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?

Boehner's Bluff

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.

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.

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.

Why have Republicans changed their minds recently on issues like cap-and-trade and the individual mandate? My take is that they never really supported these things in the first place, and endorsed them only as a temporary tactic to fight off more liberal proposals from Democrats. But once those liberal proposals were off the table (or could be plausibly defeated in a straight-up vote), they didn't need to pretend to support alternatives anymore and simply reverted to opposing any change at all.

A couple of days ago Ezra Klein improved his counterargument that the real reason is simply partisan opposition to all things Obama. If Republican attitudes had changed gradually, that would be one thing. But if they changed almost overnight between 2007 and 2009? Then it sounds like Obama is the real source of these flip-flops.

I was thinking about this last night, and the topic of campaign finance disclosure popped into my mind. Republicans used to be all for it. Then the Supreme Court handed down its pro-business Citizens United ruling, allowing businesses to spend freely in elections but also making it clear that Congress could require disclosure of campaign contributions if it wanted to. Suddenly Republicans were dead set against disclosure. Norman Ornstein picks up the story:

In March of 2000, a Wall Street Journal editorial said, “Our view is that the Constitution allows consenting adults to give as much as they want to whomever they want, subject to disclosure on the Internet.” That same year, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell asked, “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”....Last month, Mitch McConnell now says he views disclosure as “a cynical effort to muzzle critics of this administration and its allies in Congress.” He savaged the White House for considering an executive order to require corporations getting federal contracts to disclose its corporate spending on campaigns....What’s more, last fall, McConnell pulled out all the stops to prevent passage of the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required all corporations and unions to disclose their campaign spending. McConnell managed to pressure every Republican from supporting cloture, leaving the legislation, which had passed the House, stuck at 59 votes in the Senate.

....What to make of the turn away from support for disclosure? I can draw only one conclusion: The earlier support for disclosure was a façade. McConnell, McGahn, and the Journal, among others,don’t actually want transparency or any regulation. At base, they are for a wholly unregulated, Gilded Age-style campaign system where big and secret money rules.

This is actually evidence for both flip-flop theories, I think. Ornstein is almost certainly correct that Republicans want no regulation of campaign finance at all, and at any given time are simply adopting the most extreme position they think they can get away with. On the other hand, there's not much question either that the rock-solid Republican opposition to the DISCLOSE Act was largely motivated by pure partisan hostility. In the end, I guess maybe we don't really have to choose between these two explanations of Republican behavior at all. Why can't they both be true?

Who's to blame for our fiscal problems of the past decade? Paul Krugman says elites deserve a lot more of the blame than the general public, but Dan Drezner disagrees: the public, he says, was in favor of tax cuts and in favor of the Iraq war, so they deserve a big chunk of the blame too.

Actually, though, I think Dan's evidence demonstrates exactly the opposite of what he thinks. He's right that polling evidence suggests the public was in favor of both these policies. But the public had been in favor of these things for well over a decade. About 60+% of the public had believed its taxes were too high going back to the beginning of polling on this question in 1957. And support for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein had been in the 50-60% range ever since the Gulf War.

But guess what? Despite this broad support, nobody was crying out for either huge tax cuts or invading Iraq until George Bush and the rest of the GOP started talking them up. Without that, the public would have continued to vaguely think that taxes were too high and Saddam Hussein was a bad guy before switching the TV to Monday Night Football and forgetting about it.

It's true that public support was probably necessary in order to pass the Bush tax cuts and invade Iraq. But the polling evidence is pretty clear that it was far from sufficient. Nothing about public opinion changed in 2001. The only thing that changed was the occupant of the Oval Office. The public isn't blameless in all this, but the polling evidence makes it pretty clear that it was a minor player.

David Corn has a piece today about a Pakistani businessman who owns several pharmacies in New York City and has been fingered by a Guantanamo detainee as a "possible al-Qaida anthrax operative." So is he? Nobody knows. Maybe the Gitmo detainee was just making stuff up. Maybe it's already been exhaustively investigated and the guy has been cleared. Or maybe he really did have al-Qaeda ties at one time. The Pakistani guy can't be reached, and there's no evidence one way or the other about this aside from the detainee report, so it's impossible to say.

Normally, I'd say that even running a story this thin would be criminally irresponsible. But here's the thing: the guy's name and the accusations against him were part of the WikiLeaks release of Guantanamo documents a few weeks ago, so it's all publicly available now. Here's David:

Mother Jones contacted the FBI in Washington and New York and asked for information regarding this suspect. After all, wouldn't the bureau have thoroughly run down such a lead? Each office said that the FBI would not comment on information in a leaked document.

....With the document now in the open—and on the Internet—the public has a right to know whether this potentially dangerous matter has been resolved. (And, if turns out the intel is faulty, the Pakistani businessman deserves to have his name cleared.) The FBI has the usual bureaucratic reasons for not commenting; it does not want to legitimize leaks. But alarming information of this sort does warrant a response. The critical issue is not the leak, but the nightmarish possibility of an anthrax operative on the loose.

So how about it? Is this now a legitimate story, even though the charges are eight years old and have almost certainly been thoroughly investigated by now? Under the circumstances, should the FBI be willing to comment? Should we have run this story in the first place? What would be your call if you were running things here at MoJo?

States have always competed with each other to attract corporate business, just as cities and counties compete to attract retail business. Usually they do this by offering tax breaks, which produces a downward spiral in overall tax revenue but doesn't otherwise cause any damage to the overall economy. But now states are competing with each other to attract dodgy insurance subsidiaries:

Companies looking to do business in secret once had to travel to places like the Cayman Islands or Bermuda. Today, all it takes is a trip to Vermont.

....Aetna recently used a subsidiary in Vermont to refinance a block of health insurance policies, reaping $150 million in savings, according to its chief financial officer, Joseph M. Zubretsky. The main reason is that the insurer did not need to maintain conventional reserves at the same level as would have been required by insurance regulators in Aetna’s home state of Connecticut.

....For the states, attracting these insurance deals promotes business travel and creates jobs for lawyers, actuaries and other white-collar workers, who pay taxes. States have also found that they can impose modest taxes on the premiums collected by captives. For insurers, these subsidiaries offer ways to unlock some of the money tied up in reserves, making millions available for dividends, acquisitions, bonuses and other projects. Three weeks after Aetna’s deal closed, the company announced it was increasing its dividend fifteenfold.

This is all possible because, for historical reasons, the insurance industry is regulated at the state level, not the federal level. And it's yet another example of how the bright boys in the finance industry can always figure out new and innovative ways of increasing leverage anyplace that regulations can be gamed in some way: Reducing reserves is, basically, a way of increasing leverage, and it's a great way of making more money. Until it isn't, that is. Unfortunately, "when it isn't" is a timeframe that's hard to predict. The only thing you can really say about it is that it's pretty much inevitable, and when it finally happens a whole lot of people are going to feel a whole lot of pain.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the trajectory of housing prices following the expiration of the first-time homebuyer credit last year:

Home values posted the largest decline in the first quarter since late 2008, prompting many economists to push back their estimates of when the housing market will hit a bottom.

....While most economists expected sales to decline after tax credits expired, the drag on the market has been greater than many anticipated. "We expected December and January to be bad" as the market reeled from the after-effects of the tax credit, said Stan Humphries, Zillow's chief economist. But monthly declines for February and March were "really staggering," he said. They indicate "a reflection of the true underlying demand, which is now apparent because most of the tax credit is out of the system, and it's being completely overwhelmed by supply."

....Prices are decelerating in large part because the many foreclosed properties that often sell at a discount force other sellers to lower their prices. Mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have sold more than 94,000 foreclosed homes during the first quarter, a new high that represented a 23% increase from the previous quarter. More could be on the way: They held another 218,000 properties at the end of March, a 33% increase from a year ago.

Most analysts now expect that the housing market won't bottom out until sometime next year. Until that happens, it's unlikely that that the sluggish economic recovery we're seeing right now will improve much.

Cui Bono?

On Saturday, in a post about opposition to European bailouts from the German public, I asked, "Why should thrifty Germans bail out spendthrift euro countries on the periphery?" As it happens, this was bad phrasing: I didn't mean to endorse this view, merely to point out that it was easy to understand why Germans might feel this way. But Matt Yglesias makes a good point in response to my apparent meaning:

I think this conceptual scheme of saver = responsible, borrower = irresponsible needs to be challenged. It’s true that German households were thrifty net savers. But a German household that saves isn’t engaged in a self-sacrificing pursuit, it’s getting paid interest. And the institutions paying the interest are doing it because they’re expecting to make a profit by offering loans. And when they offer the loans, they’re charging interest.

The entire claim of people in this line of work is that they’re good at making decisions about who to lend money to and what interest rate to charge them in light of default risk. When I got my mortgage it involved a phone call with a guy from Bank of America. The premise of the conversation was that of the two people on the call, one of us was a highly trained professional with expertise in mortgage lending and the other one was me. And it’s just the same with Irish borrowers and German banks. In that transaction it’s the Germans who are supposed to be the experts. When the whole thing goes sideways it’s the Germans who failed to be responsible stewards of the Eurozone’s capital.

There's a sense in which this right: lenders can be as reckless as borrowers, and frequently they're more reckless. But there's also a sense in which this confuses the German public with German banks. German banks were unquestionably reckless, but the German public is just....the German public. They acted perfectly prudently given the level of knowledge you'd expect a normal person to have. All they did was put money in the bank, assuming that the banks would then treat their deposits wisely.

Paul Krugman addresses this distinction directly in his column tonight:

What I’ve been hearing with growing frequency from members of the policy elite — self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing — is the claim that it’s mostly the public’s fault. The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness.

So this seems like a good time to point out that this blame-the-public view isn’t just self-serving, it’s dead wrong.

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

There's no question that ordinary borrowers sometimes act irresponsibly. They run up their credit cards too much, they buy more house than they can afford, and they don't always save for rainy days. But Krugman is right: if you look at the fiscal and financial disasters of the past decade, they're emphatically the fault of political and financial elites far more than they're the fault of ordinary citizens. And yet, in the aftermath, it's been ordinary citizens who have borne the lion's share of the pain. For the most part, Wall Street and the wealthy have been asked to pay very little to make up for their mistakes.

Which gets us back to those German savers. It's entirely understandable, I think, that the German public doesn't feel like bailing out Ireland and Portugal and Greece. After all, they did nothing wrong. It was German banks and their creditors who acted irresponsibly, and yet they're being treated with kid gloves at every turn. Instead of nationalizing banks and forcing creditors to take haircuts, European elites are basically asking German taxpayers to bail out the German banks that took their deposits and made irresponsible loans with them. Is it any wonder that the German public is non-thrilled about this?

Krugman's whole column is worth a read. The public in both Europe and America has taken a considerable licking over the past few years. But the elites — well, in a lot of cases they've actually emerged from a disaster of their own making in better shape than before. This is, perhaps more than anything else, the most dispiriting result of the Great Collapse.