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Archive for February 18th, 2015

Stephen Moore: A puzzle of success (of a sort)

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Paul Krugman in his NY Times blog:

Jonathan Chait seems boggled at an op-ed from Stephen Moore, the chief economist at the Heritage Foundation, attacking Obamacare: Not one alleged fact cited in the piece is right. And we’re not talking about matters of interpretation. CBO has not changed its view that the ACA will reduce the deficit; health costs have not increased faster than before; premiums are not skyrocketing.

Chait treats this as a story about the way the right is handling Obamacare’s success. Conservatives made a number of very specific predictions about what would happen when the ACA went into effect: health spending would soar, deficits would balloon, premiums would shoot up, more people would lose insurance than gain it. When none of these things happened, when the law’s first year of full operation went better than even supporters had expected, the reaction was, I believe, something new in American politics: right-wingers simply acted as if their predictions had come true, as if all the imagined disasters were actual truths on the ground.

That is indeed part of the story about that Moore op-ed. But there’s another aspect of the story, which is Moore himself: this is a guy who has a troubled relationship with facts. I don’t mean that he’s a slick dissembler; I mean that he seems more or less unable to publish an article without filling it with howlers — true, all erring in the direction he wants — in a way that ends up doing his cause a disservice. For example, his attempt to refute something I wrote about Kansas ended up being mainly a story about why Stephen can’t count, which presumably wasn’t his intention.

But here’s the mystery: evidently Moore has had a successful career. Why?

Think about Heritage: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 7:03 pm

Posted in Business, GOP, Science

Hot and also spicy menudo

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I just had a can of this hot and spicy menudo. I have made my own, and I have to say it is excellent, but it is almost impossible to buy cow’s foot locally. (I use pig’s feet, but would prefer cow’s foot). However, purchased at my local supermarket, the very can sold at the link for $12.59 is $4.49. Of course, the Amazon listing includes the fabulous “free shipping”—but oddly, the price increase is about equal to the shipping cost. Could the shipping not actually be “free”?? I wonder.

Should you be able to buy it at a reasonable price, here are my enhancements. Put into a saucepan:

1 can Juanita’s hot and spicy menduo
1 Spanish onion, chopped
1/2 avocado, peeled and chopped
juice of 2 lemons
good amount of chipotle powder

Heat and serve. Great stuff, especially if you have a cold. I used to make my own, recipe below, but had difficulty in getting a cow’s foot.

Menudo Rojo – traditional New Year’s Day dish

Menudo rojo

Honeycomb tripe or blanket tripe works best for this soup—which tastes best if it’s made a day ahead of time.

Rather than use canned hominy (which is wretched), I got white corn posole from It comes in 12 oz bags, and I used two bags in this recipe. Probably just 16 oz would be better.

16-oz. of posole (soaked overnight)
4 lbs bleached beef tripe, preferably honeycomb
1 med onion, peeled and quartered
1 head of garlic, unpeeled and halved crosswise
2-4 hot red chiles, such as chile de árbol
1 cow’s foot, cut in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 2” pieces by butcher and cleaned (or 2 calves’ feet or 4 pigs’ feet; wrap pigs’ feet in cheesecloth and tie)
juice of 2 lemons
1/4 cup vinegar
6 Tbsp medium-hot chili powder, such as New Mexico chili powder
1 Tbsp crushed red pepper
2 Tbsp dried oregano
2 tsp ground cumin

  1. Soak the posole overnight and drain. Set aside.

  2. Put tripe into a large pot and cover with cold water by 1”. Bring to a boil over high heat, then drain and rinse. Cut into 1” squares and set aside.

  3. Put onion, garlic, and chili into a piece of cheesecloth, gather corners together, tie shut with kitchen twine, and set aside.

  4. Put the foot pieces into a large heavy-bottomed pot with enough water to cover. Add lemon juice and vinegar, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, skimming the foam the rises to the surface, for 30 minutes.

  5. Add tripe and onion-garlic-chili sachet to pot and more water if needed (just enough to cover everything). Continue simmering until tripe is soft, 3-4 hours.

  6. Remove and discard feet and sachet. Add posole, chili powder, crushed red pepper, oregano, cumin, and salt to taste and simmer until tripe is very soft and soup is thick, 1-1½ hours.

  7. Skim and discard fat from top. (Easier if you chill the menudo first, and it’s better on day 2 anyway.)

Serve with warm corn tortillas, lime wedges, chopped cilantro, and chopped white onion.

Background information

Tripe—the stomach lining of ruminant animals, most commonly cows—isn’t very popular in the US, but it’s relished in many other countries, including Italy, China, and Mexico, where it is the key ingredient in menudo. There are three basic types of tripe: blanket, or plain, the thickest and firmest; book, so named for the way it folds into page-like piles; and—most typical in America—honeycomb, generally preferred for its subtle flavor, texture, and tenderness. Tripe is sold canned, pickled, and fresh (which usually means partially cooked and bleached)—the form most recipes call for. If the tripe you buy hasn’t been bleached (its gray tint will be a giveaway), soak it in water with a sliced lemon overnight; drain; boil it in a pot of water for one hour, changing water halfway through.

Feet—Calves’ feet are often used to give body and flavor to soups and stews. A cow’s foot is bigger and better: this much larger hoof yields much more gelatin and a richer flavor. Ask your butcher to cut the foot in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 2” pieces. Use a small, sharp knife to scrape away any impurities and trim off any hairs. Rinse bones well, then boil away.

My supermarket can’t get a cow’s foot. Two calves’ feet is next best, but I couldn’t get this either. So I used four pigs’ feet. Because the pigs’ feet shed small bones just the same size, color, and look as the hominy, wrap them, singly or two at a time, in cheesecloth so the bones will not escape.

Hominy—The original recipe called for two 15.5-oz cans of white hominy. Canned hominy is pretty bad. Posole corn is prepared by soaking hard kernels of field corn (traditionally white, although blue is sometimes used now) in powdered lime and water—a method thought to mimic the ancient preservation of corn in limestone caves. After several hours, when the corn kernels have swollen, the liquid is allowed to evaporate and the kernels to dry.

Posole is different from hominy, which tends to be softer and blander. Compared to hominy, posole’s flavor is intense and earthy, its consistency more robust.

The amount contributed by the two 12-oz. packages of posole is considerably more—and has better consistency. But you can use canned hominy in a pinch.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 6:50 pm

Posted in Food, Recipes & Cooking

The Punisher: Jeb Bush and the Schiavos

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In the New Yorker Amy Davidson writes to remind us of recent history:

March 18, 2005, the House and Senate subpoenaed Terri Schiavo, ordering her to appear as a witness before committees in both chambers. No one in Congress was waiting to hear what she had to say—everyone knew that Schiavo couldn’t say anything. She had been in what doctors called a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years, although her husband, Michael, had long said that she wouldn’t have wanted to be kept alive in such a condition. When, a couple of weeks later, she finally, indisputably died, at a hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida, an autopsy found that her brain was so atrophied that it was probably less than half the size it had once been. Instead, the point of the subpoenas, pushed by the Republican leaders Bill Frist and Tom DeLay, was to theatrically invoke federal “witness protection” laws to threaten anyone who removed her feeding tubes with the crime of obstructing her appearance before Congress. Republican aides told reporters that thepenalty might be five years in prison.

DeLay and Frist were just late-game entrants in the fight for Schiavo’s body, or, rather, the fight to turn what was left of it into a political object. The politician who had the most to say about Terri Schiavo was Jeb Bush, who was governor of Florida then and now seems to be running for President. In 2003, when a court affirmed Michael Schiavo’s right, as Terri’s guardian, to have her feeding tube removed, Jeb Bush pushed a law through the Florida state legislature giving him the power to overrule the court—and so “stormed to the brink of a constitutional crisis,” as the Tampa Bay Times put it in a review of the case earlier this year, going “all in on Schiavo.” The bill was called “Terri’s Law,” but, in terms of decision-making, it was all Jeb’s. He then issued an executive order and, as Michael Kruse described it in an piece for Politico last month, “A police-escorted ambulance whisked her from her hospice in Pinellas Park to a nearby hospital to have her feeding tube put back in.” When a judge overturned Terri’s Law, and the Supreme Court let that ruling stand, Bush turned his efforts to lobbying Congress, at a time when his brother was President.

Bush’s new campaign has brought Schiavo’s story back. E-mails about the case were among those he recently released, and last week Michael Schiavo wrote a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald, warning voters against “trusting” Bush, who Schiavo said “abused the powers” he had as governor. “He made life miserable for my family, the doctors and staff at the nursing home, the police—all because he wanted to involve himself in something that both the law and common human decency told him that no government official should have gotten involved in,” he wrote. Schiavo is giving other interviews as well.

There are those for whom the case is seen not as an embarrassment for Bush but as a conservative credential. The video images of Schiavo remain vivid—in a hospital room, as her parents attempt to get her to look at a balloon and exhort her to show that she realizes that they are there and that they love her. Her parents saw the videos as evidence of her mind’s presence, and proof that she should be kept alive. Many viewers, looking into Schiavo’s drifting eyes, had a sense only of the power of wishful affection to see something that was not there. The doctors who examined her saw nothing else. Schiavo’s parents came to despise her husband, whose intentions they impugned. Their supporters called Michael Schiavo a murderer. The family was Catholic, and their religious beliefs were taken as an irrefutable license to levy such attacks. After Congress, on a March weekend, passed another dubious bill, DeLay decided to call it the “Palm Sunday Compromise.” (A judge soon dispensed with DeLay’s witness-protection ploy.) Much of the passion had to do not with Schiavo, or even the right to die, but with an issue for which her case was taken as a proxy: abortion. Hendrik Hertzberg wrote at the time, “Her lack of awareness actually increased her metaphoric usefulness. Like a sixty-four-cell blastocyst, she was without consciousness. Unlike the blastocyst, she was without potential. If letting her body die is murder, goes the logic, then thwarting the development of the blastocyst can surely be nothing less.”

The abortion debate, which has hardly abated, is just one of the ways that the Schiavo case retains its emotional resonance. (As governor, Jeb Bush worked torestrict reproductive rights, at one point trying to get a guardian appointed for the fetus of a disabled rape victim.) There are others: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 5:07 pm

What Is the Purpose of Society?

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My view is that society is the means by which we band together to help one another, to work to bring order, justice, and prosperity to the society. Not everyone agrees, as Mark Bittman points out in the NY Times:

The world of food and agriculture symbolizes most of what’s gone wrong in the United States. But because food is plentiful for most people, and the damage that conventional agriculture does isn’t readily evident to everyone, it’s important that we look deeper, beyond food, to the structure that underlies most decisions: the political economy.

Progressives are not thinking broadly or creatively enough. By failing to pressure Democrats to take strong stands on everything from environmental protection to gun control to income inequality, progressives allow the party to use populist rhetoric while making America safer for business than it is for Americans. No one seriously believes that Hillary Clinton will ever put the interests of Main Street before those of her donors from Wall Street, do they? At least not unless she’s pushed, and hard.

It’s clear to most everyone, regardless of politics, that the big issues — labor, race, food, immigration, education and so on — must be “fixed,” and that fixing any one of these will help with the others. But this kind of change must begin with an agreement about principles, specifically principles of human rights and well-being rather than principles of making a favorable business climate.

Shouldn’t adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn’t everyone owed a society that works toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn’t we prioritize avoiding self-destruction?

Plenty of Democrats, even those who think of themselves as progressive, would not answer yes to those questions. Some would answer, “Don’t be naïve, that’s impossible,” and others would say, “All we need to provide is equal opportunity for all and let the market sort it out.” (To which I’d reply, “Talk about naïve!”) I’m fine with disagreement, but I’m not fine with standard public questions like “How do we create a better climate for business so it can provide more jobs?” Consider what this implies about the purpose of people, to say nothing about the meaning of life. The business of America should not be business, but well-being.

Think about it this way: There are two kinds of operating systems, hard andsoft. A clock is a hard system. We know what it’s for, we know when it isn’t working, and we know that 10 clock experts would agree on how to fix it — and could do so.

Soft systems, like agriculture and economics, are more complex. We don’t all agree on goals, and we don’t agree on whether things are working or in need of repair. For example, is contemporary American agriculture a system for nourishing people and providing a livelihood for farmers? Or is it one for denuding the nation’s topsoil while poisoning land, water, workers and consumers and enriching corporations? Our collective actions would indicate that our principles favor the latter; that has to change.

Defining goals that matter to people is critical, because the most powerful way to change a complex, soft system is to change its purpose. For example, if we had a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future, we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose. More generally, if we agreed that human well-being was a priority, creating more jobs would not ring so hollow.

Sadly, even if we did agree, complex systems are not subject to clever fixes. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 4:34 pm

The meltdown in Libya

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How it all fell apart—a detailed report of a total cock-up, reported by Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker:

Early last year, General Khalifa Haftar left his home in northern Virginia—where he had spent most of the previous two decades, at least some of that time working with the Central Intelligence Agency—and returned to Tripoli to fight his latest war for control of Libya. Haftar, who is a mild-looking man in his early seventies, has fought with and against nearly every significant faction in the country’s conflicts, leading to a reputation for unrivalled military experience and for a highly flexible sense of personal allegiance. In the Green Mountains, the country’s traditional hideout for rebels and insurgents, he established a military headquarters, inside an old airbase surrounded by red-earth farmland and groves of hazelnut and olive trees. Haftar’s force, which he calls the Libyan National Army, has taken much of the eastern half of the country, in an offensive known as Operation Dignity. Most of the remainder, including the capital city of Tripoli, is held by Libya Dawn, a loose coalition of militias, many of them working in a tactical alliance with Islamist extremists. Much as General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has boasted of doing in Egypt, General Haftar proposes to destroy the Islamist forces and bring peace and stability—enforced by his own army.

When I visited Haftar’s base, earlier this winter, I passed a Russian-made helicopter gunship and was greeted by a group of fighters unloading ammo. The base was in a state of constant alert. Haftar is a top-priority assassination target for Libya Dawn’s militias. Last June, a suicide bomber exploded a Jeep outside his home near Benghazi, killing four guards but missing the primary target. Now there is heavy security around Haftar at all times. At his base, soldiers frisk visitors and confiscate weapons. A few months ago, someone reportedly attempted to kill him with an explosive device concealed in a phone, and so his men collect phones, too.

Haftar greeted me in a spotless office with a set of beige sofas and a matching carpet. Wearing an old-fashioned regimental mustache and a crisp khaki uniform, he looks more like a retired schoolteacher than like the American-backed tyrant his enemies describe. In a deliberate voice, he told me why he had gone back to war. After participating in the 2011 uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, he tried to find a place for himself in Libya’s new politics. When he didn’t succeed, he said, he went home to Virginia for a time, “to enjoy my grandchildren.” All the while, he watched as Libya floundered under a succession of weak governments, and the country’s militias grew more powerful. Last summer, Islamist extremists moved to seize Benghazi; in a merciless campaign aimed at the remains of civil society, assassins killed some two hundred and seventy lawyers, judges, activists, military officers, and policemen—including some of Haftar’s old friends and military colleagues. “There was no justice and no protection,” he said. “People no longer left their houses at night. All of this upset me greatly. We had no sooner left behind Qaddafi’s rule than we had this?”

Haftar reached out to contacts in what remained of Libya’s armed forces, in civil society, in tribal groups, and, finally, in Tripoli. “Everyone told me the same thing,” he said. “ ‘We are looking for a savior. Where are you?’ I told them, ‘If I have the approval of the people, I will act.’ After popular demonstrations took place all over Libya asking me to step in, I knew I was being pushed toward death, but I willingly accepted.”

Like many self-appointed saviors, Haftar spoke with a certain self-admiring fatalism. But his history is much more complex than he cares to acknowledge. As an Army cadet in 1969, he participated in Qaddafi’s coup against the Libyan monarchy, and eventually became one of his top officers. “He was my son,” Qaddafi once told an interviewer, “and I was like his spiritual father.”

In 1987, as Libya fought with Chad over a strategic strip of borderland, Qaddafi chose Haftar as his commanding officer. Haftar’s base was soon overrun in a Chadian attack—part of a conflict that became known as the Toyota War, for the Land Cruisers that Chad’s troops drove into battle. The Chadians killed thousands of Libyan troops, and took Haftar and four hundred of his men prisoner. When Qaddafi publicly disavowed the P.O.W.s, Haftar was enraged, and called for his men to join him in a coup. By 1988, he had aligned himself with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a Chad-based opposition group supported by the C.I.A. Soon afterward, he was released from prison.

Haftar’s work in Chad did not bring him glory. His enemies like to recall that Chad’s government accused the Libyan forces of employing napalm and poison gas during the war. Afterward, two of Haftar’s fellow-prisoners reported that those who refused to join his coup were left behind in their jail cells. As military commander of the Salvation Front, he plotted an invasion of Libya—but Qaddafi outflanked him, backing a disruptive coup in Chad. The C.I.A. had to airlift Haftar and three hundred and fifty of his men to Zaire and, eventually, to the United States. Haftar was given citizenship, and remained in the U.S. for the next twenty years.

For a time, Haftar stayed involved with the C.I.A., and with the Salvation Front’s abortive efforts to topple Qaddafi, including a plot in which a number of Haftar’s fellow-conspirators were captured and executed. According to Ashur Shamis, a former leader of the Salvation Front, Haftar lived well in Virginia, though no one knew how he made his money. But he did not return to Libya, fearing that he would be executed.

After the U.S. invaded Iraq, in 2003, Qaddafi, who had been among America’s most vitriolic enemies, suddenly agreed to give up his nuclear-weapons program and attempt a rapprochement. By then, the C.I.A. had evidently loosened its ties with Haftar, and, when he returned to Libya, in March, 2011, he was on his own. Nevertheless, Haftar’s enemies accuse him of being a C.I.A. plant, a traitor, and a vicious killer, and of seeking to install himself as a latter-day Qaddafi.

There is no overstating the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. Two competing governments claim legitimacy. Armed militias roam the streets. The electricity is frequently out of service, and most business is at a standstill; revenues from oil, the country’s greatest asset, have dwindled by more than ninety per cent. Some three thousand people have been killed by fighting in the past year, and nearly a third of the country’s population has fled across the border to Tunisia. What has followed the downfall of a tyrant—a downfall encouraged by NATOair strikes—is the tyranny of a dangerous and pervasive instability.

For Haftar, the east was the obvious place to begin his offensive. “Benghazi was the main stronghold of terrorism in Libya, so we started there,” he said. An old Libyan maxim holds that everything of importance happens in Benghazi. In 1937, Benito Mussolini came there to solidify his colonial power. In 1951, the newly crowned King Idris I broadcast a radio address from the city to proclaim Libya independent. When Qaddafi launched his military coup against the monarchy, he was a young officer based in Benghazi. In February, 2011, the uprising against his rule erupted there, and the following month the West intervened there to prevent him from massacring the city’s revolutionaries and its civilian population.

The intervention that helped decide the Libyan conflict began tentatively. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 4:21 pm

Companies Fighting US Government Barred From Naming Themselves, Because Security

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Jason Koebler reports at Motherboard:

Two major companies—a telecom and an “internet company”—have asked the US government simply for the right to disclose how often the NSA, FBI, and other agencies ask them for user information. Who are these companies? Who knows! The federal government has said that it’s illegal for them to come forward and name themselves.

That’s the astounding claim alleged by the two companies Tuesday in the Northern District of California court. The companies filed what’s known as an amicus curiae brief in support of Twitter’s ongoing legal battle with the US government, in which the social media company is fighting for the right to be able to publish more granular data about government information requests on its users.

The requests, called National Security Letters (NSLs), are not approved by a judge and are issued by the FBI. NSLs ​have since been deemed unconstitutional, but that decision is being appealed. In the meantime, more NSLs continue to be issued. Last year, the US Department of Justice finally said that companies could disclose information about NSL requests, but only in a way that makes it nearly useless.

Specific, government-approved companies can release the information, but only in increments of 1,000, and they aren’t allowed to say if exactly zero requests were received, meaning they have to list the number of requests as being between 0 and 999.

Those stipulations were good enough for Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Yahoo, who agreed to those parameters. Twitter, however, decided to sue the government in October. Tuesday’s brief, filed by lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who are representing the two companies, notes that any company receiving less than 1,000 letters are arbitrarily silenced by the government.

“The Department of Justice has simply decided that some service providers, who have received 1,000 or more NSLs, can participate—vaguely and partially—in public debates as recipients of NSLs,” Kurt Opsahl and Andrew Crocker, lawyers with the EFF, wrote in the brief. “Meanwhile, providers who receive fewer than 1,000 NSLs remain barred from saying whether they have received any NSLs at all.”

“Such measures are over broad and intrinsically arbitrary, since they are imposed without any consideration of the specific risks posed by providers’ reporting on the NSLs they have received,” they added. “The First Amendment requires more.”

And that’s why these companies have to remain anonymous. The federal government has decided that, were these companies to even disclose that they have indeed received government information requests would be a risk to national security. For that reason, the two organizations have been identified as, “a provider of long distance and mobile phone services,” that received a NSL from the FBI in 2011, and an “internet company” that received two NSLs from the FBI in 2013.

The companies are involved in a separate court case surrounding the issue in ​Ninth Circuit Court. Both companies are forbidden from identifying themselves in that case, too. . .

Continue reading.

The US is closing down as an open and democratic government and is increasingly sliding toward being a police state run on behalf of the very wealthy. Freedom of speech is now controlled by the government: you’re free to speak whatever the government decides to allow.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 4:16 pm

Attacking the Social Security program

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A good review of some recent books on the Social Security system by Jeff Madrick in the NY Review of Books:

Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It
by Charles D. Ellis, Alicia H. Munnell, and Andrew D. Eschtruth
Oxford University Press, 159 pp., $24.95

Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All
by Nancy J. Altman and Eric R. Kingson
New Press, 299 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Steering Clear: How to Avoid a Debt Crisis and Secure Our Economic Future
by Peter G. Peterson
Portfolio, 193 pp., $27.95

Social Security may well be the most popular social program in America. It is without question one of the nation’s two or three most significant of the past century, the great accomplishment of the New Deal. Some 52 percent of all married couples sixty-five and older today receive half or more of their income from Social Security. Three quarters of unmarried retired people do. Social Security has been a major factor in the reduction of poverty among the elderly from 35 percent in the 1950s to about 9 percent today. It pays benefits to disabled workers, widows, and children of deceased workers. Moreover, those payments are mostly progressive; higher-income recipients receive more in absolute dollars but less as a proportion of their preretirement income than do lower-income recipients.

Fifty-nine million workers received $863 billion in benefits last year, somewhat less than a quarter of all federal spending, but in an early 2014 survey by CBS News, 73 percent of Americans thought the benefits paid by Social Security were worth the costs. Some three out of five in a 2013 survey undertaken at the time the congressional “sequestration” was being put in place to cut government spending believed that Social Security benefits should not be reduced. Social Security did not lose its popularity even when government spending became a major headline issue in the late 1980s and 1990s. A 1996 survey found overwhelming support.

This popularity may explain why it has seemed easy to frighten the general public about Social Security’s demise with an alarmist campaign by conservative think tanks and policymakers but also by some Democrats that has been underway since the 1990s and early 2000s, and continues today.

Reporters and policymakers routinely say that Social Security is going broke or is bankrupt. Some right-wing economists and policymakers repeatedly warn that the system has unfunded liabilities of tens of trillions of dollars. A more subtle tactic, often taken up by Democrats, is to claim persistently that Social Security must be “saved.” The Democratic economist Alice Rivlin did so in a Brookings Institution report, even while assailing those who exaggerate the problem. In just the first week of the new Congress, the Republican House voted not to use modest funds from Social Security taxes to replenish the Social Security disability fund—the separate fund to help disabled people of all ages—which it has done eleven times in the past. It said it feared weakening the future of payments to retired people. Now, there will be a showdown about disability payments in 2016 when its own fund runs out.

Since there will be far fewer workers to support retirees as baby boomers retire in ever-greater numbers in coming years, rhetoric about the frailty of Social Security may seem appropriate. But Social Security is simply not going broke or bankrupt. These claims, writes the business journalist David Cay Johnston in an foreword to Social Security Works!, one of the informative books considered here, are typically artful forms of deception or outright “lies.” I agree. Moreover, there is a new and growing countermovement among Democrats that favors not merely refusing to cut any benefits at all but also increasing benefits—which are now, after all, just enough for most people to keep going. Its main proponent is Senator Elizabeth Warren. In this presidential primary season, a big question is whether it will take hold.

The Social Security deficit is not meaningless but it is far smaller than often suggested. Every year, the trustees of Social Security are required to project its economic status—essentially, the difference between payroll tax receipts and the benefits paid—over seventy-five years. Payroll taxes will exceed benefits over much of this period, creating a temporary surplus that also accumulates interest income, but this will run down by the 2030s. At that point, as tax receipts lag behind benefits, Social Security will be in deficit. Over the projected seventy-five-year period, however, the deficit will come to only somewhat more than 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The liabilities of trillions of dollars into the future seem frightening only if one doesn’t compare them over the years to Gross Domestic Product, the nation’s total output, which in 2014 alone was more than $17 trillion. Even if nothing is done, Social Security will still pay out 75 percent of benefits in the 2030s and beyond, according to the projection, hardly the definition of going broke.

Still, a reduction to 75 percent of benefits is substantial and it is best to make plans to eliminate the deficit soon rather than wait to make a larger, more painful, and perhaps politically more difficult adjustment ten or twenty years from now. The question is whether to cut benefits or raise taxes, or a combination of both. Benefit cuts were instituted in 1983, mostly through a gradual increase in the retirement age from sixty-five to sixty-seven, and new income taxes on Social Security benefits for middle- to high-income retirees.

These changes are beginning to amount to a significant reduction in benefits compared to preretirement income. At the same time, retirees are also increasingly less well covered by private pensions, as we shall see. Thus, there is now a strong case to be made that the gap should be closed by tax increases, part of which would be progressive, rather than any benefit cuts at all.

Moreover, any tax increase would be moderate. Today, both workers and their employers contribute 6.2 percent of wages up to $118,500 to Social Security, or a maximum of $7,347 for a year, above which cap there are no taxes. The payroll tax need only be raised by 1.44 percent for workers and employers each, or an annual maximum of roughly $1,700, to close the projected gap completely. For a typical worker who makes, say $45,000 a year, the increase would come to about $650. Further, if the $118,500 cap on taxable income were raised to help reduce the deficit, rates on middle- and low-income workers need not be raised nearly as much as on others, making the system more progressive as higher-income workers pay more taxes.

Nevertheless, resistance to tax hikes among policymakers has raised the possibility that, with a Republican Congress and with the agreement of many Democrats, Social Security benefits will be cut this year or next. Raising the retirement age further is a commonly discussed proposal, but this would amount to a significant cut in benefits as workers receive lower payments over the remainder of their lives. . .

Continue reading.

The resistance to raising taxes has become insane, IMO.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 3:58 pm

Stephen Kim: Destroyed by the Espionage Act

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An interesting account. The US government certainly doesn’t want its citizens to know what it’s doing. Peter Maas reports at The Intercept:

ON THE MORNING of June 11, 2009, James Rosen stepped inside the State Department, scanned his building badge and made his way to the Fox News office in the busy press room on the second floor. It was going to be a hectic day. Like other reporters working the phones that morning, Rosen was looking for fresh news about the latest crisis with North Korea.

Two weeks earlier, North Korea had conducted a nuclear detonation that showed the rest of the world it possessed a functioning bomb. The United Nations was on the verge of a formal condemnation, but no one at the U.N. or inside the U.S. government knew how North Korea’s unpredictable regime would respond and whether things might escalate toward war.

Rosen called Stephen Kim, a State Department expert on rogue nations and weapons of mass destruction. Kim, a U.S. citizen who was born in South Korea, spoke fluent Korean and had worked at one of America’s nuclear-weapons labs. He probably knew more about what was going on in Pyongyang than almost anyone else in the building.

The call, according to metadata collected by the FBI, lasted just half a minute, but soon afterward Kim called Rosen and they talked for nearly a dozen minutes. After that conversation, they left the building at roughly the same time, then spoke once more on the phone after they both returned.

A classified report on North Korea had just begun circulating, and Kim was among the restricted number of officials with clearance to read it. He logged onto a secure computer, called up the report at 11:27 a.m., and phoned Rosen 10 minutes later. A few minutes past noon, he left the building again, and a minute later Rosen followed. The destruction of Kim’s life would center on the question of what the two men discussed during that brief encounter outside the State Department.

Kim returned to the building at 12:26 p.m., but Rosen lingered outside to make calls to colleagues at Fox News — to lines for the network’s Washington bureau chief, as well as a vice president and assignment editor. Back inside, Rosen called the bureau chief’s line again, and then an official at the National Security Council. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, with typos that suggest it was written in haste, Rosen posted a story on the Fox News website under the headline, “North Korea Intends to Match U.N. Resolution With New Nuclear Test.” It said the U.S. government, in its latest intelligence assessment, believed U.N. sanctions would trigger retaliatory actions from North Korea, including another detonation.

As news goes, Rosen’s story wasn’t, in fact, much of a scoop. It merely confirmed the conventional wisdom of the day. According to court documents, one State Department official described the intelligence assessment as “a nothing burger,” while another official said Rosen’s story had disclosed “nothing extraordinary.” But the article had a seismic impact in another way. It occurred just as the Obama administration was intensifying its effort to crack down on leakers and whistleblowers; the FBI soon launched an investigation. Because Rosen used phones that were easy to trace and twice left the building at the same time as Kim, it was simple for the FBI to zero in on whom he talked with that day. Before long, Kim, who had worked as a civil servant since 2000, was being threatened with decades in prison for betraying his country.

Five years later, on April 2, 2014, I sat in a half-empty courtroom in Washington, D.C., and watched as Kim pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 3:51 pm

Uh-oh: Some revealing details of Clinton finances

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This at the very least looks bad, particularly the money “donated” by Marc Rich’s wife (pretty clearly in exchange for Marc Rich’s pardon by Clinton hours before he left office). Pam Martens and Russ Martens report:

Hillary Clinton, who has yet to be named the Democratic candidate for President in 2016, finds herself enmeshed in a transatlantic scandal that is an untimely reminder of the scandal fatigue that Americans were forced to endure during the Presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton.

Last Monday, the Guardian newspaper, the BBC, the French newspaper, Le Monde and dozens of other news outlets disclosed that the Swiss banking unit of the global behemoth bank, HSBC, had assisted the ultra rich in hiding assets and providing advice on how to evade domestic tax authorities.

The documentation for the revelations were provided by a former HSBC employee, Hervé Falciani, to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

That news broke on Monday, February 9. The Clinton bombshell came the next day, Tuesday, February 10, when the Guardian reported that seven clients of the Swiss HSBC bank had cumulatively donated $81 million to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation – a nonprofit that runs the Clinton Global Initiative, the Clinton Presidential Library and numerous other programs.

The Guardian report was quick to point out that there was no evidence that any of the seven donors had evaded taxes and that it “is not unlawful for US or other non-Swiss citizens to hold accounts in Geneva.”

Two of the donors listed in the leaked files are raising eyebrows. According to the Guardian report, one of the donors who had a Swiss HSBC account is Jeffrey Epstein, “the wealthy financier who was jailed for 13 months in 2008 for soliciting sex with underage girls.”  Another, reports the Guardian, was Denise Rich, the ex-wife of the now deceased Marc Rich, who fled the U.S. after being indicted for tax evasion, fraud and racketeering and then received a highly controversial pardon by President Clinton just hours before he left office.

On the heels of the Guardian’s report last week comes news in the Wall Street Journal this morning that the Clinton Foundation is also accepting donations from foreign governments. One of those countries is Saudi Arabia, the country that has played an outsized role in collapsing the price of oil and putting many U.S. shale producers in financial jeopardy. According to the Journal, Saudi Arabia had donated between $10 and $25 million since 1999 to the Clinton Foundation with a portion of that coming in 2014. The Foundation’s database lists only a dollar range for donations.

Other recent foreign government donors include the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Australia, Germany and the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development agency of Canada, a government agency promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, according to the Journal report. The paper notes that the Clinton Foundation had stopped raising money from foreign governments in 2009 while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State.

Adding further political intrigue, the New York Times is out with a report this morning indicating that the Geneva prosecutor’s office has released a statement acknowledging that it has opened a criminal inquiry into potential aggravated money laundering at the HSBC Swiss banking unit and is engaged in a search of its offices today.

Related Article:

Hillary and Bill: Their Rugged Journey from Paupers to One-Percenters in 365 Days

The Marc Rich pardon was already quite ugly and suspicious, and to find that it apparently was purchased is very unpleasant.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 3:46 pm

In Fake Universes, Evidence for String Theory

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Interesting article by Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

Thirty years have passed since a pair of physicists, working together on a stormy summer night in Aspen, Colo., realized that string theory might have what it takes to be the “theory of everything.”

“We must be getting pretty close,” Michael Green recalls telling John Schwarz as the thunder raged and they hammered away at a proof of the theory’s internal consistency, “because the gods are trying to prevent us from completing this calculation.”

Their mathematics that night suggested that all phenomena in nature, including the seemingly irreconcilable forces of gravity and quantum mechanics, could arise from the harmonics of tiny, vibrating loops of energy, or “strings.” The work touched off a string theory revolution and spawned a generation of specialists who believed they were banging down the door of the ultimate theory of nature. But today, there’s still no answer. Because the strings that are said to quiver at the core of elementary particles are too small to detect — probably ever — the theory cannot be experimentally confirmed. Nor can it be disproven: Almost any observed feature of the universe jibes with the strings’ endless repertoire of tunes.

The publication of Green and Schwarz’s paper “was 30 years ago this month,” the string theorist and popular-science author Brian Greene wrote in Smithsonian Magazine in January, “making the moment ripe for taking stock: Is string theory revealing reality’s deep laws? Or, as some detractors have claimed, is it a mathematical mirage that has sidetracked a generation of physicists?” Greene had no answer, expressing doubt that string theory will “confront data” in his lifetime.

Recently, however, some string theorists have started developing a new tactic that gives them hope of someday answering these questions. Lacking traditional tests, they are seeking validation of string theory by a different route. Using a strange mathematical dictionary that translates between laws of gravity and those of quantum mechanics, the researchers have identified properties called “consistency conditions” that they say any theory combining quantum mechanics and gravity must meet. And in certain highly simplified imaginary worlds, they claim to have found evidence that the only consistent theories of “quantum gravity” involve strings.

According to many researchers, the work provides weak but concrete support for the decades-old suspicion that string theory may be the only mathematically consistent theory of quantum gravity capable of reproducing gravity’s known form on the scale of galaxies, stars and planets, as captured by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. And if string theory is the only possible approach, then its proponents say it must be true — with or without physical evidence. String theory, by this account, is “the only game in town.”

“Proving that a big class of stringlike models are the only things consistent with general relativity and quantum mechanics would be a way, to some extent, of confirming it,” said Tom Hartman, a theoretical physicist at Cornell University who has been following the recent work.

If they are successful, the researchers acknowledge that such a proof will be seen as controversial evidence that string theory is correct. “‘Correct’ is a loaded word,” saidMukund Rangamani, a professor at Durham University in the United Kingdom and the co-author of a paper posted recently to the physics preprint site that finds evidence of “string universality” in a class of imaginary universes. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 3:39 pm

Posted in Science

Testing for Marijuana-Impaired Driving Is About to Get a Whole Lot Easier

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This is a very interesting (and good) development: a test for marijuana usage that is easy, quick, and tests only for recent usage. Kevin Drum has details.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Drug laws, Science

U.S. government is poised to withdraw longstanding warnings about cholesterol

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Apparently the admission of an egregious error—making dietary recommendations based on fad rather than evidence—is only implicit: no mea culpa to be seen. Still it is progress. How many people were driven to a high-carb diet (with the various problems that creates) by the government recommendations unsupported by evidence? How many people devoured trans fats (e.g., margarine) based on government recommendations unsupported by evidence?

The USDA did enormous damage, and so far as I can tell they are not really concerned about that. “Look forward, not back” is always the motto of those who have a done a grievous wrong. (For an evidence-based diet, see this post.)

Peter Whoriskey reports in the Washington Post:

The nation’s top nutrition advisory panel has decided to drop its caution about eating cholesterol-laden food, a move that could undo almost 40 years of government warnings about its consumption.

The group’s finding that cholesterol in the diet need no longer be considered a “nutrient of concern” stands in contrast to the committee’s findings five years ago, the last time it convened. During those proceedings, as in previous years, the panel deemed the issue of excess cholesterol in the American diet a public health concern.

The finding follows an evolution of thinking among many nutritionists who now believe that, for healthy adults, eating foods high in cholesterol may not significantly affect the level of cholesterol in the blood or increase the risk of heart disease.

The greater danger in this regard, these experts believe, lies not in products such as eggs, shrimp or lobster, which are high in cholesterol, but in too many servings of foods heavy with saturated fats, such as fatty meats, whole milk, and butter.

The new view on cholesterol in food does not reverse warnings about high levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, which have been linked to heart disease. Moreover, some experts warned that people with particular health problems, such as diabetes, should continue to avoid cholesterol-rich diets.

While Americans may be accustomed to conflicting dietary advice, the change on cholesterol comes from the influential Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the group that provides the scientific basis for the “Dietary Guidelines.” That federal publication has broad effects on the American diet, helping to determine the content of school lunches, affecting how food manufacturers advertise their wares, and serving as the foundation for reams of diet advice. . .

Continue reading.

So far as I can tell, there is zero evidence that dietary saturated fat is harmful at all. But do your own Googling. A good book on the topic: The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 11:23 am

QED 218, the Wee Scot, and Wolfman Razor add up to great shave

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SOTD 18 Feb 2015

Very fine shave today. Special 218 has a strong pine fragrance—pine tar, in effect, which might account for the color. I could not place the fragrance for quite a while: it was familiar yet mysterious.

Three passes with the really excellent Wolfman straight-bar razor left a BBS result, to which I applied a few sprays of l’Occitane Cade (first to palm of hand, then spread on face).

I retook the back of sink photo in the bathroom series and will update that post. Here’s the new photo:

Back of sink

Written by Leisureguy

18 February 2015 at 9:33 am

Posted in Shaving

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