Monday, February 28, 2011

Dean Baker claims... a new paper that (my emphasis):

The shortfalls facing most state and local pension funds have been seriously misrepresented in public debates. The major cause of these shortfalls has not been inadequate contributions by state governments, but rather the plunge in the stock market following the collapse of the housing bubble. Given the low PE ratios in the stock market, pension fund assumptions on the future rate of return on their assets are consistent with most projections of economic growth and past experience. Furthermore, when expressed relative to the size of their economies, most states are facing shortfalls that appear easily manageable.

The New Yorker cartoon of the day:

Do high taxes limit economic growth...

...and prosperity, or do wealthier communities demand higher-quality services?

According to the latest Census, New Jersey ranks first among the 50 states in total tax burden while Connecticut ranks third. In median household income, the Garden State ranks second while the Nutmeg State comes in at number three.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I don't go to the movies...

...much (nor do I read many novels) because I just find myself saying too often, "that's not believable," or, "I don't think it would happen that way," or, "that person wouldn't say or act like that in real life." I much prefer non-fiction, memoirs, or news or talk shows (or comedies) on television. (I've really been enjoying Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lately.)

But last night I went to see the movie, "The Fighter," with my younger son. And I have to say it's one of the best sports movies I've ever seen. Although I know next to nothing about boxing, I thought it was very convincing. It's based on a true story and filmed almost like a documentary. I would recommend it to anyone, sports fan or otherwise.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The -- sort of -- cartoon of the day:

Remember that Iraqi journalist...

...who threw his shoes at President Bush during that press conference?

Not only was he arrested but he claims he suffered physical abuse in prison, including electric shocks and simulated drowning. (Imagine how bad an American prison would be and then multiply it by ten.)

Sounds like enough excitement for one life, doesn't it?

And that was after he'd been kidnapped in 2007 and held for three days by Shiite Muslim gunmen.

And before he had a shoe thrown at him! "He stole my technique," the journalist said afterward.

Now the guy has been arrested again, this time for supporting Egypt-style protests in Baghdad.

What's next for this poor guy, having Shiite Muslim gunmen throw shoes at him in jail?

General Motors announced yesterday...

...that it earned $4.7 billion last year, the most in more than a decade:

As a result of its performance, G.M. said 45,000 union workers would receive profit-sharing checks averaging $4,300, the most ever.

Imagine a non-union shop, like Walmart, doing something like that. Their employees can't even get decent health insurance.

(Also, imagine being a small business owner in a community where GM employees live.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The cartoon of the day:

Kaiser Health News...

...has a new poll out that is very revealing (my emphasis):

22 percent of Americans incorrectly believe [the Affordable Care Act] has been repealed and another 26 percent are unsure or unwilling to say.

...Only 52 percent of Americans accurately said the health care law, which passed last year, remained intact, according to the poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Nearly one in three Republicans thought the law had been repealed.

The poll found that unfavorable views of the law among the elderly have risen to 59 percent, up from 40 percent in December.

This is interesting, considering that the law barely affects the elderly; they already have Medicare.

There remains no consensus about whether to keep, expand, replace or repeal the law. Forty-eight percent are opposed to the law, while 43 percent favor it. Sixty-one percent of those polled oppose Congress cutting off funding of the law in order to block it, as many Republican lawmakers are considering.

19 percent of voters want to repeal the law and replace it with a Republican alternative.

There is no Republican alternative.

Matt Miller points out...

...that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the darling du jour of the GOP, is no more of a straight-talker than yesterday's darling du jour, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (my emphasis):

Now, don't get me wrong. I find Christie's brash style refreshing. But we're so accustomed to political flimflam that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan might have put it, we're defining truth-telling down. For Christie to be rhapsodized for saying we need to reform entitlements without adding that federal taxes will have to rise as America ages makes him a half-truth-teller at best.

And half-truths are all we have from the GOP so far.

Thanks to House budget chief Paul Ryan, it's possible to measure the size of this fraud. And it's colossal. As can never be said often enough, Ryan is absurdly hailed as a fiscal "conservative" for a "roadmap" that doesn't balance the budget until the 2060s and that adds an unthinkable $62 trillion to the national debt between now and then. How can this be the case when Ryan puts forward trims for Social Security and Medicare so "bold" that most Republicans wouldn't dream of supporting them? Because Ryan also pretends we can keep federal taxes at their recent historic levels of 19 percent of gross domestic product as the boomers age.

No can do. The math doesn't work. Ryan's endless red ink proves this.

Christie's big straight-talk credential so far is his willingness to stare down the teachers unions. Their archaic practices need to be challenged, and Christie deserves credit for taking them on. But is it really "courageous?" Courage is when a politician tells his strongest supporters things they don't want to hear. I'm a little tired of Republicans calling for an "adult conversation" that mainly takes things away from adults who don't vote Republican.

Hard to believe..., but there was once a time in America when not all Republicans were such right wing fanatics (my emphasis):

Russell W. Peterson, who helped develop Dacron as a DuPont research scientist before becoming a champion of environmentalism as governor of Delaware, a White House adviser and president of the National Audubon Society, died Monday at his home in Wilmington, Del. He was 94.

As a one-term Republican governor from 1969 to 1973, he ignored the opposition of DuPont and other companies and pushed through a law to protect the state’s coastline from industrial development.

The immediate victim of Governor Peterson’s Coastal Zone Act was the Shell Oil Company, which was stopped from building a $200 million refinery. He rallied environmentalists by wearing a lapel button saying “To hell with Shell.”

He took a more nuanced approach when Maurice H. Stans, secretary of commerce in the Nixon administration, summoned him to Washington to complain that the coastal protection law threatened the nation’s prosperity and security. Mr. Peterson answered with a dozen ways the heavy industries in question might achieve their purposes without destroying Delaware’s 28 miles of relatively clean coast.

His answers were apparently persuasive enough that President Richard M. Nixon appointed him chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, a post he continued to hold under President Gerald R. Ford after Nixon resigned.

Things began to change when a certain Hollywood actor moved into the White House:

As president of the National Audubon Society from 1979 t0 1985, Mr. Peterson vigorously fought President Ronald Reagan's efforts to weaken enforcement of environmental regulations to help business. When Reagan said conservationists would not be happy until the White House was a “bird’s nest,” Mr. Peterson snapped back that it was already “a cuckoo’s nest.”

And can you imagine one of today's tea party Republican governors doing this?

Under Russell Peterson’s insistent leadership, Delaware in 1972 became the last state to outlaw the punishment of flogging.

Whoever thought Illinois...

...would become such a tourist destination -- in February?

As battles over limits to public-sector unions and collective-bargaining rights erupted in capitals in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, Illinois suddenly found itself as the refuge of choice for outnumbered Democrats fleeing their states to block the passage of such bills. By Wednesday evening, most of Indiana’s 40 Democratic state representatives were living in rooms (“plain but all we need,” in the words of one) at the Comfort Suites in Urbana, Ill., about 100 miles west of the state Capitol in Indianapolis. Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats were preparing to mark their first full week, on Thursday, somewhere in northern Illinois.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Steven Pearlstein, of the Washington Post,...

...asks you to consider this thought experiment (my emphasis):

...[Imagine] what the reaction would be from Republicans and business interests if a newly elected Democratic governor and legislature proposed to deal with a budget deficit by first raising unemployment benefits and then pushing through a big corporate tax increase for all but the Democratic-leaning tech sector. For good measure, the package would also contain a ban on corporations making political donations without getting the permission of each shareholder, lest they use their power to repeal the tax increase and push the budget out of balance.

This is analogous, of course, to what Gov. Scott Walker has proposed for dealing with Wisconsin's budget gap: the tax breaks for businesses, the benefit cuts for all state employees except Republican-leaning police and firefighters, the automatic decertification of all public-sector unions and the stripping of their right to bargain anything but wages. Looking at Walker's reflection in the political fun-house mirror makes it abundantly clear that the governor has a more ambitious agenda than merely closing a modest budget gap.

From a story in the Times...

...this morning, "Thousands March on State Capitols as Union Fight Spreads":

First Wisconsin. Now Ohio and Indiana.

Battles with public employees’ unions spread on Tuesday, with Republican-dominated Legislatures pressing bills that would weaken collective bargaining and thousands of pro-union protesters marching on Capitol buildings in Columbus and Indianapolis.

After a week of upheaval in Madison, Wis., where the thumping din of protesters has turned almost celebratory, the battle moved to Ohio, where the Legislature held hearings on a bill that would effectively end collective bargaining for state workers and drastically reduce it for local government employees like police officers and firefighters.

The bills have amounted to the largest assault on collective bargaining in recent memory, labor experts said, striking at the heart of an American labor movement that is already atrophied.

And this raises two questions in my mind:

(1) Is this a coordinated assault on unions? And,

(2) Why do I feel like Republicans won't be satisfied until everyone in America is poor?

Governor Andrew Cuomo...

...of New York and his wife, Kerry Kennedy, divorced in 2005 after 13 years of marriage. From all appearances, the governor continues to be a devoted father to his three children.

In the Times this morning it says that Mr. Cuomo, when not staying at the Executive Mansion in Albany, lives with his girlfriend at her home in Westchester County.

And in the Bizarro World of the Catholic Church this is simply unacceptable:

Edward N. Peters, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, who last year was named by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultant to the Vatican court, the Apostolic Signatura, called the governor’s living situation “public concubinage” in his blog on Jan. 4, and said in a recent interview that Mr. Cuomo, who is Roman Catholic, must refrain from taking communion under canon law.

“The governor, with complete freedom, is publicly acting in violation of a fundamental moral expectation of the church,” Dr. Peters wrote in response to written questions from Cybercast News Service, a conservative Web site, which published his remarks Monday.

“His taking holy communion,” Dr. Peters wrote, “is objectively sacrilegious.”

“If he approaches for holy communion,” he added, “he should be denied the august sacrament.”

This is the same church, remember, that is facing so many "challenges" with its own clergy.

Again, the Yiddish word for it is chutzpah.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The early returns are in...

...and the news can't be very encouraging for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans:

The public strongly opposes laws taking away the collective bargaining power of public employee unions as a way to ease state financial troubles, according to a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.

The poll found that 61% would oppose a law in their state similar to one being considered in Wisconsin, compared with 33% who would favor such a law.

I'm still mulling over...

...the standoff in Wisconsin between the governor and the unions.

Since the teachers agreed last Friday to contribute more to their health care and retirement benefits, this has to be about more than just budgetary issues. I think President Obama is right; it feels like an assault on unions. (And, by extension, the middle class.)

And that would fit right in with the Republican Party's tendency in the last thirty years to redistribute wealth up.

The chart above is from the current issue of Mother Jones:

A huge share of the nation's economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.

Now let's be clear about one thing: my family and I are very comfortable. This isn't about class warfare. (Heck, I can't even imagine being in the top 1% -- what do people do with all that money?)

And this isn't about the moral dimension of such inequality. (I'll leave that to others.)

No, what concerns me most is the practical consequences of such a society. I can't believe a nation's future can be bright if its citizens don't benefit from the system. (See: Egypt.) Do I have the answer? Of course not. But it looks to me like we're on the wrong track as a country, and busting the unions just doesn't strike me as the way out.

Monday, February 21, 2011

What I saw at the revolution...

...was a bunch of people that could have been your neighbors, friends, or family members.

The forecast for Madison, Wisconsin... is light snow. Perfect day for a protest march.

It's just like the '60s, Man -- we're takin' it to the streets!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How is the situation in Wisconsin... a default on the state's bonds? Ezra Klein explains (my emphasis):

Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector.

The deal that unions, state government and -- by extension -- state residents have made to defer the compensation of public employees was a bad deal -- but it was a bad deal for the public employees, not for the state government. State and local governments were able to hire better workers now by promising higher pay later. They essentially hired on an installment plan. And now they might not follow through on it. The ones who got played here are the public employees, not the residents of the various states. The residents of the various states, when all is said and done, will probably have gotten the work at a steep discount. They'll force a renegotiation of the contracts and blame overprivileged public employees for resisting shared sacrifice.

Which gets to the heart of what this is: A form of default. There's been a lot of concern lately that states or municipalities will default on their debt. This is considered the height of fiscal irresponsibility -- an outcome so dire that some are considering various forms of federal support. But the talk that states or cities will default on their obligations to teachers or DMV employees? That's considered evidence of fiscal responsibility. And perhaps it's a better outcome, as defaulting to the banks makes future borrowing costs higher, and can hurt the state economy in the long-run. But it's not a more just outcome.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

John Strauss, composer of...

...the "Car 54, Where Are You?" theme song, died at age 90.

I have Monday afternoon off.

Who wants to drive up to Madison, Wisconsin with me and march with the protesters?

My wife found a "holistic" veterinarian...

...for our new dog, Zooka.

Glen Oak Dog & Cat Hospital, in Glenview, boasts of being: of the Northshore’s premiere veterinary clinics. We practice Holistic Veterinary Care, which incorporates a program designed to not only treat animal health issues, but to try and prevent them ... Techniques such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, and nutritional counseling can be used to achieve this goal. 

In addition, Glen Oak offers not one, but:

...two waiting rooms; one for felines and one for canines. We have two surgical suites and can perform multiple operations simultaneously. We also have an isolation kennel for patients with infectious or potentially infectious diseases.

That's all well and good, but what kind of veterinary medicine do they practice at Glen Oak?

We offer both Eastern and Western veterinary medicine as a part of our health care treatments for cats and dogs. Modern research has shown that combining Western and Eastern medical approaches to the treatment of animals results in more favorable medical outcomes.

Zooka, of course, will begin his acupuncture treatments next week:

Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body. The points are near nerve endings, vessels, and other important body architecture. The specific point on the body is called the “Shu-xu” or acupoint. The ancient Chinese people found 361 acupoints on human beings and 173 acupoints on animals. Research has shown that the stimulation of acupoints induces a release of serotonin, beta-endorphin, and other neurotransmitters.

Acupuncture has been shown to be extremely effective for the treatment of:

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
Pain management
Renal (kidney) disease
Skin disease (dermatitis)

Acupuncture sessions often last between forty and sixty minutes, and a variety of different techniques are used including dry needling, aqua-acupuncture, and electro-stimulation.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the staff is bilingual in English and Polish.

What's with the Brits...

...and sea serpents?

The photograph, above, which shows an object with three humps breaching the surface of [Lake Windermere in the UK], is said to be the best evidence yet of what some claim is a monster lurking beneath the depths.

It was taken on a camera phone by Tom Pickles, 24, while kayaking on the lake as part of a team building exercise with his IT company, CapGemini, last Friday.

Mr. Pickles said he saw an animal the size of three cars speed past him on the lake and watched it for about 20 seconds.

I guess I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to these sorts of things. But it doesn't help that the guy who saw it is named Mr. Pickles.

Stephen Fitzgerald was defeated...

...last fall for election to sheriff of Dodge County, Wisconsin, by a 2-to-1 margin.

I know what you're thinking: Who?

Maybe Gail Collins, writing about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's scheme to bust the public employees' union in the Times today, can shed some light:

Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators went into hiding to deprive the Republican majority of the quorum they need to pass Walker’s agenda. The Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald — who happens to be the brother of the Assembly speaker, Jeff Fitzgerald — believes the governor is absolutely right about the need for draconian measures to cut spending in this crisis. So he’s been sending state troopers out to look for the missing Democrats.

The troopers are under the direction of the new chief of the state patrol, Stephen Fitzgerald. He is the 68-year-old father of Jeff and Scott and was appointed to the $105,678 post this month by Governor Walker.

Perhaps the speaker’s/majority leader’s father was a super choice, and the fact that he was suddenly at liberty after having recently lost an election for county sheriff was simply a coincidence that allowed the governor to recruit the best possible person for the job. You’d still think that if things are so dire in Wisconsin, the Fitzgerald clan would want to set a better austerity example.

Oh, and one more thing, from Harold Meyerson, of the Washington Post:

Walker's proposal lets police and firefighter unions retain their collective bargaining rights and, thereby, their institutional clout, even though their taxpayer-supported pensions are among the most generous in the state. Not coincidentally, a number of police and firefighter unions supported Walker in the last election, and such unions tend to endorse more conservative candidates than, say, teachers' unions. So what Walker is really doing is going after unions that support Democrats.

The song of the day:

(Check out the Canadian tuxedo.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Belgium surpassed Iraq...

...yesterday, going 249 days (and counting) without a government:

To mark the occasion, 249 people planned to strip naked in Ghent (though apparently only about 50 people got down to their underwear).

From the looks of the picture above, things could get ugly.

For the love of God, Belgium, form a government!

Texas is the fastest...

...growing state in the Union (my emphasis):

 A phenomenal surge in Hispanics has fueled the population growth in Texas, which gained more people over the last decade than any other state, according to United States Census Bureau figures released on Thursday.

People who identify themselves as Hispanic accounted for two-thirds of the state’s growth in the last decade. Hispanics now make up 38 percent of the state’s 25.1 million people, up from 32 percent a decade ago.

At the same time, demographers say, the growth in the population of white people who are not Hispanic has slowed markedly, rising by only 4 percent. Non-Hispanic whites now make up just 45 percent of the Texas population, down from 52 percent in 2000. Blacks continue to be about 11 percent of the state’s population.

So what does this mean? Well, for starters, Texas gained four more electoral votes for the 2012 election, bringing its total to 38, second only to California. And although Texas hasn't voted Democratic since 1976 -- when it had only 26 electoral votes -- it's been getting more and more purple. In fact, by 2012, with that increasing Hispanic population, it could even go blue.

Cause for celebration among Democrats? Only in the short-term. Because ethnic groups -- as a rule -- get more and more Republican as time goes on.

Bill Monroe, former moderator...

...of "Meet the Press," died at age 90.

Contrary to popular belief, Monroe did not have a cameo role in the 1951 Superman episode, "The Mole Men."

(Incidentally, that laser weapon was a prop constructed from an Electrolux vacuum cleaner.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Correction: Wisconsin is not...

...broke. From an article in Talking Points Memo (my emphasis):

Wisconsin's new Republican governor has framed his assault on public worker's collective bargaining rights as a needed measure of fiscal austerity during tough times.

Furthermore, this broadside comes less than a month after the state's fiscal bureau -- the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office -- concluded that Wisconsin isn't even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

"Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control," says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future -- a public interest think tank. "He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts... so he could rush through these other changes."

"The state of Wisconsin has not reached the point at which austerity measures are needed," Norman adds.

Karl Rove and I agree...

...on something: the White House doesn't mind all this talk of the president's birth certificate. We just disagree on why:

Rove said he thinks that the Obama administration relishes the continued existence of the birther movement because it distracts from how the president is handling policy issues. “Look, these guys may be lousy at governing … but they’re damn good at politics,” he said. “It fits into the White House theme line.”

I think the White House is quiet about the birther movement because it makes their opponents look nuts.

(By the way, that's Delaware Congressman Mike Castle in the video above. You remember him; he's the guy who got beat in the Republican primary last year by a witch, Christine O'Donnell.)

First George Will touted Mike Pence...

...for president, then Rick Santorum. Today's column is about Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. I'll admit Will is getting warmer; Daniels does, at least, come across as a grown-up. But then Will writes the following:

Under [Daniels], Indiana has its fewest state employees since 1978, the nation's lowest state government employment per capita, the lowest effective property taxes and the third-lowest per capita spending.

And all I can think is, so what? Is anyone from New York or California moving to Indiana? I didn't think so. Has George Will ever even been there? (He might find it a little different from Chevy Chase or Bethesda or wherever he lives.) Heck, I live in neighboring Illinois, and I don't know anyone who'd rather live in Indiana. (Sorry Hoosiers.)

Jerry Seinfeld's "Uncle Leo,"...

...Len Lesser, is dead at age 88.

One of the main reasons...

...I didn't go into teaching was money -- plain and simple. Like many young people, I dreamed of getting rich someday. (I still do.) While the public sector offered job security, it was the private sector that held out the possibility -- albeit remote -- of achieving great wealth. After all, when was the last time you heard of a public employee buying a Major League Baseball franchise? So thirty years ago I entered the Business World and am now working on my second million. (I gave up on the first.)


But while I was toiling away all those years, one thing I heard over and over (and over) again was how underpaid teachers were. And how, if our society really valued education, we'd pay these people more like their counterparts in the private sector. Makes sense; but money is always hard to find in a budget. So rather than pay teachers higher salaries, many districts tried to sweeten the pot by providing more benefits and better pensions. Again, makes sense: If you can't pay public employees competitively and if you effectively prohibit them from ever accumulating wealth, you'll have to compensate them in other ways in order to attract (and keep) talented people.

But now that the economy is in a recession, municipalities are trying to change the rules of the game. In a front page article in the Times today, "Angry Demonstrations in Wisconsin as Cuts Loom":

[Republican Governor Scott Walker] wants to require public workers to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, effectively cutting the take-home pay of many by around 7 percent.

He also wants to weaken most public-sector unions by sharply curtailing their collective bargaining rights, limiting talks to the subject of basic wages. (My emphasis and the subject of another post.)

Mr. Walker said he had no other options, since he is facing a deficit of $137 million in the current state budget and the prospect of a $3.6 billion hole in the coming two-year budget.

“For us, it’s simple,” said Mr. Walker, whose family home was surrounded by angry workers this week, prompting the police to close the street. “We’re broke.”

And it is simple; Wisconsin, like many states, is broke. So I sympathize with the governor. But then I read further:

Kim Hoffman, a middle school music teacher, said she and her husband, also a teacher, would lose $1,200 a month under the plan — too deep a cut to manage.

“I love teaching, but I’d have to start looking for another job, period,” she said.

And I know what you're thinking: Good luck, Ms. Hoffman; there just aren't that many jobs right now in the private sector. And you're right; times are tough.

Mr. Walker would require state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pensions, where most now pay far less, and require state employees to pay at least 12.6 percent of health care premiums (most pay about 6 percent now). The average salary for a Wisconsin state worker is $48,348, according to a recent report by the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

It's important to remember that that $48,348 is the average salary; it includes everyone from the guy who picks up trash at the state parks to the governor himself. So while $48,000 looks like a lot of money when you're out of work, it's not so attractive when you're making $60,000 or so in the private sector in good times (with the possibility of much, much more).

So I guess my question is, do we value teaching, or don't we? Which is it? Because if we do, and we can't pay teachers competitively or even provide them security when times are tough, then how exactly are we going to attract good people? And if we decide that we can't attract good people, then we should just stop whining about the state of American education, admit that we consider it all glorified day-care anyway, and be done with it.

Either Americans want the government to provide services that the private sector can't, or they don't. (And I suspect that one of the lessons of this "tea party era" is that people do.) And if they do, they'll have to grow up, get realistic and pay for them.