Monday, November 26, 2007

That's rich

The title has a double sense: it was a rich day in the news for fascinating factoids, and there was an interesting discussion of who really is "rich" and why it matters just now. First the discussion, then the factoids in a basically "quote without comment" mode.

That's funny, you don't look rich

Are you rich? Explain why or why not in 2000 words or less. Use black ink only only.

As Joel Achenbach points out in a Washington Post article, the question of who among us are "the wealthy" has recently acquired increased significance; that is so because it is a crucial datum in the ongoing claims by the presidential candidates about what is wrong with Social Security and how to fix it. One of the commonest proposals by Democrats is to up the present cap on Social Security taxes (oops, sorry, "contributions") from $97,500 to who knows what. (The commonest Republican proposal is to eliminate Social Security as fast as possible, though they don't phrase in quite those words--they sort of ease into it with reduced benefits, increased eligibility ages, and suchlike camel noses.)

One of the problems is mindset. Most of those of an age to be contemplating Social Security matters grew up when $97,500 a year sounded like an awful lot of money, and it's hard to shake the feeling that anyone earning that much is not "middle-class". Of course, there's another rub: we seem to have a sort of collective social blank space between "middle class" and "rich"; Many people will feel that $98,000 a year is above middle-class income, but by no means so many will agree that such an income makes one "rich" or even "wealthy" (which somehow seems a slightly less pejorative term than flat-out "rich"). If that might be you, try one of the many inflation calculators to be found on the web (you need one, like the linked page, that can work forwards or backwards). To give you a scale, here's what in earlier years would have bought what takes $97,500 to buy today (rounded to the nearest $5):

  • 1957: $13,280
  • 1967: $15,785
  • 1977: $28,640
  • 1987: $53,690
  • 1997: $75,855
That's one way of mentally scaling. Another, which may be even more illuminating, is to see what $97,500 in earlier years equates to in today's world--these numbers perhaps best illuminate why the changing world makes $97,500 look so big a figure:
  • 1997: $125,320
  • 1987: $177,060
  • 1977: $331,920
  • 1967: $602,225
  • 1957: $715,810
So if your mindset about values got more or less fixed--which tends to happen in late adolescence--say, 30 years ago, you'd be thinking of $97,500 as signifying what really takes about a third of a million today. Now I don't mean here that you or anyone is unaware of inflation, or of the ever-increasing costs of everything and its cousin; I do mean, though, that the symbolic significance of big numbers in money will tend to be overweighted in your mind. Remember, we're not talking about the price of this or that particular thing, from a postage stamp to a car to a house: we're talking about the quasi-symbolic weight of an abstract amount of sheer dollars, something that makes the tie to present-day prices more tenuous.

Another problem is regionality. As Achenbach points out, "Online calculators allow anyone to make an instant city-to-city cost-of-living comparison. One such Web site calculates that someone making $97,500 in Washington [D.C.] could live just as comfortably on $67,846 in Ames, Iowa." That's a nearly 3:2 ratio; it's clear implication is that people living in smaller cities and towns will tend to further exaggerate the "value" of a $97,500 salary.

A third factor, which is not mentioned in the article, hinges on that word salary. Really wealthy people do not get any large fraction of their annual incomes from salary, but it is only salary that is subject to the Social Security tax; people who would pay more tax were the cap lifted are thus less likely to be the "rich" meant in slogans like "tax the rich".

That is, of course, a consequence of the fact that Social Security payouts are determined by the amount of wages, not total income, a person earned during their contributing years. But that, in turn, derives from the childish pretense that Social Security is some sort of insurance policy, with the "contributions" as premiums; the reality, as is now fairly well known, is that it's simply a welfare payout. With that firmly grasped, there seems no valid reason to limit Social Security taxation to earned wages, but that would in turn require a massive overhaul with the present Social Security system scrapped and replaced by higher overall taxes and a more generalized payout scheme. The chief reason that will never happen is that very few of the folk receiving, or due to receive, Social Security would ever accept it as what it is: welfare. The stigma is overwhelmingly repugnant, whatever the truth be. So scrub that extreme.

Clinton says that upping the cap would put the burden of the fix "on the backs of middle-class families and seniors." Obama says "Understand that only 6 percent of Americans make more than $97,000 a year. So 6 percent is not the middle class. It is the upper class." (A much nicer term than "rich" or "wealthy".) All that persiflage and badinage is irrelevant to the core issue: can people making over $97,500 reasonably stand to pay some further Social Security tax without it being, as Clinton put it, "burdensome"? I reckon that's hard to say.

In any event, Obama proposes a "doughnut-hole" cap scheme (I must suppose that that noxious term is now anchored in political discourse, owing to the delightful prescription-drug scheme the present administration wired into Medicare benefits), in which there would be no additional payroll till at least $250,000 or $300,000. I wonder if anyone has done calculations on how much such an added taxation--all that's added coming from wages, mind, not total income, just wages over $250,000 or $300,000--would really come to?

Incidentally--or not so incidentally--both Obama and Clinton at some point suddenly and drastically, but almost invisibly, shifted their ground, when each moved to speaking of "households with income above 250,000." Get this clear: household income is not individual wages. How many individuals in this country have Social-Security-taxable wages over $250,000 a year? And how much over? Without hard data, any discussion of fix schemes is so much hot air.

So what to do? As Mark Weisbrot pointed out at AlterNet, perhaps the best answer for right now is "Nothing". The "urgency" to "fix" Social Security is largely hype and ignorance: "all the 'baby boomers' will have retired before Social Security runs into a projected shortfall in 2041. That is according to the Social Security's (mostly Republican-appointed) Trustees. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, Social Security can pay all promised benefits even longer, until 2046. By either date, most baby boomers will be dead, and almost all of the rest retired, before there is a problem."

I agree with Weisbrot that "it would be best to take the issue off the table entirely until we have at least a few years of public education." The Social Security system is, for now and a while to come, a non-problem, and debate about it is wasting the precious time that should be spent on real and important issues, of which there is no lack.

And now the news . . . .

Is safety partisan?

From The New York Times:

The private laboratories that test foods from companies on the government's "import alert list" cannot automatically report tainted food to the Food and Drug Administration. Instead, they must give their reports to the importer who is paying for the test. If a shipment fails one laboratory's test, some importers have switched to a less-reputable laboratory to get the tainted foodstuff through.

Gander sauce

Again from The New York Times:

In the 2000 campaign, Gov. George W. Bush rebutted charges that he was a big spender, noting that on his watch, Texas state spending had been modest "when adjusted for inflation and population." That answer is utterly reasonable. Spending that is more or less constant in terms of the cost of living and the number of beneficiaries is hardly runaway.

Yet President Bush recently vetoed Congress's main social spending bill, for the Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. He said it - along with Congress's other planned spending bills - would recklessly overshoot his spending target by a total of $205 billion over five years. By Mr. Bush's own earlier reasoning, that figure is bogus. Adjusted for inflation and population, Congress's proposed increases amount to zero.

Me got a gud score!

The Times hit the jackpot today--here's yet another from them:

A recent study by Policy Analysis for California Education, a research center run by Stanford University and the University of California, analyzed the testing practices of a dozen states between 1992 and 2006:

In nearly all of the states studied, students did noticeably worse on federal tests than on state tests. In Oklahoma, the gap in scores was a shocking 60 percentage points in math and 51 percentage points in reading. In Texas, that gap was 52 percentage points in math and 56 points in reading.

Saddle up, kids

From Science Daily:

[Re] The largest study ever conducted of ATV injuries in children:

"Our experience shows that children's use of ATVs is dangerous and should be restricted," said Chetan C. Shah, M.D., radiology fellow at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 16 be prohibited from operating ATVs, but no laws are in place in most states.

"Other patients included a two-year-old who was driving a 'child-size' ATV and had traumatic amputation of four toes, and another two-year-old driver who was found unconscious beside a flipped ATV. She had a severe brain hemorrhage that left her with permanent disability," he said.

[Those are not typos: two years old.]

I am not a plausible candidate, and I don't even play one on TV

From the Washington Post:

Fox host Chris Wallace ended the interview with [Fred] Thompson by asking him to respond to short videotaped comments about his chances by columnists Fred Barnes and Charles Krauthammer, two regular Fox News commentators.

When the camera returned to Thompson, he was visibly angry. "This has been a constant mantra of Fox, to tell you the truth," he said.

"From Day One, they said I got in too late, I couldn't do it," Thompson interrupted a dithering Chris Wallace.

He later blasted Fox for running criticism from "your own guys, who have been predicting for four months, really, that I couldn't do it. [It] kind of skews things a little bit."

Pity the poor sod buster

Again from the Washington Post:

Under current law, the sky is pretty much the limit when it comes to who can receive crop subsidies and how much they can get. On paper, no one is allowed more than $360,000 in federal farm benefits per year, but the provision is riddled with loopholes. . . . Two-thirds of all crop subsidies go to just 10 percent of farms.

The House version of the [proposed new] farm bill would allow full-time farming households earning as much as $2 million per year to collect payments.

In the Senate, there is [a proposed] amendment that would cut off payments for farm households with incomes above $750,000, [and another] to cap payments at $250,000 a year per farm. Note that even if both of these amendments pass, a farm family making $749,999 a year could still receive a $249,999 handout from the taxpayers.

They're just plain folks like you and me, except different

From Time:

It probably seemed like the most innocent of ideas to the newly arrived teacher from England, still settling into life in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. . . . Her young class was due to study the behavior and habitat of bears, so she suggested that pupils bring in a teddy bear to serve as a case study. A seven-year-old girl brought in her favorite cuddly toy and the rest of the class was invited to name him. After considering the names Hassan and Abdullah, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of Muhammad - the first name of the most popular boy in the class.

Police raided the school, where Gibbons also lives, on Sunday.

"We tried to reason with them but we felt they were coming under strong pressure from Islamic courts," said [the school's director]. "There were men with big beards asking where she was and saying they wanted to kill her."

A similar angry crowd had gathered by the time she arrived at the Khartoum police station where she is being held.

Now Gillian Gibbons, 54, is spending her second night in a Sudanese prison, accused of insulting Islam's Prophet. She faces a public lashing or up to six months in prison if found guilty on charges of blasphemy. And Unity High School - one of a number of exclusive British-run schools in the Sudanese capital - has been closed as staff fear reprisals from Islamic extremists.

Lott's o'cash

From ABC News:

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., is calling it quits only one year into his six-year term.

A source close to Lott said the next phase of Lott's life "involves a whole lot of money."

Lott's resignation before the end of the year will allow the senator to leave Congress before new ethics rules, enacted into law this fall, would force him to sit out [from lobbying] for two years.

And from a related post on the Daily Kos:

Lott wants out by the end of this year so new ethics guidelines that prohibit former members of Congress from lobbying for two years, rather than one [won't affect him]. . . . So Lott needs to be out by Dec. 31.

Mississippi governor Haley Barbour then announced that:

"Pursuant to Mississippi law, specifically § 23-15-855 (1), of the Mississippi Code, once the resignation takes effect, I will call a Special Election for United States Senator to be held on November 4, 2008, being the regular general election day for the 2008 congressional elections.

Further, within ten days of Senator Lott’s resignation’s taking effect, I will appoint a Senator to serve until the winner of the Special Election for United States Senator is elected and commissioned, as provided in § 23-15-855 (2) of the Mississippi Code."

Umm, no, Haley, it doesn't work quite that way, though I reckon that you, as mere governor of the state, could hardly be expected to know state law.
(1) If a vacancy shall occur in the office of United States Senator from Mississippi by death, resignation or otherwise, the Governor shall, within ten (10) days after receiving official notice of such vacancy, issue his proclamation for an election to be held... within ninety (90) days from the time the proclamation is issued and the returns of such election shall be certified to the Governor in the manner set out above for regular elections, unless the vacancy shall occur in a year that there shall be held a general state or congressional election, in which event the Governor's proclamation shall designate the general election day as the time for electing a Senator, and the vacancy shall be filled by appointment as hereinafter provided.
Wayne Dowdy, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, issued the following statement after Lott announced his plans:

"According to multiple news reports, Senator Lott intends to resign his seat by the end of the year. Section 23-15-855 (1) of the Mississippi Code makes clear that if Senator Lott does indeed resign during this calendar year, as stated, then Governor Barbour must call a special election for within 90 days of making a proclamation - which he must issue within 10 days of the resignation - and not on Nov. 4, 2008, as he has announced he intends to do."

It is untrue that Mr. Barbour is a partner in the law firm of Dewey, Cheatum & Howe.

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