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The real world is so untidy, is it any wonder we enjoy a simpler story? Those stories for simpler tastes are digested by Frank Rich for NY Magazine, with a perfectly apt photoshopped treatment by Eddie Mulholland to go with: a colorful, yet ghostly apparation.
It's one thing for a general to strut around, but as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, really, no news is the best news.
"It is disconcerting to learn that a man tasked with smoking out the Taliban apparently had no clue that the Kelleys were well on their way to becoming major deadbeats who have provoked at least nine lawsuits, piled up six-figure credit-card debt, owe nearly $2.2 million to a bank that threatened to foreclose on a local office building they owned, and spent nearly all the assets of a short-lived family cancer foundation on expenses."
Not that you'd have to run a credit check on your party pals, but it might not be a bad idea. The same "press complicity" that inflates these hero-bubbles in search of "a great story" is readily applied to the inevitable post-parade popping.
10 minutes from POTUS' address on how things are going, this status report from the NYT, that the question of how far down the road we'll kick some cans is at issue. Three months? One whole year?
Maybe our POTUS will really cause a stir and announce he's dissolving Congress, à la Mohammed Morsi.
Update: "These are what we believe to be middle-class Americans that President Obama will speak in front of..." so we're not actually about to have news. A campaign-style photo op, seriously? "An agreement is within sight... but it's not done."
Please don't make any loud noises, you might frighten Congress.
Countdown to the ball dropping, and the fiscal cliff, with this observation from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV):
"Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress."
From Jennifer Steinhauer's Congressional Memo for the NYT, describing today's geopolitical metaphoric feature, "built, slab by partisan slab, to where it now threatens the nation's finances."
She includes mention of something we haven't heard anything about lately, earmarks, "that once greased so many Congressional deals." Could it be that without lubricious logrolling, there's simply no way to get anything done? Things were so crazy yesterday that even the once-reliable Farm Bill came up for discussion, one of the many pieces of legislative collateral damage left in debris under the grandstands this year. Perhaps they found a way to kick the milk can down the road a year and keep us from reverting to 1949-vintage dairy price supports? (Who knew we still had WW II-era ordnance lying around and depending on periodic Congressional defuzing to keep our milk from blowing up to $7/gal.? The Christian Science Monitor reports that 1949 was when we had the last "permanent" farm legislation, go figure.)
But don't count those chickens too soon. Leaders of both parties' House and Senate Agriculture committees agreeing is not the same as Mr. Bill turned into law.
Nate Silver's latest blog post is about the divided House of Representatives, and the story of the Senate is a different one to be sure, but one broken chamber seems to ensure one broken legislative branch well enough. In a nutshell:
"One of the firmest conclusions of academic research into the behavior of Congress is that what motivates members first and foremost is winning elections. If individual members of Congress have little chance of losing their seats if they fail to compromise, there should be little reason to expect them to do so."
Winning elections is about keeping the campaign money flowing in, and avoiding primary challenges in "landslide" districts, it's not about doing the people's business in D.C. Well more than half of the 435 Congressional districts are now 20% more partisan than the country as a whole.
Update: Robert Reich makes the same point, that districts gerrymandered to greater purity are behind the bring-the-bums-back results of the least election.
"The combination of a weakened national party and more intense competition in primaries is making the Republican Party relatively impervious to national opinion.
"This poses a large strategic problem for the Democrats. It could be an even bigger problem for the nation."
Sarah Kliff's Wonkblog post (no relation to Fiscal Cliff?), running as business news in our local McClatchy paper, with the catchy title "Five ways your health care will change in 2013" (even though the "your" didn't fit in the print headline) caught my eye. Do tell!
Health care cost growth will slow, your medicare taxes will increase [sic], your insurance plan will be explained in plain language (and may already have been), primary care givers in Medicaid will be paid better, and health exchanges will open for business. Really, the only thing on that list that's about me is the taxes part, and it turns out that's not about me, or 98.5% of my fellow taxpayers:
"Employers already take out 7.65 percent of workers' wages to support the elderly and disabled. Of that, 1.45 percent goes toward paying Medicare's hospital bills. Obamacare increases the Medicare hospital tax by 0.9 percent, beginning in 2013, for anyone who earns more than $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers). It also creates a new, 3.8 percent tax on investment income, setting income thresholds at the same $200,000 and $250,000 levels mentioned above. Taken together, those two provisions are expected to generate $210.2 billion over the next decade."
There's a lot that's confusing, and wrong in that short paragraph, but the money part is for anyone who earns more than $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers); 98.5% of taxpayers won't t be seeing this increase.
For a lot of years, the FICA tax of 7.65% of wages and 7.65% "employer contribution" (which amounts to to 14.2% of gross wages including the employer's part that doesn't show on paystubs) was 2x5.2% for Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI), and 2x1.45% Medicare, the former applying to wages only up to a certain limit ($110,100 this year), and the latter to all wages, and neither to non-wage income. As part of tax reductions during Obama's term, the employee OASDI rate was dropped to 4.2%, so if you want to ignore the employer contribution, the first number cited should be 5.65%, not 7.65%.
If you're lucky enough to be self-employed, you get to pay both sides which used to be twice as much, but with that lower "employee" OASDI percentage is well more than twice as much: 13.3% vs. 5.65% up to the limit, 2.9% vs. 1.45% above it. You do get a "special tax credit" for paying taxes, the same as an employer would which will get you back closer to just "twice as much."
That's crazy in the weeds, but the simpler version is that the 1.5% of highest-income taxpayers are going to be paying $21 billion-ish/year as a group that they hadn't been to pay for Medicare's expanding costs, whether they're making their money in wages, or investments.
The first step off the cliff? SecTreas Timothy Geithner says we're going to hit the debt ceiling again on December 31, and while he could do that "extraordinary measures" thing where he shuffles a couple hundred billion dollars and buy some more time, maybe he won't because there are so many unanswered questions about tax and spending policies this time around.
CNN's coverage features a video with groundhog Grover Norquist forecasting four more years of "continuing fight" and Republican-facilitated recession to realize his dream of a shriveled up government. If the economy shrivels too, well hey, we just didn't do enough of what he keeps telling us to do. Not that that's insanse or anything.
And somehow the world's greatest deliberative body is showing "little sense of urgency" with just five days to make a "last-ditch effort" to, um, manage the country's finances, which really is kind of their main day to day job. Senators plan to trickle back this evening, and "while the House may technically be in session, Republican leaders told members last week they would be given a 48-hour notice before they should return, and that notice has not yet been given." Perhaps C-Span will cover today's 2 p.m. House gavel, followed by the quasi-recess mode ungaveling moments later because nobody's home.
Party leaders aren't talking to each other much... although there was the "you first" comedy act, Harry Reid says you pass our bill, House, and John Boehner says "we'll take action on whatever the Senate does" but not counting what the Senate already did, apparently.
It would be a pretty stumble-bum way to end the "temporary" Bush-era tax cuts, but maybe this is the best Congress can do any more, agree to some future heinous deadline that they imagine they'll just have to work to avoid this time, and then settle for whatever happens.
One more piece of the puzzle on the corporate initiative into public schools from Sharon Fisher, reviewing Joel Spring's book, Education Networks: The Underside of Education Reform.
It started in the legislation for the No Child Left Behind Act, introduced in 2001 during the administration of President George W. Bush. "It introduced 'for profit' in almost every part of the legislation," Spring said, such as by requiring schools identified as failing to provide tutoring—which the school cannot provide itself and includes no regulation of the for-profit companies that have sprung up to provide it. "It's the 'Swiss cheese' model of government: Take the function out of government and put it in the private sector, and there's nothing left in government to regulate it."
And that was just the beginning, Spring said, on the path to reducing education to standardized test scores. "Testing then opens the door and takes away the teacher's work. Then software companies say, 'we can analyze all of this,' and then you have online education vendors who say, 'we can sell software to you.'"
Idaho inserted an unexpected chapter in this story at the ballot last month, but it will take more than an unprecedented rebuke from our dyed-in-the-wool electorate to stop the juggernaut. The powers that be in our state government, mostly undistracted by actual training or experience in the field, are prepared to replay "reform" in the 2013 Legislature.
It and the one "classic" theme are open source and free under the MIT license, and are even ready to pull galleries, sets and movies from other sources (Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, Vimeo), but I didn't get into that. Once I felt I had it finished "enough," yesterday, I had a couple of small updates this morning, and then started going through video snippets from the year, and grabbed twenty more images from the year. For your viewing pleasure: Our 2012 in photos.
No partridge in a pear tree, but there are snakes, mountain goats, a newt, kokanee, brothers and sisters, sons and daughter, nieces and nephews, friends and landscapes in abundance.
Fortunately, no accident and nobody hurt. And fortunately, he was probably planning to be in the area on Jan. 4 anyway. But nobody expected Idaho's senior Senator to be making a court date in Alexandria to answer a D.U.I. charge. There's the "staunch social and fiscal conservative" thing, which hardly immunizes one from slipping past 0.08, but being a bishop of the Mormon Church is supposed to do that.
worry not. Our military empire could use a #2 all-over trim, as Lt. Col. William Astore (ret.) describes from the top-down view on TomDispatch: Generals Behaving Badly. Remember that crazy Petraeus story? Yeah, it's like it was years ago. And McChrystal? The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I don't remember much else.
"America's military is astonishingly top heavy, with 945 generals and admirals on active duty as of March 2012. That's one flag-rank officer for every 1,500 officers and enlisted personnel. With one general for every 1,000 airmen, the Air Force is the worst offender, but the Navy and Army aren't far behind. For example, the Army has 10 active-duty divisions—and 109 major generals to command them. Between September 2001 and April 2011, the military actually added another 93 generals and admirals to its ranks (including 37 of the three- or four-star variety). The glut extends to the ranks of full colonel (or, in the Navy, captain). The Air Force has roughly 100 active-duty combat wings—and 3,712 colonels to command them. The Navy has 285 ships—and 3,335 captains to command them. Indeed, today's Navy has nearly as many admirals (245 as of March 2012) as ships."
It's one thing to fail to pass a budget, to stumble along with continuing resolutions, to play games with the debt ceiling, and to manufacture a crisis out of partisan disagreements. It's quite another to inconvenience as many as two-thirds of American taxpayers for no useful purpose whatsoever. That's the latest estimate from the IRS of how many people will run into the undead 1969 "fix" to the problem of rich people finding too many tax loopholes.
Just a couple days ago, I put a permanent fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax on my Christmas list, but I didn't realize how messed up it already is. The unadjusted numbers are in force right now, for the 2012 tax year. And since the IRS was banking on Congress doing the job that they've done off and on twenty times previously, this year's filing season will be even more tedious and annoying for taxpayers than usual.
When it was new, more than 40 years ago, it affected 20,000 or so taxpayers. This year, a thousand times more than that might have to pay something, and many times more than that will have some paperwork or figuring to do. From the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution: fun facts about the AMT now and in the coming decade.
One is just amazing eye-candy to test your bandwidth, and a chance to get up close and personal to the Kumbu Icefall with a four gigapixel tour of Mount Everest. In a bit of interactive whimsy, after you zoom into Base Camp, and the tent there, you can see pictures of the place on the walls, and zoom... through the looking glass.
The second is a story about too much snow, most of three feet on an unstable foundation atop Stevens Pass in the north Cascades. The New York Times' "project" presentation has some seriously engaging interactive elements, as if the story weren't gripping enough: Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, this past February. (If you can't get in to the NYT, here's an 11 minute video about the disaster.)
Good morning! I don't suppose you took anything about Mayan prophecy seriously, did you? As at least one wag pointed out, they failed to prophesy their own demise, which you would have thought would be more relevant to them.
It was nice to wake up to a fiery red-orange sunrise just after the solstice this morning (04:12 where I live), and ease into the new year. Days are getting longer! Bogus Basin is open! (Sort of; fourteen inches of "base" and just above freezing this morning. Let it snow, would ya?) Boehner's Plan B was thrown over the cliff, demonstrating that there really is no point whatsoever searching for a "compromise" that the rabidly anti-government wing of his party can support. Can you say "coalition," Mr. Speaker? Sure you can.
Just read that Gail Collins op-ed I used for the pull quote below. In addition to be very funny, there's this: If the Bush tax cuts were to expire, "it would save around $4 trillion over the next 10 years."
"Save" isn't quite the right word, but still. The tax cuts that were a dodgy idea to begin with, so dodgy that the Congress couldn't just pass them but had to put a sunset provision on them, now extended into twilight dodginess, are pretty much all that stand between us and making ends meet?
If you were paying attention, you knew the "cliff" wasn't about the deficit exploding, it's more about the deficit unexploding, which a lot of people apparently think would be worse.
Are we confused yet?
Hey, if this were easy, we wouldn't have to have 535 overpaid and staff-laden congresspeople burning the afternoon oil three days a week in Washington, D.C.
I forget which day the world is supposed to end. Today? John Boehner's real plan B might have been to assume the Mayans were right. But I did get a more thoughtful response from my congressman on this subject, even though I've forgotten exactly what I wrote to him about the federal budget folderol. Quit lowering taxes, maybe. Mike Simpson explained the Budget Control Act of August 1, 2011, and the Joint Select Comittee on Deficit Reduction ("Super Committee") and the big numbers in savings they were supposed to find "within [this] budget this year" (without mentioning that the "savings" were for the next ten years, the shorthand everyone's using these days). And the "sequestration" automatic cuts scheduled to kick in on New Year's Day.
"In addition to the sequester there are a number of provisions scheduled to expire at the end of the year, including the Bush tax cuts, the Social Security payroll tax extension, alternative minimum tax provisions, unemployment insurance extension, and Medicare's reimbursement rates for physicians. In addition, a number of new taxes as a result of the health care law are scheduled to come into effect. If these provisions are allowed to expire and if the sequester comes into effect, experts across the political spectrum agree that it would have a very detrimental impact on our economy and could bring about a credit downgrade."
Which all makes me chuckle a little bit about how the fiscal year starts on October 1, and I don't remember when Congress ever got their budgeting work done ahead of that deadline. All that flying in and out of D.C. and the three day workweeks eventually takes a toll. You guys (and gals) have really screwed things up royally this time, innit? What he said: "No political party has a monopoly on failed policies or over-the-top rhetoric."
I could be wrong, but my sense is that Mike Simpson is one of the cooler, more practical heads available, and his letter goes on to enumerate what he thinks should and shouldn't happen in a calm way, and without any actionable specifics that I can see. Can't let sequester happen, but we're "looking at all options, including revenue, entitlement reform, and spending cuts." Can't just solve the problem with one of tax increases or spending cuts or entitlement reform. Can't "simply kick the can down the road." And gosh,
"Frankly, I think this conversation about raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans is distracting us from the real issue."
Small business! Job creators! Breaking point! Act now!
Ok. Act how?
Mr. Speaker's latest pitch is to at least not raise taxes (which is to say lower them once again, unless that term-limited legislation—and its extension(s)—was—ahem—disingenuous?) on anyone making less than a million dollars a year. So much for "revenue on the table" and the Democrats proposed policy (with the "relief for the low income" threshold at $200,000) being not good enough because it "would only save enough money per year to pay off interest payments on the debt for one month."
That's ridiculous, so let's do even less?
Merry Christmas to all, everybody, and to all a good night. Maybe they'll be back at it for Boxing Day, which would be about right.
Turns out it's not all that dark what with the rings lit up. This would make a really cool inflatable yard ornament for Christmas, don't you think? Carolyn Porco explains:
"This view looks toward the non-illuminated side of the rings from about 19 degrees below the ring plane. Images taken using infrared, red and violet spectral filters were combined to create this enhanced-color view. The images were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Oct. 17, 2012 at a distance of approximately 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) from Saturn."
That's twice the distance our one Moon is from Earth. Two of Saturn's moons are in the picture as well, tiny specs below the gigantic, glowing rings.
Steve Berch, the Democratic candidate who lost the race for the House 15B seat last month, is justifiably unhappy that it turns out Mark Patterson has been blowing smoke up the district's tailpipe for a couple years now. Called out for (a) a bunch of hooey on his campaign's Facebook page, and (b) for claiming "I don't do Facebook," Patterson has now doubled down with claims that he "was just recently shown how to post on the wall" and "everything else has been done for me by hired campaign help."
He's still proud of his "practical engineering experience in petroleum exploration," which yesterday amounted to "working in Wyoming's oilfields" and a correspondence course from a Texas community college. The claim to "small business and manufacturing knowledge" is usefully vague and would have to be presumed meaningless without some actual evidence.
Perhaps he'll claim direct authorship of the most recent post on the Mark Patterson for State Representative Facebook page, dated Dec. 10 and with a slightly bizarre fresh off the bus feel:
"Last week the new legislators had a full and long week of training. In all fairness, it was a huge amount of information on many different subjects. This is only the start at the ground floor. I will be locked into books and stacks of information from now until Jan. 7th when the session starts. This information will have me entry level so that I can have the ability to be a solid member of both the committees ( I serve on 3 of them) and in the House Chamber."
I suppose he'll be a gaseous member of the third committee he's on.
Just when it looked like the elaborate dance was winding up, and both parties had given up some ground to meet in the middle, a go at a dead-on-arrival "plan B"? Zero Democratic support in the House, zero chance of being approved by the Senate, and zero chance of being signed by the President is anything more than warm blather to placate those who think he's given in too far already, but hey, there's still a week before Christmas. And if the Mayans were right, it won't matter anyway.
In the meantime, the House Republicans can all get one more notch in their belts. How many more do they need before their pants fall down?
The newest crop of Idaho legislators are slated for some ethics training after "a string of ethical lapses" to date, but there are always some loose ends. One of the freshman, Rep. Mark Patterson from District 15 here in Ada Co. illustrates, with some Facebook biography that turns out to be sketchy. It sounds like college-freshman level résumeé fudging, but at 60 years old, shouldn't he be past that? He says "I don't do Facebook."
The political operative who gave him a helping hand with social media was apparently counting on adult supervision. Lucas Baumbach, "no longer a campaign employee," shucked off criticism.
"You can blame the guy setting up your website," Baumbach said. "Or you can blame yourself for not reading it."
Which leaves us to wonder how the fabulous claims came about. Perhaps Baumbach and Patterson had a little discussion, something like...
LB: So Mark, what should I put for education?
MP: I got through high school.
LB: Uh, ok. Anything else?
MP: I took a correspondence class in oil drilling once.
LB: Good, I'll just put you down for "petroleum engineer" then.
Who knows how it really happened? Maybe Baumbach really tried to type "SCU" for that correspondence course from an unaccredited school that Patterson never completed and fumble-fingered "USC" instead, and didn't fuss over the fact that a correspondence course or two "wasn't a graduating type of thing."
Baumbach's 2009 Manifesto/Bio for the Boise Weekly site, from back when he had a run at our City Council said he had "a sharp eye for political nonsense," and sure enough.
Not timely news, you say? Indeed it isn't. But it would have been if the 538 electors gathering in statehouses hadn't cast their votes as expected today.
And in other political news, it seems Stephen Colbert is not going to be South Carolina's newest Senator. Tim Scott is.
Time, distance and fortunate circumstance separate me from the tragedy in Connecticut, leaving space for sadness, dismay and the persistent sense that there is nothing I could do to change things. It's as true for me as the President of the United States, left only to express his own powerlessness.
Other responses that I saw yesterday only deepened despair. Now is not the time to talk about gun control was declared long before even the initial details of the shooting were known. This is all the fault of coddled baby boom liberals was another inexplicable theme. More swift, sure, and punitive response to every possible crime is needed, here in this country that already incarcerates a higher proportion of its inhabitants than any other.
This is a good time for an outsider's perspective, even if it ends in a similarly powerless lament (and a hundred disagreeable comments you don't need to read). From "Lexington's notebook" on American politics in The Economist: The gun control that works: no guns. Which is clearly enough not going to happen (or even given a moment's serious discussion) here.
Randy Stapilus ran Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley's letter to the Attorney General on his Ridenbaugh Press blog yesterday. There's a rather astounding legal dispensation for financial crimes these days, as long as you work for a big enough bank. Sure it's technically illegal to launder hundreds of millions of dollars from narcotics and dealing with sanctioned countries, but... "collateral consequences" if we were to actually prosecute?
"[F]our years after the financial crisis, the Department appears to have firmly set the precedent that no bank, bank employee, or bank executive can be prosecuted even for serious criminal actions if that bank is a large, systemically important financial institution."
The report of the settlements between the U.S. DOJ, Standard Chartered and HSBC in in The Economist details the whopping settlements (two-thirds of a $billion, and almost $2 billion, respectively), and oh yes, they now have to "monitor their compliance processes" during their supervised probation. But from their point of view, the concern seems not so much about the lack of prosecution, but pitying the shareholders stuck with the bill, and "the risks of ending up on the wrong side of American foreign policy in some emerging markets." And this, in conclusion:
"The idea of running a genuinely global network, let alone doing so frugally, is on trial—even if the banks themselves have escaped prosecution."
Well actually, it's not on trial, they settled for a nice chunk of other people's money. The pivot from illicit dealings with sanctioned regimes and drug cartels to "opacity and arbitrariness of the settlement process" and "fines [that] reflect no known economic rationale" to "frugality" is elegant. I appreciate getting the more global view.
As we all head to our doom, it seems important that we not arrive too soon. "Fiscal cliff," you say? That's certainly something we should keep our distance from! Except... a lot of us like the drama of getting right up to the edge and looking over to see the view. As with dramatic irony, just because the audience knows where everyone is going, doesn't mean we'll get there before the end of Act III. Game theory tells us that when the time of the conclusion is fixed, the negotiation will fill the duration alloted. Compromising too soon would be a sign of weakness, a signal you gave away too much to the other side. Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-PA) is ready to drive off the cliff: "Is a temporary disruption worse than a full-blown debt crisis?"
How about a periodic disruptive crisis, say this debt ceiling "do what we say or else we'll blow up the economy!" threat every 6 or 9 months?
I'm getting the feeling that there is something missing behind the ultimatums. If it's time for shared sacrifice (an issue debateable all by itself, but let's say), then the terms of the sharing are relevant. A stealth cut of increases in Social Security benefits is one proposal, sure. Even though Social Security is not the proximate problem.
And rejiggering Medicare could change lots of cash flows, but as Neera Tanden pointed out on yesterday's Newshour, raising eligibility age would remove the lowest-expense members of Medicare's pool, and add highest-expense members to the non-Medicare pool, damaging both.
There seems no end to the gymnastics Republicans will attempt to avoid the inevitable rollback of unsustainably low tax rates they legislated back when we had a moment of surplus. Paul Krugman's assessment is that we're seeing death throes:
"The modern Republican Party's grand, radical agenda lies in ruins—but the party doesn't know how to deal with that failure, and it retains enough power to do immense damage as it strikes out in frustration."
There are no specifics from the Republican side beyond don't raise taxes and cut, cut, cut spending. The plan has been to starve the beast, to eliminate the welfare state (at least at the retail end; the wholesale welfare of corporations is good because "job creators").
"Whenever you see some Republican politician piously denouncing federal red ink, always remember that, for decades, the G.O.P. has seen budget deficits as a feature, not a bug."
Jonathan Chait's take is that Republicans can't propose spending cuts because they just aren't there to be found.
"The absence of a Republican spending proposal is not just a negotiating tactic but a howling void where a specific grasp of the role of government ought to be."
The story of our universe, unscrambled by David Christian, into an 18 minute TED Talk.
"We believe Big History will be a vital intellectual tool for [Daniel's generation]."
Don't tell me, let me guess. The Idaho GOP is going to let our legislators know that... Idahoans are very concerned, and don't approve. That's after they digest the results of their IDGOP Health Insurance Exchange Survey and its two, count 'em, two questions:
"1. How concerned are you about Idaho implementing a State-based Health Insurance Exchange?"
Extremely, Very, Moderately, Slightly, or Not Concerned at all?
"2. Do you approve, disapprove, or neither approve nor disapprove of our Governor's choice to move forward with a state-based Health Insurance Exchange under the terms of Obamacare, subject to legislative approval?"
You can Highly Approve, Slightly Approve, Neither Approve or Disapprove, Slightly Disapprove, or Highly Disapprove.
I'm in agreement with Idaho's Senator Jim Risch twice in one day.
Yeah, I know! No one saw this coming, especially after that rude letter he sent me last month.
First, a succinct statement that torture is wrong, quoted by Michael Tomasky on The Daily Beast: Zero Dark Thirty and the Senators.
"The issue isn't does torture work or not. The issue is, is torture right, or is torture wrong?"
Exactly. Such a shame he was not on the news about this ten years ago, when the men behind the curtain were saying the issue is whether we have a memorandum that authorizes torture.
Second, the succinct and obvious review of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner in The Scariest Christmas Cliff Ever (quoted in Kevin Richert's blog):
"It's simply just bad management."
The date brings up some interesting memories, two from Thanksgiving and our 7-year-old grandson who's old enough to lean into some word games. He got a kick out of hearing me say zwölf and his older sister got a kick out of coming up with bilingual punning riddles for numbers in french. (He had no idea what was going on, but he could tell something very interesting was being batted across the room.)
My family grew up with numerological gymnastics, and today—the last in this once-in-a-lifetime run of twelve—is their kind of day. Smithsonian Mag dishes up more fun with the date, sliced, diced, factored, forecast, and palindromic.
Started my day out with one of NPR's three stories to read about the "Fiscal Cliff" (because the WSJ piece about Boehner's challenge keeping his horse in front of the GOP cartload of rabble is paywalled, and CBS News' "no news is good news" seemed sufficient in its headline), which is to say this audio piece by Ari Shapiro, which should be titled EXPLAINED by English Majors, not "for," lest no one but English majors listen.
"It's Act IV in Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear. The Earl of Gloucester is blind. He believes he's standing at the cliffs of Dover, about to throw himself to his death. The audience can see the blind man is not on the edge of a cliff at all, but Gloucester's son describes the vertiginous sight to convince his father that the cliff is real. ..."
Out here in the cheap seats, there are quite a few members of the audience who are pointing and murmuring at the too-obvious plot and its "dramatic irony" in which the play is the thing: we can see where this is heading even as "the performers in this drama act unaware of their destination."
Peter Crabb, for example, professor of finance and economics at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, writing for the (paywalled, sorry) Statesman Business Insider that there's little reason to worry. Real GDP increased at an annual rate of 2.7% in the third quarter (revised up from the original estimate of 2.0%; so much for cooking the books to get Obama re-elected). Military spending is up. Consumer spending is up, especially for "big-ticket" stuff. "The stock market also doesn't appear to be scared by the fiscal cliff or any other economic tragedies to come." The CBOE's Fear index is 4 points below the long-run average (vs. where it was in the summer of 2011 when the Republicans tried crashing the economy into the debt ceiling, twice that average, 40% vs. 20%). Even gold has settled down!
We got our first copy of the Idaho Statesman's "Business Insider" weekly today, a year or so after they made it free to subscribers, and after it finally sunk in that they had made it "free" and not one of those bait-and-pay offers. The Monday and Tuesday papers have been anorexic for some time, so the addition is welcome; there's more relevant, local copy in that one section than the rest of today's paper.
Editor David Staats had a note, asking readers to help spread the word about BI, so here I am doing my part. He wrote: "It surprises me how many people never picked up on the change we made a year ago to stop charging most Statesman subscribers extra for BI," to which I replied maybe he should be surprised at how poorly they communicated the change (to say nothing of what a poor idea it was to charge for an extra section to begin with). But, ah, let that be a lesson to you?
Running his note within the section that many people still aren't getting might not be the most effective weapon, either. But I did suggest he might apply Karleen Andresen's seven tips for writing a press release that gets attention that was a few pages further in... and behind the new paywall on the website, I see.
The fellow who pointed me toward David Brooks' description of our brave new right-hand political reality deemed it "hilarious," and piqued my curiosity. Taking oneself too seriously doesn't usually get to be that funny. I'm sure he has a sense of humor, even if the humor in celebrating "glasnost" among Republicans, self-ghettoization, the end of mania, the rebirth of politics, and... is this something on the Turner Classic Movies channel? It's an "epidemic of open-mindedness," don't you know!
After Marco Rubio sang the praises of hopes and dreams to the wait staff, and garnered "a hushed silence" from the crowd at the Jack Kemp Foundation's Leadership Award banquet before "a roaring ovation swelled and filled the room," the companion star:
"The other speaker at the Kemp dinner was Representative Paul Ryan, who spoke about how to alleviate poverty. He didn't abandon any of his fundamental beliefs, but he framed those beliefs in a more welcoming way and opened up room for growth and new thinking."
Ah yes, "a more welcoming way." I do believe we have a new compassionate conservative, people. But we'll take what progress we can. Recognizing that "government must act for the common good" is a step in the right direction, away from the old shrinking and drowning talk, and the empty chair hallucination.
Still, talk is as cheap as ever; let's wait just a moment to see whether these "first steps" of "moving in the right direction and moving fast" are something other than ADHD.
Update: Oh, right right right, it was Matt Taibbi's take on Jim DeMint cutting and running that got Brooks queued into my tabpile. Taibbi's funny too, but more directly.
One of my Facebook peeps shared his joy at plans to be at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine for this year's winter solstice celebration with Paul Winter and friends, and it took me back to my brief time in Madison, Wisconsin, one afternoon when the local radio station told me there was a—free!—concert just down University Ave. at the Elvehjem Art Center, right now.
Inside, I made my way to the second or third level of a compact performance space I didn't know existed, with an aerial view of Ralph Towner, Paul McCandless, Glen Moore and Collin Walcott as they created amazing music on more than a dozen acoustic instruments between them.
The band, with the exotic-in-the-midwest name of Oregon was perhaps at its brightest moment in the mid-70s, and definitely added to my life's playlist for years to come. I don't know if that space still exists; the beautiful museum has been remodelled and has been renamed in favor of other donors. The foursome was fractured by Walcott's death in 1984, but the music-making goes on, into another new year, and another generation.
Oh, and the "Forces of Nature" dancers and drummers, and a space big enough for a Sun Gong, "an immersive, multimedia extravaganza, as grand and expansive as its location" is slightly different than that intimate moment in my memory... but woven together with Winter's and McCandless' woodwinds.
The Rev. Mark Sandlin has a rather more interesting take on the "War on Christmas" than the annual right-wing complaints from the Rupert Murdoch infotainment machine. Rather than our storied traditions (hijacked fair and square from earlier religions) "squeezed out of our culture in the name of plurality," we have a "sanitized" version, footlights on
"a clean, white skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses"
decorating the advertisements for the most Shopping Time of the Year.
That would certainly be news these days. Hundreds of work stoppages involving 1,000 or more employees in a single year?! It's hard to remember what that was like, but the graphs in the sidebar of this NPR story show that was the norm through the 1960s and 70s. It was a big deal at the time, but it was less than obvious what a "signal event" the Gipper's firing all those air traffic controllers would turn out to be. Strikes down from hundreds to a handful each year, and workers involved from millions to 100,000 or fewer.
And gosh, here's a surprise: "Over the same period, corporate profits have mostly risen even as inflation-adjusted wages have remained stagnant."
Some change may be "in the winds" but I don't expect much, given the demonstrated power of corporations and monied interests to act through government to have it their way. For every drum there is a state trooper and a bottle of pepper spray, as we see following another astounding post-election surprise, this one from Michigan's governor, ready to sign some legislation with the quaintly Orwellian name, "Right to Work."
"I do not view this as something against the unions," Gov. Rick Snyder said. It's about making sure "workers have the right to chose who they associate with."
We've been there and done that here in Idaho, and in our freedom to associate, many have also found the Right to Work for less pay.
Update: via a friend on Facebook: a graph with a wider view, 1918-2008, shared by Colin Gordon, on YouTube.
(I'm assuming someone is there at the end of that salutation, even though your entertaining masthead leaves it a mystery who that might be.)
Have you looked at a tree lately? If not, go ahead, I'll wait.
Ok, did you notice that big, fat part that comes out of the ground? That's the "trunk." Then after a while, it branches out. Did you see a "main branch"? Yeah, I didn't think so.
We love our libraries in Boise. My wife volunteers at the main library (a.k.a. the main Library!) once a week, we've long been Friends, and we're lucky enough to be within easy walking distance of the finest branch library in the city, the Library! at Cole & Ustick.
So, I was interested in the story about the possibility of our city getting a new facility for the main library, but I could not read the damn thing after I ran into the "main branch" the third of fourth time. Seriously? We've got our MAIN library, and we have a bunch of BRANCH libraries, but hello, there is no MAIN BRANCH library, because that does not make sense.
While I have you on the line, could you please skip the idiotic "Easy" and "Medium" Sudokus, please? Your readers have a bloody week to work on the puzzle, trust me, they can handle the hard ones. I do however enjoy the little puzzle where you put a fake number after "SUDOKU" in the table of contents and we have to track down where you really put it.
Last month's election was mostly business as usual in Idaho: re-elect the passel of anti-government zealots that brung us here, and fill in the R ovals so hard there's a permanent dent in the voting booths.
Picture dinosaurs witnessing the Yucatan-bound meteor 65 million years ago and you'll understand how Obama's re-election plays here. We have no idea, most of us, how such an cataclysm could come so close to such good people as us, even though it all happened impossibly far away.
There was one large fragment of that earth-shattering meteor that landed in our state, however: the resounding and total rejection of the "Luna Laws" which might as well be known as the "Otter/Luna Laws" for all the support our governor gave the superintendent of public instruction's uneducated go at "reforming" public schools in the state. What's this, Idaho voters rejecting something our good old boy network hatched up? Incredible! Impossible!
In a normal political context, the failed leader would hand in his resignation and spend more time with his family at this point. But in Idaho, it's time to double down. Clem says "there were parts and pieces of every one of those that folks did want," and since he his pals pretty much run the show, it sounds like we'll be getting another post-election surprise package.
The Idaho Statesman editorial board has an appropriately curt dismissal for the outfit apparently providing the cover, if not the "intelligence" behind this effort:
"[W]here does Otter find the mandate to resuscitate three laws so soundly defeated by the electorate? He says he has seen encouraging polling numbers. The polling was done by Education Voters of Idaho, one of the big-money backers of Propositions 1, 2 and 3. Group spokesman John Foster refused to divulge poll details.
"At least Foster's consistent. This is the same group that only released its list of campaign donors under a court order . Where there's secrecy in education policy, can Education Voters of Idaho be far behind?"
Paul Waldman on Jim DeMint's smooth move with a 5x salary bump. Just a good old Tea Party boy on the Beltway gravy train.
As our old friend Ezra tweeted upon hearing the news, "To state the obvious, you don't make Jim DeMint the head of your think tank in order to improve the quality of your scholarship."
Update: MoJo helpfully provides Jim DeMint's 7 craziest moments.
Explain to me how the Congress writes the tax code, and authorizes appropriations, and sets a debt ceiling without bothering to connect the dots. Everybody likes the appropriations dessert, but nobody wants to eat their tax code vegetables, so the debt ceiling will keep us in line? It's the last refuge of scoundrels, it seems. Here the White House has its spokesman assuring us that the administration's reading of the Constitution says we do have another Republican-led drama coming when it's time to raise the limit yet again; there is no magic trick to unopen the bag of brinksmanship unleashed when they imagined the sabotage would earn them a Republican president.
The GOP logic is an unassailable circle: if we had the right economic policies, the economy would zoom forward and tax revenue would flow in like a mighty stream. If tax revenue is not flowing in like a mighty stream, we do not have the right economic policies, which are mostly about lowering taxes.
But while the fiddlers in D.C. burn through their lame duck session the non-make-believe problems ahead of us reamin. Robert Reich provides his own cliff notes on the problems of child poverty, baby boomer healthcare, and oh yeah, that environment thingie.
Quote of the day in the NYT daily teasers was from Diana Aviv, chief executive of an umbrella group for nonprofits, grasping the current Republican notion that "revenue on the table" but no change to tax rates means the tax deduction for charitable contributions could be curtailed:
"We're like Rip Van Winkle waking up and saying, This is not O.K.!"
What's at stake is a good chunk of the "$300 billion that Americans donate to nonprofits every year—and the $50 billion a year that tax deductions for charitable giving costs the government." That's not so much in the fine print of the fiscal debate, as one of the many unprinted pigs in pokes the Republicans are trying to sell (or use as distraction) as they labor to protect the low tax rates enjoyed by those who need them the least.
A recent informal poll on a newspaper site I follow asked about whether readers would still contribute to charity if they didn't get a tax deduction. I think I said yes, and I'm pretty sure my answer is yes, but looking at our contributions over the years, I'm also sure tax considerations affect the pattern of our giving, at least.
One example is in Idaho's generous tax code support for educational institutions, libraries and certain other, specific charitable organizations. That gives a whopping 50% tax credit, now up to $500 off your individual taxes, $1,000 for a married couple. (It used to be a nice, but modest $100/200.) That's not just the possibility of deducting your contribution from your taxable income, if you clear the significant threshold at which your itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction, but money right off the bottom line. That definitely encourages our annual support for public TV and radio, through our local, education-affiliated channels.
At the federal level, that $50 billion/year multiplied by 10 comes out to more than half of the revenue the GOP says it's willing to consider, and almost a third of what the Obama administration says it's after. Aside from the dramatic effect it would have on the charities, some taxpayers would be only slightly affected, some would end up about the same as if rates changed, and... the highest income, least generous taxpayers would come out best of all.
Ho ho ho.
It was "401(k)" that caught my eye in the Wired.com teaser, thinking there might be something useful for the Finance forum I moderate, but the supposed "Business" feature is more about the pre-dash part of the headline: Know What You'll Look Like in 30 Years—Maybe Then You'll Max Out Your 401(k).
The lead screen shot shows somebody's sad face aged to 107, which is come on, not necessary is it? But aside from the slightly dour expression, I have to say, he looks pretty damn good for 107. Eyes open and apparently still breathing, for one.
"Using a facial aging algorithm, the web app snaps a photo of you with your laptop's camera and then shows you what youíll look like at 47, 57, 67 and so on..."
But I already know what I look like at 57, and yeah it "aren't pretty," most days. Still, I'm not seeing how that's supposed to motivate me to save more money. I should be spending more money on having fun, and beauty products, eh?
Boehner's been using his Kabuki airtime to deride the Obama administration's proposal as "not serious," and has now made the Republican counteroffer comprising more rejected, bad ideas than I would have thought possible. Raise the eligibility age for Medicare? Lower cost-of-living hikes for Social Security? Ah, but some "revenue," obtained without the dreaded increase in tax rates for anybody. ("Dynamic scoring" to the rescue! Yes, friends, the Laffer curve is going to save us once again.) Keeping it free of specifics is a feature as well, because people always get worked up about specifics.
It's the stuff Mr. Speaker supported last year, and he got re-elected, and the Republicans still control the House, so there. It doesn't have to make sense. As Paul Krugman puts it, there's no there there.
But even $800 billion of magic revenue over a decade is a bridge too far for the reactionary right. It's a tax hike, OMG! Sen. Jim DeMint (RR-SC):
"This isn't rocket science. Everyone knows that when you take money out of the economy, it destroys jobs, and everyone knows that when you give politicians more money, they spend it. This is why Republicans must oppose tax increases and insist on real spending reductions that shrink the size of government and allow Americans to keep more of their hard-earned money."
So DeMint and the president agree on one thing: Boehner's proposal should be flatly rejected. Which is not to say DeMint's grab-bag of clichés unburdened by contact with reality has anything virtuous about it.
Ezra Klein details why raising the Social Security retirement age—again—is a bad idea, and the same can be extended to Medicare eligibility.
"You know what age most people actually begin taking Social Security? Sixty-five is what most people think. Thatís the law's standard retirement age. But that's wrong. Most people begin taking Social Security benefits at 62, which is as early as the law allows you to take them.
"When they do that, it means they get smaller benefits over their lifetime. We penalize for taking it early. But they do it anyway. They do it because they don't want to spend their whole lives at that job. Unlike many folks in finance or in the U.S. Senate or writing for the nation's op-ed pages, they donít want to work till they drop."
But 65 hasn't been "the law's standard retirement age" It was bumped up starting with people born in 1938 and later, thirty years ago now. It's 66 for current retirees (born 1943-1954) and will be 67 for children of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s. The penalty for taking payments as soon as you can (still age 62) is thus increased.
The people making the argument that we should "just" raise the retirement age&—again—don't have skin in the game, anyway.
"The pundits and the senators and the CEOs, they'll never feel it. They don't want to retire at age 65, and they don't have short life expectancies, and they're not mainly relying on Social Security for their retirement income. They're bravely advocating a cut they'll never feel."
But yes, they have something to gain. The old age, survivors, and disability insurance that is Social Security is funded by payroll taxes levied on just the first $110,100 of this year's earned income. (The limit goes up over time, $113,700 next year.) Above that, hey presto! Nothing. And nothing levied on income from interest ("carried" or otherwise), dividends, or capital gains.
A short history of seeking purity through separation: Secession theology runs deep in American religious, political history.
"The pattern commonly involves one group breaking off to re-establish a holy community by living in fresh accord with sacred texts. Religious purists have the Bible to guide their quest; secessionists look to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Both insist these centers of authority have suffered neglect and must be restored."
Some revolutions have been televised after all, but I'm guessing adding one's name to web petitions is not going to be part of any real revolution, ever, even if they're on the verge of collecting a million names for the NSA's data mining efforts. (What a great idea to have wingnuts self-identify!)
Since everything's bigger in Texas, that state leads the way with more than 118,000 click-sigs, although we probably need to check residency to determine whether this is about secession, or expulsion. Idaho's bid seems to have stalled at just over 6,400 signatures. At this rate we might not reach the 25,000 threshold for a formal raspberry from the Obama administration.
"Completely virgin territory" is harder to find than ever, but there are some usual suspects, including another bunch of wackadoos in their own private Idaho who seem to be working toward an unhappy ending, as the Southern Poverty Law Center describes in some detail.
One of the things that struck me about Rep. Raúl Labrador's (R-ID-1) latest moment in front of the microphone was his declaration of bad faith negotiation on the part of the opposing party. "The problem you have is that the Democrats really don't want to solve the immigration problem," he said.
"The president just came out and he said that he does not support this bill because it is not part of a comprehensive immigration reform plan. If we do a comprehensive package, what you're going to have is a bill that every single member of Congress hates a certain aspect of it and no one is going to vote for. Let's start with the easiest thing first and then we can move forward and do more and more difficult things. If we don't do it this way, it's never going to get done. The Democrats will continue to have something to kick Republicans about, and the reality is that they don't want to solve this problem, they just want to have a political issue that they can hit us over the head every two years."
Two things: both sides of that sound damn familiar in the "fiscal cliff" folderol, except the sides are reversed. The president and Democrats are saying let's provide for middle class tax relief we can all agree on first. And Mitch McConnell comes back with what about Social Security? Let's fix that in the next couple of weeks, why don't we, and do something comprehensive!
Secondly, I look to arguments people make about their opposition for insight into what's inside their heads. Don't really want to solve a problem, and are just looking for a political issue to hit someone over the head? That's the story of the last Congress, especially in the House of Representatives, with Tea Party darlings such as Labrador in the vanguard.
It shouldn't have worked, with contempt for Congress legion before the election, and I imagine after it as well. It did cost the Republicans some House seats, but not enough to lose their majority, in spite of Democrats receiving more of the votes for House candidates overall; GOP-controlled redistricting made for an operative-generated "mandate" to have John Boehner remain head of the House.
Two predictions for the coming political season: Labrador will find new ways to get press attention, and Congress will continue to earn collectively comprehensive contempt for its failure to accomplish much of anything for the American people.
You really outdid yourself with your commentary about Hostess and Twinkies and plighting troths and insouciant insolence. Bravo!
As for your underlying argument, meh. Unions should indeed not put employers out of business. But what does that have to do with Hostess, exactly? Your extraordinary implication requires quite a few more facts than we have in evidence, arcane bread and pastry transport work rule notwithstanding.
No, surely, if our captains of industry deserve credit for job creation and making the sun rise, they also deserve full credit for making it set. Management put Hostess out of business. AGAIN. And paid themselves handsomely for their work. Nineteen captains and lieutenants to split a $1.8 million lottery for their fine work in "winding down" the operation, gussying it up for the next phalanx of brand miners and investment bankers. I understand a hundred are bidding for the opportunity. (One I hadn't heard of, but I hope they win: "Grupo Bimbo.")
I'm looking forward to the first product rollout under new management, something with a zombie theme.
Tom von Alten tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org