Saturday, April 27, 2013

Too-Big-to-Fail Banks: Do We Even Stand a Chance?

Matt Taibbi
Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi says no. Here's some background on the excerpt below: The Libor scandal -- which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for some of the biggest banks in the world -- was a situation in which banks submitted false data to set an interest-rate benchmark low or high in order to profit from trades. This is illegal, but that's okay. It would be just too hard to jail our bankers so, bygones! Now there's another fix that may be in with setting the ISDAfix (no irony there, "fix" is in the name of the process), in which the rates for interest-rate swaps are determined. Add that to the Libor fix and, sez Taibbi, you get this:
Why? Because Libor already affects the prices of interest-rate swaps, making this a manipulation-on-manipulation situation. If the allegations prove to be right, that will mean that swap customers have been paying for two different layers of price-fixing corruption. If you can imagine paying 20 bucks for a crappy PB&J because some evil cabal of agribusiness companies colluded to fix the prices of both peanuts and peanut butter, you come close to grasping the lunacy of financial markets where both interest rates and interest-rate swaps are being manipulated at the same time, often by the same banks.
"It's a double conspiracy," says an amazed Michael Greenberger, a former director of the trading and markets division at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and now a professor at the University of Maryland. "It's the height of criminality."
The bad news didn't stop with swaps and interest rates. In March, it also came out that two regulators – the CFTC here in the U.S. and the Madrid-based International Organization of Securities Commissions – were spurred by the Libor revelations to investigate the possibility of collusive manipulation of gold and silver prices. "Given the clubby manipulation efforts we saw in Libor benchmarks, I assume other benchmarks – many other benchmarks – are legit areas of inquiry," CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton said.
But the biggest shock came out of a federal courtroom at the end of March – though if you follow these matters closely, it may not have been so shocking at all – when a landmark class-action civil lawsuit against the banks for Libor-related offenses was dismissed. In that case, a federal judge accepted the banker-defendants' incredible argument: If cities and towns and other investors lost money because of Libor manipulation, that was their own fault for ever thinking the banks were competing in the first place.
As far as I can figure out, the judge dismissed the case because it's not the bank's fault that their clients didn't understand that the banks were colluding, not competing. So you can't sue the banks for anti-competitive practices!

Sheesh. We're so screwed. Anyway, read the whole Taibbi piece, then slit your wrists, or, in the alternative, go into investment banking and get your piece of the action.

Remind me why I have a conscience...

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Willie Sutton Wouldn't Rob a Bank These Days. He'd Own One.

I know, somewhere deep in my heart, that banks are good. Hey, I've watched "It's a Wonderful Life" ten times just like the rest of you. But since 2008, I've come to the conclusion that our too-big-to-fail institutions are criminal enterprises of the highest order. And, face it, they're actually too-big-to-jail.

(Thanks, Americans Against The Republican Party.)

Fun fact: JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon still has a job!

Another fun fact: In 2005, I bought a home. I chose USAA to get a mortgage because I trusted them. Unbeknownst to me, within a month, they sold the loan to, uh, Fannie Mae. I couldn't tell at the time, but USAA never serviced the loan. It was serviced by GMAC, which went bankrupt and was bailed out by the U.S. government, which still owns a huge stake in the new bank, Ally. Following the terms of the bankruptcy, GMAC sold my loan servicing to another outfit, Green Tree Servicing, a division of Green Tree, a wholly owned subsidiary of Walter Investment Management Group. It's a wonderful life!

Just asking: Do you know who your mortgage has been sleeping with?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wringing Out a Washcloth in Space

This is courtesy of Slate, although it's a YouTube video, so no sense in not posting it here:


We're tempted at times like this to say, "Science is fucking brilliant!" but no. It's reality -- and glimpses we don't often get to experience -- that is so brilliant. Thanks, International Space Station, thanks NASA, and thanks reality -- and the laws of physics!

Krugman Morphs into KrugTron!

(Graphics courtesy of Noah Smith)

This is some pretty wonkish economic commentary, but it's so much fun I wanted to share it with you.

Paul Krugman, my favorite economist -- partly because like Noah Smith, he writes with panache and clarity -- has been right more times than the mob of econ hacks that have driven, unfortunately, most of the austerity and deficit hawkery that have ruled our politics.

Smith has come up with a delightful metaphor for why Krugman has been right and the austerity crowd so wrong, and it's a good intro into this debate if you haven't looked into it. Here's a taste to whet your appetite:
If you grew up in the 80s you probably remember Voltron. Although the show often had convoluted plotlines, it would somehow always end with Voltron (a super-powerful robot formed from five mechanical lions) facing off against a monster called a "Robeast". Voltron had plenty of weapons, but he would invariably strike the killing blow with his "Blazing Sword". Eventually the show became kind of routine, but to a four-year-old, it was pure gold.
In the econ blogosphere, a similar dynamic has played out over the last few years. Each week a Robeast will show up, bellowing predictions of inflation and/or soaring interest rates. And each week, Paul Krugman...I mean, KrugTron, Defender of the Blogoverse, will strike down the monster with a successful prediction of...low inflation and continued low interest rates. Goldbugs, "Austrians", New Classical economists, and harrumphing conservatives of all stripes have eagerly gone head-to-head with KrugTron in the prediction wars, and have been summarily cloven in twain.
Read the whole post and, if you have time on your hands, follow the links to the different "episodes." And read the comments is you want to get a feel for the back-and-forth that often accompany these Keynesian-versus-Austerian debates. Also read Paul Krugman's response.

Here's a connected link to Brad De Long, a Berkeley economics professor who falls in the Krugman camp. I'll add links as the "other side" chimes in, as they usually do. Have fun!

Note. This isn't all fun and games, by the way. The dominance of the deficit hawks/austerians has driven much of the madness that has led to debt-ceiling debacles and the more recent sequestration disaster, driving our economy down when we should be trying to drive it up -- and could if we concentrated on jobs, jobs, jobs instead of cuts, cuts, cuts. And it's played out in the UK and Europe with austerity policies that have driven Europe back into double-dip and even triple-dip recessions, not to mention the unending pain in Spain, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and, recently, Cyprus. Not good.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Buy My Book!

Yes, some years ago I spent the better part of a decade -- the 90s -- writing books. The one that's still in print is The Aliens of Summer. It was generally liked and sold a bit.

I think it's still a good read (naturally), and so I've made it available at Amazon.

There are some reviews at GoodReads. (Can't buy the book there, though.) Some reviews at Amazon, too, though the one-star rating from "South Mexico" was a high-school student of mine pulling a prank.


Get it at Amazon. Thanks!


PS. All copies are autographed. Oh, and go Giants!

Americans Love the Government When We Don't Hate It


Bostonians cheering the police, FBI, National Guard after second suspect was caught.

A major flaw in the thinking of libertarians, conservatives, and other lovers of small government is what they'd put in place of the government they have so much contempt for. The recent events in Boston are a prime example. Would they like a government that stood around scratching their heads, thinking, "Uh, but won't people get offended if we're too heavy-handed in dealing with this crime? Should we just go around confiscating video footage until we discover who did this? Don't people know how best to spend their own money? Aren't there some kind of free-market forces that can handle this?"

Uh, no.

Of course, the police can be heavy-handed some times, and when they get that way, I shout just as loud as any libertarian, although I've always felt that when events take place like those on the UC Davis campus a couple of years ago at the height of the Occupy movement, very few conservatives or libertarians were up in arms against such police actions.

Maybe the people cheered the cops in Boston because they weren't doing this.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, no friend to government spending when it comes to education, infrastructure, and funding legally obligated public pensions, was accorded near Greek-god status for demanding government money now, now, now when Hurricane Sandy ripped up the Jersey Shore.

Yes, Chris Christie, you proved how much we need good government. Ironic?

I watched the events in Boston unfold with awe and apprehension, and, like many Americans, I was glued to my TV for much of a week. It was as if reality TV got actually real for once. Sure, some of the coverage was repetitive, and some of the channels -- CNN comes to mind -- spent far too much time trying to scoop the others instead of delivering reliable reporting, but overall a very compelling story played out in front of our eyes.

First, the horrific bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon take place. Chaos is followed quickly by acts of incredible heroism and competence, which limits the carnage and saves lives by the dozen. It was remarkable. Did you stop to wonder how much the magnificent hospitals that are concentrated in Boston depend on local, state, and federal money? Just asking.

Then, many levels of law enforcement work quietly for a couple of days, collecting as much photo and video evidence as possible, along with, no doubt, endless eye-witness interviewing and forensic work, at the end of which a decision looms: Do we withhold what we've discovered in order to catch the bad guys unawares, or do we release what we've got in order to smoke them out?

When photos and videos were released, the jig was up. Dudes were toast, and they knew it.

Smoke them out they did, and the next twenty-four hours were beyond captivating. Real life played out -- for better or worse -- on network and cable TV. In the end, one suspect was dead and the other in custody.

Who did this? The government, using all the tools at its disposal. I've worried about these tools of the surveillance state that have expanded since 9/11, but I must admit the way they were used in Boston was investigation at its best with none of the potential for abuse on display. So, I suppose, this is where liberals and conservatives alike come together in admiration and appreciation of the capabilities of the state. We're overwhelmingly pleased at what local, state, and federal law enforcement -- and the related fields of government-funded medical and paramedical services -- did for us these amazing days in Boston.

Do Republican policies -- and politics -- give us
the government we want? That is the question.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Senate and Gun Control: Cowardice and Greed Trump the People's Interests


Newtown parents: How cold are the hearts of the Republican caucus?

As we watch the stunning reports of events in Boston, the incredible cowardice and greed of primarily -- but not entirely -- Republican senators hasn't slipped from my mind. To not do the will, the broadly expressed will of the American people on the issue of guns is the height of cowardice and greed.

Some are opining now, after the fact, that there was never a chance of passage. I find that remarkable, probably only because I remain naive in these matters. I assumed there was a breaking point, a point after a transformational tragedy where the country's politicians had no choice but to come together and finally get the courage to change the way we do business in the U.S. Boy, was I wrong.

I do also blame the four Democratic senators that also voted no, but I don't hold them as responsible as I do the Republicans. If the Republicans had, no matter how grudgingly, decided they had no choice but to support the gun bill, that would have offered cover to the blue-dog Dems from Western and Southern states. Instead the blue dogs had to protect themselves. That's how I view it. Doesn't totally exclude them -- Begich (AK), Heitkamp (ND), Baucus (MT), and Pryor (AR) -- but it's somehow less depraved.

The only way to characterize this is to call it what it is: unforgivable. If you have any way to help get each and every one of these senators out of office, do it. I'm lucky that my state, California, has leaders in gun control, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. So I might have to work to primary Montana's Max Baucus out of office in 2014, just to make a contribution.

I feel this is a new front in the culture war, and I hold out hope that the new generations, the millennials and even younger, will turn the corner on gun craziness, just like they've moved on concerning gay rights, DADT, immigration, women's reproductive rights, and more. Whether or not that's true, I'm adding this issue to the culture war. It's where it belongs.

Shame, shame, shame on these cowards. For power and money, they'd just as soon everyone live in increasing danger as guns and bullets sell with a viral enthusiasm. It's not a world I want to live in, not a world I want for my children.


Thanks Huffington Post for this screen shot of how proud McConnell is that guns will never be properly regulated. Good on you, Minority Coward Leader.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The US of A: the Upside-Down Country

Fun fact: Fred Koch co-founded the John Birch
Society. He also founded Koch Industries,
now run by, yep, the Koch brothers, Charles
and David, sponsors of far right-wing causes.
Over the years, I've tried to figure out how policy is designed and implemented, on local, state, and federal levels. Let's face it, it's gotten harder to make sense of it in recent years.

I was a young child during the McCarthy era, so I didn't get the import of it at the time. I got a notion of it by the early 60s when anti-communism was still in full flower, as epitomized by the John Birch Society. The more I examined the Birchers, the more my unsophisticated adolescent mind figured out they were "kinda dumb."

I admired John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the great progress our nation was making with such programs as the Peace Corps, Vista, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. That admiration and trust crashed because of the Vietnam War, which was the essential radicalizing event in my life, as it was for many of my generation.

Still, I looked at government as a force for good. Even Watergate, probably our worst political scandal, was actually proof that government worked: Nixon got caught, was run out of office, and a lot of his cronies ended up in jail or banished forever from public life. Basically, the system worked.

The Tea Party: a force for good?
Today, no one can claim that government works at the federal level. It's as if everything is broken, everything is upside down. We can't pass a budget, a gun control law may pass that is ineffectual at best and might end up loosening gun laws instead of tightening them. An immigration reform law may do exactly the same thing.

Senator Marco Rubio, for some odd reason a major player in the debate (okay, he's Cuban), just said today that the bill should make it harder for undocumented workers to become citizens rather than easier. That's really going to fix things: give those undocumented reason to stay in the shadows. Really smart. The shame is we're likely to pass such a bill. (After reading the article, I think it's unlikely it will get through the House. We'll see.)

It's like curing a headache by banging your head against the wall, and then standing around congratulating yourself for what you've accomplished and not noticing you're bleeding and your head feels worse.

But that's exactly what's happening in this country today. We have an unemployment problem and most economists agree that stimulus spending is called for. The best our Congress can do is press for contractionary policies, which would never pass either, so it's a stalemate. Well done!

We have a gun violence problem, and the solution is to wave your hand in the air and then congratulate each other for finally taking a stand. Not! (I admit I'm a little premature here, but my sense is gun reform will be so watered down that it'll be meaningless, and, what's worse, I anticipate it getting shut down in the House anyway). As Atrios would say, happy to be wrong!


These guys are comedians, so they have a right, almost a duty, to be funny. What's not so funny is that what they're describing is essentially how our Congress does business. Jeebus.

To demonstrate just how upside down the U.S. has become, consider that Barack Obama is accused of being a socialist, when in fact he is a centrist who's probably to the right of Richard Nixon on domestic issues, and he really hasn't budged on most national security issues from the George W. Bush positions, other than working to get out of Iraq and possibly pushing up the exit from Afghanistan. He's fine with the warrantless wiretapping and the Patriot Act and the evisceration of FISA. He has yet to close Guantanamo. Will he ever?

Admittedly, Obama is decidedly less bellicose than W., but how hard is that to pull off?

We're letting our once-vaunted public education system unravel. We leave our youngest children to the vagaries of a largely unregulated childcare system, when research shows that the biggest gains are to be made in the earliest years. What gives with us?

Let's not worry about these kids. Let's, ah, go blow up some country.

Americans don't do a very good job taking care of its children. Read about it here and here. What should we do about it? Paul Ryan has a plan. Ezra Klein analyzes:
Here is Paul Ryan’s path to a balanced budget in three sentences: He cuts deep into spending on health care for the poor and some combination of education, infrastructure, research, public-safety, and low-income programs. The Affordable Care Act’s Medicare cuts remain, but the military is spared, as is Social Security. There’s a vague individual tax reform plan that leaves only two tax brackets — 10 percent and 25 percent — and will require either huge, deficit-busting tax cuts or increasing taxes on poor and middle-class households, as well as a vague corporate tax reform plan that lowers the rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.
But the real point of Ryan’s budget is its ambitious reforms, not its savings. It turns Medicare into a voucher program, turns Medicaid, food stamps, and a host of other programs for the poor into block grants managed by the states, shrinks the federal role on priorities like infrastructure and education to a tiny fraction of its current level, and envisions an entirely new tax code that will do much less to encourage home buying and health insurance.
Yes, we are the richest country in the world, and we have turned ourselves upside down. Why?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Golf Break: Driving Without Slicing

Last Wednesday, my golf drive, which had been a little shaky recently, seemed to completely desert me. It had gotten longer and more reliable, but suddenly, it's all over the place. I wanted my drive back!

So I searched the Web and came up with this YouTube video by Rob Bernard, a Canadian PGA golf pro. It straightened out my game the very next day, and I'm very grateful. Here it is for you:


The most important part of this lesson was the tip to line up one's club at the center of the body, which amounts to four inches off the ball. Doing so made me swing longer to reach the ball, causing me to be further along in my swing with a better chance of hitting the ball square, giving me more distance and less of a chance of slicing. Sure worked for me.

You can see more tips from Rob Bernard at Center of Gravity Golf.

Another video that helped me was this one from Golf Digest:


The key for me here was the technique of waving the club to loosen up one's arms, helping me to relax for suppler wrists and for keeping the lead arm straight. It also helped on my follow-through to stay loose and play through the ball.

Hope these help.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Michelle Rhee: The Education of a Top-Flight Grifter

Michell Rhee, Superintendent of School Grifting

Credit where credit is due: she's moved up the ranks from petty thief to high-end grifter. We may have to credit Michelle Rhee for that, but I thought we also should highlight recent attention she'd rather not get, even if she's somewhat bulletproof because billionaires like Michael Bloomberg want to push her kool-aid. Here's some key tidbits.

Atlanta Journal-Constituion:
PBS education reporter John Merrow writes about the erasure analyses, clear evidence of cheating and concealment of that evidence.
No, he is not writing about Atlanta Public Schools and former Superintendent Beverly Hall. He is writing about Washington, D.C., and former Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Merrow questions why the strong evidence of cheating in the District of Columbia Public Schools — revealed now in a confidential memo — was not followed up as it was in Atlanta, and puts the blame on Rhee.
Daily Kos:
It is impossible to overstate the significance of this.  Rhee became a hero supposedly on the basis of the remarkable turnaround she was making in DC schools.  Unfortunately, it turns out to be as false as her previous claims about the miraculous increases in scores she obtained with her students at an Edison school in Baltimore during her three years there as a Teach for America teacher, that claim having been conclusively shown to be false by former DC teacher Guy Brandenburg.
The Daily Beast:
Reporters Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello found that from 2008 to 2010, D.C.’s testing company, CTB/McGraw-Hill, recommended that the school district investigate higher than typical answer sheet erasure rates at 103 of its 168 schools—possible evidence that adults had corrected students’ mistakes. Even D.C.’s own superintendent of education, Deborah Gist, recommended that Rhee’s administration launch an investigation of erasures at eight schools, those that displayed a consistent pattern of wrong answers being replaced by correct ones.
Rhee stepped down last year after D.C. voters booted her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, from office—in part because of dissatisfaction with his education agenda. Since then, however, Rhee’s national influence has only grown. Though she identifies as a Democrat, she is advising rising-star Republicans such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. In December, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to announce that her new advocacy organization, StudentsFirst, would raise $1 billion to promote education reform policies like the ones she pursued as chancellor. (Note. Article disappeared after I read it, and linked to it, so I don't know...) (Note. It's back.)
Heckuva job, Michelle. No evidence of grifting there.

Salon:
Nov. 6 was a good day for Michelle Rhee. The former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, through her organization StudentsFirst, poured money into state-level campaigns nationwide, winning 86 of 105 races and flipping a net 33 seats to advocates of so-called school reform, a movement that advocates expanding privately run public charter schools, weakening teachers’ unions, increasing the weight of high-stakes standardized tests and, in some cases, using taxpayer dollars to fund private tuition through vouchers as the keys to improving public education.
Rhee makes a point of applauding “leaders in both parties and across the ideological spectrum” because her own political success — and the success of school reform — depends upon the bipartisan reputation she has fashioned. But 90 of the 105 candidates backed by StudentsFirst were Republicans, including Tea Party enthusiasts and staunch abortion opponents. And Rhee’s above-the-fray bona fides have come under heavy fire as progressives and teachers unions increasingly cast the school reform movement, which has become virtually synonymous with Rhee’s name, as politically conservative and corporate-funded. [...] Rhee, who did not respond to an interview request, is an adept fundraiser and organization builder.
Adept fundraiser. Right. Karl Rove is an adept fundraiser. That doesn't make him a political reformer. It does make him a champion...wait for it...grifter!


Michelle Rhee and Rick Scott together. Wow, it's a high-end grifters' two-fer!

Jay Matthews, Washington Post (and this guy likes her!):
But in her new role as head of Students First, a movement to improve schools through political action, she has taken a wrong turn. She has dismissed a mountain of evidence in Atlanta, Baltimore, the District and other cities that some principals and teachers are faking achievement test results.
Last week, she released a statement concluding there was “no evidence of widespread cheating” on D.C. tests from 2008 to 2010. Her proof? A series of superficial investigations, the parameters controlled by D.C. school brass, that never called on the expertise of psychometricians, never dug into the data, and lacked any reasonable explanations of how such erasures could have been made by anyone but adults.
USA Today:
District of Columbia Public Schools officials have long maintained that a 2011 test-cheating scandal that generated two government probes was limited to one elementary school. But a newly uncovered confidential memo warns as far back as January 2009 that educator cheating on 2008 standardized tests could have been widespread, with 191 teachers in 70 schools "implicated in possible testing infractions."
The 2009 memo was written by an outside analyst, Fay "Sandy" Sanford, who had been invited by then-chancellor Michelle Rhee to examine students' irregular math and reading score gains. It was sent to Rhee's top deputy for accountability.
The memo notes that nearly all of the teachers at one Washington elementary school had students whose test papers showed high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures and asks, "Could a separate person have been responsible?"
Charles Pierce talks about Michell Rhee's incredible, vaninshing, test-cheating memo:
Yeah, there was this report right here on how much floor polish we needed, and this one right here about the possibility of changing dairies that supply our milk, and there's the annual assessment on crayon-munching and paste-eating, especially among my own personal staff. I am a busy woman. I can't be expected to remember every report, especially one that might indicate that the things upon which I have based my entire career, and which have brought me considerable fame and fortune, are the functional equivalent of swampland in Polk County.
Who do you think I am? Superman?
I could go on all day. But really, Michelle, how much longer do you think you can run your grift? Based on Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rick Scott, anyone at the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, I'd say forevaaaaaa...

Shit, one Oprah appearance, and I'm gold, baby!
Update. I found this item from Daily Kos in 2011, in which Michelle Rhee's key résumé claim turns out to be pretty bogus, and her rep at her Maryland school was, shall we say, uneven. Not so gold, baby! Extra: Here's the Baltimore Sun story on the inflated résumé. It, like today's post, deals with inflated test scores. Surprise, surprise.

Update 2. In case anyone wonders why I speak so derisively of Michelle Rhee, it's because I had a late-life career in public education, which fortunately included the Accountability Era as begun in California during Gray Davis' tenure and unfortunately included the No Child Left Behind Era of high-stakes testing.

For me, Michelle Rhee represents the worst aspirations of the so-called school reformers in that she loves charter schools, using test scores to rate teacher performance, and basically anything that weakens teachers' unions.

Having taught in a non-charter, alternative public school, New Technology High School in Napa, California, which has a well-deserved reputation as an innovative school both in curriculum and content areas, I watched in horror as the hunger for high scores in math and reading began to eviscerate the innovations that we at New Tech considered vital for producing high-functioning, high-critical-thinking human beings who are ready for this 21st century. That didn't always translate into high test scores where rote learning trumps critical thinking.

When we get past the myth of charter school superiority and test-score rating of teachers, as well as the obsession among the right for teachers' union busting -- plus all the "failing schools" bullshit, we stand a chance of building better schools the good old-fashioned way: by improving society as a whole and holding everyone, parents, teachers, students, and policymakers alike responsible for what they each do. For an example of how much we don't really understand what makes a good student, read about this study in The Atlantic:
They devised a novel (and exhaustive) methodology: for more than three years, they sampled the actual number of words spoken to young children from forty- two families at three different socioeconomic levels: (1) welfare homes, (2) working-class homes, and (3) professionals' homes. Then they tallied them up. 

The differences were astounding. Children in professionals' homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which, by age four, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words. They also found a substantial gap in tone and in the complexity of words being used. As they crunched the numbers, they discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement. "We were astonished at the differences the data revealed," Hart and Risley wrote in their book Meaningful Differences. "The most impressive aspects [are] how different individual families and children are and how much and how important is children's cumulative experience before age 3."
 People like Michelle Rhee would surely know this kind of data, but they're not interested. They're education grifters, and they're not interested in problems unless the solution is to denigrate hard-working teachers and bust teachers' unions, and use right-wing methods of extorting donations to their cause. I know, because I felt the pressure of that denigration throughout my teaching career, in a poor elementary school, as a night-school English-as-a-second-language teacher, as a jobs teacher at a drop-out factory high school in Napa, or in a cutting-edge experimental school, New Tech, just down the road. The derision and the threat from testing was around us at every turn.

It's why I retired early from teaching. Thanks a lot, Michelle Rhee. God bless you and the horse you rode in on.

A Story of Two Wars


To get a nutshell view of the American psyche as revealed through the politique américain, think of its being the product of two ongoing wars that are heating up as we speak: the culture war and the class war. I've spoken recently of the culture war, where the forces of the conservative social values -- dominated by male white Christians -- are in decline, while the forces of liberal conservative values -- not dominated by anyone, but rather nurtured by many -- are on the ascendent.

Republicans have their budget...

There's another war heating up, and that's the class war. Two recent and correlated events are making the distinction, and two favorite commentators of mine are putting the sides in stark relief. These events are the new Paul Ryan budget -- same as the old, almost -- and the just released Barack Obama budget. Two more different world views couldn't be more keenly expressed.

...and the Democrats have theirs.

This opens a window on what either man, Ryan and Obama, representing the conservative vs. liberal views, really is saying about the value of government and what government should or shouldn't do.

First, here's Matthew Yglesias, from his piece entitled, not surprisingly, The "Class War Has Begun":
[...] Obama embraces both reductions in Medicare payments and a controversial cost-of-living formula to reduce Social Security benefits while demanding higher revenues. Republicans once again refuse to consider even a small amount of additional tax revenue as their side of a bargain.
But this superficial conflict about taxes hides a much more fundamental dispute about class warfare. The White House wants to substantially redistribute income downward, while the GOP wants to do just the reverse.
On both the tax and the spending side, this fight is really about who gets the money. Democrats want to pare back tax breaks for high-income individuals in order to preserve social services, while expanding a handful of tax credits aimed at the working poor. The GOP concept, by contrast, is to shelter tax incentives for savings and investment from any closure—a move that primarily benefits more prosperous households. The tax loopholes Republicans would close would likely result in higher taxes on many middle-class families in order to finance a big cut in the top marginal-income tax rate—a cut that only helps the wealthy.
On spending, a similar divergence emerges. The Republican budget savages programs for the poor. Medicaid, SNAP, Pell Grants, and other programs serving low-income households are singled out for cuts that are disproportionately large relative to the overall scope of spending cuts. 
Obama’s budget is just the reverse. The Medicaid expansion and health insurance exchange subsidies included in the Affordable Care Act will be the largest shift of economic resources to the lower half of the income distribution in generations. Even high-profile gestures like Obama’s willingness to reduce Social Security benefits are conditioned on protecting low-income beneficiaries from cuts. Both Obama and Ryan would reduce entitlement spending relative to current projections. Obama does it in a way that makes the distribution of benefits more progressive. Ryan not only cuts more, he structures the cuts to make the benefits less progressive.
Ezra Klein, on his WaPo Wonkblog, puts it the same only different:
Budgets are a rare opportunity to cut through the two parties’ rhetoric and see the numbers behind their visions for the country. In this case, the difference between Obama and the House Republicans’ visions for the country is about $4.6 trillion over the next decade.
Here’s where that $4.6 trillion comes from — and where it goes.
The House GOP budget sees tax revenues totaling 18.8 percent of GDP over the next decade, while Obama’s budget puts them at 19.1 percent. The difference over 10 years, using the GOP’s numbers? Three-tenths of a percentage point of GDP, or about $640 billion.
House Republicans see an average deficit of 0.6 percent over the next decade, while Obama’s looking at 2.5 percent. The difference there is 1.9 percent of GDP, or more than $4 trillion.
Put the two together and House Republicans are putting about $4.6 trillion more toward lower deficits or lower taxes than the White House. If you want to know why the House GOP’s budget looks so different from the White House, that $4.6 trillion is the answer. That $4.6 trillion is why House Republicans need to make such deep cuts to social programs. That $4.6 trillion is why the Obama administration can keep Obamacare as well as fund a new pre-kindergarten initiative.
That $4.6 trillion represents a stark choice. If used as Obama hopes, it means tens of millions more Americans with health insurance, a more generous food stamp program, more college aid, and more investments in biomedical research, among others. If used as the Republicans hope, it means less debt and lower taxes on the wealthy.
Both budgets bring the deficit down to more-than-manageable levels. Republicans, of course, are looking to eliminate the deficit entirely. But the White House brings the deficit down to 1.7 percent of GDP. Achieving that goal would mean America’s debt load would be falling as a percentage of GDP, which is the measure most economists look to to see if our finances are stable.
The Republican budget argues that its cuts aren’t so much a choice as a necessity. “Unless we change course,” reads the introduction, “we will have a debt crisis.” But that’s incomplete. The truth of the Republican budget is that it’s only necessary if you refuse to raise taxes and if you insist on balancing the budget within 10 years.
Obama’s budget is meant to expose those premises: It’s a demonstration of how more modest spending cuts, when added to new revenues, can stabilize the debt while leaving room for new investments. In other words, the federal government can do most of the things it’s doing now, and more. Deep cuts aren’t a necessity so much as a choice.
The conservatives want to lower taxes on the rich and lower services to the poor and middle class, not because they have to but because they can. The liberals want to raise taxes on the rich and maintain services for the poor and middle class, not because they can but because they want to.

This may in fact be meaningless because neither budget will ever come to pass. But because someday a budget may pass, these two salvos in the class war are important markers. The phrase "class warfare" has long been dragged out anytime the conservatives see the liberals wanting to raise taxes on the rich in order to finance programs for the needy, but at this point in the long, drawn-out debate, we can finally say, "this shit is real," and mean it. The class war is indeed underway, though not for the first or last time.


I like the Joe Biden quote Ezra Klein cites: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”

You said a mouthful, Joe.

Speaking of mouthfuls, here is the Fox take on Obama's budget:


A tax increase on the hyper-rich is a "war on money." Surprise, surprise.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bush Names Presidential Library: Grim Fairy Tales Suppository


Okay, no, he didn't. As far as I can tell, the George W. Bush presidential library, which will be housed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where W. currently resides, will be called the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

But two points: One, it was announced today that the library has raised $500 million in donations, and, two, what the hell will sit on those hallowed bookshelves, anyway? The truth?

What the hell am I gonna put in my friggin' library?

And if the truth were to be represented there, who'd want to contribute to that coming out other than five million hippies and The Nation magazine? But then I jest.

No, the vast majority of the documents that will be stashed there for historians to mull over and sift through will be the largest collection of fairy tales this side of John Boehner's talking points.

Of course, what if I'm wrong? What if Bush, Gonzales, Rice, Powell, Tenet, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz, et al decided to outfox Wikileaks and spill the beans on what really drove the decisions of that most disastrous of all administrations? Wouldn't that be a hoot?

Don't hold your breath. In the meantime, if you want to exercise your noggin -- or exorcise it is more likely -- try to figure out who in hell would donate to the former Disaster-in-Chief Decider-in-Chief 's fantasy book collection. I suppose people with a whole lot of oil stocks in their portfolios.

And yes, I know the difference between repository and suppository. I'm just not sure if W. does, so I thought I'd use the more appropriate term.

Hey, I should save this book for my presidential library.

Fun, non-fairy-tale, real-life fact about the George W. Bush Presidential Center: Housed within the walls of the Center is the George W. Bush Institute -- get this, it's a bipartisan public policy development institution! -- and its director is James Glassman. Who's he? None other than the co-author of Dow 36,000, heralded as the dumbest book ever written. Maybe that could go in the library, too.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Obama's Key Weakness (or Two?)

At least this time they know I'm serious.

I've supported almost all of Obama's key initiatives, even if they've often been watered down, mostly by conservative Democrats like Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson, usually working with various "gangs" whose main job is to Republicanize various pieces of legislation before Republicans soundly reject it anyway. Sometimes these things get enacted, sometimes they don't.

It's during this process that whatever scam is needed gets fit in, such as no negotiating drug prices down in Medicare Part D (under Bush) and no public option (under Obama). It's confounding, but it's the way things work in Washington. No room for scamming, skimming, grifting, no bill gets passed.

It's almost as if on Jan 21, 2009, a Gang of Eight came to Barack Obama and told him, "Forget it, Barack, it's Chinatown." You had to see the movie.


As avaricious as that process is, it's not what I regard as Barack Obama's key weakness. What irks me most is what irks most progressives: His opening bid in the critical negotiations on budget deals regularly includes the final concession that Republicans should pay a serious price to win. Instead, Obama offers it first. He did just that again with chained CPI and Social Security.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama does this as the price for being taken as a member of the Very Serious People, the elite media, think-tank mavens, and lobbying geniuses who Really Know How Washington Works. It's the DC version of domestic Real Politique.

This is a three-fold fail: First, it blows, and second, it's so unnecessary. Third for the fail? It's completely self-defeating, as in self-defeating the Democratic Party.

What part of "the Republicans are never going to compromise, ever, and instead they're going to attack you unremittingly in the midterms for gutting Social Security" don't you understand? And don't even try saying you never did it because it never even reached a vote. Dick Morris has the video.

Republican ad men, cue up the YouTube clips, and get ready for 2014.

Can someone explain to me what Barack Obama hoped to accomplish with this nonsense?
  • Show that the Republicans are the Party of No? People already know that.
  • Position the Democrats to win the next debt-ceiling debate? What, by offering Social Security cuts so that Republicans don't own them before they refuse to negotiate so that you say "Fine, no revenue increases this time, but we'll sure get you next time," and the Dems own the SS cuts and you get nothing? Duh.
  • Now everybody knows you're the adult in the room? Everybody already knows that, only now you're the only adult in the room that cut Social Security.
Heckuva job, Barack.

The only other possible explanation for all this is that Barack Obama has actually been assimilated by the Borg, which would explain why he's caved so many times in negotiations in the past. He isn't being sensible, the adult in the room, the Great Compromiser, he's one of them, not a visionary, just another Max Baucus hack.

One of the pod people.

And don't get me started on Guantanamo Bay.

Barack, you have only so much time. Why do you insist on squandering it with eloquent speeches and lousy backroom deals that you don't even win?

It sounded good in the strategy sessions. Why do I feel like shit? (And look even worse?)

Update. Katrina vanden Heuvel weighs in today at WaPo, speaking directly about this failure:
House Speaker John Boehner’s reflexive reaction immediately revealed the political folly of the president’s ploy:
If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes.” (Emphasis added)
The exchange has Republicans salivating. Cutting Social Security becomes the president’s choice, not something extorted by Republicans. If Democrats stand for anything, it is defense of Social Security and Medicare, the United States’ most beloved and vital social programs, a proud legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. The president’s negotiating ploy puts every Democrat supporting the president’s budget in a contested reelection race at peril in 2014. Democrats will face a flood of ads accusing them of wanting to cut Social Security and face the wrath of seniors who constitute a greater percentage of the vote in midterm elections.
If Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have any sense, they will organize their entire caucuses and pledge to oppose any deal that cuts a dime from Social Security benefits.
 Freaking Amen to that.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Are Liberals Winning the Culture Wars?

The answer is a guarded yes.

The culture wars, to me, have to do with the social wedge issues used mainly by conservatives to gin up their base before elections. In fairness to conservatives, though, these family and social values are fiercely held, especially by white Christian conservatives. These values are often driven by the men in this cohort, as Christian evangelicals broadly subscribe to an authoritarian, father-figure model of family structure.

Now to the scoreboard: Let's look at past, present, and future battles:
  • Birth control. Use of the pill and condoms, etc. have long been accepted, even among religious groups like Catholics whose leadership condemns them. The country has struggled getting to the extensions of birth control, including RU-486 use, morning-after pill availability, and basic acceptance of women's health issues as a regular part of insurance packages. We've also had the open battles against Planned Parenthood and sex education on the state level, with red states often sabotaging sex education while promoting abstinence-only solutions to teen pregnancy. Generally speaking, liberals in blue states have been holding their own in these battles over the years. Obamacare's pressing for free birth control drove the White Christians absolutely crazy.
  • Don't ask/don't tell. This was mercifully put to death almost two years ago. Good riddance.
  • Medical marijuana use. It's been adopted by 18 states and the District of Columbia, and more recently it's been legalized for recreational use in Washington and Colorado. It was recently decriminalized in Rhode Island, and decriminalization is supported in a number of other states, including Vermont and Hawaii.
  • Abortion. This has been a hit-and-miss issue, with deeply red states like North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi trying to trim around the edges of federal law, with North Dakota the most egregious, making abortion all but out of reach in the state. It is less seriously challenged in other states, as in Ohio, where a personhood amendment petition failed to get the required signatures.
  • School vouchers. I put this in the values category because the fight is largely driven by an attempt to divert tax dollars toward homeschooling and religious education, though there is a strong undercurrent of anti-unionism in all voucher efforts. Again, most blue states hold out against vouchers, but red-state efforts have yielded results in Louisiana and, recently, Indiana.
Present battles:
  • Same-sex marriage. This battle is largely over, even if the Supreme Court surprises us with a negative decision. The most widely expected result would be the overturning of both California's Proposition 8 and the federal DOMA act based not on constitutional (14th Amendment) grounds but rather on a lack-of-standing ruling -- which kicks it back to the most recent appellate court rulings that overturned them -- or declaring this a states-rights issue, which would have the similar effect of overturning them without making a 14th Amendment claim. If somehow a 14th Amendment decision is reached -- declaring this an equal protection matter -- so much the better. Any decision will have little to do with the eventual outcome. We've turned the corner as a nation on this issue. The Supremes could, however, really speed things up with either of the positive rulings.
  • Gun control. We're making progress on the state level, with Colorado and Connecticut passing sweeping gun control measures. With stalemate likely in Congress -- I see all attempts at new regulations failing -- we'll need to look for state progress, unless of course we have more mass shooting tragedies, which, as we all know, is only a matter of time.
  •  Rape in the military, rape in society-at-large. Here is a dicey issue that just won't go away. The end of DADT and the end of restrictions on women in combat will help, but changing the military culture will take time. More's the pity. As for society-at-large, the Steubenville rape showed the fissures in our society, where sympathy for the perpetrators can often overwhelm the more rightful sympathy for the victim. We've got a long way to go with rape.
  • Birth control just won a major victory, with a federal judge ruling that the morning-after pill must be made available over the counter for all ages, no longer requiring a prescription for those 16 and younger.
  • Equal pay (and respect) for women. A really challenging project, but one that's been underway for a while. When Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, this will take a great leap forward.
Future battles:
  • Gun control will stay on the horizon, with states making occasional progress, but little progress on the federal level, absent a horrible new massacre.
  • Birth control will fade as and issue as Obamacare makes it widely available and free for women with insurance plans. White Christian men will go crazy, as I said, but the battle's over.
  • Marijuana legalization will likely spread as approval broadens. A Pew Research Center poll released just yesterday shows that Americans support pot legalization 52 percent to 45 percent. A whopping 72 percent say that federal law enforcement efforts aren't worth it.
  • Drug enforcement in general. While there are few signs that people support legalizing hard drugs like cocaine, meth, or heroin, there is declining support for the War on Drugs that has been a dismal and costly failure for years. Watch as support further slips in the years to come. I hope the model goes from incarceration to rehabilitation, treating drugs as a health problem, not a criminal one.
  • Income inequality. This one will take a while to shake out. But as people come to equate lower and lower prospects for the poor and middle class with the always increasing prosperity of the upper-uppers, people may be ready to oust the usual suspects in government and get some of that money headed back down, through redistribution programs, or better yet, through better labor practices. One answer will be, one can hope, a resurgent labor-union movement.
 I see these culture wars on a broader perspective, too. Issues like rape and sexual assault are being addressed in the Middle East and most especially in India, as people come to terms with the cultural failures long tolerated. I don't expect success overnight, but just as with the Arab Spring, it'll be one step forward, and two or three steps back for the foreseeable future. But progress is in the air worldwide.

There are all kinds of reasons to be optimistic. Changing demographics have a lot to do with it, and we shouldn't discount the effects that global communication brought on by social media can have here in America and abroad. These effects can be overstated or overinterpreted, but something is happening, and it has a lot to do with the way young people communicate and process the experiences of their lives.

An awful of of it has to do, I think, with how the morally judgmental nature of religion is slowly becoming muted in our society. As fewer and fewer children are raised and educated in an overly religious society, the more and more tolerant they are, generally, about sex, race, creed, and color.

Simply put, more and more people just aren't freaked out about this shit anymore. It's about time.

Just as George Will said about gay marriage, that the opposition is literally dying off, so it is with all these social wedge issues. There's an old-world outlook, say in the South and up the Plains, but a bi-coastal, new-world outlook is slowly but steadily supplanting it.

This is a funny observation from a movement progressive (me) who cut his chops in the counter-cultural revolutionary days of the 60s, who thought that we were going to march and protest our way to the world in which we wanted to live. Maybe that's just not the way these battles are won anymore. Maybe new generations just get bored with the old battles.

Gays? Big deal. Blacks and Latinos? What, you mean my friends? Women in management? Oh, you mean my boss? Women as political leaders? Oh you mean my senators Feinstein and Boxer? Women in combat? Why not? Can we talk about something less boring? Hey, let's share this joint and listen to Jack White, okay?

That's maybe a little too simplistic, but I don't know. What if we woke up and the young said, "Hey, I think the NRA is just sad, you know?"

Yeah, they are, you know? Dude, you're so right. They're just sad. And maybe that's how we win.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Mike Rice/Rutgers Scandal: Fox Supports Bullying and Abuse, Right on Cue

Rutgers (now former) basketball coach Mike Rice

Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was publicly caught this week abusing his players -- pushing them, kicking them, throwing basketballs at their heads, hurling gay slurs at them -- when a compilation video of his offenses was released and aired on ESPN.

The coach, well-known for his sideline "antics," had been suspended for three games and fined $75,000 last fall when word spread internally at Rutgers, but the leaked video proved too much in the light of day. Rutgers moved within a couple of days and fired Rice outright. Good for them, though now Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti faces questions as to whether he acted too late.

And now, right on cue, two well-known Fox News hosts come out backing his modis operandi, declaring that it's good old-fashioned discipline. Here's Eric Bolling, no stranger to expressing hard-nosed, oddball ideas:


Yes, the thing we really need these days is someone who'll fight against the "wussification" of America. We can't have us becoming wussies, oh no. As Bolling bemoans, "This is an example of our culture in free-fall." Apparently firing a bullying coach fits right in with the culture wars raging all around us.

Bolling, of course, has a right to his opinion. And I do agree with him that this event fits squarely into the culture wars, which really are keeping our society in near-constant tumult. And Bolling's tribe is losing and losing big. Good, it was about time.

(I went to a Catholic high school where I, alongside my classmates, was beaten continually with sticks, steel cables, and hula-hoop plastic twisted around a steel shaft, Father Joe Anselm's favored device. Talk about twisted.)

Not to be outdone, Sean Hannity weighs in, bringing an oddly reticent Michelle Malkin with him:


Catch Malkin, when asked if she ever got hit, replying, "Oh, I certainly did, and with more than a belt." Just a little cryptic.

Slate's Emily Bazelon, long a champion of the bullied and abused, put it more to my liking:
[...]Today, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift in how we think about bullying and about cruel aggression as a motivator. It’s becoming increasingly clear that schools and teams are not supposed to stand for abusive bullying, even from coaches who say it’s all about intensity, passion, and competition. We’re less swayed by the old assumption that no one should mess with a tough coach, that players have to take whatever comes their way, and if they can’t, they just can’t hack it.
The shift starts with parents’ concerns about how bullying by coaches affects younger players. College and pro coaches set the tone for their counterparts at the high school and grade school level. Susan Swearer, a research psychologist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln points out the obvious when she says, “Coaches have a lot of power.” Swearer says she regularly gets emails from parents who worry that their kids’ coaches are going beyond healthy competition into the realm of cruelty.[...]
In light of past controversies -- Indiana's Bobby Knight and Ohio State's Woody Hayes come to mind -- and the present scandals such as Penn State's Jerry Sandusky, a reexamination is underway of violence of any stripe. This is lost on Eric Bolling and Sean Hannity, which shows quite well the type of opinionator favored by Fox News.

I'll stay on the lookout for contrarian reaction to the Rice firing and add it here. In the meantime, here's a recent example of the preferred Fox opinionating:


Sheesh. Makes you wonder what O'Reilly got hit with.

Update. This fits in to this discussion. I blow hot and cold in my opinion of Chris Matthews, enjoying his bluster but decidedly cool on his interview skills. But I'm sorry, here we find Matthews just yesterday appearing out to lunch on "wife beating":



C'mon, Chris. You're better than that.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

American Politics: Why Do We Solve Our Problems with Complex Solutions?

At the ER: And Republicans want to perpetuate this?

Let's face it. Obamacare is a complex mess. We all try to unravel its intent over time, and it seems that it will make life better once it all kicks in -- this post is not meant to explain it -- but why is it so complicated in the first place?

My theory: American policy is often created by the need to feed the skimmers, open holes in the fabric of our cultural and financial universe for the Big Grift.

Would a single-payer healthcare system, paid for by a fair taxation regime, with the government controlling rates to drive down healthcare costs be vastly superior? Where's the fun in that? With our current system -- and continuing under Obamacare, we let entities known as "insurance companies" skim profit off the top. With our system we limit our ability to negotiate drug prices so drug companies can skim profits through overcharging, then blackmailing us with "we'll stop making these drugs if you don't pay us enough."



Imagine a world in which petroleum companies are among the richest in the world, and then imagine a political system that gives away oil leases like they were after-dinner mints and pays around a quarter of a trillion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies annually, dwarfing the $88 billion we spend on renewable energy subsidies. You'd be imagining the way we do business in America.

It's the same with gun control. We have a problem with guns in the U.S. What's being proposed on the federal level? Background checks, smaller magazines, and an assault weapons ban. What are we going to get? I predict nothing.

What does the chief lobbying group, the NRA, want? A solution in which more people have more guns. They want to start by arming schools. Next? Armed guards at malls? Theaters? Sure. Colleges and universities? Sure. In fact, some states have passed concealed carry laws allowing guns on campuses.

Why? So gun manufacturers can keep right on arming us to the teeth. Who wins? Hospitals, insurance companies, corrections departments, the private-prison industry, and, of course, gun manufacturers. And, oh yeah, the NRA.

I don't know about the advantages for the courts and police departments. I think they just get overburdened. The taxpayer, however, really does pick up a huge tab.

Baltimore gunshot victim: Another day, another 100,000 dollars...

What about the amount of skimming, hidden fees, and grifting that goes on in banking, credit cards, and finance? The reason the Republicans have fought so hard against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is that they don't want the skimming to stop. The GOP functions well as tools of the Big Grift.

Okay, the Democratic Party feeds at the trough, too, although they make some effort to serve the people. Small difference, but enough of a difference to make it wise for people to support the Democratic Party. It's why I do, even though it's frustrating much of the time to see how little bang we get out of the Democrats.

The main argument in favor of the current system is that we believe in the free enterprise system, we believe in free markets. The problem is that free markets provide too much room for the Big Grift.

It's gotta stop, but it won't. It's depressing. But don't let anyone say they don't get why it doesn't work. If you ask most conservatives and libertarians why they support free markets, they'll answer that they believe in hard work paying off, and that we shouldn't have to pay for the losers. They win, and the losers lose. And liberals love the welfare state because that's the liberals' Big Grift, laying around waiting for welfare checks, free healthcare, and Obama phones.




What goes unsaid -- apart from the fact that there are no actual Obama phones! -- is that there is no monopoly on success among the conservatives and no monopoly on welfare among the liberals. Conservatives and liberals succeed and fail at similar levels and access the welfare state at similar levels, as well, although due to higher poverty rates in red states, the majority of welfare dollars flow to highly conservative states. In spite of that irony, the resentment conservatives feel drives them to want to punish the poor, while the empathy that liberals feel drives them to want to help the poor.

Another ironic aspect of this is that conservatives are supposed to be the more Christian group. They talk a good religious game -- without, it seems, ever having read the Beatitudes -- while the more agnostic liberals tend to inhabit the message that the Beatitudes provide.

I'm an atheist, but I have no quarrel with the moral compass that Christ's teaching provides. I just have a quarrel with people who pretend to follow Christ but rarely lift a hand to help those in need, fearing that it would make them lazy, as well as deprive the Chosen Ones of the Unchosen Ones against which to measure their success, their grace, their superiority.

Not the world I want to live in. I'd go for simplicity and stop the skimming, the grifting, and the scam.

That's not, I'm afraid, how our Congress operates. We're in for a long wait while that arc of the moral universe bends, eventually, to justice.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Crazy Idea: Social Security and Medicare Are Good for Young People!

The elderly: selfish bastards!

Those who claim that Social Security and Medicare are programs that "steal from our grandchildren" don't know what they're talking about. Sure, Social Security is a bit like a Ponzi scheme in that it relies on contributions from today's more youthful workers for the benefits currently being paid to retirees, and, yeah, Medicare pays out more than what retirees paid in during their lifetimes, but that's okay in my book.

And this is not just self-interest, even though I'll turn sixty-five later this year and will qualify for Medicare. As for Social Security, because I worked for some years later in life as a teacher and receive a small pension, most of my Social Security has been wiped out by the windfall penalty for having a private pension. So I get a paltry $140 a month. Oh well.

No, my notion is based on a simple idea: If the elderly were reduced to poverty -- as many surely were during the Great Depression when Social Security was dreamed up -- then who would take care of them? Why their children or grandchildren would.

The more secure, stable, and independent our senior citizens can be, the more independent and unburdened their off-spring can be in their peak earning years, when they need to be concentrating on themselves and their own families.

What do these people expect, a mansion, for chrissake?

If Grandma and Grandpa are indigent and need to be taken in or have their retirement homes paid for, what do Mom and Dad do? For starters, they just might tell their kids to make do with a lesser university, settle for junior college for two years and then go to the local state college, or just beat it at eighteen and get a job. Yer on yer own, kiddo.

And heaven forbid one or both of the grandparents have life-threatening illnesses or ongoing conditions that require regular care. With weakened Medicare, who's going to pay for it? Yep, the kids, right when they're in the prime of their lives. Dad is sick, so let's sell the house or take out a second, and so on, in many cases right into bankruptcy. (Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcy in this country as it is.)

Children who don't want to take care of their parents for whatever reason -- family feuds come to mind -- will leave their elderly parents indigent and at the mercy of the state for housing and medical care. Who pays? Taxpayers, all of us. Medicaid or welfare can't solve it as these programs aren't designed to fill in gaps. People will fall through the cracks.

With many getting by on substandard care, Grandma and Grandpa die earlier and have no Golden Years, and the taxpayers still end up on the short end of the stick.

What's better? Have a robust Social Security and Medicare program and pay for it, whatever it takes. I could be snarky and say oh, that's what we've got already -- and that's generally true about Medicare -- but our Social Security leaves a bit to be desired.

So let's hope we raise contributions and raise benefits. Our society -- especially, yes, our children and grandchildren -- will be the better for it.

Old and broke is for the birds. We can do better.