Tuesday Reads: Daniel Inouye, Richard Engel, and Fiscal Slope Trial Balloons and Lead Balloons

Sen. Dan Inouye reads with children

Sen. Dan Inouye reads with children

Good Morning!!

Senator Dan Inouye, who died yesterday at age 88 was a Japanese American who fought for the U.S. in World War II. From Time Magazine:

On Dec. 7, 1941, high school senior Daniel Inouye knew he and other Japanese-Americans would face trouble when he saw Japanese dive bombers, torpedo planes and fighters on their way to bomb Pearl Harbor and other Oahu military bases.

He and other Japanese-Americans had wanted desperately to be accepted, he said, and that meant going to war.

“I felt that there was a need for us to demonstrate that we’re just as good as anybody else,” Inouye, who eventually went on to serve 50 years as a U.S. Senate from Hawaii, once said. “The price was bloody and expensive, but I felt we succeeded.”

Inouye had wanted to become a surgeon, but he lost his right arm in a firefight during the war. He was elected to the House in 1959 after Hawaii became a state. Inouye became well known nationally as a member of the Senate Watergate Committee and later as chairman of the Congressional committee that investigated the Iran Contra scandal.

In one of the most memorable exchanges of the Watergate proceedings, an attorney for two of Nixon’s closest advisers, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, referred to Inouye as a “little Jap.”

The attorney, John J. Wilson, later apologized. Inouye accepted the apology, noting that the slur came after he had muttered “what a liar” into a microphone that he thought had been turned off following Ehrlichman’s testimony.

Inouye achieved celebrity status when he served as chairman of the congressional panel investigating the Iran-Contra affair in 1987. That committee held lengthy hearings into allegations that top Reagan administration officials had facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran, in violation of a congressional arms embargo, in hopes of winning the release of American hostages in Iran and to raise money to help support anti-communist fighters in Nicaragua….

The panel sharply criticized Reagan for what it considered laxity in handling his duties as president. “We were fair,” Inouye said. “Not because we wanted to be fair but because we had to be fair.”

NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his production team have been released after five days in captivity in Syria. The Guardian reports:

The group disappeared shortly after crossing into north-west Syria from Turkey last Thursday (13 December). NBC had no contact with the kidnappers and asked for a news blackout about the incident, which was observed by mainstream news outlets.

There was no request for a ransom during the time Engel and his crew were missing.

After being abducted they were put into the back of a truck and blindfolded before being transported to an unknown location, believed to be near the small town of Ma’arrat Misrin.

Throughout their captivity they were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed, said the network.

Read more at the link.

According to Beltway Bob (AKA Ezra Klein), a deal between President Obama and Speaker Boehner is in the offing, and it isn’t a good deal for old ladies who are trying to survive on Social Security.

Boehner offered to let tax rates rise for income over $1 million. The White House wanted to let tax rates rise for income over $250,000. The compromise will likely be somewhere in between. More revenue will come from limiting deductions, likely using some variant of the White House’s oft-proposed, oft-rejected idea for limiting itemized deductions to 28 percent. The total revenue raised by the two policies will likely be a bit north of $1 trillion. Congress will get instructions to use this new baseline to embark on tax reform next year. Importantly, if tax reform never happens, the revenue will already be locked in.

On the spending side, the Democrats’ headline concession will be accepting chained-CPI, which is to say, accepting a cut to Social Security benefits. Beyond that, the negotiators will agree to targets for spending cuts. Expect the final number here, too, to be in the neighborhood of $1 trillion, but also expect it to lack many specifics. Whether the cuts come from Medicare or Medicaid, whether they include raising the Medicare age, and many of the other contentious issues in the talks will be left up to Congress.

Now how is that a win for Democrats? If we go over the cliff, Republicans are going to be blamed, and taxes will go up on everyone until Republicans give in to public outcry in early January. But Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid cuts will inevitably be blamed on Democrats, who are supposed to fight for the social safety net. Then in 2014, Republicans will attack them for those cuts, and it will work–just as it did when Romney and Ryan falsely accused Obama of cutting Medicare benefits in the recent presidential campaign. Back to Beltway Bob:

The deal will lift the spending sequester, but it will be backed up by, yes, another sequester-like policy. I’m told that the details on this next sequester haven’t been worked out yet, but the governing theory is that it should be more reasonable than the current sequester. That is to say, if the two parties can’t agree on something better, then this should be a policy they’re willing to live with.

On stimulus, unemployment insurance will be extended, as will the refundable tax credits. Some amount of infrastructure spending is likely. Perversely, the payroll tax cut, one of the most stimulative policies in the fiscal cliff, will likely be allowed to lapse, which will deal a big blow to the economy.

Again, that doesn’t sound like a win for Obama at all. Let’s hope Beltway Bob is wrong again.

Dean Baker on the chained CPI: He argues that the chained CPI is not really applicable to seniors.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has constructed an experimental elderly index (CPI-E) which reflects the consumption patterns of people over age 62. This index has shown a rate of inflation that averages 0.2-0.3 percentage points higher than the CPI-W.

The main reason for the higher rate of inflation is that the elderly devote a larger share of their income to health care, which has generally risen more rapidly in price than other items. It is also likely that the elderly are less able to substitute between goods, both due to the nature of the items they consume and their limited mobility, so the substitutions assumed in the chained CPI might be especially inappropriate for the elderly population.

Baker explains for the umpteenth time that it is wrong to use Social Security cuts to lower the deficit.

It is important to remember that under the law Social Security is supposed to be treated as a separate program that is financed by its own stream of designated revenue. This means that it cannot contribute to the budget deficit under the law, because it is only allowed to spend money from the Social Security trust fund.

This is not just a rhetorical point. There is no commitment to finance Social Security out of general revenue. The projections from the Social Security trustees show the program first facing a shortfall in 2033 after which point it will only be able to pay a bit more than 75 percent of scheduled benefits. While this date is still fairly far in the future, at some point it will likely be necessary to address a shortfall.

It is reasonable to expect that the changes needed to keep the program fully funded will involve some mix of revenue increases and benefit cuts. However if the chained CPI is adopted as part of a budget deal unconnected to any larger plan for Social Security then it effectively means that there will have been a substantial cut to Social Security benefits without any quid pro quo in terms of increased revenue. This hardly seems like a good negotiating move from the standpoint of those looking to preserve and strengthen the program.

There is much much more at the link. Digby has been writing about this issue for months, and she had another good post on it yesterday.

There has always been some fantasy, mostly held by people who are about to be fleeced by Wall Street sharpies, that this country should be run like a cash business. It cannot and should not be done that way. (Ask Mitt Romney about the role of debt in a modern economy.) The problem is that this focus on debt is making it impossible to do the things we need to do to spur economic growth in the short term, which would close the deficit, and apparently the only way anyone in Washington can see to get around that is to sell off the future security of American citizens as some sort of human sacrifice for no good reason. It simply is not necessary, as Krugman shows.

John Boehner came up with a new “offer” this week-end to raise the rates on those who make a million or more each year and also agreed to take the debt ceiling off the table for the next year. Krugman thinks this is a bad deal which Obama has no good reason to take — and I would agree with him if I didn’t still see a very dangerous possibility that the administration wants to pursue some unacceptable spending cuts in order to deliver on that “balanced approach.” A looming debt ceiling fight is a very good excuse for them to do that. If kicking the can down the road another year will stop them from cutting more spending, then I’m inclined to say take the deal.

Obviously, this whole thing is ridiculous. They should get rid of this idiotic debt ceiling vote altogether: after all once they appropriate the funds they’ve agreed to pay for them whether through taxation or borrowing. This yearly vote allows them to get credit for the goodies and then later refuse to pick up the tab. But unless they are willing to give it up completely, I’d be glad to at least see it be delayed until the White House stops talking about cutting vital programs.

And yes, the taxes should go up for all income over $250,000. They can afford it. But not if the price is changing to the Chained CPI which will take the food out of the mouths of 90 year old women and squeeze veterans and disabled people who can’t afford it. In other words, the devil is in the details. If Obama hangs tough as Krugman prescribes and wins on all these points without giving up the store (also known as “making tough choices ” his own base “won’t like”) then I say go for it. I’m just not sure I have much faith that’s the game plan. If it isn’t, then maybe he should take Boehner’s offer, repeal the sequester and put this to bed for the time being. There’s been more than enough cutting already to drag this economy down. Let’s see what happens if we stop the austerity insanity for a while.

Dr. Dakinikat would probably agree with that.

Meanwhile, most Americans disapprove of the the proposed cuts to safety net programs, so maybe this will turn out to be another trial balloon that goes over like a lead balloon.

Most Americans want President Obama and congressional Republicans to compromise on a budget agreement, though they, too, are unhappy about the options that would avert the “fiscal cliff,” according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The strong support for compromise belies widespread public opposition to big spending cuts that are likely to be part of any deal.

Most Americans oppose slashing spending on Medicaid and the military, as well as raising the age for Medicare eligibility and slowing the increase of Social Security benefits, all of which appear to be on the table in negotiations. Majorities call each of these items “unacceptable.”

Wow. I’m running out of space already? Suddenly, a week before Xmas there’s more happening in the news. We’ll have to discuss other items in in the comments. So what’s on your reading list today?


Tuesday: John Wayne Gacy, Freudian Slips, “the Liberal Bulldozer,” and other Valentine’s Day Reads

Rosalynn Carter and John Wayne Gacy

Good Morning!! I’ll have a few political links for you later, but first I want to share an interesting story I came across yesterday. Remember John Wayne Gacy? He was a supposedly upstanding member of the Chicago business community and active in Democratic politics, even having his photo was taken with first lady Rosalynn Carter when she visited Chicago in May, 1978. In his spare time, Gacy dressed as “Pogo the Clown” and entertained at charity events and kids’ birthday parties.

All that ended in late 1978, when it was revealed that Gacy had 26 bodies buried in the crawlspace under his house and 3 others under the concrete floor of his garage. The gregarious businessman and clown was a serial killer. In March of 1980, Gacy was sentenced to death for 12 of the murders. He was executed on May 10, 1994. It’s too bad Gacy is dead, because two Chicago attorneys have convinced Cook Country Sheriff Tom Dart to do some further investigating on the case. It might be helpful for investigators to be able to interview Gacy about new evidence.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said Friday that he will ask his investigators to look into a theory that serial killer John Wayne Gacy had one or more accomplices.

Criminal defense attorneys Robert Stephenson and Steven Becker recently examined Gacy’s work and travel records and suspect he was out of town when victims Russell Nelson and Robert Gilroy disappeared in 1977.

They also think Gacy didn’t have enough time to abduct and kill victim John Mowery because he disappeared about 10 p.m. in Chicago and Gacy’s work records show he showed up at a job in Michigan at 6 a.m. the following day.

There is more detail on these victims in an article at Time Magazine.

So far, the lawyers believe Gacy may have had accomplices in at least three of the notorious killings of 33 young men and boys, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. This supports an earlier claim from Jeffrey Rignall, a victim who survived, who said another man was in the room while Gacy raped him, WGN notes.

One of the murders raising questions is that of Robert Gilroy. Apparently, the convicted murderer had been in Pittsburgh when the 18-year-old disappeared on Sept 15, 1977. Allegheny Airlines tickets indicate Gacy had been out of town from Sept. 12 to 16, making it unlikely he could have snatched and killed Gilroy, the Sun-Times reports. This also echoes claims Gacy had made while in prison, saying he was not in Illinois during 16 of the disappearances.

Gilroy also died in a completely different way than most of Gacy’s victims. He was apparently suffocated by having a cloth shoved down his throat. Many of Gacy’s victims were strangled by a rope.

Russell Nelson, the Minneapolis architecture student kidnapped while with a friend outside a bar in October of the same year. Stephenson told the Sun-Times he doesn’t believe Gacy could have seized the 21-year-old without the friend noticing. And like Gilroy, Nelson had been suffocated with a similar cloth stuffed in his throat. Thirteen victims died the same way, according to WGN.

The friend who was with Nelson at the time of his disappearance is also allegedly suspect. According to WGN, the friend demanded money from Nelson’s mother in exchange for helping the family search for him. Nelson’s mother had also reported a striking coincidence. Following her son’s disappearance, Nelson’s brothers went to Chicago to look for him. They met with the friend, who offered the siblings contracting jobs with Gacy.

All three victims were found in Gacy’s crawlspace.

Last fall, eight Gacy victims who had never been identified were exhumed for DNA testing, in hopes of discovering their identities. Since then, two men who were believed to have been murdered by Gacy have been found alive.

Harold Wayne Lovell was found in Florida.

“He was high on the list,” said Sheriff Tom Dart. “If not one, two, or three, in someone’s mind, of the most likely person that was one of the eight down in the crawl space.”

As Sheriff’s detectives began their renewed search, they quickly learned there had been recent activity by Lovell in Florida. It was about that time that the family came across a booking photo of a Harold Wayne Lovell, 53, from South Florida. It was him.

“I almost gave up hope in the late 90s,” said Lovell’s brother, Tim, 48. “I dreamed about it. I’ve only had maybe a one percent inkling that I’d ever, ever see my brother again, and here we are. It’s just amazing.”

Lovell said he left home because of a “family situation.” He took a train to Florida because he “couldn’t stay around the house any longer.”

Lovell may have been fortunate, because he did yard work at Gacy’s before leaving for Florida. He says Gacy tried to get him to come in the house, but Lovell refused. In addition, Gacy had apparently taken some belongings of Lovell’s and they were found in Gacy’s house. Lovell’s mother had identified them.

A second missing man, Theodore “Ted” Szal, turned up in Oregon.

Szal admits that he simply vanished. There were family issues. A troubled marriage, coupled with a belief that his mother had assisted his wife in getting an abortion.

“I didn’t have too much money. I didn’t have a job. So I drove to the airport, threw my keys down a sewer drain so I wouldn’t change my mind and got on an airplane. That was 35 years ago.”

Thirty five years without a single word to his family. Szal travelled first to Colorado Springs, then California, and finally to Oregon, where he settled down and eventually remarried. He admits that the memory of his family had haunted him, especially on holidays.

“Christmas has been hard. But this year, Christmas is going to be different.”

One of the unidentified bodies is now known to be William George Bundy

For years, Laura O’Leary has visited the graves of her family members in southwest suburban Justice, but she didn’t know her brother was buried in the same cemetery — as an unidentified victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

O’Leary recently learned her missing teenage brother, William George Bundy, was one of Gacy’s eight unidentified victims more than three decades ago. He was buried in Resurrection Catholic Cemetery where his grandparents and an aunt were also laid to rest.

On Tuesday, O’Leary hugged Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to thank him for a DNA initiative that led to her brother’s identification on Nov. 14.

“Today is a terribly sad day for my family. But it is also a day that provides closure,” she said at a news conference with Dart.

Another mother, Sherry Marino, has always wondered if the body buried in the grave she visits frequently is really her 14-year-old son Michael Marino and if he was really a Gacy victim. She plans to have the body exhumed for DNA testing as soon as she can raise the money.

Now that I’ve indulged my fascination with true crime, I’ll give you a few news headlines. Everyone is laughing about Mitt Romney’s Freudian slip at the CPAC conference. He told the audience he was “severely conservative” as Governor of Massachusetts. I say it’s a Freudian slip, because it makes being conservative sound like a disease–that’s probably what Romney really feels in his subconscious mind.

At the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza provides A “Severely Conservative” Lexicon, with examples of the use of the odd expression. Here are a few examples:

“Like so many alcoholics, or criminals, or sexually promiscuous people who reform, Janet had flipped to the opposite extreme, to severely conservative behavior. At some level, Janet was doing penance for her past destructive behavior. She was full of self-hatred and was operating out of fear. ”

“Mastering Your Moods: How to Recognize Your Emotional Style and Make It Work for You,” by Dr. Melvyn Kinder (1994)

“As philosopher James Rachels has observed, ‘the opposite is true: the rule against causing unnecessary pain is the least eccentric of all moral principles, and that rule leads straight to the conclusion that we should abandon the business of meat production and adopt alternative diets. Considered in this light, vegetarianism may be thought of as a severely conservative moral stance.’ ”

“Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?,” by Gary Lawrence Francione (2000)

“Only severely conservative jewelry is worn by the bride. She may wish to wear pearls or other simple jewelry given her as a gift by the groom or her parents.”

“Planning LDS Weddings and Receptions,” by Lois F. Worlton and Opal D. Jasinski (1972, revised edition 1999)

Hmmmm….maybe that’s where Romney picked up the expression.

As everyone knows by now, Rick Santorum is ahead of Mitt Romney in Romney’s home state of Michigan. Santorum is also running neck and neck with Romney in the national polls.

Via Charlie Pierce, right wing Catholics are thrilled that Rick “the Dick” is “fighting the liberal bulldozer.”

Rick Santorum was impossible thirty years ago. If Rip van Winkle woke up today he would be dumbfounded. How could such an overtly religious and socially conservative politician have so much traction on the national scene?

The answer comes from the Left. Since the Sixties our liberal elites have become increasingly anti-religious, increasingly opposed to traditional moral norms, and increasingly aggressive. As a result they have made our national politics much more extreme.

To a great extent, post-sixties American politics has been shaped by liberal aggression. As Lyndon Johnson knew, the Civil Right Act of 1964 would trigger a fundamental shift in national politics. The South would no longer be in the hip pocket of the Democratic Party.

I don’t know how the author of the piece, R.R. Reno, knows this, but he or she says that Johnson didn’t predict “liberal overreach.”

Mandatory school busing—modern liberalism always tends toward coercion—as well as crudely imposed quotas in the 1970s led to a great deal of unhappiness among white ethnic and blue collar voters who had for decades been pillars of the Democratic Party. They weren’t (for the most part) in favor of Jim Crow, but they didn’t like being moved around like chess pieces by liberal elites. It was during those years that the term “limousine liberal” gained currency as a new and telling term of abuse in American political culture.

The Equal Rights Amendment would have encoded gender equality into the Constitution. It seemed a sure thing in the early 1970s. But opposition mounted and it failed to secure ratification. That’s not because most Americans were opposed to women’s liberation. Instead support for the Equal Rights Amendment dwindled because John Q. Voter was coming to see how modern liberals use rights—not as instruments of freedom but as new warrants for social control.

And so on. It’s like going through the looking glass with Alice.

House Republicans have agreed to extend the payroll tax holiday without accompanying cuts.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his top lieutenants said they do not want to be held responsible for the tax increase on 160 million workers that would happen if the tax holiday were not extended.

The two sides have been negotiating for weeks but have been unable to strike a deal. Republicans want to continue negotiations over financing the rest of the original legislative package, including an extension of un­employment benefits and a key tweak to maintain Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, while ensuring that taxes will not rise on workers.

“Because the president and Senate Democratic leaders have not allowed their conferees to support a responsible bipartisan agreement, today House Republicans will introduce a backup plan that would simply extend the payroll tax holiday for the remainder of the year while the conference negotiations continue,” Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a joint statement.

Awwwww…that’s big of you boys. Now you can devote full time to the war on women’s health care.

A famous portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln has turned out to be a fraud.

A long-celebrated portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln which hung for decades in the Illinois governor’s mansion has been deemed a fake.

James Cornelius, the curator of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, described the painting as part of an elaborate fraud that befell President Abraham Lincoln’s descendants in the 1920s, the Chicago Tribune reports.

“It was supposedly a gift Mary Lincoln planned to give to her husband, but then he was assassinated and she became a widow before she could present it to him,” Cornelius told the Tribune Saturday of the painting’s alleged backstory.

But the truth of the matter, as the Daily Journal reports, is that the portrait supposedly painted as a “secret” present for the president actually depicts an unknown woman who was later doctored to look more like Lincoln. Barry Bauman, a conservator, discovered that the “artist’s” signature had been added to the portrait later, while he was cleaning it.

That’s it for me, except to wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day! Are you getting the feeling it isn’t one of my favorite holidays? What can I say? I’m getting old, and I’m jaded about romance.

What are you reading and blogging about today?


Tuesday Reads

Out of Town News, Harvard Square

Good Morning!!

Frankly, I’ll be very glad when this holiday season is over. It goes on way too long. This year I saw Christmas stuff at Halloween! At least I don’t get depressed at this time of year anymore, and I’m very happy for people who enjoy the celebration. I’ll probably have a nice time at Christmas dinner, but why do we need a two month build-up? Please forgive my grumbling…. I’ll get to the news, such as it is.

MSNBC’s First Read reports that Boehner and his merry men in the House “punted” on the payroll tax cut bill last night; supposedly they’ll vote on it today.

House Republican leaders emerged following a meeting with rank-and-file members to say that the House would take up their votes on Tuesday. Lawmakers had planned to vote around 6:30 p.m. ET on Monday evening, but the 6 p.m. meeting of GOP lawmakers lasted longer than expected, over two hours.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said that the House Rules Committee, which sets the parameters for votes in the House, would meet tonight to set the stage for tomorrow’s series of votes. Those Tuesday votes would include a measure to reject the Senate’s two month extension, and instead instruct lawmakers to meet in a conference — the formal process of resolving differences with legislation in the Senate.

“Our members do not want to just punt and do a two-month, short-term fix where we have to come back and do this again,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters at the Capitol.

House Republicans prefer legislation to extend the expiring tax cut by a whole year, and produced legislation to that effect. But Democrats in the Senate rejected that proposal because of some of the cuts used to offset the cost of the bill, which also includes an extension of unemployment insurance.

Meanwhile, Jake Tapper is reporting that the two month extension passed by the Senate and backed by President Obama cannot be implemented in it’s current form.

Officials from the policy-neutral National Payroll Reporting Consortium, Inc. have expressed concern to members of Congress that the two-month payroll tax holiday passed by the Senate and supported by President Obama cannot be implemented properly.

Pete Isberg, president of the NPRC today wrote to the key leaders of the relevant committees of the House and Senate, telling them that “insufficient lead time” to implement the complicated change mandated by the legislation means the two-month payroll tax holiday “could create substantial problems, confusion and costs affecting a significant percentage of U.S. employers and employees.”

ABC News obtained a copy of the letter, which can be read HERE. Isberg agreed that it would be fair to characterize his letter as saying that the two-month payroll tax holiday cannot be implemented properly.

Why on earth can’t those morons on Capital Hill just extend the unemployment insurance for Pete’s sake? The Congressional Republicans make Scrooge look like a piker when it comes to mean-spiritedness. Aren’t most of them supposed to be “Christians?” Good grief!

Please, can’t someone force Boehner and Cantor to visit some homeless shelters and perhaps some parks and street corners in Washington D.C., where no doubt some of the 1.6 million homeless children in the U.S. reside? One out of every 45 kids in this country were homeless last year! And these evil bastards are trying to make this horrendous situation worse!

A huge winter storm was pounding the Southwest and the lower Great Plains States last night.

Interstates and highways were shut down Monday night as a large winter weather system brought heavy snow, fierce winds and ice to at least five states in the West and Midwest.

There were blizzard conditions in parts of western Kansas and southeast Colorado, with visibility of less than a quarter-mile, said Ariel Cohen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

A blizzard warning was in effect for those areas along with northeastern New Mexico, the northwest Texas panhandle and the Oklahoma panhandle, he said. The severe weather was starting to affect Missouri late Monday, with a winter weather advisory in effect for the northwest corner of the state.

Roads were closed in Texas and New Mexico because of blizzard conditions. Wow, some of those people rarely see snow. If you live in the storm area, please stay inside and don’t drive!

The New York Times calls handling of Kim Jong Il’s death “an extensive intelligence failure.”

Kim Jong-il, the enigmatic North Korean leader, died on a train at 8:30 a.m. Saturday in his country. Forty-eight hours later, officials in South Korea still did not know anything about it — to say nothing of Washington, where the State Department acknowledged “press reporting” of Mr. Kim’s death well after North Korean state media had already announced it.

For South Korean and American intelligence services to have failed to pick up any clues to this momentous development — panicked phone calls between government officials, say, or soldiers massing around Mr. Kim’s train — attests to the secretive nature of North Korea, a country not only at odds with most of the world but also sealed off from it in a way that defies spies or satellites.

Asian and American intelligence services have failed before to pick up significant developments in North Korea. Pyongyang built a sprawling plant to enrich uranium that went undetected for about a year and a half until North Korean officials showed it off in late 2010 to an American nuclear scientist. The North also helped build a complete nuclear reactor in Syria without tipping off Western intelligence.

As the United States and its allies confront a perilous leadership transition in North Korea — a failed state with nuclear weapons — the closed nature of the country will greatly complicate their calculations. With little information about Mr. Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong-un, and even less insight into the palace intrigue in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, much of their response will necessarily be guesswork.

Not good. Maybe the CIA and NSA should concentrate on actual intelligence gathering rather than bugging Americans phone calls and reading their e-mails and tweets and Facebook postings.

Did you notice that Jeb Bush had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday? With Gingrich tanking and Ron Paul rising in Iowa, are the Republicans getting ready to push another Bush for president? Charlie Pierce of Esquire thinks it looks that way:

He was supposed to be the savvy one, the presidential one, not that dolt of a brother who ducked his National Guard duty, ran several businesses into the dust of west Texas, got drunk and challenged the Auld Fella to a fistfight, and kept driving his car into the bushes. But the dolt got Daddy’s money and Daddy’s lawyers behind him and got installed as president, where he did his utmost to lodge the family brand somewhere between those enjoyed by Corvair and leprosy. Meanwhile, the golden child got to be governor of Florida for a while longer.

And now, in the widening gyre, slouching toward Manchester to be born, our moment of… Jeb (!)

Make no mistake. You don’t write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal at this point in the Republican primary process unless somebody, somewhere wants to make people think you’re an legitimate option. You certainly don’t write one as stuffed full of free-market banana-oil as this one unless somebody, somewhere wants to raise enough money to make the world think you’re a legitimate option. There was enough Jeb (!) buzz over the weekend that it’s becoming plain that some very important someone’s have looked over the current Republican field and decided that, by god, it’s just bad enough that there’s room in there to bring back the most discredited surname in American politics. The slogan writes itself:

“Jeb! This time, let’s try the smart one.”

I don’t know. I don’t think any of the Bushes are all that bright. They’re way too inbred. Maybe another Bush presidency is what the Mayans predicted as the world-ending event?

I’ll end with an upbeat story. Remember Jessica Lynch? She just graduated from college.

I don’t really like to talk about what it took to get here. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, or to think I don’t know how fortunate I am. Everyone else in my vehicle in Iraq was killed. My best friend, Lori Piestewa, died as a prisoner of war. I’m still here.

I’m also incredibly proud of this moment. I always dreamed of becoming a teacher, ever since my own kindergarten teacher took me under her wing when I was frightened on the first day of school. We are still in touch today. That’s the kind of teacher I want to be.

In the eight years since my captivity, I’ve had 21 surgeries. I have metal parts in my spine, a rod in my right arm, and metal in my left femur and fibula. My right foot is held together by screws, plates, rods, and pins. I have no feeling in my left leg from the knee down, and I wear a brace every day. Sometimes I’ll get a flash of pain, or feel upset because I can’t run, and then I’ll remind myself: I’m alive. I’m here. Take some ibuprofen.

Go read the whole thing. It’s not very long, and it’s a nice, inspirational story.

Now what are you reading and blogging about today?


Social Security: Why mess with an American Success Story?

I spent most of the day listening to the Bernie Sanders show, but stories of the joint Clinton/Obama presser that turned into the Bill Clinton show grabbed my interest.  I have more than a passing interest in Social Security.  I haven’t paid into it for about 15 years, but I have an exhusband who has and I have 20 years worth of dibs on his account.  I’m a tailend boomer with a much smaller nest egg  post Financial Crisis than pre Financial Crisis.  Ex Hubby’s social security and his pension plan loom on my horizon.  They stop me from having bag lady nightmares.

So, what’s all this talk about a payroll tax holiday and why, all the sudden, is the Cat Food Commission’s foray into social security creeping me out?  Well, for one I think that a lot of people–including the President–don’t seem to get social security, its history,  its issues, and its challenges and that always irks me.  For another, I think it opens this trap door to having more of my future Shanghaied.   I don’t want any more of anything related to my future going off to Shanghai.

So, since the President–among others–is spreading disinformation about the Social Security program, I thought I’d take the time to remind you that I wrote a four part series on Social Security in May 2009.  If you want a little background and perspective, you can go check it out.  (Fortunately, it’s here in the file cabinet portion of Sky Dancing.) It is all based on Academic work and people that do active research on the program, its solvency, and its issues.

First, here’s a list of links to those old posts of mine:

Social Security: Reform, Refund or Opt-Out (Part 1) Introduction

Social Security: Reform, Refund or Opt-Out (Part 2) Public Pension Concepts and Alternatives

Social Security: Reform, Refund or Opt-Out? (Part 3) Lessons from the World

Social Security: Reform, Refund, or Opt Out? (Part 4) What to do when Pensions are out of balance

I wanted to point these out since I don’t want to completely reinvent the conversation here.  The government has a website that it dedicated solely to the Social Security Act of 1935.  There are still many, many people that do a lot of research in the area.   Here is a link to one of the new studies that looks at the impact of increasing the level of maximum earnings subject to Social Security and its impact on the program. This is one of the things that is being suggested to increase funding for social security.   Here is a brief from the National Academy of Social Insurance that looks at various funding formulas. This group is actually associated with actuaries so it is quite statistics intensive. Findings specific to this brief are:

  • The number of Social Security beneficiaries per 100 covered workers will increase from 30 in 2005 to 46 in 2030 and to 50 in 2050.
  • Social Security benefits will rise from 4.3 percent as a share of the total economy today to 6.1 percent in 2030.
  • When baby boomers are retired, the total number of people each worker supports(including workers themselves, children, retirees, and other nonworking adults) will not be as large as it was when the baby boomers were children.
  • As a share of the total economy, spending for Social Security benefits when baby boomers are retired will grow less than spending for public education grew when baby boomers were children.
  • While baby boomers may have been a surprise when they turned up in record numbers to enroll in kindergarten in the 1950s, their retirement six decades later is not.  Policymakers began to plan as early as 1983, when Congress lowered the cost of  Social Security benefits for boomers and later generations by raising the age at which unreduced retirement benefits will be paid.
  • Workers’ wages are projected to grow in real terms (that is, faster than inflation). By 2030, real wages will increase 33 percent. Even if policymakers chose to balance Social Security’s finances solely by a tax rate increase, workers’ net wages (after paying the higher tax) would still be 28 percent higher than they are today.
  • While earnings that are taxed to pay for Social Security represent 38 percent of the total economy, other national income is not taxed for Social Security purposes.
  • Broadening the tax base, reducing scheduled benefits, raising the Social Security tax  rate, or allocating other kinds of revenue to Social Security are ways to improve Social Security finances.

So, you can see this isn’t an urgent issue right now. I guess my  point is that the ‘sudden’ urgency we seem to have with social security is not something out of the blue and it’s not something that  hasn’t been discussed, planned for, or actually worked on.   As recently as August, the President himself gave a speech saying just these things which is why I am so confused about the Cat Food Commission’s dalliance with the program.

President Obama said Social Security is not in crisis and only modest changes are needed to keep it solvent.

The president acknowledged at a small town hall gathering in Columbus, Ohio, Wednesday that the pension fund “has to be tweaked because the population is getting older” but said Republicans’ plans to drastically overhaul the program are wrong.

“Social Security is not in crisis,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to make some modest adjustments in order to strengthen it.”

I also wanted to bring up a little bit on the idea of Payroll Tax Holidays and that bizarre Clinton/Obama presser today.  I’m even more confused by this sudden urge to create a payroll tax holiday. This is an odd thing.

The tax deal reached between President Obama and congressional Republicans could mean a higher tax bill for roughly one in three workers as a result of the Social Security tax cut Republicans pushed as a replacement for the current Making Work Pay tax credit.

The Making Work Pay credit gives workers up to $400, paid out at 8 percent of income, meaning that anybody making at least $5,000 gets the full amount — and gets as much as anybody else. Its replacement knocks two percentage points off the payroll tax cut, meaning a worker would need to make $20,000 to get a $400 break. Of the nation’s roughly 150 million workers, around 50 million make less than $20,000 and will see at least some increase as a result.

Additionally, roughly a quarter of 20 million state and local workers pay no payroll tax, because they have a separate pension system. Some of those workers with children will benefit from the extension of other tax credits, but overall will have less money in their pocket.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said many House liberals were opposed to the payroll tax cut because of its effect on the poorest workers. Progressives are also concerned that the tax cut will become permanent and undermine Social Security’s funding stream and political support over time.

Social Security is a stand alone program.  Mixing it as part of a goodie bag with other tax things doesn’t strike me as a very good idea from a political standpoint.  It’s not part of the general budget.  It’s a form of insurance.  We (or in my case, my exhusband mostly) paid into it.  Why mix it up with other tax give aways?

I did go hunting about for information on Payroll Tax Holidays to see if they really could stimulate the economy effectively.  One of my issues is that I know that the FICA taxes are regressive because of the maximum income ceiling so I thought that the spending impact couldn’t be very large. So, it seems like getting rid of some of those taxes really gives more to the rich than the poor. Rich folks really aren’t very reliable spenders.  Turns out, my hunch was studied and released in early 2009 at CBPP.  They basically say that the biggest benefits would go to workers least likely to spend the money. That also seems to be every one’s take on this program.  Also, there are people like me who worked for states and municipalities that don’t do Social Security. We don’t get a thing from this.

A payroll tax holiday, however, would both be costly — a two-month suspension could cost about $120 billion, for example — and likely relatively ineffective as a stimulus measure.  Public resources would be better spent on stimulus measures with a higher “bang for the buck,” such as the Making Work Pay tax cut that President-elect Obama has proposed.

Economic stimulus measures aim to encourage an immediate increase in aggregate demand by boosting consumer spending.  The most efficient way to boost consumer spending is to put money into the hands of people who will spend it quickly rather than save it; tax cuts focused on moderate- and low-income households are more effective as stimulus than tax cuts that are larger for people with higher incomes, because people at low-income levels spend a larger share of tax cuts they receive than people at higher income levels do.

A payroll tax holiday does not score well on this front — too little of the benefit goes to lower-income households struggling to make ends meet and too much goes to higher-income taxpayers, who are likely to save a significant fraction of any new resources they receive.  Under the payroll tax, employees pay tax of 6.2 percent on earnings up to $106,800.  So, for example, a worker earning $10,000 would receive a tax cut of just $103 from a two-month payroll tax holiday, while a worker earning ten times as much ($100,000) would receive a tax cut ten times as big — $1,030.  Indeed, the highest-income fifth of households could receive more than half of the benefits that would go to workers from a two-month payroll tax holiday.

So, when President Clinton got up to day in a presser with Obama to support this comprise deal, I was really confused.  It seemed like a double play triangulation move with a snagglepuss type-exit stage-left by POTUS. You can say a lot about Clinton–both good and bad–but he does understand his economic theory. Why would he support this?

Clinton comfortably outlined how the pending package of tax cuts, business incentives and unemployment benefits would boost the economy – even though it included tax help for the wealthy that Obama had to swallow.

“There’s never a perfect bipartisan bill in the eyes of a partisan,” Clinton said. “But I really believe this will be a significant net-plus for the country.”

When he finished his pitch, Clinton played the role of humble guy, saying, “So, for whatever it’s worth, that’s what I think.”

So, it all boils down to what can we get something past the Republicans?  This entire deal puts Social Security in an awkward light. It also uses money for a payroll tax holiday that probably isn’t as efficacious as it could be if put to other uses.  It also plays into the idea that giving taxes back to rich people stimulates the economy enough (VOODOO economics).  It also indicates that playing up to adherents of VooDoo economics is worth adding to the deficit and to the problems with the deficit and the challenges social security faces in the future. It sets them up to make bigger arguments down the line.

I guess after reviewing everything, I just don’t see how this is worth it. Passing all of this because it’s the best you can do given the state of the Republican Klan in Kongress just isn’t good enough for me.  It opens up too many issues in other areas.  However, this is the graph they’re circulating as a White House talking point to show how Obama got the better deal. This is the graph that has Charles Krauthammer’s tie in a too tight double Windsor knot so much that Clinton brought it up.

I’m not buying it.  How about you?