Monday, March 30, 2009

it was all a lie, cont.

They were also complete morons with no concern for the long term health of the institutions they ran. From the Boston Globe (c/o TPM):
WASHINGTON - Just months before the start of last year's stock market collapse, the federal agency that insures the retirement funds of 44 million Americans departed from its conservative investment strategy and decided to put much of its $64 billion insurance fund into stocks.

Switching from a heavy reliance on bonds, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to pour billions of dollars into speculative investments such as stocks in emerging foreign markets, real estate, and private equity funds.

The agency refused to say how much of the new investment strategy has been implemented or how the fund has fared during the downturn. The agency would only say that its fund was down 6.5 percent - and all of its stock-related investments were down 23 percent - as of last Sept. 30, the end of its fiscal year. But that was before most of the recent stock market decline and just before the investment switch was scheduled to begin in earnest.

No statistics on the fund's subsequent performance were released.

It's like they were trying to destroy the government.

it was all a lie

Those of us arguing that maybe perhaps torture was stupid and immoral even when applied to terrorists during the Bush Administration always had to answer for the case of Abu Zubaida, that high level Al Qaida operative that the CIA tortured for information they used to foil lots of potential plots and nab Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. How could we argue that torture doesn't get good intel? It got good intel from Abu Zubaida!

Except, we now learned, it didn't. From Washington Post reporter Dan Froomkin:
Abu Zubaida was the alpha and omega of the Bush administration's argument for torture.

That's why Sunday's front-page Washington Post story by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick is such a blow to the last remaining torture apologists.

Finn and Warrick reported that "not a single significant plot was foiled" as a result of Zubaida's brutal treatment -- and that, quite to the contrary, his false confessions "triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms."

Zubaida was the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House. Then he was President George W. Bush's Exhibit A in defense of the "enhanced interrogation" procedures that constituted torture. And he continues to be held up as a justification for torture by its most ardent defenders.

But as author Ron Suskind reported almost three years ago -- and as The Post now confirms -- almost all the key assertions the Bush administration made about Zubaida were wrong.

Zubaida wasn't a major al Qaeda figure. He wasn't holding back critical information. His torture didn't produce valuable intelligence -- and it certainly didn't save lives.

I was beginning to forget how George W. Bush makes my blood boil, how it felt to be ruled by police state conservatives. He and Cheney really were monsters.

Friday, March 27, 2009

a budget with no numbers

I didn't watch the GOP's rollout of their "budget," but from how it sounds, I'm imagining John Boehner and Mitch McConnell hopping out of a clown car on the way to the podium. From Ezra Klein:
Bush, famously, described his first budget by saying, "It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it." Indeed it was, and did. This isn't. There are no numbers. Let me repeat that: The Republican budget proposal does not say how much money they would raise, or spend. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "budget" as "an estimate of income and expenditure for a set period of time." This is not a budget. It talks about balancing the budget but doesn't explain how. It advocates tax cuts but doesn't estimate their costs. It promises to cut programs but doesn't name them. The threat going around the Capitol is that some impish Democratic chairman will ask the CBO to try and score the Republican proposal.
The Republican proposal, as you might expect, doesn't actually have a health care plan. But it does have this: "Republicans will be on the side of quality versus mediocrity, affordability versus unsustainable debt, and freedom of care versus bureaucrats in control. And we will be on the side of patients, doctors, and the American people." They are also in favor of good things rather than bad things, moving forward rather than going backwards, the hobbits rather than the orcs, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.

I have to keep beating this drum until they do something, anything to prove me wrong: the Republicans just are not serious about governing. An honest, sober, diligent personality could really take the administration to task on a number of issues (the knee-jerk dismissal of nationalizing banks and reluctance to overturn Bush era policies on secrecy are two that come to mind), but these Republicans just don't have anything productive to contribute.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

gun buyback program in South Bend

A little heavy-handed name, but a good idea nonetheless. The program needs donations to buy the guns, though, and I intend to help them out.

yeah, educated-sounding presidents are THE WORST!

Why does Obama stay short on details so often? Among other reasons, it could be because this is the reaction he gets from the supposedly-details-hungry press when he offers them some substance:
For just under an hour on Tuesday night, Americans saw not the fiery and inspirational speaker who riveted the nation in his address to Congress last month, or the conversational president who warmly engaged Americans in talks across the country, or even the jaunty and jokey president who turned up on Jay Leno.

Instead, in his second prime-time news conference from the White House, it was Barack Obama the lecturer, a familiar character from early in the campaign. Placid and unsmiling, he was the professor in chief, offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs — often introduced with the phrase, “as I said before” — sounding like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell.

Yeah, what the hell, Obama? No one wants to sit and listen to whole paragraphs about the collapse of the economy. What's with all this smarty talk, with numbers even?! This is TV, for God's sake; you're cutting into NCIS! Can't you just bow your legs, squint, and say, "we're gunna git'em varmints!" like the last guy? He was entertaining, and so strong and folksy!

Do us all a favor: next time we tell you we want details, just substitute an Old West-sounding catchphrase. Those are so cool!

That quoted paragraph, by the way, isn't from FOX News, or Yahoo! Entertainment News, or Maureen Dowd's catty, superficial editorial column. It's from the New York Times. At the top of the homepage. The first two paragraphs.

What I think is most interesting about this reaction is what it says about these reporters' opinion of the American people. Apparently the vast majority of us who bother to watch pressers are either insufficiently affected by the economy to care about this stuff as anything more than entertainment, or too stupid to pay attention through "long paragraphs." Apparently all journalism, no matter how serious the subject matter, is just entertainment now.

don't you have any pedophiles to relocate or something?

Bishop D'Arcy, never one to pass up a moment in the spotlight, boycotts Notre Dame's commencement, accusing them of putting "prestige over truth." You won't be missed, Angry Johnny.

The bishop also made sure to raise a stink over Dr. Nancy Snyderman and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for their criminally pro-Roe v. Wade opinions, but apparently his concern for "life issues" doesn't extend to torture and unjust war: George W. Bush was no problem in 2005. I guess, for the good bishop, it's only the lives of the unborn that matter.

important decisions

Wanting to move a new series up in the ol' Netflix queue, but can't decide between In Treatment and Mad Men.

Any advice?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States

This year's commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame: President Barack Obama .

White House garden

Another nice thing about sensible Democrats in the White House: the Obamas are breaking ground on an organic White House veggie garden.

another marginal error

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a mistake by an ABC News journalist covering the financial sector that betrayed a lack of basic understanding of marginal tax rates (essentially, the income tax). I felt a little exposed writing about it because, as I admitted at the time, I myself did not know this embarrassingly basic fact about income taxes.

Today I feel a little less bad for myself and a little more so for all of us, as a prominent financial blogger made the same mistake while guest posting on the blog of another well-respected financial blogger whom I read every day.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I did it with a wiffle ball bat

Ok, so there's a chance that only Barmecide and I are going to find this funny, but some creative individual with too much time on their hands used footage from World of Warcraft to make a surprisingly good music video for the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." Personally, I think it's high-larious.

pointless outrage

I get that riling people up about executive pay sells papers and puts "butts in seats" and wins votes and campaign contributions. I get that. Nevertheless, I find myself reading past the headlines and breathless paragraphs about AIG executives' bonuses and looking in other directions because, frankly, I just don't care that much. It's not that I think they deserve their bonuses, or that I don't think corporate executives are wildly overpaid, or that I don't notice the contrast between their compensation and that of the entry-level workers in their companies, because I do in every case.

It's that, so far as I can tell, executive pay is neither what took down the economy, nor the key to fix it. Bringing the hammer down on the smug bastards at AIG might make us feel a little better, and I suppose that's not nothing, but it won't do anything to keep people in their homes or open up more jobs or, so far as I can tell, do much to protect their savings. Even though it's admittedly for political reasons when Obama calls the AIG matter "a distraction," I think that's absolutely correct.

I think, too, that there's a faction in the press and the government who want to make all this about a couple of bad apples at the top of certain companies, rather than about a fundamental flaw in the system (i.e., lack of regulation and consumer protections in the financial sector).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Viva la France!

From the BBC:
The French foreign ministry has voiced "sharp concern" following the Pope's rejection of condom use to fight Aids.

Benedict XVI, who is on a tour of Africa, said handing out condoms only increased the problem of HIV/Aids.

The Roman Catholic Church says marital fidelity and sexual abstinence are the best way to prevent the spread of HIV.

But France, echoing the reaction of some aid agencies, said it "voices extremely sharp concern over the consequences of [the Pope's comments]".

"While it is not up to us to pass judgment on Church doctrine, we consider that such comments are a threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life," foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said.

It's about time someone called the Pope down on the carpet for this. The Catholic Church's stance on birth control generally, and condoms specifically, is very nearly the most single most shameful, willfully negligent, and destructive policy of this body claiming to be a voice of morality and reason and peace (it is second only to the Church's duplicity in the priest pedophilia scandals).

I don't think I'll ever cease being dumbfounded by people who insist, with no hint of irony, that everyone who isn't married and/or intending to have children should stop having sex, and would rather see lots of people die than make sex less scary.

Monday, March 16, 2009

anything to avoid a gas tax

Fred Hiatt, the editor of the Washington Post editorial page, writes one of the dumbest articles I've read in a while:
Raise the gas tax now, by 10 cents from the current 18.4 cents per gallon. Then replace it entirely over the next decade or so with a system that would charge drivers a fee per mile driven.

In this new world, a GPS would be built into every car and truck. It would keep track of where you drove your car, and when, but the data would not be shared beyond the vehicle so privacy would be protected. It could be set to charge more per mile driven for Hummers than for Civics; more during rush hour than in the middle of the night; more for driving on congested bridges than on empty roads.

None of this is as far-fetched or futuristic as it may sound. Anyone who has stuck an E-Z Pass transponder on a windshield has taken a step in this direction. The Netherlands plans to implement a full vehicle-miles-traveled system by 2014, Denmark by 2016. In Holland, there won't even be a car registration fee; if you don't drive your car, you don't pay.

The problem with this idea is that the sophisticated, expensive new technology that he wants built into all new cars doesn't actually offer any advantages over the stopgap solution he wants to phase out yet suffers from various extra disadvantages.

Guess what else would charge a fee per mile driven? A gas tax!

Ya know what would charge more per mile for Hummers than Civics? A gas tax!

What would charge more during rush hour and on congested roads (because of stop and go traffic and time spent idling)? A gas tax!

And guess what else won't charge you if you don't drive? Anyone?

On the other hand, a gas mileage tax system would:
    1) pass an extra cost to taxpayers when they buy a car
    2) implant a device in cars that can be tampered with, allowing the unscrupulous to evade the tax
    3) not address the problem of cars bought before the implantation of the devices
    4) give the government unprecedented information about our private lives and knowledge of our exact whereabouts at all times, which is then subject to loss, theft, and governmental surveillance

In effect, Hiatt's argument is thus: first let's solve the problem, then let's phase out that solution with a more complicated, expensive, and flawed solution that offers little or no extra benefit! What is it with conservatives and the gas tax?

Friday, March 13, 2009


You should really watch this interview. It's the culmination of a week's worth of brick-throwing on both sides that ends with Jon Stewart utterly demolishing Jim Cramer and CNBC, and Cramer pretty much totally owning up to his network's failures. I gotta say, props to Cramer who treated this interview as less of an entertainment showdown, and more of a chance to get serious and face the music.

At the very end, Stewart tells a story about his mother that alludes to something we really need to address: after all the years of compound interest and all the following market losses, would all of those people who trusted the financial community and conventional wisdom, all those who put their retirement savings in the stock market (or whose conventional retirement plans were phased out in favor of 401(k)'s), would they have been better off had they just left all that money in a plain jane savings account at their local bank? Because if so, then we seriously need to talk about the fact that 401(k)'s have now been shown to entail a huge amount of risk.

little boxes made of ticky tacky

From Yahoo! Finance:
The downturn has accomplished what a generation of designers and planners could not: it has turned back the tide of suburban sprawl. In the wake of the foreclosure crisis many new subdivisions are left half built and more established suburbs face abandonment. Cul-de-sac neighborhoods once filled with the sound of backyard barbecues and playing children are falling silent. Communities like Elk Grove, Calif., and Windy Ridge, N.C., are slowly turning into ghost towns with overgrown lawns, vacant strip malls and squatters camping in empty homes. In Cleveland alone, one of every 13 houses is now vacant, according to an article published Sunday in The New York Times magazine.

The demand for suburban homes may never recover, given the long-term prospects of energy costs for commuting and heating, and the prohibitive inefficiencies of low-density construction. The whole suburban idea was founded on disposable spending and the promise of cheap gas. Without them, it may wither. A study by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech predicts that by 2025 there will be as many as 22 million unwanted large-lot homes in suburban areas.

I can't find a post now, but I know I've talked about this possible effect of the housing crisis. Essentially, as property values plummet in the suburbs and rise in the cities, we may see a reversal in our population as the working poor are displaced from the cities and move out into McMansions divided into apartments, while the wealthy and middle class relocate to the cities. The process has a feedback loop built into it, as the presence of brown people scares more whites out of the suburbs and the higher property values in the cities continue to climb as the wealthy move in and their tax dollars contribute to better school systems, more attention from the city council's road repairing committee, etc., thus making them even less affordable for the poor.

I hate the suburbs. I hate everything about the suburbs. They're wasteful. Their relationship to the cities they rely on is parasitic. They're the products of residual, unconscious racism/classism. They're conformist, insular, and nostalgic for a bubble gum Eden that never existed. They're plastic in both the literal and figurative senses, all packaging and presentation, and made primarily of petroleum. As much as I hate the suburbs and wish people would wake up and move the hell out of them, perhaps the only situation worse than all the rich people living out in the 'burbs is all the working poor living out there, miles and miles from their jobs, from everything, with little or no public transportation, trying to divide those flimsy, plastic castles into apartments. If it becomes clear that this is going to happen, cities and states need to be scrupulous about preparing the suburbs for the change by improving their transportation infrastructure and getting serious about home inspection, or this is not going to go well.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Republican Party: just not serious on economics since 1996

From The Boston Globe:
WASHINGTON - The federal agency that insures bank deposits, which is asking for emergency powers to borrow up to $500 billion to take over failed banks, is facing a potential major shortfall in part because it collected no insurance premiums from most banks from 1996 to 2006.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures deposits up to $250,000, tried for years to get congressional authority to collect the premiums in case of a looming crisis. But Congress believed that the fund was so well-capitalized - and that bank failures were so infrequent - that there was no need to collect the premiums for a decade, according to banking officials and analysts.

Wow, Congress looks pretty dumb now, eh? I mean, what kind of a moron would stop funding bank depositors' only insurance body on the assumption that the economy will never tank again?

Well, let's think about it: who ran Congress from 1996 to 2006?

Darth Cheney oversaw "executive assassination team"

Do what, now? From Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh:
"Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command -- JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. ...

"Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.

"Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Do you know who I am?

From Roll Call (c/o TPM):
Roll Call reports that Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), the staunch social conservative whose career became bogged down in the 2007 D.C. Madam prostitution scandal, was sighted this past Thursday night having an incident of airport rage at Dulles Airport.

Vitter arrived 20 minutes before the plane was scheduled to depart, and found the gate locked. He then opened the door, setting off the alarm and inviting the attention of an airline worker:

Vitter, our spy said, gave the airline worker an earful, employing the timeworn "do-you-know-who-I-am" tirade that apparently grew quite heated.

That led to some back and forth, and the worker announced to the irritable Vitter that he was going to summon security.

Vitter, according to the witness, remained defiant, yelling that the employee could call the police if he wanted to and their supervisors, who, presumably, might be more impressed with his Senator's pin.

But after talking a huffy big game, Vitter apparently thought better of pushing the confrontation any further. When the gate attendant left to find a security guard, Vitter turned tail and simply fled the scene.

A classy bunch, these conservative family values Republicans. The worker may have been a bit of a hard ass about keeping him off the plane, but is there anyone alive who doesn't know you have to be at your gate 45 minutes to an hour before departure for domestic flights, especially at major, busy airports like Dulles? Admittedly, David Vitter usually has, eh, pressing matters to attend to in New Orleans, but still, a guy who flies as often as United States Senators do can't claim ignorance of the rules. Then again, if there's anything we know about David Vitter, it's that he believes the rules don't apply to him.

It's ok, Dave: if it gets too hot in this kitchen to take it by yourself, you can always drag your wife into the spotlight with you again.

Friday, March 06, 2009

well-heeled children of the rich and religious

Kids, always remember that your messes don't just disappear when you leave the room. Somebody has to clean up after you, and the damage you do isn't always easily fixed. So if, for instance, you finish your midterms and want to shotgun a Natty Ice in celebration, perhaps the library, right in front of old, irreplaceable Byzantine volumes, isn't the best place.

Don't be an asshole needlessly.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

of course, ABC News will still never beat the champion

You may have heard the recent GOP talking point about a supposed magnetic levitation rail line in the stimulus bill from "Disneyland" to Las Vegas. It's a Rush Limbaugh canard; there is no such earmark in the stimulus bill (though in all honesty, a direct line from LA to Vegas actually makes a lot of sense). Nevertheless, you wouldn't expect FOX News to settle with an average Limbaugh whopper, would ya?:
KELLY: It's a super railroad, of sorts -- a line that will deliver customers straight from Disney, we kid you not, to the doorstep of the moonlight bunny ranch brothel in Nevada. I say, to the moonlight Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada. So should your tax dollars be paying for these kinds of projects? [...]

Now the phantom flying train runs straight from Disneyland to Las Vegas the Bunny Ranch brothel. You know, the one near Carson City. Incidentally, if any of you are heading to Las Vegas, I would not suggest hopping a train to Carson City.

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Amazing that there are people out there who still refer to FNC as a "news channel."

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

a major booboo from ABC News

Ok, I'm really surprised by this one. Those of you who know a little bit about taxes are going to get a laugh out of this one. From ABC News' Emily Friedman:
President Barack Obama's tax proposal – which promises to increase taxes for those families with incomes of $250,000 or more -- has some Americans brainstorming ways to decrease their pay, even if it's just by a dollar.

A 63-year-old attorney based in Lafayette, La., who asked not to be named, told that she plans to cut back on her business to get her annual income under the quarter million mark should the Obama tax plan be passed by Congress and become law.

So far, Obama's tax plan is being looked at skeptically by both Democrats and Republicans and therefore may not pass at all.

"We are going to try to figure out how to make our income $249,999.00," she said.

"We have to find a way out where we can make just what we need to just under the line so we can benefit from Obama's tax plan," she added. "Why kill yourself working if you're going to give it all away to people who aren't working as hard?"

Ok, there's a fundamental misunderstanding of the way income taxes work in this article that completely undermines its entire thesis. Can you see it? Admittedly, I did not know this (yay Turbotax!), but I'm not a journalist writing about tax brackets without understanding how tax brackets work.

Here's the thing: The federal income tax is progressive. That means that when you move up to a new tax bracket, it's only the extra income that is subjected to the new tax rate. That is, if Barack Obama says incomes of $250k/year and over will be taxed 39%, and you make $260k/year, you only pay 39% on the $10,001 that put you into that tax bracket. As Wikipedia puts it:
A progressive tax taxes differentially based on how much has been earned. For example, the first $10,000 in earnings may be taxed at 5%, the next $10,000 at 10%, and any more income at 20%.
Thus, it makes no sense to lower your pay under $250k because the person who brings in $251k will always make more than the one making $249k.

Says Jonathan Chait at TNR:
This article is obviously an outlier, but it is an extreme manifestation of a broader phenomenon. Clay had a good post about how Politico's Jeanne Cummings has turned into a sounding board for right-wing economic notions. And Matthew Yglesias had a good point about how the media massively overrepresents the perspective of the rich in reporting and commentating on the tax debate. (It has framed Obama's plans as a tax hike when the vast majority of Americans will experience it as a tax cut.) Sadly, I think the next few months are going to bring us a massive surge of sympathetic and/or uninformed coverage of the tax debate from the perspective of the wealthiest segment of America.

Then again, it can be hard to consider ABC News a "serious" news organization sometimes.