Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Here and There

  • The Onion declares North Korea's Kim Jong-Un the Sexiest Man Alive in 2012, which is pretty funny, but not half as funny as The People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, reporting it as a legitimate story.
  • Bruce Bartlett – a conservative veteran of the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II administrations – describes how wacky the Republican Party has become. Not news to us here, of course. Last line: "When Republicans and conservatives once again start asking my opinion, I will know they are on the road to recovery." Can't count how many times I've said the same thing. Kidding aside, it's a good read.
  •  Sen. Dick Durban, a fine gentleman, thinks we should have another Social Security commission, like the bipartisan Greenspan Commission in 1983, to point the way forward for Social Security. This could be a good idea if there are any Republicans left who haven't had a sip of Paul Ryan's Kool-Aid. Unfortunately, I have to put myself in the skeptical column about that.
  • Kevin Drum suggests that Bill and Hillary get together and have a radio talk show. I'd sure tune it in.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ross Douthat's Trojan Horses – Means Testing

Ross Douthat lays out the components of what he calls "sensible Social Security reform": shifting funding from a dedicated payroll tax to general revenues (the main push of his column), "means-testing for wealthier beneficiaries, changing the way benefits adjust for inflation, [and] a slow increase in the retirement age."

There are three very bad ideas here, and since the thrust of his article is that Social Security is an unbearable assault on the sensitivities of the conservative mind, one suspects that the one arguably good idea – changing the way benefits adjust for inflation – is just thrown in for show. [But maybe we should regard it with more suspicion!]

The three bad ideas may sound reasonable to people of good will (from whom Mr. Douthat is excluded, by the way), but problems become evident when we look at them more carefully. This post will address means-testing. You can't say you weren't warned.

Something similar to means-testing was part of Social Security from the very beginning. Social Security retirement benefits were regarded as "retirement insurance." Insurance does not pay you if you do not suffer a loss, and this retirement insurance was intended to replace some of the income "lost" through retirement. If you have not retired, this reasoning went, you have not suffered a loss. Thus, the original Social Security Act contained a provision that "Whenever the Board finds that any qualified individual has received wages with respect to regular employment after he attained the age of sixty-five, the old-age benefit payable to such individual shall be reduced, for each calendar month in any part of which such regular employment occurred, by an amount equal to one month's benefit."

This was called the monthly earnings test, and strictly speaking was not means-testing, of course, although by no coincidence most retiring persons suffered a diminished ability to pay their bills. A retiring wealthy person, however, was as entitled to receive his/her Social Security benefits as a retiring person with little or no savings. This was intentional in that it gave high wage earners a continuing stake in the program. After paying Social Security taxes during their work life, they are as entitled as the next man/woman to receive a retirement check, regardless of how successful they have been financially.  Social Security beneficiaries thus bear no stigma as welfare cases. Rather, their benefits are rightly regarded as "a reward for steady work," as Mr. Douthat contemptuously refers to them.

The monthly earnings test has changed over the years. Most recently, by a unanimous vote in both houses of Congress, it was eliminated in 2000 for persons who had reached "full retirement age" – traditionally age 65, but gradually working its way up to 67. Whether this was a great idea is arguable, but it was certainly popular with our Congressmen.

So despite the monthly earnings test Social Security is not a welfare program. It is a "social insurance" program created in the depths of the Depression by people who understood the vagaries of life all too well. Its benefits are a compact between generations. Means-testing Social Security would fundamentally change that. Means-test Social Security and you have just created a welfare program, the beneficiaries of which will be stigmatized. Your parents, for example.


But there are other, very practical reasons to reject means-testing. For one, means-tested programs are several times more costly to administer than simple social insurance programs. Is it necessary to add that additional administrative expenses equate to less money available to be paid as benefits?

Consider this comparison of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. You know what Social Security is. You may not know about Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal, means-tested program for the aged and disabled. Although the benefits and administrative expenses of SSI are not paid from Social Security trust funds, both SSI and Social Security are administered by the same agency. To apply for SSI, you go to a Social Security Office. The manager of the Social Security Office is also the manager of the SSI program administered by that office. At the level we're talking from, there is no essential difference.

Now consider this: the cost of administering the non-means-tested Social Security program in 2009 was 0.9% of total expenditures, while the cost of administering the means-tested SSI program in the same year was 7% – nearly 8 times higher!

Another problem with means-tested programs is that, because people's economic circumstances often change, they have much higher payment error rates.  Compare the 2011 Social Security payment error rate of 0.6% with the SSI payment error rate of 9.1%.

Between the additional administrative expenses and the higher payment error rate, we have just reduced by 15% the trust funds available for payments to the taxpayers. A great idea this isn't.

Of course, Mr. Douthat would be pleased with this arrangement because he is a person with a "philosophy," and his philosophy dictates that regardless of whether Social Security works (an apparently immaterial concept) it is undesirable because it is government doing things for people they should be doing for themselves. Means-testing Social Security is just a step toward stopping the government from doing that.

Like it all worked so well before Social Security.

Social Security is not in dire trouble. Modest changes will put it back in actuarial balance for the next 75 years. In fact, you can do it yourself here.

Coming up, more Trojan horses: funding from general revenues and another increase in the retirement age.

Friday, November 23, 2012


If you've suspected that the impetus for the Benghazi uproar was a desire to damage President Obama, your suspicions have been confirmed by now. Benghazi was about a courageous American diplomat who took risks with his own safety in the service of his country.

Joe Klein asks, "[W]hat sort of risks should we ask our diplomats to take? It is a question that hits very close to home for me since, as some of you may know, I’m the father of an American diplomat who has served in difficult places, including a year in Baghdad."
It is also the sort of question that John McCain might have asked back in the days when he was an honorable public servant. But he’s now a political caricature, severely debilitated by anger and envy. His trigger-happy foreign policy beliefs have always been questionable, but this Benghazi crusade has put [him] in the weird circle inhabited by nutcases and conspiracy theorists like Michele Bachmann and Allen West. He should honor the memory of those who lost their lives that terrible night by putting a cork in his disgraceful behavior immediately.

Instructions for Thanksgiving

Via Dave, here come Margaret and Helen, with a thanksgiving letter for the family. A sampling:
Dinner is at 2:00.   Not 2:15.  Not 2:05.   Two.  Arrive late and you get what’s leftover.
Last year, that moron Marshall fried a turkey in one of those contraptions and practically burned the deck off the house.  This year, the only peanut oil used to make the meal will be from the secret scoop of peanut butter I add to the carrot soup.
Jonathan, your last new wife was an idiot.  You don’t arrive at someone’s house on Thanksgiving needing to use the oven and the stove.  Honest to God I thought you might have learned after two wives – date them longer and save us all the agony of another divorce.
Now, the house rules are slightly different this year because I have decided that 47% of you don’t know how to take care of nice things.  Paper plates and red Solo cups might be bad for the environment, but I’ll be gone soon and that will be your problem to deal with.
 Then, scroll down to read about Helen's visit to Fox News. Hilarious.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What Gets Scientists Excited?

Some BIG NEWS is going to be coming out of the Mars rover soon. At least one scientist is bursting at the seams to tell us all about it:

"This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."

Scientists are wonderful people as a group, but they tend to get excited if nitrogen measurements are 1/2 percent more than expected. We'll see.

But I suspect the news is not that they've found Lucy's missing teeth.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Required Reading

This post by Steve Benen should be required reading for all Progressives.

 A taste:
Lefties outside the South seem to think very little of suggesting the red states just get out. For kicks, I spent some time this weekend subtracting ballots for Barack Obama in the red states from the president's margin of victory in the national popular vote.
You could do this any number of ways, but if you take out just Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, my own Mississippi and Georgia, the president loses the popular vote. Georgia alone added 1,761,761 votes for Obama. And yes, I realize those same states contributed enough red votes to keep the election close. But every blue ballot represents a natural ally for lefties outside the South, not votes to be thrown out.
What's more, progressives in conservative states are making a new and quite game go of it. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Odds and Ends

  • Another bit of evidence is this: Noting that John McCain held a press conference to whine and make insinuations about not getting information about the Benghazi attack, at the exact same time he should have been attending a confidential briefing on the very subject, a CNN producer had the temerity to ask him about it. It wasn't pretty.
  • Read the fascinating back-story to the famous Lee Atwater interview, in which he explained how the Southern Strategy morphed "nigger, nigger, nigger," into cutting taxes.
  • From the Washington Post:
    Things just got a whole lot worse for Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.).
    According to a new report from the Chattanooga Times Free Press the congressman, who is also a doctor, admitted to sexual relationships with multiple patients and co-workers during sworn testimony at his divorce trial and urged his now-ex-wife to get two abortions, despite campaigning for Congress as an antiabortion rights, family values candidate. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Still Haven't Had Enough?

Haven't had enough of feeling good about the election?

Watch Rachel!!

Addendum:  Actually, I posted the above before watching the whole thing. She ends with an appeal to Republicans that makes this a MUST SEE VIDEO.

She's absolutely right: only one side is working on the hard stuff.

A New Idea

"Immense salaries are paid to [corporation] officers; transactions are consummated by which the directors make money while the rank and file among the stockholders lose it; the honest investor waits for dividends and the directors grow rich. It is suspected, too, that large sums are spent under various disguises in efforts to influence legislation."
– Grover Cleveland 1883

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Best Comment So Far

"I love the smell of schadenfreude in the morning."

from TPM Commenter jsfox on TalkingPointsMemo.

My New Neighbors

There was so much good news last night that I feel ungrateful for wishing the House had gone Democratic. But this morning's news that Congressmen Joe Walsh (IL) and Allen West (FL) had been returned to Oblivion sure took the sting out of that.

Welcome to the neighborhood, guys!

The Election

First, congratulations to Dave, who counts electoral votes as closely as Nate Silver. Dave said it would be over early. He was right.

I, on the other hand, had a last minute failure of nerve. "In my gut" I thought the polls were too close, that something was going to go wrong. I've never been so happy to be wrong.

Russ Douthat, who is the most conservative of the NY Times columnists, sees what happened:

"The age of Reagan is officially over, and the Obama majority is the only majority we have."


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

More Crackpot Stuff

... in this case, unfortunately, the U.S. Constitution. What happens if there's a tie in the Electoral College?

While We're Waiting ...

... for the returns to come in, let's see if there's any crackpot stuff we've missed.

This one is a few months old, but is new to me.  A Republican candidate for state senate decided she would withdraw from the race to pursue leadership in "an alternate form of government." Make sure you read her resignation letter. Awesome.


Nate Silver now has Obama's chance of winning at 91.6%.  Romney's at 8.4%.

The Princeton Election Consortium gives Obama 332 electoral votes (270 required to win).

Why am I still worried?

Oh, yeah. Polls don't vote.

Monday, November 05, 2012

It Was Fun

As we prepare for our nail-biting tomorrow night, maybe we should take a moment to thank the GOP for the good laughs they've given America during the campaign, while pretending to be a party of serious people.

There was "Oops!"

And Herman Cain's "I Am America" commercial.

Newt's Moon Colony!

Binders full of Women!

Paul Ryan's beefcake photos!

And so much more.

Really, you owe it to yourself to watch the Oops! video again.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Sounds Good

The Princeton Election Consortium, a creation of Princeton University academics (particularly Professor Sam Wang, whose concentrations are biophysics and neuroscience), is a liberal poll aggregate site. They are good at arithmetic, and did a great job in 2008.

Their banner today reads:

"Probability of Obama re-election: Random Drift 98.2%, Bayesian Prediction 99.8%"

I have no idea what Random Drift and Bayesian Prediction are, but I think these might be good numbers.

On a level that I can understand, Wang says,
A few days ago, the word was that Team Romney was buying ads in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. If he wins either of those states I will eat a bug. Ohio…a really big bug. And yes, I will post a photo.
Now THAT's science I can believe in.


I was shocked to see that Nate Silver has been physically attacked at the NY Times.

Pre-Election Sunday

  • In a post yesterday, the question was raised whether New York is really a safe Obama state. The reasoning was that the Democratic vote is concentrated in New York City, where it is likely a lot of people are not going to vote because of the devastation there. There are certainly Democrats upstate, but upstate the GOP is more competitive.
Today, anecdotal evidence arrives that the GOP Super PACs may have the same idea: A Talking Points Memo correspondent writes: "Yesterday I saw multiple airings of ads by Crossroads and Restore our Future in the Buffalo media market. It does contain two PA counties, McKean and Potter, but they are small counties with only about 35,000 and 2-1 Republican enrollment. At the approximately $75,000 cost for 1000 points in the Buffalo market, that is some extremely inefficient spending."
But on further reflection, it just seems too far-fetched to be possible. In 2008 Obama carried New York by more than 2 million votes out of 7.6 million cast. Although the GOP is more competitive upstate, that is mostly in counties that have very small populations. And Staten Island, which was plastered by Hurricane Sandy, was strongly for McCain in the last election. So, it looks like New York is still a safe Obama state.
  • After about 30 years of giving a poly sci major's defense of the Electoral College, I've had enough. This concentration of everything in the swing states is really hurting us as a country.  The last candidate to campaign in every state was Richard Nixon in 1960. Even at the time, his campaign managers were telling him he was nuts. He lost a close election. Since then, it's all been about electoral votes, and I think that's been a major factor in the increasing divisiveness of politics.
  • Romney folks are saying that if he loses, it's because of Hurricane Sandy. At least, that's the excuse they'll be giving all those big check-writers. But you know, they might win. Commentors on the linked story question why the "Christian" right sees God's hand in Hurricane Sandy striking New York "Sodom" City, but not in the storm making it harder for Romney to win. We'll see.
  • Steve Benen has an interesting take on Obama's "Don't boo. Vote. Voting is the best revenge." comment that was referenced here yesterday:
The entire line of attack seems rather sad -- it's more forced than sincere -- but the larger takeaway is that the Romney campaign has spent months chasing after every shiny object that catches their eye.
This campaign is going to be about "the private sector is doing fine"! Wait, scratch that, it's going to be about "you didn't build that"! Oh, actually, on second thought, it's going to be about the "redistribution" quote from 1998! Hold on, now it's going to be about "you can't change Washington from the inside"! On second thought, it's going to be about "not optimal"! No, wait, it's going to be about characterizing developments in the Middle East as "bumps in the road"!
This is precisely why I've compared Team Romney to small children playing soccer, running wildly to wherever they see a bouncing ball, whether it's strategically wise or not. There's certainly nothing wrong with a campaign taking advantage of new opportunities, but haphazardly shifting from one out-of-context sound bite to another is evidence of an unfocused candidate in search of an effective message.
Oops, the Bears game has started.

Saturday, November 03, 2012


Is this an appeal to racism on Romney's part?

Oh, yeah!

Was that a bad thing for Obama to say, serving it up on a silver platter like that?

Oh, yeah!

If you haven't seen many of Obama's campaign speeches this year, "Don't boo! Vote!" has been his standard response to audience expressions of disapproval.  Even if you haven't seen any, you know that "[Insert word here] is best revenge!" is an innocuous, ubiquitous phrase.

Oh well. I guess this is the only thing left in Romney's quiver. As with other foaming appeals, I think it appeals only to the ones who already support him.

Obama's International Support

The BBC has conducted polls on the American election worldwide. The results: Pakistan is strong for Romney.

Nobody else, though.

Romney's Climate Change Joke

Via Crooks & Liars:

Saturday Morning Pick-and-Choose

  • Nate Silver says, "President Obama is now better than a 4-in-5 favorite to win the Electoral College, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast. His chances of winning it increased to 83.7 percent on Friday, his highest figure since the Denver debate and improved from 80.8 percent on Thursday. ... Friday’s polling should make it easy to discern why Mr. Obama has the Electoral College advantage. There were 22 polls of swing states published Friday. Of these, Mr. Obama led in 19 polls, and two showed a tie. Mitt Romney led in just one of the surveys, a Mason-Dixon poll of Florida."
  • Chicago Ted pointed me to a good video that explains why Obama supporters should be hopeful about winning this thing.
  • Nate Cohn envisions an election night nightmare.  "In most eastern states, the overwhelming majority of votes are counted by the end of Election Night, since only a small share of absentee or overseas ballots arrive after the election. But elections in Washington and Oregon are now conducted entirely by mail and 41 percent of California voters voted by mail in 2008. In some states, ballots only need to be postmarked by Election Day and it can take days before all of the votes arrive and weeks before they get counted, usually in modest batches once or twice a day."
  • I laughed: Ed Kilgore recalls that someone tweeted that Romney's new efforts in Pennsylvania, which he had ignored until this week, amounted to an "onside kick."
  • Is anyone concerned about the effect of Hurricane Sandy on the reliability of New York as an Obama state? New York City is heavily democratic; Upstate New York, not so much. If the city can't or doesn't get to the polls, could 29 electoral votes go to Romney?
  • A good friend writes:  
I'm so worried that Jim Oberweis will finally be able to buy his very own state election that I have been walking door to door in my own neighborhood, asking people to vote for Corinne Pierog.  This is a hard sell in the land of zygotes=humans.  But, to my surprise, I have underestimated my neighbors' innate civility.  Almost everyone, in fact, everyone has been quite polite to me. 
Except there was Mike, who told me I was worrying about all the wrong stuff and dared me to google "UN Agenda 21".  Mike is the embodiment of an oxymoron.  He's a handicapped, disgruntled engineer who works for the EPA, with a seething dislike for all government.  I responded that he might like to read "What's the Matter with Kansas?".   To which, he carefully wrote down the title, author and the estimated download price of $9.99.

I get around.
You go, girl! 
  • Chip sends an article about Obama's wild spending. NOT! As hard as it is for some people to believe, Obama is the moderate in this race.
  • Speaking of which, the argument for Romney's election that is most popular with Republicans who are not actually foaming at the mouth seems to be this:  
    The Republicans in the House of Represenatives are absolute lunatics. If Obama is reelected, it will be like throwing meat to hyenas.  They would rather bring this country crashing down than cooperate with Obama. Only Romney has a chance of getting anything done.
    You think I'm kidding? 
Here's David Frum:
"The congressional Republicans have shown themselves a destructive and irrational force in American politics. But we won't reform the congressional GOP by re-electing President Obama. If anything, an Obama re-election will not only aggravate the extremism of the congressional GOP, but also empower them: an Obama re-election raises the odds in favor of big sixth-year sweep for the congressional GOP — and very possibly a seventh-year impeachment."
    Here's David Brooks, who sees advantage in Romney's "shape-shifting nature."
    Using this logic, we can only assume these guys would have supported John C. Breckinridge over  Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
  • There is an incredible, embarrassing whine coming out of the Republican columnists that Obama has run a very negative campaign. This is hilarious coming from the party of Willie Horton and the Swift Boat Liars. It will make them feel better about being petulant, though, so they like it.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Oh! Well, then ...

I've always liked Businessweek, now called Bloomberg Businessweek, their recent design changes notwithstanding. Back when "serious people" were falling for the "Social Security sky is falling!" nonsense, Businessweek got the story straight.

I'm thrilled with their new cover, and can't wait for it to show up on my doorstep:

I once had a subscription to The Economist, too, but they lost me when they endorsed Dubya for a second term. Today they endorsed Obama. (Yawn.)

Two Thousand Words

[This photo juxtaposition was posted by someone else to my Facebook page, which I actually visited today. The idea/realization is not original to me.]


  • Maureen Dowd thinks New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's praise of President Obama in the wake of this week's storm is carefully calculated to improve his (i.e., Christie's) Presidential chances. An interesting argument, but I don't see how it improves his chances in a Republican Party dominated by wackos.
  • For example, Gail Collins writes this morning that "Mitt is bringing half the Republican Party to Ohio on Friday to kick off the new 'Romney-Ryan Real Recovery Road Rally.' Everybody’s coming — Ann, the sons, Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan’s wife who we have yet to actually meet, Rudy Giuliani, a couple of Olympic medalists and pretty much every Republican elected official except He Who Must Not Be Named in New Jersey."
  • How calculated is Christie's chumminess with Obama? If he changes his tune before the election, and loudly proclaims that Obama has dropped the ball, he might recover his creds with the science deniers.
  • The "Emergency Committee for Israel," whose "board" consists of William Kristol, Gary Bauer, and a third person, is robocalling a "debate" between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  The Washington Post's Fact Checker says, "This is one of those days when we wish we were not limited to just Four Pinocchios." Personal opinion: the "Emergency Committee for Israel" is doing Israel no favors with this crap.
  • George Will can be ignored again today. [No link given.]
  • The Washington Post does have a good editorial on the Texas attorney general's threats to arrest members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who want to observe the electoral process in that state. Texas continues to embarrass.
  • A Republican ad playing in Florida, in Spanish, links Obama with Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, and – steel yourself – Che Guevara, who died when Obama was 5 years old.
  • How does Obama's handling of the economy compare to Herbert Hoover's? Pretty darn well.
  • And I know you were wondering, "How does Obama's handling of devastating storms compare to Grover Cleveland's?" Turns out the answer is, "Pretty darn well".