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Copyright © 2005 Frank Lynch.

 

 

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Monday, January 31, 2005:

Echoes? There's still a sheen on yesterday's Iraqi elections; certainly in terms of the humanity, we should continue to celebrate the limited blood and the massive turnout. We can all agree on that, right?

Now, would it be untoward to think of the future, and compare yesterday's voting to the joy and exuberance of a wedding day? I mean, there will be tough days ahead, when dissent will need to be worked out. And of course there will be great days to accompany those tough days. That kind of sober approach isn't unwelcome, is it?

Okaaaaaay... Now that I've taken you that far, how about thinking about 1967, and the United States' enthusiasm over elections with 83% turnout in Vietnam and the good fortune we hoped for then? (Any raincoats at the parade, or is this like the final scene in Holes?)
Link | | 8:50 PM Home


New rules of engagement for the press? A Washington Post reporter writes that his cell phone was confiscated when he was phoning in notes for a story, because he'd been asking questions without an official escort. Not while working in Iraq, mind you, but while covering an inaugural ball:

Big mistake. After cruising by the media pen -- a sectioned-off area apparently designed for corralling journalists -- a sharp-eyed volunteer spotted my media badge. "You're not supposed to go out there without an escort," she said.

I replied that I had been doing just fine without one, and walked over to a quiet corner of the hall to phone in some anecdotes to The Post's Style desk.

As I was dictating from my notes, something flashed across my face and neatly snatched my cell phone from of my hand. I looked up to confront a middle-aged woman, her face afire with rage. "You ignored the rules, and I'm throwing you out!" she barked, snapping my phone shut. "You told that girl you didn't need an escort. That's a lie! You're out of here!"

Was the purpose of the escorts to monitor the reporter? Nope, the reporter thinks the escorts were there to intimidate any to whom the reporter might talk:

No, the minders weren't there to monitor me. They were there to let the guests, my sources on inaugural night, know that any complaint, any unguarded statement, any off-the-reservation political observation, might be noted. But maybe someday they'll be monitoring something more important than an inaugural ball, and the source could be you.

Via Romenesko.
Link | | 12:00 PM Home


Philosphical arguments for privatization: Ponzi scheme? An argument frequently made against the structure of Social Security as it exists is that, at its core, it's some kind of pyramid or Ponzi scheme, because payments to retirees are dependent on the payroll taxes of new workers. But pyramid schemes and Ponzi schemes occur when there are finite pools of people funding the others. Unless we go through some staggering decrease in birthrates, Social Security doesn't fit this concept: calling Social Security a pyramid/Ponzi scheme is over-the-top rhetoric.

Don't believe me? Go argue with the Social Security Administration:

Social Security is and always has been either a "pay-as-you-go" system or one that was partially advance-funded. Its structure, logic, and mode of operation have nothing in common with Ponzi schemes or chain letters or pyramid schemes.

Next?
Link | | 10:39 AM Home

Sunday, January 30, 2005:

Why are the Iraqi elections a vindication? Earlier this week, Bush refused to answer what kind of turnout he thought would be required in order to demonstrate the elections were a success. "The fact that they're voting in itself is successful," he answered to a reporter's question. So how could Bush say that the high turnout confirms the Iraqi desire for democracy, when clearly had their been low turnout Bush would not have said anything like, "Well, I guess they don't care." It makes no sense.

Others look at the turnout as a message that the US can go:

Other analysts said recent opinion polls indicate that many Iraqis viewed the election as one way to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal rather than as a vindication of U.S. policy. "They realize that the quickest way to get the United States out of Iraq is to create a new government," said Henri Barkey, a former State Department policy planning staff member now at Lehigh University. "Not to vote would mean a continuation of the status quo. So the election is not a vindication of U.S. policy."

Were Bush running for re-election, he'd now hightail it ASAP.
Link | | 11:04 PM Home


Are African-Americans really at a disadvantage in Social Security? The Heritage Foundation says it looked at everything which Paul Krugman talked about in his Friday column, and did so back in 1998. Their conclusion? Even when you take survivor benefits, lower incomes, and so on into consideration, African-Americans are still disadvantaged. And they say it's due the earlier mortalities of those who reach retirement age.

Let's say that's true, just for argument. Why would you want to amend Social Security in response to that? Wouldn't you want to work to extend the life spans of those who reach retirement, so that African-Americans live as long as whites? "Fixing" Social Security to compensate African Americans is like fixing Social Security in order to deal with the federal budget's reliance on the Social Security Trust Fund as a buyer of bonds. The firemen are hosing down the wrong house.
Link | | 10:24 PM Home


The low level of bloodshed in the Iraqi elections is surely attributable to their occurring a mere five days after Robert Burns' birthday. Bagpipes go back to ancient Egypt, you know.
Link | | 10:14 PM Home


African-Americans have all new bonds to break. At least, that's what I think, and they're entitled to disagree with me. But the race card is being played pretty baldly by those promoting privatization; not just by Bush, but by pundits and bloggers who support the concept.

  • Bush, we know, pointed out this week that Social Security shortchanges African Americans because of their shorter life expectancy (that is, they should expect to reap fewer Social Security retirement benefits than white people do).
     
  • Paul Krugman worked to refute the impact of race in his Friday column, by pointing to other ways African Americans receive benefits, as well as how they receive a "disproportionate" share of benefits thanks to their having lower incomes than Whites. In the midst of this discussion — as it pertains to Social Security — he discounted the importance of the shorter life span.
     
  • For his having discounted the importance of the life span issue, Donald Luskin accused Krugman of racism, titling a commentary as "Spoken Like A White Man." Talk about losing the forest for the trees! Krugman focuses on a variety of payouts, and Luskin focuses on just one of them, and writes, "Spoken Like A White Man." In addition to insulting Krugman, this is of course insulting to all Whites. Who could Luskin possibly be trying to appeal to with a post like this? As one of my commenters wrote, is Luskin himself not white?
     
  • Thanks to a pointer from Luskin (who might have been seeking confirmation for his absurd assertion that Krugman is racist), we see how Radio Free Roider has taken the bait, and accused Krugman of hypocrisy: playing the race card while accusing Bush of having done so. Krugman was of course only following suit, refuting Bush's race card. Any failure to address race in refuting Bush would have been either to accept Bush's claim as true, or mere contradiction. You can't let Bush's charge lie like a lox and not respond to it.

Lost in this, but noted by some, is that Bush wasn't expressing any interest in alleviating differences in life spans, or announcing new health programs to help African-Americans. No, their mortality rate was merely a ploy.

Now, I'm not an African-American, and can't speak for any of them. But if I were, I would say that in this regard I didn't need Bush's spotlight. Come to me when you're trying to help me, Mr. President, not when you're trying to use me.
Link | | 2:24 PM Home


"Hallelujah" may be the wrong word given the circumstances, but congratulations to the Iraqi people for their bravery in flocking to the polls today. And thank you, God, for the blood has been very limited, all things considered. And thank you, President Bush, for implementing better planning on this phase.
Link | | 11:09 AM Home


Redefining the terms of the Social Security battle. Over at MyDD, Jerome Armstrong has a good post on how the Privatizers may be backing away from "crisis" language (no more asteroids hitting the earth!) and at the same time accelerating their 2014 "tipping point" to 2008, that point at which baby boomers start retiring. (You can see some of the term war going on here, at Social Security Choice, where Kerry Kerstetter tries to suggest that the only people who think it's merely a problem and not a crisis are those who think they'll be unaffected for one reason or another; and some back pedaling to "Serious Problem" here, by Adam Doverspike, based on his read of poll opinions.)

Using even 2014 as a crisis point has always struck me as a little myopic. Every year, millions of Americans retire, and start to draw on their savings, just as Social Security will be doing in 2014. Just as Americans plan for retirement, Social Security has also planned. It's not a crisis; it's happening on schedule.

I agree that something has to be done to improve a program which will not be able to meet all its obligations 40-50 years from now (although it will still be meeting around 80% of them at that point). But completely revamp it? That's like saying the answer to unwanted pregnancies is abortion.
Link | | 10:12 AM Home

Saturday, January 29, 2005:

Who could profit from privatization? Much has been made about the possibility that Wall Street will have a great new opportunity for fees and commissions should private accounts go through. But I suspect that this is not the only place where profit can occur. While the stock prices of the 90's may have been inflated due to irrational exuberance, surely inflation also occurred due to an increased amount of money chasing a limited number of stock shares, thanks to far greater market participation through employee 401k's and so on. When an increased money supply chases a limited number of goods and services, inflation is basically general; but when that money focuses on a specific sector, prices in that sector will rise.

I could be talking through my hat, but if more money comes into the stock market, share prices will increase. And those who hold the shares before the money flows in will have an opportunity for additional profit by selling their shares. (Won't they?)

Now, the New York Stock Exchange doesn't represent the entire market, but at the end of 2004 the total value of its shares was $13.7 trillion. In 2003 (latest available), Social Security took in $632 billion. The President has not laid out a specific plan, but if 65% of contributions go into privatization, that represents about 3% as much as the value of the NYSE. All the money probably wouldn't go into NYSE stocks, but a lot would. And a lot of what goes into the NYSE would probably go into the safer Blue Chips. So it's quite conceivable that investors could see the value of their stocks increase by 3% merely due to an influx of money. I admit that 3% doesn't sound like a lot, but it becomes their 3%. That's a cool $30,000 on a million dollar portfolio. There may not be that many who have million dollar portfolios, but I imagine those who do would rather have the $30,000 than not.

Now, let's think about who the shareholders are. A lot of shares are tied up in pension funds, certainly, and this increase in stock prices should benefit pension funds. And the same for other institutions such as universities and so on, that manage endowment funds.

But beyond that, there's a class of wealthy people (the ones who Bush looked after so carefully with his tax decreases focused on stock dividends) and that's those who hold shares outside of 401k's. These people are his friends. And something makes me suspect that he's looking after them again...

Will all those who are arguing for privatization agree to forego the stock profits from any associated increase in stock prices?
Link | | 3:05 PM Home


Unfair charges of hypocrisy from the pro-privatizers? Over at Social Security Choice, Herman Cain charges many opponents of privatized accounts with hypocrisy:

The Bush administration announced this week that the soon-to-be-released restructuring plan is modeled after the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The TSP is an investment plan similar to 401(k) plans, and is the investment plan available to all federal employees. This includes all Members of Congress, even Democrats!

Democrat opposition to the Bush administrationÉÄ s plan to restructure Social Security is pure hypocrisy. Congressional Democrats are telling U.S. workers that they are not entitled to the same investment plan available to federal employees.

So what's the deal? Well, the first link describes the "modeled after the TSP" part, and says:

Separately, Bush's advisers have settled on a proposal for structuring the personal accounts to resemble the Thrift Savings Plan, a tax-deferred retirement investment plan for federal workers similar to a 401(k) plan.

The idea is to minimize risk for people at the outset by offering as few as three to five diversified investment funds.

In the Thrift Savings Plan, federal employees have five investment options, including government and corporate bond funds, a stock fund that tracks the S&P 500, an international fund and other stock funds.

Under Social Security, workers would be enrolled by default in a "life cycle" account, in which investments become more conservative as investors age, if they do not choose one of the other options, according to two officials speaking on condition of anonymity. It would begin with investments that have greater potential for both risk and reward and shift to safer bonds as a worker ages.

The government would be responsible for keeping track of how much money is in each worker's account and give the lump sums to a financial services company to invest, a mechanism aimed at keeping administrative fees low, officials said.

That would mean only a limited profit potential for Wall Street. More money might be available for industry if a second tier of investments were permitted.

"Modeled after" is an important phrase, because it indicates that it follows to some extent, but not completely. When they're the same, people don't say modeled after, they say they're the same. And Cain has to demonstrate that the programs are the same in order to claim hypocrisy on the part of legislators who participate in TSP yet oppose privatization for the masses.

I don't think he's demonstrated that. And if you click though his link to the TSP language there suggests that TSP is in addition to Social Security. (I could be wrong here, because this page doesn't explicitly say it's in addition, nor does it say that participating in TSP precludes participation in Social Security).

For instance, there's this:

[Y]our TSP contributions are voluntary, and in an amount you choose. Your TSP benefits are in addition to your FERS or CSRS annuity. If you are a FERS employee, the TSP is an integral part of your retirement package, along with your FERS Basic Annuity and Social Security.

Since contributing to Social Security is not voluntary, and TSP is described as a part of the package, that makes me feel that it doesn't replace Social Security. And there's also this:

The TSP is one of the three parts of your retirement package, along with your FERS Basic Annuity and Social Security. Participating in the TSP does not affect the amount of your Social Security benefit or your FERS Basic Annuity.

Perhaps I'm wrong; perhaps this savings plan is instead of regular Social Security contributions. But it doesn't read like it.
Link | | 1:14 PM Home


Endorsing democracy. Tomorrow is going to be one damned serious day in Iraq's history. I don't share the President's enthusiasm that the mere actuality of the vote is a sign of success, but I do recognize the significance of the concept. I am praying so hard that the threats and intimidation will be empty bluster, that the terrorists aren't so truly inhuman that they kill masses of their own people tomorrow. They've already shown a willingness to stand in the way and kill their own, I just hope there's a sufficient thread of humanity in them that they will draw the line far lower than overwhelming carnage. The image of the Chinese student protester standing up to the tank comes to mind: the tank would not run him over, and the protester was just one person.

I really want the voting to go well, but if it goes badly, we have to remember how Bush has contributed. Not for a moment would I excuse the terrorists and cast my eyes away from their responsibility, but the incompetence of the reconstruction effort, and the ignoring of State Department planning for a post-Saddam Iraq, has led to an atmosphere where the opportunity for democracy isn't shown in its best light.

Let's reframe it for a moment. Remember when AT&T was broken up in the early 80's? Remember how, when customers who were used to one phone bill and one customer service number that would handle questions about billing for local and long distance and take care of repairs for your telephone and the wiring in your home, newly ushered into unimagined complexities, longed for a return to the "good old days" of Ma Bell?

Sure, Saddam Hussein was wicked, but you can imagine people appreciating the old "order," even as they chafed in fear. Tomorrow's turnout may be low in the face of the intimidation and deadly threats; and if it is low, you can forgive the Iraqis who weren't willing to risk their lives. The value of democracy and a "new Iraq" may not have been made apparent by the coalition effort. Perhaps it's all too soon.

But whether or not it's too soon, it's here. God help them all.
Link | | 11:49 AM Home


This is not "the democratic left." The Bull Moose weighs in on tomorrow's Iraqi elections with what sounds to me an unfair screed on the left, in an attempt to take some sort of high moral ground:

Even if

The Moose's offers his thoughts on the eve of the Iraqi election.

Even if one believes that the war was a mistake...

Even if one maintains that the Bush Administration misled and even lied to the public to persuade the nation to go to war...

Even if one is appalled by the lack of a post-election plan...

Even if one argues that the Bush Administration failed to provide sufficient troops to secure the country...

Even if one is angered by the Bushies exploitation of the war for political gain...

Even if a progressive accepts all or some of the above, the Moose contends that the democratic left should hope for a positive outcome in tomorrow's vote. Millions of brave Iraqis will risk their lives to vote. We must honor the democratic aspirations of Iraqis and the selfless courage of our troops despite our profound differences with the Bushies. Fascism and terrorism must not succeed in Iraq.

Give democracy a chance.

The desires for the flourishing of democracy, the honoring of the troops, and the recognition of the threats which Iraqis face are all fine sentiments; and the recognition of the various causes for disgruntlement which many might feel is also sweet; but to make suggestions to "the democratic left" as if it truly holds obstructionist, anarchistic preferences, is a bit over the top in its preachiness.

Obviously the democratic left wants democracy to thrive. Obviously the democratic left wants what's best for the US, any patriot would. For Marshall Wittmann to suggest we are otherwise is insulting.

Now, if he'd started from a different slant, such as "I can't help but disagree with the extremists on the left," that would have been so much better. Each of the major parties needs to distinguish its various constituencies, and not consider itself or the others monolithic. I really object to this address to the "democratic left."

UPDATE: MaxSpeak notices a similar blurring of the left by Glenn Reynolds.
Link | | 9:52 AM Home

Friday, January 28, 2005:

Take the time to read the fine print. You'll have a better understanding of what goes on in the Social Security debate if you read what the privatization camp assumes, and what they leave out of their discussions. It's not just reading the fine print, it's also clicking through to read more of what they link you to.

For instance, the Cato Institute has a calculator which ostensibly compares what you would receive under Social Security as is, to what you would receive under their plan. (British English sometimes uses the word "scheme" on these occasions.) Kevin Drum points out that the assumptions of the rate of growth for stocks and bonds seems overly optimistic, and Atrios points out that assumptions about your growth in salary are also steep (that is, most people can't expect their wages to increase so steeply over time: this has greatest impact on the young people who put their current salaries into the calculator).

An example of your needing to click through to read links can be seen in a post this morning from Donald Luskin. Luskin writes about a Paul Krugman column where Krugman discounts the importance of race as a factor in judging the financial returns of Social Security. While Krugman discusses the advantages which African Americans experience due to average lower incomes and greater receipt of survivor benefits, Luskin doesn't mention these aspects of Krugman's conclusions, and acts as if Krugman simply sweeps away the two year difference in life span of those who reach 65 as if it's meaningless and insignificant. (Blacks who reach age 65 die about 2 years earlier than whites who reach 65.) But everything else Krugman says, as components of the Social Security debate, don't matter to Luskin, who seems disingenuously intent on playing the race card. (He's titled his entry "Spoken Like A True White Man," for instance.)
Link | | 12:15 PM Home

Thursday, January 27, 2005:

Grudging praise from Donald Luskin to Dianne Feinstein for at least trying to come up with an alternative idea to private accounts: make the private accounts in addition to current Social Security payroll taxes. He appreciates the effort, but still has a couple problems with her alternative to private account assets coming from payroll tax deductions:

  1. It represents a concession by his opponents, as it discounts the importance of arguments like Wall Street windfalls and elements of risk.
  2. Poorer workers won't be able to afford additional savings because they have enough trouble bearing the burden of their payroll taxes as it is, nor will the add-on accounts have any impact on Social Security's ongoing issues.

There's a lot here in these two ideas, and they're both worth addressing.

While the proposal does seem to discount the argument of the Wall Street windfall, it greatly reduces the element of risk, because the idea is that current payroll taxes would still be going into a secure pot, Social Security as we know it, backed by the most secure investment on the planet, US Treasury Bonds. Retaining this core security is a big element of the concern, and it's left intact by the concept of "add on" private accounts. (Also, if I may so, I find it very considerate of Luskin to worry about a progressive's idea being flawed because he fears it might erode other aspects; I think Feinstein is probably capable of making that determination herself. Luskin calling this a flaw sounds more like a false alarm to protect his own ideas.)

His latter complaint is more telling. Poorer people will have more trouble contributing to add-on accounts, but I'd like to hear Luskin remember the impact of payroll taxes when he talks about the high rates if income taxes on the wealthy. When you add up payroll taxes and sales taxes and so on, the tax tiers are really flatter than many on the right would have you believe.

I suggest that if Luskin really wants to demonstrate that the poor will be better off with privatized accounts than under the current system, I think he needs to address some specifics:

  • How will the transition costs be paid for?
     
  • How will he guarantee the safety of the investments?
     
  • How will retirees who outlive their accounts live, after their accounts run out? What is the withdrawal schedule going to need to be?

The devil is in all these details. It's not the kind of thing where we can discuss reform without these details, or it's as vague a promise as "I hope."

As for Luskin's complaint that Feinstein's proposal won't do anything to improve the fiscal stability of Social Security, neither will private accounts. Roger Lowenstein's New York Times article showed that stability won't come from privatization, but it will come from reducing benefits or increasing taxes. Further, he writes about the only plan which the White House had analyzed by the CBO that "all seniors would be poorer than under present law. In other words, absent a sustained roaring bull market, the private accounts would not fully make up for the benefit cuts."

UPDATE: Donald Luskin's response to this post is here. (I really wish this conversation over the fence were happening at the same fence, Donald... How about getting your landlord to turn the comments back on?)

UPDATE 2: I've given careful consideration to Luskin's response, and while he's forthright, much of it comes down to "in theory this should work." He agrees that no one has put forth adequate specifics for any real debate, and offers solutions such as variable annuities from insurance companies or such to make sure that people don't outlive their private accounts. But let's be honest: without a concrete plan for how it would go beyond theory, how can you argue for private accounts? It's just a concept otherwise. And there's no reason to be overly enthusiastic about a concept that lacks details. Take the recent Medicare bill, for instance: yes, people wanted the basic idea of prescription drug benefits, and to appease that desire a bill was pushed through congress. But how many people would have argued for a prescription drug plan where the government was expressly forbidden from negotiating prices? Was that aspect given adequate public debate? And as for variable annuities themselves, when people start to see that their moneys will come from a fund that presumes pooled risk, some people dying at this age and others dying at another, will that still be considered a private account? I strongly feel that it's important for any proponent of privatization to argue details at the same time as they argue for privatization; only then can the debate really, intelligently, consider the pluses and minuses. Secondly, one should also compare the job growth in 2004 which Bush projected last February to what the economy actually achieved, and recognize that we need to be very careful about the "promises, large promises" which seem to be the soul of the privatization campaign.
Link | | 1:37 PM Home


The President is pro Grade Inflation, too. In today's New York Times, David Sanger and Richard Stevenson somehow miss the full extent to which Bush was downgrading expectations on Sunday's elections in Iraq. This is about all they wrote on the issue as discussed in Bush's press conference yesterday:

(Headline) Bush Portrays Iraq Vote as Step in a Global March to Freedom

President Bush said Wednesday that the elections this weekend in Iraq would be "a grand moment in Iraqi history" that he described as part of a global march toward freedom. Yet he acknowledged that Iraqis themselves had not yet taken the initiative in defending their country and might doubt Washington's will to prevail against the insurgency.

Mr. Bush's assessment, in the first news conference of his second term, was made on the deadliest day of the war for American forces.

"The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people," Mr. Bush said. "I understand that. We value life. And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life. But it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom. Otherwise, the Middle East will continue to be a caldron of resentment and hate, a recruiting ground for those who have this vision of the world that is the exact opposite of ours."

And that's pretty much it. But read this part of the transcript:

Q May I ask a follow-up, sir. What would be a credible turnout number?

PRESIDENT BUSH: The fact that they're voting in itself is successful. Again, this is a long process. It is a process that will begin to write a constitution and then elect a permanent assembly. And this process will take place over this next year. It's a -- it is a grand moment for those who believe in freedom.

A dodge, obviously: he knows about all the efforts being made to intimidate voters. But to flatly suggest that the actual turnout doesn't matter is a clear expression on his part that the participation of the Iraqi people really doesn't matter yet. These elections have largely been imposed on Iraq; sure, with the cooperation of the interim government, but it was the US that came up with the date of January 30.

It's time for me to reiterate something I predicted back on December 3: Bush's solution to holding the elections on time is hold them, and then decide later they have to be held again, due to one reason or another. He now has Ukraine as a precedent (which I noted originally), and so has the liberty to get votes re-cast at some unspecified future date when it's safer.

He's pretty much signaled here that the result of the vote doesn't count.
Link | | 11:44 AM Home


Are Bush's ducks really ducks? And if so, why does he need to spend so much money persuading you that they are? You know the line: "If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck." You know it's not a cat, it's plain enough it's a duck. So what's this?

Separately, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and nine colleagues released a report showing that the Bush administration spent more than $88 million last year on contracts with public relations firms, an increase of 128 percent over the last year of the Clinton administration. Medicare and Medicaid officials have spent the most on outside publicity firms over the past four years, the report said.

That 128% increase figure means, to remind, that Bush more than doubled PR spending to promote what I guess they recognize are difficult sells. And we know that some of the money went for sells that were not transparent (videos disguised as news, commentators promoting programs without disclosure, and so on). So it's not just the amount of spending, it's also the method.

And of course, this was the Administration, not the campaign (although it's impossible to say there wasn't any positive benefit to the campaign).

To remind you of how little money the US initially offered for tsunami release would be unnecessary, right?
Link | | 9:40 AM Home


Sometimes transcripts aren't enough: you need the tape and the secondary criticism. Yesterday I posted two items on Bush's press conference, both based on the transcript. Transcripts, of course, say little about mood, although this one caught Bush's chuckles over accusations that he was a liar. They don't tell you what Kathryn Jean Lopez (at NRO's the Corner) noticed, that Bush was in a general state of good cheer throughout. And because the transcripts don't point that good cheer out, they also don't point out that perhaps good cheer was not the order of the day, with us having lost 36 troops yesterday in Iraq. But you know? Lopez didn't notice that either, and James Wolcott noticed she didn't notice.
Link | | 8:30 AM Home

Wednesday, January 26, 2005:

So much for the dialog over Social Security. In the post below I linked to a site sponsored by the Club for Growth, arguing for Social Security privatization. I even went there and commented in a number of their threads, completely politely, yet cogently, not a troll at all I assure you. I'd even prove it to you, but there were so many liberals commenting, that they've taken all comments down. It's now a one-way street. The chickens.
Link | | 6:37 PM Home


Stupid and funny at the same time. Via Instapundit, I saw a pro-Social Security reform blog from the Club For Growth, called Social Security Choice. I looked at just one post and laughed out loud...

First, because it argues that you should recognize that an asteroid hitting us (in the years 2018 and 2042, key dates on the Social Security calendar) is a crisis, and that if you're sensible enough to see that you'll agree that Social Security is in a crisis.

Now, obviously planetary destruction ("a huge asteroid is on a course that will cause it to smash into the earth in 2042, killing everything including the cockroaches") is a crisis, but to compare what happens to Social Security on these dates is just silly. In 2018 the program needs to start dipping into its trust fund, and if nothing is changed by 2042, the program will still be able to pay 80% of its benefits. So I don't think we're talking about anything on the scale of the destruction of the planet.

The second part is that the pro-privatization crowd has been frequently referred to as being like Chicken Little (the sky is falling, the sky is falling!). By talking about an asteroid hitting Earth this blog is literally acting like Chicken Little; it's no longer figurative. It's like they're walking right into a rhetorical trap.

I just can't tell if it's funnier than it's stupid or stupider than it's funny.

UPDATE: they may be new at blogging, because the post I referred to exists at two url's, the one above and also here. At first I thought my comment had been pulled.
Link | | 2:45 PM Home


Bush continues the alarm over the falling sky. From this morning's press conference:

And here is the problem. The -- as dictated by just math, there is -- the system will be in the red in 13 years, and in 2042, the system will be broke. That's because people are living longer and the number of people paying into the Social Security trust is dwindling. And so therefore, if you have a child -- how old is your child, Carl (sp)?

Q Fourteen years old.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, 14. Well, if she were --

Q He, sir. (Scattered laughter.)

PRESIDENT BUSH: He. Excuse me. Should have done the background check. (Laughter.)

She will -- when she gets ready to -- when she's 50, the system will be broke, if my math is correct. In other words, if you have a child who's 25 years old, when that person gets -- you know, gets near retirement, the system will be bankrupt. And therefore, it seems like to me -- and if we wait, the longer we wait, the more expensive the solution. So therefore, now's the time to act.

I don't have a problem with taking action now to shore up Social Security, but to talk about is as being in the red when it merely starts relying more on the trust fund its built up (which was planned, by the way) and as "broke" in 2042 when it will still be able to pay 80% of its benefits is completely over the top.

We shouldn't overreact to the problem; we should be judicious and think carefully about what we're doing. The last time Bush was talking about "time is running out," we got ourselves into an unjustified war.
Link | | 12:14 PM Home


So much for "Don't Mess With Texas." Bush laughed off accusations that he and Rice lied over the war. From today's press conference:

Q Mr. President, in the debate over Dr. Rice's confirmation, Democrats came right out and accused you and the administration of lying in the run up to the war in Iraq. Republicans in some cases conceded that mistakes had been made. Now that the election's over, are you willing to concede that any mistakes were made, and how do you feel about --

PRESIDENT BUSH: Let me talk about Dr. Rice. You asked about her confirmation. Dr. Rice is an honorable, fine public servant who needs to be confirmed. She will be a great secretary of State. And Dr. Rice and I look forward to moving forward. We look forward to working to make sure the Iraqis have got a democracy. We look forward to continuing to make sure Afghanistan is as secure as possible from potential Taliban resurgence. We look forward to spreading freedom around the world. And she is going to make a wonderful secretary of State.

Q No reaction to the lying?

Q (Laughs.)

Q No reaction?

PRESIDENT BUSH: (Chuckles.)

Q Sir, I'd like --

PRESIDENT BUSH: Is that your question? The answer is no.

Next? (Laughter.)

"Chuckles." No reaction, no defense, just "chuckles." 36 Americans died today in Iraq, by the way. (And why is the press laughing along with him?)
Link | | 11:59 AM Home


If it's so small, then you can give it back. Today's New York Times discussed the lucrative business of speculating on the periodic price increases of pharmaceuticals. Yup, medicine. One profiteer is buying a $45 million home in the Hamptons, the most expensive house in New York State. But don't worry, he says that his take is only a drop in the bucket compared to what the drug manufacturers make:

Mr. Rahr, who honed the practice with the help of a computer program, said that his profit from the practice never reached 40 percent.

Mr. Rahr also said that his and other distributors' fees accounted for a tiny portion of the cost of drugs to consumers, with manufacturers taking the major share of profits.

"We're talking an infinitesimal impact on the consumer, based on the total cost of the health care industry," Mr. Rahr said. "Whether there is spec buying or not is not the greatest factor in the high cost of pharmaceuticals."

That's ride, he's only going along for the ride. Bus his drop in the bucket, added up across millions of buckets, is a drain on the economy. Glad to see it's going to be put to good use, like on a $45 million mansion. (The article also points out that because manufacturers can't get a handle on genuine sales volume, they mistake speculative buying for consumer sales, presume demand is up, and proceed to manufacture unnecessary medicines, which wind up being stockpiled again.)
Link | | 11:45 AM Home


It's the soul of the nation which is at stake. Writing about Condoleezza Rice's likely confirmation in the senate, Dana Milbank writes:

Two hours into the nine-hour Senate debate yesterday over Condoleezza Rice, Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, was asked whether he would vote to confirm. "I'll be making a statement," he said coyly.

Thus did Senate Democrats try to keep up the excitement in a debate whose outcome was certain before it began. In truth, it will matter not in the least how Durbin votes: With Republicans solidly behind Rice, Durbin and his Democratic colleagues are powerless to block confirmation when it comes to a vote today.

It's all in how you define "matters," I guess. If it's only the final outcome, whether or not you're approved, then no, it doesn't.

But because Rice willingly lied to the country when she talked about the aluminum tubes on CNN in 2002, because she participated in the President's efforts to skirt the UN and make it irrelevant, because she "forgot" the CIA's admonition about the yellow cake and let a reference slip back into the President's 2003 State of the Union Address (the ability to remember what you can and can't say is kind of important for Secretary of State, don't you think?), because she helped persuade the American public that an unjustified war is the right thing to do, then, yes, it matters very much how Durbin and every other senator votes on her nomination.

Democrats should take a stand here, just as much as in the case of Alberto Gonzalez. And you know something? There should be some Republican senators who also have enough of a statesman streak in them to abandon partisanship and vote against her. It shouldn't be a partisan issue, it should be an appreciation of how very different this country has become and whether or not we want it to continue on this path.

In my view, Milbank is really sending the wrong signal with this cavalier characterization of the vote.
Link | | 10:53 AM Home


Support the troops: reject Alberto Gonzalez. It's really very simple, it's not complicated. Gonzalez personally undermined the nation's adherence to the Geneva Convention by trying to find ways to skirt it; the reciprocity of the GC means that he put our troops at risk of being tortured. Got it?

That's the practical implication of his actions. The principle is an issue, too: our country should not condone torture. Ever. It's wrong. Would Jesus have tortured anyone? (Or, if you retort that he wouldn't have needed to, would Paul have, once he'd seen the light?) Beyond that, the quality of the information you get from torturing is too low to justify lowering ourselves.

Gonzalez was evasive in his testimony to the Judiciary Committee — so many "I don't recalls" that it's a wonder he remembers his wife's name. And, given revelations this week regarding the way he got Bush excused from being a juror on a trial, it's apparent that he also lied under oath to the Judiciary Committee. This is not the guy we want as Attorney General.

So, I reiterate what I first said here: Gonzalez must be rejected. Support the troops, it's that simple. Any Senator who votes for Gonzalez, objectively, is supporting torture instead of our troops.
Link | | 9:24 AM Home

Tuesday, January 25, 2005:

No haggis here tonight, but we certainly made do. It's really not easy to get a sheep's stomach, you know? But we pulled out a Scottish cookbook we picked up in Edinburgh in 1989 on our honeymoon, and made steamed mussels. I confess the recipe wasn't that different from what we normally do, but somehow the fact that we used a Scot cookbook made it "morally" different. But we had Jean Redpath and Andy Stewart on in the background (right now I'm listening to the Trash Can Sinatras, which also counts). For dessert we had some Walker Shortbread cookies, with some kick ass orange marmalade spread on top: a true palate cleanser. And no, to the best of my knowledge, I don't have an ounce of Scot blood in me, anywhere, but I've been there three times and nowhere else on the planet have I had such a feeling of inner peace.

So Mr. Burns, my apologies, we didn't read your poetry, but just see what you have done!
Link | | 9:55 PM Home


My blood boils when I hear al Zarqawi's name. Wolf Blitzer, yesterday:

Under arrest in Iraq right now a top lieutenant to the leading insurgent fighting to prevent Sunday's key national elections. Iraqi government officials say that Abu Umar al-Kurdi has claimed responsibility for at least 32 car bombings in Iraq. His boss, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the United State's most wanted man in Iraq.

We absolutely have to get this guy: too many families have gaping holes thanks to his efforts. And here's another reason my blood boils, one which Wolf Blitzer never seems to remind his audience of: the U.S. passed up on taking al Zarqawi out before the invasion, in order to have another argument for going to war against Iraq. That's right, they cynically played with world opinion when they could have taken the guy out. And soon it will be two years since the invasion, and al Zarqawi is still free. Did the US assume they could get him after the invasion started? If so, what would be the human cost of that assumption?
Link | | 1:37 PM Home


When all else fails, blame it on Microsoft. I've been hunting out web pages where my site has been critically acclaimed and printing them out, quite successfully from sites like CNN, Fortune, the BBC, Penguin's UK site, and several others. Then I hit Slate for a few items; Slate is now owned by the Washington Post, but it used to be owned by Microsoft. And each time I've tried to print a page from Slate, it's crashed my browser (Opera) or caused a problem with my printer.

It could be coincidence, but Microsoft has not designed its pages to be compatible with other browsers than Internet Explorer. I went to Encarta's site, remembering that it used to recommend my site, and I was even willing to pay a premium to use a streaming version, but it said I couldn't do it using Opera, I had to use IE.

Three articles from Slate, three browser crashes, plus a complete re-boot to make the printer stop printing page after page with a single line of gibberish.

IMPORTANT REQUEST, as an aside... Do any of you have a copy of the Encarta encyclopedia, either the CD-ROM or an online subscription? Does it still list my site (samueljohnson.com or The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page) as a recommendation under "Samuel Johnson"? (This is actually important to me.)
Link | | 12:11 PM Home


The pirates have come ashore. As has been warned by others for days, Bush's new budget is here, promising a huge deficit without even including the war in Iraq or Social Security changes.

Let's all remind ourselves of what Bush said in a debate against Kerry in 2004:

We have gone from the biggest deficits eight years ago to the biggest surpluses in history today. Instead of high unemployment, we now have the lowest African-American unemployment, the lowest Latino unemployment ever measured. 22 million new jobs, very low unemployment nationally. Instead of ballooning the debt and multiplying it four times over, we have seen the debt actually begun to be paid down. Here are some promises that I'll make to you now. I will balance the budget every year. I will pay down the debt every year. I will give middle-class Americans tax cuts, meaningful ones. And I will invest in education, health care, protecting the environment and retirement security.

Oh, wait, my bad, that was Gore saying that against Bush in 2000. It's almost as if the Clinton years never happened!
Link | | 11:21 AM Home


Sounds about right to me. Yesterday Senator Clinton gave a speech seeking common ground over abortion, affirming the right to choice while calling for united efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancies. I'd like to see the full speech, but it's not up on her Senate web site yet. I think this is where the argument needs to shift to, for both humanitarian and political reasons. Those who are Right to Life need to see a more human side to those who seek abortion: the phrase "Abortion on Demand" lowers the decision to something as simple as going to 7-11 and choosing a flavor of a Slurpee. At the same time, the Pro-Choice side could gain a lot by acknowledging the good intentions of the other side, and being aware that to them abortion really is something like a holocaust. I'm not saying either side should change its mind, only that they show more respect for each other and work on something they can all agree on.
Link | | 9:18 AM Home


Great Scott!! It's Robert Burns' birthday, and felicitations to all of you who are celebrating, whether of Scots heritage or not. No haggis here tonight (I still haven't figured out how to get the parts), but I'll probably whip something up using some salmon or seafood. I think I'll spare the family the CDs of piper recitals, and stick with Jean Redpath, Silly Wizard, and the Trash Can Sinatras.
Link | | 9:07 AM Home

Monday, January 24, 2005:

Whaddaya know, I'm getting traffic from Powerline today. They're citing Johnson's line about women preaching, and naturally sending their readers to my site. I wonder if they know how many ways Johnson can be seen as being a liberal?
Link | | 12:57 PM Home


Wrapping privatization in bipartisanship. Today's Washington Post mentions that the new Bush line is to cite Clinton and Moynihan when talking about Social Security's supposed instability. "With their push to restructure Social Security off to a rocky start, Bush administration officials have begun citing two Democrats -- former President Bill Clinton and the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- to bolster their claims that the retirement system is in crisis."

Where has the Post been? Bush floated this last October in his debates against Kerry; I caught it at the time, and I recommend you click through that last link for additional details about the committee Bush formed in 2001 to look at the issue. Here's a hint: privatization was a foregone conclusion for the panel.
Link | | 12:28 PM Home


"I did not know that" was a famous Johnny Carson line, and were he still alive, he'd say that about this opinion: it's us Libruls that are using scare tactics over Social Security. Yup, here's the headline from an opinion piece over at GOPUSA.com: "Liberals Should Stop Scaring America on Social Security Reform." The writer, Kevin Fobbs, figures that we're avoiding genuinely rational arguments when talking about Bush's judicious plans; and yet, oddly, it's Fobbs who refers to 2042 as a point at which Social Security will be "completely bankrupt" (it won't, actually: it should still be able to cover 80% of benefits even if nothing is done). It's also Fobbs who accuses Ted Kennedy of being indifferent because of his age when 2042 rolls around, ignoring the fact that Bush probably won't be alive then either.

I'm all for a vigorous, honest debate, but Fobbs' efforts to demonize Democrats over this is just plain silly. If I were Fobbs, I would have actually dealt with progressives arguments about the dangers or their lack thereof, rather than attempting to merely sweep them out of view of his readers. He really missed an opportunity to improve the public discourse.
Link | | 11:54 AM Home


Alberto Gonzalez forgot to mention something... When Alberto Gonzalez was being grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was asked about an incident where Bush was called to jury duty in 1996; he focused on the proceedings in court, which suggested that no special action was taken by him. However, he somehow failed to mention that the court proceedings happened because he'd lobbied for Bush being excused beforehand. Net result? Bush never talked about his 1976 DUI arrest until it was brought out just before the 2000 election (at which point Bush cried foul). What a one-sided AG this guy will be! We really need every Democratic senator to vote against him; we can't be a party that condones torture. (Via Buzzflash.)
Link | | 11:16 AM Home

Sunday, January 23, 2005:

Atrios = Pat Buchanan. I mean it. Take a look at this post, following the victory of his beloved "Iggles." (What's an Iggle? Is that some kind of code to suggest we all shoot homosexuals?)

Post-Football

Have fun.

Someone who was truly sensitive to international affairs (hmmm...) would know that football is a completely different sport than what we Amurricans follow; that the sport we call "soccer" is what the rest of the world really calls football; and that by referring to the period following one of his American Football matches as "Post-Football," he's risking our international relations, the mission in Iraq, and even possibly the price of tulip bulbs. I'm shocked (shocked) at his insensitivity.

This is a cultural war, gang, and we can't afford to have liberalism taken over by people who, if they had their way (let's be honest!), would be facing off against Michael Kinsley on CNN's Crossfire a long time ago in a galaxy far away.
Link | | 10:30 PM Home


Could Social Security privatization be a wedge issue? There's no question but that Bush has outpaced legislative sentiment with his calls for privatizing Social Security. In order to revamp a program put in by FDR, a Democrat — and need I add, a program which works really well — he needs the support of not just Republicans in his own party but also the Democrats. Democrats are pretty against it, and so are a lot of Republicans.

As for the populace (who vote for Republicans and Democrats every two years), last Sunday's New York Times magazine article by Roger Lowenstien shows that not only is it easy to demonstrate that the program is most certainly not in crisis, but that it's easy to demonstrate the dishonesty which some are showing in arguing for privatization. A solid example was Lowenstein's discussion of how one think tank started counting deficit cash flows when they started, ignoring the surpluses built up to that point, in order to make it sound more severe. A similar point can be made about forecasts to infinity, brought back into present dollars, when historically its been agreed that forecasts that go beyond 75 years are pretty worthless.

While most "wedge issues" are applied on the voter base, the difference here would be that the wedge is applied on the Republican voters so much as the tenuously united, vocal Republican party.

Imagine taking this "surely you're smart enough to see" approach in dealing with proponents of privatization —

  • Surely you're smart enough to see that there really isn't a crisis?
     
  • Surely you're smart enough to see that a program's frailty isn't determined by the "soon there will only be two workers for every retiree" flow concept as much as it is by "how much does it have in assets" stock concept?
     
  • Surely you're smart enough to know that you can't judge the future performance of the stock market by its past? Every prospectus warns you not to...
     
  • Surely you're smart enough to know that privatization means we'll have to find money to support current planned benefits elsewhere, meaning we'll need to add to the deficits?

And so on, and so on. Who will admit that they're not smart enough? Sure, they'll try to side-step the rhetorical jab, but in doing so they remain vulnerable to the truth.

There will come a point when the lofty convention rhetoric of the RNC will need to be curtailed. The Bushies are already confronting it in their battle for what words get used (is it privatization? is it personal accounts?), suggesting that they know, even after focus groups conducted years ago, that they're on tenuous footing. (They're also showing it in the backpedaling over Bush's inaugural address. If he'd only started talking like Yeats, gyres and all that, he'd be out of office before anyone understood what he meant.)

I guess my point is that we can use this as an issue to divide the so-called Republican majority, and maybe get some more bipartisanship out of them.
Link | | 7:55 PM Home


Re-elected just in time. Bush approval ratings tank. Why, oh why, couldn't these numbers have come out when all the happy Republicans were celebrating in DC last week?
Link | | 3:26 PM Home


I ventured out briefly for the paper and I have to tell you, it's pretty bitter out there. The weather reports are saying we "only" had a foot dropped on us here in Brooklyn ("only" because last night there were estimates that it might go something like 18-21 inches). But you can't tell that from what you see, because the plows have come through and there are considerable drifts from the wind. I didn't mind going out into the storm yesterday when it was only a few hours into it: there wasn't much wind and I could take my gloves off to control the camera, but doing so this morning was painful. Nonetheless, I'm letting you have this shot from our block, don't expect more. (Maybe I'll post some from another storm; will you be able to tell?)

I'm sure there are other NYC photobloggers with more shots of the storm; I've already seen them at joe's nyc, NYC Street Photos, rion.nu, Gotham Pixel, and overshadowed. (If you have some and I haven't listed you, add your link to the comments, and make sure you use the good ol' href tag so people can go directly rather than having to cut and paste the url.)

If those aren't enough for you, photoblogs.org has a list of photobloggers who have flagged themselves with New York City as a keyword; happy hunting!

UPDATE: I now have four photos posted at the permalink for today's large photo.
Link | | 11:20 AM Home

Saturday, January 22, 2005:

So our plain-speaking President talks all about the importance of freedom, and ending tyranny in his inaugural address on Thursday, and today his staffers rushed to add footnotes, to assure Russia and the Saudis that he was only really talking about tyranny in Afghanistan and Iraq, elsewhere it's probably OK. But because he's our plain speaking President, his staff also has to harangue the press about using the adjective "private" or the verb "privatize" with respect to Social Security, even though the President has used those terms. I guess they really like the lipstick more than the pig, because when I look up private in the dictionary, the word seems accurate to me: "undertaken on an individual basis," is one connotation; another is "belonging to a particular person or persons, as opposed to the public or the government;" and "intended for or restricted to the use of a particular person or group or class of persons : not available to the public;" and "owned by or concerning an individual person or entity." If it's not that, what is it? Huh? (To paraphrase the famous line from "Duck Soup," Who you gonna believe, me or the English language?)
Link | | 10:22 PM Home

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