Kevin Drum - February 2013

Practically Everyone Retires Early These Days

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 3:15 PM EST

As long as we're on a retirement kick around here, Social Security's latest statistical supplement is out and you just know you can't resist diving in to its 528 pages of mind-numbing tables. Just kidding. I'll bet you can resist. (But if you really can't resist, the whole thing is here.)

Anyway, here's an interesting chart (from Table 5.B8) showing the rise in early retirement. Bottom line: Almost no one waits until age 66 (the current full retirement age) these days. A full 71 percent of men and 76 percent of women now get reduced Social Security benefits because they retired early. In 1965, only 21 percent of men and 49 percent of women retired early.

Among men, the average monthly benefit for those who retired early is $1,283. The average monthly benefit for those who waited is $1,625. Among women, the averages are $1,019 and $1,283.

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We Humans Are Terrible Earwitnesses

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 1:49 PM EST

Over the weekend I wrote a short post about how terrible most people are as eyewitnesses. Today I got this email from JB, a regular reader:

Human beings are terrible "earwitnesses," too. I’ve been a lawyer specializing in air crash litigation — from the defense side — for 33 years, and witnesses often claim to have heard what are, essentially, impossible sounds. My favorite involves turbine-powered helicopters (I was a military helicopter pilot before entering law school), which earwitnesses invariably report as suffering engine "missing" (irregular piston firing) just before a crash, when turbine engines — you guessed it — don’t have pistons. Occasionally, you get a good report from a sophisticated witness like a pilot or mechanic, but most of the time the best you can hope for is some indication of either sound or silence at a given point before impact, about which you have to fill in the source from a menu of the possible.

This is no surprise, of course. Eyes, ears, whatever. We humans are just unreliable witnesses, especially when we're under stress. Unfortunately, most of the time it really matters, we're under stress.

Obama Wants to Spend More on Infrastructure. Will Republicans Go Along?

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 1:44 PM EST

Apparently President Obama plans to use part of tomorrow's State of the Union address to talk about new investments in infrastructure: roads, bridges, electrical grid upgrades, etc. Neil Irwin correctly points out that this would make a ton of sense, since lots of construction workers are unemployed and interest rates are essentially negative, but also correctly points out that Republicans don't care about any of that. Spending is bad, and that's that. And yet, Irwin is optimistic!

"Anything that is akin to the stimulus bill is not going to be acceptable to the American people," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in September 2011, after Obama proposed a series of job-creation measures centered around new infrastructure.

But a few things have changed since then. First, Republicans have seen electoral damage by their image as an obstruction-at-all-cost party, losing the White House and seats in both houses of Congress in the 2012 elections....Second, the president has been re-elected, so there is no longer the odd dynamic where bipartisan dealmaking could make Obama look more statesmanlike and help his re-election chances.

Much of the Republican opposition to infrastructure spending has been rooted in a conviction that all government spending is a boondoggle, taxing hard-working Americans to give benefits to a favored few, and exceeding any reasonable cost estimate in the process. That's always a risk with new spending on infrastructure: that instead of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system, you end up with the Bridge to Nowhere and the Big Dig.

In that sense, this is a great test of whether divided democracy can work, and whether Republicans can come to the table to govern. One can easily imagine a deal: Democrats get their new infrastructure spending, and Republicans insist on a structure that requires private sector lenders to be co-investors in any projects, deploying money based on its potential return rather than where the political winds are tilting.

In other words, the two sides could negotiate in good faith and, in the process, get a better outcome for the U.S. economy than either party could operating on its own. Now that would be something to see.

This is odd. I'm trying to figure out if there's any reason, no matter how slight, to think that Republicans have any interest at all in a deal like this. Obviously I'm blinkered by my own partisan biases, but I sure can't think of any. Am I missing anything here?

Raw Data: 401(k) Account Balances for Workers Near Retirement

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 12:55 PM EST

Last week I put up a post showing average 401(k) retirement account balances. However, that data was for all 401(k) accounts, including young workers, and that's obviously of limited usefulness. What we'd really like to know is the average account balance for people nearing retirement.

The chart on the right, based on data from EBRI, provides a rough idea. Very rough. First of all, it's a mean, not a median, so it's skewed upward by the small number of participants with very large balances. The median number is likely half the mean. Second, it includes only people who have contributed consistently to their 401(k) accounts since 1999. This also skews the number upward since it excludes people with spotty work records, who are most likely to have small balances.

So take it with a grain of salt. But it's a data point, and I wanted to pass it along. One thing it shows clearly is the significant drop from 2007 to 2008, when workers near retirement saw their account balances fall by 25 percent in a single year. At the same time, it also shows that within a year, account balances had rebounded to within a few thousand dollars of their 2006 values, and had increased by nearly half since the start of the decade. The lesson here is that, on average, 401(k) balances have done reasonably well for people who contributed consistently, but also that they're pretty volatile and shift a considerable amount of risk onto workers. Back in the days of defined-benefit pensions, that risk would have been borne by corporations or investment funds.

Here's Hoping for a Better Pope

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 11:59 AM EST

Pope-watching isn't my thing, but today's announcement that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning is quite the big news. He cited age and poor health, but come on. The guy just started a Twitter account a few months ago. He's still young at heart.

In past times, I would have been at least a little excited by the prospect of finally getting a new, less terrible pope. But John Paul II seems to have made that a pretty remote possibility, so I suppose we'll just end up with more of the same. Still, I guess you never know. As reactionary as he was, Benedict did make a tiny improvement in the church's most egregious moral failing of the past few decades—even if he did have to semi-retract it later. Maybe the next pope will finally find it in his heart to take a further step toward true compassion and grace.

We Humans Are Terrible Eyewitnesses

| Sat Feb. 9, 2013 10:08 PM EST

Today's lesson is about misguided headline writing. A friend just sent me a news article with the following headline:

Drunk eyewitnesses are more reliable than expected

Here's the story: Some researchers in Sweden rounded up three groups of people. One group was left sober, one got a little tipsy, and the third got a little tipsier still. Then they all watched a video of a kidnapping, and a week later they were asked to ID the kidnapper. The tipsiest group did the best.

So what's wrong with the headline? It's backward. Here's how it should read:

Study says sober eyewitnesses no more reliable than drunkards

The real story here is that eyewitnesses pretty much suck all the time. Ply them with a few drinks and....they're still terrible. It's possible that they're slightly less terrible, though the Swedish study is actually inconclusive on that point thanks to its small sample size. But the main takeaway, as mountains of research have already demonstrated, is that we humans are just no good as eyewitnesses. A little bit of alcohol hardly makes a difference.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 8 February 2013

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 4:18 PM EST

Today Domino is performing her Queen Bee act while stretched out on a "Flying Geese" quilt. This is actually from the second set of pictures I took. After looking through the first set, I realized that a close-up didn't allow you to see why this quilt is called Flying Geese, so a few minutes ago I laid it out flat and plonked Domino down in a corner, fully expecting her to walk off in a huff immediately, leaving me with no good pictures. (She doesn't really like being told where to take a nap.) But she stuck around for a grand total of three photos, and as a result you get to see the V-pattern formed by the various triangles. I'm reliably informed that it took hours to choose all the fabric patterns for this quilt. It's machine pieced and hand quilted.

In other feline news, half a century after introducing the Scottie dog token to the game of Monopoly, we finally have a bit of justice. Hasbro conducted an internet poll to replace one of its tokens, and the winner, unsurprisingly, was a cat. Personally, I figure the fix was in all along. Hasbro wanted a cat, and figured the best way of getting one was to ask the internet. The only surprise is that, somehow, the iron managed to lose out to the wheelbarrow as the token to get the axe. Seriously? The wheelbarrow survived? Nobody ever chooses that token, do they?

Whose Idea Was the Sequester?

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 3:47 PM EST

This is hardly the most pressing issue in the world, but it's been niggling at me all morning. Here is Charles Krauthammer today:

For the first time since Election Day, President Obama is on the defensive. That’s because on March 1, automatic spending cuts (“sequestration”) go into effect — $1.2 trillion over 10 years, half from domestic (discretionary) programs, half from defense. The idea had been proposed and promoted by the White House during the July 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations. The political calculation was that such draconian defense cuts would drive the GOP to offer concessions.

For some reason, this has become an article of faith on the right: the sequester was Obama's idea, and now he has to live with it. I'm not sure why this is so important to them, but it is.

As it happens, that's not how I remember things, but I figured maybe my memory was faulty. It wouldn't be the first time. So I googled up some news stories from late July 2011 to see just whose idea this was. Here's one from the 25th: "The back and forth began when House Republicans rolled out a two-stage deficit reduction plan that would...tie a second increase early next year to the ability of a new bipartisan Congressional committee to produce more deficit reduction measures." Here's another from the 29th: "Republicans have endorsed a Democratic idea of setting up a special committee to find additional savings." And this from the 30th:

Mr. McConnell called Mr. Biden early Saturday afternoon....The deal they were discussing, this person said, resembled the bill that Mr. Boehner won approval for in the House on Friday....set up a new bipartisan committee....A failure of the new committee to win enactment of its proposal could then set off automatic spending cuts across the board, including to entitlement programs.

So that's one story suggesting it was a Republican plan, a second suggesting it was a Republican plan based on a Democratic idea, and a third suggesting it was the result of talks between McConnell and Biden. So I guess I'm still murky on this. Was it initially a Democratic idea? Something that sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus? Or just one of those eternal ideas that crop up over and over in Washington DC and just happened to emerge yet again from the sludge of last-minute talks in late July?

Anyone happen to know if there's a definitive answer to this?

The Iron Triangle Meets the Sequester

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 1:48 PM EST

Over at NRO, Robert Costa and Katrina Trinko catch up with Tom DeLay, who makes a point so obvious about the sequester that I'm surprised I hear this so seldom:

Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, who was meeting with a few of his former colleagues on Wednesday at the Capitol, says Boehner's playbook is "sharp," since defense spending "can always be replaced during the appropriations process, after the cuts are put into place."

"You can always put money back in for defense," DeLay says. "I think Boehner is going to stick with the sequester since the cuts are already happening, and if he needs to do something later, he can. I don't think the president realizes how Boehner has the upper hand."

Dave Weigel quotes a Republican "spending hawk" who's furious about this. "I cannot tell you what a disaster I think it is for Republicans to take a year of cuts and play the same game we've been playing," he says. "It erodes every ounce of credibility on our side."

Meh. I guess this is possible. But I doubt it. There might be a few genuine deficit hawks in the conservative movement, but they're few and far between. It's hardly a secret that of the three options for reducing the deficit—cutting domestic spending, cutting defense spending, and raising taxes—conservatives only favor the first. They're welfare hawks, not deficit hawks. I doubt that the Republican leadership will lose any points among the base for increasing the defense budget.

The question, then, is whether Democrats can stand up to the pressure to reverse the Pentagon cuts. I don't think they're as vulnerable as they once were to appeasement demagoguery, but they're still vulnerable. I don't know for sure how this will play out, but DeLay definitely has a point.

Quote of the Day: Come Visit Sunny Germany!

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 1:08 PM EST

From Fox Business reporter Shibani Joshi, explaining why Germany, whose capital is at about the same latitude as Edmonton, has adopted solar power more successfully than the United States:

They're a smaller country, and they've got lots of sun. Right? They've got a lot more sun than we do.

Let's examine this step by step. No, wait. Let's not. Let's just allow this to sit here in all its glory, while you let it sink in. Then, if you still want to examine it step by step, check out Steve Benen, who has far more stamina than I do.