Monday, February 24, 2014

And the most miserable U.S. states are...

So here are the most miserable U.S. states, based on a Gallup-Healthways survey of "2013 health info from 176,000 Americans on 'physical and emotional health, healthy behaviors, work environment, social and community factors, financial security, and access to necessities such as food, shelter and healthcare'".

Notice the overlap of Southern states, Red States and human misery in the top 10:

1.   West Virginia
2.   Kentucky
3.   Mississippi
4.   Alabama
5.   Ohio
6.   Arkansas
7.   Tennessee
8.   Missouri
9.   Oklahoma
10. Louisiana

This is what the Tea Parties are fighting to protect from the influence of godless, socialist bi-coastal liberals!

And here are the 10 least miserable states, in descending order:

40.  New Hampshire
41.  Iowa
42.  Washington
43.  Hawaii
44.  Colorado
45.  Vermont
46.  Montana
47.  Minnesota
48.  Nebraska
49.  South Dakota
50.  North Dakota

On the one hand, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Vermont shouldn't really count because nobody lives there. (Combined population: 5.2 million; the same as Colorado). On the other hand, if true happiness is being left alone, then....

By Adam Weinstein
February 24, 2014 | Gawker

What the hell is Barack Obama's presidency for?

Ask any Tea Party Republican what he thinks Obama's presidency is for, and he'll probably say some variant of, "To establish socialism in America." 

What with so many conservatives convinced that President Obama is the most liberal president we've ever had, I wonder how they process the fact that so many real liberals are so severely disappointed in him for not being liberal enough, for caving or just seeming not to try, again and again?  

Gary Younge captures liberals' collective regret at the wasted promise of Barack Obama's two terms in office:

Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: "What the hell's his presidency for?" His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy. While posing as the ally of the immigrant he is deporting people at a faster clip than any of his predecessors; while claiming to be a supporter of labour he's championing trade deals that will undercut American jobs and wages. In December, even as he pursued one whistleblower, Edward Snowden and kept another, Chelsea Manning, incarcerated, he told the crowd at Nelson Mandela's funeral: "There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people."

If there was a plot, he's lost it. If there was a point, few can remember it. If he had a big idea, he shrank it. If there's a moral compass powerful enough to guide such contradictions to more consistent waters, it is in urgent need of being reset.

By Gary Younge
February 23, 2014 | Guardian

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baker: Stimulus worked, but it was too small

Two-fisted liberal pride!  Don't ever back down!  The GOP watered down the stimulus with 1/3 tax cuts and cut the overall amount from more than $1 trillion that was required to about $700 billion.  

Sums up Dean Baker: "In other words, we were trying offset a loss of $1.4 trillion in annual demand with a stimulus package of $300 billion a year. Surprise! This was not enough."

Even so, the stimulus helped avoid a second Great Depression.  

My progressive comrades: don't ever apologize, don't ever make excuses. THE STIMULUS WORKED.  The fact that it couldn't do more is entirely the fault of Republicans.

Now read below to get the numbers.

By Dean Baker
February 20, 2014 | CNN

When President Obama proposed his stimulus in January 2009, the economy was in a freefall, losing more than 700,000 jobs a month. The immediate cause of the plunge was the freezing up of the financial system after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, but the deeper cause was the loss of demand after the collapse of the housing bubble.

The bubble had been driving the economy both directly and indirectly. The unprecedented run-up in house prices led to a record rate of construction, with about 2 million homes built at the peak in 2005.

In addition, the $8 trillion in housing equity created by the bubble led to an enormous consumption boom. People saw little reason to save for retirement when their home was doing it for them. The banks also made it very easy to borrow against bubble-generated equity, which many people did. As a result, the personal saving rate fell to 3% in the years 2002-07.

The bubble also indirectly enriched state and local governments with higher tax revenue. And there was a mini-bubble in nonresidential real estate, but that came to an end in 2008 as well.

The economy had already been in recession for nine months before the collapse of Lehman because the bubble was deflating, but the Lehman bankruptcy hugely accelerated the pace of decline. This was the context in which Obama planned his stimulus package before he even entered the White House.

At that point, most economists still did not recognize the severity of the downturn, just as they had not seen the dangers of the housing bubble that had been building over the previous six years.

The Congressional Budget Office projections, which were very much in the mainstream of the economics profession, showed a combined drop in GDP for 2008 and 2009 of 1%, before the economy resumed growth again in 2010. This is with no stimulus. By contrast, the economy actually shrank by 3.1% in those years, even with the stimulus beginning to kick in by the spring of 2009.

Given this background, it was easy to see that the stimulus was far too small.  It was designed to create about 3 million jobs, which might have been adequate given the Budget Office projections. Since the package Congress approved was considerably smaller than the one requested, the final version probably created about 2 million jobs. This was a very important boost to the economy at the time, but we needed 10 million to 12 million jobs to make up for jobs lost to the collapse of the bubble.

The arithmetic on this is straightforward. With the collapse of the bubble, we suddenly had a huge glut of unsold homes. As a result, housing construction plunged from record highs to 50-year lows. The loss in annual construction demand was more than $600 billion. Similarly, the loss of $8 trillion in housing equity sent consumption plunging. People no longer had equity in their homes against which to borrow, and even the people who did would face considerably tougher lending conditions. The drop in annual consumption was on the order of $500 billion.

The collapse of the bubble in nonresidential real estate cost the economy another $150 billion in annual demand, as did the cutbacks in state and local government spending as a result of lost tax revenue. This brings the loss in annual demand as a result of the collapse of the bubble to $1.4 trillion.

Compared with this loss of private sector demand, the stimulus was about $700 billion, excluding some technical tax fixes that are done every year and have nothing to do with stimulus. Roughly $300 billion of this was for 2009 and another $300 billion for 2010, with the rest of the spending spread over later years.

In other words, we were trying offset a loss of $1.4 trillion in annual demand with a stimulus package of $300 billion a year. Surprise! This was not enough.

That is not 20/20 hindsight; some of us were yelling this as loudly as we could at the time.  It was easy to see that the stimulus package was not large enough to make up for the massive shortfall in private sector demand. It was going to leave millions unemployed and an economy still operating far below its potential level of output.

We are still facing the consequences of an inadequate stimulus. The reality is that we have no simple formula for getting the private sector to replace the demand lost from the collapse of the bubble.

Contrary to what Republican politicians tell us, private businesses don't run out and create jobs just because we throw tax breaks at them and profess our love.  If the government doesn't create demand, then we will be doomed to a long period of high unemployment -- just as we saw in the Great Depression. The government could fill the demand gap by spending on infrastructure, education and other areas, but in a political world where higher spending is strictly verboten, that doesn't seem likely.

The one alternative, which has been successfully pursued by Germany, is to reduce the supply of labor through work sharing. Companies reduce all their employees' hours and pay so everyone keeps their jobs. The government then pays the workers part-time unemployment benefits -- cheaper than paying someone full-time unemployment.

Germans have used this route to lower their unemployment rate to 5.2%, even though their nation's growth has been slower than ours.

Some bipartisan baby steps have been taken in this direction; we will need much more if we are to get back to near full employment any time soon. In a world where politics makes further stimulus impossible, work sharing is our best hope.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Financial transaction tax is now cool

I'm glad to see some of my favorite stars getting behind an idea that is so smart, simple and timely!

A financial transaction tax will soon take effect in Europe. The UK and US should get on board with it -- thereby discouraging a race to the bottom.

The tax will only affect high-frequency "robot" traders; 99 percent of investors won't even notice it. But it will help restore our countries' fiscal health, and discourage high-speed trading that has no social value.

By Simon Chouffot
February 19, 2014 | CNN

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cohen: 'Do something, anything!' in Syria

"Don't just sit there, do something!  Anything!"

Do something... even if it means America's tripping on its own over-sized brass balls and landing face-first in another Mideastern civil war?

Richard Cohen cites the number of Syrians killed, displaced Syrians and refugees... but there were more deaths in Iraq, and just as many refugees flooded out -- and that was when thousands of U.S. boots were on the ground.  So U.S. troops are no guarantee of stopping any of that. And U.S. missiles? U.S. weapons transfers?  Even less likely. 

I give Cohen credit for not giving up, not changing his emotional tack.  But he's just plain wrong. Doing somethinganything without a clear plan and exit strategy is usually worse than doing nothing, especially where U.S. lives and vital interests are not at stake. 

Unfortunately, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator. However, it is not America's job to remove all the world's brutal dictators.  

Finally, it's a dishonest cheap shot to blame U.S. inaction entirely on Obama, because there is no support in Congress for another war, or more support for Sunni jihadi-linked groups. Cohen should blame the entire U.S. government -- and by extension, the American public, which opposes intervention -- for America's prudence.

Sorry, Rick. The U.S. answer remains the same: not this time; not our problem.

UPDATE (19.02.2014): Here's more support, from McClatchy, for what I've been saying: even if we wanted to help somebody in Syria, there's nobody the U.S. can in good conscience support: "State Dept still struggling to identify Syrian partner."

By Richard Cohen
February 18, 2014 | Washington Post

Monday, February 17, 2014

U.S. map of income tax: Blue States walk the talk

This map shows that Blue States practice what they preach: they want government to do more, and they tax income at a higher rate in order to do it:

Using the 2012 election results to measure that, we find the average state income tax rate in states (plus D.C.) that Obama won is 6.4 percent, while the average rate in states Mitt Romney won is 4.9 percent.


By Sean Sullivan
February 16, 2014 | Washington Post

The REAL 'stupidity tax' benefits Wall Street

I admit I'm one of those people who looks down on people who buy lotto tickets and gamble regularly. The house always wins, as they say. It's just not rational to throw one's money away like that. 

Chris Arnade reminds me not to be so condescending. After all, since the American Dream died, statistically speaking, in the 1980s, what is there left except the lottery?

More importantly, Arnade points out the hypocrisy of those who pooh-pooh gambling by the poor, and yet have their bets covered by the U.S. taxpayers. Yeah, I'm talking about the FIRE sector and the Too Big To Fail-Wall Street bailouts.  

Arnade was an investment banker and saw it firsthand, how greed, stupidity -- and I would say criminal fraud -- was rewarded [emphasis mine]:

A few years later Wall Street imploded. Our collective bets made with borrowed money soured, collapsing banks and collapsing the economy. The bank I worked for only stayed solvent because of a government bailout. We were allowed to keep our money and jobs. The cost of the financial collapse to the US economy however was huge, trillions of dollars huge. By one estimate it has cost the average US family between $50,000 to $120,000 (pdf).

That financial crisis hasn't changed Wall Street much. A few rules have worked their way through the system, but extensive lobbying by the financial community is watering them down. The perverse compensation structure that encourages excessive risk taking is still in place. Banks are still too large to fail.

When the next crisis happens, and by the nature of markets, it will happen again, the government will do the only rational thing it can, and once again step in and save the institutions with taxpayer money. The economy will again be wrecked and the average family will again pay the costs.

The bankers won't suffer much, not personally. That's the real stupidity tax, and we are all paying.

And finally, not to sound like a, gee whiz, class warrior, but shouldn't the default assumption be, until proven otherwise, that anybody working on Wall Street is a leech on Uncle Sam's neck?... kinda like conservatives' default assumption that anybody on welfare is a lazy moocher?

By Chris Arnade
February 16, 2014 | Guardian

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bishop Tutu: Time to outlaw nuclear weapons

Most "serious" policymakers and followers of foreign affairs will dismiss Bishop Tutu's call for an apartheid-like stigmatization of nuclear weapons as naive, dreamy, peacenik stuff.  

Yet if we want to secure ourselves against the only thing that could destroy mankind (besides global climate change), then we must take his call to action seriously. Non-proliferation is not working -- not as long as some countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons, and others are not.  

Nelson Mandela, and now Tutu, condemned the colonialist attitude inherent in that double standard: what is allowed the world's "masters" is denied its "servants." To preserve this double standard, nuclear weapons, the most terrible weapons of mass destruction ever devised by man, are not prohibited under international law. Why not indeed?  

The Cold War is over. Times change. We get smarter and more empathetic.  ... At least I hope we do.

By Bishop Desmond Tutu
February 13, 2014 | CNN

In February 1990, the same month that Nelson Mandela, also known as Madiba, walked free after 27 years behind bars, South Africa's then-President, Frederik Willem de Klerk, issued written instructions to dismantle the nation's atomic arsenal.

Like Madiba's achingly long incarceration, the apartheid regime's development of these most abominable weapons, though never officially acknowledged, had become an intolerable blight on South Africa's image abroad. Divesting ourselves of the bomb was -- as de Klerk later remarked -- an essential part of our transition from a pariah state to an accepted member of the family of nations.

In his time as president, from 1994 to 1999, Madiba frequently implored the remaining nuclear powers to follow South Africa's lead in relinquishing nuclear weapons.

All of humanity would be better off, he reasoned, if we lived free from the threat of a nuclear conflagration, the effects of which would be catastrophic. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in 1998, he said: "We must ask the question, which might sound naive to those who have elaborated sophisticated arguments to justify their refusal to eliminate these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction -- why do they need them anyway?"

Despite Madiba's undisputed moral authority and unmatched powers of persuasion, his cri de coeur for disarmament went unheeded in his lifetime. South Africa, to this day, remains the only nation to have built nuclear weapons and then done away with them altogether.

[Ukraine also got rid of its nuclear arsenal after winning independence from the Soviet Union, but technically it didn't "build" them, at least not alone. - J]

Nine nations still cling firmly to these ghastly instruments of terror, believing, paradoxically, that by threatening to obliterate others they are maintaining the peace. Quite unaccountably, all are squandering precious resources, human and material, on programs to modernize and upgrade their arsenals -- an egregious theft from the world's poor.

Madiba attributed the lack of progress in achieving total nuclear disarmament to "Cold War inertia and an attachment to the use of the threat of brute force to assert the primacy of some states over others."

To his mind, the struggle against the bomb was intertwined, inextricably, with the struggles to end racism and colonialism. He abhorred the double standard, deeply entrenched in today's international order, whereby certain nations claim a "right" to possess nuclear arms -- in the hundreds, even the thousands -- while simultaneously condemning, and feigning moral outrage towards, those who dare pursue the same.

We must vociferously challenge the perceived entitlement of a select few nations to possess the bomb. As Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, put it succinctly in January of last year: "There are no right hands for wrong weapons."

But how do we uproot the discriminatory order? How do we end the minority rule? In our decades-long fight against apartheid in South Africa, we depended upon the combination of an irrepressible domestic groundswell of popular opposition to the regime and intense and sustained pressure from the international community. The same combination is needed now in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

This week, in the Mexican state of Nayarit, ministers and diplomats from three-quarters of all nations -- those not coming include the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S., UK, France, Russia and China -- are gathered to discuss the devastating humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations.

This will cover the inability of emergency workers to provide relief to the wounded; the widespread dispersal of radiation; the lofting of millions of tonnes of soot from firestorms high into the upper troposphere; the collapse of global agriculture from lack of sunlight and rainfall; the onset of famine and disease on a scale never before witnessed.

This conference is not only a much-needed reminder of what nuclear weapons do to humans beings -- something seldom mentioned in arms control discussions -- but also a vital chance for the international community to chart a new course.

It is high time for the nuclear-free nations of the world, constituting the overwhelming majority, to work together to exert their extraordinary collective influence.

Without delay, they should embark on a process to negotiate a global treaty banning the use, manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons -- whether or not the nuclear-armed nations are prepared to join them.

Why should these weapons, whose effects are the most grievous of all, remain the only weapons of mass destruction not expressly prohibited under international law?

By stigmatizing the bomb -- as well as those who possess it -- we can build tremendous pressure for disarmament. As Madiba understood well, a world freed of nuclear arms will be a freer world for all.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Wal-Mart manager tells why Wal-Mart sucks

Summary: Walmart pays its managers bonuses based on how much fat they can trim from hours and payroll, and how much juice they can squeeze from employees on part-time shifts.

ConclusionWal-Mart is designed to be a terrible place to work, and shop. They're just betting you're too poor, or live too far away from another store, to opt for an alternative.

This manager's final advice intrigued me:

I just want to add that if you really can't afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart, buy as much stuff on clearance as possible when you do have to shop there. All of our clearance items are sold at a loss to the store. If you buy more clearance items, we lose profit. And it helps the associates suffer less at work, because sorting clearance items is a pain in the ass. That is all!

UPDATE (13.02.2014): You should also check out this article from a couple days ago, "Walmart's Labor Practices Backfire," about how some stock analysts are downgrading Walmart because of its understaffing, among other problems.

UPDATE (14.02.2014): Another reason why Walmart sucks: it has been linked to cities with higher crime. Said the study's co-author David Pyrooz: 
"Counties with more social capital -- citizens able and willing to speak up about the best interests of the community -- tend to have lower crime rates. Counties with more crime may have less social capital and, therefore, less ability to prevent Walmart from building."

By Hamilton Nolan
February 11, 2014 | Gawker

U.S. health coverage is too categorical

Here's a clear example of "American exceptionalism," albeit not the kind we should be proud of:

In other advanced industrial democracies, especially in Europe, health insurance, pensions and even certain amounts of income support for working-age adults are considered rights, to which everyone is entitled by virtue of their membership in society and their shared vulnerability to life’s vicissitudes.

 In the U.S., where health care is not considered a right, many do believe in "Work or Starve," as well as, apparently, "Work or Be Sick." What's even more bizarre in the U.S., Lane believes, are the exceptions we make to that:

This helps explain the oddest aspect of the nature of U.S. health insurance: It’s categorical. In the United States, people get coverage based not on membership in society but on membership in a discernible segment of society: elderly, disabled, military, employee, union member, child living below the poverty line and so on.

Everyone else — from relatively well-to-do self-employed consultants to dishwashers at small restaurants, for whom even tax-subsidized insurance is unaffordable — falls into the category of “other.” They make do with no insurance or with whatever is available on the dicey market for individual coverage.

Because health insurance works best with a broad risk pool, and because “everyone” is the broadest possible risk pool, the categorical U.S. system is plagued by obvious yet intractable inefficiencies and inequities.

Sadly, many Americans still believe that it's perfectly OK for an able-bodied but poor adult to go without health coverage.  Them's the breaks!

By Charles Lane
February 11, 2014 | Washington Post

An annual tradition: And the poorest states are...

In 2013, I neglected one of my annual rituals: reminding everybody that the poorest U.S. states vote Republican. Nine out of 10, to be exact, and that's backed up by PolitiFact.  Here it is, the Top 10 list of shame:  

10. Oklahoma
9.  South Carolina
8.  Louisiana
7.  Tennessee 
6.  New Mexico - The only state in the top 10 not in the South. West side represent!
5.  Kentucky - Just like in neighboring Tennessee, 1/4 of children live in poverty.
4.  Alabama - Median household income: $41,574, despite having the lowest property tax, and being the second most religious state.
3.  West Virginia
2.  Arkansas
1.  Mississippi - Median household income: $37,095. Official motto: "Making other states feel better about themselves."

Next in the ritual comes the part when I remind you how Red States are also more likely to be federal welfare queens, i.e. they receive more federal money than they pay to Washington in taxes.

This year I'll offer a rebuttal to that: Granted, if you look at all elections, or number of registered Republicans, and not just how these states voted in presidential races, then defining a "Red State" gets trickier. But since Republicans and Democrats use the same Red-Blue state labels, that argument doesn't hold much water with me.  

Finally, I conclude this ritual by lamenting all those poor, hypocritical reactionaries in Flyover Country who vote against their own economic interests.

Till next year!....

Meyerson: The myth of shareholder capitalism

I can testify that business schools teach Shareholder Value Maximization not as theory, not as an option, but as the only "responsible" method of corporate governance.  

However, as Meyerson correctly notes, corporations' making all their decisions based on SVM is an ideological choice, not a legal or even moral obligation.  

Nor is there proof that SVM is even in the best long-term interests of the corporation, or the shareholders. Indeed, great American companies like Coca-Cola, General Electric, Procter & Gamble and Ford Motor Co. operated profitably for decades before SVM came into vogue in the 1980s.

By Harold Meyerson
February 12, 2014 | Washington Post

Monday, February 10, 2014

Obama is a 'tyrant' for issuing fewer executive orders than Reagan and Bush

Sooner or later, most conservative chain-email garbage finds its way down to the talk radio-FOX cesspool. Latest case and point:Obama's executive orders.

FOX's resident legal expert Andrew Napolitano, who still goes by the title "Judge," called Obama's executive orders "tyranny." And good ole' Rush Limbaugh riffed on this on his show today.  

Rush calls folks who disagree with him "low information voters." Well, a simple Google search reveals that, lo and behold, conservative hero Ronald Reagan issued 381 executive orders, Dubya issued 291, whereas Obama has issued 168 as of January 20, 2014.

Rush deifies Reagan, yet calls Obama's use of executive orders "an impeachable offense." Now that's not stupid and partisan at all, no siree. Because Obama is a Democrat, and different rules apply to Democrats. See?

Even more outrageously, Republicans' hypocrisy has come up in the context of immigration reform. Speaker John Boehner says the Republicans can't make a deal with President Obama and the Democrats because they can't trust him to enforce a new immigration law, even though Obama has broken all records for the number of illegal immigrants deported, earning him the nickname "deporter-in-chief," as even FOX News Latino (not to be confused with FOX News Anglo, aka FOX News) couldn't help but note. Yet again, there is a different set of rules for Democrats.  Go figure.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The myth of Obama's part-time workforce

Here's a graph from Derek Thompson that shows how U.S. part-time employment rises and falls, historically, in perfect sync with recessions and recoveries:

That's right.  No negative Obamacare effect at all.  Zilch.  In fact, Thompson notes that, "in the last year, new full-time jobs outnumbered part-time jobs by 1.8 million to 8,000. For every new part-time job, we're creating 225 full-time positions."  

Here's how Thompson sums how badly many journalists are skewing economic reality:

It is a free country, and journalists have every constitutional right to claim that we're moving toward a Part-Time America. They will, however, be in the uncomfortable position of making a falsifiable statement that has been relentlessly falsified by every available statistic. The entire increase in part-time employment happened before Obamacare became a law.

Wherefore the dastardly lib'rul media when we need them?

By Derek Thomson
February 7, 2014 | The Atlantic

Friday, February 7, 2014

U.S. intel. director: Earth is (still) a scary place

We're all gonna dieeeeeeeeeeeeee!  Aaaaaaaah!

Aw Lawdy, please save us CIA and NSA, save us!  

Let me quote Michael Cohen at length [emphasis mine] in his critique of the annual world threat assessment that the National Intelligence Director is obliged to give the Senate:

There is the habitually frightening adjective war front, "an assertive Russia, a competitive China; a dangerous, unpredictable North Korea, a challenging Iran." The sober-minded might look at these countries and conclude that a more accurate set of descriptors would be "an enfeebled and corrupt Russia, an economically slowing and environmentally challenged China, a contained and sort of predictable North Korea and an isolated and diplomatically-engaged Iran". But that would be a pretty lame threat assessment, wouldn't it?

Then there are the really scary sounding threats that aren't actually threats to Americans. Things like, "lingering ethnic divisions in the Balkans, perpetual conflict and extremism in Africa; violent political struggles in … the Ukraine, Burma, Thailand and Bangladesh." [...]  [B]ut the idea that any of these are serious "crises" or "threats" to America and its citizens is ludicrous.

This is what makes Clapper's argument – and indeed the entire process of writing a "worldwide threat assessment" so fundamentally unserious and distorting. America doesn't face a single truly serious security threat. We are a remarkably safe and secure nation, protected by two oceans, an enormous and highly effective military and dozens upon dozens of like-minded allies and friends around the world. Truly we have nothing to fear – except perhaps global climate change, which oddly merits a one-paragraph mention (pdf) in this year's threat assessment.

To listen to Clapper and others in the intelligence community one might never know that inter-state war has largely disappeared and that wars in general are in the midst of a multi-decade decline

And let's not forget that Clapper is the same guy who lied to Congress about not spying on U.S. citizens!:

The irony of all this is that Clapper has been under fire for months now because he allegedly lied to Congress over the extent to which the National Security Agency was collecting phone and e-mail records of individual Americans.

Yet, the yarn he spun on Capitol Hill last week was far worse than that: deceiving Americans about the nature of the world today and the threats facing the country. But in a political environment in which threat mongering and exaggeration is the norm rather than the exception, Clapper not only gets a pass – hardly anyone even noticed.

I've had enough of these obvious lies from "serious" spies protecting their administrative turf and bloated billion-dollar budgets.  There is no way that the U.S. is in more danger now than during the Cold War.  We have no enemies who can attack us, save Russia with its ICBMs. Terrorism is a mosquito on the list of actual threats to American citizens.

The James Clappers of the U.S. military-intelligence community might bamboozle and intimidate our Congressmen and journalists with their doomsday speeches, but not me.  What about you?

By Michael Cohen
February 6, 2014 | Guardian

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Let the Post Office be a bank or whatever the market will bear

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently wrote:

If the Postal Service offered basic banking services -- nothing fancy, just basic bill paying, check cashing and small dollar loans -- then it could provide affordable financial services for underserved families, and, at the same time, shore up its own financial footing. 

No, this is not just a gimmick to shore up the Post Office's balance sheet, it's about serving underbanked and overcharged Americans, the Little Guys, the ones we're supposed to be worried about (and not the top 20, 10 or 1 percent).  Indeed, as Sen. Warren wrote, "The poor pay more," for basic financial services, which is not only unfair, it's avoidable [emphasis mine]:

According to a report put out this week by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Postal Service, about 68 million Americans -- more than a quarter of all households -- have no checking or savings account and are underserved by the banking system. Collectively, these households spent about $89 billion in 2012 on interest and fees for non-bank financial services like payday loans and check cashing, which works out to an average of $2,412 per household. That means the average underserved household spends roughly 10 percent of its annual income on interest and fees -- about the same amount they spend on food.

Back in 2011, I complained that Congress wouldn't let the USPS offer more innovative services to their clients, including banking.  Here we are in 2014, still discussing the same no-brainer idea that has worked in many other countries, including Japan. In fact the U.S. Postal Service had a banking system from 1910 to 1967 with deposits valued at about $30 billion in today's dollars... until Congress shut it down.  

Congress must stop micro-managing the Post Office and let it compete in new lines of business, while using its inherent advantages, such as convenient locations in thousands of small U.S. towns.  

By Richard (RJ) Eskrow
February 5, 2014 | Huffington Post

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More evidence the middle class is gone

Sedulous readers (all three of you) will remember how back in 2011 I remarked on Citbank's "consumer hourglass theory": companies should either sell high-end products or bottom basement. Because the middle-class consumer is gone.

Well, it took the New York Times only three years to catch on.

Check this out: "[A]bout 90 percent of the overall increase in inflation-adjusted consumption between 2009 and 2012 was generated by the top 20 percent of households in terms of income." 

Bye-bye, American Dream!

By Nelson D. Schwartzfeb
February 2, 2014 | New York Times

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

'Liberal' media lies: Obamacare will cost 2 million jobs

So did the CBO really mean to forecast that 2 million people would lose their jobs because of Obamacare? No. But that's how the mainstream media -- including the "liberal" axis at the New York Times and Washington Post reported it.

As Weinstein clarifies, here's what the CBO actually said:

CBO estimates that the ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor—given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.

Is that just wonkish liberal-progressive spin?  Is that just "figures lie, and liars figure?"  No again:

When workers no longer have to rely on full-time employers to get affordable health care, they suddenly have the freedom to not work full-time. That could mean people stuck in crappy hourly jobs 40 hours a week at, say, the local big-box store. Or creatives jammed in underpaying urban admin assistant jobs. Indeed, the CBO adds:

Because the largest declines in labor supply will probably occur among lower-wage workers… the impact on the overall economy will be proportionally smaller than the reduction in hours worked.

Weinstein sums it up [emphasis mine]:

The problem here is truly philosophical. It is ideological. It is rooted in the two Americas' distressingly divergent answers to a simple question: What is a job for?

For pundits and pointy-headed analysts, it's to keep The Economy and Growth flowing. That is its good. That is its end. Workers are the means. For most workers (the vast majority of whom aren't leaving their families and schlepping through megastorms to cubicles or factories for the love), the job is the means to a different, individualized end: the ability to buy one's own way, to keep loved ones fed and happy and healthy, to stave off poverty.

So what the CBO said today, in essence, was that if this Obamacare thing works out, people won't need to work full-time jobs just to keep health care benefits. They may actually be able to spend more time with those families. They may be able to freelance, to split hours between two parents rather than having one stay-at-home parent and one full-time earner. They may be able to take a chance on that novel or Etsy shop, instead of staying at the office until death.

That's not what conservatives hear, though, because that's not what conservatives care about. Their concern for people is subverted by their concern for commercial output, or economic abstractions that appear to impact commercial output.

People are real. They are not economic abstractions. And health care (and Medicare and food stamps, for that matter) is not single-sided accounting, with all costs and liabilities and no assets or benefits.  Health insurance that is not tied to employment facilitates Americans' labor mobility, unleashes their creativity and risk-taking, simply because they don't have to make one of the most important decisions in life -- where to work -- based solely on where they can get decent health insurance.  

By Adam Weinstein
February 5, 2014 | Gawker

UPDATE (02.082014): Check out Matt Taibbi's somewhat nuanced take on the media flap over the CBO report: "Latest Health Care Flap Shows Media at its Most Boring."

Conservatives ruining 'American exceptionalism'

Beinartfeb argues convincingly that conservatives, who say they defend "American exceptionalism," are actually doing the most to destroy Americans' feeling of having a special place in the world that diverges historically and culturally from Europe.  

How?  First, because of conservatives' politicizing religion. Feelings of exceptionalism are strongest with those who attend church regularly and identify with a particular religious denomination. By politicizing religion, starting in the 1980s, conservatives have steadily turned off generations of Americans from churchy Christianity. They believe church has gotten too political.  (They're right).  We have an increasing contingent of "spiritual not religious" Americans who never hear the pastor's or televangelist's politicized sermons.

Secondly, because of Dubya. A belief in American exceptionalism goes along with an aggressive, "unapologetic" U.S. foreign policy. Thanks to Bush's avoidable debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, two generations have been turned off from an active, interfering U.S. role in the world; and they are less likely to believe in "going it alone" and more likely to trust the UN and international institutions.

Third, because of economic inequality. Republican policies have limited class mobility, have encouraged accumulation of wealth at the top, and have made more Americans class-conscious: they are more likely to look at their country just like any other, where the Haves rule the Have-Nots -- not the land of the "American Dream" where anybody who works hard can live comfortably and even strike it rich. 

By Peter Beinartfeb
February 3, 2014 | The Atlantic