Entitlement Reform

Republicans rant endlessly about so-called “entitlement programs” as though they are evil theft from the treasury, while Democrats rise up in anger bearing torches and cudgels whenever the slightest economies are suggested for them. Well, that’s an exaggeration of course, but it does capture the essence of the sorry situation we are in. I believe both are sadly wrong and, if given their way, both will do irreparable damage to our economy. On this topic, as others, we need to be sensible, compassionate and frugal, and we need to listen carefully to those with whom we disagree. When did this ever describe the swamp dwellers in Washington?

That is just one-man’s opinion. Take it for what you will. But the point of this blog post is to relate a piece of oft-forgotten history involving what we now call entitlements. It is relevant to our times because it provides an important message for a possible way out of this mess.

Do you know what the greatest single reduction of entitlements in our history was, and who did it? The answer to the second part of this question surely should be a surprise. It is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is the originating force behind many of today’s social welfare programs. In 1932, he had campaigned on the promise to bring federal finances into better order at a time when they were in total disarray and many despaired for the nation’s future. At that time, veterans’ benefits took up fully 25% of the federal budget! A grateful nation had bestowed far more than they could afford on returning soldiers of WWI and even earlier on those from the Spanish-American War.

Almost immediately after taking office on March 4, 1933, FDR submitted a proposal that would slash the federal budget. It would eliminate several government agencies, reduce the pay of civilian and military federal workers and, most significantly, slash veterans’ benefits by 50%. The Congress acted swiftly, even in the face of stiff opposition, and passed this virtually intact as the Economy Act of March 20, 1933. In the event, the impact of this bill was not as great as had been hoped. The effect on the deficit was minimal, perhaps due to other influences and general inertia in the economy. And some of the veterans’ benefits were later restored by two Supreme Court decisions.

But that is beside the point, which is that entitlement reform is possible but, in my opinion, only if Democrats do it. But when was the last time you heard any Democratic leader propose entitlement reform as a party platform plank? They always proclaim that they are open to reasonable changes, but they do so with obvious reluctance and never on their own accord. Hence their response to any Republican plan is fear and loathing, together with loud complaints about doom for all but the fat cats.

Still, I remain an optimist. Some day a Democratic leader will arise with the good sense and guts to do what is necessary. It has happened before. I just hope it is soon enough.


Why Nonsense Rules the Day

In this blog I post my thoughts about political activities and important current events. I make a sincere attempt to avoid bias, though no one can be entirely successful in achieving this goal. My guess is that most people believe that they also do this, though it has been my observation that many fail ingloriously. But bias is hardly the only or even the largest fault that misleads people in their life choices and their political beliefs. An astonishing number of our fellow Americans sincerely believe utter nonsense, and that certainly can’t help. This includes conspiracy theories, some religious beliefs, fake medical nostrums, astrology, junk science and a great many political beliefs. Examples abound and I am sure your list is as good as mine.

Our choices for political leaders and then the decisions they make that affect all of us are significantly conditioned by these absurd beliefs. This is one reason why our government is failing to accomplish much of value while thrashing fruitlessly in the effort. This problem isn’t confined to dullards and the uneducated. I have always been puzzled why so many well-educated and apparently intelligent people believe such total balderdash. Quite a few of these deluded people actually have assembled extensive supporting data for these beliefs. Thus it isn’t simply that they are ill-informed nor that they are incapable of understanding the available data. Indeed many are equipped with a well-developed skepticism, though they do tend to target that skill selectively only against criticism of their beliefs.

Thus it is with great interest that I recently came across a peer-reviewed study of this very topic. The basic conclusion of the study is that in order to insulate yourself from erroneous belief requires two things. You must have the ability to think analytically and – most crucially – the inclination to do so. Thus many people whom you wouldn’t expect to believe nonsense do so simply because they want to. These beliefs provide psychic support. They make the chaotic and sometimes threatening world around us understandable and predictable. This also explains why these people appear to be insulated from counter-evidence or failures in what they predict will occur. They simply find ways to ignore such data, and their analytical skills serve them well in this regard. Or if they are intellectually crippled, they just call it fake news.

Any impartial observer would agree that this condition characterizes quite a few members of Congress and the current administration. But this situation is neither new nor remarkable. It only seems so because we all have to suffer the consequences of their ill-informed decisions.

All of us, myself included, are subject to this intellectual flaw to some degree. It is seductive and we must constantly fight to ward it off. One person’s conspiracy theory is another’s clever insight. One simple test you might perform to examine your own beliefs is to see if they tend to make you feel more secure or to give you a comforting feeling that you understand what is going on around you. This isn’t a sign of validity, rather it is a warning signal that your critical skills may have been blunted by emotion. Of course it also doesn’t mean that your beliefs are invalid, it simply means that they need skeptical re-examination.

In the political realm, we have sincere and well-meaning beliefs on one side that seem either sadly misinformed or even deliberately malevolent by the other side. An example for Republicans is their belief in trickle down economics. And for Democrats, there is the conviction that big government offers the best solutions for society’s problems. Neither side listens to evidence of flaws in these beliefs simply because they don’t want to.

Crazy Talk on Capital Hill

One of the major disputes about the Republican tax plan is whether middle class and lower strata will all get tax cuts, as promised by Trump, Ryan and McConnell. There are two aspects of this argument that are essentially crazy talk.

First, Republicans are now saying that all cohorts of taxpayers will be ahead of the game, in other words those in each income group. That isn’t quite the same as saying all taxpayers, but why quibble when we hear politicians speak? By some scoring methods that seems to be true, although the division of spoils has a decidedly Republican slant. Democrats respond, “But I have a cousin in Albuquerque who will lose out because of the loss of some deductions, so you lied!” Of course, Republicans made a tactical error in the blanket assertion in the first place, so they are stuck with what was always unachievable.

The lesson is never to say all or everyone about any proposal whatsoever. There will always be exceptions. Still common sense says that, if this scoring is correct, their basic idea seems to be true and all that Democrats can do is to stick to their guns about exceptions. Thus, a crazy claim is now being met by an equally crazy response.

The second aspect of this argument is truly nuts. The Joint Committee on Taxation, which is doing the scoring, has just come out with a revised result based on the Senate plan that will thrill Democrats. It shows that every single income cohort below $75K would have net higher taxes in a few years time. The kicker is that the real reason for this is that repeal of the ACA mandate means that these people won’t get its associated tax subsidies. Obviously, that leaves them with a higher tax bill. Of course that also means that they won’t be paying exorbitant costs for health care policies they neither want nor need. Logically, that factor should have been included in the JCT scoring, since the tax bill itself is only part of the economic outcome. The real issue is net change in income after taxes. Recalculation using this factor changes the scoring back to positive for all income cohorts. Don’t expect this nuance to come through in the heat of this debate, however.

If the preceding paragraph puzzles you, consider the following analogy. Suppose you go into an auto dealership looking to buy an all-electric car. One factor you consider is that your state will give you a substantial tax credit to encourage switching from gas guzzlers. But after examining the available cars you decide they aren’t for you. As you walk out the door, the salesman calls out, “Sir, you are making a big mistake! By leaving you are substantially increasing your taxes!” That is factually true, but nevertheless it is crazy talk.


Is there a worm in this Apple?

I don’t usually discuss topics like this, but Apple products have become an intrinsic part of our way of life. They have enormous economic and cultural impacts and many of us depend upon them, myself included. The company itself is firmly on course to be the first in history to achieve a value of one trillion dollars. As they used to say about General Motors, as Apple goes so goes the nation. Thus I think it is fair to say that issues related to Apple now come under the heading of national affairs, which is my normal area of interest.

What specifically attracted my attention is news about the latest version of iOS, the portable version of Apple’s common operating system. Even though it went through extensive beta tests some puzzling bugs have arisen. The letter “I” is auto-corrected to some weird character; the calculator app computes 1+2+3 as 24; and media playback stutters. These are completely new bugs, and there are others too.

Think about it. How could such bugs arise in conjunction with the actual components of the latest change? It is far more likely that they relate to long-standing problems that have been uncovered by “poking the system“. Not every user is experiencing these issues, which is itself worrisome because it may indicate structural flaws in the design.

Added to this is a litany of familiar standbys that seem to happen with each new version: reduced battery life, overheating, WiFi connections dropping, Bluetooth problems, and so on. The battery problem was so severe that it was the subject of a quick point update.

Possibly I am unduly alarmed and these are simply the usual teething problems of any software upgrade. But as an old software engineer myself, this has an all too familiar ring. It indicates to me that prior workarounds may have been kludges. For those of you unfamiliar with this common software term, a kludge is a fix designed to resolve a problem expediently and often inelegantly. Think of it as the software equivalent of duct tape.

One improvement in iOS 11 is the elimination of all 32-bit support. In principle this removal of heritage detritus should have helped, but evident it didn’t. If I am right, we will see increasing problems with each future upgrade and acceleration of the pace of point upgrades in a valiant effort to squish bugs. But I really hope that there is a secret, full-scale effort underway in some Apple Area 51 to produce a wholly new operating system.

In theory anyway, Apple’s closed ecosystem was supposed to avoid these kinds of problems. But I am beginning to think that iOS itself has become a house of cards just waiting to collapse. If I were the Apple CEO, Tim Cook, I would immediately subcontract software system test to an independent contractor. And I would instruct them not to assume anything. Apple software engineers are among the best available. However I suspect they may be blind to intrinsic design faults that require more and more workarounds as time goes on. This is one consequence of a closed system. There are too few fresh eyes looking at the software and none who won’t risk their jobs by pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.


Bloviation Rules!

I often watch the three CSPAN channels, so I am accustomed to how witnesses testify before Congress, which is to say with an irritating inability to speak concisely and to the point.

But I just watched an extreme case that should be a lesson to future witnesses. A NASA executive was testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and her opening remarks took at least 15 minutes. Normally witnesses are asked to abbreviate their remarks to 5 minutes, but for some reason the Committee Chairman didn’t intervene.

After she finally finished, I leaned back and thought, “Wait a minute, here! She just bloviated endlessly but in fact she had only two points to make: NASA needs more money to accomplish its mission, and it needs more authority in order to spend that money efficiently.” That’s it. It should take only a few seconds to say. It seems to me that bluntly saying this is more likely to be effective than causing Committee members’ attention to wander, as actually occurred. I suspect that the shock alone would induce interest and attention.


News vs. Commentary on TV

There are several TV channels mostly devoted to news, but I can find no national outlets that clearly distinguish news reporting from news commentary. There are local news broadcasts that deliver straight news in the traditional sense, but they tend to focus on local issues.

As an experiment I spent some time watching CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Even when nominally reporting events, reporters often interview relevant people in the following fashion …

Reporter: “Senator, what is your position on President Trump’s announcement concerning the Iranian nuclear deal?

Senator: “… summarizes his opinion …

Reporter: “I agree with your first point, but don’t you think that your second position is …?

Since when does any reporter worth his salt ever say the words, “I agree with your first point”? Who cares what the reporter thinks? It is perfectly proper to ask follow-up questions that probe the consequences of the interviewee’s responses, but not in terms of the reporter’s opinion one way or the other. Argumentative questions are frequently heard, for example …

Reporter: “Don’t you think our European allies will reject Trump’s policy on this deal?

The proper way to probe this perfectly valid issue is …

Reporter: “What do you think our European allies will do now that Trump has decertified the deal?

If you don’t see the difference here, then this creeping unprofessionalism has caught you up too.

I sometimes find commentators who give very astute, fact-based discussions and interviews, like Fareed Zakaria on his GPS program. But that isn’t reporting in the sense, for example, of Walter Cronkite or Robert MacNeil. Is there simply no market for straight news anymore? And, most worrisome, can viewers even detect when what they are hearing is simply an opinion? I am not condemning editorializing in general, but it should be clearly labeled as such.


Our Constitution: A Historic Perspective

Most historians view our Constitution as one of the greatest developments in human society. Clearly it was far from perfect in its origins, though it is continually changed – mostly for the better – through amendments and evolving interpretations. But one important aspect is rarely mentioned.

Two acknowledged stains on the original concept were its accommodations to slavery and the lack of a Bill of Rights. Both have been remedied, though the first of these is frequently viewed by black commentators as imperfectly redeemed. Yet there actually was a far worse defect that was so deeply embedded in our psyche that it was never even discussed by the founders. Not once during the Constitutional Conventions or in such basis documents as the Federalist Papers was the idea of equal rights for women even mentioned.

Do you recognize this quote? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …” To be more accurate, it should have begun, “We the White Men of the United States …” And so we have this painting of our founders.

Historians agree that there are two aspects of our current political situation that would totally amaze the founders. One of these is the participation of women in having the vote and in holding office. Even the thought of a female President would have had them rolling in the aisles of Independence Hall in 1776. And one can’t help noting that black men achieved the vote, at least nominally, long before we grudgingly granted women’s suffrage. During America’s early history as a nation, women were denied many of the key rights enjoyed by male citizens. For example, married women couldn’t own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn, and no female had the right to vote in national elections. Women were expected to focus on housework and motherhood, not politics. Don’t you see at least a faint echo of slavery in these views, quite unremarkable at the time?

The second aspect of our political life that would amaze our founders is the power of the Presidency. Nowadays, when we speak of the U.S. government what we usually mean is the executive branch. So, when we are represented to foreign powers, they look to the President as our leader and spokesman. That would astonish and horrify the founders. While we have a balance of powers between the branches of government, it is absolutely clear that the founders gave preeminence to Congress as the true representative of our nation. The President was viewed as a tightly circumscribed manager. And in fact, there was strong consideration given to having him selected by the legislature rather than chosen by popular election. The bastard offspring of this debate is our Electoral College. All things considered, I am not entirely sure that a popularly chosen President has turned out to be the best compromise, given the regal powers now bestowed on this office.