Sunday, November 27, 2005

If You Want to Cut Pork, Go to the Pentagon

(Here's the post I spoke of in my last entry.)

The Truth Laid Bear wants all good bloggers to support a bill put forth by a handful of conservative Republican Senators called "The Fiscal Watch Team Offset Package", This bill ostensibly offsets the costs of Hurricane Katrina with a bunch of Federal budget cuts to Medicare and a 5% reduction in all domestic spending. This is apparently a litmus test for bloggers and politicians alike. Support the bill with a specific declaration on your blog, and you are a "Porkbuster". Oppose the bill, and you favor profligate government waste. Faithful right-thinking bloggers are then supposed to declare their support on their blogs, to then be highlighted on the TTLB site. Look closer however, and the whole deal appears to be just another right wing attempt to frame opposition to domestic spending as "trimming wasteful pork".

I would like to say "I support the Fiscal Watch Team Offset Package", but I can't. It's a terrible, highly partisan bill that targets all the wrong areas and lets the main sources of government pork go untouched. This "package" would slash domestic spending across the board by 5%, increase Medicare costs and freeze COLA adjustments for non-military personnel. The recent pay hikes for Congressmen are not affected, nor are any military programs. This package is supposed to save $130 billion in 2 years. The fact that the Medicare savings don't accrue to the benefit of the Federal Budget (being an off-budget Trust Fund program) is apparently lost on our intrepid budget cutters.

Well this is just balderdash. Most of the waste in government takes place in the military side of the ledger. In this chart, the red pie slice is the military's portion of all Federal discretionary spending. All, except for one important distinction: the Iraq and Afghanistan operations are funded by off budget emergency appropriations. What you see is the military budget minus our current wars du jour. So when our arch-conservative (and downright loopy) freshman Senator Tom Coburn (R, Mars) exempts all military spending from cuts, he's walking away from the biggest pie slice of all. Of course, that's intentional. The military is the Republicans' third rail, just as domestic spending such as Medicare and Social Security are the Democrats'. This bill therefore is merely a Trojan Horse partisan attack on the Democrats wrapped in anti-pork rhetoric.

If anyone is serious on Capitol Hill about reducing wasteful spending, you have to look at the Pentagon first. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld admitted in 2002 that the Pentagon has lost track of an estimated $2.3 trillion of military transactions. That's $2.3 trillion or over $8,000 for every man woman and child living in the USA. Contrast that with the $77 per person cost of pork identified in the Porkbusters database so far, and the $448 per person that Coburn's bill claims to save. And that before the Iraq War started, before Halliburton snagged those no bid contracts, before those untold billions were unaccounted for in the Iraq reconstruction budget. It's so bad, non-partisan tax watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense said in 2003:

"DOD is by far the most fiscally mismanaged agency. The GAO has said that overhauling the Pentagon's financial management will be a major challenge "that goes far beyond financial accounting to the very fiber of the department's business operations and management culture." In fact, no major part of DOD has ever passed an audit and the Pentagon readily admits that flawed business systems and practices are common within the agency. They claim it would take decades to get all of the agency books in order."

It's not just accounting incompetence though, it's deliberate policy decisions that waste hundreds of billions of dollars. Dr. Lawrence Korb, Asst Secy of Defense under Ronald Reagan, recently wrote a complete analysis of today's military programs. By targeting wasteful weapons systems designed to fight cold war enemies that no longer exist, he's found over $60 billion per year that could be cut from military budgets that actually would strengthen our national security.

Here's just one example from Korb's Report of the kind of unneeded pork we should cut: the V-22 Osprey program. This dog is a tilt rotor craft that takes off like a helicoptor and then flies like a plane. Or at least that's what it's supposed to do. Originally ordered in the 80's, it was dropped by the Army in the late 80's because of enormous technical problems and field test failures. Then-Sec'y of Defense Dick Cheney canceled the program in 1991. It was revived by Congress however and continued to live on in Pentagon budgets ever since. Several serious accidents in continued testing make the Osprey more deadly for our Armed Forces than the entire Kosovo War. The total cost of this dog is up to $50 billion. A little over $500 million was spent on payments to military contractors in FY2003, spread throughout two dozen different congressional districts. This dog should go before it kills any more Marines.

You want another piece of pork to dispense with? It's called "Operation Iraqi Freedom", an unforgiveable boondoggle that wastes $5.8 billion per month. That's $70 billion per year.

Follow Korb's advice on the traditional budget, and follow Congressman Murtha's advice on Iraq, and we'll have saved $260 billion over the next two years while actually strengthening military preparedness. That's twice what the Senator Coburn's package wants to slash, without snatching Medicare benefits from those who need them and slashing every domestic priority we have bedsides.

Dr. Korb presented the idea of his military cuts in October within days of Sen Coburn's Medicare and domestic cut package. But the TTLM "Porkbusters" effort apparently will have none of that. Only domestic programs are attacked in their database they've set up. Yet just that one Marine-killing Osprey program costs more than all of the pork identified in that database put together. So is "porkbusters" just a right wing framing campaign against domestic spending, or are they serious about actually trimming bigtime wasteful spending? It will be very interesting if Korb's recommendations ever makes it on the "Porkbusters" site.

Putting Porkbusters to the Test

In the aftermath of a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration, I was poking around the blogosphere and came across a growing site called "The Truth Laid Bear", which styles itself as a "fully developed portal to the blogosphere". It's pretty impressive too, with something like 7K visits per day and close to 50,000 blogs registered as part of the "TTLB Ecosystem". OK, so I registered my small blog with the group and was immediately branded an "Insignificant Microbe". Dudes, you might want to check with your publicist on the wisdom of that initial Out of the Box Experience. Subsequent scans by their software promoted me to "Slimy Mollusc". I feel so vindicated.

In any event it looks like a pretty nifty community to bop around in. One part of the site that drew my attention, being the hopeless would-be polysci wonk that I am, was a campaign called "Porkbusters". This brainchild of Instapundit is a great idea. It invites all bloggers to identify some particularly noisome example of government waste or pork and blog about it. We're also asked to pressure our Congresscritters to eliminate said pork forthwith. Porkbusters also promises to post each example on their site so that the whole community can share in the outrage.

Well I'm going to put this to the test. You see, the whole campaign appears to have a decidedly rightward tilt. Looking through the pork cited, all of it comes from domestic non military spending. Yet about 50% of the discretionary budget is devoted to the military, not including the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. My suspicions were confirmed by Porkbusters' highlighting of a right wing attempt to cut social programs, framed as the "Fiscal Watch Team Offset Package", an attempt to offset the expenses of cleaning up after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

So my next post will highlight some Pentagon pork. Let's see if the TTLB Ecosystem is up to including that in their efforts.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

GOP Senate to Workers: It's Fine to Be Paid 1/3rd Less Than Depression-Era Laborers

First, some perspective. Pictured here are some day laborers working on construction of the Hoover Dam in 1932.

These men were part of a corps of 5,000 men paid 50 cents an hour to do the dirty unskilled labor that created the magnificent dam over 5 years of hard dangerous work. Those who got that 50 cents an hour considered themselves lucky, as wage rates were depressed by the height of the Great Depression. Still, labor unions at the time bitterly denounced the wage rates and working conditions of the Hoover Dam laborers:

"We believe that a great injustice is being perpetrated against the workers at Boulder Dam in the general lowering of working and living conditions on a project directly under the supervision of our Government during this time of depression and unemployment. Labor at Boulder Dam has no voice in the settling of wages, hours of labor, working conditions, safety or living conditions. Last year local Labor Unions attempted to have the Bacon-Davis prevailing wage law apply to the Boulder Canyon project and Boulder City. An investigation by the conciliation Division of the Department of Labor found that the Bacon-Davis Act did not become a law until two days after the Six Companies signed their contract. Further, that reservations were not covered by the prevailing rate of wage law and the result was a general lowering of wages and working conditions. An arbitrary scale of wage was imposed on skilled mechanics twenty-five to fifty percent lower than the prevailing scales for similar work in the territory adjacent to the project."
Picture and quote from the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum. Go there if you're in Vegas sometime. It's an incredible story they tell.

Now fast forward to 2005. The GOP dominated US Senate has just voted down the first increase of the minimum wage since 1997: from $5.15 to $6.25 an hour. All the Democrats plus four Republicans voted for it. It failed 51-49. In the time since the last increase in the minimum wage, Senators voted themselves seven pay raises totaling $28,000 per year.

What does this have to do with the Hoover Dam workers? Well, 50 cents an hour in the Depression translates into $7.89 per hour in today's dollars. (Don't believe me? Do the math with the historical Consumer Price Index.) What the Senate is saying is that today's minimum wage workers should be getting a wage 35% LOWER than unskilled, non-union labor in the height of the Great Depression. This is progress? No. It's a crime against Americans. Next election time, remember who did this to us.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Called Ball Didn't Fall: Bush Tax Cuts an Objective Failure

Reality is an inconvenient thing sometimes. In the polarized atmosphere of today's politics, reality is often hard to come by. Everyone has their spin, their set of facts and warping of same. Because of this, no one trusts what the other side is saying, and perhaps rightly so. That's why I like to get back to basics and simply rely on hard primary data that no one can dispute or question. So when a friend in another forum claimed that the Bush administration's tax cuts actually worked to foster economic growth and raise tax receipts (as reported by USA Today), I thought it was time to look at the facts.

When playing pool, the way players prevent one another from benefiting from lucky shots is to require each player to call what shot he/she is trying to make. If it happens, then fine. If something else happens, like the wrong ball falling into the wrong pocket, it doesn't count. The President's budget message to Congress each January is the fiscal politics version of calling your shots, though the administration would like us to forget this.

Each year the President's budget message contains five year projections of where the administration thinks revenues, spending and deficits will be. These projections are based upon the enactment of whatever tax and spending plan the President proposes with the message. So if a President suggests a bold new tax cut for example, the predicted effects of that tax cut are built into the numbers. What that means is that revisiting those numbers afterwards tells us if the predictions actually happened the way they predicted.

These numbers distill all of the spin, all the arguments, loaded catchphrases and sales slogans down to mathematical objective reality. In this case the numbers are produced and are sourced from the administration itself in a audited and vetted procedure that no one of either party has questioned for decades. So no one on either side of the aisle should be able to quibble with them.

In January 2002, after 9/11 and President Bush's first round of tax cuts, the administration suggested the rest of their major tax cuts and predicted a swift economic rebound. 9/11 was blamed for the deterioration of Federal finances leading to a $106 billion deficit projected in 2002, the first since 1997. Enacting the Bush plan for 2002 would

"...boost 2002 GDP growth by 0.5 percent and lead to the creation of 300,000 more jobs. The Administration has built its economic forecasts around the assumption that an economic stimulus package will be enacted."

Those forecasts led to projects that by FY2004, economic growth would have been such to generate $2,175 billion in revenues. Offsetting that was $2,189 billion in spending, or a deficit of only $14 billion. Don't take my word for it. The Bush administration figures here are at the OMB's website in Excel, and Lotus 123.

Well 2004 has come and gone. The speeches are all done, the beans all counted. Here then is the REAL "No-Spin Zone". The final report on spending in 2004 comes to us in the President's budget message in January 2005. Bush reported that revenues came in at $1,880 billion, while spending was $2,292 billion.

Let's review. Actual revenues were $295 billion less than what the administration predicted would be the result of their economic growth and tax plan. They were off by almost 14%. They called their shot. The called ball didn't fall in the called pocket. Not even close. The period between prediction and outcome started AFTER 9/11 and ended BEFORE Katrina, so no excuses can be given for unforeseen events.

Now, Keynesian economics posits that raising deficit spending can sometimes jumpstart economic growth. Could any spending restraint by the administration have dampened growth during this time? Hardly. Bush administration projections called for them spending $2,189 billion a year by FY2004. Actual spending came in $103 billion MORE than what they had promised to do. No restraint there. The called ball didn't fall. Not even close.

So what of my friend who pointed to state government revenues as proof the tax cuts were working? Well, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities looks at state government finances closer than any other public source I know. Their data suggests that this area is subject to immense political spin. Turns out State government finances are still in fiscal crisis, though deficits are beginning to shrink. In other words, the growth we are seeing now merely is catching up from the fall those revenues took in recent years. Further, many states are "decoupling" various tax deduction items found in Federal tax codes, a stealth tax increase raising state taxes without fanfare or much notice.

In other words, while state tax revenues might be rising, they signify nothing but an accidental ball falling into the pocket, uncalled by any player. It's just not relevant to answering the question of whether Bush's tax cuts are working. The called ball didn't fall. End of story.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Yes Virginia, There IS An Opposition Party!

Finally. The Democrats are finding their voices. In the last two weeks we've been treated to four absolutely suburb analyses of what's wrong with the direction of the country. If the Democrats run on the platform elucidated by these folks, I will be proud of my party again.

John Kerry on Bush's Response to Katrina, speaking at Brown University.
"Katrina is a symbol of all this administration does and doesn't do. Michael Brown -- or Brownie as the President so famously thanked him for doing a heck of a job - Brownie is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence; what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad; what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy; what Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning; what Tom Delay is to ethics; and what George Bush is to "Mission Accomplished" and "Wanted Dead or Alive." The bottom line is simple: The "we'll do whatever it takes" administration doesn't have what it takes to get the job done.

This is the Katrina administration."
Full text here.

John Edwards on Poverty in America, speaking at the Center for American Progress.
"Down in New Orleans, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and untold numbers lost their lives because the levees we built were too weak and too low. We knew better, but we didn't act because we didn't want to look. That's how it is with the moral foundations of our society.

All over this country, too many children are growing up in harm's way -- and too many lives are being washed away -- because the levees we've built are too weak and too low. When a 13-year-old girl thinks there's nothing wrong with having a baby that will drive them both toward lives of poverty, we haven't built the levees high enough. When 15-year-old boys become fathers, then walk away, get shot, or go to jail, we haven't built the levees high enough. When young people spend more time going to meth labs than chemistry labs, we haven't built the levees high enough.

We know better, but we don't act because we don't want to look. If we believe in community, we must find the courage to do what communities do: Together, we must stand side by side and man the levees."
Full text here (pdf).

Al Gore on just about everything, speaking at the Sierra Club convention.
"All of us know that our nation - all of us, the United States of America - failed the people of New Orleans and the gulf coast when this hurricane was approaching them, and when it struck. When the corpses of American citizens are floating in toxic floodwaters five days after a hurricane strikes, it is time not only to respond directly to the victims of the catastrophe but to hold the processes of our nation accountable, and the leaders of our nation accountable, for the failures that have taken place.

The Bible in which I believe, in my own faith tradition, says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
Full text here.

Robert Kennedy Jr. on the environment and corporate owned media, speaking at the Sierra Club convention.
"Today as a result of the abolishment of that doctrine, six giant multinational corporations now control all 14,000 radio stations in our country, almost all 6,000 TV stations, 80 percent of our newspapers, all of our billboards, and now most of the Internet information services. So you have six guys who are dictating what Americans have as information and what we see as news. The news departments have become corporate profit centers, they no longer have any obligation to benefit the public interest, their only obligation is to their shareholders, and they fulfill that obligation by increasing viewership. How do you do that? Not by reporting the news that we need to hear to make rational decisions in our democracy, but rather by entertaining us, by appealing to the prurient interests that all of us have in the reptilian core of our brain for sex and celebrity gossip.

So they give us Laci Peterson and Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant, and we're today the best-entertained and the least-informed people on the face of the earth, and this is a real threat to American democracy. If you look at the PIPA report, and I've known this for many, many years because I do 40 speeches a year in red states -- Republican audiences -- there is no difference. When people hear this message and what this White House is doing, and the Gingrich Congress, there is no difference between the way Republicans react and Democrats react, except the Republicans come up afterward and say, "Why haven't we ever heard of this before?" I say to them, "It's because you're watching Fox News and listening to Rush." And 80 percent of Republicans are just Democrats who don't know what's going on."
Full text here.

You go guys.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Feds Were Not Always This Incompetent: The Response to Hurricane Marilyn

Will wonders never cease? A friend of mine pointed me to an article in the National Review criticizing the Bush Administration's response to Katrina. They were pretty enthusiastic. Unfortunately, they were blaming bureaucracy in general, as if the notion of a government agency included incompetence by definition, wrapping it up with: "Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to make bureaucracy less bureaucratic."

You can excuse the NatReview for feeling this way. After all, conservatives spend all their time when they're out of power complaining how government doesn't work. Then when in power they spend all their time proving the point.

There is a way to make government work though. You have to want it to work. You have to give a damn about the mission you're about. Then, all things can be possible.

I was looking around to find out how well the Feds have responded to previous hurricanes and came across this excellent resource at the Quick Response Program and the Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado. That center reminded me of an excellent test case measuring the response of the Bush I and Clinton administrations to similar situations. In 1989
the Bush administration spearheaded relief efforts in the US Virgin Islands following Hurricane Hugo, while the Clinton administration relied on many of the same personnel and resources to respond to Hurricane Marilyn's USVI destruction six years later.

Quick Response Report #82 , written by Betty Hearn Morrow and A. Kathleen Ragsdale of the International Hurricane Center of Florida International University, reported on the response to Marilyn, with specific reference to comparing that response to Hugo. The Hugo response was very unsatisfactory:
"In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, many St. Croix residents had expressed anger that the first federal planes to finally arrive several days after the storm carried troops armed with guns, not food and water, in what many felt was an overreaction to earlier looting reports (Morrow, 1992). There was a strong racial tone to the perception of many that the U.S. troops had arrived to protect white tourists from black locals, not to provide disaster assistance to the U.S. citizens of St. Croix, most of whom were people of color."
The notion that a majority Black community had to wait several days for Federal relief efforts to arrive should have a familiar ring to it for anyone following the controversy of Federal response to Katrina in New Orleans. Even so, was that just a function of the remoteness of the Virgin Islands and the difficulty in mobilizing a large relief effort? Apparently not, as the Clinton administration's response to Marilyn was quite different:
"In anticipation of their need, a number of FEMA disaster specialists had been sent to St. Thomas before Hurricane Marilyn's landfall. By daybreak on September 16, relief supplies and personnel had already begun arriving (FEMA, 1995e). This was the first deployment of the new Federal Interagency/State Field Assessment Team designed to provide quick and technically accurate early damage assessments. According to their reports, St. Thomas received the heaviest impact - 80% of the homes were damaged, 40% were uninhabitable, and 20-30% of the businesses were destroyed (FEMA, 1995b, 1995c)...

"Within one week after the storm, FEMA had directed close to 60 strategic missions transporting more than 1,500 emergency personnel and 1.3 million tons of essential cargo, including food, water, and plastic sheeting for roofs (FEMA, 1995a). Federal Coordinating Officer Dennis Kwiatkowski was quoted as saying, "We are pulling out all the stops in getting supplies down here to make recovery happen" (FEMA, 1995e). Five distribution sites were being operated by the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) on St. Thomas. More than 2,100 federal agency personnel had been deployed. Four contracts had been awarded for immediate housing repairs. Dive teams had begun assessing infrastructural damage to the area's harbors and Navy Seabees had begun structural repairs to public buildings. Military and security forces included about 500 Army, Air Force, and Navy personnel, 500 National Guardsmen, and 500 federal law enforcement personnel (FEMA, 1995d). All major roads had been cleared, the St. Thomas airport was open for visual flight operations using a mobile air traffic control tower, and the St. Thomas Hospital was operational using generators for power."
So all of this happened "within one week", meaning that much of the work was already done on the ground in the time that the Federal Katrina responders took to glom onto the fact that they needed to respond at all.

Was the vastly quicker response to Katrina due to a much more talented force on the ground? No, most of the people involved were also involved with Hugo's response and could compare the two:

"Indeed one veteran FEMA reservist made these unsolicited remarks: "One thing that is noteworthy for your study, is that we seem to have had more active Army with weapons at Hugo. Here we have an adequate supply of federal marshals and they're doing a good job, but they [the military] were much more noticeable at Hugo. He had been one of the first FEMA workers to be sent to St. Croix after Hugo, which he attributed to having a military background. Yet, he stated, "I never felt one iota threatened on St. Croix . . . Other than the tension involved with going through one of these things [a hurricane], I found the people very helpful and honest." He had driven his rental car all over the island and was often helped when he lost his way. There was a general feeling that the atmosphere was more relaxed on St. Thomas
and, yet, the recovery process was going a lot faster than it had six years earlier on St. Croix."
So the Bush I Administration waited several days before getting help to the victims of Hurricane Hugo. When help arrived the first response was to send in the army to stop looting.

The Clinton administration responded much quicker, with humanitarian disaster relief in position in real time, offering much faster response to a devastating situation in St. Thomas. Because help was already there, looting by desperate people never happened.

Fast forward to Bush II's administration, which reverted to Bush I's pathetic too late and a dollar short response to Hugo. Once again the main initial concern was sending in the troops to stop looting, instead of disaster relief efforts. Once again help comes days too late.

The difference in these situations is that the Clinton administration WANTED to use government to make a difference for people. It's part and parcel to the Democratic Party ideology. The Republicans on the other hand have since Reagan wanted to shrink government down to a size small enough so that he could "drown it in a bathtub", as Grover Norquist famously said.

In a recent blog post I opined that right wingers were not qualified to run government, because their incompetence sprang from the simple fact that they hate their jobs, preferring to drown their jobs in a bathtub rather than execute them to the best of their ability. That blog post went up months ago. Unfortunately, Katrina just added a deadly exclamation point to the argument.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: When the Alarm Bells Ring, Bush Hits the Snooze Button

At first blush it seems unfair to lay the disaster of Hurricane Katrina on George Bush's doorstep. After all, who can stop hurricanes from going wherever they want to go? However, the Bush administration, and the longer term policies of those who support the Bush administration, have a lot to do with how bad the carnage and destruction really are.

Failed: Protecting New Orleans from Flooding
First off, those levees did not have to have been breached. The Army Corps of Engineers has been working on shoring them up for some time, but they've been hampered by budget cuts through the years. The Southern Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project was started in 1995 under the Clinton administration. Over the years about $500 million of an estimated needed $750 million was spent shoring up levees. Under Bush, the money to complete the project was diverted in 2003, by pressures resulting from the Iraq war and the need for tax cuts for the rich.

Again, from Editor and Publisher:
"On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."
Failed: Redirecting the National Guard Away from the Scene
Speaking of the war in Iraq, are you wondering why the government emergency response so far has been so tepid? While not denigrating the heroic efforts of those that ARE on the scene, I'm sure they would be a lot happier if so much of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard was there helping, instead of helplessly watching from Iraq.

Failed: Abandoning the Gulf Coast Poor
Lots of questions abound concerning why so many people didn't leave New Orleans beforehand. Well maybe that's because that the population of New Orleans is desperately poor and unable to hop into their handy Hummers or Esplanades to truck their way out to their summer homes. That might also explain the looting. When the infrastructure of civilization collapses all around you, you still have to eat, change the baby, take your medicine and survive.

New Orleans had a poverty rate in excess of 34% before the Bush administration came to town. Since then, the national poverty rate has climbed each and every year . Had there been a continuation of the Clinton administration's economic policies towards poverty, which reduced poverty by the largest degree in 30 years, it is likely that fewer people in New Orleans would have been in such vulnerable straits when Katrina hit. I tried to check New Orleans specific figures, but for some strange reason the New Orleans municipal web server isn't responding.

Failed: Where's the Proactive Government Response?
Speaking of all of that, there's a lot of talk about how ill-prepared the government response was, from the New York Times, "Waiting for a Leader" down to one citizen talking to the Chicago Sun Times comparing Fidel Castro's response to hurricane preparations versus the U.S. response.
"I detest Fidel Castro, but I will tell you this. When a hurricane is approaching Cuba, Castro has set up a system to bus everybody out of harm's way before disaster hits.

"We knew the hurricane was going to hit New Orleans and Mississippi hard. Why didn't we send buses in to get the poor people out before disaster hit? We spend millions on recovery and rescue AFTERWARDS . . . when we could have alleviated so much death BEFORE?"
The New Orleans Times-Picayune said on Tuesday:
"No one can say they didn't see it coming. ... Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."
But of course, there's more. Turns out that on July 24 of this year, the Times-Picayune reported that government plans for evacuation of the poor began and ended with a DVD distributed throughout the city with the message that the poor were on their own if they needed to evacuate: From that Times-Picayune story (courtesy of Attytood at the Philadelphia Daily News)
"City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own."
Keep this callous laissez faire attitude in mind when you peruse this excellent Katrina timeline.

Failed: Combating Global Warming and the Increasing Ferocity of Hurricanes
And finally, the big 800 pound elephant in the room. Fact is that just last month scientists at MIT nailed the connection between the increasing ferocity of hurricanes with global warming, specifically oceanic water temperatures. Years of global warming denial by Bush administration partisans and oil industry paid hacks have meant billions of tons of carbon dioxide warming the Earth that could have been ameliorated by now. Had we gotten to work on ratifying and implementing the Kyoto Treaty when we should have, that category 5 hurricane might have been a category 4 or 3 hurricane. That, as the people in the Gulf States are now painfully aware, makes a huge difference.

A concerned citizenry needs to respond. Over at the new NewOrleansJustice blog, there's a handy reference reminding us what the Constitutional duties of government officials are, naming names of those in charge of this unfolding catastrophe.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Today's Right Wingers are Unqualified for Government Service

Here's a challenge: Can anyone mention a single policy of George W. Bush's since he was installed as President that actually worked as advertised at the time? Anything? In any area?

Ever wonder why this question is so tough? I think the answer is so obvious that no one notices it: Modern Republican ideology hates government. When Ronald Reagan was President, he proclaimed that government wasn't for solving problems, government WAS the problem. When his budget director David Stockman wrote his famous mea culpa a few years later, he made it clear that "Reaganomics" was not a coherent economic plan, but merely a calculated scheme to "starve" government of resources to be able to do anything. Conservative boss Grover Norquist famously quipped that he wanted to shrink government down to a size small enough so that he could "drown it in a bathtub"

Can you think of any reason why anyone should expect success or even competence from anyone who hates the career endeavor they are in? Would you expect competence from a medical doctor who scoffs at the Hippocratic oath and thinks modern medical procedures are overkill and hooey? Would you entrust your home renovations to an electrician who thinks that building codes are evil and unnecessary? Would you trust your child's education to a teacher who wants to drown them in a bathtub?

Of course not.

Is there any reason why we should even expect competence from people who hate their jobs? When George Bush was running for President, he appeared to be blissfully unaware of basic matters of civics. Like castigating his opponents for wanting to run Social Security "like it's some kind of federal program". And it continues: From the President we hear that the Social Security Trust Fund is composed of "just IOU's", blissfully unaware that by describing Treasury Bonds as such, he violated the Constitution's 14th Amendment, an impeachable offense.

Once in power the right wing's incompetence continued of course. Allowing 9/11 to happen by aggressive neglect, at best. Demolishing the surplus and creating the largest deficits known to U.S. history. Putting the brakes on economic growth and jobs. Dismantling environmental protections. Rolling back the rights of working Americans. Demanding huge goals in education and refusing to fund the implementation of them. Trashing virtually every international treaty in operation. Bobbling the war in Afghanistan and turning it into the largest opium source in the world while allowing the Taliban back in to reorganize. Trashing our civil liberties. Manipulating our national science institutions for the benefit of corporate greed or weird religious extremist ends. And the final insult, the trumped up lies that enabled a totally fumbled, incompetently planned war on Iraq.

These are not the actions of a group who cares about government, about civics, about the health of the body politic and about America itself. These are the actions of the teacher who wants to drown kids in a bathtub, or a surgeon who thinks the Hippocratic Oath is nonsense.

A corollary to this idea is the fact that those who support the right side of the aisle share their leaders' distaste for all things government. Whether that distaste comes from personal convictions or the steady propaganda drip of the right wing media machine is subject to debate. Whatever the case is, no one can expect a person to devote much time learning about what is distasteful to him or her. So it should come as no surprise that those who have a distaste for government are those who know the least about its workings, policies and decisions. In the field, the ignorance of the workings of government by conservatives are way too numerous to mention. One characteristic example though is found in the rant of an otherwise apparently accomplished and intelligent blogger who recently argued that the U.S. Post Office would do far better if it relied not on taxes, but on user fees. This guy was apparently unaware that the USPS already does run on user fees. They're called "stamps".

The incompetent are leading the country with the support and grace of the ignorant. Be afraid. Be very afraid. People who hate what they do aren't qualified to remain in the profession they hate. Do them, and us, a favor and get them into another career path now!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Biggest Reason to Protect Social Security

George Orwell once said: "We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." In our continuing series on Social Security, I decided to skip to the last myth to be busted:

Myth #6: Social Security is a drag on the economy. (Reality: Social Security has been a mighty engine for U.S. economic growth in several different ways.)

This is because in all of the excellent mobilization going on out there on telling the truth about Social Security, few are talking about perhaps the most fundamental reason of all not to tamper with the program. Fact is, Social Security is a critical piece of our society's economic infrastructure put into place to make the boom and bust business cycle smoother and more predictable. This in turn makes our economy safer, more productive and the most secure place on the planet for someone to do business.

De-emphasizing Social Security and the rest of the social safety net may have a stunning and more than a little frightening effect on the entire macro economy. To see it, let's do what Orwell suggests and look at restating the obvious. In this case we remind ourselves why the Social Security system was enacted in the first place.

When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, he explained to the American people exactly what the bill was designed to do:

"It is a structure intended to lessen the force of possible future depressions. It will act as a protection to future Administrations against the necessity of going deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy. The law will flatten out the peaks and valleys of deflation and of inflation. It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide for the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness." (Statement on Signing the Social Security Act August 14, 1935, Franklin Roosevelt, accessed at the FDR Library)

So Social Security is more than just a social program but also an integral part of managing the United States macro economy. The concept is pure Keynesian economics at it's best. If you ensure that a higher proportion of the population has buying power regardless of where you are in the boom or bust business cycle, you will lessen the severity of the bust, without having much of an effect on the boom.

It's just common sense. Take two local merchants. One merchant is located in a place where only 5% of the town can afford his products when times are bad. The other merchant lives in a place where 30% of the town can afford his products when times are bad. Which merchant is worse off? Which businessman can afford to hire more people, pay more taxes and contribute more to his community, helping to jump start a bad economy that much quicker?

A strong guaranteed Social Security and the rest of the social safety net ensured that no matter what, more people could afford to participate in the economy than if those programs weren't there. Then, as those dollars recycle through the economy changing hands at a fast pace, a 'multiplier effect' takes over and jump starts the economy quicker, lessening the impact of bad times and lengthening the life of good times.

Has it worked? You bet. Due to the stabilizing effects that President Roosevelt described, the severity of the ups and downs of the business cycle substantially lessened after Social Security was put in place. The United States was buffeted by extreme booms and busts throughout the 19th century up through the Great Depression, as shown on this chart.

While you can visually see how the jagged lines smoothed out especially after World War II, the business cycle smoothed out on a statistical basis as well. Before Social Security was enacted, the standard deviation of annual economic growth stood at 0.59 and after Social Security was enacted the standard deviation dropped to 0.44, indicating lower volatility. Taking the upheaval of World War II out of the equation drops post war standard deviation of annual growth to 0.24. This means that economic growth became more predictable and the business cycle of boom and bust became less painful for the society, just as Roosevelt had predicted. At the same time, the economy grew at a faster pace. In the seven decades before Social Security, average annual GDP growth stood at 3.4%. After Social Security was enacted, average annual growth rose to 3.86%. While that seems a small difference, it represents additional trillions in our economy today than otherwise might have been. (Data derived from L. Johnston and S.H. Williamson, "The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1789 Present." Accessed at Economic History Services, March 2004,

So what happens when the "economic structure of vastly greater soundness" is tampered with or eliminated? Especially if those doing the tampering show little ability to implement economic policies that perform as expected? Well, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that business cycles, both up and down, will become more pronounced, more unpredictable and harder to control. It's also not a stretch to imagine that overall economic growth might slow back down to pre-New Deal levels.

Don't let them destroy Social Security. We have only one macro economy to lose.

Monday, March 07, 2005

How to Create A Crisis Out of Thin Air: Cooking the Social Security Numbers

Now let’s see. If I wanted to create a scenario where the long term collapse of Social Security would happen, how would I have to construct my economic models to predict such a collapse?

Well since good economic growth will keep the system solvent for the next century or so, I’d have to erase that average annual 3.3% real GDP growth the USA worked hard to earn over the last 40 years. What would do it? So, we’ll just slice GDP growth by 12% now and see how that looks on the spreadsheet. When that didn’t do the job, we’ll just keep on slashing it until over time annual GDP growth is just about half as much as it is today.

But how do we justify that? Well we’ll just slice 10% off the nation’s fertility rate, and then slash the productivity growth rate we enjoy today by over 50% over time. Now despite the fact that the Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 1.3 million immigrants settle in the country each year, let’s just magically reduce that by 30% over time as well. Let’s see what else...?

Oh yes! We’ll just hike up assumed inflation by 17%, from (2.3% today to 2.8% over time). Will people notice that inflation will hardly increase if our economic growth rate is heading the other way? Who cares? Nobody reads these reports beyond the executive summary anyway.

For good measure, we can assume that future unemployment rates will be 10% above the current 10 year average rate of 5.05%. We’ll be safe with THAT assumption, since the Bush administration is doing such a lovely job making that come true.

Well, let’s press F9 and recalculate this spreadsheet and see what we’ve got. Woo hoo! We did it! We now have projected that Social Security will have to pay out more benefits than it has in it's bank account or takes in with taxes 37 years from now! What’s that you say? That’s happened several times before (14 times before, according to the SSA) and the sky didn’t fall? OK, so we present it to the public as 2042 is the year when Social Security will "be flat broke"!

Now what do we do with the other projection we started from? You know, the one with the economic assumptions pretty much in line with what reality has been showing for the last few decades or so? The one that shows that Social Security never runs out of money over the entire time we study, even if we do absolutely nothing to change the system? (See Option I in the Trustee’s Graph below.)

Figure IV.B3.--Long-Range OASI and DI Trust Fund Ratios
[Assets as a percentage of annual expenditures]
from The 2004 OASDI Trustees Report

I know! We’ll call the projection with the realistic assumptions the optimistic "low cost" projection. Then we’ll call our doctored pessimistic version the "intermediate cost" version. We’ll go back to the drawing board and slash immigration rates another 18%, hike up unemployment rates another 18%, drop our fertility rate another 13%, hike up inflation yet another 35%, and lower GDP another big chunk by imagining two recessions and a longer term reduction in GDP growth by another 25%.

Never mind that sustained slow growth and two recessions with simultaneous sustained increased inflation is virtually impossible. What’s important is the first arbitrarily pessimistic scenario will look moderate by comparison. That "intermediate" projection will be the one pundits will use to point to the troubles of Social Security. Even progressives will buy into the idea that we’ll have to do SOMETHING to ‘fix’ Social Security. And that something will happen now, when the right wingers still have control over every branch of government and thus ensure that whatever change happens will be to the right wingers’ liking.

This scenario is not a conjecture. This is exactly what’s happened. The numbers used above come directly from the 2004 Social Security Trustees Report everyone is misquoting and their little noticed chapters describing how they constructed their scenarios. My argument is not necessarily with the policy wonks producing the Trustees’ Report. Sound financial managers can and should examine worst case scenarios in projecting the long term health of funds they are stewards for. My argument is with the politicization of the reports, morphing worst case scenarios into inevitable crises. No one does that unless (1) they are too incompetent to know what they are reading, or (2) they wish to deliberately lie to the public. Either is an impeachable offense in my opinion. Don’t let them destroy Social Security.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Side Note on the Insanity of Right Wing Politics...

Reflecting the seriousness and sober reflection undertaken by the right wing on Social Security, a coalition of conservative groups known collectively as the Arlington Group, is telling Karl Rove that they won't go along with the administration's Social Security destruction plans unless the Bush administration puts just as much emphasis on banning gay marriages.


Never mind the total cognitive disconnect and non-relationship between state civil marriage laws and the Social Security program. Look at what our conservative guardians of family values are really saying here:
"Let's make a deal. We'll help push for the Federal Government to take away trillions of future retirement benefits for us and our families in return for you pushing to let the Federal Government dictate who we can and can't marry."
These people don't need a voice in government. They need a soft room and the kindly attention of a very large and compassionate medical staff.