One year in Boston

OK.  So maybe we are a little self-absorbed right now what with congratulating each other on how well we survived and how much money we have raised for the victims.  The police are at all the events (Sox, Bruins, etc.) being honored.  And maybe everyone is laughing at us for letting the entire City be locked down for an entire day, but it worked for us.  I can’t imagine it happening in New York or LA or Philly.  Maybe San Francisco.  But Boston is pretty connected and compact and if you shut down the public transit, it gets difficult for many people to move around.  I’m sure someone will do a study on why Bostonians pretty universally listened to Governor Deval Patrick.  I wasn’t even in town and I got an alert voice mail.  Maybe it went on too long, but that’s a judgement call and after the fact.  I have read that the “shelter in place” order was lifted on suggestion from President Obama – which might be true, but I’m not sure at this point.  There are still a lot of rumors flying around and as with Newtown, Sandy, and all the other horrific events, we will know the real story months and even years from now.

I was happy to see Brian McFadden’s take on the situation.

12 Months of Boston

12 Months of Boston

Yes, we are getting back to normal and there will be another Boston Marathon in 2014.  And we will learn the truth about what went on that horrible week.  But for now, the Sox are on a roll, the Bruins are in the playoffs and the Celtics stayed alive for another game.

Local Terrorism: the third wave

It is early days yet for both the investigation and the legal process but we are beginning to know bits and pieces about two brothers, graduates of Cambridge Rindge and Latin, the same school that produced Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who decided to bomb the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Farah Stockman had a very thoughtful column in the Boston Globe this morning.  She begins with a book written in 2008 by Mark Sageman, a former CIA psychiatrist, who predicted “The threat is no longer ‘foreign fanatics,’ but people who grew up in the West.”   His book is “Leaderless Jihad”  Stockman continues

We still don’t know how much support the Boston Marathon bombers had from overseas. Chechnya’s main militant group, Caucasus Emirate, denies any link to the brothers. Instead, the Marathon bombing appears to be the work of what Sageman describes as the “Third Wave” of terrorism. The Third Wave isn’t about Al Qaeda grooming recruits and dispatching them to do its bidding. It’s about young men who surf the Internet and decide on their own to write their names in history with a bomb. They get inspiration from Al Qaeda. In some cases, they even get training. But they are the ones that seek it out.

“Like Harvard, Al Qaeda did not have to recruit,” Sageman wrote. Young men came in droves, begging for an affiliation.

Sageman says the average recruit at Al Qaeda Central in the 1990s was nearly 30 years old. The average Third Waver is in his early 20s. The majority of Al Qaeda Central grew up in religious homes. About 75 percent of the Third Wavers had fairly secular childhoods.

So why would they turn to building bomb and other acts of terrorism.

For some, it was out of a warped romanticism for a homeland they barely knew; an act of rebellion against hardworking immigrant parents who brought them to the West for “a better life.” Others were US-born converts to Islam who found in terrorism a sense of camaraderie and purpose that had eluded them all their lives. A few became terrorists after years of gang-banging and drug dealing. It was an ideology that transformed their violent tendencies into something heroic. It made them feel they were on the side of the angels.

Both Tsarnaev Brothers were heavy smokers of marijuana and local police are now looking at a connection between them and the murder of the man Tamerlan once said was his only American friend.  Brendan Mess was one of the victims of a triple homicide.  The murders have never been solved.

Third Wavers “are basically trying to find out who they are,” Sageman said. “Their identities are very different from their parents. What they imagine their parents’ country to be never really was.”

That rings true of the Tsarnaev brothers, whose parents immigrated to the Boston area in 2002. The older brother, who dropped out of community college and was once accused of assaulting a girlfriend, might have been casting about for something to believe in. Searching the Internet for information about his troubled homeland in Chechnya would have yielded a trove of jihadi websites full of rhetoric about America’s “war against Islam.’’ As he became more radical, he may have dragged his more outgoing and successful younger  brother down with him.

We will know much more in the days and months ahead, but I think that Sageman and Stockman are right:  the time of terror from outside is over.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not the first local to be tried in Boston.  Tarek Mehanna, from nearby wealthy suburb  Sudbury  was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to support Al Qaeda. He was sentenced in April 2012 to 17½ years in federal prison.  His actions also surprised everyone who knew him.

These crimes may have been inspired by outside forces, but they are crimes in an ordinary sense and the voices, mostly Republican, clamoring for miliary tribunals and an end to immigration have it all wrong.  I think part of the venom is because Boston is a symbol of what the right calls “liberal” America.  And maybe we are.  But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an American citizen and deserves to be tried as one.  He is not an “enemy combatant”.   And if Sageman is right, and he appears to be, we can expect to see more of these incidents and trials in our future.  And as the right complains about unanswered questions, we have to remember that some information will be kept for trial and some questions we won’t know the answers to for a long time.

The moment of silence at 2:50 pm April 22, 2013.  Copley Square.

The moment of silence at 2:50 pm April 22, 2013. Copley Square.

The miracle for Boston is that there were only four people killed and close to 300 now reported as injured.  All of the injured are now expected to live.

The Boston Marathon bombing

I was checking into a hotel in Philadelphia minutes after the bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon and learned what had happened from the desk clerk.  For the next week, we followed the story mostly by reading the paper in the morning and sometimes catching a few snippets on television.  I had made the decision not to do email or any social media while I was gone.  I did have my cell phone on, mostly in case of a cat emergency at home or a Philly friend calling.  It was strange to be away from home and hearing about familiar places.

Things got particularly weird  for me late Thursday afternoon.  The authorities had just released the video of the suspects and in the tape was a person walking who resembled me.  I started getting text messages and calls from friends in Boston who wondered if it was me and if I were OK.  It wasn’t, but when we turned on the TV and watched the endless loop, the other “me” was easy to spot.  Blue jacket, ball cap, grey purse strap across the back.  A short woman, a little stocky.  As one of my friends said even after being reassured, “It really does look like you.”

I got home to a pile of papers and more information on the incident.  It was interesting to see what people got wrong in the early days and it should get more interesting as the investigation continues.  My husband and I were thinking that bombing like this are regular occurrences in other countries and in many ways we are lucky that our law enforcement can actually track the two kids who planted the bombs.  We will bring the survivor to trial eventually, but as someone, I think it was Senator Elizabeth Warren, said these are the early days of the investigation and this is not NCIS where crimes get solved in an hour.

James Carroll wrote this morning in the Boston Globe about the Boston Marathon, the votes in Washington against any regulation of guns, and democracy.  Here is some of what he said.

In 490 BC, the legendary runner brought urgent news to Athens of the Greek victory in Marathon over the armies of the Persian Empire. The Battle of Marathon secured a peace that ushered in the Athenian Golden Age, during which a vibrant democracy finally found the balance between the exercise of force and the fulfillment of human needs. Last week, as an American commemoration of the Battle of Marathon unfolded in Boston, that same democratic balance was dangerously stretched amid the Doric columns of Washington, where the Senate cast a tragic vote for violence.

Yet even our definition of “tragic” goes back to Athens, to the spacious imagination that flourished there — especially in the plays of Sophocles, who lived from about 497 to 406 BC. He taught us that every choice has its consequence, that character is destiny, that the exercise of power must always be measured by the health of the whole community. He also taught us that tragedy, when faced directly and bravely, leaves humans not diminished, but ennobled.

The traumas of Boston last week, culminating in the killing and pursuit of the men suspected of planting the bombs, were heartbreaking and repugnant, but they left the city whole. With all citizens commanded to “shelter in place” Friday while responsible officials conducted the manhunt, Boston was itself a character in the extraordinary drama. A vast ad hoc web of Internet users to whom law enforcement had appealed gave new meaning to the term “community policing.” The fugitives knew that an entire commonwealth had become their antagonist. This surely forced the drama’s denouement. There were no bystanders in Boston.

From Homer on, Greek culture honored competition (“agon” in Greek, which gives us the word “agony”). But in Athens, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has explained, this spirit of contest was balanced by the politics of cooperation. The virtues of the first (discipline, bravery, self-actualization) meshed with the virtues of the second (empathy, humility, selflessness). Athenian democracy was the reconciliation of these opposites. Strength was joined to tenderness.

The Boston Marathon wonderfully embodies this balanced moral order, too: Every year the fiercely determined runners strive to be best (or for their personal best), while surrounded by multitudes whose cooperation makes the race so radically inclusive.

But death changes everything — a jolting transformation to which Greek tragedy itself gave first expression. “In the face of death,” as MacIntyre puts it, “winning and losing no longer divide.” Instead, competition drops away, and cooperation becomes the absolute mandate. That is precisely what happened in Boston, as the city held Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and later Sean Collier in its heart.

Last week, a separate drama unfolded in Washington. “It’s almost like you can see the finish line, but you just can’t get there.” These words could have been spoken by thousands of Boston runners, but were said by the father of a shooting victim who witnessed the Senate vote on gun control.

We will, once again, show the world that we can have an investigation and fair trial.  And we will one day enact some sensible gun safety measures.  Watching the events unfold from a distance, I was proud of my fellow Bostonians, law enforcement and  public officials particularly Mayor Menino and Governor Patrick.

Candles for the victims.

Candles for the victims.

What does this mean?!

What does this mean?!

Jonathan Capehart wrote this about it in the Washington Post.

I’ve grown accustomed to the lunacy that emanates from the far right on Capitol Hill. But a tweet last night from Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) promoting his new bumper sticker was a jaw-dropper.

Just when you think things can’t get sicker something new comes along.

Chained CPI explained

So.  President Obama proposed moving to something called Chained CPI (Consumer Price Index) in his budget.  It looks as if the proposal is probably DOA.  My personal, maybe naive thought is that the President proposed it to show, one more time, that he is open to compromise suspecting that the Republicans wouldn’t accept his offer.  I think he might have expected the outcry from the progressives side.  Maybe he wanted us to protest showing the Republicans that he can put things on the table that his supporters don’t like.  (Sneaky, that man.)  But he needs to make sure the proposal itself didn’t open a crack in a door the Republicans want to open – the subject for a different post.

But since Chained CPI seems to keep popping up  I thought I would try to understand what it is and why it is not so good not only for retirees, but for the middle class taxpayer.

Ezra Klein explained it this way.

Here are the facts. Chained-CPI does mean that Social Security beneficiaries will see their benefits cut. Imagine a person born in 1936 who retired in 2001, at age 65. For simplicity, let’s assume they’re eligible for the maximum benefit. Given that the cap was below $30,000 a year as recently as 1980, it’s not inconceivable that a middle or upper-middle class person with steadily increasing earnings since 1958 would be in this situation.

Their initial benefit would have been $1,538 a month, or $18,456 a year. Under existing law, they would have gotten a series of cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). By 2013, COLAs would have increased this person’s annual benefit to $24,689.49. However, under chained CPI, it would be $23,820.19, a decrease of $869.30. That’s a 3.5 percent cut in benefits. And, of course, a 3.5 percent cut in income matters a lot more when you’re barely clearing $20,000 a year than it does when you’re making a regular middle-class salary.


There are also a lot of questions about how the Chained CPI would be calculated.

There would be other complications as well. Kenneth Stewart, an economist in the Division of Consumer Prices and Price Indexes at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is one of the guys who computes the various CPIs every month. He notes that one benefit of CPI-W and other unchained CPIs is that they are final upon issuance. That is, the numbers are never revised. Two weeks after this month ends, BLS will release the April 2013 CPI, and that will always and forever be the April 2013 CPI.

Not so for chained CPI. “The chained CPI-U is subject to revision because we don’t get the actual expenditure data until 1 or 2 years later,” he notes. For example, in 2005 we had access to final chained CPI data for 2003, and only interim data for 2004. If we were to adopt chained CPI, we’d either have to use incomplete data, or else wait until we had final data to implement COLAs, which would further compound the cuts. The former, of course, would reduce the accuracy of the measure, a feature that proponents often tout.

George Zornick published a long and interesting piece in the Nation on the myths about Chained CPI which is well worth reading.  In addition to the benefit cuts to seniors, taxes would also go up because the plan would be to link everything to the Chain.  Look at this chart.

Notice the group getting the biggest tax hike is families making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. Their increase is almost six times that faced by millionaires.

Notice the group getting the biggest tax hike is families making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. Their increase is almost six times that faced by millionaires.

Both Zornick and Klein talk about a special Chained CPI for the elderly based on the goods and services the elderly purchase most:  housing and health care.

Klein says

…critics of chained CPI have sometimes promoted the CPI-E, an experimental index meant to measure price changes within products bought by the elderly. Because it’s experimental and simply a result of reweighing the existing CPI measures to more heavily account for goods like housing and health care, the BLS doesn’t publish the data on its website, but it’s available upon request. Stewart, who helped develop CPI-E, explains that it’s an unchained measure, and because of that its numbers don’t need to be revised.

In the mid-2000s, the housing bubble and boom in health-care prices meant that CPI-E, which weights both more heavily, rose faster than conventional inflation measures. In 2008, for instance, adopting CPI-E as Social Security’s inflation measure would have given our hypothetical retiree $327.88 more a year. However, since the housing bubble burst and health-care prices started slowing in growth, that effect has diminished. “Medical care inflation has been relatively subdued,” Stewart says. “Shelter prices have also been very tame in, really, the last seven or eight years.” As a result, in 2013 CPI-E would have resulted in only $56 in additional annual benefits for our test retiree.

A money saver, right?  Zornick says no.

The Economic Policy Institute has the numbers here:

In short, the 65-and-older households spend roughly three times what the rest of the population does on health care, measured as a share of total spending. Further, between 1989 and 2007,prices for health care have risen nearly twice as fast as overall inflation—growing 100% over that timespan, compared with 53% growth in overall prices of consumption goods.

Seniors spend a lot of money on health care, and just aren’t able to buy different, cheaper drugs when the price of their medication goes up—so the Chained CPI argument just doesn’t work here. And the price of those drugs is going up much faster than the prices of most consumer goods, and the same is true of Medicare premiums.

I  won’t argue that the CPI is a great definitive measure.  Sending people around to price stuff every month is mildly nuts, but the CPI has worked for a long time.  I think we need to look at some other ways to “save”  Social Security.  And Social Security shouldn’t be part of any budget cutting plan to begin with.  Chained CPI is not a winner, no matter what some Democrats, some economists and many Republicans may claim.

Just Sayin’…

As we who lived through those times know, they were very difficult and people made a lot of strange choices. But I will assume that Mr. LaPierre was NOT protesting the war with his requested deferrment.

The Fifth Column

H/t: The Platzner Post

Memo:  With full knowledge that FaceBook has a way of exaggerating claims, I researched this and found that the term “mental condition” was indeed a slight exaggeration.  Here’s what I found.

View original post

The doomsday clock

My father subscribed to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  As long as I can remember, I would look at the cover each month and see what time it was.  The time was not, as my father explained to me, the current time but the time the scientists thought was left before a nuclear war.  Over my childhood, I watched the clock move closer to and further away from midnight.  The clock is currently set to 5 minutes to midnight.

So I was surprised to learn that the woman who had designed the clock had died.  If I had thought about it, of course someone created the design.  I think I’ve imagined all these years that it just appeared on the cover.

Martyl Langsdorf died at the 96.  Her obituary was in the New York Times

Mrs. Langsdorf was a painter who specialized in abstract landscapes. Her husband, Alexander Langsdorf Jr., was a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb. In 1945, as preparations were being made to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dr. Langsdorf and others formed the Bulletin as debate was escalating within the group about what it had created. When the Bulletin converted from a newsletter to a magazine in 1947, Mrs. Langsdorf was hired to design the cover.

This is her 1947 cover.

1947 cover

The Times continues

Mrs. Langsdorf’s career designing magazine covers stopped and started with that first magazine issue of the Bulletin (which declared that it was 11:53 p.m.). She devoted herself instead to her artwork.

While this might be the only cover she designed, it has had a great impact.  Many know about the Doomsday Clock, but few know it came from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist and even fewer know she was the designer.  Her clock is on their website and newsletter today.

Martyl Langsdorf

Martyl Langsdorf

Photograph from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists