Monday, December 31, 2012

Law enforcement officer deaths down 23 percent in 2012

Fatalities among law enforcement officers fell 23 percent from a year earlier, according to a preliminary report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF). The NLEOMF reports that 127 law enforcement officers lost their lives while performing their jobs in 2012.

The loss of life is appalling; however, the trend is good news. The number of fatalities is not only far lower than last year's toll but also near the 50-year low set in 2009, as shown in a graph from the NLEOMF web-site.

The fall largely reflects a decline in firearm-related deaths, which dropped 32 percent from 72 in 2011 to 49 in 2012. However, traffic-related deaths also fell by 17 percent.

Although the overall trend is welcome news, there were some disturbing developments. Ambush attacks increased and were the largest single source of firearms-related deaths, accounting for just over one in nine officer deaths.

Let's hope that 2013 is safer.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Death by dysfunction

As nauseating and potentially damaging as the current stalemate over the fiscal cliff is, it's only one of several important pieces of legislation to run afoul of the dysfunctional Republican House of Representatives.

Farm Bill. In June, the Farm Bill, which sets the country's agricultural policy, authorizes U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, and funds food and farm disaster assistance programs passed the Senate (S. 3240) with a bipartisan 64-35 majority. The bill includes several tough reforms; the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would cut $23.1 billion in expenditures over the next ten years

The House Committee on Agriculture marked up a version of the bill and passed it with an overwhelming and bipartisan 35-11 vote. However, there it stopped, as House leaders, under pressure from extreme conservatives, refused to allow a general vote. Foreshadowing the shrewd strategy that he would later adopt for the fiscal cliff, House Speaker Boehner substituted a one-year "plan B" bill but then pulled that when the radical right wouldn't go along.

As the year ends, $23.1 billion in program cuts along with five-year certainty for farm policy languish without an up or down vote because the cuts aren't extreme enough for a portion of the radical right. Worse, several provisions of the current farm bill are set to expire on January 1, including the dairy cliff.

Friday, December 28, 2012

"All I need is a miracle" -- growth in the no-personal-income-tax states

Earlier this week, I analyzed a proposal that the John W. Pope Civitas Institute has made to eliminate the corporate, personal, and business franchise taxes that North Carolinians pay and to replace these with a higher and expanded sales tax, a business license fee, and a real estate conveyance fee (a real estate sales tax). The proposal would shift the responsibility for paying taxes away from North Carolina's wealthiest households and most prosperous corporations and towards its poorest households and smaller businesses.

Civitas acknowledges that the tax proposal would be regressive but claims that it would lead to greater economic growth. As evidence it cites the experiences of states that do not assess personal income taxes and of those that do not assess corporate income taxes. These states experienced higher growth in their Gross Domestic Products (GDPs) than other states.

As I wrote in the earlier post, this contention is correct, but it is hardly evidence of the effect of the states' tax policies. For example, total GDP is influenced by the number of people in a state, and GDP growth is influenced by population growth. Each of the no-personal-income-tax (NPIT) states experienced above-average population growth. Several of the states have other things that make them unique. Below I analyze the growth rates for the states, highlighting some of their characteristics.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Civitas' immiserating tax scheme

Charge them for the lice
Extra for the mice
Two percent for looking in the mirror twice
Here a little slice
There a little cut
Three percent for sleeping with the window shut
Taking inspiration where it can (and probably recommending that the poor pay a tax for that too), the John W. Pope Civitas Institute has released an audacious proposal to reduce rich North Carolinians' payments by having everyone else pay more in taxes for food, medicine, and rent.

Specifically, Civitas recommends eliminating the personal income tax, the corporate income tax, and the franchise tax that North Carolina households and businesses currently pay and replacing these with
  • a higher (8.05 percent) sales tax which would be extended beyond the current tax base to cover groceries, insurance premiums, out of pocket medical expenses, residential leases, lottery ticket sales, and any service that is taxed in at least one other state (the proposal would also eliminate other exemptions and special rates in the current tax code but would exempt business expenditures on capital goods);
  • a business license fee; and
  • a real estate conveyance fee (a tax on commercial real estate sales)
Civitas claims that the change would be "revenue neutral," meaning that the new and increased taxes would bring in as much money as the taxes they are replacing. The claims of neutrality are suspect because the revenue figures that Civitas uses are $750 million less than what the state actually took in. Let's assume, however, that the final proposal is revenue neutral.

Under a revenue neutral tax reform, some households and businesses will pay less, while others will pay more. The reform shifts the responsibility of paying taxes from one group to another.

For this particular proposal, the responsibility would shift from rich households and prosperous corporations to poor households and smaller businesses. The tax system would lurch from being progressive (meaning that wealthier people pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than poorer people) to regressive (meaning that poorer people pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than wealthier people).

Civitas claims that this shift will actually be beneficial because "progressive income taxes (are) more harmful to growth." As evidence in support of this claim, Civitas compares "growth rates" for states with and without corporate income taxes and states with and without personal income taxes. It finds that states without the taxes experienced higher rates of economic growth.

Civitas provides almost no documentation for its figures besides saying that they are based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). An analysis of the BEA data, however, indicates that the Civitas claims don't hold water.

The "headline" measure of state economic growth that the BEA uses is real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP), an estimate of the value of goods and services produced within the state. For instance, Civitas claims that average annual growth from 2002-2011 was half a percent lower in states with a personal income tax than in states without such a tax (1.7 percent growth vs. 2.2 percent growth). There is some question regarding which states do and don't have personal income taxes. Seven states (Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington) definitely do not have personal income taxes. Two other states (New Hampshire and Tennessee) only assess personal income taxes on certain types of income, such as dividends or interest. For the present analysis, I computed the annual changes in real GDP for 2002-3, 2003-4, ..., 2010-11, averaged the annual changes for the first seven states, and averaged the annual changes for the remaining 43 states (omitting the District of Columbia). Doing this reproduces Civitas' 2.2 percent average annual growth figure for the no personal tax states but only produces a 1.5 percent growth figure for the other states. These comparisons are more favorable to Civitas' argument than others (such as including DC or treating NH and TN as no-personal-income-tax states), so I'll continue with them.

There are a number of problems with Civitas' analysis. For one thing, Civitas does not adjust its GDP figure for population growth. Redoing the comparisons using real per capita GDP reveals that economic output per person grew slightly more in the personal-income-tax states (0.7 percent per year) than in the no-personal-income-tax states (0.6 percent per year).

Civitas similarly fails to account for the fact that three of the seven no-personal-income-tax states are major oil and gas producers that have benefited from high energy prices over the last decade. Although oil and gas extraction accounted for only one percent of economic output nationally in 2010, it accounted for 16.4 percent of the output in Alaska, 14.2 percent of output in Wyoming, and 6.3 percent of output in Texas. Indeed, Alaska gets so much revenue from its oil and gas fields that it actually pays an annual royalty to its citizens.

Federal government military and civilian activity also accounts for a larger share of economic output in the no-personal-income-tax states than in the others, and federal military and civilian activities grew at a faster rate in the last decade in those economies than in others. For example, although federal civilian and military activities only accounted for 3.7 percent of state economic output nationally in 2010, they accounted for 10 percent of the economic activity in Alaska and 5.1 percent of the activity in Washington. The state and local governments in the seven no-personal-income-tax states also get more intergovernmental revenue from the federal government (e.g., payments from the federal government to help the state and local governments operate schools and build roads) on a per capita basis than other states. Figures from an analysis by The Economist also reveal that the seven no-personal-income-tax states enjoyed a bigger net differential over other states between 1990 and 2009 in the receipt of federal expenditures over the payment of federal taxes. It's much easier to lower your state's tax rates when taxpayers from other states are footing so much of the bill.

Shifting more of the responsibility of paying taxes from those who have benefited from the economy to those who haven't is a cruel prescription, especially given the deprivations that poor families have faced over the last few years. However, it's crueler still to do this with no demonstrable benefit to the economy.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gun realism

There are a couple of principles that seem useful as we consider sensible measures to improve gun safety.

The first principle considers how much firepower should be in ordinary hands. Reasonable people would agree that there is a line where the capabilities of a firearm create more risks than benefits. For example, we sensibly limit the ownership of fully automatic firearms and other powerful weapons. Most people believe that the capabilities of assault-style semi-automatic weapons and weapons with massive ammunition clips go beyond the reasonable needs of ordinary households. A sensible approach to gun safety is to set a limit on capabilities; possession any firearm or component that exceeds those capabilities would require federal licensing, which in turn would require an extensive criminal and mental background check, special training, reporting mandates if the firearm or component is lost or stolen, and fees to cover the administration of these provisions.

The second principle considers who should be allowed to possess a gun in the first place. Most guns are kept and used for legitimate purposes. However, some guns are also used for illegitimate and offensive purposes. Criminals and people who lack the rational capacity to use a firearm responsibly should not have them. The problem is the people who shouldn't have access to guns aren't immediately distinguishable from people who should have access. Worse, methods of distinguishing different types of people (a) are imperfect (for example, no reasonable system will identify people with criminal intent but no prior criminal activity), (b) impose costs on the legitimate potential owners--the vast majority of the population, and (c) have to be nearly universal to be effective (the analogy is a fence that runs along three-quarters of a property line--with little effort someone can just walk around).

The U.S. currently requires some gun purchasers to undergo checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). However, the system is far from universal. Federal regulations require licensed sellers to perform the checks, but depending on the state, other sales often go unchecked. The checks should be universal and national. This would raise the costs for some private transactions and reduce their convenience, but maybe not as much as some people think. For example, we have a system of notaries public that verify identities for legal documents. It's hardly a stretch to imagine a private system that could provide NICS verification. Gun shows could hire these verifiers to staff a booth and perform the checks for private sales and exchanges. Outside of gun shows, private seller and traders could go to a local verifier.

An additional problem with the NICS is that a subset of states have not cooperated in providing records. Financial incentives should be provided to obtain the necessary cooperation.

As if these impediments to keeping guns out of the hands of criminals weren't enough, the gun lobby has also worked to neuter the modest amounts of enforcement that are there by cutting its staffing and by denying it leadership. The country needs a functioning Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and that Bureau needs a confirmed director. Conservative legislators have also worked to reduce funding for federal-local partnerships, like Project Safe Neighborhoods, that reduce gun trafficking and that promote the safer use of guns.

Taken together, how much would capacity restrictions, better checks, and more effective enforcement help to stem gun violence? Unfortunately, we shouldn't expect much impact--initially. America is awash in guns; all guns are capable of producing harm; and all guns can be misused. Restrictions on the most powerful guns would only put a small dent in overall gun ownership. More consistent and complete checks would slow the circulation of guns into the wrong hands but would not remove guns. Indeed, it is actually reasonable to suspect that things would initially get worse, as the announcement of any policy change would lead some people to speed up their transactions before the implementation date.

Over time, however, there could be improvements in safety, but realistically these improvements would be modest and gradual. The most noticeable direct improvement would come from choking off the supply of guns to criminals. In 2008, there were approximately 1,800 gun homicides committed in conjunction with another crime (74 percent of all homicides involving a felony) and approximately 900 gun homicides that were gang-related (92 percent of all gang-related homicides). These accounted for about one out of nine homicides committed in 2008. While tragic events, like the shooting in Newtown, CT, command our attend, an equivalent number of victims are gunned down in the commission of crimes or in gang murders every four days.

Limiting access to more powerful weapons might reduce the number of mass shootings, but as horrendous as these tragedies are, they account for only a small fraction of homicides each year. In 2008, 95.5 percent of all homicides involved a single victim; 3.7 percent involved two victims; and less than 1 percent involved three or more victims. The percentage of shootings involving extraordinary weapons is obviously even lower still. At its best, a completely effective ban on overly capable weapons would only save a few dozen lives. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't enact these steps--each life that we can save is precious. Realistically, however, the number that will be directly saved is modest.

A more promising improvement would likely be indirect. As fewer gangs and criminals possessed guns and perhaps as there were fewer headline-grabbing mass murders, the fear that motivates a large portion of gun ownership would subside. This indirect, albeit rational and voluntary, effect would lead to reductions in gun ownership and would greatly increase safety. Guns in the home increase the chances of accidental deaths and injuries, suicides, homicides, and violent intimidation without much demonstrable effect on crime deterrence, self-defense. Gun manufacturers would suffer, but the rest of us would benefit.

Restricting access to the most dangerous guns and keeping all guns out of the hands of the most dangerous people are sensible steps that would help stem gun violence, but they are far from a cure all. Hopefully, though, they would be a first step toward a substantially safer and saner country.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sensible gun control

An immediate, common-sense, and effective step that we could take to stem gun violence is to simply let the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) do its job.

The Washington Post reports
Amid an intense debate over gun control in the wake of the mass shooting in Connecticut, the federal agency at the heart of firearms regulation in America is so beleaguered and under-resourced that it has not had a confirmed director in six years.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a division of the Justice Department, is supposed to regulate the nation’s gun industry. But many within ATF say it is the industry that dominates the agency.

The gun lobby, concerned about government regulation of firearms ownership, has taken steps to limit the resources available to ATF and to prevent the agency from having a strong leader, according to former and current ATF officials.

For decades, the National Rifle Association has lobbied successfully to block all attempts to computerize records of gun sales, arguing against any kind of national registry of firearms ownership. And despite the growth of the gun industry and the nation’s population, ATF has fewer agents today than it did nearly four decades ago: fewer than 2,500.
A capable and qualified nominee to head the ATF has languished for two years. It's long past time for the gun lobby's accomplices in the Senate to allow this nomination to come to a vote.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

NC Republicans' latest prescription for higher health care costs

North Carolina Republicans latest contribution to spriraling health care costs is ... a proposal to drive up costs some more.

WRAL reports
A legislative panel on Wednesday suggested requiring a prescription for cold remedies containing one of the main ingredients used to make methamphetamine.

Lawmakers in 2005 ordered North Carolina pharmacies to put medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter to make it more difficult for people to use them to cook up meth. Last year, pharmacists began entering customer names into a national database when they buy the medicines to alert them to anyone buying large quantities of the drug.

The changes have done little to stem the proliferation of home labs that produce meth, a potent stimulant that can be made with over-the-counter household products, often leaving behind a toxic mess.

According to the State Bureau of Investigation, law enforcement has busted a record 444 labs statewide so far this year – 100 more than the previous record, set in 2011. Wilkes County, in the mountains in the northwest part of the state, has had the most busts this year at 58, followed by Wayne County in the east at 27.
Each time one of these laws is passed, lawmakers confidently promise the same thing--that this new restriction will turn the tide against meth labs. And each time they are proven wrong. Such an unbroken record of failure should instill some humility or perhaps some consideration of other approaches; instead it only emboldens the drug crusaders and begets more restrictions.

And indeed, proponents are once again saying that this time will be different.

So far only two states--Oregon and Mississippi--have had enough disregard for the well-being of their law-abiding citizens to enact prescription requirements for cold medications. WRAL cites figures that show dramatic decreases in meth lab busts in those states following the enactment of the laws. It later quotes Rep. Rep. Craig Horn, chairman of the House Select Committee on Methamphetamine Abuse, who asks, "Do we just have to have more dead bodies? Or are we going to do something when we know there's an action that works?"

So what exactly do we know? Examinations of those data suggest--not a whole lot.

An analysis earlier this year of the Oregon figures by the Cascade Policy Institute found that nearly all of the drop in meth lab busts occurred before that state's laws took effect and that California and Washington, which didn't enact prescription laws, saw nearly the same percentage drops in meth lab busts.

A look at the Mississippi experience isn't any more encouraging. In 2009, the year that Mississippi enacted its prescription law, the DEA reported 691 meth lab "incidents" in the state; two years later, the DEA reported that the number of incidents fell to 259. The numbers look impressive until you consider that in neighboring Alabama, meth lab incidents fell even more from 614 in 2009 to 177 in 2011. Over the same period, meth lab incidents in Louisiana fell from 80 to 36. Perhaps more disquieting, the DEA figures also indicate that meth incidents in Mississippi actually increased in the intervening year, rising to 698 in 2010.

While it is difficult to demonstrate the benefits of these laws, we do know the costs. The laws that moved cold medicines "behind the counter" inconvenienced millions of sick people and increased costs for all pharmacies. The most recent law in North Carolina, requiring the registration of all cold medicine purchases, increased costs further and created a massive invasion of privacy.

The proposed restrictions would go even further. Monetary costs would go up even more--either through doctor's fees, insurance copayments, or the cost to insurers. Time costs would also increase. Cold medicine might be out of reach for the poor and uninsured who can't afford a doctor. Costs for drug stores would also rise, as pharmacists have to read and process prescriptions. These are non-trivial costs. Worse, they are repeated over and over for all law-abiding North Carolinians.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Too big to fail means too big to jail

If corporations are people, as some conservatives insist, they are some of the luckiest people in the world when it comes to criminal behavior.

This morning, the Department of Justice announced a settlement with HSBC Holdings Plc, regarding its violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, violations of other anti-money-laundering laws, and transactions on behalf of Iranian, Libyan, and Sudanese clients as well as drug criminals and terrorists. Under the agreement, HSBC will pay a record-setting $1.92 billion in forfeitures and fines but will also avoid prosecution if it undertakes reforms.

HSBC's role as a place for criminals and terrorists--as well as run-of-the-mill tax evaders--to launder their money has been public knowledge for some time and extends back more than a decade. In 2010, HSBC received cease and desist orders from the Federal Reserve and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) related to its activities that allowed money-laundering. Earlier this year, HSBC's activities were the subject of a a scathing Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report and hearing.

While the $1.92 billion in financial penalties sets a record, the penalties only amount to 9 percent of the bank's pre-tax profits for this year--effectively a slap on the wrist.

Actual human beings (as opposed to gigantic corporations) who provide financial succor to terrorists and rogue states receive incredibly harsh treatment. For example, Mohamad Hammoud was sentenced in 2003 to 155 years in prison for providing $3,500 in financial support to Hezbollah, although a "successful" appeal reduced that sentence to 30 years. In 2005, Rafil Dhafir was sentenced to 23 years for "participating in a conspiracy to unlawfully send money to Iraq and money laundering." In contrast, HSBC, which looked the other way while banking hundreds of millions of dollars for criminals and terrorists, will lose the equivalent of about one month's profits.

And this is hardly HSBC's first offense. In 2007, HSBC paid a $10.5 million penalty to settle a case in which the bank allowed its name and logo to be used in a fraudulent financial offering. In 2011, the OCC issued a consent order for HSBC over "unsafe or unsound banking practices" associated with its mortgage and foreclosure documentation procedures. In that same year, HSBC was ordered to pay £40 million for luring elderly customers in the UK into risky and unsuitable investments.

Nor is this is also not likely to be HSBC's last brush with the law, as traders at the bank have been linked to the LIBOR rigging scandal.

In states with "three-strikes" sentencing rules, a human HSBC would be facing a mandatory life sentence. A corporate HSBC just promises to do better next time.

And there most assuredly will be a next time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Walmart's and the Gap's deadly penny-pinching

The second part of Wal-Mart's "Save money. Live better." motto has always been a bit dodgy. But now the giant retailer might have to scrap it altogether.

Bloomberg reports that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Gap, Inc. each made a calculated decision to risk the lives of workers in Bangladesh in order to save a few bucks.
At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly.

The comments from a Wal-Mart sourcing director appear in minutes of the meeting, which was attended by more than a dozen retailers including Gap Inc. (GPS), Target Corp. and JC Penney Co.

Details of the meeting have emerged after a fire at a Bangladesh factory that made clothes for Wal-Mart and Sears Holdings Corp. killed more than 100 people last month. The blaze has renewed pressure on companies to improve working conditions in Bangladesh, where more than 700 garment workers have died since 2005, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.

At the meeting in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, in April 2011, retailers discussed a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories prices high enough to cover costs of safety improvements. Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Wal-Mart director of ethical sourcing, told attendees the company wouldn’t share the cost, according to Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, who attended the gathering. Kalavakolanu and her counterpart at Gap reiterated their position in a report folded into the meeting minutes, obtained by Bloomberg News.

“Specifically to the issue of any corrections on electrical and fire safety, we are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken to some factories,” they said in the document. “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”
But Bloomberg goes on to report that other retailers, including PVH Corp., which sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing, did find these protections "financially feasible."

Those pennies do add up, however. Wal-Mart found it financially feasible to pay its CEO nearly $3 million in "cash incentives" and $18 million in total compensation in 2012. Gap paid its CEO $9.7 million in 2011.

Apparently, some lives are worth a whole lot more than others.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Risks of gun ownership outweigh the rewards

Think that owning a gun will make you or your family safer? You may want to think again.

A peer-reviewed article by David Hemenway, published last year in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine summarized scientific evidence regarding the health risks and benefits of gun ownership. On the risk side, Hemenway reviewed studies of how guns contributed to accidental deaths and injuries, suicides, homicides, and violent intimidation. On the benefit side, Hemenway examined studies of the effects of guns on crime deterrence, self-defense, and to stop crimes in progress. His conclusions were crystal clear.
...for most contemporary Americans, the scientific studies suggest that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise. The evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes, and it appears that a gun in the home may more likely be used to threaten intimates than to protect against intruders. On the potential benefit side, there is no good evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in.
Hemenway cites some astounding statistics. For instance, with respect to accidents.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, between 2003 and 2007, the typical resident from the 15 states with the most guns (WY, MT, AK, SD, AR, WV, AL, ID, MS, ND, KY, TN, LA, MO, and VT) was 6 times more likely to die in a gun accident than a typical resident from the 6 states with the fewest guns (HI, NJ, MA, RI, CT, and NY). For example, although there were virtually the same number of children aged 5 to 14 years in both groups of states, 82 had died from accidental gunshot wounds in these high gun states, compared with 8 in the low gun states.
Hemenway is careful to note, correctly, that the absolute risks of either suffering harm or deriving a safety benefit from gun ownership are low. Nevertheless, the risks of harm outweigh the possibilities of benefit.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

RNC autopsy to reveal...

Last night on Piers Morgan Tonight, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, commented on his party's recent electoral setback, saying "in order to get back in the game, you've got to look at and do a full autopsy of what happened."

I might be able to save Mr. Priebus some time.

When the patient lacks both a heart and a brain, the outcome is pretty predictable.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A very public thank you

Thank you to the state of North Carolina for providing me with an opportunity to pursue the vocation that I love, for providing my oldest son the opportunity to pursue a high-quality college education, and for funding the school teachers that taught and inspired both of my sons.

Thank you to Guilford County for providing school buildings, school books, teachers, and staff that also helped my children to develop.

Thank you to Greensboro for keeping my house safe and my neighborhood clean.

Thank you to the state of Virginia for providing me with a college education and with mentors who helped set my on the path toward my career. Thank you to the states of Virginia and New Jersey for most of my elementary and secondary education.

Thank you to the United States for employing my father for many, many years and giving my family not only prosperity but also an opportunity to travel throughout the Far East and Pacific. Thank you also for funding the terrific overseas Department of Defense schools that my sisters, brother and I attended. Thank you for your faith and support of many of my research projects. Thank you for making my parents' retirement easier, especially during a time when the economy and their savings were crashing. Finally, thank you for the military cemetery where my parents now rest.

These blessings did not just magically appear but came out of the toil and occasional good fortune of some neighbors I know and many more neighbors I don't. Thank you all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Gov. Jindal -- "Stop being the stupid party"

Gov. Bobby Jindal yesterday wagged his finger at the rampant anti-intellectualism among his fellow Republicans. Politico reports
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on Monday called on Republicans to “stop being the stupid party” and make a concerted effort to reach a broader swath of voters with an inclusive economic message that pre-empts efforts to caricature the GOP as the party of the rich.

...“It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that,” Jindal said. “It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”
Wow, really? Excuse me while I clean up the coffee that just shot out of my nose and onto my keyboard.

This would be the same Gov. Jindal that signed a law in Louisana supporting the teaching of creationism.
"That law" is the Louisiana Science Education Act, which is named for what it is designed to destroy. Jindal signed it last year, clearing the way for creationism to be taught in biology class.

... the voice of reason cuts no ice with Jindal anyway, at least on this issue. He refused to veto the bill last year, ignoring the pleas not only of Satterlie's group, but the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a slew of other learned bodies and even his old genetics professor from Brown University.

The force behind the bill was the Louisiana Family Forum, a group of Christian soldiers that few politicians would wish to cross, given that polls suggest a startlingly high number of Americans refuse to accept that mountains of scientific evidence prove the truth of evolution.

While some politicians might kowtow to the forum out of expediency, Jindal does not appear to be one of them. He actually appears to believe this stuff. Darwin or Genesis? You pays your money and you takes your choice, so far as the Louisiana Science Education Act is concerned.
This would also be the same Gov. Jindal who used his 2009 Republican response to the State of the Union speech to belittle the federal government for allocating money to the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor volcanoes.
While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government. $8 billion for high speed rail projects such as magnetic levitation line from Las Vegas to Disney Land. And $140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring.’ Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC.
And he's now criticizing Republicans for "being the stupid party."

Gov. Jindal has made a career of talking down to voters. It's a mark of his contempt for voters that he expects them to forget this now.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Questionable squared--your tax dollars at work

Rep. Darrel Issa used tax dollars to produce the following video, which was released just a few days before the election.

Without a doubt, the irony of the questionable use of tax dollars to call attention in a questionable use of tax dollars is lost on the congressman.

Let's hope that the House Ethics Committee brings this irony to his attention.

Republican mandate?

Rep. John Boehner claimed on election night that the reelection of a Republican House majority told him that there is "no mandate for raising taxes."

Sen. Mitch McConnell also claimed that Republican voters delivered a mandate for the President (not Republicans) to change course, remarking "Now it’s time for the President to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely-divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office."

ThinkProgress, however, notes an interesting issue regarding the Republican House of Representatives.
Although a small number of ballots remain to be counted, as of this writing, votes for a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives outweigh votes for Republican candidates. Based on ThinkProgress’ review of all ballots counted so far, 53,952,240 votes were cast for a Democratic candidate for the House and only 53,402,643 were cast for a Republican — meaning that Democratic votes exceed Republican votes by more than half a million.

...The actual partisan breakdown of the 113th Congress will be very different, however. Currently, Republicans enjoy a 233-192 advantage over Democrats, with 10 seats remaining undecided. That means that, in a year when Republicans earned less than half the popular vote, they will control a little under 54 percent of the House even if Democrats run the table on the undecided seats.
Imagine, as looked possible last week, that President Obama had won reelection through an electoral vote victory but a popular vote loss of 590,000. What would Republicans be saying about his "mandate?"

Also, how does the Senate get to be "closely-divided" when Democrats and independents who caucus with the Democrats have 55 percent of the seats while the House is "Republican-controlled" with a similar majority of 55 percent of the seats?

Divided government is a reality, but it's hard to see much of a strong "mandate" for a party that represents a minority of Americans.

An additional lesson here is that non-partisan redistricting reform is sorely needed throughout the country.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The tide has changed for gay marriage

The tide has changed for LGBT civil rights.

In three historic votes, citizens in Maine, Maryland, and Washington approved measures that sanctioned same-sex marriage. In another vote, Minnesotans rejected a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage is currently legal in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. However, in each of those areas, the recognition of same-sex marriages came from either courts or elected officials. Yesterday's vote marks the first time that same-sex marriages were recognized through popular referenda. It also marks only the second time that restrictions on same-sex marriage were rejected by voters.

In another milestone for LGBT acceptance, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay person to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

The struggle for LGBT civil rights is far from over, but the momentum toward equality is now undeniable.

Friday, November 2, 2012

President Obama -- net job creator

This month's federal jobs report makes it official--President Obama gets to claim the mantle of being a net job creator.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that the U.S. added 171,000 non-farm payroll jobs on a seasonally-adjusted basis in October. The BLS also revised the payroll jobs growth in August upward by 50,000 and revised job growth in September upward by 34,000, meaning that the October jobs estimate is roughly a quarter of a million jobs higher than last month's estimate. With these additions, the estimated number of payroll jobs stands at 133.8 million compared to 133.6 million when President Obama took office. When the BLS estimates are revised and re-benchmarked early next year, job growth is likely to be higher by another 300,000 to 400,000 positions.

The net addition of 200,000 to 600,000 jobs might seem modest, but it sure beats the 300,000 jobs that the previous Republican administration lost over the same period of its first term and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that were being vaporized at the end of its second term.

The job growth during the Obama administration is even more remarkable given the decline in public sector employment. Over the Obama administration, there has been almost no net growth in federal government jobs (there were 2.79 million federal workers when the President took office, and there are 2.80 million now), and there have been considerable losses in state and local government employment (113,000 fewer state employees and 466,000 fewer local government employees). Over the same period of the previous administration, just over 800,000 public-sector jobs were added.

The Romney campaign is already seizing on the other figure from the jobs report--that the unemployment rate ticked up from 7.8 percent on a seasonally-adjusted basis in September to 7.9 percent in October. But even this figure carries good news, as the increase is due to a jump in people looking for work. From September to October, the proportion of the adult, civilian population that was in the labor force (working or looking for work) increased from 63.6 percent to 63.8 percent, and the proportion of the population that was employed increased from 58.7 percent to 58.8 percent. Another sign of growing confidence in the economy is that the number of people who are unemployed because they voluntarily left their jobs increased in October.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Another positive jobs statistic

In a further sign that the economy is improving, the Department of Labor today reported that first-time Unemployment Insurance claims reached a four-year low on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

An estimated 339,000 initial claims were filed during the week that ended October 6--the lowest seasonally-adjusted figure since February 16, 2008, shortly after the start of the recession.

Weekly unemployment claims estimates bounce around a lot, are subject to revision, and can be hard to seasonally adjust. Still, the low figure is consistent with other positive estimates about the job situation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Romney etch-a-sketch: "no tax cut that adds to the deficit"

You might recall former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney making this solemn pledge during last Wednesday's debate.
My number-one principle is, there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. I want to underline that: no tax cut that adds to the deficit.
Well, barely a week has gone by, and Gov. Romney has summarily dispatched his "number-one principle" (underlined no less) down the memory hole.

Gov. Romney had pledged to reform taxes by lowering tax rates, which reduces revenues, but also by "broadening the base," which raises revenues. Specifically, his tax plan calls for lowering marginal rates on individuals and corporations; eliminating taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains for households with incomes below $200,000; eliminating the tax on multi-million dollar inheritances, and eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax. At the same time, he also said during the debate that he would "lower deductions and credits and exemptions, so that we keep taking in the same money."

Lower taxes for some; higher taxes for others. The net effect on the Treasury would be a wash.

Now, in a new ad, Gov. Romney is singing a different tune, saying "I'm not going to raise taxes on anyone."

Simple math tells you that if you lower taxes for some people but don't raise anyone else's taxes, total revenues have to go down.

Tax cuts for some with no tax increases for anyone are a net tax cut, which directly contradicts Gov. Romney's "number-one principle."

That is, it contracts his "principle," until Gov. Romney changes his tune again.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

U.S. awash in debt? Hardly

In last Wednesday's debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney railed against the level of U.S. debt.
I think it's, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they're going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives.

And the amount of debt we're adding, at a trillion a year, is simply not moral.
He went on to propose a "test" for cutting programs, including Obamacare (which actually saves money but nevermind) and the subsidy for PBS.
Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it.
Well, under Gov. Romney's criteria, Big Bird and Obamacare should be safe.

An analysis by Bloomberg shows that total U.S. indebtedness, as a share of the economy, has declined sharply since the start of President Obama's administration.
U.S. debt has shrunk to a six-year low relative to the size of the economy as homeowners, cities and companies cut borrowing, undermining rating companies’ downgrading of the nation’s credit rating.

Total indebtedness including that of federal and state governments and consumers has fallen to 3.29 times gross domestic product, the least since 2006, from a peak of 3.59 four years ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Private- sector borrowing is down by $4 trillion to $40.2 trillion.
While it's true that federal government borrowing has increased over the Obama presidency, state, local, and private borrowing have fallen much, much more.

As a practical matter, the next generation seems much more likely to be concerned about its total amount of debt service and not the entity--bank, Wall Street investor, or Chinese sovereign wealth fund--to which that debt is owed. A dollar taken out the next generation's pocket to service federal debts is the same as a dollar taken out to service school bond debts, housing debts, college borrowing, road construction, etc. A dollar of debt is a dollar of debt.

By the yardstick of what the next generation will owe, the Obama administration has been far more moral than the profligate Bush administration, which not only increased the total amount of indebtedness but did so in the context of a calamitous bubble that brought the economy to its knees (i.e., reduced our ability to pay).

And in terms of Gov. Romney's China syndrome, Americans are in a far better position to pay off their own debts and less reliant on the Chinese than they were four years ago.

Indeed, no less an authority than Fox News reported in September, "China has actually decreased its holdings of U.S. debt over the past year, dropping from $1.31 trillion in June 2011 to $1.16 trillion a year later."

You would think that someone with Gov. Romney's business experience would know how to add things. Maybe he should ask Big Bird.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Gov. Romney joins the "unemployment truthers"

Former Mass. Governor, Mitt Romney, has cast his lot with the tin-foil-hat Republican crowd that sees a conspiracy in the positive jobs figures that were released on Friday.

Speaking at a rally in Florida, Gov. Romney said, "If we calculated, by the way, our unemployment rate in a way that was consistent with the way it was calculated when he came into office, it would be a different number."

Gov. Romney's allegation that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has altered the definition of unemployment is ludicrous. As a key economic adviser to President George W. Bush said, "The numbers are put together by trained professionals and in a process that keeps politicians from interfering...Any sort of suggestion to the contrary is wrong."

The allegation is also insulting, as it questions the integrity of the career staff at the BLS.

The allegation's absurdity notwithstanding, it is the sort of wild, baseless smear that Gov. Romney has made repeatedly. Gov. Romney's detachment from the truth seems grow greater by the day.

Besides being wrong, Gov. Romney's stance is hypocritical. He had no criticisms of the statistic when he cited the unemployment rate over and over in stump speeches and in Wednesday's debate ("We've had 43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent")."Straight months" does seem to imply a certain consistency to the statistic. Now that he can't use the 8-percent line, the statistic is called into question--not the underlying economic message.

As Greg Sargent has written, unemployment trutherism ultimately hurts the Romney campaign. The campaign's argument is built around an underperforming economy--any good economic news is bad news for the Romney candidacy. By harping on the figures, Gov. Romney and the truthers simply keep Friday's strong economic report in the news cycle and show the panic that has set in.

More from the House Science? Committee

Apparently, it takes a special kind of crazy to earn a Republican seat on the House Science Committee.

Previously, we were treated to Rep. Todd Akin's (R-MO and indefatigable Senate candidate) ruminations on women's magical abilities to ward off pregnancy when "legitimately" raped--"The female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down."

Now we hear from Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA and a doctor no less), who sees the hand of Satan in the theory of evolution. TPM reports Rep. Broun sermonizing
All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.

You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.
Another colleague, Rep. Sandy Allen (R-FL), also discounts evolution in favor of "biblical terms of how we came about," while another, Rep. Dana Rohrabacker (R-CA) has mused about "clearing the rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases."

It's hard to imagine a stronger refutation of the notion of intelligent design than these four.

Friday, October 5, 2012

September jobs report unequivocally good

The headline news from the September jobs report is that the national unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent on a seasonally-adjusted basis, the lowest that it's been since January 2009.

Unlike some previous months in which unemployment fell because of people leaving the labor force, this month's figure was the result of a huge increase in the number of people who reported that they were working. The figure was also accompanied by a strong increase in the number of people in the labor force. Another unambiguous sign of labor market improvement is the the percentage of people who are working is the highest that it has been in two years.

Estimates from the employer survey indicate that 114,000 non-farm jobs were added on a seasonally-adjusted basis last month. Taken by itself, that would be a so-so figure, but the report also revised employment growth from July and August upwards by an additional 86,000 jobs. The Department of Labor also reported last week that the year's employment figures will likely by revised upward by another 300,000 to 400,000 jobs beyond that.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Yes, out-of-work millionaires should collect unemployment benefits

Bloomberg reports on a Congressional Research Service (CRS) study about millionaires who collected unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in 2009.
Almost 2,400 people who received unemployment insurance in 2009 lived in households with annual incomes of $1 million or more, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The report was released after about 1.1 million people exhausted their jobless benefits during the second quarter of 2012, when more than 4.6 million filed initial unemployment claims. Eliminating those payments to high earners is one idea being considered as U.S. lawmakers struggle to curb a projected $1.1 trillion deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, with the nationwide jobless rate at 8.1 percent.

“Sending millionaires unemployment checks is a case study in out-of-control spending,” U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an e-mail. “Providing welfare to the wealthy undermines the program for those who need it most while burdening future generations with senseless debt.”
The Bloomberg article and CRS report note that approximately $20 million could be saved in federal contributions to UI over the next decade if benefits to millionaires were blocked from receiving UI benefits.

$20 million in savings sounds great, but that wouldn't be the bottom impact on the federal budget. In order to recoup that money, the federal or state governments would have to check income sources of UI recipients. That checking would cost money--quite possibly more money than goes out in UI benefits.

The CRS believes that the least costly approach would be to collect the payments through the income tax system. A 100 percent tax could be placed on UI benefits for households with incomes above one million dollars. Although cost-effective, this approach is far from costless. Tax forms would become more complicated making them harder to complete and harder to check.

Any other system to prevent millionaires from getting benefits is likely to be far more costly and less effective. The state agencies that administer the UI system only have access to some income information. Besides having to conduct additional checks against the available information, the agencies would have to make guesses about whether a household's total income worked out to one million dollars. The checks would be especially difficult for married couple households and for households that receive unearned income. Any such system would also likely impose additional reporting burdens on the broader set of unemployed households.

In the end, a policy of trying to keep benefits from going to a handful of millionaire households is likely to cost the treasury more than it saves. If the goal really is to reduce the burden on future generations, we should keep sending out those checks.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

BLS adds 386,000 jobs to the economy

The economy may be doing better than we initially thought.

This morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its preliminary revision of the March 2012 jobs tally. The BLS expects that when the revised estimates are released next year, the figures will show that the U.S. had 386,000 more jobs in March 2012 than were initially reported.

Revisions to the jobs figures are necessary because the initial estimates are based on a survey with some sampling noise and with an imperfect sampling frame. Some months after the initial estimates are made, the BLS is able to compare and benchmark them to nearly complete data gathered from payroll tax records. Estimates throughout the year are then readjusted to this benchmark.

When the economy was declining in 2008 and 2009, the BLS initially under-estimated the job losses by 902,000 positions, and we didn't find out how truly awful the employment situation was until a year or so after the actual decline. When the Obama administration famously forecast that its stimulus package would hold unemployment to 8 percent, no one realized that the U.S. was actually nearly a million jobs further in the hole. Everyone knew things were bad--we just didn't know that things were that bad.

Now that the economy is improving, the BLS appears to have under-estimated job gains by roughly a third of a million.

Why does the BLS keep missing the mark? Part of the reason has to do with the entry and exit of businesses during economic swings. Each month the BLS chooses businesses to survey to get its employment numbers. The sampled businesses are selected from a roster of businesses that provided payroll tax records in a recent quarter. Businesses that were created since the last set of payroll tax records were processed aren't on that roster and can't be part of the frame. Similarly, the BLS misses some of the businesses that stopped operating. The BLS makes statistical adjustments for these issues, but these adjustments are based on historical trends, not the sort of huge swings that we saw during the recession and are now seeing during the recovery. The recent pattern has been for the BLS initially to undercount losses during declines and to undercount gains during upswings.

The revision for 2009 was unusually large--a change of 0.7 percent in the employment figures. The current revision, which works out to 0.3 percent, is right at the edge of the historical 0.1 to 0.3 percent average.

In February when the final numbers are released, we will probably discover that the net number of jobs in the U.S. increased over the course of President Obama's first term. For time being, however, the official estimates indicate that there are fewer jobs in the U.S. than there were in January 2009.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Carrying wood pellets to Newcastle?

Well, Selby actually.

Bloomberg reports on an astounding and historic energy development--the U.K.'s largest coal-fired power plant (and largest carbon producers) will shortly be refitted to burn biomass and theoretically be carbon neutral.

The change is astounding and historic because of its location in Northern England, not far from the rich coal fields that fed the U.K.'s (and initially the world's) industrial revolution.

If "King Coal" is threatened by renewable energy projects near its original throne, it's threatened everywhere.

Coal's loss may be the environment's gain. The refitted biomass units will emit significantly less carbon than the existing coal units. Also, the biomass is renewable. Biomass releases carbon when it is burned but takes an equivalent amount of carbon in as it is regrown.

However, the potential benefits come with a giant asterisk, involving a huge and uncertain now versus later proposition. The carbon is released almost instantaneously and takes years to recapture. Also, the units will require an enormous amount of biomass--about 7.5 million tons or 3 million acres of trees each year, according to the article.

Some of the biomass can be supplied through waste materials from other lumbering operations, but much more would still be required.

These requirements might mean an valuable jobs and export opportunity for commercial foresters in North Carolina and throughout North America.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Class warfare -- Romney style

What does former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney really think of Americans?

Mother Jones has some damning video of him speaking to supporters when he thought he was unrecorded. The worst of it is a nasty piece of class crass warfare.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax. 
When he's through belittling the incompetents who support the President, he turns his fire on the half-witted independents that he needs to win over.
We speak with voters across the country about their perceptions. Those people I told you—the 5 to 6 or 7 percent that we have to bring onto our side—they all voted for Barack Obama four years ago. So, and by the way, when you say to them, "Do you think Barack Obama is a failure?" they overwhelmingly say no. They like him. But when you say, "Are you disappointed that his policies haven't worked?" they say yes. And because they voted for him, they don't want to be told that they were wrong, that he's a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he's corrupt. Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn't up to the task. They love the phrase that he's "over his head." But if we're—but we, but you see, you and I, we spend our day with Republicans. We spend our days with people who agree with us. And these people are people who voted for him and don't agree with us. And so the things that animate us are not the things that animate them. And the best success I have at speaking with those people is saying, you know, the president has been a disappointment. He told you he'd keep unemployment below 8 percent. Hasn't been below eight percent since. Fifty percent of kids coming out of school can't get a job. Fifty percent. Fifty percent of the kids in high school in our 50 largest cities won't graduate from high school. What're they gonna do? These are the kinds of things that I can say to that audience that they nod their head and say, "Yeah, I think you're right."
Finally, Gov. Romney offers another way that he could appeal to voters. With respect to his father's background, he says, "Had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot of winning this."

We should all take some satisfaction in Gov. Romney shedding his soulless, robot image. Too bad, though, that he's adopted a soulless jerk persona instead.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Weak jobs report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the U.S. added a piddling 96,000 non-farm payroll jobs on a seasonally-adjusted basis in August. The seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate slipped down from 8.3 to 8.1 percent, but the decline was entirely an artifact of U.S. adults leaving the labor force. Compounding the disappointment, job growth numbers from June and July were also revised downwards. Average hourly and weekly earnings for those who were employed also fell.

A line from the second page of the report tells you most of what you need to know. "Since the beginning of this year, employment growth has averaged 139,000 per month, compared with an average monthly gain of
153,000 in 2011." The U.S. needs to add about 150,000 jobs per month to keep up with the growth of the adult population.

Last year we were treading water; this year we are slowly sinking.

Reprehensible comments by DNC delegate

Earlier this week, Julia Rodriquez, a DNC delegate from New York, told a reporter at the Democratic convention in Charlotte that if she saw Gov. Mitt Romney, "she would like to kill him."

Her reprehensible comments have (appropriately) drawn the attention of the Secret Service.

The comments were beyond the pale and have no place in the country's political discourse. It's not clear what steps the DNC can take to censure Ms. Rodriquez, but she has no place in the Democratic party.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Are you as well off as 4 years ago? The S&P 500 thinks so

U.S. stock markets opened much higher this morning. Bloomberg reports
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (SPX) climbed above the highest closing level since 2008 as the European Central Bank announced specifics of its bond-buying plan and data boosted optimism in the labor market.
You would think that this would carry some weight with the "pro-business" Republican party.

It would be nice to be reporting lots of additional positive economic news, but today's stock market post sure beats the one from nearly four years ago.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Smart growth and the police state

The Washington Post has a fascinating article this morning about how development planning advice from police experts can lead to safer neighborhoods and attractions.
The concept of police working with developers is not unique to Washington, but experts say Lanier’s department is ahead of many of its peers. While some offer a stock list of design recommendations, D.C. police make specific suggestions about safety measures as blueprints are being drawn, well before the first buckets of concrete are poured.
Hmm, planning to increase safety and reduce the need for expensive security measures later. Sounds like smart growth.

No mention though of Agenda 21 or blue helmets.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Thurston and Lovey are at it again

ABC News has two stories today that show how insensitive Gov. and Mrs. Romney (Thurston and Lovey) are to people's concerns.

The day started with the Romney campaign off-shoring a party for top donors by holding it on a foreign-registered yacht.

Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign toasted its top donors Wednesday aboard a 150-foot yacht flying the flag of the Cayman Islands.

The floating party, hosted by a Florida developer on his yacht "Cracker Bay," was one of a dozen exclusive events meant to nurture those who have raised more than $1 million for Romney's bid.

"I think it's ironic they do this aboard a yacht that doesn't even pay its taxes," said a woman who lives aboard a much smaller boat moored at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. 
Later, keenly identifying the big obstacle to Hispanic economic and social progress, Mrs. Romney told Hispanics that they need to "get past some of their biases." Really.

Among her other condescending remarks, Mrs. Romney praised the Puerto Rican Governor and First Lady, saying what they "are doing on that little island is quite remarkable" and "I had the most rocking time in Puerto Rico at a political rally than I’ve ever had in my entire life...You people really know how to party."

Sticking with the diminutives, she also offered that her trip to Puerto Rico let her "peak into a culture and a vibrancy and energy, a passion that I saw from that little island that really what represents the best in America."

Friday, August 24, 2012

Outrage over Gov. Romney's birther joke

The Obama campaign is beside itself with indignation that Gov. Romney dared to make a joke today about birth certificates, harrumphing
...Governor Romney’s decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America.
Pause, indeed. Gov. Romney's comments are beyond the pale. The President's U.S. nationality has been firmly established, and jokes about the President's origins have no place--no place whatsoever--in our political discourse.

As it turns out, the joke was captured on video, so everyone can see how mean-spirited and divisive it was.

Oops, I meant this mean-spirited and divisive joke.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

4-year-old struck by bullet in Raleigh

The News-Observer reports on another innocent victim of gun violence.
A 4-year-old child was hit by a bullet fired outside his house in East Raleigh last night, according to police.

The boy was shot on Melvid Court, off Peyton Street near Poe Elementary School, around 11:30 p.m., police said. The bullet was intended to hit someone else, police said, and no arrests have been made.
The NRA and other gun apologists are sure to appear shortly to explain how this wouldn't have happened if the 4-year-old had been "packing."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Republicans' phony, bogus, and artificial outrage

The list of Republicans pompously bellowing for Missouri Rep. Todd Akin to withdraw from his state's U.S. senate race keeps growing and growing, with NC Senator Richard Burr joining the list.

You can tell that these Republicans are really, really serious because they don't just use one adjective to condemn Rep. Akins remarks, but three!

Sen. Brown: "I found Todd Akin’s comments about women and rape outrageous, inappropriate, and wrong."

Gov. Romney: "Congressman’s Akin comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong."

Sen. Cornyn: "Congressman Akin's statements were wrong, offensive, and indefensible."

Sen. Burr: "Congressman Akin’s comments about rape were outrageous, offensive, and, simply put, wrong."

In the weird math of Republican politics, three adjectives appear to equal one category-5 shit-storm.

The Republicans seem to be saying that Rep. Akin, by his remarks, is unfit, unsuited, and ill-equipped for public office (hey, I can read a thesaurus too).

However, if they are actually concerned with Rep. Akin's fitness to serve, why aren't any of them calling on him to immediately resign his House seat?

BTW, double bonus points for phony outrage go to Sen. Claire McCaskill for her complaint that national Republicans were trying to "dictate" to Missouri's primary voters.

Read more here:

Monday, August 20, 2012

Another disarming gun story

Another story to file in the "guns make us safer" drawer. The News-Observer reports
A gun dealer shot himself in the hand just before a gun show in northern Charlotte Sunday morning.

Police haven’t released the name of the man, but said he was a dealer at the Dixie Gun & Knife Classic, which was held this weekend at the Metrolina Expo on Statesville Road.

“He was taking the gun out to display it and pulled the trigger and it went off,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Capt. William Boger.
I'm sure the unnamed gun dealer is just as competent in running background checks and completing ATF paperwork.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Did Rep. Ryan use inside information to dump bank stocks? The answer is no

Matthew Yglesias cites the Richmonder blog's accusation about Rep. Ryan's inside trading during the early days of the financial crisis.

From the Richmonder
Ryan attended a closed meeting with congressional leaders, Bush's Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on September 18, 2008. The purpose of the meeting was to disclose the coming economic meltdown and beg Congress to pass legislation to help collapsing banks.

Instead of doing anything to help, Ryan left the meeting and on that very same day Paul Ryan sold shares of stock he owned in several troubled banks and reinvested the proceeds in Goldman Sachs, a bank that the meeting had disclosed was not in trouble. 
As Yglesias writes, "it's about as clear an example of a public official trying to use his office to obtain personal benefits as you're likely to find."

The Business Insider investigates further. Although the transactions are reported to have occurred on the same day as the Paulson/Bernanke meeting, they may have happened just prior to the meeting.The Business Insider was also not able to obtain confirmation of who attended the meeting.

Given the miraculous timing of the transactions, it seems the Rep. Ryan has some 'splaining to do.

Update (5:16): Yglesias has walked back his story, saying the Richmonder doesn't "have the goods" to make its case. He cites Brad DeLong's analysis of all of Rep. Ryan's trades in 2008 which include numerous other instances of trading bank stocks.

Also, Rep. Ryan's office has offered an explanation that indicates that the timing was a coincidence.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Y'all skidaddle or I'll shoot my roommate again

In a novel home protection strategy, a local man shot his roommate to ward off burglars.

The News and Record reports
Alamance Regional Medical Center treated a 19-year-old man shot during a burglary early Saturday, police said.

James Jenkins of North St. John Street told Burlington police officers that he had been shot during a burglary at his home.

One of two men also in the home at the time of the burglary said he gained control of a firearm and shot at the suspects. According to his report, the rounds inadvertently struck Jenkins. The suspects then fled.
The story is a grim reminder of the dangers of firearms--and of firing into your roommate's arm.

Gov. Romney believes others' tax returns are relevant but not his

Former Mass. governor Mitt Romney thought that "several years" of income tax returns were necessary for him to properly vet his vice presidential candidates but says that one year (and another to follow at some undetermined date) are enough for the public to vet him.
The Caucus reports
A top aide to Mitt Romney said that the campaign had obtained “several years” of income tax returns from potential running mates – suggesting that Representative Paul D. Ryan had produced tax returns for a greater number of years than Mr. Romney has in his run for the White House.

Mitt Romney has repeatedly refused to disclose tax returns for any years but 2010 and 2011, stirring criticism that he is shielding his finances from public view.

But on Saturday, the Romney adviser who oversaw the vice-presidential search, Beth Myers, said that she had requested “several years” of returns from Mr. Ryan. When pressed on precisely how many she had received, she declined to elaborate.
If hypocrisy were an Olympic event, Gov. Romney would get the gold.

In Paul Ryan, a token of Romney's extreme

Kudos to former Mass. governor Mitt Romney on his bold, inspired choice of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate. Rep. Ryan brings a host of qualities to “Team Romney” that are sure to appeal to voters.

Some of that appeal will come from selecting a leader in the majority party of the least popular Congress, well, ever. This would be the same Republican House "leadership" that has staged 33 go-nowhere votes to rescind the health-care law that is almost a mirror image of Gov. Romney’s own health plan. It would also be the same Congress that trashed the country’s credit rating by nearly causing a debt default and that has left scores of necessary bills pending because of its dysfunction.

Voters will also appreciate Rep. Ryan’s fondness for Ayn Rand and his frequent criticism of the “takers” in society. Rep. Ryan, who benefited from government assistance as a youth, attended a publicly-funded university for his schooling, has drawn almost every penny of his salary as an adult from government coffers and refuses to eliminate oil company subsidies that benefit his family, is a paragon of Rand’s principles. As an added plus, voters, especially “values voters,” will especially like Rand’s atheism and open adultery.

Rep. Ryan also brings scads of credibility to Gov. Romney’s claims to be a deficit hawk. What with his proposal to increase defense spending AND cut tax rates for the wealthy and with his earlier votes to create the massively expensive Medicare drug plan, to enact the Bush tax cuts, and to support two incredibly costly wars. Rep. Ryan is so concerned about the deficit that his plan would close it by the middle of the century—talk about a futurist.

Oh, and speaking of that tax proposal, which would lower Gov. Romney’s already meager tax payments from 13.9% to 0.8% of his income, will help to take the focus off Gov. Romney’s tax shenanigans. It's not quite the zero tax rate that Gov. Romney described in criticizing the plan when Newt Gingrich espoused it in the primaries, but it's awfully close.

Rep. Ryan’s proposal to convert Medicare into a voucher program and then slowly shift the medical cost burden from the government to the elderly is also sure to be a hit. Evidence of the proposal’s popularity can be seen the assurances that Rep. Ryan has to give that no one under 55 will be affected by it. As they say, the best things are worth waiting for.

You almost get tingles from the popularity boost that will follow.

Friday, August 10, 2012

“You f---ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we‟re not going to deal with Iranians.”

“You f---ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we‟re not going to deal with Iranians.” -- Standard Chartered Bank's Group Executive Director in response to an internal warning about the bank's scheme for hiding transactions on behalf of Iranian clients.

On August 6, New York state's banking superintendent, Benjamin Lawsky, filed an order that could strip Standard Chartered Bank (SCB) of its license to conduct business in New York. The order contained explosive allegations that SCB systematically covered up 60,000 Iranian transactions worth upwards of $250 billion by falsifying business records and financial instruments and by cooking its books.

According to the order, the transactions in question occurred from 2001-2010, but the general scheme to cover up Iranian transactions was initiated immediately after the transactions were prohibited in 1995.

The alleged corruption is staggering. Through these transactions, SCB enabled the Iranian regime and may have helped it to "finance terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad." Further, by covering up the transactions, SCB kept bank regulators in the dark about its actual risks. It appears that SCB has concealed transactions for other regimes as well.

More staggering still, SCB's procedures have been under investigation for some time by the New York Fed, the Justice Department, and the Manhatten District Attorney. If Lawsky hadn't acted, it's likely that the case would have been quietly settled, as a string of other illegal transactions cases have--if there had been any action at all.

For his trouble, Lawsky appears to have drawn the ire of other banking regulators, especially in the U.K., for not following the club rules and for making the charges public.

Those regulators seem over-concerned with protecting rogue banks instead of having those banks follow the law.

Thank goodness an actual regulator appears to be on the job.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mitt Romney: Tax Cheat

Arrived back from France to find this CNN report on Mr. Romney's anything-to-make-a-profit approach to business.
In his key role as chairman of the Marriott board's audit committee, Romney approved the firm's reporting of fictional tax losses exceeding $70 million generated by its Son of Boss transaction. His endorsement of this stratagem provides insight into Romney's professional ethics and attitude toward tax compliance obligations.

Like other prepackaged corporate tax shelters of that era, Marriott's Son of Boss transaction was an entirely artificial transaction, bearing no relationship to its business. Its sole purpose was to create a gigantic tax loss out of thin air without any economic risk, cost or loss -- other than the fee Marriott paid the promoter.

The Son of Boss transaction was vulnerable to attack on at least two grounds.

First, the transaction's promoters and consumers relied on a strained technical statutory analysis. Second, the Son of Boss deal violated the fundamental tax principle that the tax law ignores transactions unless they have a motivating business purpose and a substantial nontax economic effect.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Opportunity to act against high-capacity ammunition magazines

The Hill reports that seven Democratic senators have filed an amendment, S.A. 2575, to the proposed Cybersecurity Act that would ban the further sale and transfer of high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The amendment was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Schumer and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.). S.A. 2575 would make it illegal to transfer or possess large capacity feeding devices such as gun magazines, belts, feed stripes and drums of more than 10 rounds of ammunition with the exception of .22 caliber rim fire ammunition.

The amendment is identical to a separate bill sponsored by Lautenberg. Feinstein was the sponsor of the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. 

The proposed amendment would only affect sales and transfers after the law took effect.
Please consider contacting your senators to support this amendment.

Dear Senator _____:
I urge you to vote in favor of S.A. 2575 which would restrict high-capacity ammunition magazines like those used in the tragic mass murders in Aurora, Tuscon, and Blacksburg. High-capacity magazines serve no legitimate hunting, sporting, or self-defense purpose. Bipartisan legislation restricted these engines of death from 1994 until 2004. Those sensible restrictions should be restored.



Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gov. Romney trips overseas

Despite being "part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage" and "appreciat(ing) the shared history" with the United Kingdom, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has already managed to step into it in the U.K. through inartfull comments regarding the London Olympics. The Washington Post reports
Romney tried to defuse controversy sparked by comments he made to NBC on Wednesday, when he cited potentially “disconcerting” problems with security and immigration staffing at the London games and said, “It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out.”
Gov. Romney had hoped to show off his diplomatic chops on this trip while also using the London Olympics to remind voters of his own Olympic accomplishment and while garnering implicit support from conservative government officials in the U.K., Israel, and Poland.

Instead the Romney campaign has shown itself to be not ready for prime time.

First, a Romney advisor was caught making truly awful comments. In talking up his/her candidate, the advisor told a reporter for the London Telegraph, "We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special...The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have." Not only was the comment racially insensitive, but it violated a key precept that politics should stop at the water's edge.

Second, the advisor's comments were made anonymously and on background, and even though the Romney campaign surely knows the adviser's identity, they're not revealing it. This only draws more attention to Gov. Romney's proclivity for secrecy and non-disclosure. Gov. Romney only compounded his problems by later saying, "So I don't know agree with whoever that advisor might be." If you really think that Gov. Romney is in the dark about this, I've got a great deal on the London Bridge that I want to talk you about.

Third, Gov. Romney's comments about the preparations for the London games were insulting and offputing to the U.K. public. Besides creating a stir, the comments contribute yet another example of Gov. Romney boorishly insulting his hosts.

Finally, in walking back the comments, Gov. Romney reinforces his well-earned reputation as a flip-flopper.

When all is said and done, Gov. Romney's trip may turn out to be a great benefit...for the Obama campaign.

Update (7/26/12, 22:13): Gov. Romney's trip is the gift that just keeps giving. From the Washington Post
Thursday was supposed to be the easy day, when Mitt Romney would audition as a world leader here by talking about his shared values with the heads of the United States’ friendliest ally.

Instead, the Republican presidential candidate insulted Britain as it welcomed the world for the Olympics by casting doubt on London’s readiness for the Games, which open Friday, saying that the preparations he had seen were “disconcerting” and that it is “hard to know just how well it will turn out.”

...It was a difficult start to Romney’s first foray on the international stage as the presumptive Republican nominee, one that was supposed to present him to U.S. voters as a potential commander in chief. Beyond his Olympics remarks, Romney had a series of uncomfortable moments — some of them seemingly minor, but distractions nonetheless.

At one point, he told reporters about his previously undisclosed meeting with the head of the MI-6, Britain’s secret intelligence agency.

On the first official day of his six-day overseas tour, Romney declined to answer reporters’ questions about his foreign policy positions , saying he will avoid talking about any policy specifics while he is on foreign soil.

He ended the day in a scene that could prove damaging for a candidate sometimes labeled as out of touch. A dinner fundraiser, which raised $2 million, was co-hosted by executives at banks under investigation in London’s rate-fixing scandal.
At this point Gov. Romney must be glad that a day is only 24 hours long.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The mass-murderer's best friend

The nation is mourning yet another mass murder from a crazed gunman. This tragedy has so far claimed the lives of 12 victims. Another 58 people were wounded. A mind-boggling 70 people felled in just a few minutes.

Like earlier gun tragedies in Blacksburg and Tuscon, the gunman had a high-capacity ammunition magazine. In this case, a 100-round drum magazine.

These types of magazines were outlawed from 1994 to 2004 but are now again available to mass murderers.

Two bills--H.R. 308 and S. 32--would put the common-sense restrictions on high-capacity magazines back in place.

High-capacity magazines serve no purpose other than to mow down large numbers of people. They are a mass-murder's best friend.