Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Tribalism In America: a Case Study

I'm grabbing this Tweet and thread for the file for future reference. No way to know if it marks an end or beginning of big changes. Either way it's like a flash mob, a happening, a sign of the times. Decades from now this may seem quaint or faddish but at the moment it strikes me as just amusing.
America is once again experiencing a retrograde period in our young history as a nation. Many writers are describing the current administration and Congress as one of the most corrupt on record, perhaps even the worst. In any case, the retraction of "net neutrality" (and the improving skill sets of hackers, leakers and armies of robots) means the web, like some wild animal, is being captured and tamed by forces beyond the reach of democratic oversight. 
Most people, distracted by bread and circuses, are oblivious. But this development is hugely important. 
It challenges my optimism. 
But just as I'm grateful to have seen first-hand two terms of a black president, I know we are living in the historic aftermath of those eight years. 
A year ago whoever we elected president was called Leader of the Free World. During the following months that title lost meaning. Germany, Russia and China, like sports teams competing for a World Series or Super Bowl, are now challengers for that title. 
Here is the Propublica link inspiring these reactions. 
Meantime, enjoy the clown show between featured attractions...

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Child Poverty & Other Trends -- A Twitter Thread by Noah Smith

[Curating note: This is clumsy reading because I failed to uncheck "parent tweet" when copying the embed code. I discovered my mistake about halfway through and decided to finish with the mistake for the sake of consistency. I will not make that mistake in future. Too much hard work to correct.]

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Social Security Comments, January, 2005

An article by Will Wilkinson, HOW LIBERTARIAN DEMOCRACY SKEPTICISM INFECTED THE AMERICAN RIGHT [their all-caps font, not mine] was linked by 3Quarks Daily.
It caught my eye with the word "libertarian." I read with interest (and more than a little bad attitude) until I noticed the name of the writer, Will Wilkinson.
That name rang a bell, and sure enough I came across him seven or eight years ago and noted something he wrote then at my old blog. The title here links the original, but it loads slowly and all the hyperlinks have since gone dark, so I curated it here at my new blog for easier access.


Individual Security, a new phrase

As the national debate about Social Security heats up (or maybe we need to change the name to Individual Security, since many of the arguments I am reading aim to torpedo any "Social" aspects of the program) it gets harder to see through the smoke and mirrors. I sense yet another polarization in progress, very much like the debates about gay marriage, abortion and the war in Iraq: if you ain't fer it, then you must be agin' it.

I'm biased because my own experience witnessed my parents with nothing to show for a lifetime of work by my father and a lifetime of homemaking by my mother, other than Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, supplemented by the resources of my sister and me in our parents' declining years.

I feel assured that our safety nets will probably not be disturbed by the current debate. Politicians have learned that any problems they create will be ticking bombs that only detonate after they are no longer around to catch the flack. Can you say "social security"?

Yesterday I received a billet-doux from the Social Security Administration summarizing my "account" (with only the last four digits printed, incidentally, "to help prevent identity theft") and spelling out what my "benefits" would be under various scenarios. This morning I came across a helpful on-line "calculator" [link now vanished] sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, to calculate the startling improvements that would be available to owners of private accounts when compared with the dismal results to be obtained by the current system of Social Security.

I came by this site via another site called The Fly Bottle, attracted by a headline that read "How Much Does SS Screw You?"  I read the comment "Now, what's supposed to be the problem with this, exactly, especially when much poorer folk than me can also expect to be doing a lot better? Why are so many people so eager to oppose a program that makes almost everyone better off? I find it truly baffling."

I next checked the source. Will Wilkinson. Policy analyst for the Cato Institute. Smart young man, born in 1973, worked at George Mason U. Interested in a bunch of important-sounding, challenging intellectual stuff...
My areas of philosophical interest as I write are metaethics, political philosophy, the philosophy of the social sciences, the cognitive sciences, and evolutionary psychology. I am especially interested in contractarian moral and political theory, the nature of moral progress, and the relation of findings in the cognitive sciences to the theory of rational choice. My historical interests include, inter alia, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Reid, Hume, Nietzsche, and Sidgwick. My contemporary-ish philosophical influences include W.V. Quine, Friedrich Hayek, David Armstrong, Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, and John Rawls. I have a longstanding interest in libertarian [Edit: this link still works, but I have no way of knowing if the content has changed since 2005] political theory, especially the development of libertarian conceptions of equality and positive liberty.
Metaethics? My emphasis above. word for me. Have to look that one up.
[The term has disappeared from Mr. Wilkinson's current bio sketch. ]

I've learned to watch out for that word libertarian because I really like most of what they talk about. Problem is, I read Atlas Shrugged in high school, when it was all the rage, and it struck me as wildly over-romantic, fantastical, and pretty unrealistic, with all that hand-shaking going on to clinch deals, with no witnesses or lawyers pouring over the details, and spectacular results deriving from clever people making all the right choices. I never read that entire speech of John Galt in detail, because I could see that a droning litany such as that would never catch the imagination of simple people on the sidewalk any more than the inscrutable remarks of Alan Greenspan when he talks to Congress.

Have I said enough to reveal all my biases? I hope so. Because what I say next is not spin. It is reality. Easy to grasp ideas and numbers that are not misleading in any way. Please follow me...

This fellow Will Wilkinson is certain that Social Security is one of the evil remnants of our unhappy past. Otherwise that title reference to "screw you" would not have been the idiom of choice. He must further believe that the Heritage Foundation's calculator is a reliable tool for analytical purposes or he would not have linked to that site. I would like to respectfully disagree with both of those points.

I am more impressed with the WSJ column Thursday by David Wessel [another vanished link] who interview David Gremlich, a former Fed governor who once served on a Social Security advisory commission. Mr. Gremlich is in favor of encouraging people to save, but doesn't think that a 100% tax credit, dollar for dollar, against Social Security contributions is the way to do it.

(I think that's what's being proposed...earmarking individual tax dollars for those from whom they were collected, thus upsetting the actuarial benefit of their untimely early demise by passing those earmarked assets to their respective estates rather than using them as part of the collective safety net for survivors. The next step, not being discussed at this point, of course, will be the proportional reduction of survivor benefits for those whose estates have been awarded to survivors. Otherwise, survivors of individual accounts would fare better than those who failed or opted not to participate in any proposed plan.)

He said:
I'd like to protect the basic benefits, but we need more saving. We need it because people don't save enough for retirement. We need it to finance the benefit system we have. And need it for the nation's macroeconomics. One way to get new saving is to raise payroll taxes. I didn't think that was either politically feasible or necessary. Another way is to mandate that people save a bit on top of Social Security. This differs from a tax increase because they would ultimately get the money back, but the main motivation is to increase national saving. Increasing national saving implies reducing consumption. It's not a surprise that this is a hard sell.

He added a dose of reality when he said...
With carve-out individual accounts, we erode social protections at a time when we also seem to be witnessing the collapse of the corporate defined-benefit pension system. If we go to a retirement system that is entirely individual accounts, we also lose opportunities for income redistribution.
Two comments.
First, anytime the phrase "income redistribution" is used out loud, in public or in print, with no sense of shame or apology, I know that the person using it may as well be advocating Communism. I have been labeled Socialist and worse myself, so we'll just have to let the matter pass without further comment on my part. I have no interest in debating the phrase, but I want plainly to admit that I recognize the inflamatory effect that the phrase has on a good many people. People who have no problem with large estates being passed to heirs who never hit a lick at a snake in their life but thanks to an accident of birth can enjoy a lifetime of self-indulgence if they choose. "Income redistribution" in that instance takes the form of pissing it all away.

Second, a more important point about "the collapse of the corporate defined-benefit pension system" that he mentioned.

The Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation  [New link. This one works.] did not just blossom into existence because a lot of politicians in Washington had a fit of generosity one session and decided to do something nice for folks. It was a political response to thousands of employees losing retirement benefits because the outfits for whom they worked went out of business with no safety net for those liabilities. It didn't happen because of the depression, by the way. It happened decades later when that great American economic engine we call Free Enterprise had plenty of time to prevent and protect against disasters like "How can we protect our people in case we go out of business?"

If memory serves, I think that a lot of companies didn't even officially "go out of business." There was an era of mergers and acquisitions, hostile takeovers and the like that also contributed to the problem, with a lot of "private" pension benefits' being leveraged out of existence or liquidated outright, also resulting in pensions evaporating before the eyes of people whose only remaining pinch of the economy became their Social Security income.

Today, as the man said, companies are figuring all kinds of ways to get out from under company paid (read defined benefits) pension plans by shifting the responsibility of retirement security (I almost used the word "burden", but I wouldn't want anyone to think I want companies to be overburdened on the way to the bottom line just because they were obsessed with the security and future well-being of employees.) to individual, employee-paid plans.

I'm not going to repeat the last paragraph just to help dull readers catch on.
I know it is full of sarcasm, as well as ideas not yet in the public debate. Trying to paint it another color isn't going to make it any easier to read and understand. It's up to the reader to do the homework.

Finally, a word about that Heritage Foundation calculator.
It asks for only two pieces of data. First, your age. Second, if you are Male or Female.
When you click the magic button it announces...
You can expect to pay [Big Dollar Amount here] in Social Security taxes over your working life for retirement and survivors benefits.
I would love nothing better than to "expect to pay" that amount over my working lifetime, but in my case I have barely come close. And that includes all the contributions matched by my employers and what I will likely earn in the remaining years until I can claim full benefits. The document I got from Social Security fell way short of the amount indicated, and as the years unfold, I can reasonably expect that the amount will never reach the target. That calculator seems to presume that everyone using it will earn the social security maximum during their "working life"!

Just a few questions...
  • How many people consider their employer's matching taxes as part of their earnings? (Yeah, I know self-employed and educated people do, but in a random population of a thousand people from the street, how many think in those terms? 800? 500? 100? 10? Any?)
  • How many people will earn the Social Security cap during their lifetimes? 
  • And for how many consecutive years?
  • In fact, how many people even know that a cap exists?
In fairness, the calculator has a way to customize results by keying in variable data (ZIP, gender, etc.) and it carries a disclaimer.
This calculator is intended to be used solely as an educational tool to help citizens better understand public policy issues associated with Social Security. It is not intended for use as a retirement planner. The data, assumptions and formulas used in this calculator are based on information currently available to The Heritage Foundation.
"...not intended for use as a retirement planner..."  Damn right. But I don't think that will be a problem with most people using that site.


Here we are six months later and Mr. Wilkinson seems to have some up with a good suggestion:
Hey liberals! Since you insist on talking about social insurance, why not stop dissembling and plump for a system that is actually sort of like insurance? Why not not defend a disability insurance model of old-age insurance, where you get it only there is some actual threat of immiseration? We can fund it with a dedicated payroll tax and everything. It really will not function like a pension at all. It will be a safety net for people who need it funded by people who don't. Isn't this exactly what liberals should want?  [LINK]
He's bright enough to understand that any such plan would be D.O.A. in today's political climate, but I, for one, would be very much in favor. His suggestion, of course, is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but it shows that at some level he is smart enough to see the need.

Since my post was first written a rising tide of companies have announced their inability to meet pension plan obligations. United Airlines, notably, is among the biggest. In a competetive environment that no longer even pretends to look out for its employees' retirement security, old-line companies that cling to that quaint old notion can't afford to stay in the game. We are seeing the unintended consequences of IRA's, Roth's and 401-K plans -- and the corresponding termination of defined-benefits pension plans.

Problem is the tired and flawed old FICA system with all its shortcomings is all we have, and an uninterrupted string of Congresses and Administrations have misappropriated that revenue stream from the beginning.
During the intervening years since this was written, assaults on Social Security have continued. Defined pension plans are as obsolete as drive-in movies, land line phones and 35mm photography. Individual employee-paid plans have surged, but remain opt-in instead of opt-out (which would insure more widespread participation, but companies instinctively know that those "matching funds" are just another drain on profitability so there is zero support for making these plans opt-out.) Actually, the idea of employee-paid retirement plans is a good one, especially for workers with no ownership in the companies where they are employed. Here again, however, there is no mechanism to discourage those who "own" those plans from borrowing against them, thereby releasing employers from contributing "matching funds" to sweeten those pies. As if that were not enough, current tax-reform proposals include taxing contributions on the front-end before letting them grow tax-sheltered.

Meantime, business plans cutely called the gig economy are proliferating as rentier capitalism marches on, contemporary analogues to mill towns, sharecropping, indentured labor and their historic predecessors all the way back to lords and vassals -- endless ways for the haves to get more, and the have-nots to get children. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Charles Clymer's Mass Shootings Twitter Thread

This Thread is worth curating and keeping.

Charles Clymer 🏳️‍🌈‏Verified account @cmclymer

1/ I have some things to say about the Texas shooting. It’s gonna piss some people off, and that’s too bad. It needs to be said. (thread)

2/ I served in the Army. I was trained as an infantryman. A grunt. That’s about as nuts-and-bolts as it gets in the military.

3/ Infantry training is ongoing. Infantry units train constantly. All the time. It’s always something. To the point of being monotonous.

4/ If we weren’t at the firing range, we were doing hands-on tactical training. If not tactical, then classroom prep. Always. Something.

5/ Thousands of hours of training and learning how to kill other people. I am a trained killer. That’s what an infantryman does. They kill.

6/ Other soldiers will laugh this off. “Okay, killer.” But they know I’m right. Deep down, that’s your purpose as an infantryman: to kill.

7/ It starts early. Basic training is psychological. You’re supposed to get comfortable with killing. You’re prepared to face this reality.

8/ In my barracks at basic training, there was a giant mural of a skull-and-crossbones on the floor. Our official nickname: “Death Dealers”.

9/ We were taught call-and-response chants. Ex: “What makes the grass grow?” “Blood, blood, blood makes the grass grow!”

10/ So many drills have the cry “Kill!” in them. I’m surprised we weren’t required to shout it after eating a meal. Maybe we were. I forget.

11/ And it is what it is. I’m not here to tell you military training is bad. I am not a pacifist. Evil threats exist. Someone has to kill.

12/ And because someone has to kill and the killing falls to the military, psychological training like that makes killing easier.

13/ That’s a cold thought, and many will disagree with it. Not the point. The point: taking accountability of it in the civilian world.

14/ Thousands of hours of learning how to kill other human beings. Day after day, month after month, year after year. Rewiring.

15/ I’m a flaming liberal. I’m a gun owner but don’t collect them. My idea of “fun” is singing karaoke in a tiara, not a day shooting guns.

16/ But there is no doubt in my mind that, if needed, I could kill other human beings efficiently. Tactically. Without hesitation.

17/ I haven’t worn a uniform in almost six years, but it would be like riding a bike. It’s ingrained. I doubt it’ll ever go away.

18/ That’s the point of military training: muscle memory, acting without hesitation, resorting to a part of your brain on autopilot.

19/ In April 2009, Homeland Security released a report warning of the recruitment of veterans by radical groups: …

20/ Noted as catalysts for a heightened national security risk were basically what we’ve seen come to fruition eight years later:

21/ Predictably, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano was derided as disrespecting the troops. She was forced to issue several apologies.

22/ Never mind that Napolitano had only ever demonstrated the utmost respect for women and men in uniform.

23/ Never mind that a 2008 FBI report identified 203 military veterans in white supremacist terrorist groups:

24/ Never mind Charlottesville and the mix of military vets among the little boys playing soldier:

25/ Never mind that a Marine killed JFK or that an Army infantryman was behind the Oklahoma City Bombing.

26/ Or the higher rate of violence against women (in this case: IPV) among Active Duty military and veterans versus civilians:

[Edit:Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans. The term “intimate partner violence” describes physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse.]

27/ Or that the higher rate of IPV in the military is linked to PTSD and traumatic brain injuries: …

28/ Or—and this is important—the well-established relationship between mass shootings and violence against women.

29/ A great piece on that subject by @rtraister can be found here: …

30/ Surely, that link between violence against women and subsequent mass shootings must count as evidence of terrorism.

31/ This is how the FBI defines domestic terrorism: …

32/ Not sure why a mass shooting inspired by hatred of women doesn’t qualify as terrorism… unless, maybe, we don’t respect women as people?

33/ Not exactly the most comfortable truth in the national discourse, particularly in a sea of “as a father of daughters” statements.

34/ The other side of that coin is white maleness. A political system and media dominated by white men isn’t eager to be self-reflective.

35/ Why would I examine a system of white supremacy that gives me unearned benefits and being forced to recognize they’re unearned?

36/ Why would I admit, despite all evidence, that my white maleness protects me from all sorts of threats and accountability? Scary stuff.

37/ A brown “Muslim” man killing several with a vehicle is terrorism, but a white male killing 27 w/ a gun out of sexist rage? “Lone wolf.”

38/ All these are connected: white male entitlement, mental illness, racism, sexism, violence against women, terrorism. Rinse, repeat.

39/ White men see a loss of power, feel victimized, have that entitlement radicalized through propaganda, and commit acts of terrorism.

40/ But because they’re white and not shouting “Allahu Akbar”, they’re dismissed as "nuts", or more charitably: “nice guys gone wrong.”

41/ To admit to “terrorism” by ordinary white men would require asking deeper questions of ourselves, especially those of us in power.

42/ To admit to “terrorism” by military veterans would require a vast reworking of our systems of recruitment, training, and mental health.

43/ Instead, we grant an access of powerful weaponry to those most trained to use it and most likely to do so in brutal acts of terrorism.

44/ An irony of all this is that though we fall back solely on the excuse of “mental health” to wave away acts of terrorism by white men…

45/ …we neither 1) attempt to comprehensively address mental health in our country nor 2) effectively restrict access to weapons due to it.

46/ If your takeaway from ANY of this = a hatred of white men, the military or guns, then you’re a moron who lacks critical thinking skills.

47/ And if your takeaway is a bizarre, insecure notion that I’m putting women and folks of color on a pedestal, that also makes you a moron.

48/ I'm a white male, and I have no reason to hate that about myself. I love my country. I'm proud of my military service. I'm a gun owner.

49/ And even I can see there are deep, deep issues here we’re ignoring. And they’re not going away. This will happen again and again.

50/ We need to stop pretending that military service is the grand seal of moral rightness. It’s not. We can be grateful w/o being stupid.

51/ We need to stop allowing patriotism to be co-opted by white supremacists preaching a nationalist agenda driven by fear and hatred.

52/ We need to call terrorism in this country for what it is and recognize how white men are often radicalized.

53/ We need to recognize the link between misogynist power structures, violence against women, and white male terrorism.

54/ We need to respect the 2nd Amendment by restricting access to guns from those who don’t (or can’t) respect gun ownership.

55/ Legally owning and using a gun in this country should be harder than legally owning and using a car. Why is it the exact opposite?

56/ Why am I bio-scanned every time I fly, but it’s totally fine in many states if I waltz down the street open-carrying a powerful firearm?

57/ Why am I more likely to be killed by a white male terrorist with a gun in this country than a brown terrorist who claims to be “Muslim”?

58/ We should all want answers to these questions and elected officials with the courage to address them. We should want that NOW.

59/ I’m tired of the carnage, and I want to believe we’re better than this. Prove to me, prove it to yourself, that we are. /thread

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Whitefish Twitter Thread

This Twitter thread about the multi-million-dollar contract to oversee reconstruction of the Puerto Rico power grid is self-explanatory.