Holes are appearing every day in our so-called safety net. But even amidst all the budget cutting, most elders and disabled people probably feel that their monthly Social Security checks are something they can count on. Having escaped attempts at privatization under Bush, Social Security might appear secure, at least in the short term.

Maybe not. As New America Media reports, debt collectors for credit card companies and other creditors are now going after Social Security payments, which are supposed to be exempt from garnishment in such situations. Their tactics include freezing the bank accounts into which a beneficiary’s Social Security checks are direct-deposited. When this happens, often without warning, old and disabled people find themselve suddenly without the resources to buy food and medicine, which can trigger a desperate medical crisis.

That’s right. The meager amounts deposited into our accounts by the Social Security Administration, which many older people now must rely on more than ever before because of layoffs, the real estate crash, and the 401k collapse, are being illegally siezed, often by the very same companies that brought on the crisis in the first place–the big banks and other financial institutions that issue loans and credit cards. After taking in billions in public stimulus funds, they are wringing out every last dime by going after these public pensions, which are supposed to be protected. When you read stories about how Wall Street is relaxing with the comeback of high pay and big bonuses, think about this:

Margot Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center estimates that “tens of thousands of people every month,” who are elderly or disabled, are being forced into dire financial circumstances. Bank account freezes and illegal garnishments of exempt funds, including veterans’ benefits, are shredding safety nets. In her 2008 testimony before a House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, Saunders included a long list of stories.…

Quote of the Day - 2.28.09

From Family Research Council President Tony Perkins:

What do sick pigs have to do with widespread, taxpayer-funded abortion? More than you might think.

Click the link if you dare.  Or you can just jam burning bamboo shoots under your fingernails instead.  Your choice.

Top Climate Scientist Fired For Talking To Media

Nobel-Prize winning scientist Jim Salinger was sacked from his job of 27 years for talking to the media about the weather. Salinger was the lead author of the IPCC’s 2007 assessment report that dealt with climate change in Australia and New Zealand. He had been a principle scientist with New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), reports the New Zealand Herald.

Despite his excellent credentials and scientific reputation, Salinger was given 3.5 hours to clear his desk late last week. His offense? Talking to the media about a flood he was witnessing firsthand while on vacation in New Zealand.

Here’s where it gets really strange. NIWA has a contract with New Zealand's state broadcaster to provide climate-related updates and Salinger has spoken regularly to reporters in the past. He was always praised for doing so, reports NatureNews. But word leaked down from on high a few months ago for him to back off and take a lower profile. He was told to get permission before talking to the media again.

Three times he didn’t. The first was on a day of record-high temperatures in Auckland. It was late and there was no one around so he gave a live radio interview and was later verbally reprimanded. The second time, last month, he took a television reporter and camera operator on a flight to monitor summer snowlines after receiving an okay from the NIWA’s communications manager—but was later told he should have gained permission from a higher-up. The third time, this month, Salinger called a television weather reporter with the news that rivers were flooding around him while he was on vacation in New Zealand.

Last Thursday Salinger received a letter telling him his contract was terminated. The sacking comes as NIWA's CEO, John Morgan, focuses on rebranding the institution, according to NatureNews. Morgan has overseen the institute's move into high-profile new premises in central Auckland in February, along with implementing a major website overhaul.

So overhaul is a euphemism for censorship?

BTW, Salinger’s postgrad studies in 1975 produced what’s today regarded as a watershed paper on climate change at a time when the idea was resisted by most scientists.
 

K Street Exploits Stimulus Lobbying Loophole

After the Obama administration levied strict new rules on stimulus-related lobbying late last month, K Streeters didn't just get mad, they got creative. Under the March 20 directive, federal agencies must disclose lobbying contacts on stimulus issues and post them online. And, if lobbyists wish to influence government officials on particular stimulus projects, they have to put these requests in writing—communications that are also to be made public by the relevant government agencies.

Naturally, lobbyists bristled at this attempt to foist transparency on their opaque world. But it didn't take long for the influence industry to devise a very simple workaround: use non-lobbyists to lobby on the $787 billion stimulus. The Wall Street Journal reports that "the rule has brought in a slew of work for nonregistered lawyers, who can call or meet with officials without submitting requests in writing." (That is, so long as they don't spend more than 20 percent of their time peddling influence, in which case they would be legally required to register as a lobbyist.) "Where there's any issue, it's just easier to hand it off to somebody who's not registered," one lobbyist told the Journal. "Certainly people are helping out who normally wouldn't be engaged in this."

Chart of the Day - 4.28.2009

Today's chart come from the long-term trends section of the NAEP, the "nation's report card."  It shows — surprise! — long-term trends on the NAEP's reading and math tests, and the results are shockingly humdrum.  (Can something be shockingly humdrum?  I say yes!)

Did American education go completely to hell in the 70s and 80s?  It sure doesn't look like it.  Both reading and math scores stayed almost rock steady during the entire "Nation at Risk" period.  Did things improve with the passage of NCLB and the advent of massive high-stakes testing?  Scores for 9-year-olds have gone up a bit, but past evidence suggests that gains among young children usually wash out by the time they're 17.  There might be a bit of progress over the past eight years, but the evidence is very thin and very tentative.  Overall, among 17-year-olds, the average reading score during the past four decades has gone from 285 to 286 and the average math score has gone from 304 to 306.  There's hardly cause for either alarm or excitement.

Obviously there are lots of details when you look at this stuff.  NCLB mostly focuses on lower grades, and most of those kids haven't yet gone on to high school.  So maybe it just needs more time.  There are racial and gender gaps to look at, differences between public and private schools, and the effects of concentrated poverty.  Still, I think it's useful sometimes to take a look at the bottom line: plain old average scores over the past four decades among 17-year-olds.  And despite all the changes during that period in demography, testing, pedagogy, and popular culture, there just hasn't been much change.  I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader whether that's good news or bad.

The People vs. Dick Cheney vs. Torture

A Patrick Fitzgerald-style investigation may be the wrong way to get the truth on torture. But what's the right one? And what form will redress take?

Writes Karen Greenberg:

The list of potential legal breaches is, of course, enormous; by one count, the administration has broken 269 laws, both domestic and international.
With these abuses in mind, lawyers, policymakers, and others have identified three models from which to fashion a response to the Bush era. In decreasing order of opprobrium, the choices are impeachment, prosecution, and investigative commission.

Re-read The People vs. Dick Cheney.

Plus: If Congress and the White House punt on prosecution, here are 5 options for who might throw the book at the Bush/Cheney crew.

Hey, did you know our special torture investigation is up for a National Magazine Award? See why: Listen to our exclusive torture playlist and re-read the secrets of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the war on terror.

The Road to 60

Fascinating news out of Pennsylvania today:

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter will switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and announced today that he will run in 2010 as a Democrat, according to a statement he released this morning.

...."I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary," said Specter in a statement....He added: "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

That's surprisingly forthright wording, isn't it?  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Specter finds his views more in line with Democrats these days solely because there are 200,000 more of them in Pennsylvania than there used to be.  Points for honesty, I guess.

Of course, if he's really serious about this, he could switch parties now.  And maybe announce his support for a few Democratic initiatives while he's at it.  Interesting days.

UPDATE: Obama is "thrilled" by the news.  And who can blame him?

UPDATE 2: I think I may have misunderstood Specter's statement.  Apparently he does plan to begin caucusing with the Democrats immediately.  I think.  Press reports seem oddly fuzzy on this point, though.

UPDATE 3: In 1950, Specter participated in the National Debate Tournament, which addressed itself to the following topic: "Resolved: That the United States should nationalize the basic nonagricultural industries."  How newly relevant!  My father beat him, 969-964.  Take that, Ivy League.

Redefining History

The new owners of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles want to tear it down and replace it with a pair of 50-story towers containing condos, offices, shops and a smaller luxury hotel.  But not everyone is thrilled:

The Los Angeles Conservancy is determined to stop them. To bolster its campaign, it has enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which today put the 726-room Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel on its annual list of America's 11 most endangered historic places.

"By naming this structure to the list, the National Trust is demonstrating that the preservation of recent past and modern buildings is as important to our cultural record as preserving architecture that's from the Victorian period or Art Deco era," said Christine Madrid French, director of the trust's nascent Modernism + Recent Past Initiative.

This is lunacy.  I don't care one way or another whether Michael Rosenfeld gets to build his new complex, but it makes a mockery of historic preservation to pretend that this building deserves to be protected for the rest of time.  It was built in 1966.  Its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, is prominent, but he's not a native Angeleno and this wasn't a pivotal work in his career.  The building itself is a fine example of 60s-era modernism, but that's just another way of saying that it's also a fairly typical example of 60s-era corporate hotel design.  In its heyday, which lasted for perhaps two decades at most, the Century Plaza attracted plenty of VIP guests, but it never became an iconic structure because of that.  The Los Angeles Conservancy's page about the hotel is here, and they pretty obviously struggled to figure out a way to make it seem even moderately noteworthy.

The Century Plaza Hotel is a recent building of genuine but modest distinction.  But it escapes me how that qualifies it as a national historic place.  Pretending otherwise does a disservice to genuine history.

How the Far Right Handed Dems a 60-Vote Majority

The reason Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter switched parties on Tuesday is rather obvious. Though Specter explained in a statement released today that it's due to the GOP's rightward shift ("I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans," he said), the more likely reason is that Specter's political career would end if he remained a Republican. Unlike Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, who abandoned the GOP and caucused with the Democrats in 2001 in a principled decision, declining to run for reelection, Specter is simply reading the tea leaves. Most available polling indicates that the moderate Specter would be trounced in the 2010 Republican primary by a conservative challenger named Pat Toomey.

Stress Test Update

Stress test results are starting to leak:

Regulators have told Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. that the banks may need to raise more capital based on early results of the government's so-called stress tests of lenders, according to people familiar with the situation.

....Bank of America's capital hole as measured by the regulators is in the billions, said people close to the company....It isn't clear how big a capital deficit Citigroup faces.

Well, I'll bet that Citi's capital requirements are "in the billions" too.  What else would they be in, after all?

In any case, there's no way that either bank can raise private capital, and the Treasury has stated flatly that it won't allow them to fail.  That means either another big capital injection from the feds or else some kind of guarantee to private investors.  The former would almost certainly have to be at market rates (I doubt there's any appetite for more sweetheart deals) and the latter would be such a thin veneer that it's almost certainly impossible to pull off.  Especially in the case of Citi, then, it's hard to see how the government ends up anything other than a majority owner of the bank once this is all over.  Tim Geithner can call this anything he wants, but that's nationalization whether he likes it or not.