Friday, December 28, 2012

Reason #269: What Deficit?

While trawling Ezra Klein's Wonkblog this morning for the latest fiscal-cliff news (and, well, searching for today's blog topic), I came across two interesting op-eds; one by Evan Soltas at Bloomberg, and one by Paul Krugman at the New York Times, whose work I've highlighted here before.

Both pieces, to paraphrase, basically serve to point out the fact that there really is no federal debt crisis to speak of.

Sure, both men acknowledge that the actual debt is in fact roughly 1 trillion dollars at present. For starters, though, Soltas divides the debt into two categories: actual and structural debt. Actual debt is self-explanatory; structural debt is things like social security--areas where, yes, there is excess spending, but it's predictable, and baked into the core of our economy. Social security, for example, is a demographic problem due to the aging of the population, and can neither be made worse by a slow economy nor fixed by a strong one.

The actual debt, meanwhile, is shown by Soltas' figures to fluctuate a great deal based on the health of the economy. Per Krugman's piece, when we go into a recession, GDP goes down, which means the government is taking in less tax money at the same time as it's giving temporary tax breaks to low-income citizens and spending more on welfare and food stamps.

The key word there, however, is temporary. When the economy picks back up, not only is there more tax money to go around, but spending on recession-related measures goes down by definition, and the whole thing evens out--which is what led to the budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton years.

The other point Krugman makes, which hearkens back to the old post I linked to above, is that debt is not inherently evil; it's both normal and sustainable as long as the proportion of debt to GDP is managed effectively--and if you look at the light blue and grey lines on the graph above, you'll see that the last sixty years have done a fairly good job of that. The vast majority of the current trillion-dollar deficit--the dark-blue spike at the far right--is recession-related, and thus, the best way to ensure that it will go away isn't to chop federal spending off at the knees, it's to make the recession go away.

In other words: stimulus. Happy New Year!

Further Reading

The Deficit: Not as Bad as They Want You to Think

That Terrible Trillion

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reason #268: Normalization

Littleton. Blacksburg. Aurora. Newtown.

There is naturally a wealth of opinion out there on last week's shooting, and it won't be letting up anytime soon. For my part, I think gun control, mental health, and violent media are all worthy of examination while simultaneously not being the real problem. But there is one thing I want to add to the conversation that I don't hear much about.

The towns I mentioned above are just that--towns. Suburbs. The sticks, more or less. Nobody is surprised anymore at the unstable young men behind these massacres. We may not understand the profile, but we're damn sure used to it. But everyone continues to be shocked at what quaint, idyllic, sleepy little towns this sort of thing keeps happening in. As if we're all completely certain that that's what produces sane, healthy people. As if nobody's noticed yet that This Sort Of Thing does not happen in urban schools.

One could argue that the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, in Tucson, is an exception to this, but having been to Tucson myself, it's not exactly a bustling metropolis. It's a big city, but with all that desert out there, its population density is only around half that of a northeastern city like Pittsburgh or Cleveland--and nowhere near that of ultra-diverse cities like Philadelphia or New York. Lord knows New York and Philly have their own issues with violent crime, but traditional homicide, by and large, is going down, while random shooting sprees are going up.

Population density, and by extension, diversity, are what I'm talking about here. I don't mean to say that people in small towns are naturally less empathetic or mentally stable than people in cities, but I do think that those who are are far more likely to stay that way in a small town. The urban experience, to me, is the greatest normalizer of human behavior yet to be conceived. Not in such a way as to make everyone homogeneous and boring, but to foster a greater understanding of, and connection to, people who are not yourself.

Early word is that Adam Lanza's mother was a survivalist--that could be true, or an exaggeration, or outright wrong. But to hear her friends talk, she was absolutely very protective of her sons, and very hesitant to even discuss their home lives, or the manner in which she was raising them. The ironic thing is, a lot of people move to the suburbs for exactly that reason--the desire to raise their children in the environment of their choosing, free of the "unhealthy" influence of city life.

But with city life comes a degree of peer review. And with peer review comes--well, if nothing else, public scrutiny. As it was, Nancy Lanza was free to teach her sons whatever she wanted them to learn, free to surround them with whatever environment she wanted them to be conditioned to, and free to ignore or rationalize whatever troubling behavior she wanted to ignore or rationalize. As were the Harrises and the Klebolds, the Chos and the Holmeses.

I don't have any more answers here than anyone else. But I can't help but wonder, if these kids had grown up in Denver, or Richmond, or New York City or Philadelphia, whether someone might have noticed something. Or whether things would have turned out the way they did at all.

Further Reading

How Likely Are You to Be a Victim of a Mass Murderer?

Wikipedia - List of United States cities by population density

Wikipedia - List of rampage killers

Sandy Hook elementary school gunman Adam Lanza learned to shoot from his gun-collecting mom

Friday, December 14, 2012

Reason #267: $#@&#

Today's blog post was going to be about the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation, or CALM, Act, which went into effect this week and requires broadcast and cable TV stations to keep all their advertising at the same volume as their regular programming. It coasted easily through Congress in 2010, and was officially adopted by the FCC one year ago, but stations had an extra year to get their shit together before regular enforcement began.

It's a nice, simple story, and I knew from the start that it would make for a relatively light post. But right now, it seems frivolous to the point of insulting, and I just can't be bothered to waste time padding it out. I'm sure I'll have something interesting to say next week.

Further Reading

Wikipedia - Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act

CALM law regulating TV commercial volume takes effect

Friday, December 7, 2012

Reason #266: Old People

As we inch ever closer to the cliffpocalypse, I thought it was time for another of my periodic "the Republicans have a point" moments. To wit: the Medicare age should absolutely be raised.

In 1965, when Medicare was created, the average life expectancy in the United States was 70. Now it's 78, an increase of a little more than 10%. If the eligibility age had been going up proportionally all this time, it would now be at 72.

To my thinking, that is already enough of a reason. Full stop.

Currently on the table, however, is a gradual raise from 65 to 67--in other words, pretty much what both sides agreed to do with Social Security 30 years ago. While there are some compelling side-effects to factor into our equations, in particular rising premium costs both for active Medicare recipients (as their pool gets proportionally older) and regular insured people (as their pool absorbs more 65- and 66-year-olds), I don't see why this is even a debate, and it's surprising to me that the eligibility ages for retiree aid programs weren't married to life expectancy in the first place, the same way congressional districts are married to census data.

For one thing, on the subject of potential increased costs to individuals, I don't see why the argument would go one way where Obamacare is concerned (the Supreme Court ruled that federal manipulation of the insurance industry was allowable under Congress' power to tax, and Dems rejoiced) and another way where Medicare is concerned. In both situations, the premise is the same: the system is becoming skewed, and action should be taken to keep the reality in line with the ideals. If my premiums were to go up, I wouldn't see it as an arbitrary raise, but as their being corrected to where they would've been already if Medicare's initial intentions had been carried through properly over the past fifty years or so.

Second, there's still the matter of means-testing--and if ever there was an idea the Democrats should love, it's this one. Means-testing is the, well, means by which premiums and benefits are adjusted based on what a given individual actually needs, and can afford. Just as Warren Buffet's taxes should be higher than the 80-year-old wiping tables at Wendy's, he shouldn't be eligible for an identical entitlement package as her.

And speaking of Wendy's lady, that's the reality of retirement in America as I see it. To the people who really need our assistance, 65 versus 67 doesn't make a shred of difference, because they can't afford to retire anyway. Speaking as someone whose mother actually did turn 65 and retire this year, I can say with confidence that her Medicare eligibility was hardly the deciding factor--those that can retire will do so when they're good and ready, and those that can't aren't even close.

We should be talking about how to help them.

Further Reading

Google Public Data - United States Life Expectancy

GOP plan would raise Medicare age, lower Social Security COLAs, while raising $800B in revenue

Obama Non-Committal on Means-Testing Medicare

Trade-offs In Raising Medicare Eligibility Age