Monday, July 30, 2012

Kingmaker, Big-Spending Presidents, Powell's

Hi, everybody – welcome back!

First of all, my apologies for the long delay between posts. Earlier this month I was caught up in a short-deadline Forgotten Realms project that absorbed all my time, and when I finished it, I went on a 10-day vacation to Crater Lake, the redwoods, and the Oregon coast. For the last three weeks or so, I’ve been fully engaged in other stuff, and I’m only now getting back into the routine.

OK, on to my writing news… if you haven’t checked it out yet, take a look at Prince of Ravens, my latest title. It’s available as an ebook at – here’s an address:

As I mentioned before, Prince of Ravens is a long-delayed sequel to my 2000 novel City of Ravens. If you’d like to see a longer discussion of the whys and wherefores of Jack Ravenwild in 2012, I took some time a couple of months back to put together a little Q&A about Prince of Ravens with my editor, Fleetwood Robbins. You can find that article at this location:

I’m afraid I can’t say much about the project I was working on so hard earlier in the month, other than to say that it’s an upcoming bit Forgotten Realms fiction. I’m also still working on my military thriller (might be another 6 to 8 weeks before I nail down the first draft to my satisfaction, darn it), and I’ve had some discussions about writing a limited series comic book. I haven’t ever written a comic book before, but if you work in writing game products, you spend a lot of time working on art orders or art suggestions, descriptions of the art pieces you want to see appearing in your text. The comic book format looks like it will give me a chance to capitalize on that experience, so I’m looking forward to trying my hand at it. More information on that front when I can talk about it.

Gaming: I just played a game of Kingmaker yesterday, only the 2nd or 3rd time I've ever played. Awesome! I love the absolute cynicism encoded in the game’s modeling of factions, titles, events, and so on. However, one thing drives me absolutely crazy about the game: PATHING. Kingmaker carves the map of England into hundreds upon hundreds of idiosyncratic little territories, and then gives you the ability to move five squares a turn. You spend a LOT of time trying to figure out if your pieces are close enough to get where you want to go. It’s ridiculous. The game would be improved tremendously by a simple area movement system—like, England is maybe 15 to 20 areas, and your nobles can move maybe 2 areas per turn (plus a bonus for a road). You’d get the same relative speed, and you wouldn’t spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to path out ways to move across the board. Pathing isn’t what the game is supposed to be about.

I guess the lesson I would draw from this is simple: Keep an eye on what systems your players have to engage to play your game. If a subsystem or activity takes up a big part of the player’s time and attention, it had better be what the game is about. Kingmaker isn’t about pathing through the War of the Roses, so why make the players perform pathing exercises to play?

One other thing about Kingmaker… I wish the towns and cities were more important. The best way to play is to never set foot in a city and to keep your armies in the middle of nowhere. That seems like some bad simulation to me—I think you’d need the markets and transport network of a city to feed an army of any size. The game might be better if the towns and cities were the places you needed to go in order to assemble large forces. Just an idea, anyway.

Politics/Current Events: There’s a lot going on these days—the Olympics, Chick-Fil-A, the Colorado shootings, and God knows what else—but I’m going to keep it brief in this edition of my blog, and focus on one particularly ridiculous claim in the presidential campaign: Barack Obama has been a more responsible spender than George W. Bush.

Here’s a chart that shows federal revenues and expenses since 1940. These are OMB’s historical figures (except for 2012, which is still an estimate because the year isn’t over yet):

Here’s the relevant portion of the table, which I’ve recreated below:

Year       Receipts              Outlays                Surplus or Deficit

2000      2025.2                  1789.0                  +236.2
2001      1991.1                  1862.9                  +128.2
2002      1853.1                  2010.9                  -157.8
2003      1782.3                  2159.9                  -377.6
2004      1880.1                  2292.9                  -412.7
2005      2153.6                  2472.0                  -318.3
2006      2406.9                  2655.1                  -248.2
2007      2568.0                  2728.7                  -160.7
2008      2524.0                  2982.5                  -458.6
2009      2105.0                  3517.7                  -1412.7
2010      2162.7                  3456.2                  -1293.5
2011      2303.5                  3603.1                  -1299.6
2012      2468.6                  3795.5                  -1326.9

The numbers are in billions of dollars, so the 2012 receipts (for instance) are actually $2,468,600,000,000.00.

The reason that folks make the claim that Obama is not more of a spender than Bush is because they’re trying to softpedal the last column. The trick is to assign 2009 spending to Bush, not Obama, because the budget is generally set in the fall of the preceding year (fall 2008, in this case), when Bush was still in office. Okay, that’s fair enough: Obama had very little to do with the 2009 spending. Then, if you use the 2009 spending as a baseline, it looks like Obama isn’t doing anything that Bush didn’t do. In fact, expressed as a percentage-based rate of change, it seems like Obama is even doing better. But here’s the thing: Who the hell cares about minor fluctuations in the rate of deficit increase or decrease when the *total* deficit is running at 1.3 to 1.4 TRILLION a year? It’s like when your wife comes home from a day of shopping and announces that she saved $100 while adding $1300 to your MasterCard bill, because she only bought things on sale. It’s irrelevant to the actual state of affairs.

I want to point out a few things about the chart, and then we’re done. First, Bush was not a particularly responsible spender; I find the 2003 through 2008 deficits pretty damned egregious. In my opinion, the proper deficit is ZERO. The government shouldn’t spend more money than it takes in, except in unusual circumstances. In this period, the unusual circumstance was the Iraq war… and there’s a serious and honest debate that can be framed about whether that money was well spent or not. But then we get to 2009, and the deficit shoots to the stratosphere. What happened then? Did Bush go on a gigantic federal bender? Well, sort of. The bottom dropped out of the stock market (remember the housing bubble burst, subprime loans, derivatives, all that fun stuff?), so federal receipts dropped by $400 billion as the economy darn near collapsed. And then you had the emergency TARP spending of $700 billion to SAVE THE WORLD ECONOMY FROM TOTAL COLLAPSE. That right there gives you $1.1 trillion, the sudden “extra” deficit that appeared in 2009 and can be reasonably assigned to Bush, not Obama.

I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t blame either president for the 2009 spending. It was unanimously agreed that containing the damage in 2009 was necessary. Nor do I blame Obama for the fact that federal receipts have been down $300 to $400 billion per year during his presidency, because the economy has been terrible. I *do* blame Obama for permanently adding the TARP expenditure, which was widely understood to be a one-time emergency measure, to the new baseline for federal spending. If you want me to believe that Obama is not that much more of a spender than George W. Bush, you have to explain why he’s spending 3.6 and 3.7 trillion dollars a year instead of 2.6 and 2.7 trillion.

Oh, and if you let the Bush tax cuts expire, you increase federal revenues by about $160 to $200 billion per year… so we’re still a trillion dollars in the hole every year. Beat up on the 1-percenters as much as you like, we still have to spend less money.

The Finer Things: Powell’s Books, in Portland, Oregon. As we were winding up our Oregon vacation, I gave my family the choice of working in one more day of driving up through Cannon Beach to Astoria, or cutting over to Portland on highway 6 and spending some time at Powell’s. The family voted for Powell’s. (This may seem like sacrilege considering how pretty the coast by Cannon Beach is, but we’ve been there half a dozen times, and we’d just spent six days on the coast.) Anyway, Powell’s is one of the biggest independent bookstores in the country, and it’s well worth a stop if you find yourself anywhere near Portland with a couple of hours to kill. The place is amazing.

1 comment:

  1. There is no question that our current federal budget situation is unsustainable, and cause for deep concern. But to blame Obama primarily for that is to ignore the immense magnitude of the mess that the Bush administration left behind.

    A primary job of government is to smooth out the inherent instability in industrial capitalism, rather than magnifying it. That is to say, government should run surplusses during good times and deficits in bad times.

    Bush, of course, did the opposite. If he had maintained a sound financial policy, we would have been ready to handle the downturn. Instead, we were caught flat-footed by it. But thank goodness the government did spend what it did. If it hadn't, it seems quite clear to me that we would be seeing a second Great Depression right now. One thing to keep in mind is that the increased federal spending has been largely balanced by cuts in state and local budgets--overall, government has not been growing over the past few years. I can't imagine how we would not have 12-15% unemployment if the federal government had undertake austerity measures instead of stimulus spending.

    The Bush time-bomb was many-faceted. First the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we were never willing to fund in an above-board and honest way (related in part, no doubt, to the manipulations involved in getting us into the Iraq war against our national interest)

    Second, the tax cut, especially that aimed at the wealthiest Americans, which we simply couldn't afford. I personally benefitted from that tax cut significantly--but would I NOT have worked hard as a business owner, if I had only received 72% of the capital gains, instead of 85%? At a sufficiently high marginal rate the argument begins to have merit, but at current levels it is ludicrous.

    The third leg was the unfunded expansion of medicare benefits under Bush.

    And of course the ongoing pressure of demographic challenges, regardless of party in office.

    Based on the figures you quoted, if you compare Obama's tenure to the comparatively benign recession of Reagan's first term, federal spending as % of GDP is about 2% higher, but income is about 4% lower. That is to say that Reagan and Obama both took similar measures to deal with recession, in proportion to the magnitude of that recession, but the bigger problem is that the government intake, as % of GDP, is the lowest since 1949.

    All that said, I'm by no means pleased with Obama's response to the deficit issue overall, but this is an equal-opportunity issue. Both parties have demonstrated their readiness to manipulate the situation to political advantage, without much regard for our long-term future, and certainly without an honest and rational discussion of the tradeoffs involved. And sadly, the American people have to share responsibility for this. We seem to prefer black-and-white ideological rhetoric and empty promises in our politicians, over compromise and clear-headed pragmatism right now, across the political spectrum.