Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Chubby Newt

This is a short, quick note -- because that's all he rates, if that.  And since I've just written about another public figure making an absurd statement, it brought to mind The Chubby Newt, who made news twice this week.

Once in blathering about the Newtown tragedy.  His opinion (or at least what he told the TV cameras):   If we hadn't taken prayer out of schools, and if we let school principals be armed -- maybe these things wouldn't happen.

And yesterday, he said that he "would probably have done better than Romney against Obama" in the election.

OK.  Let's put these both in the context that Newt is always wrong about whatever he says.  So why do tv producers keep having him on to pontificate?

Why am I writing this now and putting his name out there?    The best way to deal with Newt would be to ignore him;  don't give him a mike or a camera.   Why can't we do that -- me included?


The NRA finally speaks about the Newtown massacre

Following the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, MA, there seems to be a more serious determination to do something about our culture of violence and the too easy access to weapons for multiple killings.

There have been calls for greater gun control following Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, CO, and others.  But they usually pass in a week or so, and nothing changes.

This time -- it may accomplish something.  President Obama, some Republicans in Congress, TV commentators, and even the judge who held the trial for Gabrielle Gifford's shooter have been calling for new control laws, at least on assault weapons.  Some of them have even been speaking boldly about what the NRA really does -- which is to act as a lobbyist for the manufacturers and the retailers of these weapons.

Now the NRA has spoken.   Executive VP Wayne LaPierre held a news conference yesterday.   Did he offer the expected gesture toward a modicum of gun control -- or at least emphasize the need for safety training and preventing mentally ill persons from getting guns?

Absolutely not.   He went the other way.
The solution to our violence and gun problem is:   MORE GUNS. 
Every school in this country should have armed guards;  and the principals also should be armed.   That's the NRA's solution.

This is not even what the majority of NRA members would say.   And it certainly is not what the nation needed to hear.

It's certainly arguable that no conceivably-passable regulatory laws could have prevented Adam Lanza from doing what he did.    He used guns that had been legally purchased by his mother.   And he killed her -- possibly because she was trying to prevent his taking her guns.  She reportedly handled them properly and kept them secure.  But Adam lived with her and he knew how to gain access to them.

That is not the point.   The point is that there are too many guns, no one needs to have assault weapons designed only to kill many people quickly, and it's time we at least reinstate the ban on such weapons that we once had.   If the emotions stirred by this tragedy serve to restore some sane regulations, let's do it while we can.


Friday, December 21, 2012

House Republicans gave up and went home

John Boehner couldn't get enough votes from his caucus to pass his Plan B, so the House adjourned and went home until after Christmas.

This is good news, I think.   Ultra-conservative Republican Congressman Dan Burton (Indiana) said that if a fiscal deal isn't reached before the end of the year, President Obama will be in such a strong position that Republicans will be forced to accept the end of Bush tax cuts for those making above $250,000.

What this means for Boehner's future as Speaker remains to be seen.   He gambled on getting his "compromise" bill through the House -- which meant they would break their pledges not to raise taxes at all.

And he lost.   Which will likely add fuel to the talk of opposition to his re-election as Speaker, with Georgia's Tom Price as a more conservative, leading contender.

Others are making the obligatory "blame Obama" comments -- trying to paint him as the recalcitrant one.   That's ridiculous -- and maybe why his offer on chained-CPI index for Social Security was a good tactical move.   Same for going up to $400,000 on taxes.  They can't really say he didn't give on anything -- not with any credibility.

Sounds really good to me.   Let's go over the cliff, and then fix what needs to be fixed with a new congress and better Democratic numbers -- plus there will be greater pressure on the Republicans to give in.


PS:    Boehner's humiliating defeat by his own party now makes a mockery of his taunting President Obama yesterday, when he told a press conference that "the president is not willing to stand up to his own party."  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Despicable perversion of religion #2

Some opponents are going after the Westboro Baptist Church in a new way -- hacking into their twitter accounts and changing their message.   One 15 year old whiz kid, who goes by the online name of "Cosmo the God," managed to take over the twitter account of Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper, daughter of Fred Phelps and spokesperson for the group.

Cosmo changed her background to a message that said "Pray for Newtown" and edited her profile information.    Someone else tweeted out her telephone number and started an online petition to the White House to have the WBC declared a hate organization.  Other cyberattack groups have also been active in causing mischief for other members of WBC.  

The Westboro Baptist Church is listed as an anti-Semitic and homophobic hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and, I believe, by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which exposes and works to counter-act hate groups.

Unfortunately for young Cosmo, this act of countering a hate group may cause him some trouble.   He wound up in juvenile court for several other cyberattacks in 2012:  taking down the NASDAQ site and some government site, including   His probated sentence banned him from the internet until he turns 21.  So will probably be a probation violation for him.

Is this a good thing?    I must admit that my moral position on it gets sort of fuzzy when the victim is such a despicable group in which I can find absolutely no redeeming features.   So, I am torn.   However, I also agree with the ACLU principle of defending freedom of speech, even when it's a message they deplore.   But shouldn't there be some limits? -- like the funerals of innocent people who have absolutely nothing to do with what you're protesting, and the only rationale of the protesters is the publicity they will get?


Understanding the CPI

Now I know a little more about the Consumer Price Index and how this figures into the cuts that Obama is prepared to accept in Social Security cost of living increases.

The proposal is simply to use what's called the "chained-CPI index" instead of the simple "cost of living" index.  Some economists say the chained-CPI index is more accurate of real spending cost increases.  What it does is measure the increased prices of what is actually purchased, rather than simply on how prices have gone up.

Under the old way, if the price of beef goes up, the CPI goes up.  Under the chained index:  if the price of beef goes up, and if a significant number of shoppers then buy pork instead of beef, that is taken into consideration.   So, in effect, it doesn't just compare the price of beef in 2011 with beef in 2012;  it compares what people paid for groceries in 2011 with what they paid for groceries in 2012.    Same with clothing, etc.

There are now some statistics on how much the change would affect SS checks.   Over the past 26 years, on average, it would have been 0.28% a year less -- or 7.32% over the 22 years.   A relatively small amount per year, but it does add up over time.

As of this writing, Nancy Pelosi says the House Democrats will accept it.   One of the labor leaders says they oppose it, but they're not yet ready to say it should be the deal breaker in a fiscal cliff settlement.

And, remember this.   It can always be increased later by a more Democratic-friendly Congress.


Let's be practical

Who knows what is really going on behind the scenes in the negotiations about the fiscal problems -- how much of what we hear is negotiating tactics, how much is serious business?

The latest flap that has liberals up in arms is the report that Obama has offered to change how the annual cost of living (COL) increases are calculated.   I'm not very knowledgeable about this.  Some have said that old way of calculating it is not really realistic anyway.  I think it boils down to this:

Yes, it would make a little difference over time in how much a senior's monthly SS check is.  For example, mine will increase by 1.7% next year.   With the change, it might rise by 1.5%.  That's the magnitude we're talking about.   So, say, in 5 years it might be a difference of 1%.

Not insignificant.  But, as a negotiating tactice, it might be OK.  The trouble is, it crosses that line in the sand, where Dems said "no cuts in entitlements" and Repubs said "no new taxes."

Boehner has already indicated a willingness to cross that line by allowing tax cuts to expire on those making over $400,000.   So this is a comparable move, it seems to me.

But my initial response was:   There he goes again.  Obama is caving in on Social Security.  So I understand the emotional reaction, too.    But, if he doesn't concede any more than this, and he gets a deal out of it, that's not too bad.


LATE ADDITION:   An NBC/Wall St. Journal poll just released shows that 61% of Republicans would accept higher taxes on the wealthy to avoid the fiscal cliff.   So, maybe a deal will be reached without any further concessions from Obama.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Despicable perversion of religion

It was bad enough that the Westboro Baptist Church protestors picketed funerals of men who died from AIDS and men who had been killed in Iraq.   It seems that, in their warped minds and perversion of Christianity, that they will take any occasion that gets TV cameras to cover their despicable circus. 

But now they have sunk even lower -- announcing their plans to protest at the funerals of children killed in Newtown, CT.  Their "excuse" this time was to blame Connecticutt's marriage equality legislation.  Killing 20 children was God's punishment.

EXCEPTEnter the calvary, just like in the old Westerns, when the good guys ride into town to save the day.  

Motoclycists from the anti-Westboro group Patriot Guard Riders lined the streets to block them from access to the funeral mourners.  Another group, Angel Action, was also ready to go to Newtown to help in this effort.  And more than 100 bikers from New York and Massachusetts were in Connecticutt to show their support and be available if needed.

As last reported, the Westboro group left the area without picketing.   This seems to be the most effective way to counter them.   It all began in the early days with AIDS victims' funerals, where men dressed as angels with long, white-draped arm extensions -- which they held aloft as they lined the streets to block the views of the protestors.

There's something especially poignant, though, about motorcyclists showing their tender, protective side for victims of such bigotry and hatred.  

Good for them.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The need for impartial redistricting plans

Forty-four states leave the drawing of congressional district lines entirely to their legislatures, which means the plans will favor the political party in power at the time.

Six states (AZ, CA, HI, ID, NJ, WA) give the task to independent or bipartisan commissionsThree states (FL, IA, ME) have independent bodies to propose plans, which are then subject to legislative approval.    Seven states have populations small enough that they have only one congressional district.

So how does it work out where political parties have the choice?   Not very well.   The 2012 elections is a good test of that.   With the Tea Party in ascendency in 2010, conservatives not only swept into control of the House but also of state governments -- which gave them control of redistricting done in response to the 2010 census.

Thus 2012 showed influence of state legislative majorities in the elections for the U.S. House but not so much in the presidential race.   It led to some interesting divergencies:

WisconsinObama carried the state, as did Tammy Baldwin, who will be one of the most liberal of the new U.S. Senators.  Democrats received more total votes statewide for Congress -- but due to the way districts are drawn (to concentrate partisan voters in a few districts), the state will have 5 Republicans and 3 Democrats in Congress.

PennsylvaniaObama won, as did several Democrats for state offices;  and 83,000 more votes overall for Democrats to Congress.   Yet Republicans will have a 13 to 5 edge in their congressional delegation.

Virginia:   Democrats won nearly 50% of the votes in Congressional races, but will have only 27% of its seats in congress.

Ohio:  Democrats won 48% of the vote, but only 25% of its seats.

This needs fixing.   The House of Representatives, having to be elected every two years, is designed to be the more representative of recent public opinion, as well as the more representative of the relative populousness of states.

Another factor is that this kind of political-target districting also gives an advantage to incumbents.   So, once the Tea Party swept into Congress in 2010, it was not so easy to defeat them.   But a significant number were defeated anyway -- including a close call for Michele Bachmann.

What about a constitutional amendment to overhaul our electoral system:   let's do campaign finance, redistricting, and the electoral college, all in one amendment?


Monday, December 17, 2012

At long last, maybe . . .

There are some indications that, finally, at long last . . .  just maybe . . . we can have a rational discussion about sane gun control.

Joe Scarborough, former Republican Congressman and host of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, discussed his changing views on gun control in the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre.   This morning he described himself, during his years in Congress, as having been "a conservative Republican" and solidly aligned with the NRA and libertarian views on the second amendment.   However, "Friday changed everything," he said:
"I knew that day that the ideologies of my past career were no longer relevant to the future that I want, that I demand for my children. Friday changed everything. It must change everything.
We all must begin anew and demand that Washington's old way of doing business is no longer acceptable. Entertainment moguls don't have an absolute right to glorify murder while spreading mayhem in young minds across America.  Our Bill of Rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-style, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want.

"It is time for Congress to put children before deadly dogmas. It's time for politicians to start focusing more on protecting our schoolyards than putting together their next fundraiser. It's time for Washington to stop trying to win endless wars overseas when we're losing the war at home ... For the sake of my four children and yours, I choose life and I choose change."
Harry Reid, Senate majority leader and staunch gun advocate, also signalled his readiness to "engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence to grow."

It's a good start.   Will it last?



From the New York Times, 12/17/12:
"Japan Election Returns Power To Old Guard"
"Tokyo -- Japan's voters handed a landslide victory to the Liberal Democratic Party in national parliamentary elections on Sunday, giving power back to the conservative party that had governed Japan for decades until a historic defeat three years ago."
That left me scratching my head.   The Liberal Democratic Party is the conservative party???

So I went to Wikipedia for a quick rundown on political parties in Japan.  And this is not an error.   The Democratic Party, the larger of the two major parties, is generally considered to be left of center;  while The Liberal Democratic Party is made up of conservative and centrist groups.

In addition there are about ten other minor parties, including the Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and a smattering of smaller groups usually based on some narrower focus.

Quite different from our slugfest of two giants.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gun control laws #2

I know so little about guns -- but that's no less than I want to know.   However, in my ignorance, I may have misstated the situation in my previous post.  It concerns whether "any conceivable law" could have prevented the sale of the type guns the killer used.

More details released today by the police in Newton, CT reveal that both the rifle and the handguns were fitted with "high capacity clips" -- meaning they could fire multiple rounds of shots without reloading.

The rifle, at least, is classified as "semi-automatic."   It is of the type that could get through the loophole in the assault weapons ban that existed from 1994 until it expired in 2004 after conservatives blocked its renewal. 

So it was currently legal -- and it's debatable whether any likely future law will be able to ban such weapons.  If they fix the loopholes, then the law may stop such semi-automatic weapons, until they figure out another loophole, of course.

In my opinion, these guns have no purpose other than to kill lots of people quickly, and they have no place in our modern, urban society.


What should we do about gun control?

There is no doubt that gun violence - particularly these mass shootings -- is increasing.   My information here is based in part on Jay Bookman's AJC column, 12/16/12.

"Of the dozen most deadly mass killings in U.S. history, half have occurred in the past five years."   U.S. gun ownership is also highest in history:  300 million guns for a population of 315 million.    Yet, we have NRA-types saying the problem is not too many guns, but not enough guns.   If those elementary school teachers had been armed, they could have taken this guy out.    The same day as the shooting, Michigan's legislature passed a law allowing concealed weapons to be carried into schools.

Is that what we want?    A fully armed society?   Shoot-outs at elementary schools and churches?  A return to the good old days of the frontier Western shoot-out at high noon?

But what is to be done?   With so many guns in circulation, can gun control laws be effective?

In this case, the 20 year old shooter took guns legally owned by his mother, who was herself an experienced shooter who took her children to the firing range to teach them how to shoot.  As to his accuracy:  news reports point out that he killed 27 of the 28 people he shot, leaving only one person alive but wounded.

He was reportedly denied a gun purchase on his own at one store the day before, because he refused to wait for the background check.   So he used his mother's guns . . .  first on her.   Since we have no information on his motive for shooting his mother, could it be that she was trying to stop him from taking the guns, knowing he was unstable? 

No gun law currently in force, or any conceivable additional laws, would have prevented this tragedy.   The laws in place did prevent his purchase, at least at one store;  but it couldn't stop his access to his mother's legally purchased guns.  It's hard to have to admit that, being a staunch advocate for gun control.  But it's the truth.

Hand guns and a rifle were the weapons of choice here.  It's unlikely those will be banned.   But there is a case for banning the sale and ownership of assault rifles and multiple-round handguns that are designed only for killing many people as quickly as possible.   They are not needed for hunters or home defenders.  But that wouldn't have prevented the lawful purchase of these guns by the mother.

What we do need to change, however, is our culture of guns and violence.   It's one thing to restrict ownership to the sane without criminal records, and to require training in the use of firearms.   But how effective can that be, with so many guns already in circulation, with the lax enforcement of laws, combined with loopholes in sales at gun shows that bypass background checks, plus the inability to prevent cases like the present one where he easily obtained legally bought and owned guns of a family member.

Changing our gun culture, or frontier mentality, and our glorifying gun slingers in movies and TV and video games.    Now there's a long range project.   Education must begin early and often -- as has been done to some extent in educating children about environmental concerns.

I don't expect this one to be fixed in my life time;  but I do hope we begin trying to fix it NOW before another such awful massacre occurs.


Social Security does not add to the deficit

Jason Linkins and Ryan Grim, two blog writers who bring some sanity to political discourse, have taken on the often-repeated myths about Social Security.   Nothing seems to get people quite as confused, or to give politicians quite as much opportunity to distort and mislead.

Here it is, simple and clear:
Social Security does not add to the deficit.
It does not need to be cut in order to balance the budget.
It only needs minor tweeking to keep it solvent.
Here is how Linkins and Ryan explain it: 
Social Security, by law, is not part of the congressional budget;  it does not add to the deficit. It is not a driver of long-term debt. . . .  [It] does not even have to come up during the “fiscal cliff talks” because it’s totally irrelevant to the situation and will only complicate everything needlessly. . . .

[T]he Associated Press, relying on a familiar line of reasoning, argu[es] that the program does in fact add to the deficit because the government 'spent that money on other programs, reducing the amount it had to borrow from the public, including foreign investors... In return, the Treasury Department issued special bonds to Social Security. The bonds are now valued at $2.7 trillion. They are accounted for in two Social Security trust funds, one for the retirement program and one for the disability program. The bonds pay interest like other Treasury notes and are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.' . . .
In other words, as I read it, Social Security is not the cause of increased deficit.  It is a holder of U. S. bonds, which represent its debt;  but it is simply a creditor of the U. S., just like China.  We don't blame China for our our deficit or our debt.

At a 2011 Senate hearing, two Social Security experts, a liberal and a conservative, testified -- and agreed -- that the law is "unambiguous."  It specifically states that Social Security  "shall not be counted for purposes of the congressional budget."

Further, they agreed that it is not to be considered part of the budget.   Even if you cut Social Security, it will not change the $14.3 trillion debt that we are facing.  It does not help in any way with the debt limit.   And note:  that both a liberal and a conservative expert on Social Security agreed on these statements.

Back to Linkins and Grim:
The solvency of Social Security is at risk if the following two things happen: 1) the number of recipients overwhelmingly outnumber the number of contributors and 2) American lawmakers forget how to do math.

What we popularly refer to as the “Social Security solvency crisis” refers to a large population of Americans (the “Baby Boom Generation”) entering their retirement years at a time when the number of contributors is less than ideal. Hopefully, however, someone at some point is going to remember how to solve a simple arithmetic problem, raise or remove the income caps on contributions (right now, incomes that exceed $110,100 are not subject to contributions beyond that amount), and then we will never have to worry about Social Security solvency again. . . . 
Does this make us all feel better?   It should.   Let's hope journalists and pundits will begin to confront politicians who play the Social Security card and try to scare voters into doing something stupid to mess with a program that works.

Medicare and Medicaid are another matter.   They do affect budgeting.  And it's important to keep them separate when thinking about what to cut.