Sunday, March 31, 2013

There are Still Reasonable People

The NY Times has an excellent editorial this morning about Social Security. The best take-away paragraphs:
Social Security reforms should be decided separately because the program is not driving the deficit. That distinction goes to chronic revenue shortfalls and rising health costs that propel spending on Medicare and Medicaid. Social Security did not cause today’s deficits, because the payroll taxes that support it have been more than adequate; and it will not contribute to future debt, because it is barred from spending more than it takes in.
The reason Social Security is wrapped up in the political budget debate is that government deficit projections assume Social Security will always pay promised benefits in full, even though the system is expected to run short in 20 years. That shortfall is reflected in deficit projections, so reducing it would improve the budget outlook.  [My emphasis.]
HOW SHOULD SOCIAL SECURITY BE REFORMED? The drive to cut the COLA [Cost of Living Adjustment] is based on the premise that the inflation gauge used to compute the adjustment overstates the rising cost of living. That is a flawed premise. A good case can be made that the gauge is an inaccurate way to track inflation for working-age people, but there is no empirical evidence that it overstates inflation among retirees, who tend to spend more on health care and other necessities for which there are few, if any, cheaper substitutes.
To ensure that the system is paying proper COLAs, Congress should instruct the Bureau of Labor Statistics to develop a statistically rigorous index of inflation among retirees. Until that is done, cutting the COLA on grounds that it is too large would be unjustified and disingenuous.
The editorial also proposes raising the payroll tax rate by 1%, phased in over the next 20 years, and raising the taxable income base from the current $113,700 to $200,000.

I have been a supporter of changing the COLA computation method (referred to by the Times as "reducing the COLA" because that is what it would probably do), but only because of arguments that it actually overstated inflation for retirees. The Times' suggestion that the Bureau of Labor Statistics develop a new computation method specifically for retirees is the best way to address this issue.

I am not so sanguine about the Times' other proposals. Raising the payroll tax by 1% will hurt low-income workers, even if the pain is eased in over 20 years.

And why stop at $200,000 when raising the taxable income base? Very wealthy people have options for reporting their income that protects it from the payroll tax (See: Romney, Mitt). Raising the taxable income base will send more of them scurrying for their tax shelters. But this is an issue for tax reform.

But for what's worth, I applaud the Times for being reasonable – i.e., governed by or being in accordance with reason – a quality not often found in this discussion.

Friday, March 22, 2013

More on Cyprus

Via Paul Krugman, who quotes Paul Murphy at the Financial Times:
Big depositors in Cypriot banks stand to lose circa 40 per cent of their money here, which has drawn plenty of fury and veiled threats from Russia.
But what exactly can the Russians do about this? Sell euros? Tear up double taxation agreements? Murder Cypriot bankers? Medvedev and co could not have played a worse hand during this crisis — and it’s not immediately clear why.
Cyprus now has a binary choice: become a gimp state for Russian gangsta finance, or turn fully towards Europe, close down much of its shady banking sector and rebuild its economy on something more sustainable.
The choice is obvious.

A Morning Smile

Emily and I saw Leonard Cohen's Chicago show a couple of weeks ago. Emily said she "liked him a lot better after seeing him live."


Here's a very short (1 min.) talking segment from his show a few years ago. You will not be suicidal after hearing it, I promise.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Obama in Israel

I haven't found an English language Palestinian newspaper, but when something interesting is happening in the Middle East, I often drop by the web site of the Tel Aviv newspaper, Haaretz.  In addition to Israeli news and editorial content, Haaretz often has fairly good coverage of Palestinian reactions to issues of the day.

It's where I found this video. It's makers got tickets to Obama's speech.

A silly thing, but what the heck. I've certainly seen worse (see Anybody Surprised by This?, below).

There's an interesting article on Palestinian reaction to Obama's speech.

Most people wish the Middle East would just go away, I think. But if you're interested, Haaretz is a good place to get another perspective.

Musical Interlude – Bach

In commemoration of Bach's birthday, the Air in G performed by the Swingle Singers:

As one commenter said, "Can't you hear that wafting from an open dorm window on a warm and breezy summer night?"

Copied and pasted from YouTube with some modifications:
The Swingle Singers are a mostly a cappella vocal group formed in 1962 in Paris, France[,] with Ward Swingle, Anne Germain, Jeanette Baucomont[,] and Jean Cussac. Christiane Legrand, the sister of composer Michel Legrand, was the lead soprano in the original French group. There are a total of eight members in the group: two sopranos, two altos, two tenors[,] and two basses. In 1973, the original French group disbanded and Ward Swingle moved to London and re-formed the group with new members as Swingle II. They would later perform and record under the name The Swingles[,] and then[] The New Swingle Singers[,] and eventually, simply, The Swingle Singers. Since the London group's incarnation, the group has never disbanded. Members have come and gone and the other members have re-auditioned for the voice part that has left.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Anybody Surprised by This?

Turns out the president of the Houston-area Greater Fort Bend County Tea Party was "director of propaganda" for the American Fascist Party.
“From my point of view, it was all pro-Constitution, pro-America,” Ives said of the group, which appears to be defunct. 
“I never did anything,” he added. “There really weren’t enough people involved to be a gathering, let alone a rally. It was basically a scattering of people across the continent just complaining.” He said he believed he’d uncovered an underground cabal — and decided to stick around to do research for a “political novel of intrigue.”
“I thought, ‘I can blow the lid off of this. … I can go inside and find out what’s going on,’” Ives said.
Ives never wrote a novel. He did write a range of posts on the party’s Yahoo message board, communicating with his fellow “blackshirts” and the party’s chief organizer, a man who identified himself as the “Glorious Leader.
In one post, he channeled Benito Mussolini, the World War II-era Italian dictator and founder of that country’s National Fascist Party, saying building up the fascist movement in America was “our spirit, our calling.”
“It will be our greatest challenge, and our sweetest victory, to finally surpass this dark menace, this numbing threat from the shadows, and replace it with the pure sunbeam that is our Fascist Faith, our Fascist Truth,” he wrote.
In another post, he blasts a fellow commenter’s racist remarks, saying such members of the party make “the return of Fascist Faith to the pantheon of accepted beliefs that much more difficult.”
“Tell me what I can do in Texas for you and I will try my utmost to comply,” Ives added, signing off, “your honor-bound comrade.”
As director of propaganda, Ives produced this swell video:

"From my point of view, it was all pro-Constitution, pro-America."

Yeah, this guy's tailor-made for the Tea Party.

Rubio's Problem

One of the least wacko (a very low bar) of the GOP's stable of rising stars is Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Because his parents were Cuban (I want to see his birth certificate! The long-form one!), the Republicans hope he will have creds with the Hispanic community and improve the GOP's dismal showing there.

David Axelrod, in an interview quoted at The Hill, points to one of the problems with that:
"I recently saw the Hispanic Republican senator, Marco Rubio, on television," Axelrod said in the interview, released Friday. "Earlier that day he had been one of the 20 to vote against the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate. It is hard for me to see how someone gets elected as the president of the United States making those votes, but also hard for me to see how someone wins the Republican nomination without making those votes."
In other words, if you're crazy enough to win the Republican nomination, you're too crazy to win the general election. That sounds right.

The Hill article goes on to quote Rubio's justification for voting against the Violence Against Women Act:
Rubio was one of 22 Republican senators that voted against the VAWA reauthorization in February. Rubio objected to the final bill because, he said, it "would mandate the diversion of a portion of funding from domestic violence programs to sexual assault programs, although there’s no evidence to suggest this shift will result in a greater number of convictions."
You think maybe he's trying to sound like he was for it, even though he voted against it? On the right-wing score cards he gets a plus for voting against it, but he can tell the ladies it was because of a technicality.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Day I Took a Gun to School

I can't remember if Mrs. Kahwaty taught my English class in the 10th or 11th grade.

I know I had Mr. Engsberg senior year. You should have heard him recite Polonius's famous speech to Hamlet, the one with "neither a borrower nor a lender be," and "to thine own self be true." It was hilarious. Either Shakespeare or Mr. Engsberg was a very funny man.

And I also had Mr. Rieck one year. I think it was Mr. Rieck in 10th grade, Miss Kahwaty in 11th.

Yes, that's right. It only matters because I want to put a year on this.

Our assignment from Mrs. Kahwaty (who was something of a dish, by the way) was to memorize a poem, then recite the poem to the class. But we couldn't just recite it, we had to make a theatrical presentation out of it. Having recently read Jude the Obscure ("Done because we are too menny" still sends a shiver down my spine), I knew Thomas Hardy wrote poetry, and went looking for something of his I could act out.

I read as few poems as I could before settling on The Man He Killed, a poem about World War I.

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin! [This means "we could have had a beer together."]

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.

Perfect! It was about war and drinking! And it was not so short as to make Mrs. Kahwaty think I was trying to get away with something.

So: what I obviously needed to do was make some effort to suggest, while reciting the poem, that I was a soldier.

In our basement was just the thing: a bolt-action .22 rifle which belonged to my eldest brother, who during high school was the terror of all tin cans south of the Mason-Dixon line. The gun had sat in our basement – rarely touched – for years in the company of a World War I-era rifle and a pre-Civil War Colt revolver.  Every once in a while I'd pick up one of the rifles and "fire" it, without ammunition, but that gets old fast.

A bolt-action .22
Why not take the .22 to English class and use it as a prop? What could be easier? I had this all worked out.

The day of my presentation, I grabbed my books and the rifle and headed for high school, about six blocks away. Arriving at the usual time, with several hundred other students, I carried the rifle into school, through the crowded halls, and put it in my locker. When fourth period came along I went back to the locker, took it out, and headed to Miss Kahwaty's class.

Sandy Scheiber came first. He could get his legs into a lotus position, so he dressed like a yogi and did something from Allen Ginsberg.

Then it was my turn.

My presentation was masterful. I wrapped a white rag around my head, to suggest I was wounded. I explained beforehand what "wetting a nipperkin" meant. At one point, I dramatically operated the bolt and pulled the trigger – pointing at the floor, of course. It was all over pretty quickly.

After class the rifle went back to my locker, and at the end of the school day I carried it back home.

Nobody ever challenged me. Nobody ever suggested that I shouldn't bring a gun into school.

This was in 1965 or the first half of 1966, at the latest. JFK had already been murdered with a mail order rifle. On August 1, 1966, a man named Charles Joseph Whitman shot and killed 15 people and wounded 32 others, most of them from the observation deck of a tower on the Austin campus of the University of Texas. It was, I think, the first mass shooting at a school in American history. Everyone correctly thought it was really terrible and strange, but I don't think anybody thought it was a new trend.

Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, and George C. Wallace wouldn't be shot until 1968.

The National Rifle Association, which then supported responsible actions to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics, had not yet become lunatics themselves.

It was a different time.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Uh-oh. Bank Holidays

Well, maybe you woke up Monday morning to find the world's financial system in complete chaos. I sure hope not.

Kevin Drum has the clearest explanation you will find:
Cyprus was basically an offshore banking haven for Russian plutocrats, so it grew to gargantuan proportions compared to the size of the country. If it had failed, the entire country would have imploded. That's bad. On the other hand, no one really felt like spending a trainload of EU taxpayer money to prop up a bunch of Russian oligarchs. That would be bad too. So the EU's politicos wanted to make the oligarchs pay a price for being rescued.
How about, say, a one-time tax of 10 percent of their deposits? Sold! But then the EU went further, imposing a one-time tax of 6.75 percent even on small accounts. Small insured accounts. This means that having an insured bank account no longer means bupkis in the EU. [My emphasis.]
So now the question becomes: Is Cyprus unique? Or, more precisely, can ordinary depositors and big investors be persuaded that Cyprus is unique? Because if they can't, then they're going to start pulling their money out of Spanish and Greek and Italian and Portuguese banks. And that would be very, very bad. It would turn the slow-motion bank runs of the past few years into the honest-to-God, high-speed, economy-ruining kind of bank runs.
And it all depends on whether everyone can be hypnotized into thinking that Cyprus really is unique. Tune in tomorrow to find out.
The NY Times updates:
On Sunday, it was clear that a majority of Cyprus’s 56 lawmakers would not approve the terms of the bailout, which would lead to a likely loss of the rescue money that Cyprus so desperately needs.
The government extended a bank holiday it had imposed over the weekend, meaning banks will not open Tuesday as planned. There was talk that they might not open Wednesday, either.
...[I]t is one thing to wipe out bond investors and quite another to force a loss on bank depositors, including Cypriot savers who had their deposits insured and, like people all over the world, had the impression that a government-backed savings account was inviolable.
This is the first time depositors have taken a loss in a euro-zone rescue, said Adam Lerrick, a sovereign debt expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who has long argued that debt-heavy countries in Europe must make private investors, including bank depositors if need be, share the cost of bank bailouts. “It prevented the insolvency from being transferred from the banking system to the government,” he said.
While such a notion may please the financial hard-liners, it carries significant financial risks.
Indeed, as many stunned Cypriots rushed to A.T.M.’s to remove their savings, Europe had to confront the prospect that savers in Spain and particularly in Italy — where cash-poor banks have been hit hard by loan losses — would do the same.
Haven't I heard this story somewhere before?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

How Would This Look on My Kitchen Counter?

I've been gradually cleaning out the house, in anticipation of selling it in the next 6 months or so. One of the things I had to tackle was my wine cellar.

My wine cellar easily held 100-125 bottles of wine, and at one time it was pretty full. Problem is, I don't drink wine fast enough, and lots of the bottles got too old to drink. So they sat there. I had $5.99 bottles from 1978.

Last week, I started opening the bottles and pouring them down the sink. It was a dirty business.

I found that the bottle opener called an "ah-so" works best at getting out decayed old corks. And I sent a lot of lead to recycling. And I learned that a 1979 bottle of champagne still pops. And I found some bottles of a 1979 Pomerol from Clos L'Eglis, which was a wonderful bottle of wine – 20 years ago.

I figure that by the time I'm done, I'll have poured $500 worth of wine down the sink. (Not all my wine was under $10.)

So my plan is, in the future I'll limit my wine "cellar" to a rack on the kitchen counter, and not buy more wine than I can drink in a month. With that plan in mind, I went to Amazon, looking for a wine rack.

What do you think of this one?

The NRA Doesn't Want You to Know This

Just for the hallibut, I started poking around in 19th century newspapers to find out how people a little closer to the Founding Fathers felt about carrying concealed weapons. It was not an issue in the 18th century; as far as I know, it didn't even come up. Handguns were expensive and therefore rare. I suppose it's possible for a very tall man to mostly conceal a flintlock rifle, but it never really caught on.

Handguns were around, but didn't start to appear in significant numbers until Samuel Colt started successfully mass-producing them in the 1840's.

To read the papers, I went to the Library of Congress's catalog of online historic newspapers, Chronicling America. The catalog only goes back to 1836, and it would be nice to have gone back further, but because of paragraph two, it didn't really matter that much.

I performed a search on the phrase "concealed weapon," and asked the search engine to sort them by date.

The first reference that popped up was in an 1838 copy of the Bloomsburg, Penn., Columbia Democrat:

In 1853 the Hannibal (Mo.) Journal didn't think it was such a good idea.

This was the only article I found – though I am sure there are many more – which seemed to suggest that making carrying a concealed weapon illegal was a good move, and I include it for that very reason.

Here are some other articles I found. The Loudon Free Press, in Loudon, Tennessee; May 6, 1853:

1875, from Waco, Texas:


Also from Texas in 1879:

And lastly, 1889, Mayville, Ky.:

I will wager (though it could never be proved one way or another) that most or all of these writers owned guns of their own.

[The red highlights come with the web site. I haven't figured out how to turn them off at Chronicling America.]


An article from 1820!

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were still alive. Alexander Hamilton was not – he had been shot with a pistol.

The Right to be Forgotten

For persons interested in privacy issues in the age of Facebook and Google, I found this short post at The French Genealogy Blog to be provocative. The European Parliament is debating a measure intended to "strengthen on-line privacy rights" with something called the droit à l'oubli, or the right to be forgotten.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Then and Now

NBC has an interesting comparison of the scenes in St. Peter's Square in 2005, when Pope Benedict was announced, and 2013, when Pope Francis was announced.

 As they say, what a difference 8 years makes.

[You might need to enlarge the picture by clicking on it to understand what's going on.]

Monday, March 11, 2013

Wow! A Senator for the United States!

In retrospect, about the most bone-headed thing the banks did was pull out all the stops to keep Elizabeth Warren from becoming head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Since she couldn't get that, she decided to run for senator from Massachusetts – and won!

As head of the CFPB, she would have been subject to at least some political pressure from the President. As a Senator, she is the one applying the pressure. She made headlines a couple of months ago when she asked regulators when was the last time they took a fraud case to trial, instead of settling for a fine. [Nobody could remember such a case.]

Last Thursday, she was at it again, specifically targeting HSBC, which recently paid a $1.2 billion fine for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels and terrorists. Nobody went to jail. Nobody was even charged with a crime.

In her questioning of Treasury Department officials Thursday, she asked, "So, what would it take?"

At the conclusion, she summarizes:
If you’re caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you’re going to go to jail. If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life. But evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night — every single individual associated with this. I just — I think that’s fundamentally wrong.
Obviously, this is a shot across the bow not only of the banks, but of the Justice Department. They should start getting their answer ready.

H/T to Talking Points Memo for pointing me to the video.

Have Some Apocalypse with Your Coffee?

Neil de Grasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, discusses an asteroid named Apophis:
“It’s from the Egyptian god of death and destruction,” Dr. Tyson said. “It was named knowing that it crosses Earth’s orbit.” Otherwise, he said, “we would have named it something less threatening, like Tiffany or Bambi."
Scientists say it will fly uncomfortably close to us in 2029 and again in 2036 and yet again in 2068. Luck, Dr. Tyson is convinced, will not be forever on our side. “What is a certainty is that one day Apophis and Earth will collide,” he said. “So our goal should be, if the survival of our civilization is a concern and a priority, to find a way to deflect it.”
“We know how to do it,” he said, but he added this disheartened postscript: “There’s no funded plan to do so anywhere in the world.”

Friday, March 08, 2013

The GOP Think Tank

From Andrew Tobias:
Well this is exciting:
Global temperatures are warmer than at any time in at least 4,000 years, scientists reported Thursday, and over the coming decades are likely to surpass levels not seen on the planet since before the last ice age.
. . . Even if the temperature increase from human activity that is projected for later this century comes out on the low end of estimates, scientists said, the planet will be at least as warm as it was during the warmest periods of the modern geological era, known as the Holocene, and probably warmer than that.
. . . Dr. Mann pointed out that the early Holocene temperature increase was almost certainly slow, giving plants and creatures time to adjust. But he said the modern spike would probably threaten the survival of many species, in addition to putting severe stresses on human civilization.
To the extent there is anything to be concerned about here, I think the solution must lie in (a) simply denying it and (b) cutting tax rates on the very rich.

Very Nice

I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, but it's not meant to. Maybe you remember this one.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Update on Papal Voting Odds

In Papal Voting Odds, we saw that a Ghanaian cardinal named Peter Turkson was named by odds-makers to be the second most likely person to be chosen as the next Pope.

Well, the boys in Wacko-Land don't want anything to do with that! In an article titled Black Socialist Pope to Follow Black Socialist President?, a Fox News-like organization called Accuracy in Media sees another George Soros conspiracy in his candidacy.

The fact that all the socialist bishops and cardinals were sent to the rack in the past 40 years seems to have been lost on them.

Nick Hanauer

Surely you've seen this video of billionaire Nick Hanauer's TED talk about job creation:

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Indulge Me

Because I brag about them endlessly, most of my friends know I have four very talented nephews and two beautiful nieces (also very talented).

Three of the nephews are successful musicians! Two of them are brothers.

The brothers play in a band called Chromatics, which last October was the featured band at the Paris Chanel fashion show.  If I haven't yet forced you to watch the video of the fashion show, consider yourself forced now.

The cool video below gives a behind-the-scenes look their adventure. Adam plays guitar and his kid brother, Nat, plays drums. Other members of the band are Ruth, the singer, and Johnny on keyboards.

Meanwhile, nephew Jason Charles Miller has been taking giant steps in Nashville. I really like his song, You Get What You Pay For:

His latest is The Way You Still Want Me, with a video that's obviously an homage to Robert Palmer.


Papal Voting Odds

Okay, you saw it here first. Unless, of course, you read the FiveThirtyEight blog at the NY Times. Or Oddschecker dot com.

Here are the betting odds for who's going to be the next pope:

By the way, there are some interesting dark horses in the race: Oprah, Madonna, and Bono, for example.

The GOP Puts It's Best Minds Onto Global Warming

News item:
WASHINGTON — The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air jumped dramatically in 2012, making it very unlikely that global warming can be limited to another 2 degrees as many global leaders have hoped, new federal figures show.
But don't worry. The best minds of the Republican Party have checked it out, and there's nothing to fear.

There, now. Feel better?

Stewart on the Voting Rights Act

Still absolutely flummoxed by the "brilliant" Justice Scalia and beamish Chief Justice Roberts and their breathtakingly insipid arguments against the Voting Rights Act. Luckily, we have Jon Stewart:

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Wealth Inequality in America

My friend Harry linked to this video on that social medium place. It's really depressing to me, because I fear something is happening in America that is very much like climate change, and this video really feeds my fear.

Just as the climate seems to have reached a point where it's too late to do anything (we've screwed it up so much and for so long that it has now taken on a life of it's own [melting tundra and all that]), is it possible that wealth in America has become so unbalanced that a slide back into feudalism can't be stopped?

Americans have always been a people who believed in something called "progress." The course of history, we believed, was one of constant improvement of the human condition. Have we been naive?

Monday, March 04, 2013

Putting a Face on Racism in America

We're still trying to catch our breath after hearing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia describe Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as a "racial entitlement". It is such a stunning look into the mind of this man, described by some as "brilliant".

Then Chief Justice Roberts asked, “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?” Look at that face: the face of a man who got to be Supreme Court Chief Justice without knowing anything about American history. I'll bet nobody ever tried to take his vote away from him.

We were reading today about the abolition of slavery in British territories in 1833. Parliament voted £20 million, to be paid by British tax-payers, as compensation to the former slave owners. Now that's racial entitlement!

Time for a chuckle:

And here's a coarser chuckle about racial entitlement: