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11/08/2005

Rhetoric

Digby highlights a rhetorical trick. The Roberts Committee Report almost exclusively quotes material to criticize Joe Wilson, using paraphrases to present counter positions.

The effect is to subtly highlight the authority of the critics, while giving much bolder statements for quotation down the line.

Very clever (must remember).

4/01/2005

National Sales Tax: Flat Out Bad Idea

I’m annoyed but not surprised at the way George Will writes about Rep. John Linder’s bill to enact a national consumption tax, and do away with the IRS and K Street along with it. Of course, he attempts to appear neutral while giving a very one-sided description of a consumption tax. And of course, there is much more to the story.

A consumption tax is simply a tax on everything you buy. Also called a national sales tax or national retail sales tax, it entails taxing all consumption at a flat rate. Rep. Linder’s proposed rate is 23 percent (which works out to a 30 percent tax). Like in Rep. Linder’s bill, most proposals for a consumption tax involve doing away with the collection of other taxes such as those on income, payroll, capital gains, dividends, etc. This means that the wealthy citizens who can afford a high sales tax keep a lot more of their wealth and would likely spend a very low percentage of what they earn in sales taxes. Low-income earners who usually spend a much higher percentage of their earnings on consumption would be hit very hard by the tax. This makes a consumption tax very regressive, even with the "rebate for the poor" that Will mentions. Families with children would be particularly burdened as they generally buy more than those without children and would not benefit from any of the numerous family-friendly deductions in the current income tax system.

In his overview of a National Retail Sales Tax (NRST), William Gale of the Brookings Institution explains that in order for a consumption tax to replace current federal tax revenue, the flat rate would have to be much higher than most proposals advocate (like well over 50 percent). And the higher the tax rate, the more chance there would be for tax evasion, cheating, and so on. As Matt Yglesias points out, the evidence suggests that it is unrealistic to actually enforce a sales tax over 10 percent.

As with any tax reform proposal, there is a lot more to it than mentioned here. But just knowing the basics on this tax is enough to convince me it is a ludicrous idea. It is kind of scary that people are actually still talking about it.

3/30/2005

Social Security's Safety Net for Women

Dr. Bitch has a great post about how women’s choices early in their careers have major long-term effects – on everything from the ability to compete in the job market and earn a competitive salary, to the size of their retirement plans and Social Security checks. She raises a host of extremely important issues.

Taking even just a year out of the workforce to have a child sets women back in terms of competitiveness in the job market as well as long-term financial security. Not to mention that women are also more likely than men to take time off to care for elderly parents or relatives. I’m just hoping that the degrees I get as a result of the years I’m taking off to go back to graduate school will make up for the time it means I’m spending outside of the workforce while my peers, men and women alike, earn human capital in the workforce and contribute to their 401K’s and retirement funds. Dr. B is lucky she’s had Mr. B to support her through her education and contribute to their future together. I hope things continue to work out for them. Our system admittedly works best for people who get married; it’s hard to ignore the explicit pressure and financial benefits for doing so in our society.

But what about women who might want to get an advanced degree and have children, all without (god help them) wanting to get married? I can almost hear my father scoffing at the irresponsibility of such a scenario were I to consider it. It is unlikely that a woman making such choices could hope to live as comfortably in retirement (or before) as a man who chooses to obtain the same degree, have a family and work.

Clearly, these are pie-in-the-sky problems so to speak, as many women would love the financial opportunity to obtain an advanced degree and make the choice whether or not to have children afterward. Lots of low-income women don’t have the luxury of even considering quiting their jobs to go back to school, whether they already have children or not. There are many scenarios out there and a host of problems facing women who want to (or have to) work, and of course it isn't the case that all men have it made, either. But if we want women to be able to pursue careers while having families, and have equitable opportunities for economic security and retirement, then society has to adapt. Of course, many changes have been made in the workplace to address these issues, but many more are needed.

One thing is clear to me when thinking about the social and economic issues facing women today -- women still need and depend on the safety net that Social Security provides. The monthly Social Security checks are so critical for women whose retirement and other savings accounts are lower as a result of life choices they make. Due to the way the system currently works, there is inherently more financial risk for women who choose to have children. Even if they do so in the security of a marriage, women take a gamble that the marriage will last or that if it doesn’t they won’t shoulder the financial burden. It seems to me with so many other risks involved in the economic choices women make, the last place we want to add more risk is in the safety net that so many of them rely on at the end of their lives.

3/25/2005

Effects of D.C.'s First-Time Home-Buyer Tax Credit

The Washington Post writes on a new report [PDF] released by the Fannie Mae Foundation about the success of the D.C. First-Time Home-Buyer Individual Income Tax Credit. The tax credit of $5,000 is available to first-time home-buyers in D.C. making less than $70,000 per year for singles and up to $130,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Fannie Mae’s report highlights the multiple successes of the tax credit which include: boosting the numbers of low-income residents purchasing their first home; significantly contributing to appreciated housing values in the District; and contributing to the stabilization of the D.C. population by retaining District residents and attracting residents of the suburbs to buy in D.C.

The Fannie Mae report notes that 38.7 percent of those claiming the tax credit were low-income, earning between $30,000 and $50,000 per year – which is only 42 to 69 percent of the metro area median income. One adverse effect of the tax credit, however, according to the report, is the effect on rental prices which affects many low-income residents. In fact, Fannie Mae estimates that 2,800 District renters were displaced because of rent burdens in 1998.

From 1997 to 2001, first-time homebuyers claimed a total of $76.7 million using the tax credit, which represents a direct loss in income tax revenue for the District. However, some of this loss is offset by a subsequent increase in property tax revenues. Fannie Mae estimates that the tax credit contributed to a growth in home equity wealth estimated at over $2 billion from 1998 to 2002, which led to an increase in the city’s property tax revenue of over $50.2 million over that time period.

Read the full Fannie Mae Report here [PDF].

3/09/2005

Social Security Testimony

The opening Congressional hearings in the Social Security debate did not go well for the administration. Comptroller General David Walker stated that Social Security "does not face an immediate crisis," rather "a long-term financing problem." Walker "criticized President Bush for undertaking an aggressive two-month tour to try to sell his [privatization] plan...suggest[ing] that Bush and members of Congress focus on improving financing for the program..." Older details on Walker's views are available here. Walker's testimony will eventually be available here, and the highlights here [PDF].

Social Security Trustees Thomas R. Saving and John L. Palmer said that there would be "no major changes" in the Trustee's economic forecast for the program. Considering that economic performance over the last year has been considerably higher than that predicted in the 2004 Trustee's report, the projected dates at which benefit payments exceed payroll taxes and of trust fund exhaustion are both expected to be moved incrementally out.

New Cases of Private Information Theft

Lexis Nexis's Seisint unit was breached, with ~32,000 names, addresses, social security numbers, and driver license numbers captured. An indeterminate but "sizable" number of customers at DSW Shoe Warehouse had their credit card information captured from a corporate database.

Bolton's Last Confirmation Hearing

John Bolton was confirmed as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security on May 8, 2001, by a vote of 57-43. He was voted out of the then-evenly split Foreign Relations Committee 10-8, with Senator Russ Feingold casting the deciding vote in favor.

The 57 senators that voted for confirmation included all 50 Republicans and Democrats Feingold, Bayh, Breaux, Landrieu, Lieberman, Miller, and Ben Nelson. The roll call:


I've uploaded PDFs of Bolton's 2001 confirmation hearing and both days of Senate floor debate. Many Democratic Senators rose in strong opposition to Bolton, particularly Sens. Wellstone and Dorgan.

3/08/2005

Lugar on Bolton

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lugar is "going to reserve any comments about the appropriateness or not of the president's choice [of John Bolton for UN Ambassador]." "Lugar wants to meet with Bolton 'before discussing his support,' Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher" told the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Fisher told the Washington Post not to "read anything into" Senator Lugar's failure to issue a statement of support for Bolton, "though he acknowledged that Lugar had urged Rice to submit nominees who would have 'wide support' and help build a 'consensus on foreign policy.'" A "Republican foreign policy official" informed the New York Times that Senator Lugar "told the administration that Mr. Bolton could not be confirmed for a job that had been discussed earlier, deputy secretary of state." An aide claimed Lugar "had assured Ms. Rice that the nomination would be considered swiftly and fairly."

John Bolton will have to be voted out of Lugar's Committee on Foreign Relations, which is composed of 10 Republicans and 8 Democrats. The Committee includes Dick Lugar, Chuck Hagel, Lincoln Chafee, George Allen, Norm Coleman, George Voinovich, Lamar Alexander, John Sununu, Lisa Murkowski, and Mel Martinez on the Republican side. Joe Biden is the ranking Democrat, with Paul Sarbanes, Chris Dodd, John Kerry, Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer, Bill Nelson, and Barack Obama joining him. That's an excellent lineup on both sides of the aisle, and there're a number of persuasion targets among the Republicans.

It may be possible to bottle Bolton up in committee. There are two days scheduled for nominations, one Friday and one next Tuesday. There has been no word on when the committee might broach the Bolton nomination, but it's unlikely he can be put on the agenda that soon.

Bottom Dropping Out of Privatization

Some harsh headlines for the privatization camp.

David Espo, Personal Accounts Tank in Polls, GOP Says, Associated Press, March 9, 2005. The National Republican Congressional Committee commissioned 14 focus groups, the results of which were distributed to Republicans on the hill yesterday. Though percentages are relatively meaningless with focus groups, 31% of the participants least liked the fact that government would administer the private accounts, and 24% "least liked the fact that workers would be required to accept a lower traditional benefit in return for participation." The focus groups reflected strong opposition to cutting benefits, without which a carve out plan is impossible.

Mike Allen, Graham Says GOP Erred By Focusing on Accounts, Washington Post (A08), March 9, 2005. Senator Lindsey Graham, "echoing" last week's comments from Senator Chuck Grassley, wants to narrow the social security debate to solvency issues, specifically and repeatedly referring to privatization as a "sideshow." Treasury Secretary John Snow disagrees with Senator Graham's belief that the solvency debate is seperable from the privatization debate: "[T]he administration is saying that the solvency issue, if it's going to be dealt with in a way that's fair to younger people, has to make available to them this opportunity to build a nest egg through the personal accounts."

President Bush would be upset if he read the papers.

Update, March 9, 2005, 11:52 AM EST: Dave Johnson's updated AP article has some different details, including:

Yet, the data also shows "there is a rejection of the term `crisis' as an accurate description of the state of the Social Security system, and this rejection increases in intensity as the respondents get older," according to a copy of a memo obtained by The Associated Press.
Sounds like someone's been having a positive effect.

House hearings start today on privatization, with testimony from Comptroller General David Walker and Social Security Trustees Thomas R. Saving and John L. Palmer. Saving traffics in bad numbers, while working for Progress for America.

Republican Assault on AARP

Laura Meckler of the Associated Press neatly details the Republican strategy for fighting AARP. Bush claims that the AARP has no dog in the privatization fight, that "nothing changes" for anyone over 55, while USA Next attacks AARP as a bunch of liberal, gay-loving, troop-haters: "Everywhere he goes, Bush promises the group's members they won't be touched by his plan, while his backers charge that AARP is out of touch and prone to scare tactics."

AARP is planning a series of advertisements targeted toward youth, while USA Next is preparing a slur-riddled letter. I fear USA Next's letter, which is the proper posture given their origin as a frightmail mill.

"Moderate" Republicans Squishy on Tax Cuts

Or so they say. It's unlikely that the moderates have grown a backbone this winter, so their nominal opposition to starving government of revenue won't have much of an impact. At least fiscal sanity still appears to have bipartisan support, even if it's not very deep on the right.

Bush wants a hundred billion in tax cuts over the next five years. Sen. Judd Gregg agreed to put $70 billion on the table at tomorrow's meeting of the Senate Budget Committee. Voinovich, Snowe, Collins, Chafee, and possibly McCain will push for the appearance of paygo, which conservatives will likely accede to, only to reneg.

Homeland Security Through Obscurity

The NYT from over the weekend. The administration is contemplating removing security placards from train cars that warn about dangerous chemical contents, ostensibly to make it harder for terrorists to identify targets. In effect, it will make it harder for first responders to deal with accidents and put people in the vicinity at risk.

Gary Bass of OMB Watch is right when he says "You can hide the information, but if the vulnerability still exists, the bad guys will find it...So let's reduce the vulnerability instead." If you use Firefox over Internet Explorer, you know exactly what Mr. Bass is talking about.

GOP Senate Extends Bankruptcy Protection to Terrorists

AP reporting:

In the first abortion-related test of the new Congress, the Republican-controlled Senate turned back a Democratic effort Tuesday to bar violent protesters from using bankruptcy to avoid payment of court judgments.

The 53-46 vote cleared one of the few remaining obstacles to passage of major bankruptcy legislation that is high on the GOP legislative agenda.

Wall Street and Privatization

In what appears to be an ironic follow up to yesterday's article, Jeff Birnbaum writes in today's Post on Wall Street's apparently tepid support for social security privatization. Waddell & Reed, like Edward Jones before them, claims to have pulled out of the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security. Of course, as yesterday's article noted, the finances of these groups are secret, and we have no way to determine who is and who isn't buying influence.

If Waddell & Reed tell us they are pulling out, only to stay in, do the American people lose? Perhaps the Labor campaign against Wall Street backers of privatization should get them to ask for refunds from the partisan advocacy groups of which they are erstwhile members.

Democracy Corp Offers Bad Advice

I agree with Josh Marshall and Max Sawicky (particularly Max) : Carville and Greenberg need to shut the fuck up.

The only Social Security reform agenda I would support is one that would seek to make the bonds held by the trust fund legally enforceable. Either the trustees or individual retirees need to be able to sue to ensure that the money borrowed from American workers is repaid by the general fund.

Update, 2:56 PM EST: Citizen's Rent/Random Thoughts avoids the profanity:

I'll tell you something else, too. If the Republicans and any like-minded Democrats really don't think the trust fund is available to pay benefits when needed then no way in hell will I support any reform that provides more money than is needed in that year to pay benefits, I will not support anything that creates a surplus in the trust fund - not unless there's a balanced budget amendment that puts excess social security funds in that infamous lock-box. Burn me once, shame on me. I've been burned by paying taxes to build a surplus that has been raided with no plans to pay it back. Burn me twice, shame on me. I'm not volunteering to build another surplus. No way.

I feel screwed over by manipulative politics. Raise my lifelong payroll taxes to build a surplus to cover a projected need - one I'm willing to pay for - and then use that money for something else with no planning to replace it, then tell me you need to raise my taxes to pay back the money you took that I put in? The only response I have is profane. So I'm done.

Progress for America Rolls Out $2 Million Campaign

Details in the NYT. Just a partisan Republican organization using secret corporate money to support the administration's dishonest partisan agenda. Nothing to see here.

Troop Armor

What can I say? I didn't get through the entire New York Times yesterday. Here's their article on troop body armor, the acquisition of which was horribly mismanaged by the administration. 200 soldiers died while they twiddled their thumbs.

Over the last five years, George Bush has encountered innumerable forks in the road. Invariably, he has chosen the wrong path. Troop armor is a more salient example.

Update, 8:02 PM EST: Sens. Durbin and Levin have sent a letter to Rumsfeld asking why the troops don't have tourniquets in their first aid kits. The Baltimore Sun reported the problem over the weekend:

Even after the bullet cut through his leg and severed his femoral artery, 1st Lt. David R. Bernstein had a chance. The shooting stopped quickly, and a soldier trained in combat medical care was at Bernstein's side almost immediately. Helicopters landed, and minutes later the young platoon leader was surrounded by four surgeons and all the equipment of a modern battlefield trauma center.

Bernstein died that night in Iraq, despite getting the best emergency medical care the Army had to offer. But doctors who specialize in combat injuries, and who reviewed details of the case provided by The Sun, question whether the 24-year-old West Point graduate might have lived if the Army had had something else to offer: a $20 nylon-and-plastic tourniquet.

"What was available in the Civil War, correctly applied, would have been quite adequate here," said Dr. Howard Champion, a senior trauma adviser to the military and one of the nation's leading trauma specialists. "Unfortunately, they were left with less than that."

Since at least a month before the war in Iraq began, medical experts in the Army and other services have called on the Pentagon to equip every American soldier in the war zone with a modern tourniquet. The simple first-aid tool - a more sophisticated version of the cloth-and-stick device used by armies for centuries - could all but eliminate deaths caused by blood loss from extremity wounds, the most common cause of preventable death in combat, they argue. The cost would not likely exceed $2 million, or about two-thousandths of a percent of the $82 billion proposed for the war this year.

Please, No

This is from yesterday's New York Times, and hence "old news," but I just want to ask a personal favor of the "centrists:" please don't compromise. The Republicans simply don't believe in Social Security, and anything you do will end up weakening the program.

We have time, decades even, to shore up America's productive capacity and strengthen the American workforce. If we make prudent decisions right now, the tenuously projected shortfalls will never materialize, not in 2018, not in 2019, not in 2042, not in 2052. Start by restoring funding for higher education assistance, job training, and community colleges. Restore funding for, and expand, programs to help disadvantaged children graduate from high school and go to college, if they so choose. Move to strengthening collective bargaining and cutting down on corporate financial abuses. Improve the health care system so that it no longer acts as an anchor on American economic growth.

Most of all, stop George Bush's "hurt America" agenda. From here on out, every new piece of legislation the Republicans introduce should be answered with: the social security debate is more important, let's not lose our focus. President Bush wants to talk about shoring up social security's finances, let's talk about his plan to do so.

We are gaining political capital on Social Security. We need to delay-delay-delay the under the table assault on the kitchen table while our capital accumulates.

Minimum Wage Votes

Both Kennedy's and Santorum's minimum wage bills came to a vote today, and both were defeated - Kennedy's by a handful of Republican votes, Santorum's by all Democrats present and 17 Republicans. The Santorum bill would have raised the minimum wage by 1.10/hr while "includ[ing] business regulatory relief as well as tax breaks totaling $4.2 billion, most of it directed toward the restaurant industry." As noted by Nathan Newman and EPI, Santorum's bill also included serious anti-worker provisions that would have exempted certain firms and industries from the minimum wage, eliminated overtime pay, and superceded state and local minimum wage laws.

The debate about the bills was illustrative. Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo) argued that "wages do not cause sales. Sales are needed to provide wages. Wages do not cause revenue. Revenue drives wages." With what does Senator Enzi believe people buy things?

Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) argued that "when you raise the minimum wage you are pricing some workers out of the market...It is an economic fact, and the proponents of raising the minimum wage like to dismiss this by saying we have a hard time measuring it and the economy is large." Sen. Harkin (D-Iowa) responded that raising the minimum wage was "a values issue. This is at the heart of what kind of country we want," an important argument to be sure. But Harkin's argument is insufficient. Just as the conventional wisdom was long settled that the Social Security system was in crisis, the conventional wisdom has long been that raising the minimum wage has a disemployment effect - that it costs jobs.

Despite Sununu's "economic fact," the real impact of raising the minimum wage on job growth is decidedly muddled. 11 states have higher minimum wages than the federal floor, and 8 of the 11 have experienced faster job growth [PDF] than the national average. David Card and Alan Krueger (American Economic Review, 1994, 84:4, pp.772-793 ) looked at the impact of New Jersey's 1992 state minimum wage increase on employment in the fast-food industry. Compared to Pennsylvania, which tracked the national minimum wage, New Jersey actually experienced faster job growth. David Card also compared the impact of the 1990 minimum wage increase on employment in high wage states to low wage states. Low wage states, where the equilibrium wage would presumably be closer to the minimum, theoretically increasing the disemployment risk, did not suffer slower job growth than high wages states.

An Atlanta Fed article [PDF] came up with some hypotheses that attempt to explain the muddled data without challenging the applicability of neoclassical price theory. Nathan Newman also helpfully compiled reasons that labor markets are different from "normal" commodity markets. Thomas Leonard's The Modern Minimum Wage Controversy and Its Antecedents [PDF] (printed in Backhouse and Biddle, Toward a History of Applied Economics, History of Political Economy, Supp. to Vol. 32, pp. 117-144.) is an excellent look at the professional and institutional obstacles economists face in integrating evidence and theory.

3/07/2005

Republicans and African Americans

Any incursions Republicans make into the Black vote would be devastating both for African Americans and the Democratic Party. Mehlman continues to peddle his snake oil though, claiming "no matter how well we do in elections, the party of Lincoln will not be whole until more African Americans come home."

The efforts of Bush and Mehlman are, anecdotally, having some effect in Black evangelical churches. Gay marriage, abortion, and "faith based initiative" money may be coalescing into a wedge capable of splitting some Black votes into the Republican column.

Articles on the Black vote:

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Black Evangelicals: Bush's New Trump Card, 1/27/05. (See also his Hutchinson Report).

Julia Scott (Salon), The Republican Gospel on Gay Marriage, 2/4/05.

Chris Bowers, Republican Lies About African Americans Appearing Everywhere, 2/3/05.

Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger, Black Clergy Wooed for Values Fight, LA Times, 2/2/05.

Pesudo-Adrienne, Personal Morality or Civil Rights?, 3/7/05.

Wes Allison, Black Conservatives Gather Momentum, St. Petersburg Times, 2/28/05.

Terry Neal, Republicans Come Up Short Courting Black Conservatives, Washington Post, 1/10/05.

Manning Marable and Donna Brazile, On the Future of the Democratic Party, Democracy Now, 12/17/04.

The Black Commentator has lots of good coverage of the issue. Political Research Associates' Deborah Toler published a history of black conservatism in 1993.

A history lesson, from T.H. White's The Making of the President 1960:

Time was, forty years ago, when Negroes voted solidly Republican out of gratitude to Abraham Lincoln and emancipation. ("I remember," once said Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "when I was young in Kansas City, the kids threw rocks at Negroes on our street who dared vote Democratic.") But Franklin D. Roosevelt changed that. Under Roosevelt, the government came to mean social security, relief, strong unions, unemployment compensation. ("Let Jesus lead me, and welfare feed me" was a Negro depression chant.) And, like a heaving-off of ancient habit, as the Negro moved north he moved onto the Democratic voting rolls.

Many of the most eminent Negro leaders in America today have personally lived through this political transition. "I was born in Dougherty County, Georgia," said Congressman William Dawson of Chicago, senior Negro in the American Congress, several years ago, "just one step this side of Hell. I stood guard with my father all one night to stop a lynching when I was fifteen. I hated the word Democrat when I came north. I saw them bring Negroes up from the South in World War I and stuff them in here, into four and a half miles of the Black Belt, until it was the most populated spot on the face of the globe. I saw them ripping basements out of stores and pushing people to live in rat-infested filth, until the Black Belt was the damnedest pesthole ever conceived by the mind of man.

But Roosevelt made Dawson switch from the Republican to the Democratic side. Roosevelt brought assistance and relief in the depression. "Negroes would have died like flies if he hadn't kept his hand on the money until it got to them," said Dawson. And so Dawson became, as he still is, a Democratic political boss in Chicago, at first only of the Negro wards, then in the senior council of Cook County.

Just how much the Democratic Party owed to men like Dawson and the Negro did not become apparent until 1948. But when in 1948 Harry Truman squeezed ahead of Thomas E. Dewey by 33,612 votes in Illinois, by 17,865 votes in California, by 7,107 votes in Ohio, no practicing politician could remain ignorant of how critical was the negro vote in the Northern big city in a close election.

Since then, as the Negro migration from the South has quickened in pace and size, the importance of the Negro vote has grown to be almost obsessive with Northern political leaders. Running proportionately in some places (like New York) at 3 to 1 Democratic and in others (like Detroit) at 8 to 1 Democratic, the Negro industrial vote is one of the most solid political properties in Democratic custody. It represents power.

Republican Plans

The Post wrote-up the competing Republican Senate plans for replacing Social Security. None of these are worth pursuing, compromising with, or even conceding as desirable in the abstract.

To date, the debate over social security has focused largely on the desirability of paying the costs of getting to a privatized retirement system. It can't be done without massive borrowing, massive benefit cuts, and generally trashing the guarantee at the heart of the current system. Whatever the benefits of privatization, they're not worth the costs.

The bigger picture question, though, has gone both unasked and unasnwered: if we could fiat a system of private accounts into existence, with no implementation costs involved, should we do so? I think not, but I haven't spent the mental energy necessary to come up with a set of coherent arguments one way or the other. I'll put some thought into it over the next couple of days.

Choice Quotes on Social Security

This is language I like to see:

Susan Milligan, Boston Globe: "The president is committed to these private accounts," Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said yesterday on ABC's "This Week." "I'm committed to them." Snow said the accounts were "absolutely essential" to revamping the 70-year program. But Democrats, sparring with Republicans on the Sunday talk shows, said they would not even consider an overhaul that included privatization.

"Democrats have said what they'd do. We're not going to negotiate with someone that's trying to destroy [Social Security]. Privatization destroys it," Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said on "This Week." "Privatization cannot be on the table."

In a separate interview, the Senate minority whip, Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said his party was happy to work with the GOP on Social Security, but not if the president refused to budge on the privatization matter.

"The privatization proposal of the president is going to destroy Social Security as we know it. And let me tell you why. It doesn't strengthen Social Security. It weakens it. It doesn't address the solvency problem," Durbin said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
When Milligan attributes to Durbin the "estimat[ion] that the government would have to borrow $2 million to $5 trillion" to cover transition costs, I bet that first "million" is missing six zeros.

Secret Money in Social Security

Jeff Birnbaum in today's Washington Post discusses the secrecy surrounding the financiers of the privatization fight. Conservatives in particular are using 501(c)4s to run their guerilla networks - Progress for America, USA Next, CoMPASS, Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks - and 501(c)4s need not dicslose their donors.

This is a crucial argument, and one that must enter the public debate about Social Security. The Republican privatization scheme is a handout to certain businesses and industries - in fact, it must be, as otherwise coporate donors would be breaching their fiduciary duties to shareholders, since secret donations garner no public brand advantage.

More importantly, we must identify which industries are benefiting. To date, the pro-privatization camp has effectively argued that investment firms and Wall Street are not behind the push, and media coverage has generally reflected this projected ambivalence. But we can not be certain of this unlikely assertion, becuase there is no disclosure. Perhaps it's time to start a public "disclose your donors" campaign?

Remember, the people pushing for privatization have a long history of deceptive and illegal tactics. United Seniors trafficked in frightmail and PhRMA money. Derrick Max, head of AWRS and CoMPASS, while an aide to Peter Hoekstra, was notorious for impersonating a National Endowment for the Arts staffer while trying to eliminate the organization in the 90s. These are people that can not be trusted. Nothing short of full disclosure will suffice.

Bolton Nominated for UN Ambassadorship

This is crazy. Bush has nominated John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton's take on the UN:

At a 1994 panel discussion sponsored by the World Federalist Association Bolton claimed "there's no such thing as the United Nations," and stated "if the UN secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
For more on Bolton, see:

Council on Hemispheric Affairs: John Bolton's Appointment Would Destroy State Department Credibility, 12/15/04.

FUGOP: John Bolton and Arms Control, 9/3/04.

Update, 5:14 PM EST: A thicker AP write-up is out. Kofi Annan has a typically diplomatic response to Bolton's nomination:
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was alerted in a telephone call from Rice in advance of the appointment, said through a spokesman he looked forward to working with Bolton.

"I don't know about what previous biases he may bring here," said spokesman Stephane Dujarric. "We have nothing against people who do hold us accountable. On the contrary, I think we do want to be held accountable."
Meanwhile, thinkprogress.org has been Bolton-blogging all day, noting Bolton's admiration of war-profiteers, his ideological and personal affinity with Jesse Helms, and his asinine hostility to the UN. An updated version of Brooke Lierman's bio of Bolton is available at www.americanprogress.com. It's important to remember that Bolton was a shock troop in the 2000 election recount fight.

Mark Goldberg of Tapped argues that Bolton's nomination would doom the already precarious possibility of the International Criminal Court presiding over the Darfur war crimes. Mark might be operating under a false assumption, though; Bolton has been nominated, not appointed - he will need to be confirmed by the Senate. 43 Democrats voted against him in 2001, which is enough for a filibuster (though we've lost 4/5 seats in the Senate since then). There may even be some decent Republicans who would recognize the folly of confirming Bolton [not holding breath].

Atrios argues that Bolton's appointment is counterproductive, regardless of what ends you think the UN should serve. His appointment only makes sense if you believe the UN should serve no end.

The New York Times article on the nomination carries a lot of "A says/B says" reaction, including Senator Reid's:
Mr. Bolton's confirmation hearings appear sure to generate controversy, possibly even among some Republicans, although few expect the nomination to be blocked. Mr. Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, said Mr. Bolton would have "much to answer for" during confirmation hearings.

"At a time when President Bush has recognized we need to begin repairing our damaged relations with the rest of the world," Mr. Reid said in a statement, "he nominates someone with a long history of being opposed to working cooperatively with other nations."
Again, I'm not so sure that Bolton's confirmation is a fait accompli. Raw Story has more details on Reid's comments, as well as excerpts from Senator Kerry's blistering reaction.

David Corn provides more background on Bolton, including his entanglement in a "fizzled" scandal involving a $100 million Taiwanese slush fund used "influence activities within the United States." Bolton got some undisclosed dough from Taiwan. Perhaps this fizzled scandal can sizzle in the confirmation hearing. I don't mean to quibble with Corn's nomenclature, but I think it's misleading to call Bolton a neoconservative. He doesn't fit the archetype - there's no evidence he was once a liberal, there's no ideological affinity for the Scoop Jackson tradition - there's merely Jesse Helms and his truculent isolationism.

On the other side, David Keene of the American Conservative Union applauds the nomination of his "good friend" Mr. Bolton, recipient of "the Courage Under Fire award at the 2004 Conservative Political Action Conference." Swift Boat Veterans for Truth received the award at the 2005 CPAC.

Via Reuters, Danielle Pletka also comes to Bolton's defense:
"It is very important that John remain a public voice. While John's approach may at times be abrasive, the principles he represents are clearly those of the president," said Danielle PLetka, vice president of the pro-Bush American Enterprise Institute, where Bolton once worked.

"Speaking softly and carrying a big stick has many virtues, but there's a still a role for loud and clear (especially) in an institution that needs to hear things loud and clear before they'll do anything," she told Reuters.
It looks like the debate over Bolton is going to break down like this: Republicans will falsely attribute to "some people" the idea that Bolton is unacceptable because he is "plain spoken." They will mercilessly beat this straw man, arguing that we need tough talk against evil regimes and feckless institutions.

Democrats will respond by noting that Bolton has affirmatively hurt our national security. He has hampered efforts, tacitly endorsed by the administration, to pursue diplomatic solutions to both the Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation threats. He has scuttled important treaties that would secure nuclear fissile material because of an ideological, Helms-inspired, objection to verification and inspection regimes. He delayed, at great risk to the country, efforts to control Russia fissile material stocks because he didn't want the U.S. to insure the program against accidents. Imaginary mushroom clouds in Iraq were worth $300 billion and 1500 lives and counting, but actually existing nuclear weapons in Russia weren't worth insurance premiums.

Republicans will counter these charges by accusing us of wanting tyrant/terrorist molly-coddlers to run the world.

Update, 3/8/05, 12:05 PM EST: Susan Rice has an oped in the Post criticizing the Bolton appointment, yet holding out a meager hope that "[Bolton] will have to be for the United Nations what Richard Nixon was for China: a hard-liner who effectively forged groundbreaking change." Rice discounts by silence the admittedly slim, but still real, possibility of defeating Bolton. Steven Weisman of the New York Times seems to think that Hagel is down on Bolton, and there is evidence that Lugar is as well.

Fred Kaplan in Slate argues that Bolton's appointment is a sign of administration contempt for the United Nations. This is evident, but the real question is if it does any marginal damage to our international standing. The 2004 election was the ultimate sign of contempt for international cooperation, but it came not from the administration, but from a subset of he American people. Appointing Gonzales to AG was more evidence, but once a case is proven, piling on does little additional damage. Bush's "conciliatory" tour through Europe last month is revealed as a farce by the Bolton appointment, but I doubt many were naive enough to believe it was sincere to begin with. However, Julian Borger at Salon disagrees about the extent of European naivete, and he probably knows more about this than me.

AP's Anne Gearan has more on Bolton's "tough talk." Remember, but for John Bolton, the threat of nuclear terrorism would be dramatically lower. Russian nuclear materials would be more secure, the fissile materials control treaty would be in force, and that idea of inspections and verification would be more legitimate.

No Payroll Tax Increases

It appears that there is some agreement between liberal blogs and President Bush: Payroll tax hikes should not be part of any "solution" to the social security "crisis." Increasing revenue now (pre-funding) is only sensible if one accepts the validity of federal bonds. Republicans don't believe in the trust fund, dismissing it as empty IOUs. In the abstract, I think the word of the government is reliable; in reality, I think Republicans will break any covenant, sacrifice any lamb, in pursuit of power.

Increasing payroll taxes will do exactly three things:

  1. Let Republicans brand Democrats as tax hikers;
  2. Give Republicans more room to cut taxes on income and wealth;
  3. Finance more of Bush's reckless fiscal adventurism.
What payroll taxes will not do is quash the artificial "crisis" talk. Republicans will continue to preach the dogma of default and to deplete the reserves of American trust in our government. Which is their goal: to make permanent the wedge they have driven between the government and the people from which it derives its power.

 

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