2011 - %3, May

Alan Simpson, Social Security Illiterate

| Tue May 10, 2011 11:12 AM EDT

Is it true that life expectancies have gone up dramatically since 1940, when Social Security first went into effect? Sort of. In 1940, lots of children still died young, and this skewed the average way down. Fifty years later those kids mostly didn't die, so the average was higher.

But childhood mortality doesn't affect Social Security one way or the other, so we don't really care about that. What we care about is the people paying into the system — working age adults — and how long they live after they retire. So how much longer do retirees live these days? Answer: For men, life expectancy at age 65 has gone up from 78 to 83. Since the Social Security retirement age has also gone up, from 65 to 67, this means that over the past 60 years the expected payout period has increased by about three years.

Hilariously, though, Social Security scold Alan Simpson simply has no clue about this. Ryan Grim asked him about it recently:

HuffPost suggested to Simpson during a telephone interview that his claim about life expectancy was misleading because his data include people who died in childhood of diseases that are now largely preventable....According to the Social Security Administration's actuaries, women who lived to 65 in 1940 had a life expectancy of 79.7 years and men were expected to live 77.7 years.

"If that is the case — and I don’t think it is — then that means they put in peanuts," said Simpson. Simpson speculated that the data presented to him by HuffPost had been furnished by "the Catfood Commission people" — a reference to progressive critics of the deficit commission who gave the president's panel that label.

Told that the data came directly from the Social Security Administration, Simpson continued to insist it was inaccurate, while misstating the nature of a statistical average: "If you’re telling me that a guy who got to be 65 in 1940 — that all of them lived to be 77 — that is just not correct. Just because a guy gets to be 65, he’s gonna live to be 77? Hell, that’s my genre. That’s not true," said Simpson, who will turn 80 in September.

Simpson is a guy who's taken very seriously on Social Security issues inside the Beltway. He's studied it for years. And yet, as he makes clear later in the interview, he simply had no idea any of this was true. No idea. And he doesn't believe it, even though this stuff is Social Security 101.

This is the kind of thing that explains why so many people think Social Security is some kind of fiscal time bomb. They just flatly don't understand the arithmetic. The plain fact is that Social Security is only modestly underfunded and can be fixed with a basket of quite moderate changes over the next 30 years or so. Anyone who understands the numbers knows this. People like Alan Simpson don't. But guess who gets the most press coverage?

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Health Reform Challenges: Why Judicial Appointments Matter

| Tue May 10, 2011 11:05 AM EDT

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals becomes the first federal appellate court to hear challenges to President Obama's signature health care reform law. The judges assigned to hear the cases were picked at random. Remarkably, the judges hearing the health care arguments Tuesday were all appointed by Democratic presidents—two by Obama himself, and one by Clinton. The makeup of the panel bodes well for the Obama administration, as well as for Neal Katyal, the Indian-American acting Solicitor General who will be defending the health care law in Richmond. But it also illustrates what liberal advocates have been emphasizing to the White House for more than a year: judicial appointments matter.

A few years ago, such a random assignment of democratic appointees would have been unthinkable. For decades, the 4th Circuit has been considered the most conservative in the country. Until very recently, it was dominated by judges nominated by Republican presidents at the urging of uber-conservative senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Though it covers an area with the largest African-American population of any federal circuit, the appellate court didn't even see its first minority judge until 2001. It voted against death-row inmates and sexual harassment and discrimination plaintiffs at a rate higher than any other court in the country, and was famous for attempting to invalidate popular but liberal laws passed by Congress, such as the Violence Against Women Act, which expanded federal prosecution of domestic violence and other crimes against women. The 4th Circuit even made big news a few years back when it ruled that the landmark Supreme Court establishing Miranda rights for criminal suspects was unconstitutional. (The Supreme Court didn't look so fondly on that decision, and it was struck down.)

Four members of the current court were nominated by George W. Bush, one by his father, and there's still one remaining Reagan appointee. The rest are Democrats. But as of 2003, the court was made up of eight Republicans and four Democrats, with President Bush poised to appoint several more judges to the court. Now, however, thanks to four Obama nominees, democrats make up nine of 14 judges on the court.

Despite the lucky draw in the 4th Circuit, critics have long contended that Obama has not made judicial appointments a priority, a move that's bound to affect the staying power of his agenda. To be sure, the Senate has obstructed many of Obama's appointments thanks to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's "just say no" strategy. But Obama has also failed to nominate judges to fill nearly half of the 100 vacancies on the federal bench.

Last February, a group of law professors sent a letter to Obama complaining about the slow pace of nominations, noting that by the same point in his first term, President George W. Bush had appointed nearly twice as many judges as Obama had. By the end of his second term, George W. Bush had appointed 40 percent of the judges in the entire federal judiciary.

Purists argue that the outcome of the health care reform challenges should be the same regardless of the political backgrounds of the judges hearing them, and that their determination should be based solely on the Constitution. But that's naive. Just look at the health care cases the 4th Circuit is hearing Tuesday. There have been two lawsuits challenging the law in Virginia, one by the state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, and the other by Liberty University, both claiming the individual mandate is unconstitutional. The outcomes in those cases couldn't be more different. One district court judge, Norman Moon, was appointed by Bill Clinton. He found the law constitutional. In the other case, Judge Henry Hudson, found that it wasn't. He was appointed by George W. Bush.

Charles Koch's Assault on Academic Freedom

| Tue May 10, 2011 8:57 AM EDT

Billionaire Charles Koch, one half of the hugely influential Koch brothers duo and the CEO of Koch Industries, has splashed tens of millions of dollars to promote his freemarket, libertarian ideology. His charity has funded freemarket think tanks around the country, from the powerful Cato Institute in Washington. DC to state-level outfits pushing privatization and deregulation. Now, Koch is taking heat for a more controversial ploy: leveraging a donation to a major university in order to handpick college professors that agree with his worldview.

Koch's charity, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University to fund new hires in the economics department. But as the St. Petersburg Times reported, this was hardly a no-strings-attached gift. Koch representatives had considerable control over the hiring process:

Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it's not happy with the faculty's choice or if the hires don't meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations.

David W. Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences, defended the deal, initiated by an FSU graduate working for Koch. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Koch rejected nearly 60 percent of the faculty's suggestions but ultimately agreed on two candidates. Although the deal was signed in 2008 with little public controversy, the issue revived last week when two FSU professors—one retired, one active—criticized the contract in the Tallahassee Democrat as an affront to academic freedom.

Rasmussen said hiring the two new assistant professors allows him to offer eight additional courses a year. "I'm sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom,'' he said. "But it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it."

Obama and Immigration Reform: Politics or Policy?

| Tue May 10, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Up until now, President Obama's commitment to immigration reform has largely meant one thing: enforcement. Unwilling to spend his limited political capital on a sweeping immigration overhaul when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, Obama focused on ramping up immigration crackdowns, deportations, and border security—all efforts likely to please his moderate and conservative critics. In a speech at the Texas border on Tuesday, the president is expected to laud his administration's achievements in enforcement and border security and pivot to an economic argument for more comprehensive reform. But given that it would be all but impossible to pass such a bill under the current Congress, Obama's GOP critics will be quick to jump on the president's move as purely political—and it’s unclear whether Latino voters will be convinced either. 

In a call with reporters on Monday evening, senior administration officials gave a preview of Obama's new immigration message, focusing first the White House's accomplishments in enforcing existing immigration laws. "Over the past two years, this administration has dedicated more resources to securing the southwest border than ever before," said one official, boasting of the swelling numbers of border patrol agents, the drop in illegal border crossing attempts, and decreased crime in border communities. "This is the most sustained and serious action securing our border ever in our nation’s history."

Obama is expected to use such accomplishments to justify a shift toward a more comprehensive immigration strategy, which his liberal critics have been demanding since the beginning of his administration. "We're not going to solve this problem just with enforcement at the border alone," said another senior administration official, who said that the president would release a detailed blueprint for an immigration overhaul on Tuesday—one likely to include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and fast-tracking legal immigration.

Obama will frame such an overhaul "as part of a strategy to 'Win the Future'" and bolster the economy, said the administration official, portraying immigrants as "major job creators," innovators, and entrepreneurs. As he's done before, Obama is expected to emphasize the accomplishments of skilled immigrants and the high-profile foreign-born and immigrant business leaders in the tech sector.

A renewed emphasis on the economic argument for immigration would be a welcome shift—not just for the White House, but for the broader immigration debate, where heavy enforcement tactics like Arizona's draconian immigration law have taken center stage. Though the Republican Party has moved dramatically to the right on immigration, business leaders like Rupert Murdoch and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have remained committed to a comprehensive overhaul, given the economic benefits of immigration. Even the Wall Street Journal's notoriously conservative op-ed page has played up the importance of America’s young immigrant labor force to the country's future economic prosperity. A focus on the economic benefits of immigration could encourage more moderate, pro-business voices to come forward to press for a comprehensive solution. 

Even so, Obama may have a tough time convincing his own allies that he's seriously committed to a fully revamped immigration system, as the Republican-controlled House essentially rules out any action. Pro-immigration advocates are calling for Obama to slow the administration’s deportation of illegal immigrants and ease up on other enforcement tactics—a move the president’s unlikely to make, given the White House’s pride in its heavy enforcement strategy. 

And though they recognize that gridlock on Capitol Hill precludes a major bill from passing under the current Congress—with even the popular, smaller-scale DREAM Act failing to pass last year—advocates may still be feeling burned from Obama's decision to put immigration reform on the back burner earlier in his administration. Instead, the timing of Obama’s renewed immigration push may give the impression that the move is largely a political ploy to win over Hispanic voters in 2012. Until Obama eases up enforcement and lays out a specific timeline to tackle immigration reform in his second term—with Democratic majorities in both houses to support his plan—he may have a tough time coming across as a credible immigration reform advocate.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 10, 2011

Tue May 10, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Afghans of all ages observe U.S. Army Pfc. Loren Gaboni and other soldiers from an International Security Assistance Force and Afghan National Police combined joint patrol as they interact with the village leaders. During the patrol, ANP and ISAF troops from the U.S. Army A Battery, 1st Battalion, 84th Field Artillery Regiment, 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team visited Baghoulmast village to assess their needs and to offer their assistance and partnership. Photo via US Army.

Boehner's Bluff

| Tue May 10, 2011 12:15 AM EDT

It's hard to know how to react to the latest calculated blast from John Boehner:

House Speaker John A. Boehner defined the GOP’s terms for raising the legal limit on government borrowing Monday, demanding that President Obama reduce spending by more than $2 trillion in exchange for an increase big enough to cover the nation’s bills through the end of next year....For the first time, he signaled that Republicans would come to the negotiating table with the expectation that the White House and Senate Democrats be prepared to discuss major reductions in federal spending — and enact them immediately. That’s a sharp shift from Republicans who just last week talked of finding “commonality” on less-ambitious measures.

....The extent of Boehner’s demands was unclear.

That last sentence is the tell. Unless Boehner is proposing his $2 trillion in savings to come over 20 years or so, he has to be targeting Social Security and Medicare. There's no way to save that kind of money otherwise. So what's his proposal? Answer: he wants "honest conversations."

I'll bet he does. What he really wants is probably simpler: he wants President Obama to propose something. Boehner may be talking big because otherwise his tea party base will feed him to the dogs, but the last couple of weeks have made it pretty clear that he doesn't have the stomach for putting the Republican name to a concrete proposal to slash Medicare. That hasn't worked out so well for him. Much better to have Obama put his name to it instead.

Whether Obama will be willing to do this is unclear. There's really no reason he should since he holds all the cards and knows that eventually Boehner has to cave, but he's already indicated that he's willing to compromise and Joe Biden is already leading negotiations with congressional Republicans. So maybe he is willing to put his name to something and save Boehner's bacon. If he does, though, I sure hope Boehner gets him a nice Christmas gift this year.

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The Rise and Fall of Sarah Palin

| Mon May 9, 2011 6:10 PM EDT

Howard Kurtz says that Sarah Palin is losing her mojo:

16 months after   [Fox] network chief Roger Ailes closed [a $3 million TV] deal in a meeting with Palin and her husband, Todd, the excitement has cooled. Palin’s regular appearances as a commentator no longer move the ratings needle without a promotional push. Palin was supposed to host prime-time specials dubbed Real American Stories, but Fox insiders tell me the idea was shelved early on. The first one bombed, losing a chunk of its audience as the show progressed.

....Between February and April, according to an analysis for Newsweek by General Sentiment, a company that tracks and measures online content, posts involving Palin fell 38.3 percent, to 235,032, over the past 30 days. Social-media mentions dropped in lockstep, down 32 percent over the same period, to 135,421.

Maybe this is due to her Tucson misstep, or her "blood libel" inanity, or maybe her semi-defense of birthers. But I think Kurtz has missed the real reason: Dana Milbank's one-month boycott of all things Palin in February. I joined in on that, and you know what? After 30 days of cold turkey I was pretty much cured. Ignoring Sarah Palin turned out to be a lot easier than I thought, and by the time March rolled around I didn't much care about her anymore. I think I've only mentioned her once or twice since then.

Fame is a fickle thing, I'm afraid, especially when you have nothing of actual substance to be famous about. In that department, it turned out that Sarah Palin's half-life was even shorter than the Kardashian family's.

An Excellent Year in the Gulf of California

| Mon May 9, 2011 5:16 PM EDT

Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo ©Julia Whitty Rasa Island, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty

I'm finally back from Mexico's remote Isla Rasa, a tiny outpost in the Gulf of California and one of the most important seabird breeding islands in the world. The island covers a bare 138 acres/56 hectares. Yet it's home to half a million birds—many more if it's a good enough year for the birds to produce eggs, incubate them, and hatch their chicks.

Heermann's gulls and a cardón cactus, both endemic to the Gulf of California and the Baja Peninsula. Photo © Julia Whitty.Heermann's gulls and a cardón cactus, both endemic to the Gulf of California and the Baja Peninsula. Photo © Julia Whitty.

Some 95 percent of all Heermann's gulls (Larus heermanni) nest on Isla Rasa. These are small, pretty, polite gulls—compared to their much larger Larid relatives.

Heermann's gull:

  • length 19 inches/48 centimeters

  • wingspan 51 inches/129 centimeters

Great black-backed gull:

  • length 30 inches/76 centimeters

  • wingspan: 65 inches/165 centimeters

Grand Central Station Valley, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia WhittyGrand Central Station Valley, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

In the photo above, you can see the nesting territories of the gulls dotting the island's valleys. Gulls also nest throughout the rocky hillsides and ridgelines.

Heermann's gull. Photo © Julia Whitty.Heermann's gull. Photo © Julia Whitty.

In fact Heermann's gulls nest on every square inch of this sunbaked, windswept island—except where thickets of cholla cactus have taken hold... and where colonies of terns have usurped them.

Elegant tern colony in the midst of Heermann's gulls, Isa Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.Elegant tern colony in the midst of Heermann's gulls, Isa Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

In the photo above you can see how elegant terns (Thalasseus elegans) have successfully muscled into the territories of gulls in one of the island's eleven valleys.

Elegant terns, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.Elegant terns, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

The terns nest closer together than the gulls. This, and the fact that they move into gull territories en masse and often under cover of night, means they generally get what ground they want—even though they're smaller birds.

Heermann's gull:

  • length 19 inches/48 centimeters

  • wingspan 51 inches/129 centimeters

Elegant tern:

  • length 17 inches/43 centimeters

  • wingspan 34 inches/86 centimeters

Heermann's gulls and elegant terns, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo ©Julia Whitty.Heermann's gulls and elegant terns, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

Here's what the two species look like nesting side-by-side.

You can probably already tell from the numbers of birds in the photos that's it's been a very good year so far on the island.

Heermann's gull chick and eggs. Photo ©Julia Whitty.Heermann's gull chick and eggs. Photo © Julia Whitty.

By the time I left, chicks were hatching everywhere and the whole island was transformed from the calm (in comparison) business of incubating to the furious business of feeding tiny insatiable stomachs.

In a forthcoming Mother Jones article I'll be writing more about why this year may be the best for the Gulf's seabirds since the mid-19th century.

Quote of the Day: Dumb Quiz Show Answers

| Mon May 9, 2011 3:19 PM EDT

From the Guardian, on two "Million Pound Drop" contestants who incorrectly guessed that Roger Bannister was "the first man ever to put the toilet seat down":

This may have cost them their shot at wealth, but Andrew and Vanessa shouldn't get downhearted. They've entered the immortal ranks of the all-time most stupid quiz show answers ever.

More entertaining quiz show idiocy at the link.

DCCC Urges Supporters to Protest GOP Town Halls

| Mon May 9, 2011 2:30 PM EDT

In their crusade to hit the GOP on Medicare, the Democratic Party is urging supporters to attend Republican town halls, bring protest signs, and report back to the party about what they see. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched a campaign called "Don't End Medicare" that directs supporters to local meet-ups with Republican Congressman, suggesting that they bring signs that read "Vote Republican—End Medicare" and prepare themselves with Democratic talking points about the GOP’s "reckless privatization scheme."

Notably, the DCCC also urges supporters to "bring your camera and report back to us on what you see"—effectively asking them to turn themselves into citizen journalists who can catch potentially inflammatory or otherwise damning remarks by Republicans at their Medicare town halls. 

The DCCC's efforts build on a push by their liberal allies in recent weeks to hit the House GOP for passing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's drastic plan to overhaul Medicare. Republicans, perhaps responding to some of the blowback, have backed away from that proposal, but Democrats are unlikely to let the issue go anytime before the 2012 elections. 

Joining the Democrats are not only traditional party stalwarts like labor unions, but also groups like the AARP which have launched ads that criticize—if obliquely—Washington Republicans for wanting to "make harmful cuts to Medicare" as well as Social Security. But like the labor unions who rallied supporters to attend recent town halls, national Democrats will likely face questions about how much grassroots support their Medicare crusade is really attracting, as the pushback seems to be coming from national groups rather than local organizers.