Tuesday, June 30, 2015

According to the...

...Huffington Post, if the Republican debates were held tomorrow Donald Trump and Ben Carson would be in and Rick Santorum, who came in second in 2012, would be out.

Also on the sidelines would be Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and George Pataki.

The New Yorker cartoon of the day:


“Let’s focus on the case before you start thinking about befriending a guard.”

Friday, June 26, 2015

Thanksgiving is less than...

...six months from now, and you know what that means: It won't be long before you're sitting across the table from your crazy aunt or uncle who watches Fox News.*

If he or she is still ranting about Obamacare by then, you can explain it in very simple language from Chief Justice John Roberts's majority opinion yesterday.

I had read somewhere that Roberts was a great writer so I looked up his opinion on King vs. Burwell and actually read it. (And, no, I don't have a life.) So, here, lightly edited, is the text which explains the ACA very clearly -- even to your crazy aunt or uncle.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act grew out of a long history of failed health insurance reform. In the 1990s, several states began experimenting with ways to expand people's access to coverage. One common approach was to impose a pair of insurance market regulations -- a "guaranteed issue" requirement, which barred insurers from denying coverage to any person because of his health, and a "community rating" requirement, which barred insurers from charging a person higher premiums for the same reason. Together, those requirements were designed to ensure that anyone who wanted to buy health insurance could do so.

The guaranteed issue and community rating requirements achieved that goal, but they had an unintended consequence: They encouraged people to wait until they got sick to buy insurance. Why buy insurance coverage when you are healthy, if you can buy the same coverage for the same price when you become ill? This consequence -- known as "adverse selection" -- led to a second: Insurers were forced to increase premiums to account for the fact that, more and more, it was the sick rather than the healthy who were buying insurance. And that consequence fed back into the first: As the cost of insurance rose, even more people waited until they became ill to buy it.

This led to an economic "death spiral." As premiums rose higher and higher, and the number of people buying insurance sank lower and lower, insurers began to leave the market entirely. As a result, the number of people without insurance increased dramatically.

This cycle happened repeatedly during the 1990s. For example, in 1993, the state of Washington reformed its individual insurance market by adopting the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements. Over the next three years, premiums rose by 78 percent and the number of people enrolled fell by 25 percent. By 1999, 17 of the state's 19 private insurers had left the market, and the remaining two had announced their intention to do so.

For another example, also in 1993, New York adopted the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements. Over the next few years, some major insurers in the individual market raised premiums by roughly 40 percent. By 1996, these reforms had "effectively eliminated the commercial individual indemnity market in New York with the largest individual health insurer exiting the market."

In 1996, Massachusetts adopted the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements and experienced similar results. But in 2006, Massachusetts added two more reforms: The commonwealth required individuals to buy insurance or pay a penalty, and it gave tax credits to certain individuals to ensure that they could afford the insurance they were required to buy. The combination of these three reforms -- insurance market regulations, a coverage mandate, and tax credits -- reduced the uninsured rate in Massachusetts to 2.6 percent, by far the lowest in the nation.

The Affordable Care Act adopts a version of the three key reforms that made the Massachusetts system successful. First, the Act adopts the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements. The Act provides that "each health insurance issuer that offers health insurance coverage in the individual . . . market in a state must accept every . . . individual in the state that applies for such coverage." The Act also bars insurers from charging higher premiums on the basis of a person's health.

Second, the Act generally requires individuals to maintain health insurance coverage or make a payment to the IRS. Congress recognized that, without an incentive, "many individuals would wait to purchase health insurance until they needed care." So Congress adopted a coverage requirement to "minimize this adverse selection and broaden the health insurance risk pool to include healthy individuals, which will lower health insurance premiums." In Congress's view, that coverage requirement was "essential to creating effective health insurance markets." Congress also provided an exemption from the coverage requirement for anyone who has to spend more than eight percent of his income on health insurance.

Third, the Act seeks to make insurance more affordable by giving refundable tax credits to individuals with household incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line. Individuals who meet the Act's requirements may purchase insurance with the tax credits, which are provided in advance directly to the individual's insurer.

These three reforms are closely intertwined. As noted, Congress found that the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements would not work without the coverage requirement. And the coverage requirement would not work without the tax credits. The reason is that, without the tax credits, the cost of buying insurance would exceed eight percent of income for a large number of individuals, which would exempt them from the coverage requirement. Given the relationship between these three reforms, the Act provided that they should take effect on the same day -- January 1, 2014.

* I can't believe I just skipped over the entire high school football season!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The New Yorker cartoon of the day:

“These pills will cure your O.C.D., but first I wonder if you could organize my shelves.”

Now that the Confederate flag...

...issue is behind us (sort of), what about those ten U.S. military bases that are named after traitors?

From Time, "U.S. Flag Waves Over 10 Army Bases Proudly Named for Confederate Officers":

But the U.S. Army certainly can give Columbia’s banner a run for its money: it operates posts named for nine Confederate generals and a colonel, including the head of its army, the reputed Georgia chief of the Ku Klux Klan and the commander whose troops fired the first shots of the Civil War.

Let me see if I've got this straight: ten army bases are named after individuals who fought against the United States?

But don't worry, according to CNN, "Pentagon: Confederate base names won't be changed":

Army Brig. Gen. Malcolm B. Frost, chief of public affairs, said the naming of these bases "occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division."

He also said that "Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history. Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies."

Ah, gotcha. Then maybe "in the spirit of reconciliation" we could name one after German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, above. The Desert Fox, as he was affectionately known, was also responsible for the deaths of American soldiers in wartime.

What did the two...

...New York fugitives think their lives would be like once they escaped from prison? Did each one expect to lead a quiet middle-class existence with a job and a nice apartment somewhere? And how do you get hired without at least some form of ID and a Social Security number?

"Tell me about your most recent position."

"I washed dishes in a prison cafeteria."

"You're just what we're looking for!"

Sign a lease on an apartment without a credit check of some sort?

"What was your previous address?"

"Clinton Correctional Facility."

"You can move in the first of the month."

I mean, seriously, how do these two even eat? Hasn't everyone who works in a grocery store or a restaurant in upstate New York seen pictures of them?

"Hey, Joe, see those two guys over at Millie's table? Don't they look like those escaped convicts?"

"Boy, you have quite an imagination. Now get back to work!"

Really, how have these two made it this far? It's been almost three weeks! And what did they imagine the future to look like?

So is the Confederate flag...

...issue over? Is that it? Is it settled? Do we all agree now that it should come down everywhere at once? Hardly.

On Tuesday the New York Times ran a piece titled, "Confederate Flag Sales Soar as Retailers Pull Stock." Huh? What? My emphasis:

Yet even as companies were vowing to discontinue the items, sales of them were soaring. Confederate flags jumped to the top of Amazon’s Patio, Lawn & Garden category, with purchases of some items spiking by more than 5,000 percent.

By midafternoon Tuesday, the Dixie Flag Company in San Antonio had sold 25 Confederate flags in 24 hours, according to the company’s president, Pete Van de Putte. Usually, the company has no more than three orders a week for the flags and sometimes only three in a month, he said.

The reasons for the purchases varied significantly. One customer at a small Georgia shop told the owner she wanted to line her front yard with Confederate flags. Mr. Van de Putte said a black man had come into Dixie Flags on Monday with his young daughter seeking to buy the biggest Confederate flag in the store. He said he was buying it to burn it.

While large retailers were feeling public pressure to pull the items from their shelves and websites, a number of smaller companies refused to stop selling Confederate-related merchandise, no matter how controversial.

At Wildman’s, a jumble of a shop in Kennesaw, Ga., about 40 miles from Atlanta, that sells numerous sizes of Confederate flags, along with magnets, license plates and barbecue aprons, the 84-year-old owner, Dent Myers, said of Walmart and others: “They are chicken. Kowtowing to the herds.”

My guess is that there is still a huge number of southerners who love the Confederate flag. (Why do you think it was flying at the South Carolina state capitol in the first place?) And some Republican candidate for president -- I don't know which one -- will figure out that there's a niche in the race for someone who taps into that sentiment. (Democrat Jim Webb is already making noises like that.) So if a Democrat (!) can speak up for the Confederate flag, surely some Republican will come along and follow suit. 

Support for the flag may be in retreat, but don't kid yourself: it's not over. Stay tuned.

All the political pundits...

...seem genuinely surprised by Donald Trump's rise to second place behind Jeb Bush* in a recent poll in New Hampshire. How to explain it? From the New York Times:

Mr. Trump’s surprising strength could reflect a protest vote and dissatisfaction with the other candidates. The Suffolk poll showed him with a lower favorable rating and higher unfavorable rating than any other Republican, which makes his second-place showing somewhat dubious even as it may temporarily embarrass his rivals.

Blah, blah, blah.

Here's my take: anyone who watched his announcement speech (and I watched it a few times) could tell you that Donald Trump almost perfectly embodies the Republican Party id -- he says everything the typical tea partyer is feeling. More like Ronald Reagan than any of the other current GOP candidates, Trump tickles the average Republican's basic, instinctual drives. And, again like Reagan, Trump speaks in a clear, easy to understand voice. No matter what you thought of his speech, I would ask you to point out one thing that was not squarely in line with mainstream Republican Party sentiment.

Oh, and here's the acid test: my mother likes him. And when white seniors who watch Fox News all day like Trump, then you know he's resonating. Remember, that's the party's base.

Now, do I think Trump is in it for the long-haul? No. I think he'll find an excuse to drop out before Iowa. (I can't see him actually losing something; he's too proud.) But will the New York real estate tycoon cause a boatload of agita for GOP bigwigs in the meantime? To quote another famous Republican, "You betcha!"

* Can you imagine Trump on a debate stage with Jeb? He'd crush him.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The inventor of the plastic...

...pink flamingo, Donald Featherstone, died at age 79.

From his obit in the Times (my emphasis):

In an act of connubial solidarity, they wore matching outfits, handmade by Mrs. Featherstone, every day from the late 1970s onward, many of them in flamingo-patterned fabric.

When I look at the clown car...

...that's running for the Republican nomination for president in 2016 (and it is a clown car, let's not kid ourselves), I am increasingly convinced that Jeb Bush will win out. He has the money, the backing of the establishment and the persona that people could picture in the Oval Office. (Most important, Jeb's also leading on all the betting and prediction websites.)

So it brings me to the next question: Who, from his supporting cast, could I realistically see as Jeb's running mate? Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump? Please. I couldn't honestly see any of these individuals in the White House. (See what I mean about a clown car?)

What about Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich or George Pataki? They're all more credible candidates (with the possible exception of Christie), but they also have one glaring deficiency -- they could each be portrayed as moderates. (Gasp!) And do you think the Republican Party of 2016 is going to nominate two moderates? As Jerry Seinfeld would say, "Not bloody likely!"

So who does that leave? (Have I left anyone out?) Unless Jeb reaches beyond the cast of characters running this year (which is entirely possible), he's left with Marco Rubio. And, much as I hate to admit it, a Bush/Rubio ticket in 2016 could be formidable.

Now I know what you're thinking: Jeb and Rubio both come from Florida and the Constitution requires that running mates hail from different states. Or does it? Read this.

How did W get away with choosing Dick Cheney, another Texan, as his running mate in 2000? Cheney registered to vote in Wyoming. The important thing is, they got around it. And Jeb will too.

So Bush/Rubio in 2016? If I were a GOP bigwig, that's what I would recommend.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If you travel to Germany...

...don't expect to find anything named after leaders of the Nazi era, because you won't.

So why is it that in the former Confederate states, there are so many roads named after Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vice President John C. Calhoun (who said slavery "wasn't a necessary evil, but a positive good") and Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, whose Dred Scott decision denied citizenship and constitutional protections to blacks before the Civil War?

Maybe the problem is that the North didn't drive home the point enough. What if Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and others had been tried for treason and imprisoned (or worse)?

In some ways the former Confederate states remind me more of Germany after World War I than Germany after World War II. After the First World War, many Germans thought they had surrendered too hastily and just got angrier and more resentful until the Nazis finally took control in 1933. After the Second World War, the survivors had no doubt that they had been thoroughly defeated and changed their behavior accordingly.

So maybe the problem is that we didn't defeat the South enough. Maybe if Reconstruction had lasted longer, or been more severe, the former Confederates may have gotten the message.

P. S. Here's a list of U.S. counties named after prominent Confederate historical figures. I kinda don't think you'll find too many counties in Germany named after Hitler, Himmler or Goring.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The New Yorker cartoon of the day:

“Oh, sorry. I thought this was an exterior wall.”

In the last month or so...

...I turned to someone -- I think it was my wife -- and said something like, "You know, we haven't had one of those mass shootings in a while, have we? We're about due." And I wasn't kidding or being sarcastic or anything. I was just making an observation.

That's how bad things have gotten in this country.

I heard a lot about "forgiveness" over the weekend, but it's too soon for me to think about that. Maybe it reveals some flaw in me as a person, but I'd rather we first talk about mental illness, racism and/or guns. And what we expect to do about any or all of them.

And the sad, depressing thing to me is that the truth is: We'll do nothing in the aftermath of this shooting about mental illness, racism or guns. As someone on TV said last week (I think it was Larry Wilmore), if we couldn't do anything after the Sandy Hook shooting -- when 20 schoolchildren were killed -- then we'll never do anything.

In the video above, President Obama says:

"You don't see murder on this kind of scale with this kind of frequency in any other advanced nation on earth. What's different is not every country is awash with easily-accessible guns. And so I refuse to act as if this is the new normal."

I admire his spirit. But it's hard to be optimistic, isn't it?

It's illegal to display...

...the swastika flag in postwar Germany and Austria.

Makes sense, doesn't it? Besides offending large numbers of people, the symbol of the Nazi era represents a dark chapter in German history that the citizens of both countries would just as soon forget. A reminder of the shame and complete and utter defeat of Germany in World War II, the Hakenkreuz has no place in modern-day Europe.

Shouldn't that also be the case for the Confederate battle flag?

According to Wikipedia (my emphasis):

The battle flag was never adopted by the Confederate Congress, never flew over any state capitols during the Confederacy, and was never officially used by Confederate veterans' groups. The flag probably would have been relegated to Civil War museums if it had not been resurrected by the resurgent KKK and used by Southern Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election.

In other words, two racist organizations.

Southern historian Gordon Rhea further wrote in 2011 that:
It is no accident that Confederate symbols have been the mainstay of white supremacist organizations, from the Ku Klux Klan to the skinheads. They did not appropriate the Confederate battle flag simply because it was pretty. They picked it because it was the flag of a nation dedicated to their ideals: 'that the negro is not equal to the white man'. The Confederate flag, we are told, represents heritage, not hate. But why should we celebrate a heritage grounded in hate, a heritage whose self-avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population?
Since the battle flag never represented the CSA as a country and has been used mostly by racist groups in the modern era, isn't it time for southerners to just take it down already and consign it to the same dustbin of history as the Nazi swastika flag?

Friday, June 19, 2015

The New Yorker cartoon of the day:

“You boys who have to take your medications with food, now’s the time.” 
"You boys who have to take your medications with food, now's the time."

Is Donald Trump a serious...

...candidate for president? In the video above, Fox News pundits Charles Krauthammer, Mara Liasson and George Will explain why they don't think so.

(I don't either, and expect Trump to drop out some time before the Iowa Caucuses. But my wife and I watched Trump's announcement speech again last night and both agreed that the Republican Party base will eat it up with a spoon. Was there anything in that speech that the average tea partier won't agree with?)

In the clip above, Ms. Liasson opines that besides Trump "the Republican field is big and serious." Really?

Let's consider what two of the "serious" GOP candidates said just this week.

First, frontrunner and establishment favorite Jeb Bush pledged on Monday to give the U.S. an economic growth rate of four percent a year (all emphasis mine):

“There is not a reason in the world why we cannot grow at a rate of 4 percent a year,” Bush said as he formally announced his presidential bid in Miami. “And that will be my goal as president — 4 percent growth, and the 19 million new jobs that come with it.”

Josh Barro, however, writes in the New York Times, "Economists on Bush’s Promise: Close to 0 Percent Chance of 4 Percent Growth":

Over the last 40 years, the American economy has grown at an average of 2.8 percent per year. That’s slower than the 3.7 percent average from 1948 to 1975, but the future looks even gloomier because that 2.8 figure relied on two favorable trends that are now over: women entering the work force, and baby boomers reaching their prime earning years.

After 2020, with the percentage of the American population that is of prime working age shrinking, the Congressional Budget Office expects growth to stabilize at 2.2 percent. Hitting Mr. Bush’s target would require nearly doubling that pace. It would mean exceeding the economic performance of every presidential administration since the Kennedy-Johnson years despite demographic headwinds caused by baby-boom retirements.

Not convinced? There are a ton of articles on the Internet in this vein. Here's one more, from Vox's Matthew Yglesias, "Jeb Bush's 4% growth promise is 104% nonsense":

It's an exciting idea that really would solve a lot of problems, allowing the country to expand opportunity down the socioeconomic ladder without needing to redistribute wealth away from those who already have it. Then again, if some obvious prescription existed to deliver that kind of rapid growth, you might think that Jeb's brother or his father would have hit upon the formula.

It is pretty unrealistic. Since Ronald Reagan's inauguration, the American economy has grown on average 2.7 percent per year.
Jeb is promising to do not just a little better than average, but DRAMATICALLY better than average. And he's promising to do so even though the aging of the population puts a natural check on growth, since as people become too old to work the economy loses output.

Meanwhile, another "serious" Republican candidate, Rand Paul, proposed a flat tax in The Wall Street Journal, "Blow Up the Tax Code and Start Over":

So on Thursday I am announcing an over $2 trillion tax cut that would repeal the entire IRS tax code—more than 70,000 pages—and replace it with a low, broad-based tax of 14.5% on individuals and businesses. I would eliminate nearly every special-interest loophole. The plan also eliminates the payroll tax on workers and several federal taxes outright, including gift and estate taxes, telephone taxes, and all duties and tariffs. I call this “The Fair and Flat Tax.”

Economist Jared Bernstein writes in the Washington Post, "The flat tax falls flat for good reasons":

Again with the flat tax?!

The idea always sounds appealing — at least I thought it did…read on — because everyone, present company included, hates the complexity in the tax code, and its proponents sell the flat tax as the perfect antidote.

Unfortunately, it’s far from perfect and in any real-world incarnation would be a lot worse than the current code on at least two key dimensions: fairness and fiscal. It’s a highly regressive tax that would mean the loss of gobs of revenue.

Our current federal income tax code is progressive (rates rise with income), and every distributional analysis I’ve ever seen of a flat tax shows a transfer of the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class. According to the Tax Policy Center’s score of the Perry tax plan, the tax bill of families with incomes between $30,000 and 40,000 would go up by about $450, while that of millionaires would fall by about half a million bucks. 

It would also lower revenue by between $500 billion and $1 trillion per year.

From CNN Money, "Rand Paul's flat tax proposal: What it means for you":

But according to the Tax Foundation, a conservative leaning but non-partisan think tank that did see Paul's plan, wealthier taxpayers would be the big winner under the plan

The fact that everyone is paying less in taxes means the government would collect less tax money - about $2.9 trillion less over the course of the decade, according to the Tax Foundation.

Now those were just a couple of proposals from two candidates of the "big and serious" Republican field this week.

And Donald Trump is the "unserious" candidate in the race?

Prediction time.

First of all, with regard to Greece, there will be an eleventh hour solution just like in U. S. debt ceiling negotiations.

And, second, the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the Affordable Care Act this month.

In the first case, a Greek exit from the Euro would be just too damaging to both parties. They'll both huff and puff and the markets will gyrate wildly until they come up with some miraculous compromise at the last minute.

And as far as King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court should have never taken the case in the first place. It's a joke, and if the Court were to find for the plaintiff it would seriously damage their already partisan reputation.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is Donald Trump really...

...any less of a credible candidate for president than Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson?

Let's face it, whatever you think of Trump, he's certainly been more successful in business than Ms. Fiorina. (Forbes estimates his net worth at about $4 billion.) And success in business is supposed to be her whole reason for running. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard only campaigned for public office once before -- the United States Senate -- and lost. As for her alleged "success in business," Ms. Fiorina presided over a 50 percent drop in the value of H-P's stock before she was fired. And this woman is somehow more qualified to be president than the Donald?

As for Dr. Carson, he's a highly intelligent surgeon who has never even run for elective office. But Carson is also a veritable gaffe machine who delivers his outrageous statements in more measured tones than Mr. Trump. So why does the right-wing media have so little trouble seeing him in the Oval Office but not the New York real estate tycoon?

I read that Fox News and CNN may tweak the debate rules to exclude Donald Trump. That's fine, I get it: Trump is not a serious candidate. But is Fiorina or Carson? Sorry, but I just don't see it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Now that Hillary and Jeb...

...are both officially in the race, here's my take on 2016:

After a bruising primary fight, the Republicans will end up nominating Jeb because he'll be seen -- like Mitt Romney in 2012 -- as a moderate who can lose to the Democratic candidate by the smallest margin. And, indeed, in the general election Jeb will lose to Hillary by a small margin. (I'm tired of linking to all the betting and prediction websites that are calling for this. Even CNN has a new one.)

Now, after Hillary beats Jeb by about three or four percentage points (and by even more in the Electoral College), the GOP will go into a four-year introspection about whether or not they would be better off playing to their shrinking base or by trying to expand the party. (Haven't we seen this movie before?) Zzzz...

And, after four more years, if the economy is doing well enough, the Republicans might -- just might -- hit rock bottom and nominate a tea partyer in the mold of Barry Goldwater. (Scott Walker?) Then only after getting positively crushed in 2020 will they begin on the road back to respectability.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

I watched Donald Trump's...

...entire presidential announcement speech last night and thought -- more than once -- that it was indistinguishable from a Saturday Night Live parody.

I've often wondered how some billionaires like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg come across so normal on TV while Trump is such an ass. Why doesn't someone who loves him (like his daughter) tell him so? (Are they all under his spell or something?)

But I think I've finally got the answer: it's all an act.

Erick Erickson (whom I don't normally read) writes (all emphasis mine):

There is one more thing I want you to know about Donald Trump. I’ve met him and interviewed him before. When the camera was not on and the interview was not going, he was not The Donald. He was a guy who cared deeply for his staff and the people who merely walked in the front door of his building. I want you to know that the Donald Trump I’ve seen in private is not the Donald Trump you see on stage because I think we are not going to see that Trump. It’s our loss and it will be his own loss. The person, a separate entity from the personality, is a good man.
 
...I have a soft spot for Trump. From the same vantage point, I’ve seen him behave kindly to people far lower on the rung of life than him when he did not have to. Character when the camera isn’t rolling counts in my book.
 
Unfortunately for Trump, The Donald does not come across in public the way Mr. Trump does behind the scenes.

And a piece in the Washington Post echoes this somewhat:

Trump has long prided himself on his ability to attract — and manipulate — the news media.

In his 1987 bestseller, The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote:

One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. It’s in the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.

I’m not saying that [journalists] necessarily like me. Sometimes they write positively, and sometimes they write negatively. But from a pure business point of view, the benefits of being written about have far outweighed the drawbacks.

The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business.

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

So maybe it's all part of his strategy to build the Trump brand. (He couldn't possibly be like this in real life.) But, either way, until Trump drops out -- and I think he will before Iowa -- he's going to make for great entertainment. (And provide a major migraine for Reince Priebus.)

As I told my son yesterday, it was the greatest day of my life. (Or at least this week.)

Monday, June 15, 2015

The New Yorker cartoon of the day:

“Must everything with you be a landmark decision?”

Paul Mason, who at his...

...heaviest -- 980 pounds -- was known informally as the world’s fattest man, is engaged to a woman named Rebecca Mountain.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Thanks to Gov. Mike Pence...

...of Indiana, I now know that the Hoosier State's tax burden on business is the lowest in the Midwest and seventh lowest in the entire nation. (I was wondering where I could find that information; Pence links to a study from Anderson Economic Group.) That has to be good news, right?

My home state of Illinois, for example, ranks behind two of its immediate neighbors and ahead of a third:

No. 7 Indiana
No. 20 Iowa
No. 33 Illinois
No. 35 Wisconsin

But, I have to ask, does this really matter? I mean, Illinois is a veritable economic powerhouse compared to Indiana:

List of U.S. states by GDP, 2015

No. 5, Illinois, $742 billion
No. 16, Indiana, $328 billion
No. 20, Wisconsin, $293 billion
No. 30, Iowa, $174 billion

Even if you adjust for Illinois' higher population, it's still much greater:

List of U.S. states by GDP per capita, 2012

No. 16, Illinois
No. 23, Iowa
No. 29, Wisconsin
No. 31, Indiana

So the relatively high business tax burden here must not be chasing that many companies out of Illinois. And it's not preventing us from having higher median household incomes either:

List of U.S. states by income, 2014

No. 18, Illinois
No. 21, Wisconsin
No. 24, Iowa
No. 31, Indiana

So who, besides Gov. Mike Pence, really cares about this statistic? It doesn't seem to be helping the economy of Indiana much, does it? In fact, I don't see how it's really relevant at all.

Oh, no! Jeb Bush...

..."has slipped in polls from presumed front-runner to one of several candidates jumbled toward the top of an increasingly crowded field." So says a breathless article in the Washington Post, "How Jeb Bush’s campaign ran off course before it even began."

In fairness, that was pretty typical of the media's treatment of Jeb this week. And, also in fairness, his campaign is underperforming expectations. 

But according to PredictWise, Paddy Power and PredictIt, the 2016 story remains the same: Hillary beats Jeb.

Remember when Charlie Daniels...

...was just a great musician? (Skip to about 3:55 if you're pressed for time.)*

Like another artist whom I used to admire, the 78-year-old rocker has evolved into an old right-wing crank.

* Here's an even better version; jump to about 6:50.

Can you believe...

...there's already chatter about Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016?

And much of it surrounds 40-year-old, Hispanic secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, above.

An article in Bloomberg this week, "Can Julian Castro Help Bring Out the Latino Vote for Hillary Clinton?," also mentioned Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as the other most often speculated-upon candidate for the second half of a prospective ticket.

Since it's early (both in the process and the day), allow me to throw my own suggestion out there: Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, above. He's another boring old white guy from a key swing state. And unlike Castro or Kaine, Brown is a bona fide liberal who could shore up Hillary's cred with that wing of the party. (Not to mention the Bernie Sanders, tousled-hair wing.)

What does Illinois...

...have in common with Greece? Besides its architecture?

Both the Illinois budget impasse and Greek efforts to avoid a default will be resolved -- magically -- at the eleventh hour. Everybody in Springfield and Athens (and elsewhere) will be on pins and needles until then, but just like the shenanigans in Washington the last few years, a deal will be reached at the very last minute to avoid a crisis.

Until then, buy the dips in Europe.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Today would be...

...Saul Bellow's 100th birthday. And the Chicago Tribune has an interesting fact about him. In one of the houses in which Bellow grew up, in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago:

The kitchen had a pay phone, emptied once a month by a phone company employee.

Vincent T. Bugliosi, "who...

...successfully prosecuted the cult leader Charles Manson and several acolytes for the savage murders of the actress Sharon Tate and six other people in August 1969, then became a best-selling writer of true-crime books, died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 80."

From his obit in the Times (my emphasis):

Mr. Bugliosi’s account of the crimes, “Helter Skelter,” was written with Curt Gentry, who died in 2014. Originally published in 1974, it has sold over seven million copies and is the best-selling true-crime book ever. It won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America as the best true-crime book of the year.

I read Helter Skelter back in the late 1970s, I think. I'm not much for that sort of genre but read it at the urging of my brother. As you open the book the first page reads: "The story in which you are about to read will scare the hell out of you."

Truer words were never written. Why? Because it really happened.

P. S. Don't read it in your house alone at night.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Could Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner...

...learn a thing or two from California? Maybe.

The Volcker Alliance, a foundation devoted to rebuilding public trust in government at the federal, state and local levels, issued a report yesterday on state finances.

While conceding that “It remains too early to tell if [California’s] fiscal culture has changed permanently,” former Fed chairman Paul Volcker singled out the Golden State as a bright spot. From a piece in the Times, "Volcker Sees Hidden Peril in State Budgets" (my emphasis): 

In the past [California] engaged in a number of budget gimmicks, the report said, and its situation became so dire during the financial crisis of 2008 that for a time the state had to pay its workers with scrip because it did not have the cash.

But when California’s current governor, Jerry Brown, took office in 2010, he made hidden costs an issue, calling the pile of deferred spending and unpaid bills a “wall of debt” that had to be addressed.

He managed to make changes that have lowered the “wall of debt” to $24.9 billion from $34.7 billion. Notably, he persuaded California’s tax-averse voters to approve a tax increase through a ballot initiative. California’s top marginal income-tax rate, 13.3 percent, is now the highest in the nation.

Are you there, Gov. Rauner?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Someone on my nephew's...

...Facebook page commented recently that Chicago is "dragging the rest of Illinois into the abyss."

And I thought, really? Isn't Chicago the economic engine that pulls the state of Illinois? After all, the city accounts for about three-fourths of all the state's GDP.*

Without the city of Chicago, Illinois would be just another economic backwater like its neighbors, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin. 

* That three-quarters figure may actually be a little low as the statistic for the city is from 2012 while that state number is from 2015.

The New Yorker cartoon of the day...

...isn't all that funny. (None of them have been lately, which is why I haven't included any in the last couple of weeks.)

But this one makes me wonder, why is there always so much talk at this time of year about "summer reading"? Don't you read in the fall, winter and spring too? Or are your reading habits really seasonal? If anything, I probably read less in the summer -- I'm more likely to be outside doing something.

What if Dennis Hastert...

...and Josh Duggar were genetically predisposed to molesting children? (And, yes, that's Lena Dunham in the picture above. Can you believe I couldn't find a picture with just Hastert and Duggar together?)

Okay, you guessed it: this post is about Nature vs. Nurture (part infinity). But indulge me for a minute. What if these two didn't really have a choice in the matter? After all, I've never molested a child (and I'll bet you haven't either) and it's not because I wanted to and chose otherwise; it's because it never occurred to me in the first place. And I'll bet, further, that Hastert and Duggar are both ashamed -- and puzzled -- by their behavior. What on earth made me do that?, they've probably wondered at some point.

The Internet is full of stories about why these two did what they did. (Many of them blame Duggar's unorthodox Christian upbringing. As someone who's skeptical of religion, you might think I'm in that camp, but I'm not.) But I do wonder: what if it wasn't anything in their childhoods? What if, instead, it was Hastert's and Duggar's DNA that was to blame? What if they inherited some weird child-molesting gene? What then?

That's a scary thought, because then the next thought would be: If these two can't be held responsible for their actions, then how are we to deal with their transgressions (or crimes)? We can't exactly punish them for something they couldn't help, right?

And, yes, that would be a problem for society. What are we to do with those among us who commit antisocial acts? But it doesn't answer my original question, What if it was their DNA that was to blame? What if Hastert and Duggar had no choice in the matter? And as a "more nature than nurture" guy, that's my suspicion. What then?

And my answer: I don't know.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Ronnie Gilbert, who with...

...Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman made up the folk music group the Weavers, died at age 88.

Bruce Dold, of the...

...Chicago Tribune, was on Chicago Tonight: The Week in Review on Friday night.

Host Joel Weisman, at about 7:35 of this clip, brought up the subject of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's "turnaround agenda."

"They're sluggin' it out in Springfield," Weisman said. "What Rauner wants are things like workers' comp reform, tort reform." When Weisman posited that "It doesn't seem like it's germane to the [budget] necessarily," Mr. Dold replied (my emphasis):

It's germane to the disaster of this state. The overall economic basis of this state is flawed; it's failed. We need to change that, and workers' comp and tort reform are a piece of that. Overall Rauner wants to create an environment in the state more like you see in Indiana, Iowa and other Midwestern states that draw employers.

But does correlation necessarily imply causation?

That was the question Mr. Weisman and another panelist, Laura Washington of the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC-7 News, asked Mr. Dold.

"Where are the numbers to support that?" Ms. Washington asked.

Dold answered that "Unemployment is lower in just about every state around. Most of those states have taken steps like that."

When Ms. Washington pressed him, "How can you connect to changing workers' comp directly to lowering unemployment?," Mr. Dold finally conceded it was all about "leverage."

Aha.

But as long as we're on the subject of "the overall economic basis of this state," as Mr. Dold put it, just how bad is Illinois' economy vis-a-vis its neighbors? You sure hear a lot of talk about it from people like Gov. Rauner and the Republicans.

I suppose you could look at any number of statistics, but let's start with some basic ones, like GDP. How does Illinois compare with its immediate neighbors? Turns out, not so bad:

List of U.S. states by GDP, 2015

No. 5, Illinois, $742 billion
No. 16, Indiana, $328 billion
No. 20, Wisconsin, $293 billion
No. 30, Iowa, $174 billion

Illinois' GDP is more than twice that of Indiana? Wow.

Now, I know what you're thinking: Oh, sure, but Illinois is so much larger than its neighbors. What about per capita GDP?

List of U.S. states by GDP per capita, 2012

No. 16, Illinois
No. 23, Iowa
No. 29, Wisconsin
No. 31, Indiana

What else can we look at? How about income?

List of U.S. states by income, 2014

No. 18, Illinois
No. 21, Wisconsin
No. 24, Iowa
No. 31, Indiana

Now those are just a few statistics, and I'm sure the Illinois Policy Institute could come back with a veritable blizzard of its own to prove just how bad the rich Illinois needs Gov. Rauner's "turnaround agenda." (They're extremely smooth at making the case that "low taxes on the rich and harsh treatment of the poor are the keys to prosperity," as Paul Krugman put it in a column about Texas recently.)

But my question is, especially after looking at those three figures above: When it comes to policy, should Illinois be emulating its neighbors, or is it the other way around?

Friday, June 5, 2015

Quick: Where is...

...the University of Rio Grande? Texas? Hah. Try Ohio.

Next question: How do you pronounce "Rio Grande"? Wrong again! According to Wikipedia, it's "Rye-O Grand" so that it rhymes with "Ohio." (The town was, however, named after the river on the border with Mexico. Don't ask.)

Where am I getting all this? A guy named Bevo Francis, who held the record for most points scored, 113, in a college basketball game until 2012, died at age 82.

Apparently, this guy had a healthy ego. From his obit in the Times:

“It was one of those nights that I could have probably drop-kicked one and it would have gone in,” he told The Boston Globe in 2002.

On another occasion Francis scored even more against a two-year institution:

Francis scored 116 points in January 1953 during a home game against Ashland Junior College from Kentucky. He was helped by his teammates, who gave up free shots to feed him the ball, leading to a 150-85 victory. His outpouring came without the benefit of the 3-point line or the shot clock of today’s game.

“With today’s rules, I probably could have scored 135 in a game,” he said in an ESPN biography.

See what I mean about his ego?

The 1953-54 season was Francis’ last. He said he was leaving Rio Grande to support his wife and son. 

Wow. He gave up the game he loved for his family.

The university said he had been expelled for absences and academic reasons.

One last thing; you're probably wondering where he got the name "Bevo." Was that a distinguished old Ohio family name or something?

Clarence Francis was born on Sept. 4, 1932, in Hammondsville, Ohio. His nickname, Bevo, came from his father’s favorite brand of near beer.

Will Holt, who wrote...

...the Latin-tinged folk song “Lemon Tree,” died at age 86. From his obit in the Times:

His most enduring song, “Lemon Tree,” was written in Chicago in the late 1950s for a nightclub act he was performing with Dolly Jonah, his wife at the time. The melody was adapted from a Brazilian song, “Meu Limão, Meu Limoeiro,” and it retained its samba-like lilt. Mr. Holt’s lyric tells of a father’s warning about the vicissitudes of love, invoking the title as a metaphor:

Lemon tree very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet

But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.

Catnip for folk singers of the era (and others, subsequently), the song was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, Chad and Jeremy, the Seekers and Trini Lopez. It was appropriated for a television commercial for Pledge, a lemon-scented wood furniture cleaner. 

And made its way into this episode of Seinfeld

Thursday, June 4, 2015

There's been a lot...

...of Sturm und Drang in the 2016 presidential race lately. 

On the Republican side, donors are worried about Jeb. Can the former governor of Florida overcome W.'s legacy? Will he ever learn how to answer a tough question? Is Scott Walker leading in the early polls? Is Marco Rubio coming up fast along the rail? Or is Rand Paul? And who will, and won't, be in the first Republican debate in two months?

As for the Democrats, will Hillary's email and Clinton Foundation "scandals" stick? Will she ever meet the press? Will President Obama's approval ratings prove to be a drag on the Democratic ticket? Is Bernie Sanders for real? 

And blah, blah, blah...

But do you know what hasn't changed? The betting and prediction markets. Over there it's the same old, same old: Hillary still beats Jeb in 2016.

P. S. We'll let you know when that changes.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

When I hear Gov. Bruce Rauner...

...speak, I have to admit: this guy is smooth.

I have no trouble believing Rauner made almost a billion dollars over the years. He could sell snow to the Eskimos! I mean, the indigenous peoples who have traditionally inhabited the northern circumpolar regions of North America and parts of Greenland and northeast Siberia.

But is Gov. Rauner really, as he seems to say here, the champion of the middle class? The "workin' families"? Does he represent "the people of the state, the taxpayers, the homeowners, the schoolchildren and their parents, small business owners, truck drivers, factory workers, plumbers and carpenters?"

Or does Bruce Rauner have a different constituency?

(By the way, I don't doubt for a minute that Michael Madigan and John Cullerton aren't as pure as the driven snow; in fairness, they and their Democratic colleagues got Illinois into the mess it's in. And only an honest, fair-minded Democrat, a la Jerry Brown in California, can get us out.)

But, as John McCarron writes in the Chicago Tribune, "For fortunate few, status quo in Illinois is just fine" (my emphasis):

At the top is Illinois' relatively low, flat-rate state income tax. A feature locked in by the 1970 constitution, the tax allows our highest-paid corporate executives to pay at the same rate — newly reduced to 3.75 percent — as the workers who scrub their floors and mow their lawns. Can't beat that.

Then there's the way Illinois funds its public schools — with a system that ties available funding to the assessed value of real estate in one's school district. This way, in Winnetka, where the governor raised his kids, the high school district last year was able to spend $21,372 per student. How sweet is that?

Property taxes up there are a backdoor bargain, you see, because most homeowners can deduct them from their federally taxable incomes. The higher your property taxes and the higher your federal tax bracket, the bigger your discount. And you wondered why there's rarely a tax revolt along the North Shore.

Then there's the way Illinois taxes corporations. The corporate income tax used to be levied against company profits using a formula that also considered the value of its property and the number of its in-state employees — the better to gauge a company's use of state services. But in 2001, to make Illinois "more competitive," this was changed so as to tax only those profits gained from sales in Illinois. Our multinational firms cheered (think Caterpillar, Deere, Boeing, etc.) but our state annually loses multimillions.

That "reform" plus other handouts have lowered the share of state income taxes paid by corporations from about 20 percent in 1970 to about 15 percent last year. Actually the majority of Illinois corporations pay no income tax. Nada. Zero. Then again, many are small "Chapter S" corporations whose owners pay tax on their profits as individuals. They also tend to drive really nice, tax-deductible cars.

I actually think Gov. Rauner is a sincere guy who believes what he says. Of course he thinks looking out for the richest one percent is the way to go -- it conforms with his worldview. But when the governor speaks, you have to ask yourself: Is he really looking out for people like me, or as John McCarron writes, the fortunate few?

The situation is "dire," according...

...to a recent article in the New York Times, "Pensions and Politics Fuel Crisis in Illinois." 

That characterization should come as no surprise to anyone who lives around here. From the piece (my emphasis):

The state faces a range of problems. Illinois has one of the worst-funded pension systems in the nation, [estimated to be more than $100 billion short]. Chicago also has a pension crisis, leading Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade its credit rating to junk status on May 12, potentially threatening the city’s ability to borrow.

And the state faces an expected budget deficit of $6 billion, which it needs to address quickly. With just days before a legislative deadline, the new Republican governor, who ran on cutting costs and holding down taxes, is at odds with Democrats who hold a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature.

[Chicago] is facing about $20 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, an additional $550 million yearly pension payment it must start making next year, and a school system that has a $1 billion deficit of its own, underfunded pensions and a new contract for teachers under negotiation.

Hoo boy! We're in trouble. What are we going to do? Some people around here are even using the "B" word -- bankruptcy.

Now while I don't know how this is all going to play out, I do know that California faced a similarly "dire" fiscal crisis just a few years ago. After Jerry Brown was elected governor in 2010, the state took the "unusual" step of cutting spending and raising taxes. 

Could Illinois do the same thing?

First a little perspective: the state of Illinois has the fifth-largest economy in the United States. That's right -- Illinois generates about $720 billion a year in GDP. (That's billion, with a "B.") Every year. That's about the same as the economies of Saudi Arabia or the Netherlands.

As for Chicago, the city alone generates about $570 billion a year in goods and services (again, billion), roughly equivalent to the state of New Jersey or the entire country of Sweden.

So while Illinois' pension shortfall of $100 billion and Chicago's $20 billion are certainly eye-popping numbers, they don't seem so "dire" when you consider the amount of wealth created by the state's and the city's economies.

Does Illinois and the city of Chicago have the ability to pay its bills? Of course! Maybe we all just need to take a deep breath.

Monday, June 1, 2015

It was a year ago today...

...that we moved into our new home. Tempus fugit!

On the other hand, what if...

...Dennis Hastert is found not guilty? He is innocent until proven guilty, right?

From today's Times, "Hastert’s Name Removed by Alma Mater" (my emphasis):

The alma mater of J. Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, announced on Sunday that it had scrubbed his name from the school’s public policy center, after his indictment on charges that he lied to the F.B.I. about financial transactions he made to cover up past sexual misconduct.

Wheaton College, the Christian liberal arts school in Illinois where Mr. Hastert graduated in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, made the decision after his federal indictment on Thursday.

“In light of the charges and allegations that have emerged, the college has redesignated the center as the Wheaton College Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy at this time,” the school said in a news release that was updated on Sunday. The center had been called the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy.

“We commit ourselves to pray for all involved, including Speaker Hastert, his family and those who may have been harmed by any inappropriate behavior,” the statement said.

And what if it's all just a big misunderstanding? Again, Mr. Hastert is innocent until proven guilty, right? While I understand it's common practice to put distance between an institution and someone under indictment, what if Mr. Hastert is indeed innocent? Will Wheaton College reinstate his name to the school’s public policy center? How awkward would that be? Why not just wait and see how things play out? The center was established in 2007; what difference does a few more days or weeks mean? Why the rush to judgement?