Monday, January 31, 2005

Republicans to America: You're Morons

There's a document floating around the Web, which Josh Marshall has up at, that it really funny. It's a 103-pagecongressional pamphlet, circulated among Republicans who want to privatize Social Security and there's a section called: "Communicating Social Security Reform" which tells you just what they think of us.

One tip: "Keep the numbers small: Your audience doesn't know how trillions and billions differ. They know these numbers are large, but not how large nor how many billions make a trillion. Boil the numbers down to "your family's share." Also avoid percentages; your audience will try to calculate them in their head -- no easy task while listening to a speech -- and many will do it incorrectly."

Then bounce your head from shoulder to shoulder, giggle and say "Math is hard!"

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Forbes on Fox Appearance... Iraq & Social Security

Hey gang,

I'll be on Forbes on Fox this Saturday, as part of a panel including Steve Forbes and legendary Forbes editor Jim Michaels. The topic, which I believe will be stated as if it's a fact is: "The Iraqi elections are a big win for Bush and will give him momentum to push through his domestic policies, especially his Social Security phase-out." Well, they will never call it a "Social Security phase-out" but that's what it is. I'll just be on that one segment, by the way, so if you watch and you see me and you don't want to watch any more, well, flip away because there will be no more me.

It sounds like it will be a political process argument. Bush gets elections in Iraq, all the anti-war folk lose face and have to back Bush's other agendas.

I don't know how much time I'll get to speak because I haven't been on a panel with Steve Forbes before. To be fair, Steve owns the company that's given me a good job and lets me get on TV to blabber in the first place, so don't expect me to be cutting him off.

But, here's the argument I hope to make tomorrow: The elections in Iraq are not an end, the violence won't stop and to claim they will bring peace is to be as naive to have claimed "Mission Accomplished" when Bush did that the first time. On the Social Security front, Bush can't even get the Iraq hawks in line. Republicans in the House and Senate like Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe are already on record as havin grave doubts about the Bush privatization proposal. In the end, the best Bush can hope for the Iraqi elections is that they don't spark a civil war and even if they go flawlessly, it's no help to him on Social Security -- he might never need to run for office again, but his allies in the House and Senate do.

Hopeully, I'll be able to condense that message and deliver it at the taping tomorrow. If I can't, you all need to let me know. A blog like this, and even the pages of Forbes, give me the space I need to elaborate my point of view. TV doesn't and yet TV is where I can have some impact.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Those damned Lesbian cartoons!

In the PBS series "Postcards from Buster" a bunny tours the United States and tells kids what life is like in different places. Unfortunately, Buster decided to drop by Vermont, where civil unions for same sex couples are legal. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings rather idiotically thinks that's wrong, because, paraphrases the Houston Chronicle "many parents would not want children exposed to such lifestyles."

Nobody ever asks how many parents would like their children exposed to the actual world, or whether those parents pay taxes that go towards the Education Secretary's bloated salary, or even if they have an opinion at all.

But, if Margie is so concerned about what "many parents would not want" I'd suggest she take a lot of stuff off of PBS. Let's start with William F. Buckley. Many parents probably don't want their kids exposed to a mush mouthed Yale accent. Oh, and nature shows. Many parents don't want their kids to watch bugs mating. And all British comedy. Many parents don't want their kids to grow up into Monty Python geeks like me -- seriously parents, you are hurting your kids' chances of getting laid in high school by exposing them to British comedy, the jokes from which they will repeat loudly in hallways just before being stuffed into their own lockers are people who are getting laid! And let's get rid of anything involving opera singer Pavoratti who teaches kids that it's cool to be way too heavy.

Thanks for being there, Margie. It's the job of the Education Secretary, after all, to get rid of things that people might not like. Like math!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Dubya's God Waffle

Guess Dubya had a week of spiritual introspection in January. He started out describing an unknowable God:

"I'm also mindful that man should never try to put words in God's mouth. I mean, we should never ascribe natural disasters or anything else, to God. We are in no way, shape, or form should a human being, play God."—President George W. Bush on ABC's 20/20, 1/14/05

BUT… a few days later, Dubya figured the “big guy” out:

“The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity," President George W. Bush, innaugural address, 1/20/05

Economic Mumbo Jumbo

It's amazing how arcane little terms can sometimes define a public policy debate and effect the lives of ordinary people. One component of budgetary and fiscal policy, from either the right or the left, is to control inflation so that a rising cost of goods doesn't decay living standards. Of course, to control inflation you have to measure it and the most popular tool is the Cinsumer Price Index, which basically tracks the prices of a bunch of consumer staples.

A few years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking what they call a "Chained CPI" which is a variation on the theme -- the chained CPI tries to monitor consumer behavior, not just prices. When prices for one thing go up, consumers tend to stop buying it and start buying cheaper items instead. Because the Chained CPI take this consumer behavior into account, it's measurement of inflation is lower than the plain vanilla CPI.

But, reread that. What's causing the consumer behavior measured by the chained CPI, anyway? Higher prices! See, if the price of steak goes up and I stop buying it and start buying hamburger, I am still a victim of inflation. In fact, inflation is doing just what we're supposed to fear by (if you'll accept for the moment that steak is just better than hamburger) forcing me to make decisions that result in a lower standard of living! It seems that all the "chained CPI" does is mask the importance of inflation which is its effect on living standards.

I'm bringing this up because a lot of convervative economists want to use the Chained-CPI, rather than the vanilla CPI as a trigger for increases in government spending. It's really just economic mumbo jumbo that makes inflation look lighter and will allow for convervatives to cut federal spending for programs that help ordinary Americans.

This also has a Social Security component. In Today's Wall Street Journal, Stanford economist Michael J. Boskin says that Social Security should "price instead of wage index" benefits. See, right now, Social Security is designed not to keep up with inflation, but with even faster growing living standards, as measured by average wages. This is important. Say you retire in 1980 and start taking out Social Security. If your checks only kept pace with inflation over the past 25 years, then you would basically be maintaining a 1980 standard of living in 2005! But Boskin thinks even that's too generous -- he wants to index social security to inflation and he thinks that inflation should be measured by the Chained CPI, not the vanilla one. As I said before, the Chained CPI claims there's no inflation because you stop buying expensive things and start buying crap. So under the Boskin plan, our retirees will simply fall further and further behind.

All because of a little academic debate that nobody's paying any attention to.

Friday, January 21, 2005

My Work Here is Done?

Um, E. Worthington just commented on my blog that, as a child, he was given only a potato skin for warmth because his father had sold the meat of the potato for cheap brandy. Now that I've inspirsed a comment like that... I may as well hang it up.

Just kidding! But to the reader Mern... are Americans lazy? Come back and tell me if you think they are. Everyone I know works damned hard, to the detriment, most of the time, of their personal goals and aspirations. Is that okay with you? I want to know more about your point of view. Mine is that the point of all of our technology, built on the back of the work of people like your grand parents, is supposed to INCREASE our leisure time. Instead, it's just increased expectations and given capitalism's owners an excuse not to pay a proper living wage to a lot of people. And, to me, if you get to live to be 100 -- working until 65 is about enough. If you want to work more, if it gives you meaning, fine. But is 45 years of personal time too much to ask, considering that we only get to live once?

Do our politicians, by the way, understand that we only get to live once? Because it seems to me that the policies that guide the world's economics (and make no mistake, it's policy first -- economics are just a way to measure policy results) are acting as if they're sure there's some sort of after life that will make things just in the end. Maybe, I guess. But policy should probably assume the one time trip, just in case.

By the way, Liberman might have drifted to the anti-privatization of social security camp. He said so on The Daily Show. We'll see if Joe-mentum keeps going in that direction.

And, finally, friends... do not discuss Bush's plan with any word other than "privatization" because that's what it is. Karl Rove decided, last year, that Bush backers shouldn't use the word, because it polls badly. They want to convince you there's a choice... you can "choose" to put "part" of your money in a private account. It's a lie. The only way they can pay for people to make that "choice" is to reduce the guaranteed benefits of the system. So... as soon as a few people make the privatization choice, they have to cut benefits for the rest. And then it becomes idiocy not to "choose" the private account. If somebody backs you into a wall with a gun to your left temple and says "Go right, I shoot you, go left, I don't..." you don't really have a choice between right and left.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Social Security Questions Nobody Discusses...

Do you think that Americans retire too early in life? How long should an American be required to work? How many years should exist between the end of work and death? Should that gap widen as our society evolves or do we want people to work until the last moment?

Aside from the private accounts Bush will push, politicians on both sides of the aisle will attempt to raise the age at which an American can claim social security benefits. This is, basically, a raising of the national retirement age. I'd love to see one of these people forced to say, in plain English, that Americans should work longer into their lives. I'd love to see the reaction to that.

It's amazing how much a topic like social security reveals about what people in Washington D.C. think about the rest of us.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Social Security Questions from JBuchanan and Adriana

JBuchanan asked: "I do have a question for you concerning the SS issue, and I hope the answer isn't obvious for everyone but me. What is the incentive for Bush and his Neo-Cons for the privitization of SS? Is it simply to push those funds into the private sector? Or is it just a stupid and agressive solution? I guess I feel that guy doesn't really do much unless it benefits the interests of himself and his friends."

My answer: The neocons and even many more traditional conservatives are philosophically biased towards putting funds into the private sector. Social Security is the most successful public good program the US has ever had. It's an example of how government can work well. Conservatives hate that notion because they hate government. The first shots were fired a long time ago, when Social Security was labelled an "entitlement" rather than what it really is: society fulfilling its obligation to individuals who have worked for decades and paid taxes and now want to retire.

One other motivation might be market manipulation. Adding social security money to the stock and bond markets will, at least temporarily, boost stock and bond prices and that will make their general economic approach seem like its working.

And, of course, somebody will have to manage the money once it reaches the market and somebody will have to perform all of the transactions and Wall Street firms don't do that for free, so, as with any privatization program, there are fat cats ready to get fatter.

Then Adriana asked:

"What do we do about it, that what I want to know? Is this something that will come to a vote, or are we already screwed?"

We are not screwed. Bush hasn't even formally proposed a plan yet. And, changing Social Security will have to be done through victories in the House and Senate. Sure, the Republicans have majorities in both, but remember -- Bush will never run for office again. The Republicans in the Senate and House will. Social Security used to be called "the third rail" of American politics, you touch it at your peril. has been creating lists of Senators and congresspeople who oppose Social Security privatization (he calls them the Conscience Coalition) and those who support it (he calls them the Faint-hearted Faction.) People are crossing party lines. Joe Lieberman, for example, is taking Bush's side. There are plenty of Republicans against him, though. As Princess Leia said to Han Solo, "It's not over yet."

Thursday, January 13, 2005

A Big Social Security Lie to Watch Out For

One way that the Bushie's will sell their attack on Social Security will be to make their plan seem less radical than it is. They'll start by saying that the private accounts are voluntary for most, if not all workers. If you don't like or trust a private account invested in the stock market, you can just keep the old plan instead. Don't fall for this.

The creation of private accounts will, after all, cost money, that will be funded with debt from the US Treasury. Someday, the debt will have to be paid off. The only way to do this is to reduce Social Security expenditures down the line. Now, if you have a private account, the logic goes, you won't have to worry about that because your private account will more than offset the cuts they'll have to make in the rest of the program. You'll be fine.

But what if you choose not to have a private account? Well, here's the current social security cutting plan: currently, your social security payments increase as you live on in your retirement. They increase based on a formula that is wedded to average wage growth across the country. The moral behind that is that your retirement payments should at least sort of keep up with the wages of those around you since the wages of those around you determine your standard of living. Under some new plans, the increases will no longer be tied to wages but to the Consumer Price Index. The CPI grows more slowly than wages and it leaves a lot out (mass transit fares were hiked? The CPI doesn't reflect that...) The CPI is a common indicator of inflation. So, rather than keeping up with the standard of living, social security will keep up with inflation. To give you an idea of how assinine and cruel this is... say you retired in 1980 and your retirement wages have been indexed exactly to inflation since then. Your standard of living, in 2005, would be... a 1980 standard of living.

If you choose the private account option, maybe you don't care so much. Maybe. But what happens if you retire when the bond and stock markets are in turmoil? Do you have to wait? How long do you have to wait? Look at the Dow... it has just barely, 5 years since the market crash, recovered to its former levels. Look at the Nasdaq... it is still at half the level it once was, 5 years later!

And, the private account is a fixed sum of money that you have to live on until you die. It doesn't guaranty, as Social Security currently does, payments that will increase over time in order to make sure that you hav a chance to keep up with the increasing standard of living.

At the root of this debate is what we're owed for working our entire lives. I don't think that a proper, guaranteed retirement is too much to ask. Bush does. He doesn't think you're owed anything. And that's what you get for not being born rich.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Social Security in Crisis

Just a quick post to break the hiatus.

The President's big argument in 2005 will be that the social security system is in crisis. He'll try to save the ship by scuttling it, in favor of private accounts. And, no, those private accounts won't be "optional" because he'll pay for the transition to them by cutting the guaranteed benefits of already inherent in the system.

The question to ask yourself is: is social security really in crisis? You can't take the President's word for it. After all, this is the guy who told us that Iraq was a threat to the U.S. I'm not going to call the guy a liar here, let's just say that the situation as he sees is always one that supports the policies he wants to put in place.

There's no looming crises here. The social security trust fund has money to last it another 75 years, and that's assuming our economy grows more slowly than it has historically. People keep pointing to 2030 as the the breaking point for the system. Really, that's only the point where the amount of money going out will start to exceed the amount coming in. That's not good. But, this is a huge program, so it can survive for decades after that, even in that situation. I'm not saying it should. I'm just saying that the government isn't going to start bouncing checks to retirees in 2030.

Is there a problem? Of course there is. But how radical a solution do we need? There was a problem in Iraq, too. The most radical solution -- war, is the one we used to solve it. But it wasn't necessary. The most radical solution to the social security problem is to tear the system down and replace it with private accounts. It's not the only solution out there. What I'm not hearing from Democrats, though, are any ideas to counter Bush's. One way he'll win this debate is by being the only person with a solution on the table. In a lot of ways, that's how Bush won the most recent election. So, what Democrat out there has the guts to stand up an offer an alternative. Mr. Kerry? Seriously, man, you're never going to be President, so... step up to the plate here.