Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Police deaths jump in 2011; guns are the leading cause

Preliminary estimates from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) tragically indicate that the number of police officers killed so far in 2011 exceeds the total for the same period last year by 13 percent and that the number of police officers killed by gunfire was the leading cause of death.
According to preliminary data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 173 officers have been killed during 2011 — up 13 percent from 153 line-of-duty deaths in 2010.

For the first time in 14 years, more officers died from firearms-related incidents than traffic-related incidents. Sixty-eight officers were shot and killed in 2011, up 15 percent from 2010 when 59 officers died from gunfire. The number of officers killed by firearms has now risen during each of the past three years.
The number of gun-related fatalities in 2011 substantially exceeds the average from the 2000s and is slightly higher than the average for the 1990s. Gun-related fatalities among law-enforcement officers are down though from the very high levels recorded in the 1980s and 1970s.

The statistics are a grim reminder that a society awash in guns poses deadly risks even to those who are armed, well-trained, and often wearing protective vests.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Armed and dangerous

Advocates of gun anarchy like to proclaim that stricter gun laws only serve to keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens. However, a New York Times investigation of North Carolina concealed weapons permit holders shows that those armed "law-abiding" citizens can become very, very dangerous.
...The New York Times examined the permit program in North Carolina, one of a dwindling number of states where the identities of permit holders remain public. The review, encompassing the last five years, offers a rare, detailed look at how a liberalized concealed weapons law has played out in one state. And while it does not provide answers, it does raise questions.

More than 2,400 permit holders were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, excluding traffic-related crimes, over the five-year period, The Times found when it compared databases of recent criminal court cases and licensees. While the figure represents a small percentage of those with permits, more than 200 were convicted of felonies, including at least 10 who committed murder or manslaughter. All but two of the killers used a gun.
The story relates a number of cases where permitted hot heads flip out and then use the close proximity of a weapon to assault or kill, going from "law-abiding citizen" to dangerous felon in the blink of an eye.

The Times also reports that felons often get to keep their concealed guns and their ability to purchase more.
The review also raises concerns about how well government officials police the permit process. In about half of the felony convictions, the authorities failed to revoke or suspend the holder’s permit, including for cases of murder, rape and kidnapping. The apparent oversights are especially worrisome in North Carolina, one of about 20 states where anyone with a valid concealed handgun permit can buy firearms without the federally mandated criminal background check. (Under federal law, felons lose the right to own guns.)

Ricky Wills, 59, kept his permit after recently spending several months behind bars for terrorizing his estranged wife and their daughter with a pair of guns and then shooting at their house while they, along with a sheriff’s deputy who had responded to a 911 call, were inside. “That’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” his wife, Debra Wills, said in an interview when told that her husband could most likely still buy a gun at any store in the state.
A sensible proposal would be be for anyone accused of a violent crime in North Carolina to immediately have their gun rights (including any special gun permits) suspended and weapons impounded until their criminal case is adjudicated. Courts would revoke all gun rights and dispose of the weapons upon conviction but allow people to petition for reinstatement of their rights some period after completing sentences.

If North Carolina can suspend driving privileges for some accusations of traffic offenses and impound vehicles for some accusations of crimes, it can surely do the same for guns.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

After 20 years, EPA finally issues mercury rules

Um, no not that Mercury.

After 20 years of delays, the EPA has finally announced rules to curb mercury and other toxic materials from large (25 megawatt and larger) coal- and oil-powered electrical plants. The rules were mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. An initial, weaker set of mercury rules was issued in 2005 by the Bush administration, but those rules were vacated by a federal court because they specifically exempted electric utilities. The new rules fulfill the court's instructions.

When fully implemented, the EPA estimates that the long-delayed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will prevent each year
  • 4,200 to 11,000 premature deaths,
  • 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis,
  • 4,700 heart attacks,
  • 130,000 asthma attacks,
  • 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits, and
  • 540,000 missed work days.
To put the numbers in perspective, the numbers of deaths and illnesses that would be saved each year would likely exceed the deaths (4,484) and casualties (32,200) that the U.S. suffered over the eight and a half year course of the Iraq war.

The EPA estimates that the annual health benefits are worth $37 billion to $90 billion, while the cost to implement the changes is just under $10 billion. Much of that $10 billion will go toward construction and equipment operations jobs.

Hmm, a set of cost-effective, life-saving, and health-inducing rules. Cue the predictable screams from the Radical Right, including notable coal-apologist Rep. Ed Whitfield.

What me hungry?

After a wait of far too many years (maybe a topic for another post), a study that Craig Gundersen and I conducted on "Food Insecurity and Insufficiency at Low Levels of Food Expenditures" has been published in the Review of Income and Wealth.

In the fall of each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases a report on food insecurity in the U.S. that describes the prevalence of food problems. News outlets take this report and publish stories on the extent of hunger. For example, this year MSNBC reported
The percentage of U.S. households where adults sometimes go hungry or are unable to put enough food on the table declined last year, United States Department of Agriculture figures released on Wednesday showed.
The food insecurity measures are also used by advocacy groups and the government to describe the needs of households and the effectiveness of assistance programs.

The primary food insecurity measure is constructed from responses to 10 to 18 survey questions that people are asked (10 questions if no children live in the household, and 18 questions otherwise). The questions ask about problems of increasing severity from
We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
the least severe condition to
In the last 12 months did any of the children ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
the most severe condition. People who answer three or more of the questions affirmatively ("sometimes" or "often" to the frequency questions and "yes" to the yes/no questions) are classified as food insecure, "meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members."

Craig and I were interested in how well the measures actually captured food problems. In particular, several of the questions leave room for subjective judgements (for example, how often is "often"). Respondents may also be embarrassed to report problems to interviewers. In addition, respondents may simply forget about problems that they experienced several months ago.

The survey that USDA uses to measure food insecurity also asks people about other, more objective, and more recent food outcomes, including the amounts that they spent on food in the previous week and in a usual week. Craig and I figured that the amounts that people spent on food should be correlated with their reports of food insecurity and that people with very, very low levels of food spending should report high (actually nearly ubiquitous levels) of food insecurity.

What we found was surprising.

Food insecurity and food expenditures are negatively related, as you would expect. However, the correlation is astonishingly weak. Among people in low-income households, the absolute value of the correlation between food insecurity and weekly food expenditures scaled by household size or food needs is less than 10 percent.

More surprising still, when we focus on households with low incomes and very low levels of food expenditures (e.g., expenditures below half of what the USDA says is the minimum recommended healthy amount for a household), less than 40 percent report being food insecure. In fact, at no point along an objectively-scaled food expenditure distribution do people report food insecurity rates much above 50 percent.

We run some follow-up analyses that indicate that the food expenditure and food needs measures are reliable. We also re-examine the relationships for groups where we can rule out other types of reporting problems. The analyses lead us to the conclusion that the weakness lies in the food insecurity measure itself.

The particular problem is the food insecurity is much likely higher among some especially disadvantaged groups than the reported statistics indicate. As we state at the end of the article,
Our findings that food hardships are under-reported at the low end of the expenditure distribution should be disquieting to researchers and policymakers. The data may be masking genuine distress among the disadvantaged households, and the modest relationship with food expenditures may mean that the food insecurity and insufficiency measures will have difficulty registering increases in well-being from policy innovations and economic improvements.
Hopefully, this will give USDA something to chew on.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Big fat nothing-burger in state job growth

Another month, another state employment report, another month of waiting for significant job growth in the Tar Heel state.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported today that the number of non-farm jobs in North Carolina grew last month on a seasonally-adjusted basis by only 3,800. Despite modest increases last month and the month before, the total number of non-farm jobs in November remains below the numbers recorded in February through May.

The Republican plan of cutting taxes and getting the government out of the way was supposed to lead to a jobs renaissance. Instead, state employment is struggling to get to recover to the point where it was when Republicans took over the legislature.

Party of No run amok

Just when you thought the machinations over the payroll tax and emergency unemployment insurance extensions couldn't get any more ridiculous, House Republicans gave the whole dysfunctional saga a new twist, by using a procedural maneuver to block a vote on the Senate's compromise package.
Republicans on the House rules committee have voted to prevent a direct vote Tuesday on a Senate plan favored by Democrats and Senate Republicans to extend the payroll tax cut for two months.

By an 8-4 vote Monday night, the GOP-led panel rejected a Democratic amendment that would have held a vote on whether to approve the Senate plan, which is opposed by House Republican leaders.
This marks the second time that Republicans have stopped votes on Republican-supported versions of the tax cut and UI extension.

Recall that last week, Republicans in the Senate used a procedural maneuver to block a direct vote on legislation that had been passed in the Republican House (showing that they are equal-opportunity obstructionists, Senate Republicans also blocked votes on legislation submitted by Democrats).

Now it seems that House Republicans are returning the favor, while at the same time showing that the Party of No is incapable of negotiating in good faith.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dearly departed

One of the world's most prolific mass-murderers has left the stage. North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jung Il died this weekend. Few, other than the kleptocrats who continue to control North Korea, will mourn his loss.

Kim Jung Il's loathsome legacy includes mass murder at home and abroad. At home, he presided over political killings and government-abetted famines that may have taken two million lives and possibly a great many more. The death toll places him with Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong among history's most notorious mass murderers. Abroad, he is accused of bombings that killed South Korean officials in 1983 and that brought down a South Korean civilian airliner in 1987. This last March, his regime torpedoed a South Korean corvette, consigning another 46 people to death.

Murder was only one of Kim Jung Il's crimes. Human Rights Watch described his system.
There is no organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention,lack of due process, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees remain serious and endemic problems. North Korea also practices collective punishment for various anti-state offenses, for which it enslaves hundreds of thousands of citizens in prison camps, including children. The government periodically publicly executes citizens for stealing state property, hoarding food, and other "anti-socialist" crimes.
Human Rights Watch estimates that up to 200,000 North Koreans continue to waste away in the country's concentration camps. North Korea's economy remains in ruins, and its people continue to starve and suffer.

The world's fondest hope should be that Kim Jong Il's death extinguishes Stalinism on the Korean peninsula. Sadly, the gears of the regime's succession appear to be grinding forward.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Onward Christmas Soldiers!

The holiday display on the courthouse lawn near (one of the places) where I grew up has become much more diverse than I remember.
For the better part of 50 years, a creche and a Christmas tree were the only holiday displays on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds.

Then came the mannequin Luke Skywalker and signs celebrating the winter solstice. This month, a skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society’s obsession with consumerism. A pine stands adorned with tinsel — and atheist testimonials. (“I can be moral without religion,” one declares.)

Members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It’s a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, and the manger is surrounded by pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: “Touched by an Angelhair.”
It's heatwarming to see some new holiday traditions, although some older ones, like a Festivus pole, would have been nice too.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The War on Christmas (continued)

Maybe it's the unusually warm weather this December, but the "war on Christmas" letters to the local paper were late in arriving this year. One more thing to pin on global warming I suppose.

Finally, though this morning, they arrived, and Greensboro is bathed in the fresh scent of holly, mistletoe and intolerance.

One, lamenting that the Jaycees' parade held on December 5 was called a "Holiday Parade," asks "Why don’t we have a Christmas parade? ...What has happened to this country? The majority should rule."

I'm not quite sure how Christmas describes much of anything occurring on December 5. Calling it a Faunalia or St. Nicholas Eve parade would have more apt.

The other, writing about Greensboro's Community Tree Lighting, asks
It is really a shame that in order to be politically correct the word “Christmas” has been absent from most advertising promoting the event. What would be wrong with Community Christmas Tree Lighting?
A nice Christmas tree, just like Joseph set up in the manger?

The author might consider that the Community Tree putter-upper-namer-givers were actually being sensitive to more Biblically-minded Christians who remember that Jeremiah 10:2-4 instructs
This is what the LORD says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them.

For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.

They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.
Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Just kidding

It turns out that the Republican plan to privatize Medicare wasn't so serious after all. The Washington Post reports
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who has been castigated by Democrats and hailed by Republicans for his plan to privatize Medicare, will on Thursday unveil a new approach that would preserve the 46-year-old federal health program.

Sort of reminds me of when Johnny turned out the runway lights in Airplane.

Boundaries for sustainability

Bloomberg has a fascinating slide show on nine so-called "planetary boundaries." These are biophysical thresholds, such as the amounts of greenhouse or ozone-depleting gases in the atmosphere or the acidity of the oceans, beyond which scientists believe we risk catastrophic environmental change.

A 2009 article by Rockström and colleagues from Nature explains the concept more and argues that the planet has already passed the safe thresholds for greenhouse gases, species extinction rates, and nitrogen loading.

The thresholds are speculative. Scientists can't say for sure where (or in some cases even whether) there are points at which environmental systems tip from one set of dynamic relationships to another. The authors of the Nature article admit to being overly cautious in setting boundaries a safe distance within the catastrophic thresholds (sort of the way that the empty warning light on your dashboard indicates that you at risk of running out of gas but still have some time to get some).

The concept of boundaries fits well with economists' standard methodological approaches of constrained optimization and suggests a formal, practical approach for accommodating sustainability into growth modeling.

Little dynamism in employment

Earlier this week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover report. Consistent with the recent modest growth in employment, the report showed that hiring rates slightly exceeded separation rates and that the job opening and hiring rates were substantially better than they were in the depths of the recession.

Rates of job openings are close to where they were near the end of the last "employment recession," which suggests that employment might be ready to pick up.

However, rates of hiring and separations remain far, far below their pre-recession values. In the mid-2000s, there were generally 5.0 to 5.5 million hires per month and slightly fewer separations. Over the last year, hiring has come in at around 4.0 million per month (again, with separations slightly lower). There has been only a slight trend upward in hiring rates since the bottom of the recession.

Much of the difference in job dynamics appears attributable to a fall-off in voluntary separations. In the mid-2000s, about 3 million people quit their jobs in an average month; currently, fewer than 2 million are quitting their jobs.

The changes indicate that the job market is much less dynamic than it used to be. Fear plays a role; in a weak economy, people are less likely to quit jobs unless they have something already lined up. The housing collapse may also be contributing; people who are underwater in their mortgages may not be able to move to places where there are better opportunities. The fall-off in wealth from the housing collapse and a weak stock market may be leading older workers to put off retirement.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gov. Romney shamed by "Bob the Veteran"

Campaigning in New Hampshire, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney had an uncomfortable encounter with his own support of bigotry.
It started out as a seemingly safe situation. Mitt Romney, working a friendly room at a the Chez Vachon diner here, approached an older man wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap and sidled up next to him.

After some friendly banter about their ages, Bob Garon asked the former Massachusetts governor whether he supports repealing New Hampshire’s same sex marriage law.

...With that, it started to become clear that a routine campaign conversation could become hostile. Though Romney had no reason to know it, Garon – a 63-year-old from Epsom, N.H. -- was sitting at the table with his husband.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Ben Smith reports further
Romney aides, meanwhile, reminded reporters that the former governor is running in a Republican (italics original) primary.

"We'll take that pistol-whipping," an aide said.
Someone might remind the former governor that although he is running in a Republican primary, he is seeking to be President of the entire United States.

You would think that someone who came from a faith tradition that suffered as much government-supported persecution as Mr. Romney's would be more understanding of this issue. So long as Mr. Romney is running in a Republican primary, you'd be wrong.

Monday, December 12, 2011

One issue at a time?

In it's Pledge to America, the incoming Tea-Party Republicans pledged that they would
end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with “must-pass” legislation to circumvent the will of the American people. Instead, we will advance major legislation one issue at a time.
The extension of the payroll tax cut would seem to qualify as "major legislation," but the House Republican's bill definitely does not qualify as "one issue at a time." The bill's description "to provide incentives for the creation of jobs, and for other purposes" says it all.

The bill has six major sections (Titles), only the first purports to deal with job creation, and the second actually contains the extension of the payroll tax break. So what's in the bill?
  • Title I -- requires that the Obama administration act on the Keystone XL pipeline application, suspends several regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, and gives depreciation tax breaks to businesses.
  • Title II -- extends the payroll tax break and emergency Unemployment Insurance (UI) payments through 2012 but also makes other changes to the UI program, applies the "doc fix" and other changes to Medicare, requires offsets for the costs of the "doc fix," and extends and modifies the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF or cash welfare) program.
  • Title III -- covers the Flood Insurance Program.
  • Title IV -- covers auctioning of the broadband spectrum and public safety communications.
  • Title V -- lists funding offsets, including increasing the fees that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac charge borrowers, changing federal retirements, freezing the pay of federal workers, and and increasing Medicare premiums for high-income people.
  • Title IV -- contains "miscellaneous provisions.
That's a lot of issues at one time. That's also a broken pledge.

Charity begins someplace else

Apparently, beggars have had it too easy in Johnston County, but the Johnston County commissioners have an app for that.
Panhandlers could soon have to undergo a criminal background check and pay $20 a month if they want to continually ask people for money in Johnston County.

County commissioners voted 6-1 last week to set limits on people who beg for money in Johnston. Wade Stewart cast the lone vote against a new ordinance. A second vote is set to take place next month.

Under the proposed rules, panhandlers would be required to get a permit every 30 days through the sheriff's office. The first month's permit would be free, but panhandlers would pay $20 for each subsequent permit.
Lest you think the dissenting vote represented some soft-hearted squishiness on the part of the commissioners, that vote came because a commissioner feared the licenses would create an entitlement to beg.

Conservatives have long maintained that charity is undermined by government assistance. However, as the Johnson County commissioners show, charity is actually undermined by the lack of charity.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Joe Guarino goin' Hollywood

Some readers may be old enough to remember way back in the Fall of 2000, when many of Hollywood's dimmer luminaries were threatening to leave the country if George Bush were elected.

Others may remember Alexander threatening to move to Australia after his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Well, similarly childish Hollywood sentiments are now afflicting local conservative blogger Joe Gaurino.

Following the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad election day that conservative city council candidates had last month, Joe is telling folks to get out of Greensboro while the gettin' is good.
People are able to vote with their feet. And as far as I am concerned, they should be encouraged to do so-- to consider getting out.

Greensboro is a slowly sinking ship; and it might be best to find a life boat.
And earlier
...Greensboro residents concerned about the taxes they will be paying should justifiably look at alternatives-- especially in view of the lopsided tax/bond/spend majority the city's voters just elected. At some point, good people must decide whether they will allow themselves to continue to be exploited; or whether they will do what they need to do to protect their own property and income.
It's pleasant to imagine how much nicer Greensboro would be if Joe and his C4GC friends did up and leave. Heck, I'd offer to help them pack.

My prediction, however, is that when their pity party is done, Joe and his conservative cabal will show themselves to be like Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, and the fictional Alexander in one additional way--they'll suck it up and stay.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Some heartfelt economic news...

Yes, I'll fess up that after a couple-month hiatus, I did pay a "few" visits to McDonalds last month, but I didn't think I ate that much
Sales rose 6.5 percent at McDonald’s stores in the U.S. and also 6.5 percent in Europe. Analysts were expecting growth of 5 percent in the U.S. and 4.3 percent in Europe.
Thank goodness that Donut World doesn't have to report its sales figures.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Amnesty good for me but not for thee

Want to make a Republican apoplectic and to receive a stern lecture on incentives? Suggest a compromise that somehow involves a path to citizenship or permanent residency for some of the 11 million or so unauthorized immigrants aliens in this country.

Someone mentioned Newt Gingrich's musings about a pathway to citizenship for some long-term immigrants to Republican Representation Brian Bilbray, causing him to spew
They don’t understand that talking about amnesty to reduce illegal immigration is about as logical as somebody saying, ‘Let’s drill a hole in the bottom of a boat to let the water out.’ You’re going to cause a whole new wave of illegal immigration.
Rep. Bilbray even criticized the mere discussion of these proposals.
It’s sending a signal to the world that a candidate for president, or worse, the president himself, has announced that if you break the law and come to this country illegally — if you risk your life or be one of those who die along the border and try to come to the country illegally, we will reward you if you come in here ... Everyone who is given a job and any elected official who is announcing to the world that Washington and the federal government is going to reward illegal immigration are part and parcel to the problem of sending a clear and defining message. Even Newt Gingrich would say that our problem is that we’ve sent mixed messages in the past and that’s enticed people to come here and be here illegally.
Once you get past the spittle and snarling, Rep. Bilbray and other Republicans seem to be making the point that amnesties, even partial ones, create some awful incentives. While the policy addresses some immediate concerns, it also creates future problems if the next set of people considering whether to enter and stay in the country without authorization come to expect periodic amnesties.

So if amnesties encourage such bad behavior, why are Republicans (regrettably abetted by some "centrist" Democrats) advocating a one-year, no-strings-attached, "olly olly oxen free," tax amnesty for multinational corporations who have hidden their revenues in other countries?

Specifically, corporations are allowed to defer taxes on profits that are held abroad. The tax amount, which would generally equal the different between the applicable U.S. tax rate and what the corporation pays in the country where the profits are initially parked, is only due when the company brings the money back into the country. Instead of this eventual amount, Republicans are proposing a special low-low rate of as little as 5.25 percent if corporations rebate the money now. Rep. Bilbray (the same don't-you-idiots-understand-incentives guy) has even submitted a bill that would temporarily reduce the tax rate to zero.

Republicans main argument about the tax amnesty is which hostage to take to pass one--the payroll tax break that is due to expire this year or the broader set of Bush-era tax cuts that are due to expire next year.

Absent from those arguments, however, is any discussion of the bad incentives that tax amnesties create. One reason why corporations delay repatriating money to the U.S. is the possibility of a lower tax rates, including special amnesty deals, in the future. There's precedent for this thinking because a similar "one time" amnesty was granted in 2004. And consistent with the incentives argument, multinational corporations greatly increased the amounts of profits that they stashed overseas following the 2004 amnesty. If a similar policy were enacted today, the professional staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation predict that the bad incentives would lead to a net cost of $79 billion over 10 years.

When human beings are concerned, these policies are nasty "amnesties." When corporations are concerned, they're "holidays." Go figure.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Diminishing returns along the border

Arrests of people crossing the border with Mexico have fallen to historic lows. The Washington Post reported on Saturday
The Border Patrol apprehended 327,577 illegal crossers along the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2011, which ended Sept. 30, numbers not seen since Richard Nixon was president, and a precipitous drop from the peak in 2000, when 1.6 million unauthorized migrants were caught. More than 90 percent of the migrants apprehended on the southwest border are Mexican.

...“We have reached the point where the balance between Mexicans moving to the United States and those returning to Mexico is essentially zero,” said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, whose conclusion was shared by many migration experts.
Yet the Obama administration continues to deploy 1,200 National Guard troops along the border, mostly for show.
President Obama’s decision last year to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border may have been smart politics, but a growing number of skeptics say the deployment is an expensive and inefficient mission that has made little difference in homeland security
The rules of engagement, rightly, limit the role of the National Guard to observation. The net effect, however, is that the troops increase the cost of securing the border by about $110 million per year but have little impact on security itself. The Post story continues
In an August report on the costs and benefits of an increased role for the Defense Department along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Government Accountability Office told Congress that it takes three people to do the job of one: two Guard soldiers to spot an illegal crosser and one federal agent to catch him.
Since 9/11, the United States has greatly strengthened its fence along the border. It has also doubled the number of Border Patrol agents, with predictable effects on border crossings and apprehensions.

At a time when the military is already strained and where the government is looking to save every penny that it can, an ineffective $110 million National Guard "troop surge" along the border seems especially wasteful and a bad return on investment. President Obama should end the deployment at the end of this year and allow the troops to return to their home states and bases.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Profiles in cravenness

Juan Williams writes in The Hill about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich being for health insurance mandates before they were against them.
What do Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, have in common?

Long before President Obama, both supported an idea they now pretend to spurn — the idea of requiring people to buy health insurance.

As recently as 2009, Romney publicly supported, the “individual mandate” for buying health insurance. And as recently as last month one of Gingrich’s websites still endorsed the “mandate” for all Americans earning more than $50,000 annually.

...At the CNN debate this October in Las Vegas, Gingrich took a swipe at Romney over the former Massachusetts governor’s healthcare plan that requires citizens in the Bay State to buy health insurance. Romney shot back: “Newt, we got the idea of individual mandate from you.”

Gingrich responded: “You did not get that from me. You got that from the Heritage Foundation.”

They are both correct on this revealing point. The Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank, first developed the idea of an individual mandate for healthcare in the late 1980s. That is how deeply this idea is tied to conservative thinkers.

Romney used the Heritage policy in developing his Massachusetts healthcare law. That reform contained the dreaded individual mandate.

And Gingrich supported the federal mandate as an alternative to Hillary Clinton’s healthcare reform package when he was Speaker in the 1990s.
There seem to be few former policy "stands" these two won't gainsay to appease the Tea Party crowd.

Solving thorny problems, like health care reform, requires the courage to lead and to stand up for potentially upsetting positions. The late Sen. Paul Tsongas' name for politicians like Gingrich and Romney seems apt--pander bears.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Some perspective on Food Stamp fraud

Households that receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) usually fly under the radar, but recently they've received a lot of unflattering (and misleading) attention.

For example, an article in the Washington Examiner was breathlessly headlined "Maryland, Virginia at top of nation for food stamp fraud."
Maryland ranks second and Virginia fifth in the amount of taxpayer dollars wasted on food stamp fraud.

For every $100 in benefits, Maryland gave out $6.11 to people who weren't eligible -- amounting to about $60 million, according to fiscal 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Virginia gave out $5.04 to ineligible recipients, or about $70 million, and the District ranked 21st, doling out $3.76 in overpayments. The national average was $3.05.

But local investigators are examining a shrinking percentage of recipients for fraud -- and very few offenders are prosecuted -- even as government spending on the welfare program, which helps needy families pay for groceries, soars to record highs.

Analysts say fraud is increasingly going undetected, as most states have fewer resources to devote to the oversight of food stamps for more than 45 million Americans.
Earlier this week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gringrich reportedly said
...more Americans today get food stamps than before. And we now give it away as cash -- you don't get food stamps. You get a credit card, and the credit card can be used for anything. We have people who take their food stamp money and use it to go to Hawaii. They give food stamps now to millionaires because, after all, don't you want to be compassionate?
The stories by the Washington Examiner and Mr. Gingrich suggest that there is rampant fraud in the SNAP program. It might surprise both of them to learn that administrative errors and fraud in the SNAP have decreased substantially over time and now appear to be at record lows. In 2010 the GAO reported
The national payment error rate reported for SNAP, which combines states’ overpayments and underpayments to program participants, has declined by 56 percent from 1999 to 2009, from 9.86 percent to a record low of 4.36 percent.
The administrative error rate for FY 2010 in the SNAP was lower still at 3.81 percent. The error rate is a problem, but it is much lower than other organizations. For example, improper payment errors in the Medicare fee-for-service program in 2011 were 8.6 percent, and errors in the Medicare Advantage program were 11 percent. And even these error rates are far lower than rates for major private health insurers, which the American Medical Association estimated were 19.3 percent in 2011.

In contrast to the implication by the Washington Examiner article, the fraud rate is different from and much likely lower than the error rate. Administrative errors occur for many reasons, including case-worker errors. In FY 2009, 843,000 suspected SNAP fraud cases were investigated by state authorities. Only about a quarter of these were determined to actually involve fraud, and the amount of fraud identified came to just over $100 million (compared to total overpayments of $1.8 billion).

Trafficking in SNAP benefits also has decreased; the 2010 GAO report indicated that
FNS estimates indicate that the national rate of food stamp trafficking declined from about 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits redeemed in 1993 to about 1.0 cent per dollar during the years 2002 to 2005.
Over this same period, the SNAP became much more efficient. In FY 2003, $5.0 billion, or 19 cents out of every dollar spent on SNAP, went to administrative overhead. By FY 2009 (the last year for which full figures are available), the overhead rate had fallen to just under 12 cents per dollar. The available evidence* indicates that the overhead expense rate is now closer to 10 cents. Again, some perspective is worthwhile. Private health insurers have complained that overhead caps of 15 to 20 percent (Medical Loss Ratio minimums of 80-85 percent) under the Affordable Care Act are too onerous.

The improvements in program performance have come at a time when the SNAP has expanded significantly. In the year before the expansions under the Republican-signed 2002 farm bill, the SNAP (then Food Stamp Program) served 19.1 million people. In FY 2010, it served 40.3 million.

It's questionable whether additional administrative expenses in the SNAP would be worthwhile. In FY 2009, the states and federal government spent $6.6 billion administering the SNAP, while the total estimated overpayments were $1.8 billion and the total estimated underpayments were about $0.4 billion. At this point, each additional dollar of administrative expenses seems to reduce the value of administrative errors by less than a dollar.

A program that serves 40 million people is going to turn up some problems, including some egregious ones. Indeed, errors and abuses in the SNAP cost taxpayers and potential recipients billions. Nevertheless, the available evidence indicates that the SNAP run with less proportional administrative cost, with fewer proportional errors, and lower rates of fraud than other private and public programs.

While we can't say for certain how many people are taking unfair advantage of the SNAP, we can identify two: the Washington Examiner and Newt Gingrich.

* States and the federal government share the expenses of administering the SNAP approximately 50-50. For FY 2010, we have the federal expenses but not the state expenses. The federal overhead rate was approximately 5 cents per dollar.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Santa came early with November's job report

For the first time in a while, the monthly job report was solidly positive. The estimated, seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate from the household survey fell to 8.6 percent, the lowest that figure has been since March of 2009. The proportion of the civilian, non-institutionalized population that was working rose to 58.5 percent, the best that figure has been in 8 months.

The improvement in the unemployment rate is a positive development. However, while many more people reported working last month, a portion of the drop in unemployment was due to an unexpected drop in the number of people in the labor force. The proportion of people in the labor force (people working or actively looking for work) fell to 64 percent, which keeps the number near 30-year lows).

The preliminary figures from the establishment survey indicate that 120,000 non-farm jobs were added on a seasonally-adjusted basis in November, while revisions to the figures for September and October added another 72,000 jobs. Altogether, the number of jobs in the current report was nearly 200,000 higher than the number reported in the previous report.

More working Americans is good news heading into the holiday season. Hopefully, many more people will be working before long.