Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Needed : Django hacker

Posted by Russell on December 23, 2010 at 6:41 p.m.
So, back in 2008, I ported Vort.org fro Rails to Django. It was about one evening of hacking, and since then I haven't touched the code, nor have I upgraded to Django 1.0. All I've done is patch security holes. Since then, a whole new comment framework was introduced, the one I'm using has been obsoleted, and a whole bunch of other changes have happened.

I've been much too busy to maintain or upgrade the code, and it wasn't very good to begin with. So, I'd like to hire someone who actually has some professional experience with Django to institute a do-over. I can handle importing all my articles and comments myself, even if the DB model is a little different. If you can do some nice graphic design, I'll happily pay extra for that.

As it happens, our lab is looking to hire a full-time web developer for a very awesome new project. If I'm impressed with the way you handle this simple little project, you can consider it a job interview for the full time position in our lab. And honestly, how often do you get paid for a job interview?

Email me your resume and a portfolio if you are interested.

Engadget thinks everything is an iPod dock

Posted by Russell on December 23, 2010 at 5:43 p.m.
Oh Engadget, how trite art thou? Leave it to them to get excited about the iPod dock on a machine that will be the least expensive and fastest DNA sequencer yet built. The iPod dock is one of several options the Ion Torrent machine has for attaching external mass storage. Why is it there? Because if you're going to pay fifty grand for a sequencer, it's just good business to spring for the two dollars worth of parts if it lets potential customers use whatever mass storage options they have available.

Harf. Leave it to Engadget to write an article that is actually less interesting than the press release.

Let the tax cuts expire

Posted by Russell on December 13, 2010 at 2:57 a.m.
In 2009, my adjusted gross income was $20,333, and I paid $793 in federal income taxes, and $147 in California income taxes, for a total of $940. Thus, my total effective income tax rate for the year was 4.6%. I don't mind disclosing this information because the official policy of the Microbiology Graduate Group is that all graduate students are paid $26,000 a year. Anyone could have worked out my income and tax rate to within a few percent from that fact alone.

So, 4.6%. Now, I don't particularly like the idea of paying higher taxes, but if I saw my taxes go from 4.6% to 6%, for example, it would have no noticeable impact whatsoever on my standard of living. I think I spend more than 1.6% of my income on coffee anyway.

Similarly, if my taxes were cut to zero, that would also have no noticeable impact on my standard of living -- ignoring, for a moment, the impact this would have on state and federal services.

Of course, things would look a little different if I earned more, which is the genius of marginal tax rates. Most of the time, people think about taxes in terms of their total "tax burden," but that is a very childish way to look at it. The first big chunk of your income is essentially tax-free, and is supposed to be big enough to meet your basic needs. The reason I only pay 4.6% is because I don't earn much more than what I need to cover my basic needs -- as you would expect for a graduate student salary. If it were too comfortable, people would never graduate, but if it was significantly lower, recruiting students would be impossible.

After that first chunk of income (about $10,000 in my case), there is another chunk of money that is taxed at the lowest rate, and then another chunk at a higher rate, and so on. Here's what it looks like :

Green : Russell's adjusted income
Red : Adjusted median income for women with a bachelor's degree
Blue : Adjusted median income for men with a bachelor's degree

It's sad, but the median personal income for men with a bachelor's degree is about $20,000 more than women. My own income is about $20,000 less than the median income for women with a bachelor's degree. It would be nice if both of those problems were solved...

As you can see, the medians are about an order of magnitude below the top bracket, and my own income is almost two orders of magnitude away. The Bush tax cuts are overwhelmingly aimed at the top three brackets. What most people are probably not aware of is just how few Americans are in those tax brackets.

What would happen if the tax cuts expire? Well, for me, and for most Americans, not very much. My taxes would go up about by about half a percent, which at my income isn't even enough for a cup of coffee a day. As far as my own interests, I don't care.

At the median income, most people would be looking at a tax increase of between zero and three percent, depending on deductions. The biggest worry is that this might "push people over the edge" into defaulting on their mortgages. This is very unlikely -- if your mortgage is large relative to your income, then so is your deduction for the mortgage interest. The people who are "near the edge" will be affected the least, if at all.

The second concern is that raising people's taxes will "hurt the economy," presumably because people will spend less. The small-ish increase in marginal tax rates for the overwhelming majority of Americans is much more likely to impact saving rates than spending rates. Most households have already cut their spending as much as they're willing to, which is part of the reason the economy continues to suck.

At this particular moment in history, the most likely result of raising taxes would be to increase investment. Why? Because investment is all about the balance between fear and greed, and right now fear is running the show. For investors and businesses, slightly higher taxes would mean slightly lower profits today, but would mean brighter prospects for the future than are anticipated under current circumstances. With the Bush tax cuts in place, our government is in very bad fiscal shape. Leaving them in place for much longer would do permanent, long-term damage to our prospects as a leading economy. Stabilizing the federal budget -- even if it means lower profits today -- would have a salutatory effect on business and investment.

Many people firmly believe spending is the problem, and that we should balance the budget by cutting it. This is mathematically true and economically false without major, mostly negative changes to social and foreign policy. Being a world power costs money, and there's no way around that fact. Investors understand this perfectly, even if the pundits don't.

What about people above the median? Personally, as a matter of policy I don't think it makes sense to worry about them very much. People earning $100,000 or more will be absolutely fine, regardless of any tinkering with marginal tax rates. We could set the top three brackets to 100%, and nobody in America would experience anything that could be mistaken for actual hardship. That isn't to say that those fortunate few would be happy, but nobody is going to starve on $171,850 a year. Raising the top three income brackets by less than five percent will have a negligible impact on the lives of those who enjoy the good fortune to earn enough to be affected. It will have a huge, entirely positive effect on financial stability of the United States of America.

What angers me, and a lot of people who care about the future of this country, is what these tax cuts have done to the federal budget. When Bill Clinton left office, the government was running a surplus. The TV pundits and op-ed colonists have insisted on saying, over and over, that Congress has been "spending like drunken sailors." (An expression that I find rather insulting, to tell the truth. I know a few people in the US Navy, and they spend most of their time worrying about making payments on their used cars.) In fact, we would be looking at a return to surpluses once the economy recovers, were it not for two factors :

  • The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The Bush tax cuts
When the economy recovers, the public will get most of the "bailout" money back. In some cases, like the General Motors receivership, the public may even receive a profit.

Wars and tax cuts got us into this mess. Pure and simple.

The necessity of the war spending is debatable, but the necessity of the tax cuts is not. They are a useless giveaway to people who already have enough.

Nobody is going to be totally happy with every aspect of federal spending, but don't you dare call yourself a fiscal conservative unless you are willing to do you part to insure that the government can cover its expenses. It's your goddamned government, like it or not.