Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

I Do Not Think "Tool" Means What You Think It Does

Dear Brad,

Do you want to reconsider the title of this post in the context of this article?

An examination of Mr. Geithner’s five years as president of the New York Fed, an era of unbridled and ultimately disastrous risk-taking by the financial industry, shows that he forged unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street’s giant financial institutions.

His actions, as a regulator and later a bailout king, often aligned with the industry’s interests and desires, according to interviews with financiers, regulators and analysts and a review of Federal Reserve records.

To take a phrase more prominent in our middle-school days, he would qualify as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”

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JOHN C. DUGAN…OCC carries on


John Dugan speaks:

before the
March 19, 2009

It would not have the benefits of onsite examination and supervision and the very real leverage that bank supervisors have over the banks they regulate. That means, we believe, that compliance is likely to be less effective. Nor would this approach draw on the practical expertise that examiners develop from continually assessing the real-world impact of particular consumer protection rules – an asset that is especially important for developing and adjusting such rules over time. More troubling, the ingredients of this approach – registration, licensing and reliance on enforcement actions to achieve compliance with standards – is the very model that has proved inadequate to protect consumers doing business withn state regulatedn mortgage lenders and brokers.

Finally, I do not agree that the banking agencies have failed to give adequate
attention to the consumer protection laws that they have been charged with
implementing. For example, predatory lending failed to gain a foothold in the banking
industry precisely because of the close supervision commercial banks, both state and
national, received. But if Congress believes that the consumer protection regime needs to be strengthened, the best answer is not to create a new agency that would have none of the benefits of a prudential supervisor. Instead, the better approach is a crisp Congressional mandate to already-responsible agencies to toughen the applicable standards and close any gaps in regulatory coverage. The OCC and the other prudential bank supervisors will rigorously apply them.

But I remember him thusly:

OCC ruling and federal pre-emption of state regulatory rules, in addition to national banks chartering myriad state based subsideriaries.

Who validates the financial models 1

Who validates the innovations 2

Occ links

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We Elected a Reformer, Not an Avenger…a different take on torture


Update: The thread devolved into rants on the part of some instead of making a point. Such writing dimishes whatever your position happened to be.

Post from The Bell hat tip run75441

“Joshia’s Example”

We Elected a Reformer, Not an Avenger.

Then Josiah the king sent and gathered together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. Josiah went up into the house of the Lord . . . and he read in their ears all the words of the Book of the Law that was found in the house of the Lord. Josiah stood in his place and made a covenant before the Lord to walk after the Law and to keep its commandments and its testimonies and its statutes with all his heart and with all his soul . . . and he caused all that were present in Jerusalem and Judah to [do the same].

~ Chronicles II, 34:30-33.

Last week, President Obama released several previously classified CIA memos issued during the former Bush Administration, justifying and sanctioning the use of “interrogation with enhanced techniques” (i.e. torture).

The memos proved what many had suspected all along – the brutal treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and elsewhere was widespread and systematic. Rather than the acts of “a few bad apples,” as former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz once insisted, torture was the product of orders issued from individuals like Wolfowitz and others in the highest circles of command.

Obama has been clear he will not prosecute CIA agents and other low-level personnel who conducted interrogations, as they were simply following orders their superiors had assured them were legal. He initially expressed a similar unwillingness to indict those issuing orders, saying, “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Pressure from anti-war members of Congress and left wing progressive groups have caused Obama to retreat from his original position. He now says he might accept a “Truth Commission” but urged Congressional Democrats to appoint an independent prosecutor or panel rather than holding hearings themselves. He has rather vapidly decreed that “most” decisions regarding legal extradition, trial, and punishment will be left to Attorney General Eric Holder. For his part, Holder has been equally equivocal. “No one is above the law. So we’ll see what happens.”

Many liberal pundits are taking Obama to task for his reservations on this topic, insisting his vacillation is undermining the moral as well as practical objections he raised against the Iraq War and war on terrorism during the 2008 campaign.

The clamor started with Howard Fineman in the current issue of Newsweek. He is joined today by Paul Krugman in the New York Times, who asserts, “The only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how [it all] happened and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.”

Krugman continues, “For the fact is that officials in the Bush Administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract ‘confessions’ that would justify that war.”

The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson swells the chorus with his voice. “Torture is not just immoral but also illegal. This means that once we learn the whole truth, the law will oblige us to act on it.”

Only Roger Cohen, writing a few days earlier in the New York Times, is inclined to sway toward mercy over justice.

“I’m wary of the clamor for retribution. Congress failed. The press failed. The judiciary failed. With almost three thousand dead, America’s checks and balances got skewed, from the Capitol to Wall Street. Scrutiny gave way to acquiescence . . . Those checks and balances are recovering now. I don’t think recovery would be served by prosecutions . . . The right balance between retribution and reconciliation is always hard to find in the aftermath of national trauma . . . There’s work to do. Obama’s right – America should look ahead, not back.”

There are probably many reasons why Obama does not wish pursue those who authorized torture, despite the seriousness of the charges. It is certainly clear why he favors an independent commission over Congressional hearings. Even Obama is beyond counting on lessened GOP opposition as a reward for his largesse. However, he cannot afford for his supporters to be distracted from pursuing his aggressive agenda as they chase after their conservative counterparts.

What is more, a thorough investigation is liable to implicate far too many Democrats along with the usual gang of Republican suspects.

For example, among those briefed by the CIA in 2002 about the decision to use waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques were ranking Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.

The ranking House Democrat was Representative Nancy Pelosi of California. She remembers receiving assurances such practices were legal but not that U.S. interrogators were actually going to use them. The ranking Senate Democrat, Senator Bob Graham of Florida, denies receiving any kind of briefing.

The ranking House Republican, Representative Porter J. Goss of Florida, remembers things a little differently. “We were briefed, and we certainly understood what CIA was doing,” he said in an interview. “Not only was there no objection, there was actually concern about whether the agency was doing enough.”

Obama may also realize that as justifiably outraged as some liberals may be over torture, other Americans not only continue to defend it use but regard the termination of such practices with equally sincere outrage.

“By inviting the prosecution of Bush officials for their anti-terror legal advice, President Obama has injected a poison into our politics that he and the country will live to regret,” fumed the Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial on Wednesday. “Until now, the U.S. political system has avoided the spectacle of a new Administration prosecuting its predecessor for policy disagreements.”

Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the current ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, goes so far as to question which side of this argument is truly guilty of the worst crimes. “Perhaps we need an investigation not of the enhanced interrogation program but of what the Obama Administration may be doing to endanger the security our nation has enjoyed because of interrogations and other antiterrorism measures implemented since Sept. 12, 2001.”

Then again, perhaps Obama is following the example of the Biblical king Josiah in this matter. Josiah was king of Judah from 641–604 BC. The once powerful nation of Israel had fallen from the greatness of David and Solomon, splitting into a northern and Josiah’s southern kingdom long ago.

His subject’s worship of idolatry distressed Josiah. He ordered such statues destroyed and their shrines torn down. He also raised money and ordered the great temple at Jerusalem cleaned and restored. During the restoration, a scribe found a long-forgotten writing, which some scholar hold to have been Deuteronomy, one of the Old Testament’s five core books of Mosaic Law.

When Josiah read the book, he became even more distressed and “rent his robes” when he realized how far his people had fallen from the Law. A prophet told Josiah that Jerusalem would pay for its crimes but his honesty and humility had earned him dispensation.

Josiah’s next acts are those chronicled in the quote at the top of this post. He had the lost Book of Law read aloud so everyone could hear it. Then he vowed to adhere to it and urged his subjects to follow his example. He drove out and/or killed the idolatrous priests and some of the worst “abominations” but he conducted no pogroms or purges against Jews who might have strayed.

Josiah was essentially a reformer, not an avenger. Perhaps he felt no small amount of guilt that much of the idolatry had built up in Judah over the preceding reigns of his father and grandfather. Perhaps he simply came to realize the same insight as Aldous Huxley some twenty centuries later.

“The people who make wars, the people who reduce their fellows to slavery, the people who kill and torture and tell lies in the name of their sacred causes, the really evil people in a word – these are never the publicans and the sinners. No, they’re the virtuous, respectable men, who have the finest feelings, the best brains, the noblest ideals.”

The Bush officials most responsible for the reprehensible practice of torture are no less the descendants of the Founding Fathers than ourselves. Like so many things regarding the Iraq War, they lied to us only after first lying to themselves so completely that they came to believe their lies as the truth. By selectively listening to some and eschewing critical thinking altogether, they created a worldview in which torture by the United States was legally and ethically necessary.

Obama, like Josiah, is a reformer. Releasing those CIA memos were a first step, akin to reading the Book of Law aloud in the temple. Further steps may be justified to place the full story before the public but it is a cautionary tale for all. Some high-ranking priests and those guilty of the worst abominations may well need to pay a price but this should not be our paramount concern.

As Roger Cohen observes, “A facile search for scapegoats . . . would allow too many to disregard their own small measure of responsibility.” Even Paul Krugman admits, “During the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.”

Our nation’s deviation from the Law over the past eight years was too big and too appalling to think a few trials and convictions can fix it, no matter how much pleasure we might receive watching the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, and even former President Bush twisting in the wind. This crew deserves little mercy but history is already descending and judging them as too small – both as lawbreakers and as leaders – to be worth too much more of our valuable time and energy.

Instead, we should seek to clean up the mess and repair what had fallen down from neglect. Obama has begun this process as well by definitively banning torture in the future via executive order. Obama is no messiah, so let us stop moping over his lack of flaming sword. We elected a reformer, not an avenger – time to follow him and bind wounds rather than slashing new ones.

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Define rich!!!!!!!!

(I’m broadening the discussion now.)
by Divorced one like Bush

Define rich. Define rich! Define rich?

That’s the come back every time the issue of raising the income tax on the rich come up. What is unsaid is: Go ahead. Define rich. I dare ya! (Triple dog dare at that.)

Fine. I’ll accept the challenge. But, first understand that I accept the challenge because having a definition of “rich” is needed if we are going to fix the money from money economy. We have to ask: When is enough, enough? We have to take the responsibility of having determined what enough is, if we are going to return to the ideal of our democracy. The ideal of equality of power. This ideal was discussed in my postings (3 of them) on taxation.

I think this nation used to know when enough was enough. We used to know what rich was. It was a life; as in “pick a life, not a job”. It was an ability made capable by the amount of money managed (not flowing) through one’s hands. That it was a life meant we did not fall for the rhetorical trick of: Define rich! I dare ya. The trick is that the question is asked in reference to defining levels of income at which a specified percentage of taxation will take place. It is the infamous black and white trap when we all know we live in a life that is the spectrum of color. Cross this line you pay, don’t cross it, then you don’t pay. As with all dares, there is a threat. The threat for the rhetorical “define rich” dare is that the moment a number is chosen, the one doing the daring will retort with a life example of the chosen number that under the life circumstances retort might not be considered rich.

Back when we knew what rich was, we had an income tax based on a spectrum of rich. In fact, something I quoted in my tax series confirms that we knew what “rich” was:

There was another agenda at play as well in the early years of the federal income tax: the desire to use progressive taxation as a way to “ stave off more radical calls for industrial democracy.” This explains why even some high-income Republican groups supported the Sixteenth Amendment. Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury in the 1920s and one of the wealthiest Americans, “ believed that keeping tax schedules graduated (albeit flatter) would mitigate radical demands for restructuring the capitalist system.”

Even the rich knew what rich was.

Let me say, for me wealth is not the rich I’m talking about. Wealth is another issue that should not be brought into the discussion of “rich” related to an income tax. It get’s thrown in as another rhetorical trick, the trick being that one will think about a dollar amount of wealth and then think how much money it took to get that wealth ala income. But, wealth is accounted under the asset category, not income.

Professor Mankiw posted in 2006 about a study that defined a level of rich world wide based on wealth which I think has a presentation ripe for rhetorical trap making. He quotes:

The research finds that assets of $2,200 per adult placed a household in the top half of the world wealth distribution in the year 2000. To be among the richest 10% of adults in the world required $61,000 in assets, and more than $500,000 was needed to belong to the richest 1%, a group which — with 37 million members worldwide — is far from an exclusive club.

So, from a global perspective, if you have net worth of more than $61,000, you are rich.

Really? Thirty 37 million members world wide on a planet of 6 billion is not exclusive? $61,000 of assets should make us all feel rich? The message (and I am not interpreting that Profressor Mankiw’s posting suggests any qualification) is that we should all feel equally wealthy and thus rich. Can you see how such a presentation could be used as a rhetorical trap in determining “rich”. So, let’s not go there. “There” is for the discussion of the estate tax. Besides, once the income has been turned into an asset, it’s kind of too late to worry about taxing the income. No?

Also, we are talking the United States of America. Not Zimbabwe. (See the above issue.) I know there are children starving in Africa. We have the same here, it’s just that the income needed here to not have a child starving is higher. Purchasing power parity and all that. Though, if we would be adult about the issue of “rich” and define when enough is enough, we would be able to do more for such people as there would be more left for them.

We have lost our definition of rich and I believe it was done intentionally. If you are rich, then what better camouflage is there than to undefine “rich”? And, what better way to undefine “rich” than to have an argument accepted that “rich” can not really be defined? AND, once you can’t define rich, well then hey, how can you single out anyone number as a line for having to pay a higher percentage of tax on their income? Thus, we should all pay the same percentage and thus obtain our constitutional nirvana of all man is created equal. Throw in a little pity play as in the “rich are paying most of the taxes”, (funny how those complaining about how much the rich pay in taxes seem to know what “rich” is) present your candidates as the every-man or every-woman, salt of the earth, blab, blab, blab to reinforce the perception that this is all about constitutional equality and BINGO, you get to convert life from an economy that worked for society to a society that works for an economy. And as presented, once you get beyond “enough”, all you have is to have more:

Wealth confers power beyond its consumption value. This power is economic, social, and political. The economic power of the rich derives primarily from their ability to use their wealth to invest in enterprises that employ thousands of people and can dominate large sectors of the economy.

Yes, they are talking wealth. However, as I noted, this is after the rich bought their stuff to make them happy. Now they are just accumulating power.

We need to define “rich”. We need to be adult about this and take the responsibility for understanding the interplay of society and an economy within our form of democratic governance. Personally, I think we will find that defining rich for our purposes is rather easy once we stop answering the rhetorical dare of: Define rich?

For this discussion “rich” is a life classification. The classification is consumption determined, the amount of which is a function of energy expended (ie: physical labor/intellectual labor), work performed (ie: blue collar/white collar) along with energy conserved (freedom), work diverted (power). This aspect of life is not about what the individual finds satisfying. That is another rhetorical trap. We all know of those who are fine with just hitch hiking through the galaxy and would consider them self rich for the memories. The life aspect needed for determining “rich” for the purpose of taxing is the aspect determined by the structure of the society one lives in. For us, that structure is idealized in the phrase: The American Dream. That phrase is the socially understood goal and that phrase is underscored by how much money your hands manage.

Classification as in “class warfare”. Consumption as in “autonomous consumption”. American Dream as in more than autonomous consumption. All three a function of the amount of money managed by one’s hands.

To be continued.

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Clearly a Commie-Symp Terrorist

Who said:

The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the [1984 UN Convention on Torture] . It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.

The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called ‘universal jurisdiction.’ Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.

Answer here. Is he rolling over in his grave?

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1981-1983 Social Security Commission: Myths and Realities

by Bruce Webb

(Update 2 : Deleted Update 1.)

Currently there is a lot of discussion about forming a new bipartisan Entitlements Commission modeled in part on the ‘Greenspan Commission’ of 1981-82 and partly on the Base ReAlignment Commission (BRAC). The idea is that you get people to agree on ‘Crisis’, then get a ‘bipartisan’ group together to present an up or down ‘compromise’ proposal to Congress. I put ‘bipartisan’ and ‘compromise’ in quotes because this idea is being pushed by a combination of Conservative Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats who have predetermined the outcome. A group I belong to is preparing some major push-back, and when the lead authors get the material together it certainly will be plugged here. But in the meantime I invite those interested in this to actually revisit the results of the previous Commission.


The guts of the Report are found here:

While the meat is found here: Appendix K- List of Tables This is extracted from the broader Actuarial Cost Estimates for OASDI and HI and for Various Possible Changes in OASDI and Historical Data for OASDI and HI

Some selected tables and commentary below the fold.

The first Table is from Chapter 2 and shows the mix of recommendations. Note that .58% of payroll is punted to Congress, the rest of this was what they could get from a consensus vote. Even then the final vote on the Report was 12-3.

Now the result translated into numbers:
I am only showing the results for Alternative II-A which is the more optimistic of the two Intermediate Cost projections, for II-B you will have to click through. Table 7-A: Cost rates

Now the same data expressed in Trust Fund Ratios by Alternative

A close look shows that the Commission didn’t really think they had fixed OAS even in the short run. And while their numbers show OAS (that is the actual retirement component) running surpluses in the medium term they still foresaw it running to Depletion in 2027.

As I have said before this would be a pretty sad and ineffective kind of ‘Prefunding Boomer Retirement’. Why is combined TF Depletion now set for 2041? Because the economy actually came in somewhat better than II-A and closer to I (which is now called Low Cost). But that wasn’t part of the master plan

Some additional perspective from the Commission’s Executive Director can be found in this Oral History of Robert Myers. Oral History of Robert Myers

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Emanuel Saez wins the Clark Medal

This is excellent news. One important aspect is that Saez is very reality based, that is empirical. As you have noted from time to time, the economics profession has had a very high opinion of theory in which results are rigorously derived from clearly false assumptions. Saez is, as far as I can tell from his web page, entirely focused on the data and not on theory. I think this might be the first Clark medal awarded to someone for analysing data with minimal and informal theorizing.

Oddly his often co-author Thomas Picketty was a theorists theorist when he was young (and I mean really really young like 20 or so) and shifted to totally empirical because he didn’t believe in the theory — an amazing example of intellectual integrity.

via Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias. Check out Ken’s comment at DeLong’s place.

Debate from comments which I found interesting after the jump (and also in comments of course).

I am not absolutely opposed to theory. However, theory should be based on evidence. Existing economic theory is mostly based on pure imagination and then on dismissing the rejection of hypotheses based on data either because auxiliary hypotheses are always needed or because models are false by definition and false models might be useful.

Give me an example of anything useful ever accomplished in the history of humanity by an approach similar to that of economic theory in which theoretical speculation comes before not after striking empirical regularities are observed.

Anything. Ever.
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2slugbaits replies:Today, 18.59.51“Black holes? Gravitational constants? Bending of light? Aren’t hese examples of natural phenomena whose existence was predicted by theory and later confirmed by empirical tests?


I reply

Your examples ignore my qualifier “striking empirical regularities are observed”. The prediction of the bending of light came from general relativity — the striking empirical regularities were than the location of planets can be predicted given the model that they orbit in ellipses with the sun at a focus, that their angular momentum is constant, that the period of their inverse to the average distance to the sun to the 1.5. These striking empirical regularities were described by Kepler. Based on these striking empirical regularities, Newton proposed a theory of gravity which was used to, among other things, predict that there was a planet around where Neptune was found (and not by coincidence).

In developing his theory of gravity, Einstein matched the same striking empirical regularities used by Newton, plus the innumerable data which fit Newton’s model. Also he fit the fact that the perihelion of mercury precesses 90 seconds of an arc per mercurian year.

The theory which fit all of those facts successfully predicted how much light was bent by gravity.

So we have very striking stylized facts based on observation. We have a theory which fits a huge amount of data. We have a prediction — then we have confirmation.

I didn’t mean to suggest that the theory simply restated the empirical regularity which was already observed. What I wrote and what I meant was that a theory which doesn’t fit a whole whole lot of facts really well has not yet amounted to anything.

In physics a good shortcut to a theory which fits a whole lot of facts is one that gives the old theory as a special case under the conditions where the old theory fit an amazing number of facts. Thus the later theorist (Einstein) doesn’t have to deal directly with the data fit by the old theory (locations of planets) because he knows the stylized fact that, except for the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, the old theory is consistent with the data (and that anomaly depends on the assumption that the Sun is a rigid sphere and that no forces but gravity are relevanat and that there is not another planet even closer to the Sun where it would be almost impossible to see).ù

In contrasst, the prediction that there are black holes has not been confirmed empirically. It is known that there are extremely massive and dense bodies such that *according to theory* they should be black holes. However, what is actually observed is the accreation disk outside of the event horizon. The claim that there is a black hole as opposed to an extremely massive and dense object which is not a black hole because the theory is wrong is based on pure extrapolation based on the assumption that the theory is true.

No empirical observation confirms the theoretical prediction that there should be black holes. The data show that there are objects massive and dense enough so that *if* the theory is true they are black holes.

My view is that theorizing is worth while once one has achieved something with atheoretic empiricism. A theory which fits the facts is worth investigating. Before we have such a theory, we can try to think of one, but we shouldn’t claim we know things are true because they are implied by the theory until it has surprising success in fitting the facts, that is, does much much better than reduced form empirical models with the same number of free parameters.

We can also follow the approach which I think is more likely to be fruitful (because unlike the start with a theory approach it has had some success in the past) and try to develope stylized facts with a descriptive approach.

I am not criticizing Newton or Einstein. I am arguing one shouldn’t try to be a Newton until there has been a Kepler. No example has yet been presented of a useful Newton without a preceding Kepler (I hope I have made clear what I mean). I do not believe that there is one.

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Peter Dorman of Econospeak Writes, So I Don’t Have To

I’m just going to “Go Thoma” on him, since I can’t find anything to cut:

Barack Obama tells us we should not investigate American intelligence agents or their overlings who are responsible for torturing hundreds of suspects in their custody. We have to forget about the past, he says, to concentrate our attention on the future. That might be a convincing argument if Obama were going all out for an ambitious program to remake our economy and our relationship to the rest of the world. But the future is on hold because the number one job today is bailing out the financial system, so we can preserve the money moguls who juiced our economy in the past.

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Vanishing Surpluses-Yet Again

by Bruce Webb

Last month we were delivered alarming news from AEI: Slowdown Slashes Social Security Surplus illustrated with the table above in turn derived from this source SSA-Trust Fund Data. And sure enough if you followed the link and inserted Feb 2009 that is exactly what you would see. But what if you put it into series and included the months Dec to March? Well you get the following.

First thing of note. The combined surplus returned in March. While DI continued to run a deficit OAS ran more than enough surplus to cover it. It looks like February may have fell victim to the fact that it has three fewer workdays which for people who work hourly that much less in FICA taxes. On the other hand benefits are paid monthly in equal amounts. Which suggests that February will always be a poorly performing month.

Now move to January and compare it to February. Note anything different? Well the fact that revenue from taxation on benefits was only $13 Million in Feb as opposed to $6001 million in January maybe, mighta made the difference.

Finally we can check out December. Interest on investments in Feb was $92 million, in January only $25 million, while in December it was a whopping $58 BILLION (yes with a ‘B’).

So what happens when you pick a month that one-has a smaller FICA stream due to fewer work days, two-doesn’t get a big infusion from tax on benefits like January did, and three-did not get a huge infusion from accrued interest like December did? You get a mediocre to negative result in that month relative to other months.

Which leaves one last question. Are the guys from AEI incompetent? Or just skilled cherry pickers?

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