Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Earmarks and codpieces: Symbols matter

Yesterday, U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell announced his support for a two-year moratorium on earmarks, a form of appropriating money that is deeply unpopular with the Republican base, particularly those who associate themselves with the Tea Party movement.

The amount of money that goes to earmarks is large, as far as my family’s budget is concerned (about 15 or 16 billion dollars), but as a percentage of the federal budget, it’s quite small. It’s around 0.4% of the total budget and 1% or so of the discretionary budget(1).

In many ways, banning earmarks is a symbol, and if Congress can figure out how to use different tricks during the appropriations process, tracking this money could theoretically be more difficult under a no-earmarks rule than the current system, which is why I applaud the move, but with realistic expectations and a hefty dose of skepticism.

If you’re a no-earmarks person and this is your big issue, go ahead and break out the party hats, hang some streamers, and maybe have a few slices of layer cake. But don’t swallow too much champagne, and for the love of God, keep away from the mixed drinks at the bar (It may look like an open bar, but you’ll get the bill later). Considering the history that we (and by “we”, I mean the human race) have with politicians, we’ll need to stay sober and clear-headed to deal with whatever accounting/appropriations tricks they may invent the days ahead.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Transportation Security Administration(TSA), if you’ve ever wanted to be on a reality show, all you have to do is travel, and you can be the star of Who Wants To Be the Next Unpaid Nude Model?!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Moving Our Schools: A fresh perspective on a local controversy

An Open Letter to the Board of Education, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:

My name is Greg Garrison, and I’m the father of four students at Smith Academy of International Languages: two in French (fourth grade and second grade) and two in Chinese (second grade and Kindergarten). On top of this, my wife and I have four other children and a multitude of creatures that run, scamp, swim, crawl, slither, hop, and eat (continuously).

There will be no quiz, so you need not remember these details, but suffice it to say that life in the Garrison household is complicated and rarely quiet, to put it mildly. While I'm making introductions, I should mention that this is an open letter from a single individual, and the direct language and opinions expressed in this note are mine alone. I am not a representative for other parents, the school leadership team, the PTSA, etc.

My four Smith children will be impacted by your upcoming decision regarding facilities for next year, and I know that you’re putting your time and best effort into making it judiciously, which I appreciate. The quality of their lives will be affected significantly, whether our program moves to Waddell and thrives, moves to Harding and withers, or stays where it is while we hope for a future facility that is bigger and better.

The students at Waddell and Harding also, obviously, face a good deal of uncertainty, and whether we like the outcome or not, I think that it’s fair to say that families at all three schools will find breathing an easier task once your decision has been announced.

The late economist Milton Friedman once said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” I have no doubt that everyone’s intentions are pure. I have no doubt that the people who built the programs at Harding, Smith, and Waddell had great intentions, good ideas, and genuine love for children. I have no doubt that you have the best possible intentions and want the best for every student. I imagine that your belief in the importance of guiding principles is well-meant, and objective standards and guiding principles are important. If, however, we allow an intention to follow through with our best laid schemes (neighborhood schools) to outweigh the known, tested results of successful schools (Smith and Harding), don’t be surprised if those plans go awry and we find ourselves wondering what happened.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Of Headphones and Healthcare: Musings on scarcity

Headphones When I was a child, I wanted to be a concert pianist when I grew up. Or a writer. Or, truth be told, Luke Skywalker. This goes to show that I wasn’t nearly as bright as my mother claimed, since no one in his right mind would rather be Luke than Han. Since then, my ability to play the piano has declined with each year, but my love for music has not, and a few years ago, I got a pair of high fidelity, professional Shure earbuds for my MP3 player (The MP3 player wasn’t a very good investment, and it broke pretty quickly; it was not an iPod). I got the Shure earphones because they were sounded great and blocked out external noise. Sound isolation provides a significant, palpable benefit once one has joined the ranks of the parenting class. Basically they were earplugs with wires that delivered music, and I had read wonderful things about them. In time, they broke, and I got another pair. In time, those broke too, and I went through a few pairs of off-brand earbuds before, finally, getting the deluxe Apple in-ear headphones. They are very nice and sound even better than the Shures, which were considerably more expensive. Now, one of the frustrating things about the Apple earphones is that finding replacement tips is pretty difficult (They’re these little silicone doohickies that fit perfectly into one’s ear, and I have not seen them at the Apple store). Getting replacement tips for the Shures was simple; I could order a whole box of them pretty cheaply from amazon.com and always had some on hand. As a consequence, I didn’t pay too much attention to my old earphones. If I lost a tip, that was fine. I’d just get another. When I lose one to the Apples these days, however, I fret and search around to find it. This is pretty irritating, as they pop off with relative ease. One fell off at Caribou Coffee this morning, and I had to retrace my steps to find the missing piece. I found it before going on my merry way, because I needed it, or the earphone would be pretty useless. Quick aside: This old Sesame Street cartoon about getting lost and retracing one's steps warped me pretty badly as a child. Gratuitous 70s flashback:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rethinking My Reflexes: Gay Marriage, the Courts, and the Law

Note: I came to disagree with myself profoundly on marriage equality. NC Amendment 1 would have written discrimination into the state constitution by banning marriage equality. Support for Amendment 1 is why I left the GOP. More broadly, I now reject the view I used to hold regarding the role of the Judiciary. I was wrong across the board on this one. GG 2020

On August 4, Judge Vaughn Walker, a George H.W. Bush appointee, declared that California’s Proposition 8 violates the United States Constitution under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the fourteenth amendment.

My initial reaction was instinctive and emotional. I immediately posted on facebook: "Glad to see a proper constitutional argument knock down another openly discriminatory law!"

I’ve had a week and a half to reflect on it, and in retrospect, I think that I was wrong. I don’t know that I was wrong (the way that I know that I love my children, for example), but I think that I was wrong (the way, say, that I think that forced wealth redistribution is immoral).

Upon reflection, I think that it was judicial overreach, even though I the outcome, gay marriage, is something that I support.

I keep getting this unsettling feeling. It’s partially worry that the decision will set back gay rights in the long run, but more than that, it’s a growing concern about the mutability of existing, written law and Ben Franklin’s warning about a “republic, if you can keep it”. When one branch of government regularly oversteps its bounds, it endangers the system of government itself. It just, well, feels off-kilter.

Monday, July 5, 2010

I just got a huge raise! It turns out I'm making $250,000 a year! So are you! Woo hoo!

"I can make a firm pledge. Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”
  - Presidential candidate Barack Obama, 9/12/08

"If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime.”
  - President Barack Obama, addressing a joint session of Congress 2/24/09

When Barack Obama was running for President, I was extremely excited, because I thought that he represented something new: a politician who was pragmatic but idealistic, who would create consensus solutions, who would restore the constitutional powers for each branch of government and end the excesses and crimes of the previous administration.

He was honest; he would keep the promises he made and keep taxes at their current levels. After all, he made a far stronger statement than, "Read my lips. No new taxes."

Starting January 1, 2011, however, taxes will increase significantly. Since I am not fond of admitting that I am wrong or that the candidate that I supported (with my checkbook, my feet, and my vote) is breaking a firm pledge (without, to my knowledge, even admitting that he's doing so), I have decided that I must have gotten a raise. I now make more than $250,000, because my taxes are increasing quite a lot in about six months. I wish that the $250,001 salary were printed on my paycheck as $250,001, because the number that's printed is a fraction of that, and I'm not bringing anywhere close to the correct amount home, so the payroll department has some serious explaining to do.

Here are some of the tax increases and how they will impact me, personally (They come from a list of expiring federal tax provisionshttp://www.jct.gov/publications.html?func=startdown&id=3646 .)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Shaping the Mecklenburg County Budget: Your Important Role

As explained in a blog post from this weekend, my letter to the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), if you live in Mecklenburg County, then you have a vested interest in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. This is true whether or not you have a connection to CMS (through employment, a child who is a student, etc), because the health of our schools will be a significant determining factor in the health of our city.

Good schools help to make a city vibrant and increase its economic viability more than any other public service (or, arguably, anything, since the private sector is dependent on a good pool of potential employees, and good schools attract and help to retain families, especially those with young children).

The better off Charlotte is, the better off you will be, personally. The more businesses and individuals come here (or stay here), the more employment opportunities there will be, the lower unemployment, crime, etc. Likewise, the converse is true, and bad schools will ultimately cause downward economic pressure and urban decay.

On June 15, the BOCC will be voting on the final budget, so they need to hear from you as soon as possible, while they are still putting the budget together.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Schools, the Choice for Charlotte (An Open Letter to the Board of County Commissioners)

"By...[selecting] the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use if not sought for and cultivated."
--Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782

To the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners:

Most of us have seen the inspiring movie Stand and Deliver, the true story of Jaime Escalante, a teacher who did the seemingly-impossible when he built one of the country’s finest calculus programs in East L.A. Who among us, if given the opportunity to go back in time and sit in one of Escalante’s classes, would say no? Few, I’d bet.

What the movie doesn’t tell you is what it couldn’t: After it was made, a significant amount of bureaucratic wrangling caused Escalante to be pushed out of his position, and the program that he built collapsed in his absence. The opportunity to see the extraordinary in his former school is now gone (So is Escalante, incidentally, who died in March of cancer, the medical bills that he could not afford paid by funds raised by his former students and Edward James Olmos, who played him in the film).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Vaccines, autism, and your newborn

Researchers at the University of Louisiana have done a comprehensive study of the neurological effects of infant vaccination. Here's a summary of their findings, published in the journal Pediatrics.

The upside of infant vaccinations: You can help your child avoid getting diseases that can lead to extreme bodily harm, up to and including death.

The downside of infant vaccinations: THERE IS NO DOWNSIDE!

Punchline: Listen to your doctor, not Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, and the guy with dreads at the organic food store who's all, like, y'know, vaccines are dangerous poison and everything that doctors push because the drug companies give them money, man.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An open letter to the CMS school board

“It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.”
- John Adams

To the School Board, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:

I am the father of three students at Smith Academy of International Languages: two in the French program, one in Chinese. Next year, my wife and I will have five students there: two in French, two in Chinese, and one in Spanish. The year after next, we’ll have six there. It is a remarkable school, and it does a remarkable job fulfilling the exhortation above, made 250 years ago by John Adams, then an unknown 21-year-old.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Welcome To "The Joy of Reason"

This rather perfunctory entry serves as a welcome to "The Joy of Reason", a site where I intend to babble, ramble, debate, cajole, waste time, and (hopefully, at least once in a while) enlighten and entertain.

Its title comes from two of my fundamental beliefs: Joy is one of the chief ends of man and woman, and reason is one of the greatest faculties of our species. The two are not antithetical, but complementary, and they come from the same source: our bodies. Reason is the greatest tool that we have evolved to navigate life, and joy can be (and should be) the outcome of a rational life.

More to come.