Monday, April 20, 2015

Caught In Between

Republicans think I’m too old to be president but not old enough for Social Security.

– a line suggested for Hillary Clinton

This week's featured posts are "Death, Taxes, and the American Dream" and "The 2016 Stump Speeches: Marco Rubio".

This week everybody was talking about Social Security

This week Chris Christie walked into one of the most dangerous gaps in politics: Among Republicans, it's common to raise the specter of Social Security or Medicare going bankrupt soon. That gets you high marks from the Commentariat for being realistic.

But saying what you want to do about that envisioned bankruptcy is another matter. Because once you accept that dogma that no tax can be raised under any circumstances, the only alternative is to make significant cuts in benefits. The more specific you get about those cuts, the less likely anyone is to applaud.

I haven't read Christie's plan, but U. S. News summarized it like this:
Christie proposed increasing the retirement age for Social Security to 69, beginning with gradual increases in 2022, as well as raising the early retirement age to 64 from 62, and changing the way cost-of-living increases are calculated for Social Security and other benefit programs, an adjustment that would mean smaller increases in the future.

He'd also increase the Medicare eligibility age gradually to 67 by 2040 — and turn Medicaid into a block grant program to the states, which Republicans have long proposed and critics say could mean reduced benefits over time. ... the New Jersey governor also proposed reducing Social Security benefits in the future for retirees earning more than $80,000 a year and eliminating them for those with annual incomes of $200,000 or more.

I have two snap reactions:
  1. There's a hidden class issue in raising the age limits. If you look at the population as a whole, people are living longer, so it makes sense to gradually raise the ages. But that increase in life expectancy is much smaller for the poor, and to keep working past 65 is much harder if you do manual labor than if you have a desk job.
  2. When you eliminate benefits for those who don't need them, you're implicitly turning Social Security and Medicare into welfare programs. The next step is for conservatives to start squeezing those programs the way they squeeze all welfare programs, making those who continue to benefit seem like losers and moochers.

Still, if this plan forces all the other candidates to get specific, that would raise the quality of discussion.

and more about 2016

This week my 2016 speeches series discusses Marco Rubio's announcement speech on Monday. I stayed serious in that article, so I didn't get around to mentioning this line from Monday's Conan O'Brien monologue:
A little fun fact: Marco Rubio's wife is a former Miami Dolphin cheerleader. In other words, she knows how to generate fake enthusiasm for someone who's not going to win.

I haven't included Hillary Clinton's announcement video in my 2016 Speeches series because there just isn't enough content there to talk about. It's well designed, and does a good job of identifying her with Americans who are working towards better things in their lives, but it doesn't try to answer the basic questions my series is focused on: "Where does America need to go and why am I the person to lead it there?" Presumably she'll develop a stump speech later on, and then I'll cover it.

Meanwhile, Hillary's poll numbers look great: She's beating Rubio by 14 points nationally, and every other potential Republican opponent by more. The CNN commentary on the poll shows just how far you have to go to spin something against Clinton.
One area where Clinton's numbers wilt: Only about half of Democratic men (49%) say they would be enthusiastic about having Clinton atop the Democratic ticket, compared with nearly two-thirds of Democratic women (65%).

Think about it: Half the people who are different from you in some key demographic describe themselves as enthusiastic about nominating you for president. And that's the bad news.

The basic problem all the Republicans face is that they're either unknown or unpopular. I believe that's because the Republican worldview is unpopular. Once the public understands what a Republican candidate wants to do, they don't like him.

I went to a Martin O'Malley event in Nashua (walking distance from my apartment) a couple weeks ago, but I haven't covered it either. He was speaking to a local Young Democrats meeting. (I do a really bad impersonation of a young Democrat.)

He sounded some basic progressive themes about the destruction of the middle class since the 1970s (i.e., before Reagan took office), and pointed to his own accomplishments as governor of Maryland, but the talk was short and lacked specifics. He didn't take questions. Like Hillary, he'll probably flesh out that speech later in the campaign (if he's really running).

Fun personal facts about O'Malley: He's a perform-in-public guitar player and led us in singing "This Land is Your Land". Also, O'Malley is often cited as the model for the Tommy Carcetti character on The Wire. (David Simon says not exactly, but admits O'Malley is one of several inspirations.)

Carcetti is a young white mayor of Baltimore whose ambition ultimately overcomes his idealism. No doubt O'Malley would reject that characterization of his two terms as mayor (1999-2007), which coincidentally overlapped the run of The Wire (2002-2008). Wikipedia says:
During his first mayoral campaign, O'Malley focused on a message of reducing crime. In his first year in office, O'Malley adopted a statistics-based tracking system called CitiStat

which does sound a lot like Carcetti. One persistent theme of The Wire is that statistics-based anything just tempts a bureaucracy to corrupt the data it reports. (When one police detective deduces where the bodies of dozens of missing mobsters must be hidden, his superiors don't want to look. "You're talking about raising the murder rate," one tells him.)

Wednesday, I was at Chris Christie's town hall meeting in Londonderry (about ten miles down the road). I may get around to describing that in detail in later weeks, but this week I'll just observe that Christie does an A+ town hall meeting.

A town hall meeting is like an oral exam on public policy, because the candidate can't predict what people are going to ask. It's a high-risk situation: If all you know are a few talking points, that quickly becomes obvious, and any mistake you make could be the lead story on the evening news.

But the upside is that if you do a town hall well, the hundreds of people in the room come away far more impressed than if you just gave a good speech. In the 2000 New Hampshire campaign, front-runner George W. Bush avoided town halls (probably because he would have made a fool of himself) while John McCain sometimes did four or five in a day, and was still sharp for the last one. McCain upset Bush in the primary by a wide margin.

Christie's Londonderry town hall was at a McCain level. (His opening remarks are on YouTube, but that's the least impressive part. I'm just out of the picture to the left.) He demonstrated a broad and deep understanding of the issues, even to someone like me who disagrees with his answers. He's nowhere in the polls right now, and I'm not saying he'll win New Hampshire. But I think he'll do better than the pundits are predicting.

and you also might be interested in ...

Every change is bad for somebody. As solar energy gets cheaper, that's good for the environment, good for homeowners and businesses, and good for the people who install solar panels.

Who's it bad for? Utilities. Not only do they sell less power to homes with solar panels, but many states force them to buy the excess power the homes generate on sunny days. They don't know how to predict the surges, and the transmission system wasn't built for that.

Don't get me started on upgrading the electrical grid. That was the project I wanted the Stimulus to focus on in 2009, and it's even more needed now. But instead we can watch utilities try to use their lobbyists to torpedo the growth of solar.

The NYT article I linked to mentions one small-scale solution: more expensive solar installations that include batteries, so that you can store your own power and don't rely on the grid buying it from you. One cool two-birds-with-one-stone idea is to repurpose the batteries from worn-out hybrid cars, which there should be more and more of in the coming years.

If you're wondering what happens in abstinence-based sex education, this Michigan mom (and medical ethics professor) sat in on her son's class. If anybody in the state legislatures are looking for wastes of tax money, abstinence programs are a place to start.

On the other hand, if you want your kid to get accurate, realistic information about sex and you live anywhere near a Unitarian church, ask if they'll let him/her into their OWL class. Increasingly, this is what we're coming to: you have to go to a liberal church to overcome the religion-based crap you learn in the public schools.

The North Carolina legislature is considering destroying two of the universities that define the Research Triangle by mandating a four-courses-a-semester teaching load on all professors at state universities. The head of UNC's history department told The Daily Tarheel: "There is no major research university in the U.S. that has a four-four teaching load. I think faculty would leave."Slate's Rebecca Shuman calls the bill: "a “solution' that could only be proposed by someone who either doesn’t know how research works or hates it."

Half a century ago, the ideal state university was a world-class institution where tuition was so low (zero at Berkeley until Reagan fixed that "problem") that any qualified student could afford to go there. Since then, states have been gradually getting out of the great-education-at-low-cost business, slashing their subsidies to the point that tuition at a top state university (not to mention fees and housing) can run more than $16K a year for in-state students and nearly as much as an elite private university for out-of-state students.

It only makes sense that the next step is to get rid of the idea of being a world-class institution. Why do people who can't afford Yale need a great education anyway? Why do they need professors on the cutting edge, or the chance to work on the frontiers of knowledge? Leave that for the rich kids.

While we're discussing ways to make the ruling class more hereditary than it already is, this week's other featured article is "Death, Taxes, and the American Dream". It's my response to the House's attempt to eliminate the estate tax, which already only applies to estates worth more than $5 million.

Here's how desperate the anti-marriage-equality folks are for a new argument:
A reduction in the opposite-sex marriage rate means an increase in the percentage of women who are unmarried and who, according to all available data, have much higher abortion rates than married women.

and let's close with something unexpected

Headis. It seems to be a thing in Germany.

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