Thursday, October 23, 2008

$150,000 on clothes

Much in the news today about purchases of clothes for Sarah Palin. Regardless of whether this is a good, bad, or neutral event, the facts are that very close to $150,000 was spent on clothing, hair and makeup by the Republican National Convention in September.

Here's the Budget Breakdown from the Washington Post on clothing purchases for Sarah Palin and family:

· Bills from Saks Fifth Avenue in St. Louis and New York for a combined $49,425.74.

· Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis, including one $75,062.63 spree in early September.

· $4,716.49 on hair and makeup through September.

· September payments were also made to Barneys New York ($789.72) and Bloomingdale's New York ($5,102.71).

· Macy's in Minneapolis, another store fortunate enough to be situated in the Twin Cities that hosted last summer's Republican National Convention, received three separate payments totaling $9,447.71. The entries also show two purchases at Pacifier, a top-notch baby store, suggesting $196 was spent to accommodate the littlest Palin to join the campaign trail. An additional $4,902.45 was spent in early September at Atelier, a high-class shopping destination for men.

OK, please note that the numbers and the names of the stores are FACTS. Some of the language, however, is emotionally laden (e.g. "spree"), or suggests a value or judgment ("top-notch," "high-class").

The total, btw, if my math is correct, is $149,643.45.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What is socialism?

On both sides, lots of pundits are bandying the word "socialism" about: first with the bailout plan "socializing" the banks; then with Barack Obama telling Joe the Plumber that it was a good thing to "spread the wealth around." But it seems like no one has taken the time to explain what they mean by socialism. Just that there is a general notion that it involves the government using taxpayers' money.

From the little reading that I have done on the subject, this seems simplistic in the extreme. However, there is a wide spectrum to the notion of socialism as befits a complicated economic system with over a century's worth of thought and practice behind it. These thoughts below are based on the crudest definitions of the term based on some brief Googling on the topic.

Is socialism when the government owns the means of production? That's one rather simple definition, which certainly doesn't seem to be broadly applicable even to the bailout plan. The banks, as far as I can tell, are still publicly owned, though of course the stock values have sunk. I don't pretend to understand what is going on with the bailout plan, but it only resembles this form of socialism in the most limited way.

Is it worker-owned collectives? That's another quickie definition, which certainly doesn't sound anything like either the bailouts or this "spread the wealth around" notion.

Is it a focus on publicly owned rather than private property? It seems like the notion of private property is still a very strong one, even in the midst of floating plans about helping people facing foreclosure. There's never been a suggestion that the government would then own people's houses, as far as I've been able to determine.

I think Colin Powell spoke eloquently on the difference between socialism and taxation in this interview after his interview endorsing Barack Obama.

I wonder if part of the bogeyman imagery of socialism comes from the political radicalism that characterized socialism in the United States, such as Eugene Debs in the early 20th century.

At any rate, be aware of these cheap shots about socialism. I think most people making them are just bandying the word about without having any idea what it means.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I'm going to let Rachel Maddow do the work for me.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bill Ayers

I just spent a few minutes reading the Wikipedia entry on Bill Ayers, the former (depending on your leaning) domestic terrorist/60's radical activist. As an Oberlin grad, I would like to opine that I know his type. Though I don't think anyone I know has tried to make any bombs.

Here's the part that's germane to the presidential election, pulled out as a series of fact (as best I can tell):

1) Bill Ayers and Barack Obama at one time lived in the same neighborhood in the city of Chicago
2) Both had worked on education reform in the state of Illinois.
3) The two met "at a luncheon meeting about school reform."[footnoted in article]
4) Obama was named to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge Project Board of Directors to oversee the distribution of grants in Chicago [of which Mr. Ayers was also a member].
5) Later in 1995, Ayers hosted "a coffee" for "Mr. Obama's first run for office."[footnoted in article]
6) The two served on the board of a community anti-poverty group, the Woods Fund of Chicago, between 2000 and 2002, during which time the board met twelve times.[footnoted in article]
7) In April 2001, Ayers contributed $200 to Obama's re-election fund to the Illinois State Senate.[footnoted in article]

There's more, but that seems the most pertinent. Serving on a couple of boards myself, I know how tenuous those relationships can be, though it also seems clear that Senator Obama knows Bill Ayers better than I know most of my fellow board members. But who knows? Maybe there are some 60's radicals/domestic terrorists serving on the School for Deacons board right now. Good thing I'm not running for high office.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Debate reactions

If you want some reality checks on tonight's presidential debate, I direct you to the NY Times' "Check Point" which does a good job of unpacking some of the key points.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Who's fault is the financial meltdown?

With ads on left and right blaming both sides for the current financial crisis, comes through again with a helpful analysis, both of ads and of issue.

I appreciated their summary of where the blame lies, copied below:

So who is to blame? There's plenty of blame to go around, and it doesn't fasten only on one party or even mainly on what Washington did or didn't do. As The Economist magazine noted recently, the problem is one of "layered irresponsibility ... with hard-working homeowners and billionaire villains each playing a role." Here's a partial list of those alleged to be at fault:

* The Federal Reserve, which slashed interest rates after the dot-com bubble burst, making credit cheap.

* Home buyers, who took advantage of easy credit to bid up the prices of homes excessively.

* Congress, which continues to support a mortgage tax deduction that gives consumers a tax incentive to buy more expensive houses.

* Real estate agents, most of whom work for the sellers rather than the buyers and who earned higher commissions from selling more expensive homes.

* The Clinton administration, which pushed for less stringent credit and downpayment requirements for working- and middle-class families.

* Mortgage brokers, who offered less-credit-worthy home buyers subprime, adjustable rate loans with low initial payments, but exploding interest rates.

* Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who in 2004, near the peak of the housing bubble, encouraged Americans to take out adjustable rate mortgages.

* Wall Street firms, who paid too little attention to the quality of the risky loans that they bundled into Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS), and issued bonds using those securities as collateral.

* The Bush administration, which failed to provide needed government oversight of the increasingly dicey mortgage-backed securities market.

* An obscure accounting rule called mark-to-market, which can have the paradoxical result of making assets be worth less on paper than they are in reality during times of panic.

* Collective delusion, or a belief on the part of all parties that home prices would keep rising forever, no matter how high or how fast they had already gone up.

The U.S. economy is enormously complicated. Screwing it up takes a great deal of cooperation. Claiming that a single piece of legislation was responsible for (or could have averted) the crisis is just political grandstanding. We have no advice to offer on how best to solve the financial crisis. But these sorts of partisan caricatures can only make the task more difficult.

–by Joe Miller and Brooks Jackson

Friday, October 3, 2008

Voting "present"

This is one I've meant to look at for a while.

The Republicans have on more than one occasion mocked Senator Obama for voting "present" rather than yes or no when he was a state senator. The most complete analysis of this that I have found is here, with sources dating back to last December.

The key facts are these:
a) Barack Obama voted "present" 129 times out of "roughly 4,000" votes, so about 3 percent of the time.
b) In the Illinois legislature, voting "present" allows individuals or parties to express opposition to a measure without taking the political fallout of voting no.
c) Sometimes Barack Obama voted "present" according to party dictate and sometimes as an individual.

The main thing I take away from this is that voting "present" is a political option often undertaken for political reasons and is not merely or necessarily an absence of nerve or opinion.

Health care plans

There was a lot of information thrown around last night during the VP debate on the campaigns' competing health care plans.

Here are some of the comments and my best read on what the facts are. If you don't have time for all of this, skip to my next-to-last paragraph. And take an aspirin.

John McCain's plan

Senator Biden, responding to a question about subprime mortgage lenders, spoke of Senator McCain's support of deregulation and said, "As a matter of fact, John recently wrote an article in a major magazine saying that he wants to do for the health care industry deregulate it and let the free market move like he did for the banking industry." says this "relies on a single phrase from a journal article under McCain's byline, in which he said he would reduce regulation of health insurance "as we have done over the last decade in banking." But the full context reveals that McCain was referring narrowly to his proposal to allow people to purchase health insurance across state lines." The full article from the Sept/Oct issue of "Contingencies" with John McCain's byline is here. I encourage you to read it to get a better sense of Senator McCain's thoughts on health care and insurance.

Meanwhile, Governor Palin and Senator Biden strongly disagreed on what Senator McCain's health care policy would cost taxpayers. Governor Palin said Senator McCain is "proposing a $5,000 tax credit for families so that they can get out there and they can purchase their own health care coverage. That's a smart thing to do. That's budget neutral. That doesn't cost the government anything."

In response, Senator Biden said,

Do you know how John McCain pays for his $5,000 tax credit you're going to get, a family will get?

He taxes as income every one of you out there, every one of you listening who has a health care plan through your employer. That's how he raises $3.6 trillion, on your -- taxing your health care benefit to give you a $5,000 plan, which his Web site points out will go straight to the insurance company.

And then you're going to have to replace a $12,000 -- that's the average cost of the plan you get through your employer -- it costs $12,000. You're going to have to pay -- replace a $12,000 plan, because 20 million of you are going to be dropped. Twenty million of you will be dropped.

So you're going to have to place -- replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company. I call that the "Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere."
FactCheck doesn't review Senator Biden's explanation of Senator McCain's plans, but it does refute the notion that the plan is "budget neutral. FactCheck says, "The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center estimates that McCain's plan, which at its peak would cover 5 million of the uninsured, would increase the deficit by $1.3 trillion over 10 years. Obama's plan, which would cover 34 million of the uninsured, would cost $1.6 trillion over that time period.

And, "The nonpartisan U.S. Budget Watch's fiscal voter guide estimates that McCain's tax credit would increase the deficit by somewhere between $288 billion to $364 billion by the year 2013, and that making employer health benefits taxable would bring in between $201 billion to $274 billion in revenue. That nets out to a shortfall of somewhere between $14 billion to $163 billion – for that year alone."

The Washington Post gives its analysis of Senator Biden's comments, giving it a "Two Pinocchio rating" of significant omissions or exaggerations. The studies they cite suggest that Senator McCain's plan will help more people get health insurance over the long run. "The Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution estimated that 5 million people would gain coverage under the McCain plan after four years, after which the pendulum would swing in the opposite direction. Health Affairs calculated that the number of uninsured would increase by 5 million after five years."

However, an article in the Wall Street Journal doesn't agree, saying, "Sen. John McCain's proposed health care plan is likely to result in higher overall health care spending than Sen. Barack Obama's, says Kenneth E. Thorpe, PhD, Emory University health policy researcher," and that, "Under McCain's plan, 14 million adults would face either denials of coverage or pre-existing condition waivers in today's individual health insurance market. If all employers dropped coverage, over 65 million adults would face the same fate, Thorpe's analysis notes."

The WSJ also supports Senator Biden's contention about how Senator McCain's plan would change what taxable income would look like: "The central tenet of McCain's health care plan is to withdraw the current tax exclusion of employer health insurance contributions and treat them as taxable income. In exchange, McCain would provide refundable tax credits of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of purchasing insurance in the non-group private market." However, according to the Washington Times, "For most families, that tax credit would for several years be more generous than the current tax break for employer-sponsored health insurance. An analysis of McCain's plan by the Tax Policy Center estimated that McCain's plan would increase the federal deficit by $1.3 trillion over 10 years, mainly because it would lead to less tax revenue coming in."

In short, Senator Biden's comments were off the mark in terms of immediate out-of-pocket expenses, and may be off the mark in terms of whether or not more people will be insured, but Senator McCain's plans may be unworkable in light of our current financial crisis and tax needs.

Barack Obama's plan

Finally, Governor Palin spoke of "Barack Obama's plan to mandate health care coverage and have universal government run program and unless you're pleased with the way the federal government has been running anything lately, I don't think that it's going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the feds."

An Associate Press report says that this is "Wrong on several counts. Obama's plan does not provide for universal coverage, only mandates insurance for children and doesn't turn the system over to the government. Most people would still get private insurance through their work. Obama proposes that the government subsidize the cost of health coverage for millions who have trouble affording it and he'd set up an exchange to negotiate prices and benefits with private insurers — with one option being a government-run plan."

Critiquing both plans

Finally, according to an article from the Kaiser Family Foundation, neither candidates' plan is workable as it is currently proposed. "Health insurance consultant Bob Laszewski said, "The chance for major health care reform in either 2009 or 2010 is now zero." He added, "Obama's health plan will cost at least $100 billion a year. That's now a nonstarter. McCain's health plan counts on deregulation of the health insurance industry. Do I even need to explain to you why that is a political nonstarter in this environment?"

So there you go. My non-factual 2 cents is vote for either of the candidates for some reason other than their health care plan.