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Posting on DB will resume Monday, by which time the chaos that erupts periodically around here should have subsided! Meanwhile, we happily continue alternately resolving problems and creating more in the wake. ;-)

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Cut the Pro-Life Blather and Come Back to Me When You’re Ready to Talk About Real Life

Bronte Quote

Now the phony outfit which produced one bit of propaganda video smearing the work of Planned Parenthood has released others – albeit without so much fanfare after the first one was thoroughly debunked as beyond heavily edited and well  into the realm of sick fiction.  Sad to say, there’s a market for this stuff.

If we combine religious convictions with partisan politics the result is a rationalized*, but not necessarily reasonable, audience for all manner of propaganda which supports the world view of the anti-choice activist. Further, if we combine a media intent on publishing superficial coverage of policy with an emphasis on the politics of the subject matter and not the substance, then we get the breathless “debates” which pass for discourse in national media.

And the anti-choice activists are playing the media like a cheap tin whistle.  This is relatively easy in a media environment in which facts don’t matter all that much.  The anti-choice activism attracting national attention is as artificial and sensational as it is formulaic.

Step One: Attract Media Attention.  Marches on Washington, D.C. have become rather common place, the one planned by March For Life back in January 2014 was attended by “thousands.”  That would be “hundreds of thousands” if we count attendance at all the marches from 2003 onward.  The event will continue to be on the calendar as long as speakers are ready to sign on, such as Jesse Helms,  Rep. Chris Smith, Randall Terry,  Rep. Patrick J. Toomey,  Rep. Eric Cantor, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy.   However, as this event becomes more illustrative of the close relationship between religion and politics, it doesn’t command attention onto single targets.

Step Two: Make Your Own News.  This is the point at which the phony videos come into play. Planned Parenthood has come under fire before, and as a target for anti-choice activists who seem to be disturbed by the 3% of its medical care in the form of abortions, but also enraged by the “planned” part wherein the clinics provide contraceptive care.  In my opinion, it’s necessary at this part of the discussion to separate segments of the anti-choice audience.

If we look at the Gallup Polling for trends, since presumably they’ve asked the questions the same way over the course of their reporting, the number expressing support for abortion under any circumstances has ranged from about 21% in the 1970s to about 29% today.  Those who expressed the view that abortions should be illegal in all circumstances has never achieved more than a 23% level.  Gallup has been tracking opinions of “single issue” voters, asking if the candidate must share the prospective voter’s views, and in this instance among registered voters only 19% self identified as ‘abortion single issue voters.’

Americans are generally in favor of having a physician inform women of alternatives, but are opposed (57%) to having a law allowing a pharmacists or physicians  to opt out of procedures which could induce an abortion.  61% were reported as opposed (61%) to the idea that a Constitutional amendment should be enacted to prohibit abortions with the exception of an immediate threat to the mother’s physical health.

What these numbers show us is that the anti-choice influence as currently voiced by Governor Scott Walker, is a function of the fringe of the “pro-birth” advocates, a group identified as opposed to abortion in almost every circumstance, and agreeable only if the woman’s health is in immediate danger.

So, how did this this rabid minority grab the headlines?  (1) Television needs pictures, (2) and Television needs to fill air time.  Therefore, the strategy, as practiced by the erstwhile Center for Medical Progress is to create the pictures and edit the narrative to get media attention. It did: on Fox, on ABC, on NBC, and in the Washington Post, among others.

Step Three: Provide a Distraction.  Now we have the confluence of political strategy and conservative social activism.  A Republican Party, currently engaging in intriguing internecine warfare between its establishment and Tea Party ranks, has struggled to get a message out to voters on crucial issues, and has to deal with the Trump’ed Campaign which is long on bluster and short on policy.  CNN polling from this month indicates the top issue for Americans is the economy at 44%. Issues at 20% and below are: health care, terrorism, immigration, and foreign policy.  If the GOP opts for health care then it has to present a full blown policy alternative to the Affordable Care Act; if the GOP opts for terrorism then it has to present a unified vision of exactly who in the Middle East is going to be supported by whom.  If the GOP opts for trailing along with Donald Trump on the immigration issue, then it needs to offer a viable alternative to the Senate comprehensive immigration policy reform bill languishing in House committees.

In short, the anti-abortion issue is extremely attractive as a distraction. The media is enraptured with its latest shiny object “Celebrities talking about something scandalous which can be simply stated and opens the possibility of endless speculation.”   The Perfect News Story.  Let the lambent divagation begin!

Step Four: Enter the Opportunists.  Once the assault was given credibility by a credulous media, the politicians immediately pounced.  For example, Missouri politicians could be addressing the fact that the median household income for that state ranks 44th in the nation. [Census]  However, it’s ever so much easier to launch a state Senate investigation into Planned Parenthood.  Tennessee politicians could be evaluating information about the potential $1.4 billion “Insure Tennessee” could bring to the state, [UTecon] but no, they’d prefer to wail on about Planned Parenthood.  Florida politicians could be addressing how to deal with an influx of people from Puerto Rico’s lamentable economic situation [Orlando] but the publicity seekers prefer to call for an investigation of Planned Parenthood. [NBC2] And, one more example:  Washington state Republican leaders want an investigation into Planned Parenthood’s activities, [King5] instead of discussing further why it was necessary to cut $10 billion in basic services from the state budget? [WABPC]

Step Five: Lather Rinse Repeat.  Once conservative politicians discover that media attention can be drawn by magisterially announcing an Investigation into the Scandal, I Say Scandal!, and reporters chime in by asking those pro-choice politicians What Do YOU think? the great game can continue.  Meanwhile, the Missouri economy can lurch along, the Tennessee insurance options can be put aside in the wonky category, Floridians can contemplate what can go wrong when there’s an influx from the economically devastated  Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and Washingtonians can muddle through a sparse budget while trying to renovate and redevelop waterfront properties.

The unholy alliance of shrill advocates, all too many of whom don’t much care what happens to the child after its birth (No food stamps for you, you little grifter, you’ll just learn to be dependent), combined with a sensationalist and shallow press – not well known for its fact checking, and added to a partisan farrago of opportunistic and camera seeking politicians, yields a recipe for political cynicism at its finest.

Come Back To Me When You’re Ready To Get Serious

Bluntly stated, I don’t much care for this brand of politics, or the attendant perfunctory press which nourishes it. Come back to me when there’s a real scandal – like the 16 million children in the United States who are now living in poverty.  [NCCP] – like the 18,000 children and teenagers who are killed or injured in gun violence each year in this country [Brady] – like, for how many years now have we been discussing the number of children who attend school in substandard buildings? “National spending on school construction has diminished to approximately $10 billion in 2012, about half the level spent prior to the recession, while the condition of school facilities continues to be a significant concern for communities. Experts now estimate the investment needed to modernize and maintain our nation’s school facilities is at least $270 billion or more…” [ASCE] – like, when you want to talk about the 49 million Americans, 15.8 million of whom are children, who are living in food insecure households. [FAO]

Until then, I will continue to hold the opinion that the radical anti-abortion advocates who are adept at playing the Grab the Microphone Game, and the politicians and members of the press who are delighted to play along, are little more than shallow opportunistic attention seekers.  Attention seekers who can’t differentiate between being Pro-Life and being in favor of Forced Birth.

Recommended Reading and References:

*Dissertation: University of Iowa, “The Violent Transformation of a Social Movement: Women and Anti-Abortion Activism,” Karissa A. Haugeberg, 2011.  Iowa Research Online. JSTOR: “Movements, Counter Movements, and the structure of political opportunity,” American Journal of Sociology, Meyer & Staggenborg.

Media Matters for America: “Factcheck.Org debunks deceptively edited video smearing Planned Parenthood,”  July 22, 2015.  “Unspinning the Planned Parenthood Video,” FactCheck.Org, July 21, 2015. “Second Heavily edited Planned Parenthood Attack Video is Also A Big Bust, Slate, July 21, 2015. “Debunking the Planned Parenthood Video Hoax,” RH Reality Check, July 20, 2015.  “What the Planned Parenthood hoax really proves: Right Wing Extremists have no qualms about destroying people’s lives, “ Salon, July 16, 2015.  “Here’s how the anti-abortion movement plans to modernize its approach,” Huffington Post, January 22, 2015.

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Filed under abortion, media, Politics

Iran Deal: In Five Pictures

Iran Deal 1

All the usual suspects are challenging the Iran Deal, not to mention the over the top sensationalist (and extremely insensitive) comments by Buy-My-Book former Governor Huckabee.  It’s advised that before one buys into the hyperbolic renditions – and rending of garments – by the opposition which got us into a Fine Mess in Iraq, take a look at the fact sheet from which the graphics were taken.   For those who would like the coloring book version, here are the illustrations from that fact sheet:

Iran Deal 2 Iran Deal 3 Iran Deal 4Iran Deal 5 Feel better now?  If not, go back to the original fact sheet.  Still not completely satisfied?  The, see National Interest’s publication on five reasons to negotiate with Iran from back in November 2014.  For an economic perspective see IBT’s analysis on how the sanctions and Iran’s economy relate.  Or, try this opinion piece from Haaretz on three benefits from ending the cold war between the U.S. and Iran.

The ultimate argument from those who oppose any deal at all, and any deal will intrinsically never satisfy some of the critics, is that “Iran can’t be trusted.”  Not to put too fine a point on it, but for some critics every Iranian would have to have an IAEA inspector surgically attached 24/7/365 in order for the deal to be acceptable, and even then there would be questions.  Look at the four light blue segments in the last graphic “Access and Verification.”  What did Reagan say? “Trust but verify.”  And he was dealing with the old Soviet Union which already had nuclear weapons.

This might be the time to remember December 8, 1987, the date President Reagan signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union?  How the feathers did ruffle!  George Will pronounced it “The Day the Cold War Was Lost,” asserting that we were the losers.  [RCP] [Shields]  Conservative columnist William Safire declared Reagan a fool and that  “the Russians “now understand the way to handle Mr. Reagan: Never murder a man who is committing suicide.” [Shields]  And then there was this commentary:

“Howard Phillips, the chairman of the Conservative Caucus, who, like former Governor Reagan, had been in 1978 a leading opponent of the Panama Canal treaty, accused Mr. Reagan of “fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” [Shields]

The take-away from this trip down memory lane is that (1) you don’t have to negotiate peace treaties with your friends, and (2) there will always be War Hawks among us who will denigrate any attempt at peaceful negotiations no matter who is conducting them.   For hard-liners no negotiations will ever be acceptable and no treaty will ever be successful.

There are some other considerations appropriate to this treaty. 

#1. This is not a unilateral effort.  We do tend to see international negotiations from a unilateral perspective, and this is magnified in the news coverage.  However, the treaty is the result of negotiations between and among China, Russia, Germany, France, the UK, and the US.  Defeat of this treaty discredits the efforts of the US to take into consideration the needs and policies of its allies, and that’s a dangerous element in an unstable world.

#2. Unilateral economic sanctions don’t work.  The “crank up the sanctions” argument is bombast.  The most conspicuous failure being the US sanctions on Cuba, imposed October 19, 1960 and extended on February 7, 1962.  55 years later the Castro regime is still nestled nicely in power.  One professor looked at the 550 pages of current sanctions on the Treasury Department’s list and observed:

“Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, says sanctions “tend to work when the demand is incredibly well-defined,” like resolving a trade dispute, “and there is some sort of decent relationship with the target state.” Those governments can compromise without worrying that the country imposing sanctions will keep demanding more. Drezner says that broad sanctions targeted at adversaries have far lower odds of success.” [Bloomberg]

This echoes the conclusion drawn years earlier (1998) by a presenter at a

CFR forum:

“The first conclusion is that sanctions have an extremely poor record of achieving their own foreign policy goals. Since 1973, the last quarter-century, only 17 percent of U.S. sanctions have worked. That’s whether they’re unilateral or multilateral. But less than one in five of the cases we have applied have, according to our scoring system, had positive effect. They almost never work when they are applied on a partial rather than comprehensive basis, which is the norm. They almost never work when they are applied unilaterally rather than multilaterally, which in these days is almost always the norm. There is no case—repeat, no case—where unilateral sanctions have ever worked to induce a sizable country to make a major change in policy, no case in history that we have been able to discover.” [Bergsten]

The reason unilateral sanctions don’t work?  If the US is unwilling to trade with the target, others are perfectly willing to do so – like the Chinese, the Russians, the French, the British, and the Germans.  In other words, without the cooperation of our allies the power of the sanctions evaporates.

#3. The sound bite “No deal is better than a bad deal” is pure hogwash.  First, this is NOT a bad deal.  It keeps the sanctions option open, it provides for the Reagan Formula “trust but verify,” it prevents Iran from pursuing its nuclear weapons program.  Secondly, without the deal the sanctions would be unilateral (see above), while access and verification would be nearly impossible thus allowing Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program without international interference.  Finally, there are two general options in diplomatic relations: Diplomacy and War.  War being, as the saying goes, the failure of diplomacy.  

It seems incongruous for those who’ve been telling us for years now that Iran is One Year Away from a nuclear weapon that a treaty which prevents nuclear weapons programs in Iran from continuing for the next 10 years is somehow a “failure,” or a bad treaty.

There will be no convincing those who want a war with Iran that the current treaty is a diplomatic success.  It will be up to those who aren’t predisposed to dismiss diplomacy and who seek negotiated settlements of profound problems to support the acceptance of this treaty.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Iran

Heck’s Votes on the ACA

Heck ACA votes

The Chamber of Commerce has been “on my TV” telling me how much I should like Representative Joe Heck (R-NV3), possibly because Rep. Heck doesn’t have much name recognition in the hinterlands.  He’s just full to the brim with Integrity! and Experience, or something. At any rate he’s not all that full of the milk of human kindness which is required when discussing other peoples’ need for health insurance. Especially the kind of health insurance that covers preventive medical treatment, or covers women for the same premium costs as men, or provides insurance for approximately 17 million Americans who might otherwise go without.

The record is clear.  Rep. Heck is one of those consistent soldiers answering the call of the Insurance Corporations.  For more on Rep. Heck’s record click on this link.   Sorry, but this kind of “integrity” I can do without, thank you very much.

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Filed under health, Health Care, health insurance, Nevada politics

They have nothing: The GOP and Modern American Life

Black Hole Answer: They have nothing!  Question: What does a political party do when it has failed to research, compile, and publicize a platform of policy proposals addressing American issues?  What’s happened to the Republican Party?  There area clues.

They fall back on old issues, pounding away at uninspired and unoriginal grandstanding rhetoric as if the grandstanding were an alternative in itself.  Witness the latest “vote” to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  The only alternative proposal in the hopper is Coupon Care or “Voucher Hospital,” which didn’t withstand scrutiny for the last several rounds.  The Republicans talk as if the extension of family benefits for children up to age 26 can be maintained, or the provisions disallowing elimination of insurance for pre-existing conditions can be continued, without sending the whole system into a downward spiral – unfortunately for the GOP, the system IS working.  However, that didn’t stop one more amendment to:

To repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 entirely,” from hitting the floor of the U.S. Senate for another vote.  [rc 253]

You read that correctly – the Senate Republicans wanted to repeal the ACA entirely – repeal the prohibitions on refusing insurance for pre-existing conditions, repeal the insurance for young people who stay on their parents’ policies until 26, repeal  the prohibition of arbitrary rescission of coverage, repeal your guarantee of a right to ask that your insurance plan reconsider a denial of payment.  Repeal prohibition of that bogus insurance that put limits on lifetime coverage; repeal the review of premium increases; repeal the provision that at least 80% of what’s paid in for premiums must be used to pay for medical treatment.  Repeal preventive health care; repeals insurance company barriers to emergency services…. [DHHS]

It’s been five years since the Affordable Care Act and Patients’ Bill of Rights became law.  Meanwhile, the Senate tried once again to repeal the ACA and Patients’ Bill of Rights “entirely.”   Who were the 49 Senators who voted for repeal?

ACA repeal vote senate 2015And, so Senator Heller, exactly what do you propose to replace the measure which has added  16.9 million more Americans to the number of those with health insurance? [Forbes]  Spare us the vague rhetoric about “free market solutions,” or “protecting individual choices,” or “big government intrusion into American lives.”  Those 16.9 million people aren’t rhetorical place-holders, they are real Americans who want real health insurance – so, what’s your plan?  Crickets.

We can expect more rhetoric about abortion! about immigrants! about Tyranny! about anything EXCEPT those issues which should be attracting our attention, and precipitating practical remedies.

They avoid rational responses to current policy issues(1) What do we hear from our Republican representatives and officials about gun violence in America?   Reaction to the Charleston, Chattanooga, and Lafayette shootings have drawn the same old responses we heard after the IHOP shooting in Carson City, NV,  the VA Tech shooting, the Aurora Theater shooting….  The Republican response has been little more than a recitation of NRA talking points which conveniently boil down to we can’t do anything about the proliferation of guns because: 2nd Amendment.

So, they talk about “mental health,”  but between 2009 and 2011 the legislatures of 34 states cut funding for mental health care services by a total of $1.6 billion.  Some House Republicans tried to bring a funding bill to the floor last January, but as with most legislation in the GOP controlled House it got chopped into bits in the hope that some portion of it could survive. [TheHill]

It’s instructive to note that Representative Murphy introduced his bill (HR 3717) in December 2013, and it bounced around committees until a last subcommittee hearing in April 2014. [Cong]  Then came the portion of the program known as Dueling Bills, the GOP version (HR3717) vs. a Democratic party member sponsored HR 4574 – and the fight was on concerning funding for substance abuse treatment, and treatment under Medicaid, and for veterans.  [NAMI pdf]

Less rationally, Republicans tell us that our personal safety is an individual responsibility and we’d all be safer if we went to the restaurant or theater with weapons.   Former Texas governor Rick Perry:

“I will suggest to you that these concepts of gun-free zones are a bad idea,” Perry said. “I think that you allow the citizens of this country, who have appropriately trained, appropriately backgrounded, know how to handle and use firearms, to carry them. I believe that, with all my heart, that if you have the citizens who are well trained, and particularly in these places that are considered to be gun-free zones, that we can stop that type of activity, or stop it before there’s as many people that are impacted as what we saw in Lafayette.”[CNN]

And who might these “backgrounded” appropriately trained, knowledgeable, people be?  In a dark theater… and how many of these “backgrounded,” trained, knowledgeable people will it take to create complete chaos? And, more casualties?  Are we willing to create the possibility that our schools, churches, and theaters could become shooting galleries?

(2) What do we hear from the Republicans about terrorism?  Plenty, as long as we’re speaking of ISIS or Muslims.  Not so much if we’re speaking of the home grown variety.   The propaganda wing of the GOP can’t seem to remember any reports of domestic terrorism which can’t be attributed to Muslims.  Interesting, because in September 2011 the FBI released its warning about the Sovereign Citizens and their form of domestic terrorism.  The timing is important because by June 2011 the Department of Homeland Security had eviscerated the analytical unit that produced their report on domestic terrorism including white supremacist and Christian Identity activities. [WaPo]

“Last night, a shooter who held white supremacist and extreme anti-government, anti-feminist views “allegedly killed two people and wounded nine others who were watching the new comedy ‘Trainwreck,’ a film written by and starring the feminist comedian Amy Schumer.”  As the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out in wake of the Lafayette, Louisiana, shooting, “in the last five years, an attack from the radical right was carried out or thwarted on average every 34 days and that the overwhelming majority of those attacks, 74 percent, were carried out by a single person, or a group of no more than two people.” [RRW]

We might add that two individuals associated with right wing extremism assassinated two police officers in Las Vegas in June 2014, and draped the Tea Party flag over one of their bodies. [ABC]  

The Republican formula “Say No Evil” about radicalized anti-abortionists, anti-immigrant, anti-integrationists, may work well in fund raising e-mails about Tyranny In America! or, Big Brother, or whatever the fear du jour may be, but it’s obviously NOT helping track the lone wolves who shoot police officers, or threaten to shoot BLM employees, or shoot patrons in movie theaters.

(3) What happened to that Comprehensive Immigration Bill?  A comprehensive immigration policy reform bill passed the U.S. Senate in June 2013. [NYT]  More specifically that would be 760 days ago, or 108 weeks plus 4 days, and it’s politely referred to as Stalled.  The stall began in December 2013, as the House decided to go “piecemeal.” [MPI] As of February 2014 the Speaker was whining the House couldn’t pass the bill because it didn’t trust the President. [WaPo] However, in April 2014 the Speaker was mocking conservatives for blocking the bill. [WSJ]   By June 2014 Senators were blaming ultra-conservative members of the House for the Great Stall. [9News]  The calendar moved on to January 30, 2015 and the internal struggles of the House Republicans still kept the bill in abeyance. [MPR]

760 days, 108 weeks + 4 days, or 18,240  hours later, there is still no passage of an immigration reform bill in the House of Representatives – whole or piecemeal.

In this morass it may be counted as a minor miracle if Congress can manage to pass a relatively uncontroversial highway funding bill. [TheHill]

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Congress was expected to be filled with Republicans and Democrats who having different perspectives would file differing bills on the same general topics.  Compromises would be worked out among the ladies and gentlemen of the august legislative bodies, and conference committees would work out the differences between measures.  This requires that both sides bring something to the table.  How do we know the GOP isn’t packing anything in its collective briefcase?

When the highway bill comes up they want to “repeal Obamacare” just one more time, or when legislation stalls it is everyone’s fault and no one’s fault that we can’t seem to enact comprehensive immigration policy reform.  How many votes on various and sundry “anti-abortion” proposals has the House taken, instead of taking any votes on whether or not to have universal background checks for gun sales? 

How many hours has the House spent on the Benghazi attack compared to the number of hours it has taken testimony on the condition of our roads, airports, dams, and bridges?  How much time was expended dreaming up a bill to exempt veterans from the ACA and Patient’s Bill of Rights if those individuals already had “government” insurance? (A specious proposal if there ever was one.)

How much more time before the Republicans come to realize that most of the American public – that portion not infatuated with the celebrity bashing all immigrants – would very much like to see something accomplished. 

It’s hard to accomplish anything when what’s being brought to the table is essentially nothing.

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Filed under anti-immigration, Gun Issues, Health Care, health insurance, Heller, terrorism

From Deep in the Dark Heart of Texas: GOP Scheme to Cut Social Security Foiled

Deep in the Dark Heart of Texas Representative Sam Johnson (R-TX3) had a great idea to find some offset money for the government to use for highway construction – or as the Congressman was pleased to say “fight crime and save taxpayer dollars.” [Johnson]  The idea is to cut Social Security benefits from those who have outstanding warrants for felonies, and superficially this might sound like a good idea. It isn’t a good idea and it was quashed when Senate Democrats put a spotlight on the notion and threatened to pull support from the Federal highway bill. [HuffPo]

Now why would someone go and crunch this crime fighting taxpayer dollar saving idea?

#1. It’s not like we’re paying benefits to Jack the Ripper: “Large numbers of those who will lose benefits had warrants routinely issued when they were unable to pay a fine or court fee or probation supervision fee. Eliminating what may be their only source of income does not help resolve these issues.”

And: “Many people never know that a warrant has been issued for them as warrants are often not served on the individual.”

And: “These warrants are often not easily resolved since many of those who lose benefits live far from the issuing jurisdiction.”  [JIA]

The aforementioned problems mean that the stage is set for the withdrawal of benefits from some elderly or disabled person who was in poverty in the first place (witness the unpaid fees or fines), who may not even know there is an outstanding warrant, and may not be able to resolve the warrant because it could have been issued years ago and miles away.

#2. The Social Security Administration’s gotten itself in trouble with the complexities of this situations before.  See: Martinez v. Astrue and Clark v. Astrue. [Proskauer]

The order is the culmination of more than five years of litigation in Clark v. Astrue – Docket No. 06-15521 (S.D.N.Y.) – a case brought against the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) challenging its practice of relying exclusively on outstanding probation and parole warrants as sufficient evidence that individuals are in fact violating a condition of probation or parole as a basis for denying them benefits. Rather than check the facts of a case, SSA merely matched warrant databases against its records. When it found a probation or parole warrant in the name of someone who was receiving benefits, SSA checked with law enforcement and, if the law enforcement agency was not actively pursuing the individual, SSA would cut off that individual’s benefits.

In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the agency’s practice of relying solely on outstanding probation or parole violation arrest warrants to suspend or deny benefits conflicted with the plain meaning of the Social Security Act. Under Judge Stein’s order, the SSA is enjoined from denying or suspending benefits in this manner and must reinstate all previously suspended benefits retroactive to the date the benefits were suspended. The SSA has until June 12, 2012, to submit a plan setting forth its anticipated time frames for implementing the terms of the order. […]

“The unlawful policy caused widespread suffering while it was in effect. Elaine Clark, one of the lead plaintiffs, had her benefits stopped in the beginning of 2006 because of a warrant from Santa Clara County, CA, where she had been sentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution as a result of an embezzlement charge. During that time, she was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease on top of other ailments and was no longer able to work. Unable to get a kidney transplant in California, she returned to her hometown of Buffalo, NY, when she learned the waiting time there would be far less. Although she obtained the transplant, she was still in need of extensive medical care and unable to work. Her modest Social Security benefit was barely enough to pay the rent at the long-term care facility and not sufficient to pay the required restitution. Ms. Clark died in 2008 at the age of 65. All the while, law enforcement officials in California knew where she was and knew of her condition, and had no interest in pursuing her.” (emphasis added)

Information from the Social Security Administration concerning the cases and the settlement is as follows:

“If your Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Special Veterans Benefits (SVB) were suspended due to a felony arrest warrant, the Martinez settlement might offer you relief and reinstatement. On September 24, 2009, the United States District Court in the Northern District of California approved a nationwide class action settlement agreement in the case of Martinez v. Astrue. The Martinez settlement changes the types of felony arrest warrants that we will use to prohibit payment of Social Security, SSI, and Special Veterans benefits. This settlement does not apply to persons whose benefits we denied or stopped because of an arrest warrant due to a parole or probation violation.”

Thus, the SSA is already doing what the CUFF bill specified (proscribing benefits from those with parole and probation violations) and the remainder who would be affected are those individuals who are in that nebulous category of non-payment of fines and fees category.

#3. The amendment implies that Social Security benefits are paid from “taxpayers,” and in a sense they are, those benefits are paid by working people who paid for those benefits in payroll taxes, including those who have those outstanding warrants for non-payment of fines and fees.  Further, the amendment is a vehicle for moving payroll tax dollars out of Social Security and into general appropriations – and here I thought all along that the Republicans were all for “saving” Social Security?   The point was emphasized by an organization formed to protect the Social Security program:

“The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare hailed the decision to drop the provision. “Dropping the Social Security cuts from the Highway bill is the first encouraging sign we’ve seen from this Congress, when it comes to Social Security & Medicare, this year,” coalition spokeswoman Kim Wright said in an email. “We certainly hope they’ve finally realized using these programs as an ATM for everything else under the sun simple won’t fly with seniors who’ve paid into these programs their entire working lives.” [HuffPo]

It was a bad idea, but it’s not one which may stay out of sight and mind.  The CUFFS bill is part of the old “law and order” stable of increasingly outmoded nags hauled out for a periodic run by Republican jockeys.   It bears watching.

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Filed under Infrastructure, Social Security, Taxation

Great Retirement Scams: GOP pins hopes on Primerica Testimony?

GRANNY retirement As of 2013 the Census Bureau counts 13.7% of Nevada’s population as aged 65 or over.  The handy Plastic Brain tells us that amounts to 382,435 people.  Unfortunately, there’s a chunk of the 2,839,099 (2014) people in Nevada who have some silly and alarmingly self-serving ideas about how retirees should plan for those Sunset Years; and, more egregious ideas yet about how those under 65 should be planning for their retirement.  These would be the people in the “privatizer and opportunist” category. Let’s take a look at both. First, a quick review of the privatizers and Social Security (and by extension any public retirement program), and then a gander at the opportunists as exemplified by the unfortunate choice of champions brought to us by Senate Republicans.

The Great Scam

FALSE: “Social Security is Going Broke!”  Underpinning the Great GOP Retirement Scam shuffle is the notion that somehow Social Security “isn’t going to be there for young people…” and therefore younger Americans should pile their retirement funds into private sector wealth management schemes.  “But, but, but,” blubber the privatizers, “the Trustees Report and the CBO agree it will be b’b’b’..bankrupt by 2042 or 2052.” [CNNNo they didn’t.

They reported that in order to provide promised benefits for elderly people  the Social Security Administration will have to tap into the reserve fund – it is not – repeat not – going bankrupt. Nor, will those receiving benefits from the reserve funds live forever, thus at some point the system will stabilize. Tapping into the reserve fund – which was put in place to deal with the Baby Boomers – is not the same as “going bankrupt!”  There are some basic facts (of life) to deal with at this point.  The Census Bureau report, An Aging Nation, (2014) explains carefully: 

“In 2050, every age group is projected to be larger than it was in 2012. This is not the case between 2012 and 2030 or between 2030 and 2050. For instance, the number of men aged 48 to 58 and the number of women aged 47 to 58 in 2030 are projected to be smaller than those in the same age groups in 2012 (see Figure 2). This is because large cohorts of baby boomers were in these age groups in 2012, and smaller and younger cohorts will have replaced them by 2030. Similarly, the number of women aged 66 to 77 is projected to peak in 2030 and be smaller in 2050 than it was in 2030, as the smaller birth cohorts born in the late 1970s moves into these age groups.” [Census pdf]

A “smaller” cohort means that once the baby boomers die off, and they will do that because they are human beings, there will be less demand on the system for benefit payments.  That’s what the entire idea of the Trust Fund was based on, the knowledge that the system needed a “savings account” to get past the baby boomer generation.   “But, but, but..” sputter the privatizers, “there won’t be enough young people paying into they system..” Nonsense.  Take a look at this chart from the report on aging: (figure 2)

age structure us population chartSeriously, does anyone really think there are going to be more elderly retired people than younger workers in the foreseeable future?  If someone believes that then I guess I would try to sell them some scammy retirement savings plan!  I could also try to sell them an automatic kitchen gadget that “Cools your water in an instant! No Ice Cubes Required!”

FALSE: “Social Security won’t guarantee your retirement…”  this is right so far because Social Security was never meant to be an entire retirement program – it was meant to keep elderly people out of abject poverty.  However, the rest of the privatizers’ pitch gets more dicey, “therefore we should privatize the system and let people have a Choice…”  There’s a reason Social Security is called a Social Safety Net. It’s the safety net in case all else fails and an elderly person has little else to fall back on.  That we have a Social Security system to keep people from falling into an abyss of poverty doesn’t mean that people can’t choose to augment their retirement plans with pension plans, savings accounts, equity accounts, and all manner of other savings vehicles.  The privatizers would like for us to forget that we already have (and have had for decades) alternative savings plans for retirement!  The privatizers would be perfectly pleased to get all the money that’s paid into Social Security funneled into the hands of Wall Street traders… now there’s a thought that should lower one’s body temperature, or raise the blood pressure?

And now we get to the good part wherein the privatizers and scammers walk the halls of Congress to promote those alternative and supplemental retirement savings financial products.

retire savingsHowever, some of the plans are a dream for some and nightmares for others.  

The Smaller but Painful Scams

Consider:

“Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Tuesday embarrassed Primerica President Peter Schneider, who Senate Republicans had invited to testify against a new regulation designed to protect retirement savings from dodgy investment managers. The Obama administration estimates that Americans lose $17 billion a year from investment professionals who manage retirement accounts by prioritizing their own financial interests over those of their clients. It has proposed a simple solution: making that illegal.” [HuffPo]

Hmm, the Senate Republicans INVITED Primerica’s testimony against a fudiciary responsibility standard? And, what was Primerica testifying against?

“In February, the President directed the Department of Labor to move forward with a proposed rulemaking to require retirement advisers to abide by a “fiduciary” standard—putting their clients’ best interest before their own profits. And today, the Department of Labor is taking the next step toward making that a reality, by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to require that best interest standard across a broader range of retirement advice to protect more investors.” [DoL] (emphasis added)

Thus, we could assume that the Senate Republicans are in favor of allowing retirement advisers to put their own profits AHEAD of consideration for their client’s best interests?  Okay, so what can happen when an investment adviser steers a client into territory which is not in the best interest of the client but really bolsters the firm’s bottom line?

“A system where firms can benefit from backdoor payments and hidden fees often buried in fine print if they talk responsible Americans into buying bad retirement investments—with high costs and low returns—instead of recommending quality investments isn’t fair. A White House Council of Economic Advisers analysis found that these conflicts of interest result in annual losses of about 1 percentage point for affected investors—or about $17 billion per year in total. To demonstrate how small differences can add up: A 1 percentage point lower return could reduce your savings by more than a quarter over 35 years. In other words, instead of a $10,000 retirement investment growing to more than $38,000 over that period after adjusting for inflation, it would be just over $27,500.” [DoL]

Actually there was more bad news from the Council of Economic Advisers in its report on the Effects of Conflicted Investment Advice on Retirement Savings (2015 pdf).   There’s this conclusion: “A retiree who receives conflicted advice when rolling over a 401(k) balance to an IRA at retirement will lose an estimated 12 percent of the value of his or her savings if drawn down over 30 years. If a retiree receiving conflicted advice takes withdrawals at the rate possible absent conflicted advice, his or her savings would run out more than 5 years earlier.”  And, if this weren’t bad enough, there’s another item: “The average IRA rollover for individuals 55 to 64 in 2012 was more than $100,000; losing 12 percent from conflicted advice has the same effect on feasible future withdrawals as if $12,000 was lost in the transfer.”

Thus, in general terms, retirees are losing an aggregate of some $17 billion from conflicted financial advice, losing a potential of five years worth of retirement savings value, and dropping 12% “in transfer” because of conflicted advice in the process.

And, to dispute this the Senate Republicans hauled in the CEO of Primerica? Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive?

Let’s begin our Primerica Story in Florida in 2002 with a classic case of privatization:  

“Primerica’s legal battles stem from a change to Florida’s retirement system in 2002. It gave employees the option to switch from a traditional pension plan, in which they would receive lifetime benefits based on their salaries and years of service, or convert the value of their pension to a lump sum payment which they could invest in mutual funds and other securities offered through the state retirement system.”

Primerica told potential investors that they could put their pension money into an account which could (note Could) earn more than their pension benefits, and could be inherited by family members unlike standard pension benefits.   What Primerica sort of forgot to tell the state employee  investors was that the market could also go down. South. Pear-shaped. In the commode… And thus it did in 2007-2008.  By July 2013 Primerica was fighting off lawsuits in Florida and allocating $3.9 million to defend its claims in court cases and arbitrations. [Reuters]  As of January 2014 the amount set aside to settle various and sundry complaints against the company climbed to $9.3 million. [BfH]  The 2015 figure for fighting off the litigation was up to $15.4 million. [HuffPo]  And THIS was the company Senate Republicans thought would be a good source of testimony against the fiduciary responsibility rule?

So, what did the Senate Republicans get for their efforts to include Primerica’s CEO Peter Schneider on the witness list?

bamboozalah The Big Bambooza-a-lah began with Schneider’s written testimony:

“We are believers in educating the households we serve about fundamental financial concepts. Our investment education and philosophy is geared toward the needs of middle‐income households, who often are new or less experienced investors.  In that regard, we produce easy to understand educational pieces teaching fundamental investing concepts including the critical importance of taking the steps needed to start along the path of financial security.”

Uh, if your investment education process is “easy to understand” then why the escalating amount of funds the company is plowing into defending the itself  in some 238 cases?  When your defense fund increases by 295% in two years it’s pretty clear someone didn’t have a solid grip on “investment education” or “the fundamental investment concepts.”

Having wailed on about how Primerica was serving the Middle Class, a reference tossed in at just about every possible location in the testimony, Schneider got down to his real complaint “Guv’mint Regulations,” and the favored GOP buzzword, “burdensome.”

Those wonderful, admirable, Middle Class customers would be cheated of their opportunity to invest with Primerica because the rules for investment advice would be too “burdensome.”  Here comes the “Daze and Dizzy:”

“We draw this conclusion first and foremost because the Department’s expanded definition of fiduciary turns into a fiduciary act almost every conversation about an IRA that a financial professional might have. ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code prohibit fiduciaries from receiving commissions and other traditional forms of variable compensation in connection with a covered benefit plan such as an IRA unless what is known as a “prohibited transaction exemption” applies and provides relief.  Effectively, the DOL’s expanded definition of fiduciary makes an exemption from the prohibited transactions rules necessary to continue to effectively serve individuals investing in IRAs. Unfortunately, the exemption the Department has proposed to preserve the commission‐based services for IRAs – the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BIC) – is not operational.”

Translation: A conversation including investment advice for an IRA  would be covered unless there is an exemption, and the “best interest contract is not operational.”  We can take it that “not operational” means it won’t work.

This is followed by more “Daze and Dizzy” as Schneider attempts to explain, and at this point we need to parse the testimony carefully:

Instead, our primary concern is that the requirements and uncertainties of the BIC exemption are so complex and burdensome that the exemption is neither administratively nor operationally feasible. (1)  The trouble is that, from start to finish, the BIC exemption fails to offer certainty.  In operating our business, “certainty” with respect to regulatory compliance matters is critical because a failure to satisfy the proposed exemption may result in steep prohibited transaction penalties, including the forfeiture of compensation and excise taxes, as well as consumer lawsuits for breaches of contract, and potentially even class action lawsuits. (2)   Critically, the technical implementation of the exemption promises to be a substantial burden, and to cause a significant disruption of services to our clients, with no true added benefits in the way of investor protections. (3)

(1)Complex and burdensome,” could any phrase be more illustrative of any and all Republican complaints about consumer protection rules, product safety regulations, clean air and water standards?  This is standard GOP rhetoric, and no more probative because it is repetitive. Nor does this explain WHY the rule, and the exemption, would be a burden to a company intent on supervising its employees and representatives in such a way as to insure they properly represent the risks and rewards of their products.

(2)Creates uncertainty,” and again we have good old reliable Republican boiler-plate.  The well worn phrase has been applied often  to banking regulations (somehow the banks are still with us and doing quite well.) Once more the testimony doesn’t explain WHY anyone should be uncertain – IF the firm were providing the best financial advice it could in the most educational way possible.  If, however, the company was prone to, say, wrap backdoor payments and hidden fees in the fine print then they might be “uncertain” about how much they could get away with.   The fact sheet from the Department of Labor is really clear, for a technical document, about what constitutes investment advice.

(3) More boiler-plate. Now the implementation is a “substantial burden.” Not just any old regular garden variety burden, it’s substantial!  It’s interesting how many investment advisors there are in this country who don’t seem to have any trouble offering investment advice without selling products with hidden fees and backdoor payments.  In this instance old fashioned capitalism works, the firms sell products that people understand, and know both the rewards and the risks involved, then people recommend these firms to their friends and relatives – and so it goes.   If providing clear and honest investment advice without playing backdoor payment and hidden fee games is a “substantial burden,” then perhaps the business isn’t worthy of its clientele?

Then comes the “threat.” Consumers will lose their “freedom” to choose their investment advisers:

“This shift to advisory services is likely to cause millions of small balance IRA owners to lose access to the financial professional of their choice, or any at all. Those with enough investments to meet the account minimums will face higher costs and experience losses in retirement savings. These resulting losses by some estimates could be as high as $68‐$80 billion each year.”

Please. Let’s look at this from the consumer’s perspective – no one chooses to be ripped off. And, if one’s investment advisor is playing games for the firm’s bottom line at the expense of the retiree’s retirement savings then that future retiree should not be prey for the predators.   Is Mr. Schneider serious that NO brokerage firm will consider a small IRA or other investment?  That our little Middle Class man or women will be left shivering in the cold, facing the closed door of Merry, Berry, & Itch LLC, with $1,000 in hand?   Trust me, that money will go somewhere, and if it doesn’t meet Merry, Berry, & Itch’s minimum it will certainly find its way into a money market account at the local bank. If, the amounts do meet the minimum, would there be “higher costs?” Maybe, but they wouldn’t be hidden. Do private retirement accounts invested in equities lose money? Yes, again, but why shouldn’t the customer, the consumer, be made aware of this very fundamental fact?   However, we should observe in Mr. Schneider’s testimony that he presents no substantiation for his assertion that the costs will be higher and the losses any greater, other than his un-sourced “some estimates” phrase.

Senator Warren was correct to make an example of Mr. Schneider and his business model.  It should be noted that (1) the privatizers with their claims of insolvency for both Social Security and state retirement programs are doing a national disservice with false claims intended to frighten people into putting both the social safety net and public pension programs into the hands of the players in the Wall Street Casino; (2) private firms which utilize questionable business practices which involve lots of fine print hiding fees and management charges and which engage in back-door payoffs are not functioning in the customer’s best interests; and (3) trying to pass off clichéd, stale, and trite boilerplate as Congressional Testimony is unhelpful in the legislative process.

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Filed under Economy, financial regulation, Nevada politics, privatization, public employees, Social Security