“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, November 04, 2011

Another lizard-like Smeeding: making poverty disappear in our plutocratic era

When you are dealing with a fire, the experts involved are firefighters. When you are dealing with scuba diving, the experts are scuba divers.

But a funny thing happened to expertise on the way to D.C. The experts on poverty are – upper class. Thus, it is no big shock that under the plutocracy beloved by Obamacrats and Republicans, we are getting a new survey of poverty that, well, tweaks it. And, abracadabra, makes it disappear! Via the New York Times report on poverty spindled and mutilated through the hands of experts, we get things like this:

“One explanation can be found in programs the official count ignores: food stamps and tax credits. Combined the two programs delivered $221 billion across the country last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than doubling since 2006.
In Charlotte, Angelique Melton was among the beneficiaries. A divorced mother of two, Ms. Melton, 42, had worked her way up to a $39,000 a year position at a construction management firm. But as building halted in 2009, Ms. Melton lost her job.
Struggling to pay the rent and keep the family adequately fed, she took the only job she could find: a part-time position at Wal-Mart that paid less than half her former salary. With an annual income of about $7,500 — well below the poverty line of $17,400 for a family of three — Ms. Melton was officially poor.
Unofficially she was not.
After trying to stretch her shrunken income, Ms. Melton signed up for $3,600 a year in food stamps and received $1,800 in nutritional supplements from the Women, Infants and Children program. And her small salary qualified her for large tax credits, which arrive in the form of an annual check — in her case for about $4,000.
Along with housing aid, those subsidies gave her an annual income of nearly $18,800 — no one’s idea of rich, but by the new count not poor.”
Ah, the new count! The new count in inflation in the 90s – by the magic of hedonics! – broke the back of inflation by counting it otherwise. The new count of the unemployed – by ignoring the long term unemployed and not counting pesky populations like the millions in prison and such – gives us a great employment rate we can wave at the social democratic countries and say, ha! And now the ‘new count” in poverty means that three people living on $18,000 per year are not poor!
The heartening stories, here, should stop the socialist stampede dead in its tracks. On the one hand, we ask people –productive, caring people – like Goldman Sachs CEOs and hedgefund traders to pay millions – millions of dollars! In taxes on their billions of dollars. They can barely come up with the incentive to work, many of them. And on the other hand, we have the so called poor rolling in the dough. Look at another of the newly minted middle class in the NYT article:
“Such is the case for John William Springs, 69, a retired city worker in Charlotte who gets nearly $12,000 a year in Social Security and disability checks. That leaves him about $1,300 above the poverty threshold for a single adult his age — officially not poor. Then again, Mr. Springs had a heart attack last summer and struggles with lung disease. Factor in the $2,500 a year that he estimates he spends on medicine, and Mr. Springs crosses the statistical line into poverty.
An upbeat survivor of a lifetime of need, Mr. Springs fills his prescriptions in partial amounts and argues the poverty counters got him right the first time.
“I ain’t poor,” he said. “I eat. I got a roof over my head.”
Now, let’s turn to the experts! I won't waste time over the Heritage empty suit who is quoted in order to even out NYT's quota of "rightwing pointyheads" and please the publisher. Lets' turn to the supposedly non-partisan experts. Let's turn to the man bearing the brilliantly Dickensian name of Timothy Smeeding - his parents missed a real opportunity by not naming him Uriah Heep Smeeding - who is an economist in Wisconsin . This Smeeding did a ‘study’ of poverty that is cited with an appropriate hush in the NYT article:
“Virtually every effort to take a fuller view — counting more income and more expenses — shows poverty rising more slowly in the recession than the official data suggests. That is true of localized studies in New York City and Wisconsin and at least four different national data sets that the Census Bureau publishes. While the official national measure shows a rise of 9.8 million people, the fuller census measures show a range from 4.5 million to 4.8 million.
“That’s a big difference,” said Timothy Smeeding, an economist at the University of Wisconsin who oversaw the study in that state. “It’s about time we started counting the programs we use to fight poverty.”

So who is this Smeeding? More importantly, on the basis that the deep diving scuba diver is our expert, how far has Smeeding dived into poverty?

Well, Timothy Smeeding is not doing badly. He collects two salaries at the University of Wisconsin, according to the salary database, one for being a prof, one for being the head of an institute studying poverty. And he thus receives a grand total of $244,444 dollars a year from Wisconsin. But lets also include his other compensations, shall we? Since apparently in the whole new world of counting compensation, if you get a deduction on your mortgage, that becomes part of your real compensation, and if you get a tax credit, that, too, goes into your income. How fun! If you get medical insurance from the Wisconsin employee system, that, too, becomes part of your compensation. If we are upping the ante on who is poor in America, it is funny that we aren’t pushing the 244,444 dollar type into another tax bracket – say, the marginal rate above 250,000 dollars. I’m sure Timothy Smeeding, then, would concede he was rich. Too bad he hasn’t been asked how a rich man like him has become an expert on poverty.
Hegel compared Kant’s critique of philosophy to trying to learn to swim on dry ground. Smeeding seems to have succeeded amply in this field, since he seemingly knows just how a woman with two children is going to survive with 18,000 dollars per year – in her total compensation package, including inkind support – without being poor. I have to congratulate him on a job well done.
In other words, we have, here, another lizard-like predator, another intellectual gangsta, who is going to make Mr. Springs' life, and Ms. Melton’s, that much harder.
One hopes that Smeeding will someday have an opportunity to fully experience Mr. Spring's life. To become an expert in deed as well as an expert on a plus +250,000 on poverty. One really really does.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Uncle Sam's 600 billion dollar gift to the wealthy

Liberals (and here I will be generous and even include the center right krewe at the New Republic) have a weakness for the idea that income distributes wealth downwards. In this takedown of the conservative claim that income inequality hasn’t increased in the past thirty years, Matt O’brien writes:

“Pethokoukis [the AEI economist} thinks that a more thorough accounting for taxes and benefits like healthcare or pensions yield a different picture of inequality. And that is somewhat true. After-tax inequality is certainly smaller than pre-tax inequality. But it is not as true as it used to be. The CBO recently confirmed that federal taxes and transfers are less redistributive now than they were in 1979. The same is true for benefits.”

Into this picture, ladies and gentlemen, let me present two very simple concepts. One is the monopoly premium granted to corporations by that wonderful invention called intellectual property rights. The other is that equally wonderful invention called government guarantees for the financial and big business sector. It has slipped our minds, perhaps, that the Fed spread out loans totaling 16 trillion dollars at one percent and below to our high flying investors, lending a helping hand to hundreds of hedge funds, banks, and businesses. Now, to get that kind of loan normally, the charge, in the 2008-2010 period, would have been probably 4 points higher on those loans, and in many cases the price would have soared to the interest charged on Greek bonds. So, let’s see, handy calculator please: if we are talking four percentage points, 16 trillion, that’s, scribble scribble, about 600 billion dollars. Wow, nice, eh? I’d jack that up a bit, considering the collateral that was offered. So 600 billion to 800 billion was pocketed by the wealthiest in 2 years – hey, really sweet!

I suspect that there is not a fortune among the upper 1 percent that has not gained an extra million or ten from the government’s wonderful largesse in these troubled times.

So please, spare me the tales of the downward distribution of money by Uncle Sam. That is the myth.

Michael Lewis's sci fi fantasy

I’m a big fan of Michael Lewis. Coming home on the train from Amboise, I finally got to his article on Californin in Vanity Fair. And that's when I had my fan crash moment. Say it ain't so, Michael!

Business Insider dubbed the article a ‘love letter’ to Arnold Schwarzenegger – and unfortunately, this is true. Lewis’s Schwarzenegger bears an odd relation to the real Schwarzenegger, who, spectators of the first decade of the Bush era will recall, was the man who rode to power against Gray Davis by promising tax cuts for business and a tres Bushian solution to California’s debt problem, which I’ve commented on before:

“And now, of course, the bills for the fun filled political vacation come due. When Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, the first thing he did was Charge IT! – to a round of cheers from those scrimpin and savin’ burgermen, working all day, thinking of Jesus Christ all night. After all, why pay for the structures you need every day when – as Mr. Magician said in that beautiful Christmas Classic, It’s a Wonderful Reagan-y Kinda Life, – the magic of the marketplace makes lower taxes bring in more revenue! We owe it to ourselves! We can’t surrender to terrorists! We can’t return to the days of tax and spend! Class warfare! As the man says:

Quelli che son dentro la merda fin qui, oh yeah
Quelli che con una bella dormita passa tutto anche il cancro, oh yeah
Quelli che, quelli che non possono crederci anche adesso che la terra e’ rotonda, oh yeah, oh yeah
Quelli che hanno paura del aeroplano, oh yeah
Quelli che non hanno mai avuto un incidente mortale, oh yeah
Quelli che non ci sentiamo
Quelli che a un certo punto della vita ci vorrebbe una arma segreta, ostia, oh yeah”

Or, in plain English, Gray Davis was dumped by voters who couldn’t stand that oatmeal-soul suit, and in his place Schwarzenegger played the part of a muscle toned Father Christmas, as outlined in a NYT article from 2005:

“The governor's budget relies on continued borrowing, using some of the proceeds of a $15 billion bond issue that Mr. Schwarzenegger won voter approval for last year. Although the bond proceeds helped to get the state through a severe fiscal crisis, the borrowing will have long-term consequences, said Fred Silva, a budget expert at the Public Policy Institute of California and a former fiscal aide in the state Legislature.
"The amount of borrowed money is going to be a budget overhang for many years," Mr. Silva said.
In years past, he said, state policy makers tried to keep the cost of debt service below 4 percent of state revenues. "Now it's going to be twice that," Mr. Silva said. "That's real money."

Hmm, a 15 billion dollar bond issue? And to think... the topic never came up in Michael Lewis’ article about our Good Gubernorator fighting the special interests to bring financial sanity to California. the topic of taxes, the taxes to, well, pay for things like increases in the cost of running the state, the taxes that Schwarzenegger ran against – these, too, never came up. The fact that Schwarzenegger was running against the Governor who wanted to actually pay for the goodies with taxes never came up.

Instead, Lewis’s idea is that the people, the grubby vulgarians whose income, over the 2000-2010 period, went down, somehow became addicted to all the good things of life and became… well, irresponsible.Not the good serfs of yore! Because the brain has a reptilian core, apparently, and can’t handle opulence. He's actually serious:

"The road out of Vallejo passes directly through the office of Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America’s society is a by-product of America’s success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. “Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited,” he says cheerfully. “We’ve got the core of the average lizard.” Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. “The only problem,” he says, “is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food.”

Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. “When faced with abundance, the brain’s ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress,” says Whybrow. “In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake.”

The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want. The effect on the brain of lots of instant gratification is something like the effect on the right hand of cutting off the left: the more the lizard core is used the more dominant it becomes. “What we’re doing is minimizing the use of the part of the brain that lizards don’t have,” says Whybrow. “We’ve created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded.”

So it goes. It used to be, in the roaring 2000s, that it is your money - and now it turns out that it is your debt, you little rat fuck with the reptilian brain? Oh, and that debt is so tasty!

The idea that the American people went on a terrible shopping spree that ruined the economy has now been so inscribed in the reptilian core of the elite brain that it has erased, well, 2001-2008. Remember remember - but it is so hard to remember! Still, as I dimly recall, we took care of the 2001 recession because householders could be just like big companies and unlock the liquidity in their houses through a variety of new and puppy friendly loans! Of course, remembering the giant sucking sound of a tax cut happy elite going for seconds by getting that little extra helping of interest and then happily slicing, dicing and giving themselves bonuses for securitized debt – why that requires such a big memory capacity that the poor reptilian core of the brain starts to pant and gives up. Instead, it wants to see the giant ex-Governor of California in his latest action epic, Mr. Fiscal Responsibility – you know, the one in which new memory is implanted into the old brain so that a certain history didn’t happen, and a certain governor didn’t solve a certain crisis by going for the 15 billion dollar bond issue.

So alas: although Lewis’s concentration on our pension problem is half right, it is a one-eyed correctness: the pension problem was in the end a tax problem. If you don’t want to tax businesses, which is where the money traditionally is, and the wealthy for your social services, and you hire people to staff things like schools and hospitals with low salaries but high future benefits, eventually, you are so fucked. By nice people in business suits, and by Hollywood stars. …
Incidentally, for those of us old enough to remember the California election, Schwarzenneger’s anti-tax and pro-charge it policy was endorsed by ... Warren Buffett.

ps - what the hell! Might as well stretch this post out. The public pension plans that Lewis is writing about are victims of the same investment strategies by which the upper 1 percent has been looting the bottom 99 for years. This is from that now forgetten decade, the 00s - in fact, I wrote this a tremendous six years ago. Wow, that is way too long to remember anything!

I have seen the future, and it is United
Anyone interested in what Bush’s reformed Social Security would look like should look at the NYT article about United Airline’s pension fund today. It is a fun article. Here's how the movie goes: Wall Street persuades a viable pension fund to redo its safe strategy of investing for a much more groovy strategy of growth growth growth in equities. Big money is made by everybody on the Street as the pension fund shrinks, disappears, goes into a black hole. Everybody is very sorry that the beneficiaries of the fund have nothing left, but everybody also points out – the beneficiaries are scum. Mere workers. Pilots, for god’s sakes. Imagine, some stewardess somewhere is bawling cause her measely 200 thou went to some really nice Manhattan bistros. As if she deserved it. The best and the brightest, in the new Hobbesian Randian world, feast upon such little lambs.

Bush’s plan has those advantages too. By targeting middle America’s vast wealth and accelerating the burgling of it, in a record amount of time the top 10 percent income percentile can capture even more of America’s wealth. This money will be used much more efficiently. For instance, many retiring congressmen will be able to find lobbying jobs that will launch them into the higher regions of financial security when the theft is completed. Meanwhile, in a blow against the French, Americans will work harder. They will have to, as their retirement will be approximately equal, in value, to the price you can get for confetti that’s been cleaned off of streets and sidewalks after the parade is over.

The first three grafs of the article map a strategy that is almost a perfect parallel of the Bush reforms:

“HAD anyone listened to Doug Wilsman, tens of thousands of United Airlines employees would not be facing big cuts in their pensions. And the federal agency that guarantees pensions might not be struggling with its biggest losses ever.

So who is Doug Wilsman? He is a retired pilot and a former fiduciary of United's pension plan for pilots, and in 1987 he discovered that the company had abandoned its older, tried-and-true approach of investing retirees' money in bonds timed to pay when the pensions came due. Instead, it had bought into the promises of Wall Street that it could put less money into the plan - and take out more later - if it just put most of the assets into the stock market.

Mr. Wilsman was skeptical of such promises, and soon after learning of the change in strategy, he filed a grievance with his union, the Air Line Pilots Association. "Hey, you guys are really building yourselves a trap," he recalled warning them at the time. "Someday, at the worst possible moment, when the bottom falls out of the stock market, the plan is going to have to come up with new money, and it's going to be enough to kill the company."

Wilsman has got to be a traitor, and one hopes he will be roundly denounced on the rightwing media circuit. More voices like his would blow the perfect caper. He obviously wasn’t clued in that DJ 36,000 was just around the corner.

As even the article admits, the result of the Bush-like investment strategy proved highly satisfactory:

“While the money managers and other pension professionals who ran United's pension plan walked away from the wreck unscathed - indeed, they collected about $125 million in fees over the last five years alone, records show - the ones who will have to pick up the bill for the advisers' collective failure will be the airline's 130,000 employees and pensioners, the federal pension guarantor and probably, someday, the taxpayers.”

Million dollar payouts for high level failure have become America’s secret weapon for achieving true greatness. As for the employees – they merely work for a living. Piss on em, as the old Wall Street saying goes. Also, the federal government has proven that almost any problem can be solved if you have a gigantic enough credit card. Put those pensions on the card and have the Chinese buy more of our dollars, as they say in the corridors of the Treasury department.
Here’s a nice window into what Social Security is gonna look like once we get it all licked into shape:
“United is far from unique. Lifting the lid on how most pension funds are invested might raise an outcry if the 44 million Americans covered by company plans knew these things:
Pension investing is largely unregulated, even though the federal government effectively covers the investment losses when a defined-benefit plan fails. At United, this freewheeling approach gave rise to investments in junk bonds, dot-coms and even what appears to be an energy venture in Albania.
The Securities and Exchange Commission recently said that more than half of the consultants who help pension funds invest their money have outside business relationships that could taint their advice.”
I, for one, am totally psyched.
Three more irresistible grafs. Your congress at work!

"While the federal agency tries to pinpoint its obligations, apparently no one in an official capacity is pausing to ask who the plans' outside investment professionals were, much less how they made their decisions and how they responded as the airline's fortunes faded.

"It's just a nonstarter," said Richard A. Ippolito, the pension agency's former chief economist, who is now retired. A few years ago, he recalled, a director of the federal pension agency appeared before Congress and suggested that if companies wanted to invest their pension funds in stocks, they should pay more for their pension insurance coverage.
"I could politely say that he was vilified," he said. "They basically accused him of being un-American because he was asking companies to pay for the privilege of investing in stocks. He just dropped that idea."