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Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or treat

by digby

Definitely treat:

Taking the cake

by digby

I can hardly believe that gazillionaire Mayor Bloomberg would have the nerve to host an exclusive dinner for the financial, corporate and political elite to persuade them to slash the social safety net. It's almost beyond belief. But he did.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will host an intimate dinner at Gracie Mansion on Sunday night that brings together a bipartisan group of senators, Xerox chief executive Ursula Burns and other business and labor leaders to discuss how to pave the way for the Super Committee to "go big" and cut $4 trillion in federal spending, according to a source familiar with the dinner.

The Washington contingent includes Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Warner and Republican Sens. Bob Corker, and Saxby Chambliss, among others. The meeting will be a much smaller, more strategic affair -- 10 to 20 people -- than a similar dinner Warner threw at his home in September, which had a guest list of 60.

Sunday's dinner is another in a series of conversations that lawmakers, policy makers and business and labor leaders have been having since last summer to make a business case for big cuts in spending. A number of senators and business groups, including the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, having been urging the Super Committee to cut more than the $1.5 trillion it is charged with finding.

It's mind-boggling I know. But they really don't seem to have the vaguest clue what's going on.

There were some people there to greet them, via Harry Waisbren:

While we rallied outside, New York City's exceedingly out of touch Mayor for the 1% was hosting an intimate dinner party for Senators and corporate executives to urge the SuperCommittee to "go big" and cut $4 trillion in federal spending.

This would mean that much more dire straights for the 99%, given their desire to slash Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and everything else essential to our survival. It is also that much more ludicrous considering that if they really wanted to eliminate the budget deficit, they could simply tax the top 1% through a Millionaires Tax and a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street speculation and that would be that.

So, since we weren't invited, we thought we would show up to let them know just how far removed from the people they really are. Fortunately, Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI were able to join in the festivities, and they brought along plenty of cake to serve to us peasants!

A great time was had amongst the hundred or so participants at large, and we clearly got to the Mayor, if only considering the excessive police presence. They even shut down the public part next door to the mansion, much to the chagrin of the would-be dog walkers in the park. One thing I think even the least political amongst us know: dog-lovers are a constituency not to be trifled with!

You can check out our full Flickr set of photos and videos here, and a hearty thank you to Democracy for New York City, Yvonne Fitzner of Stop Fox and her cadre of 99ers, not to mention the Occupy Wall Street movement at large, for all of the support!

And a big hat tip to our Marie Antoinette, Job Party star supporter Rosemary Topar, for absolutely nailing the role! We had only heard about Bloomberg's special plans on Friday, so this kind of event was only possible due to unflappable activists like herself stepping up (and then some) last minute.

Plus, Marie clearly had the line of the night, as when she was being rained down upon with chants of "off with her head!!", she responded in an inquisitive French accent: "but I thought this was a non-violent movement?!"

If only Mayor Bloomberg and all the other social-safety-net-slashing 1%-ers could see the irony.

They're so far beyond irony --- or even normal perception --- that if this takes on a more serious cast I'm afraid they really will be as clueless as darling Marie was in real life. That didn't end well.

by David Atkins

It is increasingly clear that the Occupy movement has tapped into a wellspring of pre-existing public sentiment that has been lying under the surface for a while now. What that sentiment is exactly has been the subject of some debate: is it anger about inequality? Fury over the plight of the less fortunate during the recession? Concern about powerlessless in a global economy? Frustration with an ineffective political system? The precise desires not just of the Occupiers themselves but of the broader public that supports them have been up for some debate as well.

Ultimately, though, you have a pretty decent sense of the zeitgeist when Matt Taibbi and Thomas Friedman start sounding a lot alike.

Taibbi and Friedman, normally at near opposite ends of the spectrum both in style and ideology, are both hitting on a shared fundamental theme: justice.

The mere fact that some people have more money than they could ever spend while the majority suffers, or that Washington is unable to step in to solve basic problems, or that America has a regrettable foreign policy, or any of the other oft-repeated reasons for deep-seated public anger really don't get to the heart of the matter. Those issues have been present for quite some time now; progressives have been talking about them for years and years without too much traction.

But people have a much more emotional and almost animal reaction to the notion of justice. People can tell when they're getting a raw deal. Game theory experiments have proven that people are willing to sacrifice personal gain just to enforce a sense of justice when the other player is perceived to be taking advantage of them. It is this same emotional dynamic that is leading people to camp out in the cold at Occupy sites all across America.

What Friedman and Taibbi are both pointing to is the fact that none of the people who were involved in major financial crimes have gotten more than a slap on the wrist. These people got bailed out of their untenable positions and continue to play with a stacked deck while preaching austerity to the rest of us. That sort of thing rankles people's innate sense of justice.

For progressives concerned with more than just economic justice, this sense of lack of justice extends to the people who lied America into the invasion of Iraq, the people responsible for the BP disaster in the Gulf, the people responsible for outing CIA agents for political gain, the people involved in the Abramoff criminal conspiracy, the Department of Justice firings, and a host of other fusions of corporate and government criminality.

One doesn't always have to be able to express coherently why or how one is getting screwed to know one is getting screwed. People get that the social order has broken down to the point that accountability is only for the little people anymore. Tea Partiers understand this, though they blame entirely the wrong people, and their Objectivist authoritarian mindset means that they are incapable of being any kind of assistance in solving the problems that got us here. But they do have a legitimate sense that society is out of kilter, and that accountability for elites is a thing of the past. Protesters in the Occupy movement also understand that justice is not being done, even if each person has their own sense of exactly what those injustices look like.

Greenwald's new book postulates that this sense of lawlessness lack of accountability dates back to Nixon's pardon. I'm not sure I buy that thesis exactly, but it's hard to argue with the notion that something has gone askew with the way we address not just inequality in America, but accountability.

Gnawing, unresolved injustice eats away at societies. Ritual cleansings have been part of human organizations for millennia to resolve just this very issue. When major injustices have been committed, the public will continue to be agitated until they see some sort of resolution that involves accountability for those involved. Politically, that has taken the form of consecutive wave elections that make no rational sense politically, but do make sense emotionally.

People are only going to get more and more angry until they start to see some justice. Remarkably, though, our elites don't even seem to get the idea that there were even misdeeds that require any accountability. That's a recipe for increased acrimony and conflict. If bipartisan fetishists and various pearl clutchers want more public unity and less fractious political discourse, they should start looking into how to satisfy the public's yearning to see justice done to those who continue profit at their expense.

The Question

by digby

Career makers

by digby

Chris Hayes noted on twitter this morning reacts with righteous aggression whenever they catch a glimpse of a sex scandal. It's so true. The energy is palpable, the eyes glitter, the breathing comes faster, they are clearly stimulated.

But then there are big rewards too:

Jerry Zremski profiled NBC reporter Luke Russert, still best-known — but not for much longer, perhaps — as the son of legendary NBC political reporter Tim Russert.

The moment that boosted the 26-year-old Russert into the big-leagues: When he stood up to Rep. Anthony Weiner this past May. Here’s their exchange, as recounted by Zremski:

“But that’s not a picture of you?” the reporter asked.
“You know, I can’t say with certitude. My system was hacked, pictures can be manipulated, pictures can be dropped in and inserted….”


Everybody loves gossip. But the Villagers love it more than anyone on earth.

h/t to @jaytingle

by digby

Greg Sargent has a good post up this morning deconstructing the latest right wing appropriation of liberal rhetoric to advance its own goals. This time it's on income inequality. The bottom line is that they are now agreeing that income inequality is bad but that it's because government is standing in the way of the "jaaahb creators." This is, of course, the confidence fairy zombie (which would be my Halloween costume if I had one.) What else is new?

But I noticed a subtler one as well, and it's one to keep an eye on. Greg points to this as one of the stages of GOP rhetorical appropriation:

We never said inequality and tax unfairness aren’t problems. (See Paul Ryan’s speech, in which he said that “nobody disagrees” that “bus drivers shouldn’t pay a higher effective tax rate than millionaires.”)

To those of us who believe in progressive taxation, this would mean that millionaires should pay a higher effective tax rate, right? But to people who want to protect millionaires' from taxes, this would mean a flat tax, which is completely unprogressive, but would perfectly fit their definition of "tax unfairness."

The right is extremely proficient at using the current zeitgeist to their own ends. It's very clever and often quite successful.

Cynical Police Action

by digby

This column in the NY Daily News about the growing stratification of the society Occupy Wall Street is building is fascinating. It discusses the group's stated goal of creating an antirely different democratic/social organization with a new form of decision making and allocation of resources (of which I admit to being fairly skeptical --- but then I'm old.) The article discusses how difficult it is to do such a thing and examines the way the culture has broken into two camps --- participants and everyone else.

However, fascination at the movement's growing pains quickly turns to horror when you get to this part:

But while officers may be in a no-win situation, at the mercy of orders carried on shifting political winds and locked into conflict with a so-far almost entirely non-violent protest movement eager to frame the force as a symbol of the oppressive system they’re fighting, the NYPD seems to have crossed a line in recent days, as the park has taken on a darker tone with unsteady and unstable types suddenly seeming to emerge from the woodwork. Two different drunks I spoke with last week told me they’d been encouraged to “take it to Zuccotti” by officers who’d found them drinking in other parks, and members of the community affairs working group related several similar stories they’d heard while talking with intoxicated or aggressive new arrivals.

The NYPD’s press office declined to comment on the record about any such policy, but it seems like a logical tactic from a Bloomberg administration that has done its best to make things difficult for the occupation — a way of using its openness against it.

“He’s got a right to express himself, you’ve got a right to express yourself,” I heard three cops repeat in recent days, using nearly identical language, when asked to intervene with troublemakers inside the park, including a clearly disturbed man screaming and singing wildly at 3 a.m. for the second straight night.

“The first time I’ve heard cops mention our First Amendment rights,” cracked one occupier after hearing a lieutenant read off of that apparent script.

“A lot of you people smell,” a waggish cop shot back later after an occupier asked if he might be able to help find more appropriate accommodations for a particularly pungent and out-of-sorts homeless man.

“The police are saying ‘it’s a free for all at Zuccotti so you can go there,’” said Daniel Zetah, a member of several working groups including community affairs. “Which makes our job harder and harder because the ratio is worse and worse.

It sounds as though they are promoting criminal behavior in order to disgrace the movement -- and perhaps turn some of the protesters into victims of criminal predators. "Free for all" also means "anything goes."

It might be useful for the OWS folks to consult with some people from Santa Monica, a liberal city in the midst of a major metropolis which has had a longstanding conflict between its desire to be decent to the homeless in the face of the rest of the city and environs pushing their dispossessed across its borders. It's been quite the saga over the years and the outcome has not been particularly satisfying. Perhaps the working groups at Zuccotti Park will have more luck.

One thing Santa Monica did not have to face, however, was police in other jurisdictions doing this to degrade its reputation and create violence and mayhem within in its borders, (at least to my knowledge.) This appears to be a conscious effort to sabotage the movement. And it may work.

Feeding the homeless is a beautiful thing and I'm sure that many of those folks can find peace and safety in the numbers at Zuccotti Park they can't find on the streets. But the homeless aren't all saints any more than the rest of the population and it's very difficult to deal with predators in your midst when the police -- a quasi-military force -- are basically working with them. Which, it seems, they are.

Thomas Friedman, Dirty Hippie
by David Atkins

The column is already a day old, but a warm welcome is due nonetheless to Thomas Friedman, who has joined the ranks of the shrill:

This gets to the core of why all the anti-Wall Street groups around the globe are resonating. I was in Tahrir Square in Cairo for the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and one of the most striking things to me about that demonstration was how apolitical it was. When I talked to Egyptians, it was clear that what animated their protest, first and foremost, was not a quest for democracy — although that was surely a huge factor. It was a quest for “justice.” Many Egyptians were convinced that they lived in a deeply unjust society where the game had been rigged by the Mubarak family and its crony capitalists. Egypt shows what happens when a country adopts free-market capitalism without developing real rule of law and institutions.

But, then, what happened to us? Our financial industry has grown so large and rich it has corrupted our real institutions through political donations. As Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, bluntly said in a 2009 radio interview, despite having caused this crisis, these same financial firms “are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they, frankly, own the place.”

Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery. One consumer group using information from Opensecrets.org calculates that the financial services industry, including real estate, spent $2.3 billion on federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than the health care, energy, defense, agriculture and transportation industries combined. Why are there 61 members on the House Committee on Financial Services? So many congressmen want to be in a position to sell votes to Wall Street.

We can’t afford this any longer. We need to focus on four reforms that don’t require new bureaucracies to implement. 1) If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big and needs to be broken up. We can’t risk another trillion-dollar bailout. 2) If your bank’s deposits are federally insured by U.S. taxpayers, you can’t do any proprietary trading with those deposits — period. 3) Derivatives have to be traded on transparent exchanges where we can see if another A.I.G. is building up enormous risk. 4) Finally, an idea from the blogosphere: U.S. congressmen should have to dress like Nascar drivers and wear the logos of all the banks, investment banks, insurance companies and real estate firms that they’re taking money from. The public needs to know.

Capitalism and free markets are the best engines for generating growth and relieving poverty — provided they are balanced with meaningful transparency, regulation and oversight. We lost that balance in the last decade. If we don’t get it back — and there is now a tidal wave of money resisting that — we will have another crisis. And, if that happens, the cry for justice could turn ugly. Free advice to the financial services industry: Stick to being bulls. Stop being pigs.

That Friedman has belatedly woken up this reality some five years or more behind the curve is nice, but typical of the shortsightedness of the Very Serious People.

Back when Friedman was praising globalization, asset-based growth, bipartisan fetishism and all things neoliberal, it obviously never occurred to him that when you break down the ability of nation-states to control multinational corporations, you also break down the need for the global elite to adhere to any sort of rules. They become literally and figuratively above the law. When you use McDonalds to conduct diplomacy between nations, well, McDonalds will ultimately control the nature of the relationship between nations for its own benefit.

Who is it that Thomas Friedman believes will put in place the rules he advocates? The brave new world he championed for two decades led inexorably and inevitably to this point. Now Friedman is an open Sinophile, longing for a government that can move to get things done without the sclerotic inconvenience of bureaucracy and keep corporate corruption in check. But he only gives cursory acknowledgment to the rejection of democracy inherent in that position, and practically none to the fact that China is quite protectionist in its policies--a direct rejection of the stances Friedman has been advocating for decades.

An increasing number of "serious" people are coming to realize far too late the multinational corporations and the global financial elite really don't follow any rules anymore, and don't intend to. This is shocking to them. They never saw it coming even as they championed the asset-driven economic policies that empowered those same elites.

Conservatives and neoliberals alike assume that rule of law, infrastructure and basic decency just happen. They're part of the automatic background of society, and they notice it as little as fish notice the water they swim in. It really doesn't occur to them that when you weaken the structures that support those things, they can and do disappear. Infrastructure decays without upkeep. Corporations and elites realize that there are no consequences to openly flouting the rule of law. Decency is for losers and suckers.

And then they recoil in shock at the consequences of the ideologies they themselves advocated, without even realizing the implicit connection.

In the endless debate between whether our elites are evil or stupid, the kindest thing we can say about Thomas Friedman is that at least he's apparently not evil. Welcome to the shrill hippie club, Mr. Friedman. Here's hoping you spend a little time assessing how we got to this point, and your role in helping create our current predicament.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Carrots with a stick --- or else

by digby

Libertarians make the argument that the government is a threat to liberty because it employs "men with guns" who can rob you of your life and freedom. Without getting into that tired debate, I would just like to make one observation: for most Americans, the greatest threat to their freedom comes from "men with pink slips" not men with guns, particularly now. (These men with pink slips, by the way, are exalted by "free market" worshipers of all philosophical bents.)

Check this out:

Like a lot of companies, Veridian Credit Union wants its employees to be healthier. In January, the Waterloo, Iowa-company rolled out a wellness program and voluntary screenings.

It also gave workers a mandate - quit smoking, curb obesity, or you'll be paying higher healthcare costs in 2013. It doesn't yet know by how much, but one thing's for certain - the unhealthy will pay more.

The credit union, which has more than 500 employees, is not alone.

In recent years, a growing number of companies have been encouraging workers to voluntarily improve their health to control escalating insurance costs. And while workers mostly like to see an employer offer smoking cessation classes and weight loss programs, too few are signing up or showing signs of improvement.

So now more employers are trying a different strategy - they're replacing the carrot with a stick and raising costs for workers who can't seem to lower their cholesterol or tackle obesity. They're also coming down hard on smokers. For example, discount store giant Wal-Mart says that starting in 2012 it will charge tobacco users higher premiums but also offer free smoking cessation programs.

Tobacco users consume about 25 percent more healthcare services than non-tobacco users, says Greg Rossiter, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, which insures more than 1 million people, including family members. "The decisions aren't easy, but we need to balance costs and provide quality coverage."


The weak economy is contributing to the change. Employers face higher health care costs - in part - because they're hiring fewer younger healthy workers and losing fewer more sickly senior employees.

The poor job market also means employers don't have to be as generous with these benefits to compete. They now expect workers to contribute to the solution just as they would to a 401(k) retirement plan, says Jim Winkler, a managing principal at consulting firm Aon Hewitt's health and benefits practice. "You're going to face consequences based on whether you've achieved or not," he says.

And those that don't are more likely to be punished. An Aon Hewitt survey released in June found that almost half of employers expect by 2016 to have programs that penalize workers "for not achieving specific health outcomes" such as lowering their weight, up from 10 percent in 2011

The programs have until now met little resistance in the courts. The 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevents workers from being discriminated against on the basis of health if they're in a group health insurance plan. But HIPAA also allows employers to offer wellness programs and to offer incentives of up to 20 percent of the cost for participation.

President Barack Obama's big health care reform, the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, will enable employers beginning in 2014 to bump that difference in premiums to 30 percent and potentially up to 50 percent.

The article goes on to point out that some of these employee wellness programs have resulted in lower premiums as people became healthier. However, unless the program is very well designed and the people running them are persistent enough to change the culture, a lot of lower income people will just end up paying higher premiums and suffering from employer intrusion on a level not seen before.

I'm certainly not against people getting healthier or employers offering help for their employees and as a result lower their rates. Americans need all the help they can get. But this new "stick" approach smacks of private sector coercion I haven't seen before. On one level it's institutionalizing discrimination against people with illnesses (or potential illnesses due to being overweight)and on another it's giving employers new incentives to get into the personal business of their employees --- and eventually not hiring them altogether. The workplace always gets unfriendlier in hard economic times. These programs, however well intentioned, could easily end up changing the relationship of the employer to employee forever.

Imagine if we had single payer health care and the government started monitoring citizens' eating habits, private behavior and health status. Would anyone think that's ok? Granted, the employer isn't going to send a "man with a gun" to make you comply, but the threat of losing a job (or part of your salary) in a tough economy is very nearly as coercive.


No exceptions
by David Atkins

Herman Cain in 1998:

“Too many people in the electorate are single-issue voters,” he commented, “and to try and cater to the single-issue voters and the single-issue pockets out there felt like I was compromising my beliefs. As an example, with the pro-life and pro-abortion debate, the most vocal people are on the ends. I am pro-life with exceptions, and people want you to be all or nothing.”

He added, “I am not a social-issue crusader. I am a free-enterprise crusader.”

Herman Cain today:

Herman Cain again attempted to clarify his position on abortion Sunday, declaring on CBS' "Face the Nation" that "I am pro-life from conception, period" - and that he does not support exceptions even for victims of rape and incest.

"I am pro-life from conception, period. If people look at many speeches that I have given over the years, that has and will still be my position," Cain told CBS' Bob Schieffer.

But there's more to this than the flip flop compounded by a lie about his past statements. Herman Cain's position here is interesting in that he also claims to be enough of a social libertarian that he would not actually enforce his views--whatever they may happen to be this week--on what women can do with their bodies:

"What I'm saying is, it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make," Cain said in that interview. "Not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn't have to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive issue."

Cain doesn't believe legislators should be making those decisions. Interestingly, he doesn't qualify those statements with the word "federal," either, so presumably he's also against state legislatures making those decisions for families. Someone should definitely ask him about "states' rights" in that context. Which is more important to Cain: the right of women to be unencumbered by state legislators making decisions for their families, or the right of states to make misogynistic laws free from federal interference?

But on a broader level, Cain's flip-flop on abortion here is more proof that it doesn't really matter how "reasonable" a Republican candidate is on the issues or what his or her personal beliefs are. When push comes to shove, all of them will do precisely what their corporate benefactors and rabid base want them to do, because Republicans are more afraid of their base than of Democrats or squishy "moderates."

Democrats, meanwhile, are more afraid of "moderates" and the people who send the big checks than they are of their base. I believe that Barack Obama still supports a single-payer system:

“I happen to be a proponent of a single payer universal health care program.” (applause) “I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its Gross National Product on health care cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. And that’s what Jim is talking about when he says everybody in, nobody out. A single payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see. But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, and we have to take back the House.”

Just like Herman Cain doesn't actually believe in no abortion without exceptions. But the fact is that neither of these guys is free to express their actual opinion--nor does their actual opinion matter that much in the grand scheme of things.

Once you reach the presidential level, politics is about power dynamics, not about individual character. Individual character matters more as you go farther down the ballot and legislators can put more of a personal stamp on their actions. But putting "good people" in the Oval Office office changes nothing. You have to change the system. Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry are essentially interchangeable pawns.

All the media discussion about the differences between them is essentially hot air designed to distract from what matters, which is organizational and power politics.

Haunt the House

by digby

More here:

This Halloween, there’s plenty to be scared of on Capitol Hill. The fate of $1.5 trillion rests in the hands of 12 members of the “Super Committee” tasked with slashing our national deficit. We’d like to think this Committee has our best interest in mind when they hover the axe, but the Committee’s been operating in the shadows where deep pocketed powerful special interests, creepy corporations and other things that go bump in the night are whispering in their ears. (Learn more here )

Will it be Medicare or environmental programs on the chopping block? Will taxes get hiked or revenues slashed? We don’t know. But as long as the Super Committee does their work in the shadows, the vampires and zombie lobbyists lurking there will be heard louder than the rest of us. It’s time to get the skeletons out of the closet and tell the Super Committee that transparency isn’t just for ghosts this year. Join us as we Haunt the House (and Senate). (More info below!)

Haunt the House (and the Senate) -- and we want you to be there. We’ll be heading to Super Committee members’ offices all around the country to remind them who they work for. Head to meetup.com/transparency to join your local Haunt.

When: Monday, October 31st, 2011 at 9AM (local time)
Where: Your local Super Committee member's office. (Find it here!) or check our our "Main Haunts"

Afterwards stop by your local Occupation.

When journalism goes bad

by digby

Wow, this Washington Post article about the Social Security system financing is so boldly bad that I fear it may change the debate forever. Every Villager who is smacking his or her lips over the prospect of "shared sacrifice" (that won't hurt them because they're wealthy) is having a wonderful morning, secure in the knowledge that average people will be suffering in their old age:
"Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went 'cash negative.'"

I'll let Dean Baker do the honors:

This "treacherous milestone" is entirely the Post's invention, it has absolutely nothing to do with the law that governs Social Security benefit payments. Under the law, as long as their is money in the trust fund, then Social Security is able to pay full benefiits. There is literally no other possible interpretation of the law.

As the article notes the trust fund currently holds $2.6 trillion in government bonds, so it is nowhere close to being unable to pay benefits. The whole point of building up the trust fund was to help cover costs at a future date when taxes would not be sufficient to cover full benefits. Rather than posing any sort of crisis, this is exactly what had been planned when Congress last made major changes to the program in 1983 based on the recommendations of the Greenspan commission.

The article makes great efforts to confuse readers about the status of the trust fund. It tells readers:

"The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing."

This is the same situation the the government faces when Wall Street investment banker Peter Peterson or any other holder of government bonds decides to cash in their bonds when they become due. In such cases it "must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors." The Post's reporters and editors should understand this fact.

The article then goes on to incorrectly accuse Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of misrepresenting the finances of Social Security:

"In an MSNBC interview, he [Senator Reid] added: 'Social Security does not add a single penny, not a dime, a nickel, a dollar to the budget problems we have. Never has and, for the next 30 years, it won’t do that.'

Such statements have not been true since at least 2009, when the cost of monthly checks regularly began to exceed payroll tax collections. A spokesman said Reid stands by his comments and his view that Social Security is entirely self-financed."
Of course Senator Reid is exactly right. The system is self-financed under the law. In 2009 it began drawing on the interest on the government bonds it held. That is exactly what the law dictates, when Social Security needs more money than it collects in taxes, it is supposed to draw on the bonds that were purchased with Social Security taxes in the past. This means it is self-financing.Again, this is like Peter Peterson selling his government bonds to finance one of his political ventures. Just like Social Security, he is drawing on his own money. The Post may have missed it, but there was a big debate last summer over raising the government's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. This $14.3 trillion figure included the $2.6 trillion borrowed from Social Security. If Social Security sells some of these bonds and this money is used to pay benefits, it does not raise the debt subject to the ceiling by a penny. This is very simple and very clear.
Read on. It gets worse.

And as Krugman points out here, it's yet another example of cherry picking whatever piece of the argument that makes your case:
In legal terms, the program is funded not just by today’s payroll taxes, but by accumulated past surpluses — the trust fund. If there’s a year when payroll receipts fall short of benefits, but there are still trillions of dollars in the trust fund, what happens is, precisely, nothing — the program has the funds it needs to operate, without need for any Congressional action.

Alternatively, you can think about Social Security as just part of the federal budget. But in that case, it’s just part of the federal budget; it doesn’t have either surpluses or deficits, no more than the defense budget.

Both views are valid, depending on what questions you’re trying to answer.

What you can’t do is insist that the trust fund is meaningless, because SS is just part of the budget, then claim that some crisis arises when receipts fall short of payments, because SS is a standalone program. Yet that’s exactly what the WaPo claims.

(Cue Brad DeLong: "why, oh why can't we have a better press corps?")

But this is exactly what the Villagers are looking for in order to defend their insistence on a Grand Bargain. Certainly these guys will be pleased:

At least 100 House lawmakers plan to urge the deficit-cutting congressional supercommittee to accomplish what the Obama administration and Congress failed to achieve this summer: a large agreement aimed at reducing the federal deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years.

In a letter that the bipartisan group plans to send to the supercommittee next week, the lawmakers will argue a large deal is vital to the nation’s future. Economists generally believe that long-term deficit-reduction of about $4 trillion is needed to put the U.S. on sound fiscal footing.

Importantly, the letter calls for the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to consider “all options,” including both spending and revenue – suggesting that Democrats are open to entitlement reforms while Republicans would back tax increases if they were part a giant deal.

“We know that many in Washington and around the country do not believe we in the Congress and those within your committee can successfully meet this challenge,” the lawmakers plan to say, according to a draft copy. “We believe that we can and we must.”

The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Heath Shuler (D., N.C.), stems from an informal discussion group led by Reps. Mike Simpson (R., Idaho) and Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), lawmakers said.

The Republican signers include Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio). LaTourette said it is important to demonstrate a large group of lawmakers will back a big agreement.

“I think the moment’s here for the big deal,” he said, acknowledging that calls to include revenue in a deal can spook some Republicans who worry about a primary challenge from the Tea Party, which opposes new taxes.

“We felt that this was the moment to express both our mutual trust as well as our desire to get something big and important done here even if it’s painful,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D., Conn.), who intends to sign the letter.
And progressives will be told that we must clap louder for these cuts in "entitlements" because millionaires are being asked to kick in some tip money they won't even miss. I am quite sure they actually believe that this "balanced" approach is also fair moral and decent. This is because Villagers are completely out of touch with what is happening in the real world and see these problems as items on a spread sheet instead of real people with real needs. No, asking millionaires to throw some of their ample spare change into the pot in exchange for the sick and elderly being asked to sacrifice their bare subsistence is not fair, moral or decent.

Right now Occupy Wall Street is focused on the malefactors of great wealth. But there are other issues that are quite urgent and this Super Committee nonsense is one of them. I don't know if there's any way of stopping this train, and I suspect our greatest friend right now is partisan gridlock. But just in case, one little thing that those who are occupying their desk chairs can do today is send Dean Baker's column around to all the usual suspects in the media.

Here is FAIR's list of media contacts. I've sent the column to all of them. If you have time, please send it to at least a few of these people. So far, Social Security has been kept out of the mix, but the Super Committee has the ability to put it back on the menu. Right now is the moment of maximum danger for the safety net in general and I don't think this article appearing in the Sunday WaPo "news" pages is an accident. If nobody raises hell or even attempts to rebut it there's every reason to believe that the insular Villagers will take it on faith and give the Catfood advocates a totally free pass.


Syrupy Rick Perry

by digby

I realize that it's become a matter of faith that Rick Perry would be the frontrunner if it weren't for his position on immigration. As a liberal, I don't mind this because it would be really nice if the Republicans began to understand that scapegoating "illegals" for everything is an unpopular idea. (It would also be nice if our Democratic president understood that deporting record numbers of undocumented workers isn't going to buy him a single vote -- from anyone, not even the business community.)

But I don't think that's the only reason why the GOP grassroots have rejected Perry. I have nothing much to go on but my instincts, but I honestly think it's because he just makes people feel uncomfortable and slightly worried about his "abilities." Check this out:

Mother Jones reports:

Have you ever seen anyone so happy to receive a jug of maple syrup? Ward, who was in attendance, says the clip was not fully representative of the speech, but notes that the entire presentation was weird enough to prompt a tea party leader to tell him, "I think Obama would chew him up."

Perry had surgery a few months ago. Maybe he's unwell or maybe he's taking some painkillers. But he's "off".



A 1% Christmas

by digby

For the Man and Woman who have everything:


Concerned Villagers
by David Atkins

Now that the Occupy movement has taken deficit hysteria out of the news, the Washington Post is wondering what happened to getting back to the business of feeding catfood to Grandma to please our Galtian overlords:

Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went “cash negative.”

For most of its 75-year history, the program had paid its own way through a dedicated stream of payroll taxes, even generating huge surpluses for the past two decades. But in 2010, under the strain of a recession that caused tax revenue to plummet, the cost of benefits outstripped tax collections for the first time since the early 1980s.

Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation’s budget problems, according to projections by system trustees. Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require an additional $105 billion. If the payroll tax break is expanded next year, as President Obama has proposed, Social Security will need an extra $267 billion to pay promised benefits.

But while talk about fixing the nation’s finances has grown more urgent, fixing Social Security has largely vanished from the conversation.

You know what else is a drain on the treasury and doesn't pay for itself? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, Bush's deeply unpopular tax cuts for the wealthy. Those don't pay for themselves either, and yet they seem oddly absent in the national conversation, too.

There's also the inconvenient fact that the Social Security trust fund is still more than able to cover the costs of letting seniors retire with some dignity for the next several decades, in spite of the fact that the government has borrowed against the fund to pay for tax cuts for billionaires ever since Ronald Reagan's presidency.

But don't look to the Washington Post to tell you that. They're clearly eager to turn the conversation back from inequality to cutting the safety net. I wonder why that is?


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies

Caring is creepy: The 10 scariest screen couples

By Dennis Hartley

With this being Devil’s Night eve and all, I thought I’d cobble together a little filmic fright fest for your holiday enjoyment. Now, it would be easy to trot out the usual merry assortment of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies and such, but tonight, I’m dealing with something much more frightening than any of the aforementioned. Yes, gentle reader, I’m talking about something…someone much more threatening and evil that has stalked all of us, at one time or another. At times, (shudder!) it has even managed to creep, uninvited, into our bed late at night. You know who it is of which I speak, don’t you? You don’t want me to say it, but I’m afraid I’m going have to. I am referring, of course, to the boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife…from Hell. Now this is some scary shit:

Antichrist-There have been a number of films dealing with the tragic loss of a child and its soul-crushing aftermath for the parents (Don't Look Now, The Accidental Tourist, Ordinary People, etc.) but none of them are in quite the same realm as Lars von Triers’ 2009 psychodrama. Actually, anyone familiar with the offbeat Danish director’s oeuvre might come to the conclusion that he’s not dwelling in quite the same “realm” as the rest of us to begin with (SFX: cuckoo clock chiming). After their little boy accidently tumbles to his death from an open window while they are making love in an adjoining room, a couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) each deals with survivor’s guilt in their own (shall we say) “individually unique” ways. In a bit of narrative contrivance (von Trier scripted as well) the husband just happens to be a therapist; he convinces his wife’s overseers at the laughing house that she would be better off under his personal care. The couple head out to a remote vacation cabin, to let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out, as it were. And boy, do they ever hatch out. Like most of von Trier’s films, this one is visually arresting, mentally confounding and most definitely not for the squeamish.

Baby Doll- Back in 1956, this darkly comic and deliciously squalid melodrama from the pen of Tennessee Williams was decried by the “Legion of Decency” (the ChildCare Action Project of its day) for its “carnal suggestiveness” (oh the horror!). OK, there is something suggestive about a peephole view of a sultry, PJ-clad 19 year old (a 25 year-old Carroll Baker) sensuously sucking her thumb, while curled up in a child’s crib. This is how we are introduced to the virgin bride of creepy old Archie (Karl Malden), who is breathlessly counting down the days to Baby Doll’s 20th birthday. Although they have been betrothed since she was 18, Archie is beholden to their deal-no consummation until she turns 20. In return, Archie swears to renovate his rundown property and cotton gin so he can bathe her in luxury, ‘til death do they part. In reality, Archie is as bereft of coin as he is lustful in loin. This leads to an ill-advised business decision; he sets fire to the cotton gin owned by his prosperous rival (Eli Wallach). It doesn’t take long for Wallach to figure out who the culprit is; but instead of getting mad, he decides to get even… by seducing Baby Doll first. The seduction scene is a classic; it doesn’t “show” anything, yet reveals all (it is mostly left up to the viewer’s naughty imagination). Elia Kazan directed.

Blue Velvet- Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amidst a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly-mown lawns and happy smiling faces. The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they are not the “scary couple” of this piece. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper). Rossellini is convincing enough as someone whose elevator doesn’t go to the top floor, but Hopper channels 100% pure uncut batshit crazy, squared as Frank Booth (possibly the all-time greatest screen heavy).

Crazy Love-This astonishing 2007 documentary takes that most venerable of trash TV talk show topics, “Why do women love bad boys?” to a whole new level of jaw-dropping incredulousness. For the benefit of readers completely unfamiliar with the Bizarro World “love story” of Burt and Linda Pugach, I won’t risk any spoilers. Suffice it say, if you think you’ve heard it all when it comes to obsession and dysfunction in romantic relationships, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. One thing I will tell you, is that despite the thoroughly despicable nature of the act that one of these two people visits upon the other at one point in their life journey together, it’s still not cut and dry as to whose “side” you want to be on, because both of these characters got off the bus in Crazy Town a long time ago. This film is the antonym for “date movie”. Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens directed.

The Honeymoon Killers -Several decades before Natural Born Killers was even a gleam in Oliver Stone’s eye, writer-director Leonard Kastle made this highly effective low-budget exploitation film (based on a true story) about a pair of murderous lovebirds. Martha (Shirley Stoler) and Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) meet via a “lonely hearts” correspondence club (the precursor to internet hookups) and find that they have a lot more in common than the usual love of candlelit dinners and walks on the beach. Namely, they’re both full-blown sociopaths, who cook up a scheme to lure lonely women into their orbit so they can kill them and take their assets. Stoler and Lo Bianco have great chemistry as the twisted couple. The stark B & W photography and verite approach enhances the overall creepy vibe. Martin Scorsese was the original director, but was fired after a week. Kastle (who died earlier this year) never made another film. It may not surprise you that this is one of John Waters’ faves (check out Stoler’s “look” in the photo above-do you think she just might have given Glen Milstead some “Divine” inspiration?).

The Night Porter - Director Liliana Cavani brilliantly uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allegory for the horrors of Hitler's Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood over the years; it tends to be lumped with exploitative Nazi kitsch like Ilsa - She Wolf of the SS and Salon Kitty. At once very disturbing…yet oddly compelling.

Reversal of Fortune-The aristocrats! Prior to the highly-publicized travails of O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony and Michael Jackson’s doctor, one of the more sordid media circus court trials of the last 30 years involved a Rhode Island blue blood named Claus von Bulow, accused of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny, who lapsed into a coma in December of 1980 (which she remained in until her death in 2008). Barbet Schroeder’s 1990 film is a dramatization of von Bulow’s appeal trial (he was initially convicted of two counts of attempted murder). Jeremy Irons picked up a Best Actor Oscar for one of his career-best performances as the oddly mannered Claus. Glenn Close is Sunny; to answer the obvious question, she is “present” in most part as the narrator (not unlike William Holden in Sunset Boulevard ) and also in flashback sequences, which gives us a glimpse of their oddball relationship. My favorite dialog exchange is between von Bulow and his attorney, Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver). At one point, Dershowitz gives his client a long thoughtful look, and says, “You’re a very strange man,” to which von Bulow replies, “You have no idea.” Irons’ nuance in that deceptively simple line reading is so perfect, it gives you chills. Nicholas Kazan scripted from Dershowitz’s non-fiction book.

Sid & Nancy - The ultimate love story…for nihilists. Director Alex Cox (Repo Man , Straight to Hell, Death And The Compass) has never been accused of subtlety, and there’s certainly a glorious lack of it here in his over-the-top 1986 biopic about the doomed relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb chew all the available scenery as they shoot up, turn on and check out (like The Rose or The Doors, it’s a given that this backstage tale is not going to have a particularly joyful ending). It is a bit of a downer, but the cast is a blast to watch, and Cox (who co-scripted with Abbe Wool) injects a fair amount of dark comedy into the story (“Eeeeeww, Sid! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”). The film also benefits from Roger Deakins’ outstanding cinematography (he has since become the Coen brothers’ DP of choice, working on 11 of their films to date).

Swept Away- The time-honored “man and woman stuck on a desert island” scenario is served up with a heaping tablespoon of class struggle and an acidic twist of sexual politics in this controversial 1975 film from Italian director Lena Wertmuller. A shrill and haughty bourgeoisie woman (Mariangela Melato) charters a yacht cruise for herself and her equally obnoxious fascist friends, who all seem to delight in belittling their slovenly deck hand (Giancarlo Giannini), who is a card-carrying communist. Fate and circumstance conspire to strand Melato and Giannini together on a small Mediterranean isle, setting the stage for some interesting role reversal games (think of Giannini as a one-man Occupy Wall Street). This film has a polarizing effect on viewers, which I think can be attributed to its fascinating feminist dilemma: How does one react to an obviously talented and self-assured female director with unmistakably misogynist leanings? BTW, in case you are curious about the Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake? Two words: Stay away.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Not me. But I’ll tell you who does scare me. George and Martha, that’s who. If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after (too) many years of shrill, shrieking marriage, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”. Mike Nichols’ 1966 film (adapted by scripter Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this lovely middle-aged couple (which is more than enough, thank you very much). After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple over to their place for a nightcap (George Segal and Sandy Dennis). It turns out to be quite an eye-opener for the young ‘uns; as the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece. Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. It’s easy to forget that the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can!