Saturday, April 30, 2005

Where Social Security Stands

So, a lot of things I've been writing about have come to pass in terms of Social Security. I'm not bragging, mind you. A lot of these things are no-brainers. But, I guess now's a good time to take stock of where we are.

Good news: Bush's private account plan is unpopular both with the public and with congress.

Bad news: It doesn't matter to Bush. He's trying to create the illusion of choice, not actual choice and he's setting up a debate that ends with people supporting private accounts, grudgingly or not.

Why this has happened: Remember everybody saying that Bush made a real blunder by saying that private accounts did nothing to make Social Security solvent? I know I snickered. Guess I'm not as clever as Bush.

He put the private accounts idea on the table and then said it didn't solve the problem. On Thursday, he offered a solution to the Social Security problem that involves cutting benefits for anybody who makes over $20,000 a year (yes, Bush has declared us all wealthy -- enjoy) and keeping them the same for anyone who makes under $20,000 a year.

That's probably not going to be too popular either. Telling voters who make $20,000 a year or more that they'll have to get by with less isn't something congress people will want to do. Of course, they're not saying it the way I said it. They're saying that they're "slowing the rate of the growth in benefits for the wealthy" and that they're "giving greater benefits to the poor." Note that when they say "greater benefits to the poor" they mean "greater than what the rich get" and not "greater than what they get now." But, all of this language is deliberately confusing. What Bush's plan amounts to is an across the board cut in Social Security benefits. What he wants you to think it amounts to is the country banding together and making a minor sacrifice to help the poor. I think it's possible that folks will fall for Bush's line. So, say Bush wins on this Social Security fix.

Problem solved?

Kind of. Except that everybody who made over $20,000 a year will quickly realize that they just cut their own Social Security benefits. Now what are they going to do?

Voluntary private accounts! But, do they really have a choice?

See, a debate that should be about the merits of our current system vs. the merits of a private system has been warped. Bush says private accounts are a "choice" but they're not a choice between social security as it is now and something else. Bush is going to make you love priavte accounts by making them the only option for getting back the money he's going to cut from the regular system.

In the end, you will choose to have a private account. And, since your Social Security benefits have been reduced, the account won't do anything for you but hopefully get you to the level of benefits promised in the first place.

But, hey, what more do you want? You make over $20,000 a year, you're rich anyway!

This is a convoluted post, but it expresses the rhetorical gymnastics of the anti-Social Security crowd and how they got us here.

This is Bush's gambit -- can he trick the electorate into letting him slash Social Security benefits and then make them run to private accounts to make up the short fall?

He can probably pull it off. Bush is not a man to misunderestimate.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Bonds... bonds... bonds...

From the same Washington Post article about the President's speech:

"To pacify those worried about the risk associated with investment, the president, for the first time, said one of the investment options should be no-risk Treasury bonds."

You know, the same bonds that are in the worthless Social Security trust fund:

"The Social Security Administration calculates that the system will deplete its reserve of Treasury bonds by 2041, after which it will be able to pay out in benefits only what it receives in taxes."

So, now the President believes, as he should, that Treasury bonds are a no-risk investment. So, I guess we can finally agree that the Social Security Trust Fund actually exists.

Took long enough.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

What should bloggers disclose?

In recent months it's been revealed that candidates and special interests from both sides of the political aisle have used paid bloggers to get their messages out. Often, who's paying is pretty apparent, of course... is a blog supported by and written by a Democratic Leadership Council staffer. There's nothing hidden there. It's a good blog and you know what you're getting when you go there, so... no problem.

The problem arises when bloggers that seem independent aren't.

Or, is it a problem?

There are folsk out there who would like to force bloggers to disclose such interests. If I started taking money from the National Rifle Association, for example, I should tell you, right? Well, ethically, I should. But, should I be required to, by law?

This post at Atrios makes an interesting argument that I shouldn't. Atrios argues that TV pundits, who are often political consultants, don't have to disclose who they're working for. In fact, most consultants, be they business or political, won't tell you who their clients are unless they're doing incredibly public work. There's some good reason for this. Say your campaign is in trouble and you want James Carville to fix it, behind the scenes, real quiet like. You don't want to tell the world your campaign is in trouble and telling everyone that you hired Carville would do that. So, you ask that the relationship be confidential. In my experience, in business and politics, consultants never reveal their clients without permission. It just isn't done.

But nobody's arguing that these guys on TV should have to reveal who they're working for. Until they do, I say that bloggers shouldn't have to reveal their funding sources either. They should, of course, but I don't think they should be required to.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Gun Control and Democrats

Many of my friends who read this blog are, at best, ambivalent about the issue of gun control. It's not an issue that gets me going, either. The reason is that most of the people I'm closest with were raised either in a rural or semirural environment. There was a lot of space between people. I grew up with guns and frequent outings to the countryside with my dad, where we blew the heck out of refuse that had been left in the desert. As New Mexico has become more developed, those trips to the desert became trips to a shooting range and unloading on a target with the wildly inaccurate 38 snub nosed special that my grandfather carried as a sidearm while a member of the Albuquerque Police Department. Good times. Also, last time I hit New Mexico I visited two friends who live in the mountains and have built an arsenal that can't possibly have a non-military purpose, but, again, no harm done... they're not crazy and girls look cute when they're showing off their pump-handle shotguns. It's a western thing. Or, it's a country thing.

It's not the same in New York where the population density is so high. Sure, one could argue that you need the protection here (it'd be a false argument, New York is perfectly safe) but, even if that were true, stopping an apartment break-in with a gun is just a recipe for shooting the person who lives upstairs.

I'm basically a regionalist on gun control. New York City's strict gun laws make sense and New Mexico's more liberal gun laws also make sense. Seems the Democrats are realizing this, too. This could be a good thing. If Democrats want to better appeal to rural voters, they need to support rural voters making, and living by, some of their own laws. Gun ownership is a great point of compromise because I think even gun enthusiasts will acknowledge the rights of LA or NYC to have different laws than Santa Rosa, New Mexico. This seems like a point where the red state/blue state divide could find some common ground. I hope the Dems pursue it.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Where do you get your weather info?

I used to use, but... no longer. From now on, get your weather data here.

It's a government site an it's free to use and free from ads. It's the weather data that you pay the government to collect when you pay your taxes. And, the government makes that data available to you, for free! Great, isn't it?

Not if you're Republican Senator Rick Santorum. He's introduced a bill to make the government stop giving this data out. See... it competes with private companies who want you to either pay for this information or make you look at ads alongside it. You're probably cynically assuming that one of these companies is a Santorum campaign donor. You're right.

One way to make your voice heard on this minor, but oh so telling issue, is to get your weather data from the government site. Rack up those hits! And boycott sites that want to charge you for a darned weather forecast.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Penny Ante Ethics

One rhetorical trick used by mainstream ethicists is to make the rules for proper behavior in life seem simple. Call it the "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" approach. It sells books and posters and also makes it look like anybody who disagrees is just overthinking things. People like this, of course, because it absolves them from having to think. People who hate thinking really hate overthinking, after all.

Why am I prattling on about this?

Because of this email I received this morning:

"Even after the new bankruptcy bill is passed, debtors who file Chapter 7 will still have a moral obligation to repay creditors.

So says professional ethicist and syndicated columnist Dr. Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy.

Dr. Weinstein will show your readers why:

One makes a promise—a moral commitment--when one borrows money
That promise is not erased just because a law removes the responsibility to repay the debt
Debtors should let creditors know that they still intend to repay their debts even after bankruptcy is granted by the state."

Well, that sounds about right, doesn't it? It sounds as if the Ethics Guy has offered us a simple, moral lesson.

I thought about it for awhile. At first, I dashed off a quicky reply, pointing out that the bankruptcy bill makes it harder for consumers to have their debts forgiven by a court, so I didn't quite see the point of this argument at this time. Then, I thought about it a little more and realized that while this sounds good, it's completey wrong. Here's my reply:

"Take a consumer with a credit card, for example. The consumer has current needs but not the money to meet them. The consumer believes that future earnings will be enough to cover current purchases, so, they get a credit card.

The bank issuing the card examines the consumer's financial track record and decides that it can bear the risk of lending to this consumer. But, they don't take on this risk for free. To the bank, bearing risk is a service and it must be compensated. So, they charge interest and fees on whatever balance the consumer maintains and they ask for monthly payments of at least a minimum amount. The consumer pays fees monthly, for as long as they have a balance.

Now, let's say the consumer defaults and is, even under the new law, granted a bankruptcy that absolves them of this credit card debt... do they still have a moral obligation to pay the card company?

The answer is... clearly not. They did, after all, pay the credit card company to bear the risk of their own default. All of those interest payments and monthly fees were payment for a service, after all, and the bank provided that service, which is to bear the risk of lending money."

See, ethics is a complicated business, after all.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Time blows it with Bloomberg

The increasingly irrelevant Time magazine has declared Mike Bloomberg one of the top five mayors in America. News flash, the guy is polling approval ratings of just 46% right now and his approvals have been below 50% for much of his term. How can he be one of the top five mayors in America if his own citizens don't like him very much?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Thoughts on Hugo Chavez

Inspired by a comment from Gabe.

Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez has become somewhat of a darling figure to the American Left. I admire him in a lot of ways. But I think that some of the support for him is problematic.

Gabe's very good comment pointed out a few things that should be considered -- their is al oligarch controlled media in Venezuela that is angered by Chavez's populism. Chavez has, as Gabe said, tried to better share oil revenues with the people of Venezuela, many who live in dire poverty despite, in a circumstance that is all to familiar in world affairs, living on land that holds a valuable natural resource. The media, controlled by rich folks with oil interests, have been anti-Chavez in their coverage for years.

But. Chavez responded in the wrong way. He has shut down media outlets. He has censored broadcasts and publications and he's basically used the power of the state to chill free expression. See, if you believe in free speech, than even rich people get to speak freely. Admitting that the ooligrachs acted badly, you have to agree that Chavez responded badly, waging a war against expression that did him little good and that, ultimately, can't be won.

Chavez is unpopular in the US because he's friends with Castro. In fact, Cuba sends doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil so the two countries have a highly symbiotic relationship. Since we've never had a rational policy towards Castro, I don't expect the mainstream US to react well to this. But, again, this is Castro we're talking about. From what I've read, the arly Castro, the revolutionary Castro, was an admirable figure. He really did lead Cuba out of economic oppression. Problem is, and the US is partly to blame for this, Castro led his people right into another kind of oppression. Chavez either can't distinguish between the revolutionary and modern Castros, or, he's the kind of guy who, like Castro, will use any means to obtain a desired result. I worry that he's the latter.

Now, there were credible allegations of election fraud, including intimidation and ballot stuffing in Venezuela's last elections. Both Colin Powell and Jimmy Carter signed off on those elections as legitimate but, as time passed even they seemed to admit that there were eyebrow raising questions they hadn't considered. As Gabe said, our last two Presidential elections were far from perfect and I think there's a case to be made that Chavez enjoys the same popular support in Venezuela as any post Bush-I American President has.

See, there are lots of reasons not to villify the guy. I suspect that we would have better relationships with him if, as with past Venezueland leaders, Chavez cheated on OPEC oil prices. One of the big changes Chavez made, which has annoyed the US, is that he turned Venezuela from an OPEC cheat into an OPEC follower. In fact, back in 2000 I wrote an article for Forbes about an oil analyst who believed the price of oil would go up steadily, in part, due to Chavez's presidency.

But I'm really worried about the left making Chavez into another populist hero, to be tacked up on a dorm room wall next to the psychedelic Che poster... I'd warn people that there are signs that Chez is more committed to his own power than to any Democratic or populist ideal. Castro was the same way. The early Castro talked a good game and he got things done. But there was an transformation in Castro from populist to dictator. Might Chavez, at war with powerful forces in Venezuela, also turn down that path? Has he already turned a bit with his censorship of the media and his mistreatment of dissidents?

Human Rights Watch has frequently criticized Chavez for silencing Venezuela's media and for changing the laws so that he can pack the supreme court their with his allies. A human rights lawyer faces political persecution and prosecution for his alleged role in the 2002 coup against Chavez. I think we'd be foolish, at this point, to make a hero out of a man who doesn't pass muster with HRW.

This guy's history has not been written yet. A hostile US foreign policy could push Chavez to questionable extremes, just as our Cold War mindset once helped to turn Castro from a possible agent for progressive change into a power0hungry strongman.

But, for now, I advise looking on Chavez with a hopeful, but skeptical eye.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Rumsfeld's angry that Spain has sold weapons to Venezuela. Well, their President, Hugo Chavez, isn't on our list of favorites these days, as he cozies up to Cuba and has maybe only held onto his office via election fraud and brutally censoring dissidents and the media. But, at least we should remember that Chavez was elected and is popular with a good portion of the Venezuelan people.

Should we be angry at Spain for sending them weapons?

I don't know... maybe we should explain the arms sales we've made to Pakistan, first? Pakistan has an actual, unelected dictator at its helm, after all. And Pakistani society is more repressive than Venezuelan society. By any measure, Pakistan's government is worse than Venezuela's.

So maybe Spain should have the gripe with us, and not the other way around.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

And now for something else completely indifferent...

Charles and Camilla to wed!


Who cares?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Indifferent...

Who wrote the Republican "talking points" that reduced the Mary Schiavo case to a crass, wedge political opportunity? Oh, some guy who just resigned from the staff of Florida Senator Mel Martinez. Can you believe it? The Republicans were trying to win political points over the high profile death of that woman in Florida! Boy, I sure am glad that memo leaked because I just never could have figured out that's what was going on just from watching all the fervent posing on television.


Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Saul Bellow, RIP

Saul Bellow is dead at 89 years old.*

And Arthur Miller died so recently...

They were two writers who elevated the common struggle to the heights of classical tragedy. There really isn't much more to say than that -- except that it was a towering achievement.

There's the old, probably apocryphal anecdote about my hero F. Scott Fitzgerald saying that the rich live are different than you and I and Hemingway retorting that "yes, they have more money." And if you dig through the literature, look at the early tragedies from the gold age Greeks to Shakespeare to Thomas Kyd, you really only see tragedies about people who were less than powerful in Cervantes' Don Quixote. And then, we had Mark Twain's tragicomic work. And then we had (in no order at all) Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow and the rest of modern American literature (and even, in that, F. Scott, whose characters were never quite rich enough...)

This isn't a post about proletarian fiction of any such nonsense. It's about the rise of every day life to the level of myth. Because, in the end, myth and mundanity are rather intricately linked.

Thanks for everything, Saul Bellow. Thanks for it all.

*In this article, Bellow's work is set out in contrast to Hemingway's. I see the point, but I don't quite agree -- the struggle of a man against a mountain or game fish and the struggle of a man against a stifling social world hve more in common than they do in difference.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Kofi Annan and the UN

Wow, Adriana's comments could drive the post on this blog for awhile. She asked what I thought about Kofo Annan being cleared of any wrongdoing in the kerfuffle about his son, Kojo, who worked for an inpsection firm that had a contract with the Oil for Food Program.

I wrote a pretty in depth article about Oil for Food for Forbes last year and I've always thought this flap about Kofi's son kind of missed the point. The real problem is that the Oil for Food program was gamed by the companies who bought and traded the oil and that, somewhere along the line, Saddam Hussein was bribed with some of the proceeds. The United Nations failed us because they didn't monitor the trades of the oil once it left Iraq's ports. That, along with judicious use of various tax havens around the world, allowed the program to become corrupted. Any failure of the UN is a failure of its Secretary General, and for that, Annan (who I like) should have stepped down.

Think about it this way -- had the Oil for Food program worked, we could have countered Bush's argument for war with the response that Saddam didn't have the money to build weapons of mass destruction in the first place. The failure of the program gave Saddam the means to build those weapons and removed a vital argument for those of us who were anti-war.

Now, the thing with Annan's son was just an embarassment. As I said on CNN awhile back, maybe he didn't do anything wrong, but it's still something that never should have happened. The son of the Secretary General of the United Nations should not have been working for a company that had a contract to perform services for a politically sensitive operation. It just shouldn't have happened. It's not the most eggregious lapse of judgment I've ever seen, but, when you're a target for criticism and you know you're a target for criticism, I say you don't just hand your critics an easy issue.

And, let's be intellectually honest, here -- haven't we all been at leat skeptical of Halliburton's ability to win big government contracts from a White House that includes its former CEO as Veep? Kofi, his son and the management of Cotecna (the firm Kofi's son worked for) should have known better.

I like Kofi Annan. But I think the UN, as an institution, is more important than he is. I still think he should step down.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

2 Topics For One Low Post: Darfur and Conservatism

On Darfur: Some centrist Democrats I've been following online, especially at have suggested that we can't send troops to Sudan right now but that Democrats in the US, who still have credibility with the leaders of "old Europe" might be the most able at getting the Europeans to handle this problem. Sounds like a good solution to me.

Now, on conservatism: I think the conversvative movement in America might be worthy of some mourning from those of us on the left. I'm not talking about the Bible thumpers who believe in limited government that has unlimited authority over the bed room. Nor am I talk about the Tom DeLay conservatives who are really just corporate shills (and hey, quite a few Democrats are like DeLay in that department.)

I'm talking about the people who believe in limited government because they have a rosy view of human nature. There was once a group of people who believed, quite simply that people were best left alone, to follow their own devices and to follow their own aims and that, with all individuals doing that, a larger good would emerge.

That's kind of naive view of people and the way things work, of course. It fauls utterly as soon as one person's goals trample on another's. But, it strikes -- me as healthy that our society once debated issues in these terms. There was once debate about how to achieve a greater good. Conservatives argued for individual action with collective results. Liberals argued for collective action with collective results. Arguments were largely won on a case by case basis.

These days, the debate has become rather warped. The thinkers on the right tend to represent either corporations or religions. Adam Smith, often credited with first defining capitalism and once an infuential figure on the right, was skeptical of both corporate and religious power in society.

What's happened to conservatives? I think that they've been, for the past two decades, defining themselves as against "government" but in favor of other forms of authority such as the corporate and the religious. It's too bad. These folks used to champion individuall liberty against any intrusion, not just the government's.

I don't know what all of this adds up to, but I'd point out the growing Republican hatred for our independent judicial branch as a symptom of a way of thought that completely lost its way. And, though I'm not a conservative, I think we're worse off for this deviation of the right.

More on Darfur

Adriana cuts through my "ifs and buts" and asks (a bit assertively) if we have a responsibility to stop the killings in Sudan. Yes, yes we do. We have a moral responsibility.

My objection to sending troops is that we haven't built a proper institution for meeting that moral responsibility. The US has always wanted to be the only power in the world. We complain about having to spend money to defend our allies, but we frankly like the situation, as it gives us vast influence over their affairs.

Problem is, on an individual level, young people sign up for the military and they agree to risk their lives to protect America. It would be rather easy to support sending United Nations troops to Sudan or even Nato troops, if those troops were made up of volunteers from all nations who knew what they were getting into. There should be a volunteer, international peace keeping force to handle these type of situations and no soldier should be "assigned" to this unit, they should sign up for it.

My worries about using our forces in this case are as follows: 1) We're occupying two countries right now. 2) There are at least three impending situations that might demand military action (Iran, North Korea, Syria) and 3) The lesson of Somalia, which was supposed to have been an easy, humanitarian mission.

But mostly, what keeps me wanting to keep our troops at home is that while "we" have a responsibility, it won't be me that performs the tasks demanded. We've asked an awful lot of our military over the last five years. I don't feel comfortable asking for more right now.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

A Lesson About Sending Troops to Sudan

You're not hearing much about this because the news is cycling the Pope story without interruption, but, 40-60 Iraqi insurgents attacked the Abu Grhaib prison, inflicting at least 18 American casualties and pulling off and assault that seems to contradict the public image of he insurgency as just a bunch of snipers and car bombers.

Before we send out troops in Sudan, which poses no threat to the United States in any way, we'd be good to think about incidents like this one in Iraq.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Send Troops to Sudan?

The Bull Moose brays that we must send troops to Darfur, to stop the genocide. Thousands have died and thousands could be saved. I share the impulse, but I disagree. Our volunteer armed forces, already stretched thin with the occupation of two countries, already needed at the ready should Syria not properly answer our ultimatum about Lebanon, already needed to deal with rising nuclear powers in North Korea and perhaps Iran, signed up to protect the Constitution and people of the United States, not to serve as a global police force.

Bull Moose says this should be a NATO action, with or without UN approval.

I say, if we find it necessary to have a global police force that we recruit one. We should ask for volunteers who are willing to serve in a global force, sometimes under UN or NATO orders. We shouldn't use our current armed forces for that.

Sorry, this is about an agreement we made to the volunteers who joined the military and that agreement should supercede other concerns.

The first President Bush, moved by images of starvation and slaughter in Somalia, sent our troops there as he left office. The most graphic result was one of our pilots, dragged dead through the streets.

We've already crossed a slippery slope, where our volunteers are sent into danger despite the lack of threat to the US (Iraq, twice) and I wouldn't ask them to brave the killing fields of Sudan.

It's hard sometimes, but maybe it's time we started keeping the agreements we made to our military volunteers.