor oil to cool off. Apparently. This is probably the most dangerous part of the entire thing. The heat treating is to strengthen those parts of the receiver that will suffer the most amount of stress.
  • Finally, you parkerize the receiver. This can be done using kits on the Internet (price around $40 for bottles of acid and a bath) - you submerge the receiver in the acid for a little while, take it out, and polish it with an oily rag or something. Parkerizing, by the way, is just a way of rust proofing the receiver without using paint or something similar that might interfere with whatever you screw onto it.
Some background: the receiver is the component of a gun that holds all the working bits together. From a legal standpoint in the US, it's actually the gun, while everything else is just a component. As a result, the receiver is subject to more regulation than any other part of a gun. There's no law to prevent you from making your own (as long as legally you're allowed to have a firearm in the first place - and there are restrictions on what you can do with it once you've made it), but if you try to buy a receiver you have to go through the same channels that you would a full firearm.

Now, a receiver flat isn't a receiver, it's fairly close, but as it can't be used as a receiver without a lot of modifications, it isn't legally one yet, or so the law goes. Apparently. I'm not sure this is safe to rely on for the long term future, but at any rate there are no stories of ATF agents raiding distributors of flats.

So... anyway. Uh. Yeah. Well, the making the receiver part bothers me, the rest - not so much. I'm kinda liking the entire concept for these reasons:
  • As I said, it's the semi-automatic rifles that interest me, and they interest me because of how they work. How better to understand and celebrate that than to make one?
  • It's manageable in terms of affordability. I can spend $50 a month buying parts, rather than spending $500+ on a finished rifle.
  • I'll learn enough about the process to understand how possible or impossible it is to build something similar that is more accurate, or that supports a different cartridge.
There are, of course, a lot of negatives.
  • The AK-47 is reportedly a relatively inaccurate rifle. Now, opinion seems to differ on it, with a large number of enthusiasts claiming the inaccuracy thing is overblown, but, still. The point is it's not the rifle my heroine is going to adopt, so I still have to get that one.
  • I'm bothered by the safety aspect. I don't want to end up with a face that looks like Gus's at season finale of Breaking Bad after shooting it.
  • The making your own receiver thing is both very attractive and scary. It's a lot of work, and looks like it'd be easy to screw up. On the other hand, flats are relatively cheap.
  • I'm not a hardware person. I'd like to be, of course, and I'd like to learn. But I'm not right now.
 What do you think?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Well, shoot.

So now I have the right to, I'm going to buy two rifles. If you've been following me on Twitter, you know that already. Interestingly, if I understand the Wikipedia article correctly, I could have bought one as soon as I had my permanent resident card, but, well, whatever, it wouldn't have felt right (and I'm not sure I trust Wikipedia...)

Why two? Well, there's what interests me, and then there's what's practical. The latter is, in many ways, intended to prevent me from using the former. It's kind of like a newbie buying a motorbike - you really need to start with a low power motorbike, but the chances are what's made you interested was a bike that's anything but. The difference, I guess, is that you eventually can safely transition to the bigger, more powerful, bike, whereas the opportunities to use the "rifle that interests me" are going to be few and far between.

Some time ago I wrote a JE on my change of mind about guns. I'll see if I can convert it and import it into this blog over the next few days. But to hit the salient points:

Before moving here, I was very anti-gun. There's nothing unusual in that, people in Britain tend to be. I didn't see why anyone would want one, other than seeing gun enthusiasts in the rather crude stereotypes that, well, tend to get painted. After moving here, I found I had friends who had the things, and I started to actually think about the arguments in a way I hadn't before, coming to a couple of major conclusions that served to change my view of things.

The first is that everyone has a natural right to self defense. To ask someone in a terrifying situation where they legitimately feel their lives are at risk to be pacifist in the name of civilization and civilized values is unfair and unreasonable, and it's never going to work. In our constitution, this right is not described by the second amendment and no attempt to revoke the second amendment would change this: it's described by the ninth and tenth. A natural right can only belong to the people, never to any government at any level. It's unrelated to any need to have regulated militias or any other such arguments.

The second is that the case against ownership of guns has simply not been proven (and probably never will be.) It has not been shown that the wide ownership of a variety of weapons by law abiding citizens is itself harmful to society, that it creates a substantial danger where once there wasn't. And as a liberal, I can't support a law that bans people from doing something in private for no good reason.

At the time I changed my mind, I viewed the change putting my views on guns more in line with, say, my views on eating lobsters or on using computers to play Farmville. I didn't want to do it myself, but, hey, if others did, so be it.

What changed my mind from being a passive viewer to actually wanting one was looking up what an M16 is, after watching... I think my wife and I had just watched Full Metal Jacket, I'm not sure. Anyway, for some reason I wanted to know what the hell an M16 was, and I read up on it on Wikipedia. And that lead me to finding out it was type of rifle called an AR-15, which is a gas powered rifle. Explosive gas powered rifle I should say, you don't put propane in it.

Essentially, when you fire an AR-15 (like other semi-automatic and automatic gas powered rifles), the hammer strikes the cartridge, causing the chemicals in the cartridge to explode, turning them instantly into high pressure gases. These gases push the bullet through the barrel. A tube in the barrel captures some of the gases and those gases are used to power a mechanism to eject the spent cartridge casing, and insert a new cartridge into the chamber.

I found this fascinating, and started to read up on the different systems used by various semi-automatic guns, and found myself increasingly interested in owning one, and seeing how they work for myself.

And so now we're here.

So, going back to these two rifles. The "sane" one is pretty much already decided. LordBodak recommended a Ruger 10/22. I asked around, and I can't find anyone with a bad thing to say about it. One friend has one, others know of it and like it.

The 10/22 is a semi-automatic rifle that takes a .22LR cartridge. .22LR is relatively inexpensive, and relatively "safe" (as firearms and ammunition go); rather bizarrely the 10/22 was classified in Israel as "non-lethal" at one point, though not for very long. No gun is safe, but what you can do to minimize the effects of accidents is a positive.

I'm liking this gun because:
  • I need something sensible to start with
  • It's a small enough caliber that it's actually allowed in some indoor ranges.
  • It's a semi-automatic, and it's not gas powered - at least, not directly - instead being powered by the movement of the cartridge case after the explosion. Again, I love the idea and it's going to be different to the "interesting" rifle. BTW, this terminology should not be seen as meant to imply I'm not going to be interested in the sensible one!
  • Apparently it has a very low recoil, and it's generally pretty accurate.
  • It has high third party support. You can buy alternative barrels, stocks, you can change the entire look of the gun if you want.
For the other rifle... well, my criteria was this:
  • It had to be something I was interested in.
  • Rather oddly, I had a general idea for a rifle in mind for my heroine in my novel. I wanted it to be her rifle.
Who's my heroine? Well, she's an ass-kicking young superheroine who regularly hides in a forest, and uses her gun there, but occasionally needs her gun for missions and such. So I figured it needs to be a good hunting rifle, accurate, and a bit of a battle rifle too. With that in mind:
  • I ruled out the AR-15. The .223 caliber is something she'd feel is underpowered for precisely what she wants it for. For hunting anything large, you're generally going to want something bigger - which is not to say .223 can't take down something bigger, but... on that note, in the novel she even finds an AR-15 at one point (it's not actually identified though in the novel) and derisively says it's useless for shooting anything but rabbits and people.
  • I ruled out the AK-47/74/etc. I figured she would consider them too inaccurate.
I initially thought the FAL (which uses a 7.62 NATO cartridge) would be ideal, as like the AR-15, it's popular and well supported, has a good reputation for being accurate and dependable, and it uses the aforementioned larger cartridge.

Friends also suggested the M1 Garand and its successors in in the M14 and M1A. The M1A is considered an updated, civilian, version of the M14, which was intended to be an upgraded Garand that could do "anything". The Garand itself was a very dependable rifle used by the US military in WW-II.

The problem here is that the Garand itself is antiquated, and the reputation of the M14/M1A is mixed. It's hard, actually, to get an objective view because at the time the M14 was adopted, and the decade or so it was in use, there were enormous political forces going on within the military about the future of standard issue military rifles. Many of the issues with the M14 were either because of minor issues - such as the choice of wood being used for the stock (which had a habit of swelling in high humidity) - or because it was intended to replace multiple weapons and ended up being a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Or at least, that was the perception.

Other options include modified, larger caliber, AR-15s. These are interesting, and there are apparently two families - the AR-10 based guns, and the DPMS LR-302. Parts for one family will not work on the other, and even within the families the devices aren't considered completely compatible. Of the two, the reviews for the LR-302 seem very positive, but it's a newer design and there's less support for it. Again, prices for new weapons seem fairly high.

M1As, AR-10s, and LR-302s seem fairly expensive, with prices generally being in four digits, regardless of the source of the weapon. By comparison, AK-47s are generally sub-$500, and AR-15s usually start around $600-700, although brand new models are usually in the four digits too.

Which brings me back to the FAL. Pricing for FALs is more in line with AK-47 and AR-15s, with refurbished imports costing around around $700 (Century Arms G1), and new clones being in the low four digits. I'd be happy with a refurbished import.

Friends have mixed views on the whole thing, I don't think they understand that I'm buying something because of the link to the novel, and the fact I want something because of the way it works, rather than because I intend to actually use it for anything but "Wow, it works" type stuff.

I'm thinking my heroine would want a FAL. It's a powerful, accurate, reliable, versatile, well supported rifle that can be obtained for a relatively low cost. But I'm also unsure of myself here, I really don't know enough to be certain that I'm right here. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Proud to be an American

We had about a week to prepare. I went in for the Naturalization Test on a Tuesday afternoon. We spent about an hour and a half waiting in a relatively comfortable chair in a large, mostly empty, waiting room. I guess not as many people are seeking immigration and citizenship as they were when the building was designed. L said she had full confidence in me. I had full confidence in passing the civics test, but I had no idea whether there was some obscure rule that would come up that would prevent me from taking the oath.

Finally, I was called by an immigration officer. She saw my wife, and then I left my wife in the hall, and the officer and I went to her office for my interview. I was asked to raise my right hand, swear to tell the truth, and then I sat down and went through the application process.

The first part of this involved simply confirming the details on my application. There'd been one change since I filled it in, and I'd filled it in long before I submitted it, but this wasn't counted against me. I was asked to take a writing and reading test, comprising of simple civics questions and answers (this wasn't the same as the civics test itself.) I think the aim of the test, given the level of skill needed, was more to ensure that you can read road signs and fill in forms rather than read a newspaper or anything like that.

The civics test required I answer seven of ten questions correctly. The ten questions are selected at random from one hundred standardized questions, and you're given a book, and a CD, containing all these questions and the right answers, to study before the interview. Some of the questions are easy, others not quite as easy, but on the day I'd remembered the right answers to all of them. Questions include "What is the highest court in the land", "How many US senators are there", "Who is the President", "Who was President during World War I", "Name a right given to every citizen", "Name two of the three rights described in the Declaration of Independence", "What did Martin Luther King do", and, somewhat bizarrely, "Name one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for." I say bizarrely, because the list of "right answers" does not include either flying kites during electrical storms (or anything related to that), nor "inventing" Daylight Savings Time. Those would be my first two answers...

I answered the first seven questions correctly, at which point the officer didn't need to ask any more questions. I think most of them were questions I'd have known the answers to even before I studied. Now, I know a lot of Americans make the comment to me periodically that most Americans wouldn't be able to answer the same questions. I'm not so sure about that, but even if that's true, there's a difference between knowing the history of a country you're born into, and knowing the history of a country you love enough to want to be a part of.

And she did something on the computer, wrote something on a piece of paper, and then casually put the piece of paper in front of me, but just far enough from me to make it look like it wasn't for me. I passed. She was recommending I be given citizenship. And then, to my utter amazement, she printed out another piece of paper and gave it to me - which contained the date of the oath ceremony. And that date... was one week later.

I found my wife, gave her the form, we hugged, and then I repeated to her the fact I was almost certainly going to become an American one week from now. We left rather excited, to put it mildly, making plans, going to a restaurant we like to celebrate, calling everyone we knew, and generally feeling a mix of shock, relief, and thankfulness.

So the next six days were fairly nuts. I had to go to work as normal, and fortunately there was some urgent stuff that kept my mind busy. My wife was busy ordering everything festive she could find from eBay. My mother booked the first flight from across the Atlantic she could find and turned up on Friday evening. L. and I spent the weekend preparing, getting new clothes and organizing the family. Monday evening I went to Best Buy to get a new camcorder. And Tuesday morning arrived, and we rushed to get ready, and then drove down to Palm Beach for the ceremony, with my mother calling every five minutes not quite understanding that we were actually busy preparing.

Beyond the security people deciding that my wife's tape measure could be some kind of weapon, we had no problems at the INS building. Some people were late, delaying the ceremony by two hours (!), and we spent the time watching some kind of PBS style documentary on the Grand Canyon, while we filled out forms for our new social security cards, passports, and so on. Then the presiding officer's microphone wouldn't work. And finally it started.

What happened exactly? Well, the front three rows were composed of those of us becoming Americans. Behind and two the sides of us were family members, friends, etc, who'd come to wish us well. What happened in what order I can't recall exactly, but we sang the (first verse of the) National Anthem, and then we were all asked to stand as our country of origin was read out. And then asked to hold our right hand up as we recited the Oath of Allegiance. (

What's the oath? It's not the same as the Pledge. The Oath is a more specific statement renouncing allegiance to other countries and pledging to be loyal to the United States of America, including pledging to engage in various forms of military and civilian service if required to.

At that point, we were citizens. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance after that, watched two videos, a Ken Burns style montage of various immigrant themes, and then a message from the President. Finally, a (rather cheesy I thought, but who cares?) video of Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American/God bless the USA" which we were encouraged to sing, by immigration officers waving flags.

So that was that. Got a rather nice package of "stuff" too from a mini-American flag to a book on the important speeches and documents associated with the US, and also copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The evening was spent having dinner with my family in celebration. It was a very fun evening.


1. Welcome

I can't tell you how welcoming people are in this country. Virtually all countries have concerns about "immigrants", but the reality is that there's a massive gulf in the US between the advertised fears and how people actually act. The INS have, always, been positive to me, and generally speaking the people I've heard complain about them are the kinds of people who'd make Mother Theresa curse them out. And the INS is only a part of it, they're a fairly fair representation of how Americans see immigration in general. The INS doesn't like seeing people abuse the system, but it's clear to me that they want people who follow the rules, can contribute, and who love this country, to stay here.

One of the first things that happened, repeatedly, to me in the US is that I'd, say, strike up a conversation with a couple in a Restaurant, and they'd ask where I'm from, and I'd tell them, and they'd say "Wow, that's awesome. We're not from here either, I'm from Nebraska and Ethel here's from Missouri."

And, of course, I'd inwardly snort and think "That's not the same thing", but actually that's how most Americans see this country and people from other countries. It's one of the major things I love about America. People are treated as people, not as Americans vs British vs whatever. I'm not going to claim there's no discrimination at all, and I'm sure the poorer your English, and the poorer your bank account, the more intolerant people turn up against you. But overall people treat you as someone who's here, not someone from there.

2. Judgment

It's important to distinguish between the people of a country and the government of it. I don't think we have a particularly decent establishment right now, and that means not merely a government disconnected with the values and interests of its own people, but to a certain extent the steering of people away from viewpoints describing how things should be. If fifteen years ago, someone had said that the government was going to spy on its own people, quite openly send executioners into other countries to dispose of awkward enemies, and - again, openly - imprison hundreds of people without trial, in many cases for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I'd have dismissed it as impossible, knowing what I know of Americans and the values this country stands for.

Before certain individuals react, yes, I know that from time to time, all governments - no matter how strongly their country's people associate their country with peace, freedom, and democracy - do these kinds of things, but normally such acts are covert, or fall apart quite quickly as they clash with the values the country stands for. To use my former nation as an example, the Gibraltar SAS strike became a national scandal as soon as the details become public. Internment was tried in Northern Ireland and then quickly ended when it became obvious that such an open debasement of British values was helping the IRA, not hurting it.

So why has it happened? Because the wrong people are in power, and it's difficult to put a dissenting voice in the media. I honestly don't know any Americans, left or right wing, who are happy with what is going on. They don't see it as where the US should be, even if those who nominally support the government of the day are prone to weak apologetics or denials to hide their embarrassment.

Americans do need to take their government back. That probably involves a large amount of work that's going to take decades, working to take over their parties and ensure the grassroots uses its power that, thus far, its been unwilling or unable to exercise.

3. Our values

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It really is what America stands for. If you don't believe me, come to this country and live here a while. America is a country comprised of a people who believe that they should use their lives and liberties in the pursuit of Happiness, and that they should be a part of a system that promotes life and liberty so everyone can be free to pursue happiness.

Ask an American born here who's never visited another country if this is true, and they'd probably nod their head but not fully understand the meaning in those words. As someone who's come here from abroad, where many seem to be convinced that every duty exists except that in the support of happiness, it's really quite obvious.