Archive for the ‘Barry Fagin’ Category

A Bill of Good Things to Have

Posted on: February 10th, 2012 by admin No Comments

by Barry Fagin

Mr. President:

What a pleasure to see your byline on The Gazette’s opinion pages. Of course, you must have had your people write that column on your “Housing Bill of Rights.” But you’re a busy man; that’s completely excusable.

What is less excusable is the idea that what a dozen previous administrations of both parties have screwed up, your administration can somehow fix.

Were I less cynical, I might think you’re just throwing homeowners a bag of goodies, in hopes that they’ll vote for you. True, I’m a homeowner, and proposing legislation that benefits me is at least superficially appealing. But my vote is not bought so cheaply. I know there’s always a catch.

The housing bubble didn’t simply happen. It was the direct and predictable result of the expansion of the money supply and artificially low interest rates a few years before, based on the same “stimulus” ideas your party continues to embrace.

Making things worse were the legions of rules, regulations, subsidies and distortions of lending and housing markets promulgated through HUD, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae. Why did you not mention them?

Have you forgotten your efforts and those of your party to subsidize mortgages to buyers who otherwise could not qualify for them? Have you forgotten the rules, regulations and mandates you and your party imposed on banks? Have you forgotten that the reason banks foreclose is to get liquidity, an area of vital importance to any bank’s regulatory compliance officer?

You say that “others” played by different rules.

You mean the rules written by members of both parties in Congress over the past three decades?

Why exactly would lenders “sell mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them”, unless they knew they would be bailed out? Why exactly would buyers “buy homes they knew they couldn’t afford” unless they were responding to incentives from Washington?

When people play by the rules and things go bad, is it the players’ fault? Or those who made the rules in the first place?

And yet, you are asking us to believe that this time you’ve got it right. All the hundreds of national regulations designed to “fix” problems of home ownership, from the creation of HUD in 1965 to the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, those don’t really matter. You’ve got a Homeowners’ Bill of Rights that will finally fix things. Forgive me, Mr. President, but I doubt it.

What you are proposing is not a bill of rights. Rights are things that human beings have simply because they’re human.

Governments don’t grant them, they are instituted to secure them. What you are proposing is a bill of entitlements, a Bill of Good Things To Have.

Mr. President, America is in crisis. We are trillions of dollars in debt, we have made financial promises we cannot keep, and we are at risk of producing the first generation that may not live as well as its parents. To fix this, we do not need more tweaks to failed programs and attempts to buy off interest groups. Including homeowners like me.

We need rules all right, but only the basic ones that all civilized societies have to permit their economies to flourish. We need sound, stable money. We need a government that lives within its means. We need fraud to be punished. We need more freedom to contract.

Canada, according to one prominent think tank, now has more economic freedom than we do. That is unacceptable.

We need the freedom to earn more of our keep, and to keep more of what we earn. And no bailouts for anyone, rich or poor. As you point out, everyone needs to be held responsible for their actions.

In other words, Mr. President, we don’t need yet another Bill of Rights. The first ten amendments of the Constitution do just fine.

What we need, Mr. President, is liberty.

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Point/Counterpoint series February 8, 2012.

SOPA: Another Flawed Effort to Make the Internet Behave

Posted on: January 16th, 2012 by admin No Comments

by Barry Fagin

When a piece of freedom-busting legislation has bipartisan support, you know we’re in trouble. As one humorist wrote, “Bipartisan support is when your ex and her lawyer agree you have a problem.”

The latest pile of bipartisan waste working its way through the bowels of Congress toward its ultimate destination is the Stop Online Piracy Act. Ostensibly designed to prevent online piracy of movies and music, it will do nothing of the sort.

Remember, this comes from the marketing department that brought you the Patriot Act, the Social Security Act and the Communications Decency Act. What’s next, the My Mom is Great Act? Who could be against patriotism, the security of society, or decent communications? Nobody likes online piracy. The devil is in the details.

SOPA gives the Department of Justice the authority to force firms to stop doing business with websites that take “deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability” of copyright infringement. Everybody got that?

Once you sift through the jargon, you learn some basic things. SOPA is designed to allow copyright holders who believe that a website isn’t working hard enough to protect their copyrights to force the DOJ to shut them down, not only through “cease and desist” orders to advertisers, but also through the Domain Name Service registry, or DNS.

DNS software is the part of the Internet that turns website names, like gazette.com, into Internet protocol (IP) addresses, like 141.242.248.38. If you use your computer to surf the Web, you use DNS. SOPA thinks that “shutting down” a website means removing the site’s name from DNS. This means that teens who stay up past their bedtime to visit www.stolenmovies.com will get a “site not found” message. And perhaps a knock on the door from the local constabulary.

Most of you know that I’m a greybeard computer scientist. I’m so old that I’ve been using email since Tom Cruise ran a brothel (google “Risky Business”). As an aging computer geek, I know something about DNS. I’m helping to write a new version of it.

Anybody who knows anything about DNS knows that removing a DNS entry doesn’t do jack. There’s nothing to stop rogue websites from registering under a different name and resurfacing in hours, or even minutes. Nor, realistically, do sites even need names. Any tech-savvy teen (and who among them isn’t) can get a listing of rogue sites by IP address alone. It’s just not that tough. Except maybe for most of Congress.

But in Washington, none of these pesky details matter. Nor does, say, the presumption of innocence, nor even being able for American citizens to clearly understand whether or not they might be breaking the law. It’s about the sheer hubris of believing that government can accomplish anything people want just by passing a law.

That’s a fatal conceit, whether made by the right or left.

I believe in the rights of creators to their creations. I respect the rights of everyone to their property, provided they obtained it honestly. If I could wave a magic wand that would stop intellectual property theft and punish those responsible, with no other negative consequences, I’d do it. But I can’t.

Neither, for that matter, can Congress. SOPA, just like the Communications Decency Act before it and numerous other attempts to make the Internet behave, will not accomplish its intended objectives. In fact it will make things worse. In the words of one of the few Congressmen who picked up his clue phone when it rang: “Butchering the Internet is not a way forward.”

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette, December 21, 2011.

Federal Pay Freeze Should Precede a Larger Fiscal Conversation

Posted on: December 16th, 2010 by admin

by Barry Fagin

As a long-time, hard-working federal employee who gives up a lot to work where he does, I have just one thing to say about the proposed federal employee pay freeze. I think it’s a terrific idea.

Well, maybe not exactly terrific, particularly if you think about how little difference it would actually make. But symbolic gestures can matter in politics. If this one lays the groundwork for something that’s actually important, then I’m all for it.

To get an idea of how utterly insignificant a federal pay freeze would be, take a look at the numbers fro 2008, the most current data available. For that year, the federal government payroll was about 15 billion dollars. During that same year, the Bush administration’s budget spent 2.9 trillion dollars.

Let’s suppose a pay freeze would save 10% of payroll costs, a figure that errs generously on the side of money saved. The fraction of spending reduced would have been 1.5 billion out of 2.9 trillion, a whopping one half of one tenth of one percent of all federal outlays. And let’s not forget this is 2-year-old data. Bush was the biggest spender since LBJ, but when it comes to red ink Obama and the until-recently-Democratic Congress make Bush look like a piker.

Hooray for the courage of Washington D.C! Through the miracle of bipartisan consensus, they boldly solved one half of one tenth of one percent of our spending problem. For our next trick, we’re going to treat drug addiction by flooding the streets with crack that’s only 99.95 percent pure.

Given that a pay freeze wouldn’t actually accomplish anything tangible, what about the intangible? How would a national government pay freeze work as a symbolic gesture? That’s a tougher question. Particularly since it’s hard to know what a pay freeze would actually mean.

Federal employee compensation is determined by the classification of your position and the “step” within that classification. It’s complicated to explain in a column, but basically your “step” goes up by one every year. Your salary is determined by a table released by the Office of Personnel Management. Look up your classification and your step in the table (with some non-trivial adjustments based on where you live), and that’s your salary. Period.

While in theory you could be denied a step increase, there are tremendous barriers in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. I suppose out of two and a half million Federal employees, somebody somewhere gets denied a step increase every once in a while, but in over 16 years of government work I’ve never heard of it.

This means that it’s easy to argue that federal salaries are “frozen” when they really aren’t. I’m guessing that a “freeze” would mean the OPM salary table would be held constant for one year. But we would still get step increases. Even though it would mean less of an increase than we were accustomed to, in the language of Washington that still counts as a “cut”. Compared to some employees in the private sector who might actually make less money from year to year, or who could lose their jobs through no fault of their own, I think that’s really insulting.

Don’t get me wrong, I could always use more money. I have two kids in college; my tuition payments are two and a half times my mortgage. Clearly I’m insane; I should be living in a much bigger house and sending my kids to cheaper schools.

But so be it. It’s a personal decision, and if my cash flow gets further pinched it’s my responsibility to deal with it.

But I think I speak for many federal employees when I say that if our salaries do get “frozen”, whatever that means, it would mean a lot more if it started a larger, much more substantive national conversation. Something that attempted to build consensus on cutting entitlements and spending in a substantive, across-the-board way. Something that truly held out realistic hopes for restoring fiscal sanity and long-term prosperity to America.

After all, we wouldn’t work for our country if we wanted anything less.

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette, December 8, 2010.