The Fiscal Cliff: Have We Been Here Before?

As we all know, the U.S. government is only a few days away from going over the fiscal cliff.  The fiscal cliff consists of a combination of mandatory spending cuts and tax increases.  Forbes estimates that the total in tax increases and spending cuts will siphon around $500 billion out of the economy in 2013 (Forbes estimates the spending cuts will be $109 billion).  That is a huge chunk of change and might be enough to cause the U.S. economy to go back into recession.  The key word being,"might."

Franklin D.Roosevelt, 1933 (3)
As a history buff, I wondered if the United States had been in this predicament before.  At some point in our past, did the federal government massively ramp up its budget in reaction to a severe economic downturn?  Did the president and Congress (perhaps fearing that the U.S. debt was too high to be sustainable) subsequently cut spending by a significant amount while at the same time raising taxes?

The answer to that question (or questions) is yes.  From 1933-1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, working with Congress, spent heretofore unheard of amounts of federal money (at least during peace time) in an effort to ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression.  By 1937, the U.S. economy had improved markedly.  Some (perhaps even Roosevelt) believed that the depression was over.  Unemployment was still around 14% but was significantly lower than at the height of the crisis (when it may have been as high as 25%).  As important, factories were producing more than they had in 1929.  Roosevelt and Congress responded by cutting federal spending significantly.  In that same year, the U.S. government started collecting a new payroll tax to cover future Social Security payments (1).  Sound familiar?

The payroll tax increase and spending cuts almost certainly had a hand in derailing any gains the U.S. economy had made since 1933.  During the 1937-1938 "recession," the stock market tanked, production dropped off significantly, and unemployment went to 20% (2). 

The U.S. economy has changed markedly since 1937, and the Great Recession was not nearly as severe as the Great Depression.  Nonetheless, I think we can learn something about the ramifications of going over the fiscal cliff by looking at the causes of the 1937-1938 "recession."

1. McElvaine, R. S. (1984). The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. New York: Times Books.
     pgs. 75, 297-298.
2. Ibid., 298-300.
3. Photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Photographer is Elias Goldensky.  The photo was taken on Dec.
    27, 1933.  It is located on Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.


Thoughts on Newtown, the Fiscal Cliff, the Paranormal

I hope that everyone is enjoying the holidays.  I wanted to quickly post some of my thoughts on the ramifications of the Newtown shootings and the fiscal cliff imbroglio.  At the same time, I thought I would mention my M.A. thesis, which concerns the paranormal.

How Should We Respond to the Newtown Shootings

Immediately after the Newtown shootings, politicians, experts, and, for that matter, the public at large were clamoring for new laws to ensure that this tragic event was never repeated.  Sadly, it appears that these calls for reform have died down.  As so often happens, other events and happenings (cue the fiscal cliff) are starting to replaces Newtown in the public consciousness. 

I would assert that we shouldn't forget the shootings.  In fact, we should use them as motivation to address key concerns in our society.  I would also contend that we shouldn't focus on one issue.  The Newtown shootings point to numerous, potential flaws in our socio-economic structure revolving around bullying, parenting, lack of access to mental healthcare, guns, security, and school systems' missions, visions, and values.  Further, we will not get very far with many of these issues unless we approach them with an open mind.

If I were in a position of power (and I'm not), I would select a panel of experts and non-experts (with many more non-experts than experts).  I would ask them to explore a wide range of issues relating to the Newtown shootings.  Importantly, I would ask them to go into the process with open minds-to put any preconceived notions aside. Their motto would be "let the data guide."

The Fiscal Cliff

The fiscal cliff deadline is fast approaching.  Frankly, I do not expect the various parties to reach an agreement before January 1.  I think it is certainly possible (and even likely) that a fiscal cliff deal will pass the Senate; however, it is likely DOA in the House.  After his Plan B debacle, John Boehner can't afford to let bipartisan legislation clear the House until after the Jan. 3 speaker election.  I could be wrong on this one; let's wait and see.

The Paranormal

You might enjoy reading my M.A. thesis, which surveys Victorian America's attitudes to Spiritualism and the paranormal.  In the thesis, I focus on believers in the paranormal and look at some of the things these people hoped to gain by communing with the dead.  I do not (or try not to anyway) make any statements or claims regarding the existence (or lack thereof) of a supernatural world.  You can find it here: Why Did Post-Bellum America Fall in Love with Ghosts?


Happy Holidays! Enjoy these Photos

Happy Holidays everyone!  I've uploaded a  few photographs from Wikimedia Commons, which you might enjoy.  I didn't take any of these photos; all credit goes to the photographers (listed at the bottom of this blog post).

On a side note, I would encourage you to check out Wikimedia Commons. The site contains tons of free-to-use photos on a wide variety of topics.  Just make sure you follow the dictates of whichever license is in place (usually a Creative Commons license).

You might also enjoy reading this freelance article recalling my childhood Easter experiences.  Granted, it's not a Christmas story, but reading it might help you get in the mood to celebrate the holidays.

Once again, Happy Holidays!

Sneeuw-Weegje (1)

The Old Church Park in Helsinki, Finland (2)

An albino Barren Ground Caribou, Wagon Trails Animal Park. (3)

1. Photographer/Author: Dick Mudde. Date: Jan. 13, 2008. Public Domain: Yes
2. Photographer/Author: Lumijaguaari. Date: January 1, 2006. Public Domain: Yes, via a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 
3. Photographer/Author: Brian0918, Date: June 26, 2005?. Public Domain: Yes, via a
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.


My Fantasy Football Teams

For those of you who are wondering how my fantasy football teams are doing.  Two out of the three teams made the regular playoffs. One of those teams lost in the semifinals and one is playing in the finals.  The finals match-up is below (with the league and players' names redacted to protect my opponent's anonymity--my team is on the left).  

I think I have a good shot at winning it all in this league.  If I win this match-up, my record over the last four years will be: 7 Leagues --> 3 1st place finishes, 3 3rd/4th place finishes, 1 10th place finish.



Trickle Down Education Not Working

Last week, I noticed an article on Yahoo! that I thought was particularly thought provoking.  However, I didn't get a chance to mention it on the blog until now.  Frank Eltman writes the article, which is entitled, "Alan Alda Asks Scientists to Explain: What's Time?"  In it, Alda challenges scientists to come up with a way to explain the concept of time (eg. what is time, why does it only go forward, etc.) " terms a sixth grader could understand."  On  a more general level, Alda criticizes scientists for being unable or unwillingness to promulgate important scientific concepts to the masses.  I would go further and say that all academic professions need to do a better job of disseminating new information/discoveries/ideas to the general public.  The current trickle down educational scheme is not working.

Classroom-Courtesy of Microsoft Office
When I first matriculated in the M.A. in English program at UVA, I was shocked when I came to realize that much of what I learned in high school and college was erroneous. Worse, academic specialists had been aware of the errors for years but, as a group, had not done anything to dispel them.  Scholars had corresponded with each other via peer-reviewed journal articles and personal letters/emails; however, they did not attempt to communicate their findings to the general population, especially to young learners.  When asked, one professor admitted as much; he said something like, "The information will find its way down eventually."  Trickle down theory may work for some things, but not for education.

Granted, the average Joe or Jane can find almost anything on the  Internet.  A search for "time" on Google, Bing, or Yahoo! will probably yield an essay or article that provides a brief, accurate, and easily understandable synopsis of time (as concept, material force, etc.).  The problem lies in the fact that the everyday individual has no way to vet the results; how would he or she know which of the thousands (or millions) of sites has the correct information? 

Wikipedia has helped in this area, but it is not the entire answer.  The academic profession needs to work with laypeople to get this information to the masses.  As important, specialists in the various fields, along with local and federal agencies, need to do a better job of disseminating correct information to grade school and high school teachers.  In my opinion, state sponsored continuing education classes (for teacher re-certification), as they are currently constituted, have not been effective at this task.  If they were effective, the grade school age me would have learned that the brontosaurus never existed (the supposed brontosaurus fossil was actually an apatosaurus specimen). 

The Fiscal Cliff and Tag-a-long Ads

As a change of pace, I thought I'd share my quick thoughts on a couple of articles that I read this morning.

Fiscal Cliff Leverage

Many of you have probably noticed this Yahoo! article by Charles Babington: "Stock Market Crash Is a Wild Card in Fiscal Cliff Talks."  As I perused the article, one sentence in particular caught my attention: "Some Republicans are surprised that the White House has not made clearer efforts to reassure Wall Street that if the Dec. 31 deadline is breached, the worrisome pile of tax increases and spending cuts would not hit all at once."  Babbington goes on to answer this question by implying that such a statement (or series of statements) would weaken the Democrats' bargaining position. 

With that said, I have to wonder why Republicans aren't trying to hammer home that exact same point.  If Republicans can convince the markets to shrug off a missed deadline, they significantly strengthen their hand (or hands) in the fiscal cliff talks.  It is certainly possible that Republicans have been hammering home on this point, and I have missed it.

Tag-a-long Ads

Robot-Microsoft Office
Jessica Leber has written an excellent article in MIT Technology Review.  The piece is titled, "Get Ready for Ads that Follow You from One Device to the Next." The article provides an excellent review of a start-up that is using AI and statistics to target mobile ads to specific consumer types.  The system mines users' computer-based searches to help it determine which ads to target to these individuals' mobile devices.  Importantly, it supposedly achieves these results without creating any privacy concerns.  You can click on the imbedded link to read the entire article. 

Oddly enough, as I read the article, I conjured up an image of new type of automated assistant.  It would not only offer advice, help me with directions, transcribe my voice into text, etc.; it would occasionally throw an advertisement my way.  For instance, the futuristic AI device might say, "Turn right at the corner.  Oh, and you might want to stop by Starbucks and grab a latte."  Now that is a scary thought!


What if the NFL Eliminated Kickoffs? A Fan's Thoughts

Supposedly, Roger Goodell and other NFL officials have discussed eliminating kickoffs and replacing them with punts. In this scenario, teams would get a 4th and 15 from their own 30 yard lines.  They could then decide whether to punt or try to convert the 4th down play.  Greg Schiano, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, originally suggested the change.  Schiano believes that a punt (or a 4th down play) would be safer than kickoffs. 

Photo by ChaChaFut, taken on Sept. 23, 2012 (1)
I haven't researched the data and so don't know if Schiano is correct; however, let's assume that NFL teams would suffer fewer injuries if the league eliminated kickoffs and replaced them with punts.  How would I react as a fan?

Safety First

Part of me would have to favor the change if it made the game safer.  I love the bone crushing tackles and blocks that are part and parcel of a NFL; however, I also care about the safety of the players.  I think player safety should come first in this instance.

Punts May Be More Exciting

According to ESPN, 43.5 percent of the kickoffs went for touchbacks in 2011.  Ergo, the kickoffs weren't all that exciting 43.5 percent of the time.  After all, who wants to watch a player kneel in the endzone for a touchback? By contrast, few if any punters are going to be able to boot the ball from their own 30 to deep in the opponent's end zone, which will result in more live plays.  Granted, some of the punts (maybe a lot of the punts) will be fair caught; however, there's often more drama in a fair catch than in a ball that bounces past the backline (of the endzone) for a touchback.  How many times have we seen a player signal for a fair catch only to fumble the ball?  And, keep in mind, players can return punts for touchdowns just as well as they can return kickoffs for touchdowns.

Fantasy Value

 Schiano's idea might also add value to some fantasy football players, especially quarterbacks whose teams tend to be down going into the last few minutes of a game.  How often do teams recover onside kicks?  Per Advanced NFL Stats, onside kicks have less than a 10 percent chance of working if the opposing team is expecting it.  I'm not sure what the odds are on afantasy quarterback getting a first down on a 4th and 15 (would depend a lot on the quarterback), but they can't be much worse.

Given that information, why not give Schiano's idea a try?  the NFL could test the scheme out during the first week of the 2013 preseason.  If the idea seems to work better than the current scheme, then replace kickoffs with punts in 2014.  Otherwise, the NFL can adhere to the current, kickoff system.  I think the NFL should give it a try.  What is there to lose?

(1) The photo owner/creator: ChaChaFut.  Caption: Overall view of the Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, during a National Football League regular season game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins , celebrated 23 September 2012. As seen from the upper deck. Permission: The photo is on Wikimedia Commons and is part of the public domain via a Creative Commons CCO.1 Universal license.