Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wanderlust

I left Taiwan at age seven, and lived in the Philippines until I was 22, when I moved to the US. I lived in three different places in Taipei, three in the Philippines, two in Maryland, and two in California. So I think the longest I've ever stayed in one place is the eight or nine years in Mandaluyong, and the eight or nine here in Fremont.

Over the past few years, we thought it was probably time to buy a house, and started to save up for it. But on this previous vacation, an urge that had brewed for a couple of days came rushing out while we cooled our heels outside the Tate Modern museum in London, watching the Thames and fighting jetlag. An urge to leave it all behind and start over somewhere different.

I've always liked vacations for their time-warping quality. I feel like the whole world continues to move along its path while I've detached in observation, as if I've become timeless during those few days. This one was a bit different, and is probably mixed in with some mid-life crisis of sorts. I've long thought that aging was best represented as a narrowing of options, in the sense that as a child you could be almost anything, but as you go to college, graduate, and move from job to job, your path becomes more and more defined over the years. At some point, you are basically the one thing that you are, until the end. So this might really be an urge to fight nature, to create paths that are as wide as they were when I was young. A way to put off stagnation, decay, and therefore death?

I'm actually pretty happy with where I am, and I'm probably too responsible to actually do anything about it, yet the wanderlust tickles.

High

I'm tired of hearing Republicans complain about taxes being too high. What exactly is the magical percentage at which it isn't too high? Rick Perry wants 20%, Herman Cain is infatuated with 9%, but why not 8% or 2% or none at all?

I get the feeling that the Republican voter pictures the government as a Scrooge McDuck of sorts, hoarding all that tax money into a giant safe. In reality, every dollar collected is spent, in fact on top of taxes we borrow some more dollars to spend. Thus, taxes are not too high, they are by definition too low because we are incurring more debt every year. They might be spent on things you don't like, which is what we should be talking about instead.

Now, in many ways, government spending actually saves you money. If we each have to buy guns to defend our homes, it'll probably cost more than setting up a good police department, and probably won't even work that well (remember the wild west? really want to live like that?). Ditto for fire protection and various public works like roads, pipes, and bridges. Just imagine if your only way to get to work involves driving on a private road: how much do you suppose the owner's going to charge?

Other kinds of expenditures have a more indirect effect. The strong (and very costly) US military ensures the free flow of petroleum to fuel our economy. They deter foreign invasion, which provides a predictably safe environment for businesses to invest. All of that is worth money, but how much, exactly? If we cut the defense budget by a billion, what would it cost us indirectly? What about ten billion or a hundred billion? The same analysis can and should be done against each of the big expenditures.

In other words, there is no magic percentage to taxes or spending, and "too high" can only be true if you calculate it relative to what you're getting back. So let's talk about what government programs aren't worth the money instead.