advice from a fake consultant

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Starving In Prison, Or, Who Gets Pardons In Florida?

If you were with us on Christmas Day you heard the story of Betsie Gallardo, who, unless something changes quickly, is going to be intentionally starved to death in a Florida prison after being convicted of spitting on a cop.

In fairness, the State did not decide simply to starve her; instead, the Department of Corrections (DOC) first chose to withhold any further treatment for her inoperable cancer...and then they decided to starve her to death.

Her adopted mother is trying to get her released on humanitarian grounds; the DOC recommended in October that she be allowed to go home and die, the Florida Parole Commission refused.

Governor Charlie Crist chairs the Executive Clemency Board, who could also agree to let her go...and so far, they’ve also refused to take action.

Funny thing is, the Governor and his Board have been more than willing to step in when other Floridians requested pardons and commutations, even in situations that seemed a lot less dire.

Today, we’re going to look at that history—and to be honest, as with many things in the Sunshine State, from the all looks a bit bizarre.

“Forgiveness, particularly at this time of year, is a very worthwhile message for all of us to be reminded of...”

--Florida Governor Charlie Crist, December 9, 2010

So right off the bat, if you’re 21 years old and you’re having sex with a 15 year-old, you’re looking at some trouble if the police find out. In fact, you’re going to be regarded as a sex offender in the eyes of the law if you’re doing something like that and you get caught.

But as it turns out, in Florida, if you marry the young person in question, you can get a pardon. In fact, it comes up often enough that they’re called “Romeo and Juliet” pardons, and the Executive Clemency Board actually handed out a couple of them in 2009 to John Kemp and Virgil McCranie, who were dating 14 and 15 year-olds when they were originally convicted.

Actually, you don’t even have to marry the minor in question if you can obtain their consent for the underage sexual encounter and demonstrate a reasonable degree of remorse: that happened to Gregory Allen, who was 40 when he was convicted of having sex with a minor.

Describing the events that led to Allen’s conviction, Alex Sink, who was not elected Governor to replace Crist:

“...later expressed frustration with the state's classification of people as sex offenders even though they may have been convicted of having consensual relations.”

Suzanne Squires killed her own daughter and seriously injured another woman while driving drunk, and just this month the Board commuted 12 years of her 23-year sentence so that she could return home to her family.

18 year-old Jennifer Martin was driving way too fast, and in the eventual crash she killed one of her passengers, and injured another, although she was sober when she did it; she received the second commutation granted by the Board under Crist’s chairmanship when her 16 year sentence for manslaughter by culpable negligence was cut in half in 2009.

The Doors’ Jim Morrison, who is not at risk to die in prison, was posthumously pardoned by the Board just this month for an indecent exposure “event” that took place in 1969. Reached for comment, Morrison suggested that these were strange days indeed when he could be pardoned in death and Betsie Gallardo can’t be pardoned in the final days of her life.

Donald Keehn lent a neighbor $7,000. When she couldn’t repay the debt, he drove by her house and shot up the place—five times.

He was 88 at the time, she was 66, but instead of starving him to death because of his cancer, congestive heart failure and kidney failure, the Board chose to commute half of his five year sentence in 2009 and set him free.

Remember when I suggested that Florida, to the outside observer, seems a bit bizarre?

Well...consider this:

If you date underage girls in ”Chain Gang Charlie’s” Florida you can get a pardon or a commutation. In fact, if you do...they even have a special name for it.

If you kill someone drunk driving—or even driving sober—there might be a commutation for you, too.

Did you ever wag your penis onstage 40 years ago, then die, and now you’re having trouble finding a job because of your besmirched reputation? Governor Crist wants to help—and the Board has his back.

Have you ever committed a series of drive-by shootings, and then developed a series of serious physical problems that make you seek a commutation so that you can go home and die? Florida will find a way to let you out.

On the other hand, if you spit on a cop, and then you develop inoperable cancer...and your name’s Betsie Gallardo...Florida not only won’t let you out of prison to go home and die—they’ll starve you in prison, just to make your death come a bit faster.

Wanna discuss any of this with the Board? Here’s some handy contact information for Crist and the other three members:

Charlie Crist, Governor of Florida
(850) 488-4441

Bill McCollum, Attorney General
(850) 414-3300
Click here to e-mail Mr. McCollum

Charles Bronson, Commissioner Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
(850) 488-3022

Alex Sink, Chief Financial Officer Florida Department of Financial Services
(850) 413-3100

I don’t know how many of you remember the show “Daria”, but all of this reminds me of an episode of Sick Sad World—except that in this case the application of outside pressure is having an effect on the DOC...and that means we need to keep the pressure coming.

If we drag them to it, kicking and screaming, I’m sure the State of Florida will be just as compassionate and humane toward Betsie Gallardo as they were to all the other fine folks you read about here today—and with your help we’ll be able to write a happier ending to what has been, so far, a rather unhappy story.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

On Death And Clemency, Or, Here’s A Real Christmas Story

There are many gifts to be given and received this holiday season; some that you can wrap and put under a tree, and some so intangible and ethereal that they cannot be held within the boundaries of paper and ribbon.

Instead, they exist within the boundaries of our hearts.

Among those intangible presents, few matter more than the chance to be with those we love—and at the time of our death, it’s the most important thing of all.

We have a chance to bring all of this to a dying woman and her family—but the only way it can happen is if we convince the Florida Department of Corrections not to kill her first.

It’s not a tale of light and joy—but if we get lucky, there could still be a happy ending.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

--Matthew 25:31-46, as presented in the New International Version of the Bible

Betsie Gallardo was born in Haiti in 1983—and if being born into a Haitian slum wasn’t enough of a disadvantage to a baby girl, she was also born HIV positive.

As a child, she became the playtoy of a local cop…but opportunity came to her doorstep when she and her sister were adopted by Jessica Bussert, an Indiana missionary who was working in Haiti at the time.

Over the years she created a better life for herself, including a chance to fulfill her desire to be a ballet dancer.

She moved to Florida, and in the course of the police responding to a car accident in which she was involved, she experienced a flashback that led to her spitting on a cop.

Because of her HIV status, the act of spitting on the police officer was considered to be battery with a deadly weapon; in November of 2009, convicted of both battery and resisting arrest with violence, she was sentenced to five years in prison.

(Are you thinking to yourself “you can’t spread AIDS by spitting”? You are correct, and people are being convicted for equally spurious “attacks” nationwide—but that’s a story for another day.)

Fast forward to today—and now Betsie is facing inoperable gallbladder cancer, which has spread to her colon.

This is causing an intestinal blockage—and that means she can no longer eat food.

It is possible to provide nutrition through intravenous feeding, but the State of Florida has decided not to do so…which means Betsie is going to be starved to death for the crime of spitting on a cop.

(I’m told by The Girlfriend, who is a nurse, that starvation is an especially gruesome way to die, both for the dying person and the medical staff who is involved in the event.)

Jessica Bussert is fighting to have her released on humanitarian grounds, based on her current medical condition.

There are two ways this can happen: the Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, chairs the Executive Clemency Board, who has the power to release her so she can die at home, or the Department of Corrections (DOC) can release her based on the authority of the Florida Parole Commission, who could give the go-ahead during their February meeting. (The Commission refused to release her in October, despite the fact that the DOC recommended they do so.)

How can you help?

We’re looking to apply public pressure, once again, on both the Office of Executive Clemency and the Florida Parole Commission. Here’s the contact information for the members of the Executive Clemency Board:

Charlie Crist, Governor of Florida
(850) 488-4441

Bill McCollum, Attorney General
(850) 414-3300
Click here to e-mail Mr. McCollum

Charles Bronson, Commissioner Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
(850) 488-3022

Alex Sink, Chief Financial Officer Florida Department of Financial Services
(850) 413-3100

So how about that?

What might be the greatest gift that you can give this year costs virtually nothing, doesn’t require you to fight the crowds at the Post Office and the mall, and, if it’s regifted, it makes the world a better place.

Go and give something of yourself this year…and if we get lucky, we’ll make it possible for a young woman do die with a bit of dignity, at home and surrounded by those who love her, instead of starved to death in prison by those who apparently couldn’t care less.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On How To Honor The Brave, Or, Why We Hate Republicans

We are coming down to the end of the 111th Congress, and we are all surprised that a number of things actually got done: a nuclear arms reduction treaty appears to be on the verge of approval, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed; we have new health care and financial reforms (admittedly, they’re imperfect solutions, but…), food safety reform, a better way to do student loans, and a credit card reform act that‘s forcing issuers to spend thousands of labor hours to develop new and better ways to work over consumers.

And yet there is one important bit of legislation that is still being blocked by Republicans, and, amazingly enough, it’s a bill that would provide health care and compensation for those people who ran down to the World Trade Center site on September 11th, and for months thereafter, in the effort to rescue and recover victims, and to restore normal operations in the city after the attack.

Yes, folks, you heard me correctly: the Party of waving flags and “Second Amendment solutions” and tri-cornered hats and Rudy (“noun, verb, 9/11”) Giuliani is now engaged in a desperate battle to screw over the very 9/11 first responders that you would think they would be…well, putting up on a stage somewhere next to Rudy Giuliani.

“…no! You hear me? You go to Hell! You go to Hell and you die!”

--“Mr. Garrison”, as “Mr. Hat”, talking to “Kyle”, from the television show South Park

It’s HR 847, also known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, that we’re talking about here, and it’s intended to provide health care coverage and compensation for the police, firefighters, trade workers (lots of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, operating engineers, steelworkers, and others worked on the site after the planes hit), and nearby residents who have been experiencing a litany of cancers, heart disease, respiratory, and neurological problems over the past several years.

Who, you might ask, is James Zadroga, that they should name an Act after him?

He carried NYPD badge number 6663, and Detective Zadroga was one of those who was part of the initial World Trade Center response that morning; they were able to get about 25,000 people out of the buildings alive and basically unhurt.

He was actually inside 7 World Trade Center as it began to collapse, but he got out of there that day; according to the Officer Down Memorial Page website he spent another 470 hours sifting through the debris.

Here’s something else the website says about the man:

“Shortly after finishing his rescue and recovery work at the World Trade Center, Detective Zadroga developed a chronic cough, shortness of breath, acid reflux, and was plagued by headaches. Within months he required oxygen tanks to breathe as well as other medicines to slow the deterioration of his health. His condition continued to worsen and Detective Zadroga was granted a 75% pay disability pension on November 1, 2004.

Detective Zadroga died on January 6, 2006, as a result of respiratory disease, black lung disease, and mercury on the brain. His death was directly linked to his work at Ground Zero.”

So why is a New York City cop's biography an issue?

Well, for a variety of reasons, Zadroga, and others in similar situations, aren’t getting their health care paid for; this is often because their health insurers claim that this is an industrial insurance problem. (The industrial insurance folks, by the way, are fighting 40% of those claims.)

Beyond that, lots of the victims are losing the ability to work altogether, which means they’re getting by on either unemployment or disability payments, which means they’re in danger of losing their homes and cars and the ability to continue their former lives.

And, of course, some of these folks have died, and there are claims that have been made by survivors.

The Zadroga Bill would compensate these folks for what happened to them—and you wouldn’t think helping out the cops and firefighters and volunteers who helped dig out the World Trade Center site would be that big a deal…especially since all those Republicans are so big on supporting the troops and waving the flag and landing on aircraft carriers and accomplishing missions and all that kind of stuff.

As it turns out, that’s not the case.

Instead, every single Senate Republican, with the exception of Illinois’ Mark Kirk, has chosen not to support the bill.

And to really show just how ironic they could be, Republicans chose Senator (and Doctor) Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to announce that he would personally block the bill to provide “healthcare for heroes”:

“…this is a bill that's been drawn up and forced through Congress at the end of the year on a basis to solve a problem that we didn't have time to solve and we didn't get done."

(We are obligated to note that Coburn’s “end of the year” comment is a giant load of hooey: In June, the Senate Health Committee held a hearing on the bill; Coburn is a member of that Committee but he did not show up for the hearing.)

So with everything else getting done in the lame-duck session, what’s the problem with helping cops and firefighters and volunteer cleanup workers?

At first, of course, Republicans demanded that rich people had to get their tax cuts first, then they said they couldn’t support closing tax loopholes to pay for the bill. After that, Fox News tried to get roughly 20 Republican Senators to come on and explain their objections.

Every one refused, a fact Shepard Smith brought to the attention of the Fox Nation by naming them all on the air. In fact, things are so bad that Smith and Chris Wallace had this exchange of opinions one night:

Smith: “Who's going to hold these people's feet to the fire? We're able to put a 52-story building so far down there at Ground Zero, we're able to pay for tax cuts for billionaires who don't need them and it's not going to stimulate the economy. But we can't give health care to Ground Zero first responders who ran right into the fire? You know how do they how do they sleep at night after this vote on uh ground zero first responders from 9/11? Are they going to get that done or are we going to leave these American heroes out there to twist in the wind?”

Wallace: “Well, it’s a good question and it’s a national shame. The idea that, you know, the people who were there were the first responders after 9/11 and have had health problems as a result -- you would think if you are going to take care of all of these other things - and they were gonna pass these earmarks and name buildings and post offices after people - that they would take care of some authentic American heroes. But, that I don’t know what the deal is and whether they will get to that or not.”

Smith: “[T]hese people ran to ground zero to save people’s lives and we are not even going to give ‘em medicine for the illness that they got down there? It’s disgusting - it’s a national disgrace - it’s a shame - and everybody who voted against it should have to stand up for and account for himself or herself. Is anybody going to hold them accountable?”

To his credit, Rudy Giuliani has been out there this past week, working the media, calling for the bill to pass:

"This should not be seen as a Democratic or Republican issue. It shouldn't even been seen as a fiscal issue. This is a matter of morality, it's a matter of obligation…"

So what can you do about all this?

It appears there may be a vote today; the more pressure we exert, the more shameful it becomes to be Tom Coburn, John Kyl, and Mitch McConnell—and if you want to give a Christmas gift to a bunch of real, live, genuine heroes, here’s your chance to do it.

Tom Coburn’s Washington DC Senate office phone number is 202-224-5754, and I’m sure the staff would love nothing better than to spend the entire day hearing what y’all have to say about this situation. When you’re done, Jon Kyl’s Washington number is 202-224-4521—and for those who wish to make a statement with art, he accepts faxes as well, at 202-224-2207.

It’s hard to imagine how Republicans can top screwing over rescue workers at Christmas—but with a bit of effort and imagination, I’m sure it won’t be long before Dana Perino is on “Fox and Friends” defending something even more heinous in the name of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

These are indeed interesting times, and I just can’t wait to see what’s next.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On Actually Ending DADT, Or, "Could It Really Take Another Year?"

So we got the good news that legislative repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy that kept LBGT folks from openly serving in the military has occurred, as the Senate voted Saturday to first cut off debate on the question (that’s the vote that required 60 Senators to pass) and then to pass the actual repeal legislation (which also garnered more than 60 Senate votes, even though it only needed 51).

Most people would assume that once Bill (remember Bill, from "Schoolhouse Rock"?) made it out of Congress and over to the President to for a signature that the process of repeal will be ended—but in fact, there’s quite a bit more yet to do, and it’s entirely possible that a year or more could go by before the entire process is complete.

Today we’ll discuss our way through why it’s going to take so long; to illustrate the point we’ll consider an actual military order that is quite similar to the sort of work that will be required from the Department of Defense (DOD) before the entire “DADT to open service” transition is complete.

“You cannot eliminate even one basic assumption, one substantial part of this philosophy—it is as if it were a solid block of steel—without abandoning objective truth, without falling into the arms of bourgeois-reactionary falsehood.”

--Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)

To set things up, let’s define, exactly, what “transition” is: the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President all have to certify that the military is ready for the change; 60 days after that certification is made, full repeal occurs. that Congress has cracked the block of steel, why is it going to take so long for full repeal to take place?

The answer, I’m afraid, is all about being way too organized.

In order to make the move to open service, there will have to be a series of official actions taken that will include developing an entire infrastructure around identifying new standards of conduct, deciding who exactly will be the “evangelizers” that go out and talk to commanders and troops, and who will be involved in supporting enforcement of the new policies.

You may recall that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was associated with a sudden spike in sexual assaults among servicemembers; this required the military to develop solutions (and yes, the controversy around how effective those solutions have been could easily be their own story, but not today).

The reason sexual assault interests us today is because the kinds of orders that were created for commanders then are quite similar to what will be needed now, and we have one of those orders readily available so that we can really visualize what kind of thing we’re talking about.

It’s too long to include in its entirety, but here’s a selected sample:



As you can imagine, the way that you end up with this sort of work product is for the Secretary of Defense to begin talking to his most senior Generals and Admirals, who will then will gather their paperwork forces and convene working groups, they’ll start passing drafts around and getting approvals; and the output from that process will be delivered to unit commanders all the way down the chain.

If these regulations are a model, conference centers will have to be made available, advocates and trainers will have to be appointed, and then unit commanders will have to train their troops to the new standards.

It is likely that there are regulations to be written that will impact the civilian world; if that’s the case, those regulations generally require, after they’re written, a 90 day public comment period, and that will also add to the total time that will be needed. If the regulations need to be rewritten after the comment period, there will be a bit more delay.

To add to the issues to be addressed, some of the forces are today “combat deployed”, and for the most part I wouldn’t expect a lot of effort to train any of them to new standards until they’re rotated out of combat.

It is possible that certification could occur even if those forces are not yet trained, but the training infrastructure is in place for them when they return; if that’s the case things would obviously move faster.

In addition to managing the conduct of servicemembers, the military issues standards of conduct that affect “dependants”. Some of those dependants live in base housing, and their kids often attend base schools; all of this will likely create the need for more rules and training, especially since there will be people in the military community who will be intolerant of the new regime.

Now this story actually grew out of a comment that I made at The Bilerico Project after the DADT cloture vote. The response to that comment, if I might paraphrase, was that it’s amazing that we can move tens of thousands of troops all the way to the Middle East and commence to killing everyone in sight faster than we can teach our own troops to accept each other equally.

That’s a well-focused observation, I think (and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are those in the service making the same comment), and in the end, the way the services deal with the issues behind that complaint (and the host of other issues that surround this transition) is going to be the marker by which we determine if the military will remain an institution that commands as much respect among Americans as it does today.

Will they succeed?

Starting next week, it looks like we’ll be finding out.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Honoring A Legacy, Or John Edwards, We Need To Talk

So it has come to pass that Elizabeth Edwards has died.

Despite having more things thrown at her than anyone I’ve ever had the chance to support in my entire political life, she managed to represent, in her very presence, a sense of grace and kindness and concern for those who were looking to have a better life than the one they had now, and I don’t know that I could ever live up to the quiet courage she showed as her life came to an end.

And, bless her heart, it appears that she took the time to make sure that her kids knew her, and that she helped them put away enough “past” to, hopefully, ease some of the pain of the future.

But now the time has come to look beyond death, and, John...that’s why I want to talk to you today.

Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.

--From the poem Heaven, by Rupert Brooke

I am required to start this story with a great big “Full Disclosure”: I was very much a John Edwards supporter during 2007, for reasons I laid out after seeing him in a small room in May of that year, and I was a contributor to the Edwards campaign website’s “blogging community”. I did not, and do not, contribute money to candidates, including Edwards—and that’s so that I can write more dispassionately when it comes time to consider the endgame.

That said, let’s move on.

One of the reasons I supported Edwards was because his campaign was the one that was, in a big way, talking about making poor people into middle-class people. Remember the “Two Americas” messaging? If you don’t, he’s famously quoted from his 2003 stump speech in which he describes a country where we have...

"...One America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America that will do anything to leave its children a better life, another America that never has to do a thing because its children are already set for life."

In fact, I have often suggested that conversations like this from the ’08 Edwards campaign forced both the Obama and Clinton ‘08 campaigns farther to the left than they would have been otherwise—and I would further suggest that the effort to “grab” Edwards voters after he dropped out led Obama to say things about the reforms that he wishes he could walk away from now.

In addition to operating the campaign’s web presence, the Edwards folks also provided the Internet “organizing ground” for OneCorps, which was intended to be a way for supporters and friends to do “politically agnostic” good works for the public good.

Sadly, as the Edwards campaign wound down, so did much of the inertia of OneCorps.

And so has much of the interest in doing something about those “Two Americas”.

And that’s what I want you, John Edwards, to come back and do something about.

Here’s the thing, John: while you might see your personal troubles as something that keeps you from being a public figure, I don’t.

I see what’s happened to you as liberating.

You aren’t running for anything anymore, and you have Elizabeth’s legacy to advance—and you no longer have to suck up to the Paul Begalias and Ed Rendells and Donna Braziles of the Democratic Party...and you damn sure don’t have to suck up to any Republican legislative leaders or the Doug Feith crowd to advance an agenda in a lame-duck session.

You are free, Mr. Edwards, and if you want to start doing some work to help broke people get organized again, or if you want to start asking hard questions about why banks and billionaires need subsidies and why those who are neither have to cover the bills...or if you want to do something that combines the civility aspect of “No Labels” with the energy of OneCorps and the policy direction of “Two Americas”...this is your chance.

In fact, by having no interest whatsoever in running for office, you may actually be in the best political situation of your life: you have a chance to be one of the few truly “honest brokers” in American politics, you have a chance to do truly good work, at a time when America truly needs the help, and you have the chance to do it in a way that bypasses both political establishments and taps directly into the giant well of “unrepresented” that is out there in every city and town in the Nation.

There are millions of Americans who want to see jobs coming back to this country, who are afraid that Social Security is looking more and more like a giant pot of money to be sold to the highest bidder, and who are worried that their kids won’t be able to do better in life than they did—and you are now in a position to do them a lot of good by getting out there and telling some hard truths about who’s winning and who’s losing—even when it’s Democrats who are having to endure some of the truth telling.

Beyond that, you can help to advance a legacy that I know means more to you than you could ever say—and it would give you and the kids a chance to honor someone that I know you miss more than you could ever say.

Look, I know you screwed up...badly...but this is America, the land of the second chance—and if you approach this as a chance to perform a public service, and ignore all the “professional” politicking that will pop up as we move forward, you could do something truly great.

Hold our politicians accountable.
Demand action on “Two Americas”.

Use your insight to point out exactly how the hustle is going down—and, once again, be the voice that stands up for those who want more from this country than just getting trickled on.

This is your chance to do right by someone you cared very much for, and a chance to do right by an entire Nation, both at the same time—and if I were you, I might just make this my New Year’s resolution.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On Pushing The Unwilling, Or, Laughter: A Tool Of Asymmetric Warfare?

So here it is, almost halfway through this President’s first term, and it’s starting to become abundantly clear that there is no way Obama is going to pursue the same agenda that he ran on in 2008.

In fact, as the President announces a deal that even he agrees the majority of the American people do not support, and he prepares the Nation for the news that we’re going to have to borrow money for the very tax cuts he said we couldn’t afford a few weeks ago, it’s starting to look like Obama isn’t even going to pursue the same agenda he campaigned for in October.

Now it is true that a lot of the problem here is the President’s—but it’s also fair to say that we Progressives have failed to force the President, and certain reluctant Members of Congress, to govern in a way that promotes that agenda.

That’s a real problem, and it needs a real solution; before we get done today I’ll offer a suggestion that could be not only highly effective, and a lot of fun besides, but a great chance to release your artistic muse as well.

“...Private Pyle has dishonored himself, and dishonored the platoon. I have tried to help him, but I have failed. I have failed because you have not helped me. You people have not given Private Pyle the proper motivation.”

--R. Lee Ermey, as “Sergeant Hartman”, from the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket.

Now before we go any further, a quick comment on that Presidential news conference: if this President was this passionate about his positions before he made deals with his opponents, maybe he wouldn’t have to pick so many fights with his own side...and, to use his own words, he wouldn’t have to do so much “negotiating with hostage takers”. But then again...what do I know?

And speaking of fights: we assume there will be no effort, in the 112th Congress, to advance “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, because this President is unlikely to want to pick a fight with Republicans, and Democrats no longer have the ability to control the House legislative calendar.

We will probably be pressured by our Republican friends to make some decision about Social Security, right now (well, in 2011, anyway), and we can assume that among the demands they’ll make will be to raise the retirement age and break the connection between the cost of living adjustment and the actual rise in the cost of living.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if this President also finds himself forced to make unwanted compromises on health care; all of this because the House threatens to refuse to fund something else that he wants at the time.

And all of that means we’ll constantly be “fighting to catch up”, instead of framing the messages and defining the issues ourselves—and that means we’ll always be facing a tactical disadvantage.

However, it may be that there’s another answer to be found—and it’s possible that the answer might be found in, of all places, Bhopal, India.

It was in Bhopal that Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary operated a chemical plant that produced the pesticides Sevin and Temik. The process to make Sevin involved the use of chlorine, methyl isocyanate gas, and phosgene, which makes either a dandy reactive compound for industrial use or a dandy nerve gas, depending on how it’s applied.

Over the evening, as December 2, 1984 turned into December 3rd, some or all of these gases leaked from the plant into the neighborhood that had sprung up around the plant (that's the bad way to apply phosgene); it’s estimated by the local government that 3787 people died that night. Others have estimated that as many as 15,000 died as a result of the events of that evening. Almost 575,000 people were compensated for losses related to the event.

Many are frustrated that neither “American” Union Carbide nor Dow Chemical, who eventually absorbed the company, have ever stepped up to acknowledge their own liability...but on the 20th anniversary of the leak, a window of opportunity had appeared, thanks to a realistic looking fake website that “reframed” Dow’s intentions in a subtle, but very unflattering manner.

That website got “Jude Finisterra”, a fake Dow representative, invited on BBC World Television, where he fake announced that Dow was now going to take full responsibility for the disaster and begin cleaning up the site and providing the medical care that the survivors could badly use.

Naturally, this forced Dow to publicly come forward and deny the whole thing, which created lots of new awareness around the issue.

This “identity correction” tactic is the specialty of “The Yes Men”, who have also done this to the WTO, when they fake proposed slavery for Africa at a Wharton Business School conference they got themselves invited to, and to Exxon, when they posed as Company representatives attending a Canadian energy conference and distributed “Vivoleum” candles, which was a proposed new fuel made from the human bodies of the victims of climate change.

And it’s not just The Yes Men who are following this path of “awareness refocusing”:

Remember “Billionaires for Bush?” ("Make Social Security Neither!") They were a very effective visible image that made the Bush folks look like what they really were—and when people saw them marching, they got the point.

Why isn’t Sarah Palin Vice-President today?
Tina Fey clearly deserves at least some of the credit.

So how do we apply this kind of thinking to our current problems?

Well...suppose you live in Oklahoma. Why not put on a “Coburn For Global Warming” BBQ, with blackened birds and burned corn? Then get the video out to the Web—and if you do it right, you’ve got a shot at getting noticed nationally.

Do it every month, maybe even with new victims (“Oklahomans For 1959!”) and it becomes a symbol both the Republicans, and the national media, will find harder and harder to ignore.

Texas? How about an LBGT “Big Bad John” Cornyn drillteam that follows the Senator to public appearances and campaigns for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—and then moves on to address the Senator’s unwillingness to tackle the bullying issue?

Feel like doing something for the unemployed in Ohio? Why not organize a “Where’s My Job, John?” campaign to start sending thousands upon thousands of job applications to John Boehner’s offices in West Chester and Troy...and then, start dropping by in groups, cameras in hand, to check on the status of your applications?

By the way: this kind of project would be a great way for someone to “organize with allies”, and if there’s a labor union or social justice activism group or loosely organized gang of Merry Pranksters around you might want to make an effort at email and in-person contacts to see if you can grow the impact of the idea.

Do you live in the Bible Belt? How about taking the cameras to a megachurch with your petition to ban divorce in order to protect the sanctity of marriage?

Arizona? How about “Tamale Tuesday” immigration reform parties at John Kyl’s and John McCain’s and Jan Brewer’s offices, with dozens or hundreds of Hispanics and friends showing up every week to make the point that political power in Arizona ain’t always lily-white.

Are you Liberal and live in Mississippi? may have to move.

But what about all that buildup where you were talking about pushing the President back on a leftward tack? about this: set yourself up with a couple of desks in a very public place, with a “rope line” in front so that it looks like a bank line.

Then use a “greeter” to grab members of the public and get them to “apply” for the loans that we’ll have to take out to pay for the tax cuts for the rich.

Do that, or something along the same lines, somewhere in Washington, DC—or do it in a bunch of cities, either all at once or “tour style”, meaning week after week after week---and all of a sudden it’s a lot tougher for Obama and reluctant Congresscritters to ignore the symbolism, and, once again, Americans get a bit of their voice back.

Of course, the big trick here is to get ahead of the issues, not to have to constantly react to constant attacks—but the way to do that is to get behind an issue with a strong symbolic campaign (and the more absurd the thing is that needs the reform the better) and repeat the reform message so often that it becomes absurd not to support reform, placing the opponents on the defensive, and forcing them to become the ones reacting to events, instead of driving the narrative.

So how about that?

We do have tools, even in unlikely places, that can apply some of the proper motivation to this President and the reluctant Members of Congress, and they’re the kinds of tools that can be used by a few people or hundreds.

And I think we have reached the point where it’s become clear that, without constant outside pressure from us, we cannot depend on this President or many of those who represent us in the Houses of Congress to promote a Progressive agenda.

It’s true: we are going to have to be the ones who force what we want out of these people...and if it takes a whole lot of comedic embarrassment to drag them along, kicking and screaming, to join the effort to advance the Progressive agenda...then let’s get to it, let’s get creative about how we do it—and most importantly of all, let’s create a situation where the political risk of fighting for causes that work against the American people becomes more costly than fighting for the American people.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On Asking And Telling, Or, 115,000 LBGT Troops? How Many Is That, Exactly?

I took a couple of weeks off, as Thanksgiving and snow came around (a subject we’ll address in a day or so), but we are all again occupied as lots of things we’ve been talking about either will or won’t come to pass, and it seems like all that’s happening all at once.

Today we’ll take on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT); this because the Pentagon’s top leadership just came out and reported that revocation of the policy, following a period of preparation, would be their preferred way to go.

There will be lots of others who will take on the question of what’s right and wrong here, and exactly how implementation might occur; my interest is, instead, to focus on one little fact that makes all teh rest of the conversation a lot more relevant.

manning the rails.jpg

That is the fact that about 70,000 LBGT troops serve in the military today, DADT notwithstanding, and, that if it wasn’t for DADT, almost 45,000 more troops would be serving that aren’t today.

And that one little fact leads to today’s Great Big Question: exactly how much military would 115,000 troops be, exactly?

“Dad, if I were you, I wouldn’t tell that story. Now I have no doubt that there might be a lot of truth in it, but you know how funny these people are. You know you always used to tell us when we were children: “Never smarten up a chump.”

--“Victoria Whipsnade”, to her father, “Larson E. Whipsnade”, in W.C. Field’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man

As we so often do, let’s set a stage: we use the 115,000 figure because we have the academic work of UCLA’s Gary J. Gates informing our estimate, and that estimate was updated in May of 2010.

A stage having been set, let’s move on to painting some pictures:

These days the Army organizes themselves around Brigade Combat Teams (BCT), and a BCT might normally be assigned somewhere between 2500 and 4000 soldiers, and 115,000 troops could equal more than 30 BCTs.

It appears that more or less 12 BCTs and two more Combat Aviation Brigades are on the ground in Iraq today, which works out to about 49,000 troops in total...and that means 115,000 LBGT troopers could theoretically fill every billet in Iraq, and then replace themselves after a year, with about 15,000 left over.

The Navy is organized around Carrier Strike Groups, which each consist of one of the 12 aircraft carriers now in service and the additional ships they require to complete their missions.

Those aircraft carriers require crew to operate the ship’s basic equipment, Marines who provide security and other functions, additional crew to operate the “Air Wing”, which is the organization on board responsible for flight operations, and, because carriers also serve as the “traveling headquarters” for the Admiral who is commanding the Strike Group, a few more crew to serve as the Admiral’s personal staff.

Add it all up, and a carrier can have a crew of almost 6,000 on board...and that means there are enough LBGT forces available to occupy every bunk on every carrier in the Navy, from the actual bed in the Admirals’ Cabin all the way down to the “stacks of racks” way down belowdecks for the ordinary Sailors and Marines.

Even beyond that, there would be enough people left over to crew every one of the Navy’s 100 or so submarines—and you’d still have about 30,000 sailors left over to maintain the ships and their associated aircraft when they return to port.

The Air Force, as with the other Services, is composed of components drawn from Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard forces. As it turns out, the entire Air National Guard is 106,700 strong. Our 115,000 LBGT troopers could fill every one of those slots—and that would still leave enough personnel to completely fill the Air Force’s pilot training schools for seven years after that.

The Marine Corps’ fighting forces are designed to work with the Navy to combine a variety of capabilities into self-sustained “over the beach” units that can, if required, take and hold beaches, ports, or airfields, or build a base of their own and hold it, until a larger force can come in and expand the foothold, so to speak. (The Corps refers to one of these units as a “Marine Expeditionary Force”, or an MEF.)

To provide this capability worldwide, the Corps maintains three MEFs, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, and one stationed in the Pacific, based in the Hawaiian Islands and Guam.

115,000 Marines would equal almost half of the entire Corps, Active Duty and Reserve, and that’s more troops than two of the MEFs combined, which might typically comprise 45,000 Marines each, more or less...which means if the LBGT Marines needed to, they could most assuredly take and hold some serious real estate, more or less anywhere in the world—and if they ran into trouble, they could send back home for another 25,000 LBGT troops to help make their point.

So there you go: the next time someone’s talking about how much national security might be threatened if we change DADT, you can tell them that there’s a cost to national security from keeping DADT as well.

How much of a cost? If you pulled those 115,000 potentially affected troops from the Army, DADT could cost us two Iraqs worth of troops, with 15,000 reinforcements left over, and if it was just the Navy, it could affect enough sailors to crew every aircraft carrier and submarine and 30,000 more besides.

If you removed that many personnel from the Air Force it would affect more people than the entire Air National Guard and seven years’ worth of new pilots combined—or, if you prefer to look at it through the prism of a eagle, globe, and anchor, it could be enough LBGT Marines to take and hold darn near anything, from the halls of Montezuma, to at least somewhere near the shores of Tripoli.

I don’t want to pay that price, and apparently the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t hey, John Mc Cain...why don’t we just get over this imaginary Great Big Deal and move on to some real ones?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Social Security: If The Rich Paid Taxes Like You And Me…Problem Solved

Over the course of the past couple of weeks we’ve been talking about how the War On Social Security was about to get under way and what happens when countries choose to privatize their systems.

Today we take on another bite-sized chunk of economic analysis: how can you get to a situation where Social Security is financially stable for the next 75 years?

We’ll describe some proposals that are out there—but the big focus of this conversation will be to look at one change that, all by itself, could not only solve the entire funding problem, but could actually allow us to lower the Social Security tax rate, immediately, and still achieve fiscal balance.

“Well, if that’s such a bright idea” you might ask, “why haven’t we adopted it already?”

That’s a great question—and after you hear the proposal, you may well have explanations of your own.

The possibility of victory can be a heavy millstone around the neck of any political candidate who might prefer, in his heart, to spend his main energies on a series of terrifying, whiplash assaults on everything the voters hold dear. There are harsh echoes of the Magic Christian in this technique: The candidate first creates an impossible psychic maze, then he drags the voters into it and flails them constantly with gibberish and rude shocks…

--From the Rolling Stone magazine article Freak Power in the Rockies: The Battle of Aspen, by Hunter S. Thompson

It was just this week that the Presidential Debt Commission (officially the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) “pre-released” some proposals for how they would resolve the various fiscal problems our country is facing these days, and among those were recommendations that the Social Security retirement age eventually be raised to 69 and that the amount paid in Social Security benefits should no longer increase as fast as inflation; both proposals, ultimately, represent cutting your benefits.

Far too many people are instinctively OK with these ideas because they assume they’ll never see a single dollar of the Social Security benefits they were promised anyway…which means far too many people believe in a giant urban legend.

Here’s the reality: no matter what, even if no financing changes are made, Social Security can pay 100% of anticipated benefits out through 2037. Even after that, if no changes are made, enough money will still be coming in to pay about 75% of anticipated benefits for roughly 50 more years after 2037. (We can’t speak to what will happen after that because the Social Security actuaries only look 75 years into the future when they make estimates.)

Here’s another reality: the total amount of wages that are subject to Social Security tax (also known as the “wage pool”) does not equal 100% of the total amount of wages paid to workers in the United States. That’s because income above a certain amount (at the moment, $106,800) is exempt from Social Security taxes.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the wage pool represented about 90% of all wages…but because wage income has become more and more concentrated in the hands of the highest wage earners, 15 years later the wage pool now represents only about 83% of all wages.

In fact:

…due to high levels of earnings inequality, roughly 1% of the population earn 10% of all the earnings.

We know all this because of the fine work of Debra B. Whitman and Janemarie Mulvarney, both of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), who prepared the CRS report "Social Security: Raising or Eliminating the Taxable Earnings Base", released in September of 2010. (Unless you see a link associated with a particular fact, from here on out what you’re reading is based on their work.)

So if we’re looking to achieve stability in Social Security financing, the question really becomes: how do we get back to a point where the size of the wage pool remains at least stable, or even grows larger over time?

In the 1980s, facing the same problem, the Reagan Administration negotiated an increase in the tax rate for taxable income, causing the wage pool to grow to that 90% number we talked about earlier…but today, we’re going to look in a different direction.

And that’s because, as it turns out, removing that $106,800 cap and making all wage income taxable for Social Security purposes, all by itself, will either solve the funding problem entirely or get you to 99% of where you need to be, depending on the choices you make.

Here’s how it works out:

Today, the amount of Social Security benefits you’ll collect depends on how much you pay into the system; the current maximum benefit is $2346.

What you could do is “break the link” between “paid in” and “paid out” by establishing a maximum benefit, no matter how much you pay in. If you kept the maximum where it is today, and that amount rose to equal inflation over time, the CRS tells us we would actually have 115% of the money we need to get to Social Security fiscal stability. As a result, we could afford to lower the payroll tax rate by .3% and we’d still be at fiscal stability.

Those who oppose this approach will tell you it will create political trouble for Social Security going forward because Americans will no longer see it as an investment program, but instead as a “welfare” program, which is presumably more politically vulnerable.

I would disagree, for a few reasons: for one, there’s the fact that Social Security is not, and has never been, an “investment” program, for another, not many people actually make more than the maximum, anyway (94% of workers earned less than the maximum in 2007). Beyond that, those that do make more than the maximum tend to be, shall we say, geographically concentrated, mostly in the suburbs of New York City and Washington, DC:

…focusing on the nationwide average hides the diversity among the states and the District of Columbia. The share of the population above the base ranges from a high in New Jersey where nearly 12% of covered workers earn above the base, to a low in South Dakota, where 2% of workers earn above this amount…

There’s another reason this kind of change wouldn’t be as politically problematic as some might think:

CRS estimated the potential impact of eliminating the taxable wage base on future benefits and taxes. If the base were removed in 2013, CRS estimates that by 2035, 21% of beneficiaries would have paid some additional payroll taxes over the course of their lifetimes. However, the average change in taxes and benefits would be small. Looking only at individuals who would pay any additional taxes over the course of their lifetimes, at the median, total lifetime tax payments would rise by 3% and benefits would increase by 2% relative to current law. In general, those in the highest income groups would have the largest changes in both tax payments and in benefits relative to current law.

(Emphasis is original)

You should also know that, in the 1990s, the income cap on the Medicare portion of payroll tax collections was lifted; this does not seem to have caused great damage to that program, politically speaking.

So the other way this change could be made would be to continue to base maximum benefits on what’s paid in, and still remove the cap on taxable earnings.

The Social Security Administration estimates that such an approach would raise 95% of the amount you need to achieve Social Security fiscal stability, so you’d still need to raise a bit of money, but you would be awfully close to fiscally stable, and far better off, financially, then we are today. (A payroll tax rate increase of .1% could raise the amount needed.)

That said, I think this approach actually creates more political vulnerability for the Social Security “concept” than uncapping taxes while capping benefits, and here’s why:

If you cap benefits, you immediately get to reduce the tax rate for everyone, which is going to be very popular; an unlimited benefit still requires you to raise taxes, even after the tax cap is lifted. One of those choices is going to be a lot better received than the other, I’m thinking, especially as “no new taxes” is such a popular political mantra these days.

However, it’s also true that a substantial number of beneficiaries would see benefit increases, even if the vast majority of those folks wouldn’t actually benefit all that much:

CRS estimates that 23% of beneficiaries in 2035 would have higher benefits than under current law. This share of beneficiaries who receive higher benefits is greater than the share of individuals who pay higher taxes because some low earners receive benefits based on their spouses’ higher earnings. Most of the affected beneficiaries (20%) would see their benefits increase by less than 10% relative to current law. Only 3% of beneficiaries would see their benefits increase by 10% or more.

But if you ask me (and if you’ve read this far, you are asking me) the real political problem from an approach that allows for unlimited benefits, is that it allows for…unlimited benefits:

Annual Social Security benefit payments would be much higher than today’s maximum of $25,440. A worker who paid taxes on earnings of $400,000 each year would get a benefit of approximately $6,000 a month or $72,000 a year…while someone with lifetime earnings of $1 million a year would get a monthly Social Security benefit of approximately $13,500 a month or $162,000 a year…

Imagine, if you will, just how easy it would be to launch a political attack on a government program that pays $162,000 a year to rich people…and if you can imagine that, you can probably imagine just how much political trouble this approach could cause.

Both options, just for the sake of the discussion, raise the wage base from today’s 83% to about 92%; a 2008 estimate suggested this would raise an additional $680 billion over 10 years. (An intermediate option, raising the tax cap to something like $190,000 of wage income, would have raised about $600 billion over the same period.)

So there you go: removing the cap on how much of your earnings are taxed for Social Security purposes, all by itself, could not only solve the funding problem faced by the system going forward, but you could even lower taxes slightly while doing it; another variation of the same approach would get you to 95% of where you need to be, but would still require a tax increase to get us to fiscal balance.

One approach keeps a lid on maximum benefits, the other doesn’t; in my opinion, the plan that keeps a cap on benefits is the one with less political peril going forward.

Either way, there would be no need to “adjust the inflation index downward”, which is a fancy way of saying “we’re cutting your benefits”, and you wouldn’t have to change the retirement age, either, which is a less fancy way of saying “we’re cutting your benefits”; both are among the Debt Commission’s “pre-release” proposals.

So what do you think, America? Given the choice, would you prefer that Social Security benefits be cut, now and in the future, or would you prefer to see the wealthiest among us pay their fair share of Social Security taxes, just as every other wage earner does—and cut the tax rate, both at the same time?

This would be exactly the time to make your feelings about that choice known, and if I were you I’d be on the phone to my member of Congress now, today—and when January comes around, and a new Congress begins…I’d be on the phone again.

It’s your Social Security, and if you want it funded in a more rational way this would be the time to say so…and if you’re reaching for the phone right about now, I’ve done my job.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This post was written with the support of the CAF State Blogger's Network Project.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Social Security: They Want To Cut, We Plan To Fight

So if you’ve been following my work lately, you know that there is a renewed effort underway to change Social Security, and that the fight officially began just this very morning.

Now what’s supposed to happen is that a television ad buy sponsored by a Wall Street billionaire is supposed to get you enthused about cutting your own Social Security benefits in the future; this is the tip of a “disinformation iceberg” that is trying to get you to act, right now, because if you don’t you will never, ever, ever, ever, see a single dime of Social Security when you get older.

I was on a “let’s talk strategy” conference call today that laid out some ideas for the "next steps"; we’ll be talking about that call over the next couple of stories...but for today, we’re going to talk about something you can do that will bring the message right to your favorite Member of Congress.

He is always plotting and carrying out great enterprises, which have always kept his subjects bewildered and astonished, waiting to see what their outcome would be. And his deeds have followed one another so closely that he has never left space between one and the next for people to plot uninterruptedly against him.

--Niccolò Machiavelli, describing King Ferdinand of Aragon, in The Prince

With the election a week behind us, the fight is on to get you to believe that you will never see a dime of Social Security, that the danger is so profound that we must act today, and that maybe a healthy cut in your future benefits isn’t really so bad after all.

To help convince you all this is true, a series of TV ads have been produced that imply that the only other solution, short of those benefit cuts, is more deficit spending and endless borrowing. (They have a catchy name for the effort as well: “OweNo”.)

As it turns out, that’s patently untrue, but as I said, that’s a topic for another day.

The idea behind the ads, of course, is to create a space for Members of Congress to vote for these kinds of proposals—but we’re going to strike first, before the ads can really gain a lot of traction.

So here’s the idea: we all have Members who are constantly having to “come home and face the District”; what we want to do is ask those Members, right now, on camera, if they are willing to vote for cutting Social Security benefits or not.

Myself, I like the question: “Are there any circumstances that would get you to vote for cutting Social Security benefits?”

If they say yes, try this: “Why do you like cutting benefits for middle-class people and not taxing 90% of the income of someone who makes a million a year?”

(If you make about $110,000 a year or less, 100% of your income is taxed for Social Security purposes. However, no income above that is taxed—so if you make a million a year, only 10% of your income is taxed, which seems a lot like “trickle up economics” to me...but what do I know?

As it turns out, removing that “income cap”, all by itself, would fix our financing problem for the next 75 years, without cutting benefits at all—again, a topic we’ll flesh out more completely another day.)

Now once we start gathering all these videos, we need a place to put them. Based on the call today, it looks like we’ll be going to the Owe No You Don’t! website, which, by a happy coincidence, is full of helpful resources for those looking to win this fight. The site is not ready to receive the videos today, however, but I will either update here or do a new story to let you know when it is, or if some new plans have emerged.

(Of course, if you get a good video, don't be afraid to post it to this story as a comment as well.)

I also have available a big ol’ list of who in Congress has publicly said and done what regarding changes to these programs—and if you’re wondering exactly who in Congress supports privatizing Social Security, this is the list you’ve been looking for.

The next step is to put all this video to work: so how about starting right in your own home town? Send a copy of the video to the local newspaper, or the local TV station’s “tip line”. In the other direction, I’m going to try to encourage the folks operating Owe No You Don’t! (with whom I’m currently working) to use that video to get the attention of national media—which means video of Members “ducking and dodging” will be particularly valuable.

You might even get lucky and get a “Sharron Angle”—you know, the one where the person being asked just runs off without even acknowledging that they’re being asked questions, even though you’re right there next to them the whole time, following them and still asking the question, as they hop in the car and run away in fear.

So that’s today’s homework: charge up the camera batteries, go find your local Member of Congress, either pay a friendly visit at the office or catch ‘em at a local appearance, and make them either answer questions or run away.

As we gather the videos, they become a media attraction, and we put even more pressure on these folks...and if we get really, really, really, lucky, we’ll find someone who “autotunes” the Members who run away into a viral video we’ll all be proud of.

Good hunting to you all, and in a couple days we’ll all meet back here and talk about the Social Security “tax cap” and financing stability.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This post was written with the support of the CAF State Blogger's Network Project.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Social Security: The War Begins Tuesday, And You Better Say…Oh, No!

It is my job to bring to you not just the news that took place, but the news that has yet to happen.

Today, that’s exactly what we have.

There is a war coming to try to change Social Security from a social safety net to a “revenue stream” for certain corporate interests, and that war is set to begin Tuesday morning, according to information that was provided to me yesterday afternoon.

Follow along, and you’ll be both forewarned and forearmed.



--Actual “Burma Shave” Message, 1945, from Verse By The Side of the Road, Frank Rowsome, Jr.

So here’s the dish: a limited partnership corporation called The Blackstone Group, through years of trading in real estate, operating hedge funds, giving financial advice to other companies and governments, and buying and selling companies (Hilton Hotels is one of theirs, the company that makes Corexit, the oil dispersant, is another), made its boss Peter G. Peterson a more-than-billionaire; a billion of that went to endow a Foundation that bears his name.

The Foundation has a particular interest in things budgetary and governmental, and they are seen as one of the groups most looking to change the way Social Security works today.

(Change, you say? Indeed, and if you’ve been following this series of stories, you already have an idea of what that might entail.)

The next thing you need to know is that there is a Great Big Deal Presidential Commission currently at work who is charged with identifying…

“…policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run. Specifically, the Commission shall propose recommendations designed to balance the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015. This result is projected to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level once the economy recovers. The magnitude and timing of the policy measures necessary to achieve this goal are subject to considerable uncertainty and will depend on the evolution of the economy. In addition, the Commission shall propose recommendations that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the Federal Government.”

…and that the Commission is going to deliver a report with its suggestions December 1st.

It would be fair to say that there are those who are concerned that “the fix is in”, so to speak, and that the report will be the beginning of an effort to privatize Social Security…and guess what?

Managing the Federal Government’s Social Security money, for a handsome fee, would be a spectacular business opportunity for Pete Peterson and The Blackstone Group, and to help create the environment where that can happen, the Peterson Foundation is dropping $20 million on a TV ad campaign to try to convince you to get interested in privatizing Social Security, too.

This Tuesday morning, November 9th, Peterson will appear at Washington, DC’s Newseum to unveil the advertising campaign, presumably to the delight of the assembled throng and the sipping of the coffee of the assembled media; this according to a Peterson Foundation press release that came across my desk yesterday.

There’s even a catchy name for the reform program: “OweNo”…and if you’ve already written your own “Oh, No!” Social Security joke, you’re apparently a bit faster on your feet than the guy who tried to sell Chevy Novas in Spanish-speaking countries…or the folks who came up with this catch phrase.

So that’s the story: come Tuesday, Pete Peterson, who runs a Big Fat Wall Street Firm That Would Love To Manage Your Money For Big Fat Fees, is dropping $20 million to tell you that it’s time to “get a Chilean”…and I’m here to tell you that such a procedure is going to hurt your wallet, a lot—and when it’s all over, you’re the one who’s going to be saying “Oh, No!”

FULL DISCLOSURE: This post was written with the support of the CAF State Blogger's Network Project.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

WA-Sen: Can Murray's Math Teach Democrats A Lesson?

We now know the outcome, more or less, of the Washington State US Senate race—and it looks like it’s going to be Patty Murray, D-(Actual No-Kidding Progressive), over Dino Rossi, R-(Guy Who Will Be Running Again For Something As Soon As He Can).

Murray managed to win in a State that is far more “purple” than you might think, in a vote-by-mail election that guarantees at least few days of uncertainty.

You have to do some unusual math to figure out how these elections will go, and we’re going to walk through how this race got called by NBC just a couple hours ago.

So here’s what we do know: if you want to win an election in Washington, you basically have to carry some combination of King (Seattle, and Washington’s most populous, and liberal, county), Pierce (Tacoma, and Seattle’s southern suburbs, with a significant military population), Snohomish (Everett, and Seattle’s northern suburbs, also with a Navy population), Clark (Vancouver, and the northern suburbs of Portland, Oregon), Kitsap (home to a Naval Shipyard, an aircraft carrier homeport, and nuclear missile submarines), Whatcom (Bellingham, a college town and almost a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia), and Spokane (the largest in very super conservative Eastern Washington) Counties.

You also need to know that Washington is a virtually 100% vote-by-mail state, and that votes in the mail with an Election Day postmark, no matter when they arrive, are valid votes.

There was an amazing amount of anti-Murray advertising, most of it in the form of secret money coming from either the US Chamber of Commerce or Karl Rove’s various groups; the basic themes of the ads suggested Murray caused all the unemployment and debt ever experienced in American history and couldn’t wait to make things worse.

Pro-Murray ads centered on her...well, her Progressive record—and her ability to bring jobs to the State...and that message was being transmitted in a State with high unemployment.

And as we’ll see, all of this created exceptionally high voter turnouts, particularly for midterm elections.

Now let’s do some electoral math:

We can look at the Secretary of State’s handy website and see just what’s arrived so far; it typically updates each day from here on out at 4:30 PM Pacific time, but there may be additional updates each day.

As of 7:30PM, November 4th, which is the most current update I have available, Murray is up by 45,000 and change with roughly 1.85 million votes counted so far.

But what we really need to know is: how many votes are there still to be counted?

The site has a county-by-county page that reports about 617,000 ballots are “on hand to be processed”...but that won’t include those that are still in the mail. We’ll talk more about them later.

Right now the largest concentrations of “on hand” ballots are, predictably in King (270,000), Pierce (30,000), Kitsap (29,000), Snohomish (88,000), and Spokane (65,000) Counties.

Snohomish, Kitsap, and Pierce Counties are running about 50-50 so far, and that means nothing is likely to happen in those counties that will change the outcome in any significant way, so we will put them aside for this analysis.

King County is running almost 65-35% Murray, and Spokane County is running 56-44% Rossi, so that’s where we turn for the rest of our analysis.

Now what we need to know is how many votes have yet to arrive in the mail, and the way we do that is to look at potential levels of voter turnout.


It works like this: King County has almost 1.1 million registered voters, 500,000 have already been counted, and 270,000 are waiting to be counted—and that’s 70% turnout, if no other votes arrive.

It’s pretty rare to see 70% + turnouts in midterms, but we’re already there, so let’s assume turnouts of 75% and 80%. At 75% that means 55,000 more votes are coming, at 80% 110,000. Add all the uncounted votes up, assume the current 65-35 distribution of votes holds up, and that suggests her margin, at those turnout levels, would grow by some number between 211,250-247,000 votes. If no more votes arrive, her margin should grow by 189,000 votes.

Spokane County has 260,000 registered voters, with about 120,000 ballots counted and 65,000 more sitting in trays not yet counted. That’s a 70.5% turnout, again, a remarkable result for a midterm, and, as we mentioned, they are voting for Rossi, 56-44%. Let’s again model for 75% and 80%; we would expect 15,000 or 23,000 more in the mail from those outcomes.

I also looked at every county with more than 5000 votes left to be counted. Those that are on the east side of the State are consistently 65-35% Rossi, Western Washington counties are running more or less 50-50, but they are mostly going to Murray.

And guess what? If I’m any good at arithmetic, Spokane County doesn’t have enough votes to get Rossi over the top, even if you get 80% turnout and 100% of all currently uncounted votes go for Rossi...and I think that means we can call this one for Murray by about 210,000 at 75% turnout in those two counties, minus any other result in the State, which are not going to be enough to swing the tide.

As I’m finishing this up, NBC is also calling for Murray.

So there you go...a good Progressive wins, with extraordinary turnouts in a year when other candidates had lots of their base stay home, and despite a massive “secret money” campaign for Rossi, courtesy of Karl Rove and the US Chamber of Commerce.

And just to make it even sweeter: she ran her campaign fully embracing her record, and standing up for her tough votes. She didn’t pander conservative, and her progressive voter base stood up and got her over the top.

That’s a message the Evan Bayhs of the world did not learn—and it’s a message Members of Congress...and a certain President...ought to learn, and fast, if they want to win in 2012.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On Social Security Investment, Or, What About Chile?

With the election over, it’s time to move on to new things, and the folks at the Campaign for America’s Future have asked me to do some writing about Social Security, which sounds like some big fun, so here we are.

We’re going to start with some reasonably simple stuff today, just to get your feet wet; by the time we get a few stories down the road there will be some complicated economic analysis to work through—but let’s begin today by looking a bit south.

Those who support privatizing Social Security in this country often point to Chile as an example we could follow, and that seems like a good place to get the conversation set your personal WayBack Machine to Santiago, May, 1981, and let’s see what we can learn.

“Of what avail are any laws, where money rules
Where Poverty can never win its cases?
Detractors of the times, who bear the Cynic's scrip,
are known
To often sell the truth, and keep their faces!”

--Ascyltus, from Petronius’ The Satyricon

In 1981, Chile adopted a privatized Social Security-like (pension) program that requires most workers to contribute 10% of their income to a private investment account. They may contribute up to 20%. These accounts are maintained by a number of private companies (known as Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, or AFPs) that compete for the business by advertising directly to the investing public.

These providers charge commissions and fees for certain services which are paid on top of the contributions.

An additional 3% is collected from most workers for Disability Insurance; 7% more is deducted from wages for health care.

At retirement, the money is either used to purchase an annuity from a private provider to provide a steady source of income or it’s withdrawn at a set rate over time directly from the account.

Those who are self-employed do not have to pay into the system, but they have the option to do so if they’re so inclined.

If you don’t have enough in your private account to purchase an annuity or to withdraw steady amounts over time, but you’ve been contributing for more than 20 years, you will receive a minimum pension from the Chilean Government...but you will also lose any contributions you made to your private account.

AFPs are regulated as to how they may invest; if, through investment losses, they do not have enough money to capitalize the accounts they carry they must provide the money out of their own cash reserves. If they follow the rules, and still lose so many assets they can’t continue to operate, a government bailout is in order.

At the same time, a second “welfare” program (PASIS) was established to create a “safety net” that would provide a benefit of 75% of the poverty level or 25% of your last 10 years’ earnings, whichever is higher.

You can’t collect from both programs, but it is possible to collect from neither. More about that later.

Employers do not contribute to funding the system, however, all employers were forced to give 17% pay raises to their workers to come up with the money for the workers to make their contributions. (Chile was a military dictatorship at the time, making the “forcing” process much easier than it would be in the US today.)

The system is just turning 30 years old, and we’re now seeing the first big wave of workers who are eligible to retire.

So how has all this been working out for Chileans?

The first thing we learn is that the poorest workers probably won’t do well enough to qualify for “top tier” pensions, even though it’s projected that they’ll tend to pay for the benefit over their working lives...which will reduce their income over their working lives. (It’s also projected that workers with higher incomes should do reasonably well.)

Since most workers are poor (Chile has some of the most unequal income distribution on Earth), in the end it’s starting to look like the problems of finding enough money to support the social safety net are actually getting worse, and not better.

Additionally, other problems have come to light:

--You have to find money to “transition” from one system to another, and transition costs have been quite expensive indeed: 6.1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP; that’s a measure of the total output of an economy) in the 1980s, 4.8% in the 1990s, and 4.3% until 2037. If we were to duplicate the Chilean experience in the US economy, 6% of the 2008 GDP (about $15 trillion) means about $900 billion annually in transition costs for the first ten years, and something north of $600 billion annually for the last 37 years of the exercise.

(Keep in mind that Chile only provides 2/3 of their population with either PASIC or a pension; since we cover a higher number than that in the US, expect those numbers to come in higher than we're guessing here.)

Why are so many not covered? Lots of workers are working outside the “official” economy to avoid making contributions that they won’t get back later (in 1994, it was estimated that only 52% of workers regularly contribute to their accounts); additionally, many women have never participated in the labor force.

--Because the service providers are competing for the business, administrative costs (read: advertising and sales commissions) have been far higher than in the US Social Security system, where administrative costs have been at .07% of distributions, or lower, since 1990. To put this another way, during the 1990s the US Social Security Administration was paying $18.70 per year to administer a claim; at the same time Chile’s various providers were paying an average of $89.10 to do the same thing.

--All that competition, some say, has lead to lots of changing of providers, which tends to make any investment program less efficient over time. (In 1996, half of Chilean workers switched providers; it’s estimated that reduced pension accumulations across the entire system by about 20%.) The Chilean Government made changes in 1997 to try to work through this problem, and they seem to have had some considerable effect.

Evidence suggests most of the switching not related to consolidation in the AFP business is being done by a small percentage of account holders, with some switching as much as eight times in a year; today the average Chilean seems to change AFPs about once every five years. Unemployment also seems to be related to switching; this because the unemployed can establish a new account with a lower set of fees if they move to a new provider.

--Many Chileans, despite living in a system that has, for almost 30 years, required them to manage their own money, actually know very little about that money.

Less than half know that the contribution rate is 10%, only 1/3 know how much (within 20%) is in their accounts, and, according to work done at the University of Chile, “few” actually know what they pay in fees and commissions.

--Those who end up in the welfare program are guaranteed 75% of the poverty level; that suggests that if you’re elderly and on welfare, you’re living in poverty. Because of limited funding, there are qualified elderly poor in Chile who do not receive any benefit.

Today, in the US, about 12% of the elderly live in poverty. Without the current Social Security system in place, it’s estimated that 49.9% of the elderly would have been living in poverty in 2002.

--In Chile, taxes to cover the transition costs tend to rise faster than the “assets under management” for most workers, leaving them less well-off than before—an effect that is most common among the “financially illiterate”...meaning, of course, most Americans. In other words, reform, in Chile, tends to help the wealthiest and best educated at the expense of those who are less of either.

That’s a whole lot of detail, so let’s pull pack and look at the “macro” picture:

Chile has operated a version of a privatized system since 1981, and for the most part the working poor will never see any benefit from the transition. Since Chile doesn’t have much of a middle class, it’s hard to see how the Chilean experience would affect our middle class.

The US Social Security system has reduced the estimated rate of elderly poverty from nearly 50% to roughly 10%; such a reduction in poverty did not occur in Chile with their privatization.

The costs of moving to the same system here, if our experience were the same as Chile’s, would run anywhere from $600-900 billion annually for at least 50 years. Of course, since we provide a Social Security safety net to almost all of our citizens, as opposed to 2/3 of the population, as Chile does, it’s reasonable to assume our costs would be more or less 1/3 higher.

Chile forced its private-sector employers to raise wages to cover the workers’ costs of transition; I’m aware of no proposals that would, or could, impose such a cost on employers in the US.

It appears that Chilean-style privatization encouraged about half the population to engage in “under the table” work, making the funding problem for the system even worse that it would be otherwise.

Frequent switching of account providers is great for the providers, as it creates lots of chances to collect fees for opening and closing accounts and the like—but it’s not so great for the account holders, who are losing up to 20% of their potential earnings more or less because maintaining a sales force and running lots of ads are effective business practices.

It is unknown what happens when a shock like the recent recession hits the system, and we are awaiting research that will help us understand what happens when and if the State is required to refund losses incurred by the AFP if they “follow the rules” but still lose so much money that they lack sufficient capital to operate.

The costs of operating the PASIS program go up even as the cost of operating the retirement accounts are also still high, and the question of whether Chile can continue to expend “safety net” coverage to the 30% of the elderly poor who are not covered remains unknown.

So there you go: there are going to be lots of proposals to privatize Social Security this year, “getting a Chilean” may well be one of the options you hear Conservatives promote—and hopefully by now you have some idea why this doesn’t look like nearly as good an idea as some folks would tell you it is.

Next time, we’ll talk about proposals to invest Social Security money in Treasury debt, and whether such an effort is actually an investment at all.

It’ll be at least medium geeky...and hey, who doesn’t love that?