OK. No one cares about the sequester

No one cares about the sequester.  Or maybe, no one knows about it.  Or maybe everyone is just tired of Congress.

Here is Mike Luckovich today with a history of our recent financial crises.

Gee.  I don't know why you think all this is my fault.

Gee. I don’t know why you think all this is my fault.

No wonder the general public doesn’t care right now.  And they probably won’t care until cuts start to hurt them.  Let’s face it:  both sides are using those old techniques of  putting forward the arguments that make the best case for their point of view.  The Republicans are right in that it won’t hurt for a little while – maybe a month or so.  And the Democrats are right that this whole exercise is unnecessary and, in the long run not helpful to recovery.

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein who wrote the excellent book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”, have an excellent piece in today’s Washington Post titled “Five myths about the sequester”.

1. Blame Obama — the sequester was his White House’s idea.

Identifying the origins of the sequester has become a major Washington fight. Bob Woodward weighed in recently with a Washington Post op-ed making the case that the idea began in the White House. He’s right in a narrow sense, mainly because he focuses on the middle of the 2011 negotiations between Obama and Republican lawmakers. If you look before and after, a different picture emerges.

In our view, what happened is quite straightforward: In 2011, House Republican leaders used their new majority to force their priorities on the Democratically controlled Senate and the president by holding the debt limit hostage to demands for deep and immediate spending cuts. After negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner failed (Eric Cantor recently took credit for scuttling a deal), the parties at the eleventh hour settled on a two-part solution: immediate discretionary spending caps that would result in cuts of almost $1 trillion over 10 years; and the creation of a “supercommittee” tasked with reducing the 2012-2021 deficit by another $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion. If the supercommittee didn’t broker a deal, automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion over the next decade — the sequester — would go into effect. The sequester was designed to be so potentially destructive that the supercommittee would surely reach a deal to avert it.

The sequester’s origins can’t be blamed on one person — or one party. Republicans insisted on a trigger for automatic cuts; Jack Lew, then the White House budget director, suggested the specifics, modeled after a sequester-like mechanism Congress used in the 1980s, but with automatic tax increases added. Republicans rejected the latter but, at the time, took credit for the rest. Obama took the deal to get a debt-ceiling increase. But the president never accepted the prospect that the sequester would occur, nor did he ever agree to take tax increases off the table.

And of course no deal has been reached yet.

2. At least the automatic cuts will reduce runaway spending and begin to control the deficit.

What runaway spending? The $787 billion stimulus was a one-time expenditure that has come and gone. Under current law not including the sequester, non-defense discretionary spending as a share of the economy will shrink to a level not seen in 50 years. Defense spending grew substantially over the past decade, but that pattern has slowed and will soon end. Additional reductions must be achieved intelligently, tied to legitimate national security needs.

The annual budget deficit is projected to fall by almost 50 percent in 2013 compared with the height of the recession. Reducing the deficit over the long term requires going where the money is — boosting economic growth, controlling health-care costs and increasing revenue to handle the expense of an aging population. Deeper discretionary-spending cuts are counterproductive; immediate cuts, as Europe has made recently, could lead to a recession and bigger deficits.

I guess the Republicans want us to be like Greece after all.

And finally, one for the Democrats.

4. The cuts are so large, they will be catastrophic.

The administration has released state-by-state estimates of the sequester and highlighted the cutbacks most likely to harm or inconvenience the public. The reality is not so immediate or dramatic. The damage will accumulate in less visible ways, as irrational reductions in public spending impede economic growth and job creation; reduce investments in education, infrastructure and scientific research; and further disrupt the routines of a modern democracy. The longer the sequester remains in place, the more harm is inflicted.

So it may take a while to feel the cuts.  Maybe long enough for the Obama Administration to submit a sensible budget that everyone can agree on.  And no, I’m not smoking anything.  Just counting on mayors and governors to continue to put the pressure on Congress.

Are you affected by gun violence?

I had never thought much about the impact of gun violence on my own life until I read Alex Kotlowitz’s piece in the New York Times Sunday Review.  The story is about Chicago right now the worst urban area for gun violence, but what he describes could apply to anyone, any place. We talk a lot about the post traumatic stress of  those who were in the movie theater in Aurora or the citizens of Newtown, but we don’t talk about the victims of the violence that happens every day one or two or three people at a time. And we certainly don’t talk about what happens to the rest of us.

I live in a neighborhood that is considered to be highly desirable.  Rents have increased as houses have been renovated.  Three families have been condoed.  There are stories in the paper about the sales price of homes.  But 20 years ago, there was a gang gun fight in front of our house.  The bullet hole is still in one of the vestibule windows.  A couple of years ago, a boy playing on one of the basketball courts, 4 or 5 blocks down the hill from us was shot and killed.  I have friends who have lost children to violence.  One can’t escape.  All of this is somewhere in the back of my mind when I walk or drive in our relatively safe, desirable neighborhood.  If I stop for a moment to think about violence, I think about my own neighborhood.  And if I am affected in a relatively minor way, what about the children?  This is the question that Kotlowitz asks.

EVERY year, the Chicago Police Department issues a report with the macabre title “Chicago Murder Analysis.” It’s a short but eye-opening document. Do the calculations and you realize that in the past 15 years, 8,083 people have been killed, most of them in a concentrated part of the city. There’s one particularly startling revelation that gets little notice: in 2011, more than four-fifths of all murders happened in a public place, a park, an alleyway, on the street, in a restaurant or at a gas station.

When Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old public school student and band majorette who just a week earlier had performed at President Obama’s inauguration, was killed on Jan. 29, she was standing under an awning in a park with a dozen friends. They all saw or heard it when she was shot in the back. One of them, in fact, was wounded by the gunfire. Which brings me to what’s not in the “Chicago Murder Analysis”: Over the past 15 years, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, an estimated 36,000 people were shot and wounded. It’s a staggering number.

We report on the killers and the killed, but we ignore those who have been wounded or who have witnessed the shootings. What is the effect on individuals — especially kids — who have been privy to the violence in our cities’ streets?

The answer:  post traumatic stress.  Kotlowitz continues

I ask this somewhat rhetorically because in many ways we know the answer. We’ve seen what exposure to the brutality of war does to combat veterans. It can lead to outbursts of rage, an inability to sleep, flashbacks, a profound sense of being alone, a growing distrust of everyone around you, a heightened state of vigilance, a debilitating sense of guilt. In an interview I heard recently on the radio, the novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien talked about how the atrocities and nastiness of battle get in your bones. The same can be said for kids growing up in Hadiya’s neighborhood.

The ugliness and inexplicability of the violence in our cities comes to define you and everyone around you. With just one act of violence, the ground shifts beneath you, your knees buckle and all you can do is try the best you can to maintain your balance. But it’s hard.

In December, the Department of Justice released a little-noticed report that suggested that children exposed to community violence might turn to violence themselves as “a source of power, prestige, security, or even belongingness.” The report went on to recommend that these children should be treated by professionals. At Hadiya Pendleton’s school, the principal said that over the Christmas holidays two students were shot and injured. If their experiences were at all typical, they were undoubtedly treated at a hospital emergency room and then released without any referral for counseling.

In Philadelphia, there’s a remarkable, albeit small, program, Healing Hurt People, a collaboration of Drexel University’s College of Medicine and School of Public Health, which scours two emergency rooms in the city for young men and teens who have been shot and pulls them in for counseling. When the program’s founder, Ted Corbin, was an emergency room doctor in Washington, D.C., he saw how shooting victims were treated and then sent back out on the streets, where, if they didn’t do injury to themselves, they’d most likely injure someone else. “If you don’t peel back some of the layers,” Mr. Corbin told me, “you don’t know how to stop that recycling of people.”

When the NRA talks about increasing mental health services instead of measures which might begin to stem the flood of guns, legal and illegally owned, washing over us, I don’t think they mean poor inner city kids.  I don’t think they mean funding for more programs like Dr. Corbin’s.  If they do, now is the time to speak out.

The basketball court where Jaewan Martin died.

The basketball court where Jaewon Martin died.

The young boy who was shot on the basketball court down the hill from us was an honor student attending one of the best middle schools in Boston.  Jaewon Martin died in 2010.  According to the Boston Globe

A popular honor roll student, Martin would have graduated from the eighth grade at the James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury at the end of the school year.

Martin was well-liked and well-known by students and staff alike, and his family was very involved in the school, said Boston Public Schools spokesman Matthew Wilder.

“It’s a really tough day for the school community,” Wilder said.

Grief counselors will be on hand at the school to help students and faculty members cope with Martin’s death.

Was there any additional follow up after the initial counseling?  What has happened to the other students in Martin’s class at Timilty or to others who knew him?  Is there PTSD?  Do we care?

I think this is the point of Kotlowitz’s story.  We need to care.

As Tim O’Brien says, it gets in your bones. In the wake of Hadiya Pendleton’s shooting, we’ve talked about stiffer gun control laws, about better policing, about providing mentoring and after-school programs, all of which are essential. But missing from this conversation is any acknowledgment that the violence eats away at one’s soul — whether you’re a direct victim, a witness or, like Anita Stewart, simply a friend of the deceased. Most suffer silently. By themselves. Somewhere along the way, we need to focus on those left behind in our cities whose very character and sense of future have been altered by what they’ve experienced on the streets.

The answer to my title question is yes you are.  If you don’t live somewhere violence happens with regularity, you are still affected because your future will be in some measure determined by these victims of violence.

Maybe we should increase the minimum wage

Massachusetts has a minimum wage of $8/hour.  This is fifth highest among states, sixth if you count the District of Columbia.  According to the Boston Globe

Five years have elapsed since the minimum wage in Massachusetts increased in January 2008 to $8 an hour, still one of the highest wage floors in the country.

The Legislature has not voted on a minimum wage increase since 2006, when it phased in the increase over two years and overrode a veto by Governor Mitt Romney to do so.

Since then, four states, includ­ing Connecticut and ­Vermont and the District of ­Columbia have surpassed Massa­chusetts. Nevada requires employers to pay workers $8.25 an hour if they do not receive health benefits, but if health insurance is provided the minimum wage rate falls to $7.25.

California continues to pay workers a minimum of $8 an hour, and Washington has the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.19. Businesses in Connecticut must pay at least $8.25 an hour, and Vermont workers earn at least $8.60 an hour.

If Congress increases the minimum wage to $9, Massachusetts will automatically go to $9.10.  Better, but not a livable wage if you live in Boston, where rents are high.

Even with an increase we will still need the Minimum Wage Awards.

Thank you Brian McFadden.

PS.  Did you happen to notice who vetoed the Massachusetts Minimum Wage increase?

Still more on sequestration

This morning The Fix by Chris Cillizza included this interesting post by Aaron Blake.  Blake posted four great graphics explaining the impact of the sequester.  I am going to copy 2 of them here, but you should look at the entire post.

Blake explains

First up is Pew’s illustration of the year-by-year spending cuts that are included in the sequester. As you can see, the cuts start out relatively small — less than $75 billion in 2013 — but they grow to more than twice that size by 2021, for a total of more than $1 trillion.

The biggest growth in cuts over that time occurs in the interest payments, but everything except for mandatory spending cuts grow steadily over time.

And then there is this depressing news.  Sequester will not have that big of a positive impact.

There has to be a better way.  Maybe spend some money to put people back to work and let them pay taxes thus increasing revenue?  And we do have to fix the tax code so Facebook executives actually pay taxes.  And maybe we can cut programs and defense more selectively.  This won’t be as dramatic, and it might be slower, but it will hurt fewer people.

Meanwhile, members of Congress of both parties are doing their best to keep funding for their own districts.  Politico quotes Senator Lindsey Graham, an opponent of the sequester

I’m almost relishing the moment all these tough-talking guys say: ‘Can you  help me with my base?’” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the most vocal  critics of the sequester, told POLITICO.

“When it’s somebody else’s base and district, it’s good government. When it’s  in your state or your backyard, it’s devastating,” he added.

Of course Graham’s solution is to do away with the Affordable Care Act or Obama care.  Is the momentum swinging toward a rational budget and solution?  Probably not.

What’s up with sequestration? Or we should have issued war bonds.

When I looked up sequestration in Merriam Webster, the closest meaning I could find to what is going on with the federal budget is

2
a: a legal writ authorizing a sheriff or commissioner to take into custody the property of a defendant who is in contempt until the orders of a court are complied with
b: a deposit whereby a neutral depositary agrees to hold property in litigation and to restore it to the party to whom it is adjudged to belong
So our tax dollars are being put aside until we pay down the debt or is it cut the deficit?  Back in 2004, the Treasury Department explained the difference this way.

What is the difference between the public debt and the deficit?

The deficit is the difference between the money Government takes in, called receipts, and what the Government spends, called outlays, each year.  Receipts include the money the Government takes in from income, excise and social insurance taxes as well as fees and other income.  Outlays include all Federal spending including social security and Medicare benefits along with all other spending ranging from medical research to interest payments on the debt.  When there is a deficit, Treasury must borrow the money needed for the government to pay its bills.

We borrow the money by selling Treasury securities like T-bills, notes, Treasury Inflation-Protected securities and savings bonds to the public. Additionally, the Government Trust Funds are required by law to invest accumulated surpluses in Treasury securities. The Treasury securities issued to the public and to the Government Trust Funds (intragovernmental holdings) then become part of the total debt.

One way to think about the debt is as accumulated deficits.

So back when Bill Clinton balanced the budget, we did not run a deficit and did not accumulate more debt.

While some on the right would argue that Clinton really didn’t reduce the deficit and he ruined the economy by raising taxes, I seem to remember that things were going pretty well for the average person during the Clinton years.

When George W. came into office he said he wanted to give us taxpayers back our surplus which probably would have been OK if he hadn’t then started 2 wars which we didn’t raise taxes of any kind to pay for.  No war bonds, no special tax assessment (used by state and local governments to pay for things), no general tax increase.  Thus the red ink on the chart above.  Then came what everyone is now calling the Great Recession.  Barack Obama really had no choice but to spend money to get the economy moving again.  We can argue about some of the spending – like saving some of the banks – but much of it work out pretty well, I think.

So now we have the sequester.  This was a deal made in 2011 to keep everything from coming to a halt.  I don’t think that anyone thought at the time that there wouldn’t be another budget deal to keep the cuts from going into effect, but so far no dice.  The New York Times ran an editorial on Sunday which is the best explanation of what the cuts would mean that I have seen.  For example:

NATIONAL SECURITY Two-week furloughs for most law-enforcement personnel will reduce Coast Guard operations, including drug interdictions and aid to navigation, by 25 percent. Cutbacks in Customs agents and airport security checkpoints will “substantially increase passenger wait times,” the Homeland Security Department said, creating delays of as much as an hour at busy airports. The Border Patrol will have to reduce work hours by the equivalent of 5,000 agents a year.

AIR TRAFFIC About 10 percent of the Federal Aviation Administration’s work force of 47,000 employees will be on furlough each day, including air traffic controllers, to meet a $600 million cut. The agency says it will be forced to reduce air traffic across the country, resulting in delays and disruptions, particularly at peak travel times.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE Every F.B.I. employee will be furloughed for nearly three weeks over the course of the year, the equivalent of 7,000 employees not working each day. The cut to the F.B.I. of $550 million will reduce the number of background checks on gun buyers that the bureau can perform, and reduce response times on cyberintrusion and counterterrorism investigations.

A three-week furlough of all food safety employees will produce a shortage of meat, poultry and eggs, pushing prices higher and harming restaurants and grocers. The Agriculture Department warns that public health could be affected by the inevitable black-market sales of uninspected food.

RECREATION National parks will have shorter hours, and some will have to close camping and hiking areas. Firefighting and law enforcement will be cut back.

DEFENSE PERSONNEL Enlisted personnel are exempt from sequester reductions this year, but furloughs lasting up to 22 days will be imposed for civilian employees, who do jobs like guarding military bases, handle budgets and teach the children of service members. More than 40 percent of those employees are veterans.

The military’s health insurance program, Tricare, could have a shortfall of up to $3 billion, which could lead to denial of elective medical care for retirees and dependents of active-duty service members.

And the list goes on.

The editorial concludes

Last week, Senate Democrats produced a much better plan to replace these cuts with a mix of new tax revenues and targeted reductions. About $55 billion would be raised by imposing a minimum tax on incomes of $1 million or more and ending some business deductions, while an equal amount of spending would be reduced from targeted cuts to defense and farm subsidies.

Republicans immediately rejected the idea; the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, called it “a political stunt.” Their proposal is to eliminate the defense cuts and double the ones on the domestic side, heedless of the suffering that even the existing reductions will inflict. Their refusal to consider new revenues means that on March 1, Americans will begin learning how austerity really feels.

Remember the definition of sequestration I began with?  It is a temporary thing.  The money is supposed to come back to us.  If the sequestration cuts really happen, I can bet you they won’t be temporary.  We are reaping the cost of wars most of us didn’t want and any rational solution will be held up by the same folks who did want to go to war.  We should have had war bonds.

THE VICTORY FUND COMMITTEE CAN HELP YOUR MONEY...

THE VICTORY FUND COMMITTEE CAN HELP YOUR MONEY WIN THIS WAR THROUGH INVESTMENT IN U.S. TREASURY SECURITIES SUITED TO… – NARA – 515674 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Re-reading “The Daughter of Time” or was Richard III a murderer?

"The Princes in the Tower"

“The Princes in the Tower” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a re-reader.  If I like a book, particularly a mystery, I will read it again.  Josephine Tey is a writer I first read in high school when I was introduced by my mother.  I remember thinking at the time that ‘The Daughter of Time” was one of her least interesting stories.  After all, Alan Grant is in a hospital bed reading books about Richard III and sending researcher Brent Carradine to look for answers about someone who died 400 years before.  I believed in the Thomas More/William Shakespeare version of Richard.  I was probably fourteen.  But since then, I have re-read it several times and since the discovery of Richard’s bones have done so again.

It is a very carefully constructed guide to how to conduct an investigation.  Grant starts out with one of his nurses’ history books from school and moves on to more complete histories of Richard and England.  He finds out that Thomas More, although written as if he were a witness to the events surrounding the princes in the tower, was actually between 5 and 8 years old.  Grant and Carradine go to original sources for answers to the kinds of questions anyone conducting an investigation would ask.  Who benefits?  What were people saying at the time?  Where were the relevant people at the time of the alleged murders?  Who was still alive after Richard died?

There are many, like Winston Churchill, who are unconvinced by Tey.  Thomas B. Costain presented much the same evidence as Tey in his history, “The Last Plantagenets.”

Many who believe that Richard was guilty believe that Richard somehow stole the throne.  Edward IV had died, his oldest son was very young and Richard was to be Regent.  Instead, Richard learned that his brother’s marriage was, as they said, irregular.  Parliament declared a Titulus Regulus making Edward’s son ineligible for the throne and Richard became King.

There is no question that Richard had been an excellent administrator of north England, including York.  At the end of the book, Grant lays out his case.

In the matter of the presumed crime:

(a)  He did not stand to benefit; there were nine other heirs to the house of York, including three males;

(b)  There is no contemporary accusation.

(c)  The boys’ mother continued on friendly terms with him until his death, and her daughters attended Palace festivities.

(d)  He showed no fear of the other heirs of York, providing generously for their upkeep and granting all of them their royal state.

(e)  His own right to the crown was unassailable, approved by Act of Parliament and public acclamation; the boys were out of the succession and of no danger to him.

(f)  If he had been nervous about disaffection then the person to have got rid of was not the two boys, but the person who really was next in succession to him:  young Warwick.  Whom he publicly created his heir when his own son died.

And Grant’s case against Henry VII.

(a)  It was of great importance to him that the boys should not continue to live.  By repealing the Act [Titulus Regulus] acknowledging the children’s illegitimacy, he made the elder boy King of England and the youngest boy the next heir.

(b) In the Act which he brought before Parliament for the attainting of richard he accused Richard of the conventional tyranny and cruelty but made no mention of the two young Princes.  The conclusion is that at that time the two boys were alive and their whereabouts known.

(c)  The boys’ mother was deprived of her living and consigned to a nunnery eighteen months after his succession.

(d) He took immediate steps to secure the persons of all the other heirs to the crown, and kept them in close arrest until he could with the minimum of scandal get rid of them.

(e)  He had no right whatever to the throne.  Since the death of Richard, young Warwick was de jure King of England.

I can’t predict whether the discover of Richard’s bones will lead to his rehabilitation as a ruler, but Tey makes an interesting case in his favor.  If you like mysteries or history or both, I recomment “The Daughter of Time.”

Cartoonists look at Rubio

Last night I watched the local news as well as New England Cable News and the Rachel Maddow show.  Everyone had their Rubio water bottle thing, including the weather and sports people.  Is this news as parody?  Or just another way to talk about something everyone is discussing?

Here are some cartoonist views of the Rubio incident.

Nick Anderson and the Poland Springs hat.

Nick Anderson's Editorial Cartoons 02/14

And Tom Toles

toles20130214

Note the kool aid and tea references.

I’m sure there will be more to come.  This may not end Rubio’s political future for a Presidential run, but you can bet it will end up being like Mitt Romney’s dog on the roof of his car.