Saturday, February 05, 2005

Kristof on Social Security 

Nicholas Kristof has been doing some great reporting about issues around the world. On subjects as varied as the coalition of the, ahem, ‘willing’ to Islamic fundamentalism, to the child sex trade, he's been a great reporter, going where others fear to tread. He’s been out in front on many issues. But now that he’s back home, he’s stepped into the Social Security debate without considering what’s happened to politics here in the US.

In today’s NY Times, Kristof suggests that privatization is somehow more ‘modernized’ as a pension system, contending that since Singapore has it, privatization must be right. He doesn’t bring up the unpleasant problems with privatization in Singapore, where pensioners now retire cash-poor under their system, while paying 33% of their paychecks in payroll taxes.

Kristof’s contention is that Democrats, despite a cynical Trojan Horse campaign by the President, should enter into a compromising partnership with the Administration to make changes to Social Security that will be the basis for a new century’s pensions. Kristof doesn’t realize that while he’s been traveling the world, the Bush Administration and the GOP Congressional leadership have been working in lockstep to lure Democrats into compromises to get legislation into the conference process, then turning around behind closed doors to eliminate the compromises. There’s no reason to believe that in their most high profile priority, that the Administration will change the 'my-way or the highway' approach they’ve taken to every other legislative issue.

As for Democrats taking a position of their own on Social Security, Kristof suggests this as if any position the Democrats present, in advance of a vote on the Administration's plan, would be other than dead on arrival. There is no question that the Administration and the Congressional majorities will use a Democratic proposal, if advanced before the Republican legislation is written, as a red herring rather than a position to consider. Democrats should wait to deal first with the Administration’s proposal, then advance their own plan, not the other way around.

If the Democrats play their cards right, they’ll be able to present a plan at the right time, from a position of strength on the issue, not as a party pleading for mercy from a President pledged to run up debt and pull out the safety net from under the people. Otherwise, they'll be playing a sucker's game, which won't advance the cause of real Social Security reform.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Are You Now or HAve You Ever Been... 

For a chilling example of the Brave New World of Gitmo justice, click here...

The Trojan Horse 

Bill Kristol got the question this morning on NPR— and answered honestly. I’ll look for transcript and update later, but the paraphrase is deadly enough to post immediately.

The question, of course, is why, why go after Social Security at this time, when there are so many higher priorities to deal with?

Kristol said (I am paraphrasing from memory) that Social Security is the crown jewel of the New Deal; it is the program that most successfully ties people to government. The President wants to change that, to get people to think more like Republicans than Democrats, and this is the way to do it.

This, honestly stated, is what the President is really after— in its most positive form. It’s not about “Saving” Social Security. It’s about using it as a wedge with which to separate the people of the United States from their own government. He won’t say so, since admitting to it would expose the lie he tells about being willing to take any good idea and use it to find a “solution,” but Kristol has the intellectual honesty to say it’s a Trojan Horse, and just did.

Once the safety net has been initially reduced below a level of any real value, the next logical step would be to replace it entirely with privatized pension accounts, managed entirely by Wall St firms.

I would postulate that another stealth element of the reasoning behind taking on Social Security is that ‘reform’ will change the economic assumptions underlying Social Security’s funding. In short, ‘reform’ will make it possible to avoid repaying the Social Security Trust Fund, giving this President the license to avoid responsibility for the mountain of general fund debt he’s piled up. The beauty part is that he could then pay general fund expenses without ever having to tax his rich buddies more. In short, he’ll steal from the poor to give to the rich.

This is the plan, after winning 51% of the vote. Cram the most right-wing agenda possible down the country’s throat. Destroy the relationship of the people with their government in order to reorient political realities for a generation. And it’s why the opposition to his plan feels it must remain rock hard. Bruce Reed, the usually compromising DLC President has stated, “The most important thing is for Democrats to make sure we keep our ranks in line. We should do whatever it takes to make sure there are no defections.”

This President is opening a battle that could result in the kind of defeat President Clinton experienced over health care reform in his first term. The kind that can lose a President a midterm election big-time. He is setting the stakes very high—now the opposition is also.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Peacock Flunks on Social Security Fact-Check 

In commentary follow-up tonight, NBC used ALL the President’s versions of stats and terms to cut between his State of the Union address and their B-roll and graphic description of the ‘crisis.’ 2018 was described as ‘the year SS starts spending more than it takes in’ (instead of the year the Trust fund surplus kicks in), privatization was referred to as ‘personal accounts’…Brian Williams even asked Olympia Snowe whether SS was ‘in crisis’ or ‘merely broken.’

Yeah, I see why the Right is so upset with the liberal media….not

Oh— and what prompted Tim Russert to think that vocal Democratic anger in the Rotunda, expressed when the President described SS becoming ‘bankrupt’ as “frayed nerves?”

Could it be his own frayed nerves?—a reaction to the criticism Russert’s getting for being such a privatization cheerleader? Using crisis language? Letting Bill Thomas flak for the program without probing? All of the above?

Feel free to write NBC if any of this annoys you…

...And Counting 

Bruce O’Dell, the Vice President of USCountVotes, is a mild and soft spoken man, who has a background in computer security and IT for financial service organizations. He’s careful about data and has been entrusted with keeping track of people’s money through computer systems. He’d be in a lot of trouble at work if his data wasn’t independently verified and audited. Clients might lose money and other folks might lose jobs.

Yet O’Dell pointed out in a conversation today that this is exactly what we’ve done with our votes in the United States. Much of our election data is recorded on machines that simply do not produce an audit trail. They are ‘black boxes’ that house ‘trade secret’ computer code, yet produce no paper to confirm independently that your vote was cast for the candidate of your choice. What’s worse, they are in some states (like Florida) assumed by law to be correct and therefore cannot even be recounted.

Would you put your money into a bank that wouldn’t show you a paper receipt, didn’t keep a scan of your checks, and on principle, wouldn’t recheck your account if you thought an error had been made?

O’Dell is busy working to recruit volunteers on a project that may be of great importance to future elections in the United States. The USCountVotes nonprofit he works with is in the process of creating an open source database of all election data, on a precinct-by-precinct level, from the recent 2004 election. USCountVotes will draw on the talents of data-gathering volunteers, academics and computer professionals throughout the country to extract and assemble data from the various county and state agencies who keep the raw vote totals. Once assembled, this data will be available to anyone to test against exit polls, theoretical hacks to technologies in use currently, and radical deviations from expected norms. In the future, such a database might be expanded to a point where it could ‘red light’ problems in voting— even on election night itself, before the difficult question of whether to recount comes to pass.

What O’Dell hopes to do is to focus attention on protecting our votes the way computer security now protects your money. O’Dell points out that the Association for Computing Machinery, an organization of 78,000 computer professionals, recently put out a statement endorsed by 95% of their members polled , calling for voting systems to:

“enable each voter to inspect a physical (e.g., paper) record to verify that his or her vote has been accurately cast and to serve as an independent check on the result produced and stored by the system. Making those records permanent (i.e., not based solely in computer memory) provides a means by which an accurate recount may be conducted. Ensuring the reliability, security, and verifiability of public elections is fundamental to a stable democracy.”

As O’Dell says, “Getting 95% of this group to agree on anything is monumental.”

But then, would you hire a computer security expert who didn’t think verification of results was necessary? Or a Secretary of State...a President?

Social Security and 2006 

"President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security. It will not happen."

-Minority Leader Harry Reid (D- NV)

Reid has upped the ante for the State of the Union speech tonight. The President will have to begin offering ways to peel off Democratic Senators to support his program, either by changing the preannounced components of his legislation or by pressuring individual Senators up for re-election in 2006 to support a compromise.

The history of compromise with this Administration is not kind to those who take the bait (just ask Charlie Stenholm, his district is gone altogether), but there may be a temptation to believe if the Democrats don't put enormous resources behind their reelection.

If there wasn't enough pressure on Doctor Dean and the Democratic Party to put adequate resources behind the Senators coming up in '06, the titanic Social Security battle should place it front and center now.

These are the 2006 Democrats listed as "leaning" or "toss-up" races as of December.

Nelson - FL
Stabenow - MI
Nelson - NE
Corzine - NJ (announced for Governor's race already)
Cantwell - WA
Dayton - MN

None of these Senators are soft on privatization (although it would be good to hear a more definite statement from Ben Nelson of Nebraska), but it's worth supporting their stand. The President is starting his Privatization World Tour '05 in Tampa, the other Nelson's home state, after all. Bush/Cheney is on an eternal campaign; Democrats might be wise to think along similar lines.

"Playbook" References—and New 'D' at DNC 

For further excepts from "Finding Neverland: The Republican Social Security Playbook on Privatization," I refer to Matthew Yglesias and to the fine selection of critiques at PBD- Progressive Blog Digest. I'm done with the Playboook now. It's making me queasy.

It's also making it clear just how much cash is being spent on the effort to unmake Social Security. This kind of flackery doesn't come cheap. I hope there's an opposite emphasis on fundraising to support Social Security going on once Governor Dean takes his new position at the DNC.

By the way, let's wish the Doctor good luck. He's going to need all the help he can get. Yeeeehaa!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Pitching Privatization Perot-Style...the Charts 

“Playtime with Social Security” the GOP Handbook
Excerpt #3— pg. 59

The "Playbook" continues...After many case studies of successful House/Senate candidacies that have survived a pro-privatization stance and reams of reprints from the WSJ Op-Ed page, we begin to serve up the meat— the sales package Members can draw from in front of audiences at home… of the young, the old, and in-between…

Here we start getting into the “presentation materials:” Powerpoints designed to pitch the product and badmouth the competition (i.e. Social Security as we know it). There’s a lot of descriptive material on what Social Security does and how the payroll tax works, then we hit the scare tactics:

"Major Findings From the 2004 Trustees Report

-In 2018, the Social Security system will move from black to red as annual obligations begin to exceed annual program revenues.

-By 2042, the Social Security program will be insolvent.

-It is misleading to look at fixes over a 75 year time period. The further out one looks in time, the bigger the deficits get.

-The current system has a total of 10.4 trillion in unfunded liability."

(I’ll summarize a little of the BS here. This page contains four bullets, all misleading, to describe the ‘crisis.’)
One by one, here are actual facts to counter the BS;

-In 2018, the Social Security system will begin to draw on a pool of overpaid cash in the trust fund designed for exactly the purpose it will be used for: making up the shortfall expected during the baby boomers retirement years. “Black to Red” implies there’s no reservoir for this purpose. That’s a lie.

-By 2042, (if absolutely NOTHING was done in the intervening 37 years) the Social Security Trust would have only 70% of what it’ll need annually. Not nothing…70%. “Insolvent” implies bankruptcy and neglects the ridiculously long period in which adjustments can be made to correct it.

EDITOR'S UPDATE- per Boffoblog, the CBO today updated that number to 78% in 2052. Make that the intervening 47 years...

-The claim that we should look at fixing Social Security into infinity, rather than 75 years out is absurd, given that every long term projection will require corrections one way or another. The history of SS projections over the long term so far already shows that one can never be certain over a longer period or assume deficits will rise infinitely (lately, some projections have become rosier after a few years, not harsher) without knowing the birth rate decades from now. They're making this up as they go along.

-Describing 10.4 trillion in unfunded liability is like describing $150,000 in unpaid car payments for cars you haven’t bought yet. You don’t have the money, but then again, you haven’t lived and worked all the years you’ll be driving them yet either. This is total BS, especially coming from the folks who want to borrow 2 trillion to start their private accounts program—“off the books, Enron style.”

Cooking the Numbers—Privatization Gumbo 

Paul Krugman busts through another Social Security privatization myth today in his NY Times column. With the help of some of his economist buddies, Krugman runs the numbers being used both to tout the ‘floor wax & dessert topping’ wonders of private accounts— and to scare the public about what will happen if we take a pass on privatization.

Krugman uncovers the basic Catch 22 in their pitch:

“…to believe in a privatization-friendly rate of return, you have to believe that half a century from now, the average stock will be priced like technology stocks at the height of the Internet bubble - and that stock prices will nonetheless keep on rising.”

and conversely, he observes:

"… They can rescue their happy vision for stock returns by claiming that the Social Security actuaries are vastly underestimating future economic growth. But in that case, we don't need to worry about Social Security's future: if the economy grows fast enough to generate a rate of return that makes privatization work, it will also yield a bonanza of payroll tax revenue that will keep the current system sound for generations to come."

Which set of numbers will the privatization pitchmeisters settle on? Whichever set suits their current argument, apparently.

"Playbook" Resources...Paid for by You 

from “Saving Social Security: A Fairy Tale for the Ownership Society”

Excerpt #2—Pg. 12


Refers to:

Social Security Administration

-SSA is a critical source of information about the current Social Security system, retirement age, current benefits, AND FUTURE PROBLEMS (capitalization mine).

-Click on “About Social Security’s Future” for answers to frequently asked questions www.ssa.gov/qa.htm

(My note-GO AHEAD. CLICK ON IT— this should infuriate every taxpayer. SSA’s GOVERNMENT FUNDED website has been commandeered by the privateers to indicate that …something must be done, help, help, help.)

If this bugs you, write to your Congressperson.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Stolen X's and O's from the "Playbook"  

Go to Raw Story for a downloadable file of the GOP's Social Security Destruction Playbook, “Saving Social Security”

As we read through, we’ll excerpt interesting nuggets for your reading pleasure:

Excerpt #1— Pg. 3

Number One Key Recommendation from the Republican Playbook:

“Personalization” not “privatization”: Personalization suggests increased personal ownership and control. Privatization connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security; this is inaccurate and thoroughly turns off listeners, who are very concerned about corporate wrongdoing.

Dear GOP:

When personalizing my Social Security account, someone seems to have gotten my monogram wrong. My name isn’t Marty Lurch, or Merrill Lynch, or whatever. Please change the monogram on my personalized account.

Oh, by the way… don’t privatize it either.

The Playbook 

According to Mike Allen in today's Washington Post, the playbook is ready. 104 pages long, the GOP's "Saving Social Security" playbook, named in the spirit of Ron Zeigler, has been distributed at the Republican retreat this weekend. Look for the airwaves to be full of words like "crisis" and "personal accounts" in the coming days. It'll feel like everyone's reading from the same page.

They are.

Voting Blind, Voting for Peace 

For anyone who values democracy and feels for their fellow human being, it was heartwarming to see so many Iraqis turn to the voting booth yesterday. Even if it was the only gesture of defiance most Iraqis could participate in to state their opposition to the violent destruction all around them, from all sides, even if they didn’t know who they were voting for, or whether they were electing a President (they weren’t, but thought they were-see polls), Iraqis were sending a message of their desire for order and peace. Let’s hope they see some soon…

Bob Herbert’s excellent piece in today’s NY Times elaborates on the differences between democracy and the Iraqi election.

Shia Voters 

Why did the Shia come out to the polls yesterday in higher than expected numbers? Some observers tink the viciousness of the Islamic fundamentalists supporting Iraqi nationalists turned the Shia away from the resistance and toward the polls. Patrick Cockburn writes from Baghdad in the Independent today:

“The effectiveness of the Sunni resistance so soon after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the result of the alienation of the population by the US, the military expertise of former officers and the ferocious cruelty of the Islamic fundamentalists, the Salafi. A recent poll showed that 53 per cent of the five million Sunni approved of armed resistance.

But the bigotry of the Salafi and particularly of the groups associated with the Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has angered and frightened the Shias. When the US first attacked Fallujah in April, there was an Iraqi nationalist reaction in Baghdad. When the US destroyed the city in November, after suicide bombers had slaughtered teenage army and police recruits, there was no sympathy among them.

A weakness of the resistance is that it has not developed a movement appealing to Iraqi nationalists as a whole. Bloodthirsty statements from Zarqawi tend to isolate insurgents. So too does the suicide bombers' disregard for Iraqi civilian casualties.”

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Looking Forward...With Caution 

I recommend reading Raed in the Middle for a prognosis of the post-election situation in Iraq, vis a vis US troops...

A Vote and a Hope 

Let’s hope the voting today in Iraq does bring a new dawn of optimism to that war-torn land. The Shia and Kurds are turning out at the polls; the Sunnis appear not to be voting. It will be some time before there’s any clarity to the situation, but there is hope. Let’s hope there is a moderate face on the government that comes next. It will be critical that the Kurds and Sunnis, who will not be in the driver’s seat, are given enough voice in the government that is formed to prevent civil war. Iraq is, after all, a creation of the colonial British, who drew arbitrary lines including the three major ethnic groups there in one geographic entity.

The attitude towards United States forces in the country is unlikely to change dramatically because of the election, but a move asking the US to set a timetable for withdrawal, coming from a legitimate government, might provide a dignified exit strategy. Let’s hope.

Rangel on Race and Social Security 

Michael Kranish at the Boston Globe writes today about the reaction to the President’s attempt to peel off African Americans defending Social Security.

“Representative Charles B. Rangel, a New York City Democrat who was among black members of Congress who met with Bush last week, said he is ''really offended" that the White House and some Republicans are trying to sell Bush's plan for private accounts on grounds that it would be more beneficial to African-Americans.

''It is one of the cruelest things that I have ever read, and I regret that it comes from the office of the president," Rangel said. If Bush wants to do something about inequities between the races, Rangel said, he should address issues including the lack of access to healthcare among many blacks, higher unemployment, and lower wages. Rangel added that unless blacks have better economic prospects, private Social Security accounts will not help them.”

Young George's Lifelong Social Security 'Crisis' 

Reading an article by Janet Hook in today’s LA Times, on conservative thinkers who have been waiting for this moment— for a leader who would have the power to push Social Security privatization through, I came across this fascinating nugget:

“Even as a young man, Bush was sympathetic to revamping the program. When he ran for Congress in 1978, he argued that the program would go broke by 1988 if people were not given the ability to invest the money themselves, according to the Texas Observer. But Bush lost that House race and apparently was not persuaded to push the issue again until decades later.”

Apparently, young Bush thought Social Security was in crisis back then too.

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