The Libyan Disruption

So, now that prices at the pump have risen to the level the national media has decided is worth investigating, maybe we aught to see it in the context of other disruptions to the oil flow. And what is the result of that analysis? Well, Business Insider gives us the chart of the day:

CHART OF THE DAY: Where Libya Ranks Among The Worst Oil Disruptions Of All Time.

I notice that neither Katrina nor the Gulf Oil Spill rank. But it does rank above the Iraq War, and we know what that did to oil prices.


5 Reasons Democrats Will Be Just Fine in November

Far be it from me to deprive the national news media their ability to drum up hysterical psycho-drama every waking moment of the day, but I thought that I might offer a few good reasons to cast a bit of doubt on the dire predictions of the smarmy, gossipy Washington press corps so eloquently embodied in Dana Millbank and others. And while I fully understand that I have no voice on the national level, I thought I’d give you a few good reasons to be less amazed than they will profess to be come the end of this latest election cycle:

#5: Just because your “agin” one Party does not make you “fer” another:

Its hard to believe I actually need to say this out loud, but I will: just because I’m pissed at a Democrat does not mean I will vote for a Republican. There has to be a reason to believe that the Republican will do better, which as I will address below, is dubious at best right now. As fun as the media finds it to refer to the people who watch their shows and pay their salaries as “pitchfork-wielding,” knuckle-dragging thugs, the fact is that most of us do not even own pitchforks in the first place. Those of us who do probably have better uses for them. You know, because we think for ourselves.

#4: The Republican capacity to self-immolate.

Republicans had things pretty locked up in Nevada. That is, until Sharon Angle won the nomination there. Now Reid is up by 7. That is, despite a completely upside-down approval rating for Reid in his state. With other winners like Rand Paul and the rest of the Katzenjammer Kids, we can have at least some faith in the Republicans ability to mess this up. And indeed, it is a standard trait of the non-incumbent party that they tend to play Keystone Cops until such time as they simply cannot help but be more attractive than the incumbent party.

From apologies to BP to declaring the inscrutable “Repeal and Replace” agenda for both HCR and now Fin Reg, to describing the financial crisis as an “ant,” to telling the unemployed to just “get a job,” its hard to imagine how Democrats could do a better job of painting the Republicans as out-of-touch. Worse for Republicans, the outlandishly misguided behavior is not atypical, but rather reinforces classic stereotypes of the Republican Party that have traditionally hung their chances out to dry when the issue is the economy. That makes a lot of people’s stomachs hurt when it comes time to actually vote for Republicans.

#3: The Low Turnout Myth

There is no doubt but that turnout can be expected to be lower than it was in the last election. Count on the media to point that out relentlessly, regardless of who wins what, as proof that their analysis is right. But if the last election was a record-setting election – it was – and if turnout in mid-terms is generally lower than in presidential elections – it is – then predicting that turnout will be lower is not exactly the stuff of sages. And I fully expect that the turnout, while lower than the presidential election of 2008, will likely be higher than it was in the previous mid-term election.

Because while we know that mid-terms get less attention, generally, this is not one of those general years. This is not a year when people get to just kick back and be happy with their jobs and wrap Christmas presents. Things are serious and serious-minded people will come out to vote.

Another classic canard of the national news media – one which on its face is self-negating – is that because turnout is low, mid-term elections are both dominated by Conservative voters and also an opportunity for a “protest vote.” The extent to which this concept is true is the extent to which Conservative voters “protest” Liberal and Democratic administrations and no farther. One or the other has to be true, or they’re both false.

Finally, while there’s every reason to think that some people who are angry over the current state of the economy – as distinct from Conservative voters who are just extra angry for their own reasons – will want to “protest” the current administration and Congress, they’ll have to step beyond the blogs, the comments, the FaceBook posts, the cameras, the televisions, the radios, the brave talk at the water cooler and step into that curiously quiet and disquieting space known as a voting booth and actually pull the lever. Which leads me to the next point:

#2: No plan, no vote.

Protest is one thing. But no one disputes the fact that our nation is in a precarious spot right now. This is not the time to simply throw the lever against the incumbent party and feel better about yourself. Polls are showing that Americans generally favour experience over fresh faces – a fact that works better for Dems *after* the 2008 than before it. People are paying very close attention to the news and election politics right now because they need to make what most anyone sees as a very important decision at a very risky time. And when they’re in that booth, what good reason is there to vote in a Republican?

Because the Republicans have shown no new messages, no plan and much worse, absolutely no leadership in the last year and a half. There is absolutely no reason to think that we will do anything other than return to the exact same position we were in on November of 2008 if we put the same party back into power.

#1: America digs a winner

To complain about the “obstructionist” non-incumbent party is a means of applying political pressure. To complain about an incumbent party that “won’t listen to our ideas” is just whining. That was as true for Democrats as it currently is for Republicans. In order to show that you can lead, you have to win something. Right now, Republican wins are few and far between whereas the Democrats are on fire with some of the biggest legislation ever passed in my lifetime. You don’t have to like it to see that they’re winning. And winning is a powerful thing in American politics.

Democrats were able to bring the Bush Agenda to a slow, creaking halt around 2005. And they won big in 2006. By 2008, it wasn’t just that the country was in a dire situation, but rather that Republicans seemed completely ill-equiped to provide an answer that did them in. So far, Republicans have yet to have the same types of successes with the Democratic agenda. If anything, they’ve whipped up a lot of nasty, racist, belligerent protest to the Democratic agenda that dragged the HCR debates well past their welcome… and then lost, anyway.

No plan, no wins, a nasty case of foot-in-mouth and a lot of hasty assumptions about how people will vote do not necessarily add up to a winning strategy. Plan on hearing the phrase “The Republicans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” quite a lot by December. That’s not because they really did so badly, but because pundits so completely and intentionally misjudged what is about to happen. Certainly, Democrats will loose seats. Certainly, Republicans will crow about the victories. But the needle won’t have moved appreciably in this next election.

One final point of purely meta, purely Monday Night Football-ish kind of analysis: this is not 1994 by any measure. In 1994, Democrats had controlled Congress almost consistently for twenty years, were riddled with House scandals, were completely dysfunctional and “suffering” from a perfectly good economy where Republicans could play on greed. Republicans meanwhile had a very organized team and a “Contract With America,” which for all the silliness inherent in that title, was at least a well-laidout set of policy agenda. Democrats currently have no serious scandals brewing, have not had time to become unwelcome as a ruling Party and are very well orga-…. well, bad example.


Does Imposing Cigarette Taxes Encourage Better Behavior?

For about ten years of my life, I was a proud and defiant smoker. I enjoyed a good cigarette at lunch time and I will not lie: I still occasionally smell something attractive – if not overly pleasant – about cigarette smoke as I pass through the doors of the local malls and restaurants. Through most of this time, I was working at jobs that paid considerably less than I currently make. Indeed, these entry-level jobs in the IT world paid somewhat less than a living wage for a single person.

But at no time did I ever seriously consider quitting my habit for financial reasons. I’d bum smokes off people; I’d complain about the prices; I’d sit in my livingroom and climb the walls till pay day. But I never once said, “cigarette prices are too high! I’m quitting.” Tut-tut if you must, but I suspect that this is also the case with many other current and former smokers.

Yet it is precisely this fiction that is trotted out every time the cigarette tax goes up in New York or nationally: raising taxes on cigarettes is a disincentive to smoking them. My evidence thus presented is purely anecdotal and colored by my personal opinion of the matter, but I recently decided to go in search of more tangible evidence to suggest the real effect of taxation on populations of smokers. The thought came to mind when I once again heard about the “Fat VAT” on sugary drinks proposed on both the New York State and national levels.

The results of my initial research are, well, not terribly supportive of that or really any other hypothesis, I’m afraid. The numbers have been adjusted as seemed fair by comparing the taxes not on their own, but rather as a percent of income. In this way, we get a truer sense of what the relative “weight” of a cigarette tax actually is in each state.

New York is helpfully (depending on your point of view) at the very top of the most-taxed stogie states in the Union. Yet our smoking population, while certainly much lower than many other states, is not where you might expect it to be if the hypothesis were true. Meanwhile, the next most taxed state by income, Rhode Island is about as near to the top of the list of smokin’est states as we are to the bottom of the list. And all down the line, there is nothing approaching a consistent pattern.

To be sure, this data is at best evidence rather than proof of anything conclusive. There are a number of variables not factored in, such as cultural and historic factors. We may certainly say that the comparing the various states on cultural levels is indeed comparing apples to oranges. What we might really prefer – and what I have as yet had difficulty locating – is data in a specific state, organized by year, so we can see the percent change in taxes relative to the percent change in smokers.

But even if we allow these faults, certainly one would expect at least some smattering of – some semblance of – a pattern. The scatter chart on the second tab shows this not to be the case – if anything, a reverse trend could be imagined from the data.


Rep Paul Ryan’s Brave Call to Nationalize the Stock Market

Rep. Ryan discusses his budget plan. Image:

Republicans have been getting a lot of flack for not bringing ideas to the table at a time when our nation desperately needs them. But the recent budget proposal by Republican House Budget maven Paul Ryan is a sharp rebuke to the notion that Republicans bring nothing to the table and an outright rejection of the notion that Republicans are so ruled by ideology that they cannot propose ideas outside their narrow scope.

Among its many plans, the Ryan budget proposal calls for nationalizing the Stock Market.

It is true that, in discussing the topic of the Republican plan for Social Security, the phrase generally used is “privatizing Social Security.” But consider what the plan actually proposes. Just as the last proposal under George W. Bush did, the plan allows taxpayers to reroute a portion of their FICA taxes to “personal savings accounts.” So far, it almost seems private, except for the fact that the government isn’t giving your money back to you and they’re not ceasing to remove FICA taxes from your paycheck: you’re still paying taxes.

It is a “personal savings account,” which means according to the plan that it will allow you to pass on your balance to your children. But what do you invest in? Well, according to the plan, you invest in “a series of funds managed by the U.S. government.” Ok, got that? You don’t invest the money yourself, it gets taken out of your paycheck. And you don’t get to pick the funds, the government does. It’s private. Remember that.

So how will the money be disbursed? Do you get to dip into it like your 401k? Well, the plan doesn’t make any mention of that, directly. But after mentioning that they also want to “modernize” the age of retirement (three guesses: would that be “modernizing” it up? Or down?), they do say:

The modernization of the retirement age will not affect the ability of an individual who chooses the personal account system to retire early, as long as his or her account has accumulated enough funds to provide an annuity equivalent to 150 percent of poverty.

For those of you whom, like me, are less familiar with such financial jargon, that would be defined as, “income from capital investment paid in a series of regular payments.” That means that the government isn’t giving you your money back or ceasing FICA payments; it’s only allowing you to invest in the funds that they’ve setup; and apparently, they decide when and how much of “your” money you get back. Sounds pretty private, huh?

So far, this doesn’t seem very private at all. It sounds like the federal government doing with your FICA money something not unlike what the states do with your money by investing it in funds. Except, of course, with the veneer of privacy. But here’s a question: how much money do you think gets invested into the Social Security trust fund every year? How much of the taxes that we pay goes directly into the trust fund – and how much would therefore be invested into the stock market under the Republican plan?

Would you believe $700 billion annually? It is difficult to find the answer to the question “how much new capital is invested in the stock market every year.” After all, which market? The Dow? The NASDAQ? And what constitutes “new” money? But consider this: if one entity comes into the game with three quarters of a trillion dollars to spend every single year – not a fluctuating number like private investment, a stable number from taxation – whom do you think calls the shots in that marketplace? How long before the U.S. government owns a controlling interest in the entire market?

I’m guessing not more than ten years. And Republicans, fiscal hawks that they are, must surely be aware of that. Especially since the plan contains this very interesting chestnut:

Guarantee of Contributions. Individuals who choose to invest in personal accounts will be ensured every dollar they place into an account will be guaranteed, even after inflation. With the recent market downturn, individuals must be assured their retirement is secure. By guaranteeing the dollars put into an account, individuals can be assured that a large-scale market downturn will not cost them their Social Security personal accounts.

Pray tell, who is paying for that? Well, clearly if the government is required to insure every dollar you’ve invested into the stock market, they’re going to need to do everything in their considerable power to prevent that market downturn from ever happening.


Massa Getting Media Attention on Health Care

Not sure if this is really the kind of thing he wants, but you push a guy like Eric Massa around, you’re bound to get some feisty words.

Eric Massa calls Senator Grassley’s “Pull the plug on grandma” line “treason.” Talking Points Memo is picking up the story, and I suspect the nationals won’t be far behind on this one. For a bit of a backgrounder on where the tensions are coming from, check out Keyless Piano. Jon Greenbaum also comments at DFE here.

I think Massa’s always got a great way to creatively spin his position in the most just-short-of hyperbolic way. Perhaps he’s stepped over the line this time, or else misplaced his ire. It’s not Chuck Grassley but rather the Hitler effigy-carrying, gun-toting nutbags he’s playing to that are in danger of crossing the line into treason or worse.

It’s a shame that a substantive discussion of health care reform is not possible. It would be nice to think that fiscal conservatives could voice objections and help us trim the bill into a lean, mean reform bill. But if opponents of health care reform are going to allow themselves to be defined by the most extreme whackjobs in their midst, we’re not going to get anywhere. Just remember that when you hear them bitch about this bill forty years after its passage like they bitch about Social Security.

You have one chance to be a positive force in history. The Republicans are bound and determined to lose theirs.


Bill Clinton in North Korea: the Obvious Answer

Dilan Ratigan is on MSNBC right now, puzzling over the recent developments in North Korea, where Bill Clinton has arrived to negotiate the release of the two journalists who have been trapped there. They’re trying to get to the motivation of the North Koreans; to decide what reason they have to talk to Bill Clinton about this issue where they will not speak with the State Department or any other branch of the current administration.

Former President Bill Clinton in North Korea to try to free U.S. journalists.

Allow me to point out the painfully obvious: Hillary Clinton declared that the North Korean government was acting like a spoiled child. In response, the North Korean government called her a “funny girl.” Now, the NKs have decided to bypass the Secretary of State to the United States of America for…. her husband.

Seriously? Is it really that diffiicult to ferret out the motivation? I would have thought it obvious..

Having said that, Bill Clinton is absolutely right to go. Sexist international slam-fests aside, if the North Koreans are willing to speak with him and get those poor women released from prison, it’s all worth it. To the North Koreans, this is a way to treat the Sec. State like a bitch; to the United States, this is an opportunity to save two lives simply by rolling through some pointlessly sexist and insulting game-playing. At the end of the day, North Korea is less two prisoners and Hillary Clinton is still… the Secretary of State to the United States of America.


Citi Group’s Email to It’s Student Loan Customers

I just got this message from the Student Loan Corporation, a division of Citi Corp. At the moment, I have no information one way or the other on the proposed budget changes that Citi is talking about here, but it reads like typical corporate anti-government crap. I’ll look into it some more and let you know:

May 7, 2009


Thank you for the opportunity to help you obtain the education of your choice. As a student loan provider for the past 50 years, Citi has provided financial aid assistance to millions of students and parents nationwide.

Given the challenging economy and continued increases in the cost of higher education, it is critical that the U.S. student lending system serves the best interests of students and their families. If you believe that competition and choice among student loan providers is valuable, you have an opportunity to make your voice heard.

Why Get Involved?
The government budget outline proposes offering federal student loans solely through the federal government’s Direct Lending Program starting July of next year. While this proposal will not impact a borrower’s ability to obtain a federal student loan, it will eliminate your ability to choose a student loan provider. It will also substantially increase the national debt since each and every federally-insured student loan will be funded by the Federal Treasury through the issuance of treasury securities. This proposal impacts you as a citizen – both as a taxpayer and as a borrower.

Why Does Competition And Choice Matter?
Without private lender involvement through the Federal Family Education Loan Program, students and their families will not enjoy the benefits that competition has made possible for more than 40 years. This competition has provided not only a choice of lenders, but also innovative products and services, such as:

* a variety of borrower benefits that lower your cost of borrowing
* financial literacy programs that educate you on how to borrow responsibly
* web-based tools and resources to advise you about your financing options
* default prevention services to help you pay back your loans

Competition also has driven increased customer satisfaction as a result of the responsiveness, personal attention and on-campus support that student loan lenders have provided to borrowers and schools nationwide.

Make Your Voice Heard
If you value the ability to shop for, evaluate and choose your student loan provider, make your voice heard by contacting your Members of Congress and by signing one of the online petitions that support borrower choice and competition in federal student lending.


The Student Loan Corporation


Warning to Bloggers:

National news media seems to forget who their biggest audience is. Decadence is exponential, it seems.

So just a reminder to be on your toes. This issue of quoting original sources (called a bibliography when I was in school, and a means to avoid copyright infringement) comes back every so often. Now with a down economy and newspapers becoming dinosaurs sinking in the tar, they’re kind of dangerous animals.


Simple Economics IV: Nationalization

Once again, I find myself explaining concepts discussed in the media but rarely ever explained by the media. Today’s discussion is “nationalization” of the banking industry.

Or, how about “bankruptcy?” In a bankruptcy of a business, the debt and assets of the company are assumed by the government, who then restructures the company and if necessary, sells of the company’s debts to cover the liens against the company. Then the company is either released to continue or else is sold outright to some buyer who wants a good deal.

If this sounds at all familiar, that’s most likely because this is precisely the remedy proscribed by Dean Baker, Paul Krugman and almost every single other serious minded economist whose looked our current situation. To the extent that the federal government is involved in the day to day operations of businesses in bankruptcy, yes, it is nationalization. But this kind of thing happens all the time to all kinds of businesses without a peep of objection from the Republicans in Congress. In fact, it even happens to local banks all the time, which is one reason that we have a thing called the FDIC.

But it doesn’t happen to the big boys who have the money to pay off politicians and drive the conversation in the most objectionable direction possible.

Interesting side note: guess what the Republican, Dick Shelby proscription is for the Detroit automakers? If you guessed “nationalization,” you’re right!


Protest on Wall Street

It’s gone viral.  An email sent out by one passionately enraged man has spread all over the Internet and there appears to be a gigantic protest scheduled, dumping garbage in the middle of Wall Street.  The article doesn’t say when, though. . .


The “Hardship Gap” Widens in NYS

While we all wring our hands and wonder why it is so many of our young people are leaving the state, perhaps it would be instructive to consider the latest report on wages in New York:

Report says ‘anemic’ wages affect 5.7 million New Yorkers | Democrat and Chronicle

The report from a labor-backed think tank said that 5.7 million New Yorkers are part of families that face a “hardship gap” in which at least one person has a job but the earnings aren’t enough to cover all basic expenses, including food, rent, utilities, health insurance, transportation and child care.

The proportion of New York families who don’t make enough to pay for these services, 30 percent, is well above the national median of 22 percent and is the highest of any Northeast state, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute report.

The report also goes on to state that a wage of $17 an hour is required in order to keep a family of four afloat. That’s a tall order in many professions, and especially in unskilled labors. Keep in mind also that the national average of 22 percent includes states like Louisiana, Arkansas and West Virginia where grinding poverty exists in ways most of us in this state don’t even fully understand as “America.” That we are so far behind in providing our state citizens – to say nothing of national citizens – a decent living wage is an embarrassment to our name.


John McCain: Let’s Do the Timewarp Again!

Nothing says “I’m really, really fucking old” quite like making campaign barbs out of presidents from thirty years ago, and trying to make them look like they’re really relevant:

Jonathan Martin’s Blog: Playing the Carter card –

“Senator Obama says that I’m running for a Bush’s third term,” McCain said, picking up the central Democratic line of attack. “Seems to me he’s running for Jimmy Carter’s second.”

This is sad on a number of levels. Firstly, while the above quoted post tries charitably to come up with reasons why the Carter jab is a good one, the author points out things indicative of the Bush Administration such as gas prices and weak national security. But that’s probably too deep, anyway. The real problem is that, as I approach middle age, half the people my age and younger don’t really even know who Jimmy Carter was as a president, and know him rather as the Nobel Prize winning, charming old Southern guy who rocks out interviews on The Daily Show. That seems like a positive thing.

Maybe McCain aught to dig a bit deeper into our history, into something that isn’t half-assed taught in the last few weeks of June when there’s no air conditioning and no one’s even paying attention, anyway. Perhaps a Millard Fillmore crack, of some kind?