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Fareed Zakaria on Social Security, Fareed Hearts Pete Peterson, Disses your mom

by Dale Coberly

Fareed Zakaria on Social Security

Fareed Hearts Pete Peterson

Disses your mom

Fareed Zakaria wrote an essay for Time, The Baby Boom and Financial Doom. Dean Baker responded to Zakaria with Fareed Zakaria is unhappy that the American left chooses arithmetic over Peter Peterson. Baker makes the point that the increase in the number of people over age sixty five has always been accompanied by an increase in productivity that makes everyone richer despite the costs of feeding the old.

Baker is far too kind to Zakaria. Zakaria’s article is a compendium of lies designed to fool people in order to lead them to their harm. The lies are not original with Zakaria but are the same lies we have been hearing from Peter Peterson sponsored think tank “non partisan expert” liars for years.

I hope that by taking a little harder look at those lies people will learn how not to be fooled by them and others like them. [Note: I have been told that I need to find another word for “liars.” I understand that people are put off by it, but they need to understand that is exactly what we are dealing with here: lies and liars: words designed to deceive you by people who mean you harm. It is almost possible to believe that Zakaria doesn’t know he is lying, but has merely been fooled by Peterson. But the selection of “facts” presented by Zakaria suggests he knows exactly what he is doing.]

Here is what Zakaria says:   (under the fold)

The facts are hard to dispute. In 1900, 1 in 25 Americans was over the age of 65. In 2030, just 18 years from now, 1 in 5 Americans will be over 65. We will be a nation that looks like Florida. Because we have a large array of programs that provide guaranteed benefits to the elderly, this has huge budgetary implications. In 1960 there were about five working Americans for every retiree. By 2025, there will be just over two workers per retiree. In 1975 Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid made up 25% of federal spending. Today they add up to a whopping 40%. And within a decade, these programs will take up over half of all federal outlays.

Well, the facts may be hard to dispute, but they don’t have anything to do with Social Security, and Social Security doesn’t have anything to do with the deficit.

The short answer to Zakaria’s Baby Boom and Financial doom scenario could be put something like this:
Social Security is paid for by the people who will get the benefits. It is their own money. It has nothing to do with the federal budget. The population numbers that Zakaria offers sound scary because they are meant to sound scary, but the fact remains that the workers can continue to pay for their own Social Security by simply raising their own payroll tax by what amounts to forty cents per week each year. This is an “undisputable fact” that can be clearly demonstrated. And it takes into account all the baby boomers, and the increasing life expectancy, and the poor growth in wages the Trustees project over the next 75 years. It also takes care of the “infinite horizon” which the Big Liars like to trot out when the numbers for the next seventy five years don’t sound scary enough.

In particular, the Baby Boomers have already paid for their retirement. That is the Trust Fund you hear about. It’s real money, paid by the Boomers. It needs to be paid back to them for their retirement. Paying back money that you owe does not increase your debt; it decreases it. The Trust Fund is not “going broke.” It is paying for the Boomer retirement, as it was created to do. After the Boomers have been paid, the Trust Fund will return to a normal reserve fund and Social Security will go back to “pay as you go” as it was designed.

An average worker today might be making, say 50,000 a year, and paying about 3,000 a year for his Social Security, leaving him 47,000 for other uses, including other taxes. His boss contributes another 3,000. And because there are today about three workers for each retiree, those three workers contribute a total of about 18,000 dollars per year, which is about what the average Social Security benefit is.

In another forty years or so, the average worker will be making twice what the average worker today is making… so, say 100,000 dollars (inflation adjusted). If nothing else changed, he would pay about 6000 a year in payroll tax, leaving him 94 thousand dollars for other uses, and his boss would contribute another six thousand, making 12000. By then there might be only two workers per retiree, so there would be 24000 available for that retiree’s Social Security benefit. But 24 thousand a year might feel like poverty in a world where the average wage is 100k. So those workers… who know they will soon become retirees themselves … might agree to pay 8000 each per year, leaving them 92,000 per year for other uses. Their bosses would contribute another 8000 (don’t worry about the poor boss: “most economists agree” that this is “really” the workers money). So 16 thousand, times the two workers per retiree, results in a SS benefit of 32000 per year. Enough to live on in reasonable comfort. (Please note that with a real income of 92 thousand a year, those workers would have plenty of money to “invest in the market” to try to raise their standard of living in retirement. But the SS would be there “in case all else fails.”)

And that’s it. Please note that the poor worker staggering under his load of one retiree for every two workers has 45000 dollars more in his pocket after paying his payroll tax than he has today, and he can look forward to a retirement with 14,000 more dollars per year than today’s retiree. That is, in spite of the staggering load of only two workers per retiree, the future worker will be about twice as rich after paying his payroll tax, and will be able to look forward to being twice as rich in retirement.

It is hard for me to see the gloom in this picture, much less the doom. You may note that the workers could have decided to not raise their payroll tax, keeping the extra two thousand a year for “now,” at the cost of 8000 a year when they are retired. I think this would be a foolish choice, but if it were made honestly, with everyone knowing what they were doing, I would not have an objection.

But Zakaria and Peterson try to keep the people from knowing what their honest choices are.
“The facts are hard hard to dispute…”

but the facts Zakaria chooses are meant to deceive. Please note “the facts are hard to dispute” adds nothing to the argument but does tend to set up in the unwary reader’s mind… “no point arguing with this… these are the facts.” And it is pretty much the standard of excellence among “non partisan expert” liars to use “facts” which are “strictly true” but nevertheless designed to mislead.

“ In 1900, 1 in 25 Americans was over the age of 65. In 2030, just 18 years from now, 1 in 5 Americans will be over 65.”

Does this sound like it means something? It’s meant to. Something like, “Gosh, the population of old people is soaring. It’s going to cost me five times as much to pay for “the old” if we don’t do something.”
Well, maybe not. In 1900 people had large families because a lot of their kids died. This by itself would tend to make the ratio of under sixty five to over sixty five larger than it is today. Add to that the fact that people over 65 also tended to die “young” because they couldn’t work and ran out of money for food and shelter. But perhaps Zakaria doesn’t really want to return us to the dear old days of high infant mortality and a short but miserable old age. Maybe he’s only pointing at the problem… “how are we going to support all these old people.” But in fact he is not. He is pointing away from how we are going to support these old people: We could continue to support them the way we have since 1936 when Social Security was invented: Allow them to save enough of their own money in a way that is safe from inflation and bad days on the market.
And the fact is that unless we decide to kill off the old, we are STILL going to have to “support” them, even if there is no Social Security at all. When they cash in their stocks and bonds, it will be “the young” who are providing the cash.

“Because we have a large array of programs that provide guaranteed benefits to the elderly, this has huge budgetary implications.”

Well, maybe not. Workers pay for their own Social Security “off budget.” So Social Security has no budgetary implications whatsoever. Medicare has some “budgetary implications” because it was made partially “on budget” in what I think was a misguided attempt to make the rich pay for more of it. Ordinary workers could pay for all of their own expected medical care in retirement through Medicare, but eventually a serious effort would need to be made to bring down the cost of medical care or no one but the very rich will be able to afford it. This is a problem Zakaria… and Peterson… carefully do not address. Because Peterson’s agenda is ENTIRELY the destruction of Social Security, despite what he says.
Medicaid is entirely on budget; it is welfare. But again, unless you want to go back to high infant mortality and people dying in the streets, this is a problem we are going to have to address. And the way to address it is not to begin by cutting the programs and throwing sick people into the streets. It would help if you knew that the budget deficit has not been caused by medicare and medicaid, but by unreasonably high defense spending, wars of dubious value to America, and the massive fraud of “bankers and private equity billionaires” that brought down the economy in 2008. America can still afford to take care of “the least of these.” And for those who think money is the measure of all things, a case can be made that taking care of the sick now ultimately makes the country richer.

“ In 1960 there were about five working Americans for every retiree. By 2025, there will be just over two workers per retiree. “

This does not mean what it seems to mean. You might ask, if you knew to ask, why Zakaria leaves out “the fact” that today the ratio is three working Americans for every retiree. Perhaps that makes the jump to “two working Americans” seem less scary. Perhaps that might make you ask “how can only three of us support each retiree? The answer turn out to be that “we” are not supporting those retirees. They paid for their Social Security themselves. But this ratio of retirees to workers scare “fact” is a perennial, and I want to take some time with it. It will be a little bit (not much) mathematical, made harder by the fact that I don’t know how to draw pictures on line: you will have to use your imagination and draw them for yourself.

First there is the original version: “there were 40 workers per retiree in 1940” or “16 workers per retiree in 1950”… or some such.

This is a meaningless artifact of how the Social Security system was phased in. Imagine if you will a country which has recently experience hard times which have wiped out the life savings of everyone.

The people get together and decide to create an insurance pool to keep this from happening again. Imagine there are forty million people in the pool, one million aged 25, one million aged 26, one million aged 27, and so forth to one million aged 63 and one million aged 64. So far no one has retired so the ratio of workers to retirees is 40 million to zero. The next year the one million aged 64 turn 65 and retire. The one million aged 25 turn 26 and “move up a year” as does everyone else, with one million new workers who turn 25 and enter the insurance pool. So the number of workers remains the same while the number of retired people increases by one million. Now the ratio of workers to retirees is 40 million to one million… or 40 to 1.
Next year another million people retire and another million young workers enter the pool, and the ratio becomes 40 to 2, or 20 to 1. And the next year another million… etc, and the ratio becomes 40 to 3 or about 13 to 1. And so on.

First note in passing that those first cohorts who retire “only” paid their insurance premium for a year or two… far less than they will collect in benefits. But the people knew this when they designed the insurance pool. They reasoned that the first retirees were people who had lost the most savings in the depression; the first retirees had worked their whole lives paying taxes, supporting their own elders, and supporting the children who would be directly paying their benefits, as well as building the infrastructure that made it easier for those children to make money than it had been for their elders. They also noted that none of the later retirees.. people who paid the premium “tax” for a full forty years … would lose anything by the deal. They would collect the benefits they paid for in their turn… benefits that would equal what they paid in, plus an interest that takes care of inflation and about two percent real interest on top of that. Plus any “insurance” benefit they would collect if they died with dependents, got disabled, or just never made enough money to have saved enough for retirement.

But note that people don’t live forever, so by, say, year ten, the number of retired people increases by another million but decreases by say half a million who die that year. This means that the ratio of workers to retirees will not continue to decline forever. It will stabilize at some level that reflects the death rate of retirees, or what is the same thing, the average life expectancy of retirees.

If, say, the average death rate was 10% of each cohort of retirees each year, then after 10 years (in our model… real life is a little more complicated) the number of people who die each year is the same as the number of new retirees. This would also mean that the life expectancy… you have a 50-50 chance of living to this age… of new retirees would be five years.

Draw a picture. Make a bar graph: write ages on the bottom axis, and population on the vertical axis. For every age from 25 to 64 the bar is “one million” high. For every age after 65 the bar is shorter by 10% or 100 thousand. So you have 40 million workers, and 900 thousand plus 800 thousand plus 700 thousand… and so on … retirees. The sum of those retirees is four and a half million (9 plus one, 8 plus 2, 7 plus 3, 6 plus 4, and 5). So the ratio of workers to retirees is about 40 to 4 1/2) or about 9 to one. And this is a ratio that will not change over time unless there are changes in death rates, or birth rates, or immigration. Note that the life expectancy is about four and a half years. This means that each worker works for forty years and can expect to collect 4 and a half years of benefits. So, oddly, the ratio of workers to retirees is the same as the ratio of working years to retirement years for EACH retiree.

If the death rate was 5% per year for each cohort of retirees, the bar graphs would decline at a slower rate.. taking 20 years to reach zero at age 85, with the life expectancy now ten years. One million retirees still die each year, but now there are ten million of them alive at any one time . This makes the ratio of workers to retirees 40 to ten or 4 to one. It also makes the ratio of working years to retirement years 4 to one.
Now, finally, let us give those retirees a life expectancy of twenty years… half of them will die by age 85, and (most of) the rest of them by age 105. This would result in a population of retirees of twenty million… or a ratio of workers to retirees of 2 to 1. It also means that workers will work two years for every year they expect to be retired.

But wait, if they are going to be retired, they are going to have to buy groceries for those twenty years. Where are they going to get the money?

Well, they could save it from their earnings if we could solve the inflation problem for them in a way that didn’t expose them to the risk of ending up with nothing at all from investing in stocks that fail. And this is what Social Security does.

Note that they don’t need to save enough in protected savings to have the same income in retirement as they have while working. They could decide, say, that since the kids are grown and the mortgage paid, if they had to they could get by on, say, one third of their working wage. Since they will be working 40 years and expect to live 20 years, they would need to set aside about 16% of their wages to have enough. (16% times 40 equals 32% times 20.)

And if they put that money into an insurance pool, they can expect to keep collecting that 32% even if they live longer than 20 years. This is made possible by the money paid in by the people who don’t live as long as the twenty years.

But Zakaria doesn’t know that and Peterson doesn’t want you to know that.
You are making well over twice as much money as your grandparents made… and they struggled to save 10% of what they made to eke out a retirement that would only last about ten years. But you, twice as rich as they were, are being told you can’t be expected to save 16% of your wages to pay for a retirement that will last twice as long or maybe a lot longer?

Or maybe you can. But the only way to do this is through Social Security, and Peterson doesn’t want you to, because even though its YOUR money, its a “government” program. And that drives Peterson crazy. Literally insane.

But wait, it’s better than that. While you are paying your 16% every year, wages will be going up so that by the time you retire real wages will have about doubled. That means that the 16% workers are paying in each year will be worth twice as much as the 16% you paid in (this is a simplification). That means that instead of living on about 33% of what you were making while working, you will have about 50% or more. Because Social Security is insurance, the effective interest on your premium (payroll tax) is a lot higher if you were a low wage earner than if you were a high wage earner. The high wage earner is not hurt by this. He still gets a reasonable “return on investment” plus the insurance value of Social Security “in case” things had not turned out so well for him. The interest on your Social Security “investment” is not high. It depends on the growth in the economy, but it is always higher than inflation. And whatever happens, you will get “enough.” And that’s priceless.

The “facts are not in dispute.” And the facts are that all the scary language about the looming booming number of old folks “we” have to support… turns out to mean that we can easily afford to support OURSELVES out of our own savings, protected by Social Security, but not “paid for” by the government.”
And if you are going to live longer.. become one of those looming booming old people… you are going to have to find a way to pay for those extra years. Social Security provides a very secure way to pay for at least “enough.”

That is if you don’t let the Big Liars scare you into letting them “save” it.

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Angry Bear new look

This will soon be the new look for Angry Bear, and a switch to the wordpress platform from blogger will add considerably to functions.  Our advertisements are also missing.  The side bar functions will soon be completed (not in picture), and include a blogroll and archives.

The top category bar functions can be used to separate out posts from each other for reader convenience, and are color coded. An example of a hot topic can be the current writing stemming from Newtown, Ct. news and related data for the issue, which is not strictly economic in nature but well worth discussing.  The category Politics might be used to address the more political in the term political ‘economics’.

More to come.

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Notes Toward Economics at (or, more accurately, approaching) the Eschaton

No, not Dr. Black’s blog.  The real eschaton: the end of everything.  Or, in this case, its economics equivalent: the point at which almost all human work is no longer necessary but human beings still exist.

The scenario is a simple one.  There are x humans on Earth (x>>1).  Self-repairing, recycling machines can provide all the needs and wants of those x people and then some.*  There is only one job humans need to do: every day, one person needs to press one button once–during a specific time period—to start the self-rebuilding and repairing of the machines.

Applying basic micro and macro economic theories, and assuming a money-using society, we can come to several stylized facts:

  1. This is the true case where Chamley (1995, 1996) applies.  The only capital created is exactly that that replaces current capital.  With no new capital, the effective tax rate on capital should be 0%.**
  2. The requirement that someone presses the button has two aspects:
    1. It is not required to be skilled labor
    2. It is, however, essential labor
  3. In standard economic theory, the laborer is paid hisser Marginal Product
    1. The pressing of the button provides all of the goods to everyone for that day; since there is no MPK in this scenario, the MPL should equal the net profits from that day.
    2. Pressing the button requires the laborer to choose to do the job instead of something more pleasant; therefore, they must be compensated to provide at least as much Utility as not pushing the button would provide them
    3. For a sufficiently large population x, there may well be people who will not press the button in their lifetimes.  For even relatively large x, there will be people who will press the button less frequently than they will need to buy goods.
      1. In either of those scenarios—unless we consider Malthusian constraints necessary in a time of abundant plenty—any equilibrium condition will require that each person and any of hisser dependents be supported s.t. AD does not decline.

The natural scenario for button-pushing selection is by lottery, which would also minimize the substitution effect. Some constraints would be required: may not repeat for at least z days, cannot sell/buyout of doing the job (though some intraweek switching possible), backup available in case of illness,*** etc.

What is interesting is the tax rate t required.  It is fairly easy to show that for even moderate populations, t must approach 100% if the laborer is indeed receiving the day’s MPL.****  This is in part because, since no new capital is being created, tax revenues from capital must approach 0%.

The problem then becomes one of Game Theory.  We know what the Final State must be if all activity leading up to it is rational.  The next question is how we get there.  But that will have to be deferred to my next post.

Enjoy the Holiday.


*Excess capacity needs to be assumed if you assume humans are still breeding; that is, an additional y babies (y<

**It is caddish of me to note that Chamley’s brilliant realization that has been the underpinning of several decades of freshwater economic theory is, of course, completely reflected in the U.S. tax code, where investment is offset directly by depreciation.

***Anyone who designs a non-redundant system with a Single Point of Failure should be shot. The applicability of this to economic models, and most especially microeconomic models, is left as an exercise to the reader.

****It is also intuitive that a large consumption tax would not be a reasonable substitute for such an income tax; even a “luxury tax” presents significant timing issues for even a small population.

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On DeLong V Krugman

Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman are having a mini debate on whether Brad et al (that means the Clinton administration) had good reason to fear bond vigilantes in the 90s. Krugman wrote tht they did not.*

Krugman phrases Brad’s argument as high deficits cause high inflation which causes tight money.   He notes that the inflation implies high nominal interest rates and low real interest rates so it should cause high demand now and writes “It’s not at all easy to tell a coherent story in which the effect of future expected deficits on today’s interest rates is contractionary “ I’m not going to let a challenge like that get by me.  On the spot, without using pen or paper I try 2

1) Very political economy  and trying to read Greenspan’s mind of the time.   Greenspan would have punished Congress and Clinton for disobeying his command to cut the deficit with high interest rates.  Note I make no reference to inflation.  In fact, in my model, I assume there is no inflation.  Monetary authorities using tight money to punish elected officials for violating Austerian doctrine strikes me as totally obviously what regularly happens (note your discussion of episodes of alleged expansionary austerity, in any case deficit reduction followed by high growth and speculate as to why Alesina claims that spending cuts work better than tax increases).

Basically the story that we have to do what Greenspan says or he will make US workers suffer makes a whole lot of sense to me.

2) Hmm I will assume that productive capital depreciates very quickly (and so is just a material input reall) so long term interest rates matter only for home construction (this is just an unrealistically for exposition strong version of something you wrote here) .  I will assume that the home equity loan (heloc) market is not developed and people think of taking a second mortgage as a desperate last resort (I think this was true in 1993). Finally assume extreme nominal wage rigidity.  Really assume that medium income economic agents assume extreme nominal wage rigidity so inflation implies low real wages.   In fact, assume nominal wages are permanently fixed so inflation is high prices for while but is eventually followed by deflation to get real wages back to normal.  A couple with low financial wealth considers buying a house.  The relevant real interest rate is the nominal rate corrected for wage inflation.  Oh that’s the nominal rate.

Yes someone has to have financial wealth.  I assume people accumulate it after paying off their mortgage.  These people would face a negative real interest rate.  There would be the effect of the change in real interest rates on their consumption.  I assert that the effect of real interest rates on consumption  is negligible.  This can be modeled assuming those with financial wealth are rentiers without labor income and that they have logarithmic utility.  But I assert that it is clear from the data and that any discussion of important effects of real interest rates on consumption and saving is proof of detachment from reality.

Here the story really is that what  depends on interest rates is housing and that the housing market depends on the ratio of a monthly mortgage payment (notably nominal) and current wages.  It does require sophisticated investors in the bond market and unsophisticated home buyers (given the other assumptions that’s just to rule out the heloc borrow from Peter to pay Paul strategy).

I think this second story is the truth, nothing but the truth, and the only truths that are relevant to the debate which I call for Brad.

* update: Preceding sentence revised and one sentence deleted.

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The Idiotic Politicization of the Term “Politicization”*

We have got to calm down and not take tragedies like this, crimes like this, and use them for political purposes.

— Grover Norquist, yesterday

I agree.  We also shouldn’t, say, take tragedies like the hijacking of four commercial planes and deliberately crashing them into huge buildings with large numbers of people inside them, and use them for political purposes.  Or take the sudden, near-complete collapse of the banking system and use it for political purposes.  Or take a steep economic downturn and resultant high unemployment rate, and use these for political purposes.  Or take the large federal fiscal deficit and debt, and use those for political purposes.

We should, however, address the problems that these and other occurrences and facts notify us about or highlight.  And when, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration and Congress, with bipartisan participation and support, enacted sweeping legislation to try to address our vulnerability to terrorist attacks, neither Bush nor the congressional supporters of the legislation was politicizing 9/11.  That is, they were not using that terrorist attack to try to push through legislation whose actual purpose was something other than its advertised purpose.  Which is what the term “politicization” means.  

This is apart from whether you (or I) think that legislation, or any other legislation, is wise or is, instead, say, excessive and harmful in important respects (as many people, I among them, thought, and think, much of the post-9/11 legislation is).   The officeholders, including Bush, who pushed for the legislation did so for the purpose they said: to reduce our vulnerability to terrorists, not to achieve some unrelated political or ideological goal.  

Bush did soon unabashedly politicize 9/11, most glaringly by encouraging the false belief that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 in order to garner public support for the invasion of Iraq, but also in the non-security-related domestic arena.  But at least the former was national-security related (or so it was claimed), and the latter was not overt.

Similarly, with the TARP legislation, its stated purpose was its actual purpose, which was to save the financial system from near-total collapse, and it was supported not just by the Republican president but, in Congress, by many members of each party.  But this also was true of the stimulus law enacted in early 2009 and the Dodd-Frank law, both of these supported almost exclusively by Democrats.  Just as it was true of the New Deal legislation, such as the Securities Exchange Act and the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, whose stated and actual purpose was to address the causes of the financial collapse, and the Works Progress Act and other classic Keynesian New Deal laws, whose stated and real goal was to alleviate some of the effects of the downturn and spur growth of the economy.  

Grover Norquist, of course, of all people, well knows the difference between using a pretext for pushing and enacting legislation for an unrelated purpose, and, instead, pushing legislation whose stated and actual purposes are the same.  He has led a decades-long campaign of deceit founded upon the false claim that the call for federal reductions in spending is an attempt to eliminate the federal debt–a purpose obviously incompatible with Norquist’s primary goal of eliminating income taxes on the wealthy and corporations.  Unless, of course, his companion goal also is achieved: eliminating the social safety net and most federal agencies, such as the EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and (to borrow a phrase from Mitt Romney) what have you.

What have we, of course, would be a country and society that most Americans would find repugnant, and a substantial majority of the public now sees that.  What have we, also, is a profoundly dishonest political Svengali who, after decades of substantial but not complete success in achieving his aims, is finally witnessing his stranglehold on American politics and government pried loose, leaving him at loose ends and gasping for that final breath.

The problem with that final, gasping breath is that it’s too obviously ridiculous. There probably just aren’t very many people, even among gun-rights zealots, who think Obama and the Democrats are trying to enact laws prohibiting the sale to the public of military-style assault rifles and huge ammunition clips in order to achieve anti-global-warming policy regulations, or something. Most people, even, I suspect, most NRA members, do understand that there is a connection between mass-shooting rampages and the issue of gun-control policy, even if they disagree about the utility of gun-control laws. That’s because they recognize that mass-shooting rampages do actually have something to do with guns.

*This post has been edited slightly since its publication.

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Bring your gun to work 2005

NRA campaigns to bring a gun to work should be remembered:

Actually, the NRA’s power has been waning since at least 2005 when it declared a boycott against ConocoPhillips, a major Oklahoma employer with 3,000 workers, for blocking its bring-your-gun-to-work efforts. “ConocoPhillips went to federal court to attack your freedom,” thundered Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president and CEO. “We’re going to make ConocoPhillips the example of what happens when a corporation takes away your Second Amendment rights. If you are a corporation that’s anti-gun, anti-gun owner, or anti-Second Amendment, we will spare no effort or expense to work against you, to protect the rights of your law-abiding employees

The bring-your-gun-to-work bullying did not even fly in the “Gunshine State,” Florida. “Possession of firearms in the workplace or on company property is strictly prohibited,” said Bruce Middlebrooks of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, which has 7,500 employees in the Jacksonville area. “We’re not against the Second Amendment, but guns are inappropriate in our workplaces and workplaces include parking lots,” said Randy Miller, a lobbyist for the Florida Retail Federation which represents 12,000 businesses in the state.
Bring-your-gun-to-work efforts were so over the top, with hundreds a year already killed in workplace shootings, the American Bar Association challenged its legality.

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Silencing the Science on Gun Research

There is still a lot of headline material concerning the role of guns in our lives, and a lot of anecdotal material and thoughts abound. Also I seem to note an increase in the reporting of police in Lakewood, Washington and firemen in Webster, NY murders by gun makes the news as well. We are a site that also values data to help in policy decisions as we try to govern ourselves. Hence this article from JAMA caught my attention on the apparent lack of more specific data on injuries and deaths from media.

The Journal of the American Medical Association notes in Silencing the Science on Gun Research that basic gahering and reporting data was defunded and/or forbidden by government agencies including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Hational Institute of Health, and other Department of Health agencies. The following is an excerpt:
(hat tip reader Tom B.)

The nation might be in a better position to act if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997. But in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although they failed to defund the center, the House of Representatives removed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget—precisely the amount the agency had spent on firearm injury research the previous year. Funding was restored in joint conference committee, but the money was earmarked for traumatic brain injury. The effect was sharply reduced support for firearm injury research.

To ensure that the CDC and its grantees got the message, the following language was added to the final appropriation: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”4

Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out. Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up. Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC’s website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.

When other agencies funded high-quality research, similar action was taken. In 2009, Branas et al5 published the results of a case-control study that examined whether carrying a gun increases or decreases the risk of firearm assault. In contrast to earlier research, this particular study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Two years later, Congress extended the restrictive language it had previously applied to the CDC to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.6

The US military is grappling with an increase in suicides within its ranks. Earlier this month, an article by 2 retired generals—a former chief and a vice chief of staff of the US Army— asked Congress to lift a little-noticed provision in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that prevents military commanders and noncommissioned officers from being able to talk to service members about their private weapons, even in cases in which a leader believes that a service member may be suicidal.9

Given the chance, could researchers achieve similar progress with firearm violence? It will not be possible to find out unless Congress rescinds its moratorium on firearm injury prevention research. Since Congress took this action in 1997, at least 427 000 people have died of gunshot wounds in the United States, including more than 165 000 who were victims of homicide.1 To put these numbers in context, during the same time period, 4586 Americans lost their lives in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.10

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Guns and Gun Deaths, State by State

The other day I looked at number of guns versus number of gun deaths by country, in countries like ours that have pretty good rule of law. The correlation is pretty clear: more guns, more gun deaths.
But I was also wondering about correlation within the U.S., by state. I’m pleased to find that Sam Wang’s got it:
Scientific American’s gun error
I’d say that great minds think alike, but really: Sam — a professor at Princeton — has got it all over me when it comes to drawing valid conclusions from statistical data.* For instance: like Nate Silver, he called every state correctly in the recent presidential election. But his stated confidence level was way above Nate’s — between a 99.2 and 100% chance that Obama would be re-elected. That’s putting your reputation where your predictions are.
Read Sam’s post and the one preceding it. He makes all sorts of sense. He also gives us the sources, so I thought I’d show the data a couple of other ways. How about…red states vs blue states? Here you go:

Does anyone see a pattern here? Here it is on a map:
Screen shot 2012-12-24 at 6.35.25 AM
Though I find that Richard Florida has beat me to it on this one:

You can quibble all you want about correlation and causation, but the simple fact is: if you live in a red state the odds of your children dying of gun violence is 75% higher than if you live in a blue state.
That may help explain why, when Americans vote with their feet and choose where to live, only 38% vote for red states.
It may also help explain why people in red states want guns so much: it’s dangerous to live in a red state. They’ve got all those guns.
I’m still asking: would you rather “feel” safe, or would you rather be safe?
* “Prof. Sam Wang‘s academic specialties are biophysics and neuroscience. In these fields he uses probability and statistics to analyze complex experimental data, and has published many papers using these approaches. He is also the author of Welcome To Your Brain, a popular book about his field.”
Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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The Republican Congressional Delegation’s Oddly Faulty Memory of 2004 — UPDATED

House Republicans argue that voters handed their members a mandate as well, granting the party control of the House for another two years and with it the right to stick to their own views, even when they clash strongly with the president’s.
And many Republicans remember well when the tables were turned. After Mr. Bush’s re-election in 2004, Democrats eagerly thwarted his push for privatization of Social Security, hobbling Mr. Bush’s domestic agenda in the first year of his second term.

Events Recall a More Bipartisan Era, and Highlight Gridlock of Today, Michael D. Shear, New York Times, today.

Whoa.  Funny, but I too remember the weeks following the 2004 presidential election. Which immediately followed the 2004 presidential campaign.  Which I also remember; it wasn’t all that long ago.  

And I remember that during that campaign, Bush never mentioned his plan to privatize Social Security.  

Yes, that’s right.  Bush waited until immediately after the election to announce his intention to privatize Social Security–outraging not just Democrats but millions of Independents, some of whom had voted for him, and even some Republicans.  

The main focus of the 2004 presidential campaign was national security.  Privatization of Social Security was not an issue at all in 2004.  Not until after the campaign, that is, when Bush not only announced his plan but also then campaigned intensely for public support for it, to no avail.  The proposal quickly proved deeply unpopular.  And congressional Republicans began to run from it.  The Republicans, who controlled both houses of Congress, did not even put it up for a vote, in either house, if I recall correctly.

So if Republicans think they remember that the tables were turned–a metaphor that refers to actual similarity, or at least some semblance of it–they might consider seeing a neurologist.  Or maybe just reading news accounts from the period between Bush’s announcement of his proposal and the death of that proposal early in 2005.  They also can search for reports of any mention–any suggestion at all–by Bush during the campaign that he was planning to propose the privatization of Social Security.  I wish them luck.

As for their claim to a mandate because they retained control of the House, the speciousness of this assertion has already been documented and discussed in the mainstream media, largely because a Washington Post reporter (I wish I could recall his name, but I can’t) meticulously researched the campaign results, congressional district by congressional district, and then did something that modern Republicans don’t: math.  Republicans lost, albeit narrowly, the aggregate popular vote in House elections nationwide.  They retained control of the House only because of extreme gerrymandering last year in some states, most notably in Pennsylvania and Texas, but in other states as well.  

The word “mandate” in this context leaves room for debate about what percentage of victory in the popular vote constitutes one.  But a victory in the popular is a prerequisite to that debate.  The Republicans don’t have the prerequisite, nor do they claim to have it; they simply misuse the word “mandate”.  Like so many other words.  

But at least it’s not false for them to note that they did retain control of the House.  What is baldly false, though, is their characterization of late 2004 and early 2005 as tables turned.  Unless, of course, there’s such a thing as a retroactive mandate for a policy that wasn’t disclosed during a campaign and is announced as a surprise only afterward.  Immediately afterward.

Which, now that I think about it, probably is what happened in 2004.  no, the public isn’t clairvoyant.  But we did know during the campaign that a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Congress in the current era will always want to privatize Social Security, and will waste no time (literally, in that case) in trying to do that when they hold the White House and majorities in both congressional houses.  We just forgot that, to our near-detriment–a mistake that, I trust, we the public won’t make again, however much Republican candidates insist otherwise during the campaign.  Because the Dem candidates will remind the public, during the campaign, of what happened after the election of 2004.  And of the current congressional Republicans’ claim in that New York Times article that a clear election victory is not a mandate on issues that were at the express and constant heart of a national campaign, because, after all, the opposition party doesn’t recognize as a mandate a vital policy proposal made only after the election that retroactively turned out to be all about that vital policy issue after all.  I mean, who knew?  Well, the Republicans did.

And now we do too, and it will be a prominent factor in campaigns to come.  The sheer trickery;  the attempt, in 2004 and now, to utterly undermine the very concept of democracy.  The current congressional Republicans’ express equating, as Shear reports, of a policy issue clearly at the heart of a campaign with a policy not even mentioned during the campaign.  It’s of a piece with the Romney campaign’s modus operandi of incessant, outright misrepresentations of fact.  And also of a piece with state and federal Republican legislative and executive-branch officeholders’ policy of delegating to lobbying groups the actual writing of legislation, including during lame-duck periods, enacting policies never proposed and, in some instances, expressly rejected by the officeholders, pre-election.  (Think: Michigan, Dec. 2012.)

But there’s also a separate issue of the messenger’s’–Shear’s–curious acceptance of the false equivalence of Bush’s and Congress’s handling of the Social Security privatization issue in late 2004 and early 2005 and resolution of the tax and spending issues of the fiscal cliff.  Shear mentions that Obama’s current approval rating in this week’s polls is his highest since shortly after bin Laden was killed.  He doesn’t mention that Obama’s approval rating has been above 50% throughout the post-election period, including the period before the Newtown shooting rampage, when the cliff talks were the news story, daily.  And that Bush’s approval rating plummeted once he announced his Social Security privatization plan.  And that the juxtaposition of the drop in Bush’s approval rating and that announce was not coincidence; the polling on that issue was awful for him.

We all are, by now, used to the news media’s acquiescence in the Republicans’ false-equivalency game. This Times article, by a reporter whose reporting is normally of high quality, makes me wonder whether there’s just is no limit to even the reporter-as-mindless-stenographer-for-fear-of-appearing-to-be-anti-Republican mindset at even the very highest level of the mainstream media.*

*This sentence had a large cut-and-paste error in it, and has now been corrected.


UPDATE:  Well … in the comments to this post, reader CasualObserver wrote:

Watch at the 5 min mark you will find that the faulty memory is all yours.

To which AB regular contributor Bruce Webb responded:

Well I don’t relish being the skeleton at the feast here, but Bush made his intentions on SS crystal clear when he set up his CSSS (Commission to Strengthen Social Security) in 2001 with six specific guidelines. one of whic categorically ruled out Payroll tax solutions of the sort Dale and us put forth as the ‘NW Plan’ and another nandated that private accounts had to be part of the package.

CSSS rolled out its recommendations right on time, unfortunately for Bush that time was right after 9/11. Absent that, which the Bush Administration was not expecting at all, we could have expected some analogue of the 2005 Social Security Tour being rolled out in 2002. The Bush Administration apparently took the intention for the deed and after fighting out the mid-terms and the 2004 presidential elections almost solely on national security somehow got the idea that yhe time was ripe to push the ‘Bi-Partisan’ Model 2 CSSS Plan, though at first with the flimsy vover of the near identical Posen Plan. because Posen, like a full half of the CSSS was a Democrat.

Anyway by Nov 26th 2004 Bush could plausibly claim that his plans for Social Security were fully spelled out after a ‘bi-partisan’ process for the last three years and so were at least implicitly on the table during the 2004 campaign. perhaps counting on the fact that no one was paying attention. and he almost won that bet, the fond belief by Dem leaders that they shot down Model 2 is not supported by the chronology instead the SS Tour was stopped in its tracks by the blogger led ‘There is No Crisis’ movement (in which I had an informal role but which was led by Dave Johnson and some others).

So no there was little to no talk of Social Security privatization on the hustings, and unless you were predisposed to be a SS geek that “I have got capital” move would indeed come out of thin air. Me I set up a new Social Security blog within 48 hours ( and started lobbing SS Report tables at figures with abandon. Because for my sins I was already seven years into this SS thing. And as such knew what Bush was about.

For which I am deeply grateful, Bruce, since after I read CasualObserver’s comment and did watch the video clip–which shows presidential-debate moderator Bob Schieffer asking Bush about his proposal to allow people to use part of their Social Security taxes to invest in the stock market rather than have the money go to the U.S. Treasury–I was dismayed.  How could I, who was downright obsessed with the 2004 presidential campaign and its outcome, not recall that Bush had campaigned in 2004 on his plan, announced years earlier, to partially privatize Social Security?

The answer, it turns out, is that Bush didn’t campaign on that plan during the 2004 campaign.  Schieffer was asking him about what had transpired before 9/11, and his commission’s recommendations, released in 2002.  To his credit, Bush, unlike a certain Republican presidential candidate in 2012, didn’t deny that he had done and said what Schieffer said he had.  Nor did he flip-flop.  He answered, straightforwardly, that this was his intention, and made a brief argument for the policy.

But Bush himself did not raise the issue during the campaign, and certainly did not campaign on the issue; that answer to Schieffer’s question probably is the only time he mentioned it during that campaign, unless maybe some other reporter asked him about it at some other point.  And Republicans had held control of both houses of Congress throughout Bush’s term, yet neither Bush nor the congressional Republicans had attempted to enact this into law.  That, of course, is because it was a very unpopular proposal.  

So CasualObserver is right, and I was wrong, that Bush made clear at some point during the campaign that he wanted to propose a plan to partially privatize Social Security.  But CasualObserver is wrong in suggesting that Bush campaigned on this.  He did not; he said, once or perhaps twice, in answer to a question, that he planned to do this.  But there was little expectation that such a proposal, if actually presented as a bill in Congress, would go very far.  And it did not go very far, not, as the current Republican congressional delegation claims, because the Senate Dems threatened a filibuster, or whatever, but because the polls were consistently showing–to Republican members of Congress as well as to Dem ones–that there was strong, broad-based opposition to it among the public.  So strong, in fact, that Bush’s 2005 attempt to have this policy enacted played a role in the unexpected change of both houses of Congress to Dem control in the 2006 election.  This, even though there weren’t enough Republican members in either house in 2005 to push this through.

The 2004 election was almost entirely about national security–at a time when, polls showed, about half the public still believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, and many still thought he had had weapons of mass destruction.  Virtually no one, Republican or Democrat, viewed the central issue in the campaign as anything else.

Suffice it to say that it is delusional–or maybe just a desperate political gimmick–for the current Repub crowd to claim an equivalence, in any substantive respect at all, between the 2005 Social Security privatization issue and the fiscal-policy controversies at issue in the current situation.

Including, not incidentally, that the Social Security privatization issue didn’t threaten to bring down the economy in 2005.

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