Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Free markets are the “the new communism of our age”, says Chirac.

This is the leader of the conservative party in France.

That's what he said before the EU constitution was voted down by the French, when blocking the Services Directive that would have opened the continental market to the provision of services across national borders in Europe.

(Now, after the vote, his people are warning that he will be "less co-operative and less European-minded than before”. )

And people wonder what's wrong with Europe...

Monday, May 30, 2005

Girls just want to have a $3,250 apartment for $500.

Cindi Lauper and her husband willingly paid rent of $3,250 a month to get their West End luxury-building apartment -- but now are suing to invoke the city's rent control laws to have their rent knocked down to $508, retroactively back to 1992, with a 13-year rebate of the difference.

An appeals court reduced their rent to $989 but they say that's not enough (or still too much) so now they are appealing to the state's highest court.

The next time someone tells you rent control is needed to help the poor, ask about the means-testing provisions.

As a NY state citizen and taxpayer, it's nice to know that the resources of my state's top appeals courts are being used to determine just how deeply below market level the rent of the celebrity rich should be.

Charter schools excel in New York City
Charter school students outscored their peers on recent reading tests - giving new ammunition to advocates pressing to open more of the experimental schools.

Fourteen of the 20 city charter schools with fourth or eighth grades posted higher scores than nearby public schools, according to an analysis by the New York Center for Charter School Excellence.

The results were particularly strong for charter school eighth-graders, who managed scores 16 percentage points above the citywide average...
[NY Daily News]
The New York Times, ever skeptical of criticism of public schools, ran its own analysis of the same numbers ... and agreed:

The analysis performed for The Times on test results for charter school students produced results that were similar to those released this week by the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, a nonprofit group that advocates for charter schools.

A higher proportion of fourth graders scored at grade level in 11 of the 16 charter elementary schools than did fourth grade students in the surrounding public school district, the group's analysis determined, as did eighth graders in 5 of the 6 charter middle schools.

Among the reasons for the strong performance of charter school students are the schools' flexibility on scheduling and instruction, their ability to hire and fire staff based on performance "and a relentless focus on student outcomes," said Kristen Kane, chief executive of the office of new schools in the city's Education Department.

The reading tests' results for both the fourth and eighth grades indicate "that having charter schools as an additional option for children and families is really valuable," Ms. Kane said. "The results we're seeing so far are indicating that this option is a very powerful one"....

More bad news for the teachers unions.

Vouchers, charter schools ... and now, when their students don't learn, tutoring is being outsourced to India.

Like water wearing down rock, eventually innovation and competition will overcome.

The French reject the constitution of the European Union

People often do the right thing for the wrong reasons...

The "no" vote was urged by a disparate array of forces, including the far-right of Jean-Marie Le Pen, nationalist Eurosceptics, Communists and Trotskyists, dissident Socialists under former prime minister Laurent Fabius, and anti-globalisation groups ...

Many ordinary voters caught the message that the constitution would open up France to cheap competition from eastern Europe and lead to "dumping" as norms of social protection are dragged downwards. Some saw a "no" vote as a way of blocking Turkish entry to the EU, even though the issue is not in the text....

... as well as the right ones... is also clear that many voters used the referendum to punish his [Chirac's] government -- which they blame for 10.2 percent unemployment, falling real wages and the crisis of confidence in the country's future... [AFP]

Sunday, May 29, 2005

King Fahd is dead but getting better.

Sources in Saudi Arabia say the King died last Wednesday, although his health is improving.

Francisco Franco's condition remains stable.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

"We're Number 1! ... We're Number 1!" is now the #1 web page of 91,289 produced by MSN Search for the search "youngest legal porn on the net".

It's great to be #1 at anything ... but if I was Bill, I'd be looking for a whole new team of search algorithm writers.

Excellent analysis on Social Security.

To get past all the superficial sound-bite positioning that's inundated us all, read C. Eugene Steuerle's testimony on Social Security before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Steuerle is an economist who served in the Treasury for both Republican and Democratic administrations, and played a significant role in putting together the Tax Reform of 1986, which bi-partisanly lowered tax rates and broadened the tax base -- the best tax law this country has seen in generations, and one that Congress has been hacking away at ever since.

He acutely skips past the red herring arguments about "solvency" and private accounts to get right to the core issue ... with analysis that isn't from either party's camp.

I was going to quote excerpts but can't do it justice that way, so read the whole thing.

When you're done, if you like it, there's more.

Steuerle, in my opinion, has been the best economics-and-government columnist around for a long time. But most of his columns have been locked within the expensive "pay" section at Tax Analysts.

But now the public now has free access to his archives there. They are well worth scanning through. A lot of his older material reads today as prescient rather than dated -- and a lot better than the archive collections of many of the more famous I could name.

IRS pushed yet closer to paying $6 billion in telephone tax refunds.

The IRS has just taken another drubbing on the telephone tax issue -- and this one hurts.

In the last year five federal courts have ruled that the IRS is collecting telephone tax on long distance phone service illegally -- and another has ruled tax on inbound toll-free "800"-type service to be illegal too.

The gist of the matter is that the relevant Tax Code sections, dating back decades, explicitly define calls subject to tax as being those for which a toll charge is determined by "the distance and elapsed transmission time of each individual communication".

But in today's world most long-distance calls are billed otherwise: flat rate, negotiated rate, by time (but not distance), friends-and-family, whatever. In the last year businesses that incur phone charges by such alternate methods have finally started suing the IRS over the issue -- and the courts have ruled one after another that the tax doesn't apply to them and that they are entitled to tax refunds.

Nevertheless, the IRS has stonewalled, insisting that everybody keep paying the tax, and not making even the court-ordered refunds. Its strategy has been to appeal those cases and hope the federal Courts of Appeal will buy its argument that Congress intends to tax all long-distance service, whatever the law actually says, and the mere actual text of the law shouldn't defeat this intent. It's justification for this strategy has been a single victory in a district court where the judge did buy the argument and denied a refund.

Well, the IRS has now gotten its day in appeals court -- and the Eleventh Circuit has struck down its lone victory following the taxpayer's appeal, ordering a $361,000 refund.

So now the IRS is 0 for 7, with the Court of Appeals on the other side. If it barely had one leg to stand on before, it's now down to about one toe. And new cases being filed against it are piling up fast.

One thing that's quite interesting about all this is that with refunds potentially available to near everybody, estimated at a total of $6 billion or more, including five-digit, six-digit and seven-digit refunds for many businesses, there's been nary a word about this story in the mainstream press. So a lot of people are missing the chance to file for refunds that might be right there for the taking, after a little wait. There's a three-year statute of limitations on filing for tax refunds -- so as one delays filing for them potential refund amounts expire.

Think of all the pointless stuff that fills the papers and news channels every day. Whatever happened to "news you can really use"?

Well, if you want to get ready to claim your tax refund you can read more about it here!

Here's the full text (.pdf) of the new Appeals Court decision, which summarizes the holdings of all the cases to date nicely. For more details about the history and likely future politics of all this, "protective refund" strategy, plus a link to fuller professional legal analysis, check here, the original main post here on this.

Send the links to your own tax accountant or lawyer. Tell 'em to get you what you're owed!

Blogging your own murder.

Imagine if your last blog entry were to finger your own killer.

For some reason it brings to mind the classic noir movie D.O.A., with the opening lines in the police station: "I want to report a murder." "Who was murdered?" "I was."

Except that was entertainment. This is real.

What happens when you go up against "The Force"?

You get a new home page.

Courtesy not of the Dark Side, nor the Light Side, but the Mercantile Side. And Darth Lucre ... Lucas.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

An over-long comment responding to a post by Andrew Samwick on Social Security.

Prof. Andrew Samwick has resumed covering the Social Security debate with a number of interesting posts, one of which I started to write a comment for, which -- unsurprisingly considering my tendency towards logorrhea -- ran on far, far too long to fit appropriately in a blog comment box.

What to do? Kill all those words?? Nah, I have space to fill here.

So, FWIW, here is a blog comment meant for there. If this has any interest for you, go read the original post then come back. If not ... have a nice day!

...For me, the debate is becoming less and less about philosophy or efficiency, and more about the inequity of passing such large burdens off to future generations of taxpayers.
Yes, which points out the pointlessness of the “trust fund” mechanism as brought back to life via the ‘83 law changes, to preserve the high positive returns from Social Security to the retirees of that generation, in spite of Social Security then being broke.

The Trustees now project that just servicing the trust funds (including the Medicare one that everyone overlooks) that have been consuming everybody’s 15.3% payroll tax bill since then, will require a 35% income tax increase (or equivalent) by 2030 – effectively making the 50-year-olds of the era pay for their benefits twice, first through 3o years of payroll tax payments, then through income taxes for the rest of their lives to reimburse themselves for all their past payroll taxes that went to the trust funds.

This while their Social Security benefits will have negative value relative to payroll taxes paid alone – and will still be 27% underfunded. Talk of intergenerational equity!

Now, I recently watched the video of the polite and even friendly (it’s possible!) Shoven/Orszag debate on Social Security.

In it Orszag shot down Pozen’s graduated indexing idea on the political grounds that Congress simply will never adopt a benefit cut without a matching tax increase – as indeed it did when closing the funding gap in 1983, 50% with benefit cuts (for the then young) and 50% with tax increases. Splitting-the-baby is SOP for Congress, compromise, a fundamental political necessity.

Yet Orszag blithely assumes this new, big, 35% income tax increase will be adopted by Congress (simultaneously with even larger increases for Medicare) with no corresponding compromise benefit cut. Suddenly the very same basic political incentives and SOPs won’t apply, for some unstated reason.

But it's hard for me to see how anyone can believe such huge tax increases for Social Security will just sail through. Not merely because the voters of 2030 won’t want to pay them, but also because once Social Security goes on general revenue in an era when there won’t be near enough to go around and deficits will be surging, every other interest group that relies of general revenue (Agriculuture, Defense, Education, HEW, Medicare, you-name-it) will have licence, and feel a duty, to go after that same money. Social Security will be sacrosanct, “a third rail of politics”, no more. The lobbyists of every other group will have the knives out for it.

In that world, I just can’t imagine that Congress will blithely raise taxes so much on working people to pay unreduced benefits to Bill Gates, the Walton family and all the other wealthy, at the expense of all other programs -- least of all at the insistence of liberals and “progressives”. Their lobbyists won’t stand for it!

It follows that what happened in ’83, and what Orszag predicted about graduated indexing, will happen by 2030 if the status quo remains. Means testing was brought into Social Security in a small, hidden way in ’83 – and split-the-baby legislation coming by 2030 will make it open and a whole lot larger.

Now, we all know what the left is saying today about means testing – but they are just bringing it on themselves, with a vengence, more so later by denying it now.

In other words, the problem with abusing "intergenerational equity" is not merely that it is "unfair", but that the actors of the future will very rationally respond to the abuse by changing the system in ways that we profess we don't want to see. How anyone can endorse this course with the goal of "saving" or "perserving" Social Security is beyond me.

And, if any of the above is true, then the "trust fund" means nothing.

Congress operates on a current cash-flow basis, all political incentives are driven by current cash flow, because that’s what constituents and taxpayers actually feel and respond to. “Actuarial soundness” means nothing to it (as opposed to to accountants and economists).

The trust fund is nothing but a vestigial form whose function has been lost to history. For two years, under FDR’s original funded Social Security scheme, it had a function. But when in 1939 Congress changed Social Security to paygo to seize the current cash flow of the payroll taxes, that function was lost forever – though the form remains, actuaries and economist insist on parsing it for 75 years, and politicians worship it (as some primitive remote Pacific-island tribe might worship the vestigial leg bones of a whale.)

But the trust fund has zero ($0) effect on cash flow – and when the 35% income tax increase for it arrives by 2030, and people see themselves paying twice for the same benefits, it’s going to have zero effect on preserving Social Security as we know it today, compared to if it didn’t exist. (Maybe less than zero, considering how many people then are likely to feel they have been misled by all the prior claims regarding it.)

A sensible fiscal policy would have the on-budget deficit sum to zero over the business cycle and all long-term entitlement programs to have zero projected long-term actuarial deficits.
Yes, indeed -- but these are two separate propositions. Good luck on the first!

As to the second, the only way to actually have zero projected long-term actuarial deficits in benefit programs is by funding them with real economic savings, in private accounts or otherwise, as private sector qualified retirement plans do (or are supposed to do).

But this is unattractive to politicians because it has cash flow cost to them, makes the expense of promised benefits clear, and destroys the illusion that they are "giving" voters something – as opposed to voters paying for it themselves.

So politicians much prefer funding with lockboxes (Social Security) or, best of all, nothing at all! (Medicare parts B & D).

Imagine if Ted Kennedy had tried to get Medicare enacted by saying: “And this is the tax bill we are going to hit you with right now to fully advance fund the benefits you won’t receive for many years on an actuarially sound basis, and this is how much the bill will go up every year in the future, look and see…"

Medicare today probably would hardly be the same! ;-)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Fifty million missing Asian women are found...

... and the credibility of child psychologists takes a beating too, all via one short article by Dubner & Levitt at Slate.

Hey, why is it individual economists who first note all these women are missing, and then go get the explanation?

Shouldn't the World Health Organization and other such big, official, tax-dollar financed agencies notice population discrepancies running in eight and nine digits?

They can't afford to occasionally hire an economist to do a little freelance analysis for them?

Smart Criminal of the Week.

I know it's only Wednesday, but ...
In perhaps the easiest feat of detection in NYPD history, Brooklyn cops collared a suspect yesterday in their own police station -- where he was standing in front of his own wanted poster.

Awley "Chuckey" Hernandez, maybe the world's dumbest crook, had walked into the station to ask about his accomplice -- who was posed next to him on the poster...
[NY Post]

"The pipeline that will change the world"

Maybe so ... but I doubt it.

Science discovers the secret to long-lasting, happy marriage.

Both spouses are delusional.

E-mailed here by Roland Patrick, apparently (since he didn't deem this fit for his own blog) as an act of malicious gloating.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Mankiw speaks about Krugman, Rove, deficits and a lot more.

The former head of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors talks to Fortune.

Star Wars

Best lines of the series, as reported to me by my kids:

"Luke, I am your father."

"Oh .. so that means you'll be paying my college costs. And Leia's too."


Best review:
Sith. What kind of a word is that? Sith. It sounds to me like the noise that emerges when you block one nostril and blow through the other... [The New Yorker]

Oh, well ... there's always Store Wars.

Why, of course I support nationalized health care...

... because who else but a government agency is going to give Viagra to convicted sexual predators on parole?
Medicaid is providing Viagra to nearly 200 of the state's worst sexual predators, under a federal program that has outraged local lawmakers, according to a new government report.

Among those receiving Medicaid-reimbursed Viagra after being convicted of a sexual crime was a fiend who preyed on a 2-year-old, and a criminal who attacked a 90-year-old woman, the report says.

"The whole purpose of Viagra is to increase sexual performance, is to increase libido, is to increase blood flow, to increase the capacity of the user of the medication to perform sexually," said state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, whose office released the study...

Those receiving the drug have been convicted of everything from first-degree rape to sexual touching, and are Level 3 offenders — who, under state criminal guidelines, are those deemed most likely to commit crimes again.

During a review of Medicaid pharmacy spending, Hevesi's auditors matched Viagra recipients with the names of Level 3 offenders on the Internet and discovered that some were receiving the prescription drug and were being reimbursed by Medicaid for the expense.

The review did not include the names of Level 1 and Level 2 offenders, whose names are not required to be listed on the Internet.

It is just mind-boggling to think that Level 3 sexual offenders can get Viagra, which may indeed help them perpetrate other horrible crimes," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

"And what we know about Level 3 offenders is this: They almost never change. They're almost never rehabilitated."

Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro said she has prosecuted sex offenders who used Viagra before preying on their victims.

"That Medicaid would pay for this is an outrage," Pirro said...

Hevesi has asked Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to change federal distribution policies of the drug.

In 1998, the department informed states that Medicaid programs covering prescription drugs must also cover Viagra when medically necessary, or face financial sanctions.
[NY Post]
Let's extend this quality management to the entire health care system as soon as possible!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Paul Krugman endorses a 129% income tax increase for us all.

Interviewed in the Asia Times, Paul Krugman endorses tax increases for the US:

"We should be getting 28% of GDP [gross domestic product] in revenue. We are only collecting 17%."
Let's put this in some perspective:

Total federal income taxes in 2004 were 8.5% of GDP, so Krugman is saying we should have a 129% income tax increase -- for individuals, businesses, everyone -- or the equivalent. Today, for starters.

But the deficit today is only 3.5% of GDP -- so a tax increase of 11% of GDP would produce a surplus of 7.5% of GDP.

What to do with the new huge surplus? Back to the trust funds!

We, ahem, "save" the surplus for future use by depositing trillions of dollars of new bonds in the resurgent Social Security and Medicare trust funds, with confidence in their brand new polished lock boxes -- since Congress would never, ever boost spending to consume a big inflow of new tax revenue, as both fiscal history from the Social Security Act of 1939 through the fate of the surplus of the 2000s and the scholarship of Kent Smetters (.pdf) assure us!

Then, think of how we'll later all be able to enjoy the the extra income taxes beyond the 129% increase that will be needed a generation from now to pay off the gazillions of trust fund bonds!

Hey, when a financing scheme for social programs proves itself a total abject failure once...

"... each dollar of Social Security surplus appears to have actually increased the debt held by the public in the past by $1.76." [Smetters]
... the lesson is -- let's multiply it!! We can't possibly do enough of it!!

And as an afterthought, hasn't Krugman been writing relentlessly for the last few years about the US's weak economic performance, the "return of stagflation", poor employment, and all that?

Yet he wants a 129% income tax hike and 7.5%-of-GDP surplus?

Has the term "fiscal drag" been deleted from the NeoKeynesian vocabulary?

Sex ... sex ... sex

It came from outer space. 'Nuff said.

Porn movies for fish.
... biologist Brian Langerhans of Washington University in St. Louis managed to put a tape on 350 male mosquitofish. Langerhans took pictures of the gonopodia to measure their outlines. "The organ is quite obvious, even on such small fish," he told LiveScience.

Data in hand, Langerhans exposed about 50 females, one at a time, to video images of a male of average proportions at one end of an aquarium and an outsized male at the other end.

"They chose the larger one over and over," Langerhans said. "All females had the same preference."...
I bet they did, so much for the idea they don't. And so much for females not liking dirty videos.

Well-fed Crickets Seek Sex Incessantly, Die Young

But that's only male crickets, of course.

Females on the higher-protein diet lived longer, with no notable side effects.
Seems about right.

Welcome to the major leagues.

The California Angels' highly-touted rookie pitcher Ervin Santana made his major league debut this past week -- and while throwing his first 10 pitches the first four batters he faced hit for the cycle: single, double, triple, and home run.
The Elias Bureau [keeper of baseball statistics] says it will require exhaustive research to determine if any other pitcher ever gave up a cycle to the first four batters faced... [NY Daily News]
Apparently setting an all-time record with his very first appearance!

Welcome to The Show.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

News of the Zimbabwe economy that the NY Times deems not fit to print.

The NY Times on Saturday ran a three-column Page One story on the collapse of the economy in Zimbabwe that is truly remarkable for what it does not say.

It openly enough describes of the collapse of the currency, rising unemployment, hyperinflation, famine .... but there is not one word as to the real reason why all this is occurring. It's all is if, well, it just happened, bad luck...
For years, of course, Zimbabwe's economy has been a chewing-gum and baling-wire affair...
... with not a word about how Zimbabwe actually started as a rich African country that was a net food exporter through the 1990s.

And not a word of how since then, Robert Mugabe, arguably the worst dictator in Africa, if not the worst in the entire world today not named "Kim", has intentionally destroyed the economy to consolidate all political power in his Marxist, nationalist, regime of thugs. To the point of using induced famine as a political weapon -- since it enables his party to cut off food to those who don't support it.

The Economist is more willing to candidly describe reality...
Not a ruling-party member? No food

Politics has had a particularly pernicious role in Zimbabwe, which has stopped being a net grain exporter and is desperately hungry...

The invasion of commercial farms by supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party discouraged farmers from planting and harvesting. Artificially low prices encouraged the hoarding of food, or its smuggling to other countries. With foreign exchange short, importers are struggling to get food to the towns, where shops are bare and malnutrition is spreading...

Making matters much worse, Zimbabwe's government is keeping food from suspected supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Physicians for Human Rights, a relief group, says that officials demand ZANU-PF party cards from anyone registering for "food for work" schemes, as well as from those buying cheap maize from public warehouses.

In some rural schools, food is withheld from children whose families are identified as opposition supporters.
But it's not just food... it's everything ...
[Mugabe's] pensions-grab is almost as daring as his land-grab. Private pension funds are obliged to "invest" 45% of their assets in treasury bills that pay 25% a year. Since inflation is 114%, this amounts to confiscation.

To recap: an illegitimate government is stealing its people's life savings to keep itself in power, so that it can continue implementing its ruinous policies. It is as if someone took out a mortgage on your house and used the cash to pay thugs to burn it down.

If the intention is to revert to a feudal society, where peasants scratch a mean subsistence and can be thrown off their land at the whim of their political overlords, Mr Mugabe is doing well.
Why not a word of any of this in the Times? In a story about the Zimbabwe economy this is a material omission -- in fact, it is the very heart of any good, true story about this economy. To omit any and all reference to such must be an intentional editorial decision.

Is it political correctness gone beyond the pale? Be kind to ruthless, murderous dictators if they are black?

I wouldn't want to think so ... but it brings to mind how Boris Johnson, himself editor of Britain's Spectator, once related a very amusing tale about all the effort involved in getting an op-ed written for the Times past its PC police. Part of which...
I had said something to the effect that you don't make international law by giving new squash courts to the President of Guinea. This now read 'the President of Chile.' Come again? I said. Qué?

'Uh, Boris,' said Tobin, 'it's just easier in principle if we don't say anything deprecatory about a black African country, and since Guinea and Chile are both members of the UN Security Council, and since it doesn't affect your point, we would like to say Chile.' In the end, I gave way on this, since it was getting cold and I was worried about the battery of my mobile. But my views of the NY Times were starting to evolve.

How craven and mealy-mouthed can you get? Why is a mild insult more bearable because it is directed at a crisis-ridden Latin American country, rather than a crisis-ridden African country?

Is it, heaven forfend, because one country is Hispanic and the other is black?...
Could this really be it? The Times editorial policy of not saying "anything deprecatory about a black African country" extends to not mentioning anything that might offend Robert Mugabe?

Fortunately, elsewhere in the world there are journalists reporting on the Zimbabwe economy who are not so mealy mouthed.

Dan Okrent says a fond goodbye to the Times OpEd writers.

The NY Times' departing public editor takes leave of the job with some parting thoughts...
13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did

2. Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.

Maureen Dowd was still writing that Alberto R. Gonzales "called the Geneva Conventions 'quaint' " nearly two months after a correction in the news pages noted that Gonzales had specifically applied the term to Geneva provisions about commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments.

Before his retirement in January, William Safire vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to possess.

No one deserves the personal vituperation that regularly comes Dowd's way, and some of Krugman's enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. But that doesn't mean that their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., shouldn't hold his columnists to higher standards.

I didn't give Krugman, Dowd or Safire the chance to respond before writing the last two paragraphs. I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist.
And another thought...

5. Reader Steven L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., asks, If "Tucker Carlson is identified as a conservative" in The Times, then why is "Bill Moyers just, well, plain old Bill Moyers"?

Good question.


Friday, May 20, 2005

The "Wexler Plan" shows the bind the Democrats are in over Social Security.

To score a very short term political victory over President Bush (for once) the Democrats now have put themselves in what figures to be a very unpleasant box for the long-term by denying both benefit cuts and real economic investments as reform options for Social Security.

By simple arithmetic that leaves only one remaining possible option: big tax increases -- on top of the other big tax increase already in the pipeline for Social Security and Medicare: a 35% income tax increase on individuals, businesses, everyone (or the equivalent) by 2030 just to finance the operation of the trust funds, plus even bigger and perpetually rising tax increases for Medicare.

So the Democratic party's position today is simply "tax hikes on top of tax hikes" -- which will still leave Social Security participants of the future losing money to it, getting negative returns, even worse than today in fact.

This is represented by the one and only proposal to do anything about Social Security's finances to come from any Democratic politician to date -- that by Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida to impose a new 6% payroll tax on all wages above the $90,000 wage base currently subject to Social Security tax.

The financial results that this would produce for the voters in Rep. Wexler's own Florida district are presented by the good folks at Real Clear Politics, who ask: when those voters finally catch on, how popular is this going to be?

And Wexler's proposed tax increase isn't nearly enough. Remember how Paul Krugman said he opposes extending the full 12.4% payroll tax to cover all payroll because it would make people feel like they've already paid a big tax increase -- thus making it harder to get the real tax increases that are needed! The tax increase that Krugman dismisses there as too small is more than twice the size of Wexler's.

I've been asking here all along about this subject: how politically short-sighted can the Democrats be?

Today, with Social Security still pulling in net revenue for the government, it's easy for them to posture against every proposed reform -- and against benefit cuts for the rich in particular.

But for the future it's the iron law of arithmetic: Social Security is more than 25% underfunded in the long run (not counting the trillions that must be raised to service the trust fund) and as long as it remains "paygo" the only ways to close the funding gap are by raising taxes or cutting benefits -- specifically, cutting benefits for the rich (as nobody is ever going to propose cutting benefits for the poor first, to preserve benefits for the rich.)

Come the 2020s and later, if you don't cut benefits for the rich you will have to raise taxes to make payments to the rich -- there is no way around it.

So the Democrats have placed themselves in the policy box labeled "Raise Taxes on Workers to Finance Transfers To The Rich." And when the day comes that they actually have to vote to it, how popular is that going to be ... among liberals and progressives in particular?

Remember, we're not talking about a time 75 years or 50 years from now, but one well within the working lives of millions of people working today. These workers of today are going to be told then to pony up these tax increases to reimburse the trust fund for the payroll taxes they've already paid over their entire working lives -- in exchange for benefits that will be worth less than just the payroll taxes alone. How popular is that going to be?

If I was a Democrat politician under the age of 45, and thus hoping to still have a viable political career twenty years from now, I'd be actively considering private accounts plus any and all other viable reform options as a way out of this box -- and looking to implement reform as soon as possible too, to minimize its costs both economic and political.

But as things are, 20-odd years from now the tax bills to finance Social Security are going to start arriving in force, and as they do the voters of then are going to remember the mantra of the Democrats of today: "Social Security is just fine even if we do nothing at all for forty years. We've a Trust Fund to pay it!"

And the Democrats of then are going to be put in the position of having to explain this past mantra of theirs by saying...

"Of course, when we told you back then that we needed to do nothing at all for 40 years to preserve Social Security, what we meant by 'nothing at all' was: (a) raising your taxes by one whole lot, or (b) cutting your benefits by the same whole lot -- in spite of our specifically promising never do it, or (c) a combination of both, in only 20 years.

"But you knew that! The arithmetic was perfectly clear then. How can you possibly be upset at us now -- just because your income taxes have risen 80% before the Social Security trust fund has even run out? After all, the Social Security Trustees said they would, way back in 2004, so you knew ..."

And the political question of the day then will be: do the Democrats find a means of avoiding going the way of the Whigs?

Note: Real Clear Politics was a favorite web site during election season -- Viking Pundit reminded us here to visit it between elections too.

Tell us what you really think ....

.. about the new Britney Spears reality TV show:

Variety: "A self-indulgent, mindless piece of drivel ... a visual assault of nauseating camera angles, likely to upset even the most desensitized TV viewer ... makes Jessica and Nick look like Mensa candidates."

The Washington Post: "There's no danger of anyone ever dumbing it down. A dumber downer would potentially be lethal. It would have to be buried in lead for 10,000 years, like nuclear waste ... An execrable mess by absolutely any standard..."

Entertainment Weekly: "Career suicide by videocam ... [all via]

On the other hand, the NY Post loved it -- for all the very same reasons. Which is why I love the Post.

My celebrity match...

Either Kate Capshaw (look out Steven Speilberg!) or Dennis Miller, say the biorhythms.

It depends. Is this for romance or downing beers?

(Tim Worstall should've made that clear.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

And I've thought I've had bad days...

... the New York Times Magazine ... had a special issue on exploration over the last thousand years, during the millennial year. I did the back page of it, which was 'The 10 Worst Moments in the History of Exploration.' And so I was looking into these awful things ...

You know, there's this Canadian Arctic explorer who was entombed, he crawled into a place to sleep for the night, and he woke up and it had turned into a solid ice tomb. He ended up having to use his own excrement to fashion it into a chisel, and he chiseled his way out and they had to amputate his toes ...
[John Tierney]
"I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes. Then I met a man who had no toes and a feces chisel..."

"The plight of have-not blacks in America's urban ghettos" should truly be blamed on...

...the Highland Scots, says Thomas Sowell (as reported by William Raspberry).

Fortunately for my conscience, granddad came from Edinburgh -- a city Scot, like Adam Smith and David Hume ... so don't blame my family, anyone.

It's global cooling again.
The last major glacial thaw was 10,000 years ago, which means that the Earth is scheduled to head into another ice age. [livescience]
No ... wait ... it's global warming causing global cooling...

So if we go back to hunting and gathering we'll soon be buried under ice, while if we build our fires to stay warm we'll be buried under ice sooner.

We humans just can't win.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Schizophrenic? Or just on the cell phone?

Back when I was growing up on the streets of New York City, if you saw a person speaking animatedly all by his lone self on the sidewalk you carefully walked around, leaving ample room between, preferably via the other side of the street. The deranged were out there.

Today, of course, when you see someone talking all alone on the street the person's probably just on a hands-free cell phone with the microphone dangling or on a lapel or some such.

Earlier this evening when I stepped out of the building where I live onto the street there were eight -- I counted, eight -- bobbing heads all talking on cell phones in all the directions around me, to my left, my right, and crossing the street coming right at me. It was like I'd stepped into a hive ... or an advertisement, or some other strange thing. Everybody I could see was on a cell phone. I thought.

The thing is, the deranged are still out there. It might have been only seven people on cell phones, with the eighth headed right for me ... and how would I have known?

Progress always brings its own new dangers.

Think about it the next time you walk by a person who's using a hands-free cell phone, you think.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Krugman versus Krugman, on economists who pontificiate in public about military matters pretending to know something about them...

Paul Krugman:
.. the Iraq war has, instead, demonstrated the limits of American power, and emboldened our potential enemies ... At this point, the echoes of Vietnam are unmistakable ... Meanwhile, America's strategic position is steadily deteriorating ... America has been taken hostage ... the American military isn't just bogged down in Iraq; it's deteriorating under the strain. We may already be in real danger ... something has to give. We either need a much bigger army - which means a draft - or we need to find a way out of Iraq ... [5/16/05]
Paul Krugman:
I do not think of myself as an all-purpose pundit. I remember once (during the air phase of the Gulf War) seeing John Kenneth Galbraith making pronouncements on TV about the military situation, and telling friends that if I ever start pontificating in public about a technical subject I don't understand, they should gag me. [4/1/99]
Man, it's tough when your friends let you down!

Do we need evidence of Krugman's deep expertise on the "technical" aspects of military and strategic affairs? Well, we can start with his...

We either need a much bigger army - which means a draft
... that somehow overlooks the obscure fact that during the Cold War the military was a million men larger than today-- that's two-thirds larger -- without a draft (as is pointed out by Roland Patrick every time Krugman repeats this howler.)

How "technical" is that?

When Krugman's mastery of military analysis doesn't even reach that far ... really, there's a reason why his friends shouldn't let him don a mitre to make pronouncements on it public.

The thing is that Krugman used to ridicule experts in military and strategic affairs who voiced opinions on economics and trade -- Edward Luttwak comes to mind -- specifically for their conceit in believing that knowleddge of their own field translated into any sort of understanding of economics.

But now Krugman the economist -- who doesn't know even literally the first thing about the volunteer military, the history of its size -- deems himself expert on the limits of American military and strategic capabilities.

"... the echoes of Vietnam are unmistakable ..."
Even though he can't get past the lamest of unthinking clichés.

Vietnam? If Krugman's study of military affairs extened just to reading the newspaper he writes in, he'd have read this comparison of Iraq and Vietnam...

American forces in Iraq have often been accused of being slow to apply hard lessons from Vietnam and elsewhere about how to fight an insurgency. Yet, it seems from the outside, no one has shrugged off the lessons of history more decisively than the insurgents themselves.

The insurgents in Iraq are showing little interest in winning hearts and minds among the majority of Iraqis, in building international legitimacy, or in articulating a governing program or even a unified ideology or cause beyond expelling the Americans. They have put forward no single charismatic leader, developed no alternative government or political wing, displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern now...

Rather than employing the classic rebel tactic of provoking the foreign forces to use clumsy and excessive force and kill civilians, they are cutting out the middleman and killing civilians indiscriminately themselves...

Counter-insurgency experts are baffled ...."Instead of saying, 'What's the logic here, we don't see it,' you could speculate, there is no logic here," said Anthony James Joes, a professor of political science at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and the author of several books on the history of guerrilla warfare. The attacks now look like "wanton violence," he continued.

"And there's a name for these guys: Losers. The insurgents are doing everything wrong now," he said...[NY Times]
Does that really sound like an "echo of Vietnam", Paul?

Krugman has become everything he used to mock.

"Paul Krugman, America's heir apparent to J.K. Galbraith" -- The Guardian.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Straws in the wind about the day when taxes will have to go up a lot to finance Social Security and Medicare.

Some lessons from the highway trust fund for the Social Security trust fund, via John Tierney.

Meanwhile, over in France, where workers work fewer days per year than just about anywhere else in the developed world, you may remember how an estimated 15,000 elderly and handicapped died during a heat wave in 2003 due to lack or resources and programs to care for them.

In response the government passed a law revoking one work holiday -- Pentecost (it is supposed to be secular government, after all) -- with the value of the work day being being captured by a 0.3% tax on all employers and contributed to a fund created to benefit the elderly and handicapped, to finance programs to prevent such a societal disaster from ever happening again.

And what's been the reaction of French workers and unions to this call to work one day more to provide resources to help the elderly? "Non! Non! Strike!" [NY Times]

This while here in the US we keep on being told there'll be "no problem" with increasing income taxes by a mere 63% by 2030 to fund Social Security and Medicare, with the tax bill rising indefinitely thereafter.

Well, good for us, US workers are much more generous than French workers towards the elderly. No doubt.

First Manhattan stagecoach accident of the century.
In New York's first stagecoach accident of the century, two horses led authorities on a wild and woolly chase yesterday, as they broke loose and charged pell-mell along 14th Street...

The wild incident unfolded around 10 a.m. when the stagecoach the horses were pulling — in a publicity stunt for country singer Shania Twain's new perfume — was rear-ended by a van between Eighth and Ninth avenues.

As the red coach — a genuine Wells Fargo vehicle from the 19th century — tipped over on its gold wheels, the white horses' harnesses broke free. They ran away, dragging their yokes as they charged east...

"There hasn't been a stagecoach accident in New York in a long time," joked police spokesman Lt. Eugene Whyte... [NY Post]
Hey that's where I live -- they coulda hit me!

"I can't make it to work today, I was in a stagecoach accident."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Tax Incentives for Breast Feeding considered by Congress.
The U.S. breast-feeding rate could see some improvement thanks to tax incentives in a new bill introduced on May 5 by Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn.

Nursing mothers packed the crowd at the press conference introducing the Breastfeeding Promotion Act (H.R. 2122), many actively breast-feeding in support.

The bill would give employers up to a 50 percent tax credit for expenses incurred to establish workplace "lactation stations," purchase or rent lactation-related equipment, and hire lactation consultants. It would also make expenses incurred for breastfeeding equipment deductible for individuals as medical care expenses...

Both Shays and Maloney said that assuring a woman's right to express milk in the workplace and removing the stigma from breast- feeding are far more important than the tax portions of the bill. According to Maloney, studies show that children who are not breast-fed have higher rates of contracting numerous illnesses.

"We need to reverse the fact that the United States has one of the lowest breast-feeding rates in the world," Maloney said.

As for objections from the squeamish, "Get a life," Shays said. [Tax Analysts]
Tax subsidies for breast feeding. How Congress works ... what can I say?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Most popular posts -- recap of seven months of blogging.

While this place is on semi-hiatus, here, for what it's worth, is the best of what seven months of blogging has produced -- as measured by what people have chosen to read, forward and link to. (Not including posts on Social Security, which are elsewhere.)

These posts are pretty much in order of how many people have looked at them, and so presumably in general order of interest...

Get your phone bills out -- and get ready to claim a tax refund for your share of $9 billion of illegally collected telephone taxes. (link)

The fifth anniversary of Paul Krugman's first whopper howler in the NY Times. (link)

Good help is hard to find, even you're a real-life Tony Soprano.* (link)

2002: The year the rich got poorer but paid higher tax rates, as the Bush tax cuts proved progressive. (link)

Let's just tax fat people and be done with it. (link)

The question the 9/11 Commission didn't ask. (link)

Entrepreneurial rise-and-fall story: NYC's "Bill Gates of Bathroom Attendants" brought down by justice. (link)

Innovation in radio, tomorrow and yesterday. (link)

When the CSI team is done, who cleans up the bloody mess? (link)

If you're going to flash the cameras, don't be cheap with the surgeon. (link)

The US Supreme Court says lawsuit plaintiffs can lose by winning. (link)

NY Times and top Democrats rally to defend tax break for the rich. (link)

The New York Times: Paper of those who've never been in a subway, and protector of the public purse -- when its own hand isn't in it. (link)

* Somehow, as a result of this lone test post made before this blog even got started -- when it was getting only 4 hits a day -- this site became the #3 Google hit on mobster Joe Massino half a year later. Go figure.


There you are, a baker's dozen, and all there'll be for a while. I hope you found something among them worth reading.

The less posted here, the more people like it. Taking the hint, I'm off on semi-hiatus.

While not posting here for ten days (the result of various real life distractions, not least an attempt by my doctors to kill me) what happens? Hits surge steadily upward to a new high. Never posting again might really make blogads pay.

Well, I'm not that disciplined, but do expect to be on semi-hiatus for a while as the real world impinges on 'net life. This site also needs a good rethink, looking for ways to post more efficiently material of more lasting value, rather than just a series of ephemeral posts of the day, all soon forgotten.

That's been fun enough for these past several months, and it has been rewarding to watch the number of visitors here rise from absolute zero to a slightly more than zero to noticeably more than zero with no marketing at all on my part other than a few "carnival" posts -- so thanks to all who have visited and linked and gotten others to drop by.

But considering the real-dollar opportunity cost to the self-employed of time spent blogging, a blog in end has to be either more substantial or less substantial than this one. So we'll see. (If only I was a tenured professor...)

Not that I have the willpower to quit blogworld cold turkey. I've got the posting addiction and would probably just end up back on usenet -- and then I'd have to kill myself.

So ... be seeing you. If only intermittently for a while.

Until then, right below is a recap of the most popular posts on this site to date. For what they're worth...

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Why are these people smiling? A civilized debate about Social Security??

It is possible to debate Social Security without name calling, and even with the parties acting as if they actually like each other personally.

Here's proof on video: John Shoven of Stanford, co-author of one of my favorite books on the history, politics and economics of Social Security and a strong proponent of private accounts, versus Peter Orszag of MIT, co-author of the only actual plan from the Democratic side to preserve Social Security as much as possible as is.

(Not that you could call his a "Democratic" plan as no Democratic politician I know of has endorsed it, being that it calls for both tax increases and benefit cuts, as any paygo solution for Social Security must. But it is refreshing to see someone from the Democratic side actually admit there are problems with Social Security that need to be dealt with.)

Those smiles are unnerving.

Paul Krugman inadvertently puts his finger on "The Key Problem of Modern Liberalism".

Paul Krugman has written his 500th column for the Times, a noted achievement. (Remember how he started?)

Then came # 501, slamming Congress's "scandalous", special-interest-driven maladministration of Medicare and health programs in general -- as part of his continuing campaign arguing for national health care!

Hello? Who does he think would control and design national health care?

Which brought to mind how Krugman's good friend Professor Brad DeLong posted on his blog some time back...
The Key Problem of Modern Liberalism

How can one support the idea of an activist government when half the time that government will be run by malevolent or incompetent Republicans?...
Prof. DeLong didn't mention in his post that the other half of the time the government will be run by niave, bungling, incompetent Democrats -- although elsewhere he himself documented the Democrats' calamitous meltdown from ineptitude on national health care itself when they were at their height of their power for a generation, with control of the Presidency, House and Senate, and no malevolent Republicans anywhere in the power loop to blame.

So if you are a DeLong/Krugman/liberal "expand the government" type here's your admitted "key problem" : Fully 100% of the time the government is run by special-interest-driven, malevolent, incompetent Republicans and/or special-interest-driven, bungling, even-more-incompetent (if less malevolent) Democrats.

Your solution to this "key problem": None. (Prof. DeLong sure didn't offer any.)

Your policy prescription: Ignore the problem, expand the government, and believe having special-interest-driven, incompetent, often malevolent politicians direct huge-dollar social programs will have happy results because... ??

Congnitive dissonance? Religious belief?

Friday, May 06, 2005

Moving to the top of the web listings. is now #2 of 99,127 pages listed by MSN Search for "youngest legal porn on the net".

Heh, heh ... enjoy yourself while you visit, you MSNers.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Noted over the last 10 days...

IRS Revokes Your Rights as a Taxpayer. That's its publication #1, Your Rights as a Taxpayer, which has been pulled by the IRS from it usual location on its web site, according to Tax Analysts. Presumably for an update. But you never know.

It's good to be king ... but it can be tough being the boss (.wmv, 1,046 kb).

News to drink to! "A pint of beer or a glass of wine triggers the growth of new brain cells and boosts memory, scientists say..."

An unexpectedly pleasant solution to the coming Medicare crisis?

Health care at 1/10th the price is only 20 hours away

A luxurious health care alternative for some 40 million uninsured Americans lies in the hospitals of faraway countries...
[via Econ with a Face]
Four Seasons Resorts International Health Care? Why not? If Canadians can get treated in Detroit, why shouldn't I go to Bali?

No superior performance goes uncastigated. Bill Belichick takes over a floundering NFL football team and proceeds to win three Super Bowls in four years. The job objective in professional sports is very clear cut: to win. You'd think people could agree that he's done a good job. Being that the team had won exactly zero (0) championships during the entire 40 years of its existence before his arrival, you'd think that of all people at least its own home town press corps and fan base would agree about that, and be appreciative.

Yet he gets savaged continually by many among them. (’d think that Belichick was some sort of monster who mistreats people and is overseeing nothing more than a house of cards ..."Bill Belichick is pond scum again. Arrogant, megalomaniacal, duplicitous pond scum"...)

Let this be a lesson to us all. Think of what goes on in other fields where quality of performance isn't shown in any manner nearly so clear cut as a sports team's won-loss record (e.g. in politics, business ... everywhere). And when you take a job, remember the old wisdom about how you can accomplish a lot more if you don't worry about who gets the credit for it -- and also about being sure you get paid enough to be content even if the person getting the credit isn't you.

We think we've found the cause of your headache, III
A Russian man who woke up with a splitting headache after a heavy drinking session found a kitchen knife stuck in his face.

Artur Dzhavanyan had invited a pal round for a drink but went to bed early after telling his friend he was fed up with hearing him moan.

He woke up in the night with a splitting headache and went to the bathroom to get a glass of water, when he noticed the knife sticking out of his face, just below his eye.

In a panic he ran to a neighbour's house and called an ambulance.... The knife was embedded 10cm under the eye and had pierced the cheek bone.

Police say they found his pal's fingerprints on the knife, but Dzhavanyan refused to press charges, saying he was just happy to be alive....
[Ananova, with pictures from]
Now that's a pal!

You may remember headaches I (OK, a toothache, but close enough) & II.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Remember May Day

And its song, The Internationale (mp3, 1.2 meg)

(For the connection impaired: midi, 5k.
Or get your favorite version and language here.)

"To which I say..." (wav, 18k)


UPDATE: A good deal of more serious material on the historical meaning of May Day is presented over at Catallarchy. Lest we forget.