Friday, June 29, 2012

SCOTUS Ruling on Obamacare Good for Everyone - Dems, Repubs, SCOTUS, and Public

They may not "heart" Obamacare, but enough SCOTUS justices like Obamacare enough
to let it remain the law of the land.

As I'm sure most people have already heard, the Supreme Court upheld almost all of the Affordable Care Act (often derisively called Obamacare) today.

So many people have been pontificating on what this means that I can barely take it anymore, and I don't dare look at my Facebook feed. But, I'll offer one thought on this relatively momentous ruling - it's good for everyone.

It's good for the Democrats/Obama - they expended a huge amount of time and political capital to get the ACA passed, and it would have been a devastating loss to them if it had been overturned. I doubt there will be much political payoff from the law being upheld, but they definitely avoided a big loss.

It's good for the Republicans - this way, they get to keep railing against Obamacare until Election Day, and Romney can continue to avoid saying anything of substance about what he'd actually replace the ACA with, if he were given the chance. This plays well into Romney's overall strategy of refusing to say what he'd actually do as President while hoping nobody notices - this may continue to work for him until the debates, but I can only think that Obama won't let him get away with that on live national television.

It's good for the Supreme Court - the popularity of the Supreme Court has been declining in the past decade, ever since the Bush v. Gore debacle, and with good reason - it's becoming a crusty institution hell-bent on expanding the power of the already rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. This ruling doesn't redeem the Supreme Court, but it is (finally!) a smallish step in the right direction - and I say smallish because the ACA was/is clearly constitutional, and the conservative court justices demonstrated that they were/are probably too ignorant to be able to deliberate on the ACA in the first place.

Finally, it's good for the American public - millions of uninsured people (especially people with pre-existing conditions) will now have access to health care, health care costs will be slightly more controlled (though much work remains to be done on this point), insurance companies won't be able to drop people when they become sick, etc. etc. - you know, all of those things the ACA actually does that people like a lot (even though a majority of Americans are so ignorant that they continue to dislike the ACA while, at the same time, liking all the provisions in the ACA except for the mandate, which of course probably won't affect them personally).

So, yes, this decision was good for everyone. Otherwise,
  • the Democrats would have suffered a massive defeat;
  • the Republicans would have suddenly been seriously on the spot to have to come up with a real alternative to the ACA, which they are absolutely not in a position to do;
  • the Supreme Court would have further cemented itself as a useless, cynically partisan institution; and
  • the public would have enjoyed none of the benefits enshrined in the ACA.
Thank God for small favors. Now on to the next battle.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Joseph Stiglitz: "America Is No Longer A Land of Opportunity"

How could you not like a face like that?

I love Joseph Stiglitz - he's a brilliant economist who cares deeply about both poor and average folks. He has made some big contributions to economics (mostly earlier in his career), and as of late, he has been decrying the growing inequality in the U.S. and pointing out with hard data the extent to which this harms everyone, even the 1%. He's written a series of insightful articles in Vanity Fair discussing how inequality hurts everyone, even the 1%; the need for government support as the U.S. transitions to a service economy; and how extreme inequality undermines societal stability.

Stiglitz is at it again, this time in the Financial Times, detailing how U.S. economic mobility is at an all-time low, even as inequality approaches its highest level in almost a century:
US inequality is at its highest point for nearly a century. ... One might feel better about inequality if there were a grain of truth in trickle-down economics. But the median income of Americans today is lower than it was a decade and a half ago... Meanwhile, those at the top have never had it so good. ...
Markets are shaped by the rules of the game. Our political system has written rules that benefit the rich at the expense of others. ... There is good news in this: by reducing rent-seeking ... and the distortions that give rise to so much of America’s inequality we can achieve a fairer society and a better-performing economy. ...
America used to be thought of as the land of opportunity. Today, a child’s life chances are more dependent on the income of his or her parents than in Europe, or any other of the advanced industrial countries for which there are data. ...
We can once again become a land of opportunity but it will not happen on its own... The country will have to make a choice: if it continues as it has in recent decades, the lack of opportunity will mean a more divided society, marked by lower growth and higher social, political and economic instability. Or it can recognize that the economy has lost its balance. The gilded age led to the progressive era, the excesses of the Roaring Twenties led to the Depression, which in turn led to the New Deal. Each time, the country saw the extremes to which it was going and pulled back. The question is, will it do so once again?
I've written about this topic on this blog before - in particular, about how intergenerational economic mobility in the United States is lower than in the Old Country (France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark) and about how Americans are woefully (but blissfully?) ignorant of this. But this is just a little side-project blog; perhaps people will actually listen to Stiglitz. Though if one judges by many of the comments on the FT article, perhaps I am the blissfully ignorant one.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Amazing(ly Long) Infographic About the Scale of Our Solar System

It looks like there might be some actual U.S. news events to write about this week, which would be a bit of a change from the last month. I hope to get to some of those later in the week, but I was utterly fascinated by this infographic today, so I had to share it with you. It shows our entire solar system to scale (including a couple of dwarf planets only recently discovered that I didn't know about - have you heard of Haumea and Makemake?) - the distances involved in only our solar system are truly mind-boggling, and when you extrapolate out into the entire universe ... well, it's a reminder that, on a cosmic scale, nothing we do here matters in the least, so stop worrying about things. I do believe this is the longest infographic I've ever posted - I'm pretty sure it alone more than doubles the length of my home page. Voila:

Via Daily Infographic.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Amazingly Bad, Acutal PowerPoints from a Government Agency - Annotated!

So, I'm pretty sure I can't get fired for this, since 1) there's absolutely no sensitive information in these PowerPoint slides, 2) the agency itself isn't even actually identified in them, and 3) the fact that they were created by a government agency means that, by definition, they are in the public domain - and I just had to share them because they're so ridiculous. I was actually sent these PowerPoint slides a couple of weeks ago - I can only guess for training purposes - and PowerPoints like this are the kinds of things that make me question my career in public service and set me to fantasizing about switching over to the private sector.

Well, PowerPoints like this, and the astoundingly crappy computer equipment I'm forced to deal with on a daily basis, anyway.

Anyway, on with the annotated show:

OK, this doesn't bode well (white text on a dark background is never a good sign, nor is it ever a good design decision), but it might not be terrible.

Alright, this is going downhill fast. Just check out that clip art, as well as the lack of what we're actually discussing on this slide. The terrible clip art short-circuited my brain, so I need to go back to the first slide to remind myself what this PowerPoint is about. Oh, yeah, unauthorized commitments - which are not an "it," but rather a "they." Also, I'm going to keep a running tally of the number of "confused people clip arts": 1.

Oh, OK, now I understand the point of all this - this PowerPoint is meant to substitute for actual training on the topic. Tell me, non-government employees, do any other employers consider emailing a PowerPoint presentation to constitute actual training? Next to my awful computer equipment, my biggest complaint about working for the government is that there is NO SUPPORT WHATSOEVER for employee development. And I complain about those two things to my supervisor at every opportunity - but there's nothing he can do about it either. As with most things that are wrong with government, it's Congress's fault.

Seriously people - stop using clip art. It may have been acceptable for a brief period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it is no longer acceptable. Ever. At best/worst (depending on your perspective), you can use stock photography, but never clip art. Clip art - not even once. Especially clip art of an obviously mad scientist ordering his large anthropomorphic hammer invention to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world used to illustrate the improper purchase of office supplies - that just makes no damn sense.

Ah, multiple punctuation marks for emphasis - it is at this point that I begin to wonder whether I am being punk'd, and/or whether this document was actually written by a 12 year old girl. I double-check the email chain - nope, this comes from an official source. Brilliant. Also, what does "ratification" mean? Making the unauthorized commitment authorized? Doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose? Also, why are we using undefined jargon in a training presentation? More on that below. Number of confused people clip arts: 2.

This is supposed to be a training document, but as someone who does not do contracts 100% of the time, I have no idea what HCA means, and I'm guessing that many other recipients of this document don't either. Training pro-tip: don't use insider jargon or acronyms without defining the terms. Luckily, I can turn to the Internet, which tells me that HCA in this context most likely means "Head of Contracting Agency," though I cannot say with 100% certainty that it doesn't stand for "Handyman Club of America" or the "Hydrographic Commission on Antarctica." I'm still not sure what "ratify" means exactly, though I can guess.

What conditions must be met for what? Ratification, I'd guess, but by now, my mind is seriously starting to wander.

More jargon - though at least this jargon is more widely-known than the previous jargon was/is. Number of confused people clip arts: 3.

Finally, a slide with semi-useful information, halfway through the presentation. Number of confused people clip arts: 4.

Number of confused people clip arts: 5. This stuff just isn't that confusing.

Number of confused people clip arts: 6. What is a "cognizant" management official? Doesn't the fact that the commitment was unauthorized mean that there shouldn't be a cognizant management official? "Responsible" management official, I would understand, but "cognizant"?

Who's the ratifying official, if not the CO? This document doesn't tell me - so much for the training value of this presentation. Also, I must admit that is a pretty sweet "proclamation" clip art (check out that mustache!), though "proclamation" is not the same as "recommendation."

Wait, wait - now I need a ratification package? What goes in the package? I assume it requires all the documents listed in the "documentation" part, but if it's a "package", I'm guessing there's more to it than that - what are the form numbers needed? At the very least, there must be forms! Forms! Nothing can get done in government without the proper form!

Wait, now there's a standard format and checklist? Where, pray tell, might one actually FIND this standard format and checklist? And more definitionless jargon - HCAD. The Internet is less help here - I'm going to guess HCAD means "Hypoplastic Coronary Artery Disease."

Hey, another slide with actual useful information! Woohoo!

I hate to be the one who has to tell you, but you failed at most of your objectives. And your PowerPoint design skills leave much to be desired. The clip art short-circuited my brain on more than one occasion, and the people in your clip art on this slide look like they're suffering from the same problem.

Oh boy, I have so many questions for you, big clip art question mark - but don't worry, most of them are existential.

So, non-government people, do you all have to deal with the same nonsense? Are my fantasies of possibly, someday, escaping early 1990s design just that - fantasies? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Relative Value of the Minimum Wage Over Time (Has Fallen Dramatically)

This probably doesn't come as a surprise to many readers of this blog, but it's good to keep in mind the extent to which the relative value of the minimum wage has fallen over time - and Remapping Debate has done that with a rather cool interactive graph. The graph shows the gap (in constant 2011 dollars) between the annual income of someone working full-time at minimum wage and the federal poverty line for a family of four at various points in the past 50 years.

For example, in 1968, a full-time minimum wage worker made about 94% of the federal poverty line for a family of four:

By 2011, that percentage had decreased to 66% (though this is still a little better than the low point of 58% in 2007):

So, even though the federal minimum wage has gone up nominally over time, life for low-wage workers in America has gotten harder, not easier.

And in addition to the eroding power of minimum wage level pay, I'll also add that living at the poverty line is not exactly glamorous - I can't imagine living in a family of four trying to survive on $22,811 in the greater DC area. Talk about serious misery.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Strange Cat Facts Infographic

I've been working from home a little bit more than normal this week, and one of my cats has been overly demanding of my attention, on account of the newfound familiarity with me, I believe. Therefore, the below infographic caught my eye, which taught me a few things about my furry friend that I didn't know - for example, that cats can't digest cow's milk (no more cheese for you, little one!), that my cat will hunt me down if I dump it out in the wilderness and don't move, and that it can't see what's right under its nose. Silly cats.

Via Daily Infographic.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Facebook's IPO & Tax-Dodging Show How Rigged the US Economic System Is

Marky Mark here never promised to "Do No Evil" like Google did,
and his below-board yet legal antics show just how rigged the
U.S. economic system have become.

Unlike many people, I don't begrudge the success enjoyed by Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg - though practically nothing he came up with was a new idea, he did it well enough and at the right time to capture much of the social networking market, and he hasn't screwed it up enough or faced a good enough competitor to cause Facebook to lose its throne atop the social networking heap - for now, anyway.

You may have heard that Facebook went public a few weeks ago - and it hasn't exactly been a smooth ride. Valued at $38/share when it debued on the NASDAQ (valuing the company at $104 billion), it's currently trading at $27.40/share (valuing the company at about $75 billion). Personally, I still think Facebook is way over-valued - unless you make wildly optimistic assumptions about Facebook's future growth, there's no way the company is worth that much. If I were an early Facebook investor, I'd be looking to cash out as soon as I legally could.

But, that's beside the point of today's post, which is that Facebook has and is engaged in economic practices that show just how rigged the U.S. economic system has become - a system rigged to shovel ever more money and power to the already rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else.

First, we have a story from ThinkProgress about how Zuckerberg and Facebook might try to dodge taxes on their billions of wealth / earnings for years to come, if not forever:
While Zuckerberg will pay a hefty tax bill right off the bat if he follows through on his plan to sell $5 billion in Facebook stock options, as the New York Times noted, he may then never pay a dime of taxes on the rest of his Facebook wealth. “Instead, he can simply use his stock as collateral to borrow against his tremendous wealth and avoid all tax,” the Times reported.
And, as Citizens for Tax Justice has noted, Facebook may use the issuance of stock options to avoid corporate income taxes, instead receiving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in refunds:
The tax law says that if a corporation issues options for employees to buy the company’s stock in the future for its price when the option issued, then if the stock has gone up in value when employees exercise the options, the company gets to deduct the difference between what the employee bought it for and its market price.
When, as Facebook expects, the 187 million stock options are cashed in this year, Facebook will get $7.5 billion in tax deductions (which will reduce the company’s federal and state taxes by $3 billion). According to Facebook, these tax deductions should exceed the company’s U.S. taxable 2012 income and result in a net operating loss (NOL) that can then be carried back to the preceding two years to offset its past taxes, resulting in a refund of up to $500 million.
“When profitable corporations can use the stock option tax deduction to pay zero corporate income taxes for years on end, average taxpayers are forced to pick up the tax burden,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI). “It isn’t right, and we can’t afford it.” This tax preference for corporations costs the U.S. about $2 billion in revenue per year.
In addition, Zuckerberg’s using a totally legal accounting gimmick to transfer money to his unborn children, thus avoiding the gift tax. He also — by virtue of accepting a $1 dollar salary and purely living off his wealth — could be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is intended to benefit low-income Americans.
Second, the IPO was rigged from the get-go to advantage Facebook and insiders - which was either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you ask. Indeed, Wall Street firms complained because they didn't pocket their normal ridiculous IPO profits - instead, Facebook and other insiders managed to capture the lion's share. But that's not the point - the point is that there was no hope for "the little guy" in this arrangement, even if he wanted to buy Facebook stock - he was just going to get hosed, one way or another - it just so happened that this time, Facebook hosed him instead of Wall Street. But, when it comes to IPOs, you can guarantee that you're going to get hosed by someone, if you're not an insider.

I can't say that I blame Zuckerberg or Facebook much - hell, I'd probably be working the system with all I had too, if I were in their position. What I do blame is the system (and Congress, and the special-interest lobbyists who write the rigged laws that Congress passes) - and I am terribly disappointed that we, the American people, have collectively allowed the system to become so rigged and skewed in favor of the already rich and powerful. And I like to think that, even if I were as fabulously rich as Zuckerberg, I'd be willing to support un-rigging the system for me, if all the other rich and powerful people agreed to the same thing. So perhaps I do begrudge Marky Mark Z. a bit for that, since he hasn't shown much interest in un-rigging the system.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why Millennials Have Come to Distrust Government

I found this post from Ryan Cooper over at Washington Monthly so interesting that I wanted to share it in its entirety:
Speaking of young people, Kevin Drum has a question:
Over the years, most of us have retained roughly the same view of whether the government is wasteful and inefficient. The postwar (“Silent”) and Boomer generations hover around 65% and Gen X hovers around 55% — with very little change as members of those generations get older. But Millennials are different. In 2003 they were pretty optimistic about government-run programs, with only about 30% saying they were wasteful. Today, though, nearly 50% think that. In the course of only a decade, they’ve become far, far more cynical about government programs.
Why? Is this related to the Iraq War? To the Bush/Rove administration more generally? To the stimulus bill? (The numbers went way up between 2009 and 2011.) Or were they just unnaturally optimistic during their 20s and are now catching up to everyone else? Any guesses?
As a card-carrying “Millennial” (Lord, what an atrocious name for a generation) I can tell you my experience of this, because it tracks the line on his graph fairly closely.
So when I was a kid in the 90s, times were good. I can remember when gas was less than a dollar a gallon. (Not to say that was a good thing per se, it’s just emblematic of the times.) People had jobs, the economy was good, computers were amazing and getting more amazing at a blistering pace, and the government seemed generally competent. Not that I paid a whole lot of attention to it, but I remember thinking watching the l’affaire Lewinksy go down that, though the whole thing was utterly preposterous, it seemed to indicate that we had the deeper questions of governance figured out. If the entire country was captivated for years by a minor sex scandal, then surely we must not have had any actual pressing problems. After all, if we did, wouldn’t the media be paying attention to those? (Please, stifle your laughter, I was only a kid.)
Then we had an entire decade of catastrophic failures, one after the next. First Bush stole the election in a banana-republic fiasco that badly tarnished our highest court. Then our massive security apparatus missed 9/11. Then we invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly in part to get bin Laden, but dawdled and let him escape so we could invade Iraq, based on a pack of lies. While that country was fast turning into a dystopian, bloodstained nightmare and sucking chest wound in the nation’s treasury and military, a hurricane destroyed one of our largest, most original cities, and the government stood there helpless for months, mouth agape. It turned out the very top of the government, up to and including the president, instituted a torture regime in blatant violation of constitutionally-binding treaties. They later brag about this fact on national television.
Then what turns out to be the biggest financial bubble in eighty years popped, and the government swooped in with incredible speed and force to shovel money into the gaping maw of the banks, pulling back the moment the immediate crisis was over. Though President Obama has been better than his predecessor, he still didn’t manage to alleviate the foreclosure crisis, or punish banks for committing systematic fraud. His efforts to police the financial sector have been laughable. The biggest banks are bigger than ever, and with Citizens United, the political system is awash with cash from the ultra-rich.
It has been, as Chris Hayes says in his new book, a “fail decade.”
Now, I don’t think that good government is impossible, and I think a lot of government programs are great, especially if you look overseas to, say, Scandanavia. I support Obamacare, and I think the stimulus did save us from another Great Depression, though it obviously wasn’t enough. But I don’t think it’s possible to honestly look at this country and not conclude that we have an enormous governance problem.
UPDATE: I should include President Obama’s extraordinarily disturbing civil liberties record in this list. Four years ago I never would have thought the executive branch would be killing American citizens via drone strike, on its word alone, cynically re-defining the term “militant,” or killing those whose identities are not even known.
Even though I really consider myself to be one of the last Gen-Xers rather than a Millennial, I think Ryan's reflection is pretty spot-on. I grew up and largely matured in the 1990s, and it was indeed a great time - and the 2000s were a terrible time, for all the reasons above. I had hoped things would change under Obama - unfortunately, things haven't been changing nearly as fast as I would like, largely thanks to a Republican Congress hell-bent on preventing Obama from doing ANYTHING while in office, but also because Obama has turned out to be far more of a centrist than most of his 2008 supporters would have thought - all right-wing hysterics about "socialism" notwithstanding.

However, my guess is that Millennials would have greatly different opinions about WHICH PARTS of government are so wasteful - my guess is that anything having to do with military or the state security apparatus would be viewed as obscenely wasteful (which is accurate, I'll note), but that other parts of government (environmental protections, food stamps, research, etc.) would be viewed as far less wasteful.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Are You A Mosquito Magnet?, Visualized (Why Yes, Yes I Am)

I'm back from my most recent trip, and the blog's web address has successfully been transferred to my new domain registrar - but I'm still trying to recover (work-wise) from my 1.5 week absence, so my apologies for the light posting over the past week. Things here will get back to normal soon, and I don't think there will be too much travel this summer.

<rant> Personally, I despise traveling at the height of summer - it's unpleasantly warm most places; everything is more expensive, especially airfare and accommodations; and you have to deal with tons more people wherever you go. That's why most of my vacations tend to happen in the spring and/or late fall. </rant>

Speaking of summer phenomena that suck, today I wanted to share an infographic with you about mosquitoes - in particular, why some people seem more attractive to mosquitoes than others, and some strategies that might help you keep mosquitoes from making your life miserable this summer. The mosquitoes just started biting us here in DC, and I think I might try covering myself in catnip this year - I'll trade crazier cats for fewer mosquito bites anytime, at least until my cats start biting me.

Via Daily Infographic.