Friday Reads

Good Morning!!

I’m hoping that Wisconsin represents a tipping point in Republican overreach.  Fourteen Democratic Senators from Wisconsin are holing up in a Best Western in Rockford Illinois while the Governor and State Senate President send out the state troopers to find them and bring them back for a vote they will lose. That’s right.  A United States Governor is using police tactics on elected officials.  He’s also ready to call out the national guard to deal with a lawful gathering of students, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, nurses, civil engineers, doctors, and file clerks.  It’s six am.  Do you know where your constitutional rights are?

Will this be the day that Republican attempts to remove collective bargaining rights from government workers ends? TPM has evidence that right wing Republican Governor Scott Walker Ginned up a Budget battle to bust state employee’s unions by passing irresponsible tax cuts the moment he hit the office.

“Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control,” says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future — a public interest think tank. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”

“The state of Wisconsin has not reached the point at which austerity measures are needed,” Norman adds.

In a Wednesday op-ed, the Capitol Times of Madison picked up on this theme.

In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state’s budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.

Meanwhile, Republicans are escalating the rhetoric on budget doom and gloom–after pushing for draconian tax cuts for billionaires in December–on the Federal level too. Boehner is talking shutting down the Government once again.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday ruled out a short-term government-funding bill that maintains current levels of federal spending, escalating a standoff with Democrats and President Obama that could result in a government shutdown.

“I am not going to move any kind of short-term [funding bill] at current levels,” he told reporters at his weekly press conference.

“When we say we’re going to cut spending, read my lips, we’re going to cut spending,” Boehner added, invoking George H.W. Bush’s infamous and ultimately broken pledge on taxes during the 1988 presidential campaign.

Democratic Senate leaders refused to budge, saying a short-term bill should keep current funding levels in place. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) likened Boehner’s comment to “throwing down the gauntlet.”

Let’s hope we get the same kind of Senate leadership on the national level as Wisconsin workers are getting from their Democratic Senators.  How do you build an economy when the decision makers do things that remove incomes and jobs from ordinary Americans?

Paul Krugman’s “Willie Sutton Wept” is a must read. He explains three things you need to know about the current budget debate.  I think it’s an important read because I spent some time last night listening to multiple news outlets filled with chattering class idiots insisting that all economists think the deficit is the most pressing problem the country faces.  I personally can’t name ONE economist that does.

There are three things you need to know about the current budget debate. First, it’s essentially fraudulent. Second, most people posing as deficit hawks are faking it. Third, while President Obama hasn’t fully avoided the fraudulence, he’s less bad than his opponents — and he deserves much more credit for fiscal responsibility than he’s getting.

About the fraudulence: Last month, Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center described the president as the “anti-Willie Sutton,” after the holdup artist who reputedly said he robbed banks because that’s where the money is. Indeed, Mr. Obama has lately been going where the money isn’t, making a big deal out of a freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending, which accounts for only 12 percent of the budget.

But that’s what everyone does. House Republicans talk big about spending cuts — but focus solely on that same small budget sliver.

And by proposing sharp spending cuts right away, Republicans aren’t just going where the money isn’t, they’re also going when the money isn’t. Slashing spending while the economy is still deeply depressed is a recipe for slower economic growth, which means lower tax receipts — so any deficit reduction from G.O.P. cuts would be at least partly offset by lower revenue.

The whole budget debate, then, is a sham. House Republicans, in particular, are literally stealing food from the mouths of babes — nutritional aid to pregnant women and very young children is one of the items on their cutting block — so they can pose, falsely, as deficit hawks.

We have a staggering rate of unemployment with underlying employment trends that are not good.  Some sectors of the economy, some groups of workers, and many states are in dire straights.  I would never believe that a group of people that have lived so close to the precipice that was The Great Depression can be suggesting what they are suggesting now.  Either they seriously want to take the country down or they are so stupid and corrupt that they know not what they are doing and they don’t care what they are doing.  Our economy is not by any real standard experiencing a good and sustained recovery from a devastating financial crisis.  There is weakness in nearly every sector. The only way to grow the economy and to eventually shrink the deficit is through job and economic growth.  Every decision maker that I hear these days is aiming policy in the opposite direction and taking away every single means available to make it so.

I’d just like to ask you one question.  Was your future destroyed by the burden of paying for the debt and deficits that resulted from World War 2?  We’re still paying that down so we should have had a really really horrible economy for the last 60 years if you follow the line of thought of these people screaming about the deficit.  Would you have rather they didn’t run any deficit and just called off the entire Omaha Beach thing?  Would your life had been better now for that decision?  Do you think your life would be better if they’d have not ever offered student loans, or PBS,  or undertaken the burden of an interstate system?  Do you feel your life is burdened by paying for the Interstate system?

Some times you have to take on long term debt for the big things.  We have a big country with a big GDP.  We can handle the debt.  What we can’t handle is sustained loss of jobs and incomes for the majority of people.   They’re downsizing all of us and upsizing their billionaire friends lives.  Every one of us should be willing to take to the street like the folks in Wisconsin to stop that.  Every Senator and Congressman that believes in the American Middle class should be willing to shut down the workings of congress if it’s necessary to stop this assault on public goods and public servants.

Pro-democracy protesters in the small monarchy of Bharain continues to experience the full force of government oppression in their struggle for reform.  American produced tear gas came into play yet again.

Armored cars are now patrolling the streets of the capital, and all further protests have been banned by the authorities. But sporadic clashes have occurred in different parts of the city.

A statement from the Ministry of Interior claimed that the authorities had attempted to negotiate a peaceful end to the demonstration.

“Security forces evacuated the area of Pearl Roundabout from protesters, after trying all opportunities for dialogue with them, in which some positively responded and left quietly,” the statement read.

However, human rights activists were quick to dismiss these reports, and Al Jazeera reported that the protesters were asleep when the police raid began and that medical staff attending the wounded were among those beaten by police.

The violence comes on the fourth consecutive day of protests since demonstrators staged a ‘Day of Rage’ on Feb. 14, with two protesters killed earlier in the week. In the aftermath of these fatalities, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa issued an apology and promised an investigation into excessive police violence.

Bahrain is an interesting Gulf Nation in that it has predominately Shia Muslim but the ruling family is Sunni.  Sunnis enjoy the majority of the wealth and benefits here as was the case in Iraq so there are tensions between the two sects. Most of the Gulf states are predominately Sunni. Sunnis represent the middle class here while Shia are poor.  There appears to be some interesting bedfellows made as a result of the protests.  Bahrain is an important US alley because of its strategic location as home for the US Navy’s fifth fleet.  It has a lot of natural gas but a small and dwindling amount of petroleum, as such, it is not as wealthy as many of its neighbors. The Al Khalifah dynasty appears unwilling to compromise at this point, but time will tell.

The SEC may be getting ready take Freddie Mac officials to court.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has escalated its investigation into mortgage financer Freddie Mac’s disclosures to investors and has notified at least one former official that it intends to file civil charges against him.

Anthony “Buddy” Piszel, who was chief financial officer of Freddie Mac from 2006 until 2008 when the government placed it in conservatorship, received a “Wells notice” from the SEC, according to Corelogic, a California company where he is chief financial officer. A Wells notice is an indication that the SEC staff intends to recommend to its five-member commission that it file civil charges. Corelogic disclosed the Wells notice on February 10 and said Mr Piszel had submitted his resignation, but would stay until June.

The SEC has investigated Freddie before for possible fraudulent accounting practices and problems related to disclosure and corporate governance. Freddie Mac was formed in the 1970s to give money to mortgage lenders to be used for house loans. It’s the largest buyer and packager of house loans in the mortgage market.  It is publicly held and currently bankrupt.

So, the world around us changing.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?

Just Don’t Take Mine

I wrote a little on the disturbing level of economic illiteracy I see throughout the country yesterday.  A CBS Poll came out on what Americans want done with Federal Spending and it just screams stupidity.  The overwhelming majority of people want spending cuts in the Federal Budget, but they can’t name many things that they want cut.  It seems like there’s this resounding chorus out there of give me my taxes back and do cuts on imaginary spending. Then, it’s just don’t cut anything I use or think is important. I’m going to cite this last paragraph in the article .  It’s probably the most relevant.  (There’s more discussion links on this at Memeorandum.)

Most Americans do not know exactly how the government spends its money. For example, when asked what percent of the budget goes to earmarks, 41 percent said they make up less than 20 percent of the budget, 13 percent said 20-50 percent, 4 percent said more than 50 percent and 42 percent didn’t know. Earmarks actually make up less than one percent of the budget.

I always hear students say they want to quit giving money away to other countries too.  We give less than one half percent of our budget to other countries.  The best place to look for budget information is the Congressional Budget Office website.  That’s where I got the graph you see in the upper right hand corner.  That’s a comparison of Federal Spending (green) and Federal Incomes (blue) since 1980.  The gap between the two at any one point in time is the federal deficit for that year.You can distinctly see the period during the Clinton Budget Surpluses because that’s where the blue lines is above the green line.  All other periods show more spending than revenues.   The Reagan and Bush years were years of explosive spending growth.  You can also see the huge gap that started around 2008 when the Great Recession took hold.  Nearly each of the down turns recently has been due to huge tax breaks combined with bad economies.

A pie chart shown on a breaks down the expenditures by the funded Department.  It also adds Social Security into the mix which is the number one federal outlay. (Ryan Witt’s chart analysis here. Read the comments and embrace the number of people that need to go back to school.)  Social Security–however–is sustained at the moment by more revenues than outlays.  The Department of Defense comes after that.  It gets about 19% of the overall budget.  Right now, because of the ‘cyclical’, mandatory spending that occurs due to our bad economy and our high unemployment, you can see that unemployment/welfare payments mandated by law come after that (16%), followed by Medicare which is also offset by payroll taxes at the moment (13%) then Medicaid/SCHIP funding (8%). The Department of Health and Human Services gets about 8%.

The next biggest expenditure is paying the interest on the National Debt.  Thankfully, interest rates are low so that amounts to around 5% currently.  You can compare this pie chart to the one below and see how lower interest rates combined with higher outlays really helped to push that percentage down.. The next most noticeable part is the Transportation department that gets about 2% of the budget. Most of the remaining major Departments like Homeland Security, Energy, Education, etc. get some where around 1-1 and 1/2%.  Veteran’s Affairs gets a fairly noticeable slice too albeit not huge.

I’ve also put a pie chart of Federal Outlays  for 2009 to  the left that is some what more general. Notice how huge the Treasury budget was because of TARP (now mostly paid back) and the other bailouts.  There are several reasons that the budget deficit has been so bad the last few years.  The primary reason is the bad economy because that forces revenues down and outlays up.  The second reason is the Bush taxes cuts that were just extended and expanded for the next two years.  We’re basically spending at relative levels right now that we’ve not seen since World War 2.  We are of course funding two occupations/wars and a ‘war’ on Terror. Some people want to conveniently forget that.   When the economy finally improves and we do actually shut down Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of our budget headaches will go away.

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Who are the Real Welfare Queens?*

*Well, one of them is Michelle Bachmann.

Having lived in the middle of the country all of my life in the biggest cities in large states with geographically huge rural areas, I’m more than aware of the urban v. rural dilemma of where you raise taxes and where you spend them.  All of these states are also bright red for the most part.  Iowa and Minnesota occasionally go blue these days.

One of the biggest disparities always comes with distribution of highway taxes. In Nebraska, as example a huge amount of tax dollars for taxes are raised by Lincoln and Omaha, but the majority of the highway dollars are spent on maintaining and building roads to almost no where. Visiting Cherry County Nebraska is a trip to nowhere. It’s a beautiful part of the state, it’s the state’s biggest county.  It’s basically the Nebraska outback and there are more cows and buffalo than people.  According to Wiki,  Cherry County ‘had a population of 6,148 at the 2000 census“.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 6,010 square miles (15,565 km²). 5,961 square miles (15,438 km²) of it is land and 49 square miles (127 km²) of it (0.82%) is water. It is by far the largest county in land area in Nebraska and larger than the states of Connecticut, Delaware, or Rhode Island.

My friends from other countries–especially from Europe–or friends from the NE do not really understand the idea of starting a drive on the east side of a state and taking all day to get to the other.  A drive across states like North or South Dakota,  Montana or Wyoming is where you get the real feel of the term the American Outback.  Even on the interstate, you see more antelope and cows then you ever see people.  You can actually go miles before you get even get a rest stop.  It’s that vast.

So, I was born in the town that is home to the Pioneer Woman Museum.  That’s the little town of Ponca City, Oklahoma. My great grandmother’s maiden name was Chisholm.  Yes, that Chisholm.  I come from a long line of Pioneer women.  I went to the same University as Willa Cather and I celebrated the centennial of Nebraska in 4th grade by spending some time with our school in a mock up of a pioneer school.  We wore bloomers and long dresses and bonnets. We sat our benches and wrote on our own little chalk boards.  I have to admit, the first set of books I read all the way through was the Little House on the Prairie series.  My father’s side of the family is a wonderful blend of German and Irish immigrants and Native Americans.  Yes, My Antonia is one of my favorite books. It’s about the Great Nebraskan Outbook.   I remember the uproar when the Poppers presented their “Buffalo Commons” idea.  It was a major controversy.

The Buffalo Commons is a conceptual proposal to create a vast nature preserve by returning 139,000 square miles (360,000 km2) of the drier portion of the Great Plains to native prairie, and by reintroducing the buffalo, or American Bison, that once grazed the shortgrass prairie. The proposal would affect ten Western U.S. states (Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas).

Some of the Buffalo Commons idea has evolved naturally.  Ted Turner actually owns a lot of the Nebraskan outback and has turned his land into Buffalo Ranches.  He’s done this in several Western States including Montana. In the 80s, I worked as a consultant to the State’s Department of Economic Development and as a consultant to many small towns trying to keep the only industry in the county.  I consulted with chicken slaughtering plants, plants making parts of bombs, plants making parts for cars, plants making taco chips, and all kinds of things.  With that much territory and that few people, it’s hard to get a tax base to support roads, schools, government, parks, libraries, and all the things that folks on the east and west coast take for granted.  When you come from pioneer stock or the Native American tribes in the region, you really do relish a sense of self reliance in a very big land.  Yet, like many of the myths of the Old West, the New West is a lot more swagger than reality.  Native American tribes may do it on their own, but the sons and daughters of pioneers have their own special welfare state going.

However, that sense of rugged independence is belied by the facts.  Ah, yes, we’ve finally gotten to the purpose of all my romanticizing of childhood on the edge of nowhere that I really would’ve traded for Manhattan. We subsidize the Prairie Dream hugely.  They don’t like to admit it in the list of states proposed as locations for a great huge nature preserve, but they are welfare queens.

Jeff Frankel took a lot of numbers and came up with the graph and results in Red States, Blue States and the Distribution of Federal Spending.  I’ve never lived in a state that has paid more in federal taxes than it receives.  That’s the big lie in this part of the country.  We need the very blue states that most of the folks despise. We’ve talked about this before, but Frankel’s Weblog has the numbers.

The accompanying chart contains 50 data points, one for each state.  The data are from 2005, the most recent year available.  One axis ranks states by the ratio of income received by that state from the federal government, per dollar of tax revenue paid to the federal government.   Personally, I think the “red state / blue state” distinction is overdone.  But to capture the widely felt tension between the heartland and the coastal urban centers, I have put on the other axis the ratio of votes for the Republican candidate versus the Democratic candidate in the most recent presidential election.

It will come as a surprise to some, but not to others, that there is a fairly strong statistical relationship, but that the direction is the opposite from what you would think if you were listening to rhetoric from Republican conservatives:   The red states (those that vote Republican) generally receive more subsidies from the federal government than they pay in taxes; in other words they are further to the right in the graph.  It is the other way around with the blue states (those that vote Democratic).

One reason is that the red states on average have lower population; thus their two Senators give them higher per capita representation in Washington than the blue states get, which translates into more federal handouts.    The top ten feeders at the federal trough in 2005 were: New Mexico, Mississippi, Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama, South Dakota, Kentucky and Virginia.   (Sarah Palin’s home state of Alaska ranks number one if measured in terms of federal spending per capita.  Alabama Senator Shelby evidently gets goodies for his state, ranked 7, by indiscriminately holding up votes on administration appointments.)  The top ten milk cows were: New Jersey, Nevada, Connecticut, Minnesota, Illinois, Delaware, California, New York, and Colorado.

Perhaps in determining how the federal government redistributes income across states one should view its role more expansively than is captured in the budget numbers.     In the western states there are federal water projects that subsidize water for farmers, artificially low grazing fees for ranchers, and leases for hard rock mining and oil drilling on federal lands that have historically charged artificially low prices.   Perhaps the biggest federal redistribution program of all is massive agricultural subsidies.  The four congressional districts that receive the most in farm subsidies are all represented by “conservative” Republicans, located in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Texas.  (Michele Bachmann’s family farm apparently received $250,000 in such farm payments between 1995 and 2006.)

The most commonly ignored area of geographical redistribution is the federal government’s permanent policy of “universal service” in postal delivery, phone service and other utilities (electricity; perhaps now broadband…).  Universal service means subsidizing those who choose to live in remote places like Alaska, where the cost of supplying these services is much higher than in the coastal cities.   Perhaps they should move…

It’s nice to see that some one is setting the record straight.  The transfer of taxpayer wealth is going to places that aren’t the memes of either the tea party, the Republican Party, screamers like Glenn Beck, or fuzzy thinkers like Michelle Bachmann.  The true welfare state recipients are the ones that scream the loudest about the welfare state. This hardly fits in with their message of doing it without the help of big government.