GREAT MOMENTS IN THE HISTORY OF BALLS: GROUP CAPTAIN J.M. STAGG

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 29th, 2011 by Ed

Lord knows I don't want to add to the mountain of material in our culture glorifying war, and particularly the Second World War, but I find this non-combat related tale irresistible for some reason. That reason may be that it is awesome.

Most westerners, and certainly Brits and Americans, are familiar with the tale of the "D-Day" landings at Normandy, the focal point of Operation Overlord. Briefly, the strategic importance of Overlord cannot be overstated. It was the Allies' all-in effort to establish a foothold on the continent, the success of which directly precipitated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Had the landings failed on June 6, 1944, the war in Europe could have been prolonged by as much as a year as the Allies regrouped, rearmed, chose a new landing site, and so on. In those additional months/years, hundreds of thousands of additional civilians, Nazi death camp inmates, and combatants who survived the war might have ended up dead.

One crucial element of war that historians and popular consciousness never seem to appreciate is the weather. It's a wild card, and the history of war is a history of good or bad fortune with weather; anyone familiar with the American Revolution, for example, knows the number of occasions on which the tiny Continental Army was saved by "divine providence" – particularly at the Battle of Long Island, where a miraculous, dense fog allowed Washington's 9000 man army to escape siege and eventual destruction by a large, concentrated British force. Yep, we basically won that war because of fog (and the massive balls of pre-treason Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island, but that's a story for another day).

The D-Day landings needed specific weather conditions to succeed. First, a low tide was essential. In deep water, men and vehicles would be drowned before they even reached the beaches. Second, clear skies were required to permit air cover, shelling of German defenses, and so on. Finally, and coincidental to the low tides/clear skies, a full moon was needed for night operation. OK? OK.

The moon/tide schedule in June 1944 allowed for a brief window from June 4-6. Weather on June 4 was rough and stormy. June 5 was not much better. The massive movement of ships, men, and supplies toward Normandy was already underway, and Eisenhower needed to decide if they should be turned back (no small feat) or proceed with the invasion – which, again, would probably fail spectacularly if the weather was adverse. So he turned to his meteorologist, Group Captain J.M. Stagg, a cantankerous Scotsman whose uniform included specially made pants to house his balls.

A few points.

First, weather forecasting over the English Channel today, using computers, radar, and satellites, is dead wrong 50% of the time. Not "a little off" but completely wrong. Stagg didn't have satellites and radar. Meteorologists of that era drew pressure maps by hand, searched their archives to find similar looking maps from past dates, and then predicted that whatever weather followed that pattern previously would happen again. It was…not a great system. It was what they had. They made the best of it. But it wasn't exactly a science.


Not pictured: giant balls

As Group Captain Stagg (side note: use any "Group Captain!" quote from Dr. Strangelove here) surveyed the nasty weather on June 4 and 5, he looked at his crude data and came upon the idea that there would be "a break" in the violent seas and thunderstorms on June 6. Stagg has stated, as most meteorologists of his era no doubt knew in their hearts, that this was based on "a hunch" and experience. Basically, the fate of the largest invasion force ever assembled was subject to the hunches of a Scotsman with a hand-drawn map of weather fronts. Eisenhower had grown to trust Stagg and accepted his forecast. So it was a hunch about someone else's hunch; Ike went with his gut and went with Stagg's gut. It really is a miracle that the invasion force was not consumed by a hurricane and the Kraken.

I have to wonder what, aside from liquor, was going through the Group Captain's mind as he put his balls on the table and said, "No worries, this weather will clear up by the time they reach Normandy." Surely he knew what a disaster awaited them if he was wrong. Thousands of men could have died. The Allied war effort could have been set back months or years. And if that happened, he would have been the goat for all of it. Stagg recalled one General Morgan telling him, "Good luck Stagg. May all your depressions be nice little ones. But remember, we'll string you up from the nearest lamp post if you don't read the omens right." That may have been putting it kindly.

Salut, Group Captain Stagg! Salut, giant balls!

PUMP AND DUMP CHUMPS

Posted in Rants on July 28th, 2011 by Ed

Yesterday I received an email nearly identical to emails I have received from two other people in the past few weeks, and it's getting me increasingly ticked off. Not that people I know want to share information with me or ask my opinion, but that such an obvious scam has managed to put down deep roots in the popular consciousness.

The content of the three emails boiled down to: I'm being told I should convert all of my liquid assets from cash into gold. Is this a good idea?

I do not fault anyone for asking the question. The idea has some intrinsic appeal. However, it brings me to the point of wanting to choke something to think about how many people are going to get screwed in the long run as a result of taking non-objective financial advice. If you choose to read no further or are even remotely considering jumping on the gold bandwagon, please read this piece on gold myths versus reality from Seeking Alpha.

Prominent media personalities, notably Glenn Beck, are paid handsomely to hit their gullible, elderly viewers over the head repeatedly with the buy-gold-now message. Gold interests have also taken to advertising directly, either encouraging viewers to buy gold or exchange gold for cash (which is a scam unto itself). Compounding the message, holding gold and silver as a "hedge" against future (and impending!!!1!!) collapse of the dollar has long been a popular idea on the survivalist, hardcore libertarian right. Forwarded emails from friends and family have multiplied the effect of advertising, Beck boosterism, and email spam campaigns extolling the virtues of gold. Of course, the mainstream media compound the problem by breathlessly – and accurately – reporting the meteoric rise in gold prices over the past few years.

Of course prices have increased dramatically – gold interests have been working very hard and spending a lot of money for years in an effort to convince people that they need to buy. Like any other investment, high demand drives up the price. In many cases demand is not driven by fundamentals or reality, but by speculation and what Mr. Greenspan called "irrational exuberance." In this case, however, demand is being driven by a paid, well-crafted marketing campaign. It is a classic Pump & Dump, a scam as old as investing itself.

I buy some gold at $400/oz, promote the hell out of it until other people drive up the price to $1600/oz, and then I sell high. By the time the bubble bursts and everyone realizes that it is not actually worth $1600/oz, I and my profits are long gone. If you get on board early and are smart enough to sell high, you'll make some money too. Everyone who gets on the train after the first station, though, is going to lose money. The average AM radio-listening elderly person who believes everything Glenn Beck says is going to get reamed like you wouldn't believe.

What we're seeing now is a flurry of OMGBUYGOLD hysteria using the debt ceiling issue as a selling point – get out of cash now before the US dollar becomes worthless! Which will happen soon! When this bubble pops, just imagine what is going to become of people who are buying now, at $1600/oz. Before Granny, your neighbor Joe, and Uncle Larry the Survivalist realize what happened, their "investment" will be worth somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of what they paid. Someone who really does convert his or her life savings to gold – especially physical gold which can't be liquidated quickly or easily – could easily be ruined.

There are lots of ways to lose money in investing, but few as transparently silly as the recent obsession with holding "precious" metals. Put simply, as Mike Konczal once told me, "When cabdrivers and USA Today are telling you to get in on an investment, it's time to go short."

PEBBLE IN THE SKY

Posted in Rants on July 27th, 2011 by Ed

It is a foregone conclusion, as it has been one since Obama began his rightward march, that the retirement age for Social Security will be sacrificed to the gods of austerity. A safe bet for the current round of changes is 69 or 70, and in all likelihood it will continue to increase until it hits 75 in the next decade or two. These changes are economically motivated, with proponents constructing a post hoc demographic explanation by pointing out that life expectancy in the U.S. has grown from 70 years in 1960 to 78.7 in 2009 (per the World Bank).

This raises three questions that have no apparent answer, and moreover that Congress has no interest in answering in their search for a short-term fix that protects current (high voter turnout) seniors from experiencing any changes.

First, how many jobs can an individual reasonably be expected to perform until age 70? Just because people are living longer thanks to all kinds of advanced medical care doesn't mean that they're functional for a longer period of time. Life-extending technology can add a few years to the senile, bed-wetting years of one's life but a 65 year old man is still a 65 year old man. What is it that we expect people to do from 65 to 70? Operate machinery? Teach small children? Do manual labor? Hell, it's not hard to argue that productivity declines well before the retirement age of 65, and my field, for instance, usually has mandatory retirement at 70 – meaning, "We really expect that you've retired by now, but if you haven't, there's the door." How many jobs do you think can be performed adequately by the average – not exceptional – 68 year old?

The second question, building off the first, is how an elderly individual is supposed to make it to 70. Many readers are all too familiar with the ways employers are hostile toward older employees. Forget 70 – once you hit 50 they're looking for ways to push you out the door, either offering "early exit" packages, making things unpleasant in the hope that you'll quit, or flat-out firing/laying off the older part of the workforce. People over 50 are expensive, with the high salaries and (relatively) luxurious benefits they've accrued over time. The massive oversupply of qualified 23 year olds in the labor pool can more than make up in costs savings what they cost the company in quality and training time. How exactly will the over 60 crowd manage to run this gauntlet until they're 70 – especially given that they probably will be bad at their jobs by that point?

Third, the trite-but-true "Social Security isn't supposed to be your only source of income, but rather a supplement to your other retirement income" line isn't going to solve any of these problems. The last generation of people with defined benefit pensions will be out of the labor pool soon, the rest of us having been shuffled into the high stakes Three Card Monte game of IRAs, 401(k) plans, and the like. Leaving aside the very open-ended question of what (if anything) those instruments will be worth when we reach retirement age, what proportion of the current workforce under 55 is earning enough to make the level of contributions required to provide a meaningful income at retirement?

The Isaac Asimov story Pebble in the Sky describes a world in which everyone is executed at age 60, after which it is believed that their contributions to society will disappear. That almost seems benevolent compared to a system in which we pretend that we can extend our productive years whenever doing so is politically, economically, or demographically convenient – and leave them to their own devices and a pittance from The Gub'mint thereafter.

THE BANALITY OF EVIL

Posted in Rants on July 25th, 2011 by Ed

I propose a new rule.

If you're going to resort to murdering people in order to draw attention to yourself and your belief system – which, incidentally, is not a good idea – the least you could do is write an interesting manifesto. Honestly, when the media reported that the Norway terrorist had written one I was legitimately curious to see it. I wanted to see what ideas could be so important that it would be worth killing 95 people (not to mention that he could reasonably have expected to die himself during the attack) just so that the world would hear them.

And then I saw it (No, I'm not linking it. You can find it.)

I haven't felt this let down since Matrix: Reloaded.

The message he wanted us to hear so badly, badly enough to kill and risk his own life, is a lukewarm rehash of the same thing that already fills websites and Conservative Book of the Month Club hardcovers by the dozen. Basically he took a Mark Stayn book, melded it with Pam "Atlas Jugs" Geller-style OMG MUSLIMS! histrionics, and then pasted it on a layer of sad David Horowitz talking points about the Liberal Ivory Tower of Academia. Seven years and 100 corpses, and this is what you wanted us to hear? We have already heard this. This set of ideas, contrary to the spirit of the persecution complex that holds many white conservatives in its thrall, disseminates freely. Look at World Net Daily. Look at Atlas Shrugs (the website). Look at Mark Steyn, David Horowitz, Ann Coulter, Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain, and dozens of other bobbleheads / authors / AM radio jockeys. Neither the idea of the white majority being afraid of change and the racial "other" nor the specific application of those concepts to Muslims are new.

All this terrorist did was to reheat established if semi-fringe arguments and then tack on some adolescent ideas about going around killing "traitors" to the White European Culture in order to reclaim Christendom, followed by detailed (and now instantly obsolete) instructions on acquiring weapons and armor. Many authors and commentators do the first part without diving into the "Let's start rounding up traitors and killing them" part. Certainly in the next few days we will hear people like Steyn, Coulter, Horowitz, and Cain point this out; they will truthfully note that they merely discussed the "problem" – the Islamification of Europe and eventually, of course, the USA – and never advocated violence.

So here's the compelling question: Where else can these arguments lead?

If, as many people and media personalities are, you are afraid that the brown horde of Others is invading your country and threatening to conquer it demographically and culturally, how can that Problem be solved short of: 1) Genocide, in which Muslims are rooted out and killed, or 2) a closed borders, Festung Europe style immigration policy and the xenophobia to support it, which would necessarily require "patriots" like this guy to eliminate anyone who fails to share his reactionary worldview?

When one accepts the premise, "The Muslims are comin', and We need to defend Our Way", rarely does anyone outside of the neo-Nazi / fascist subculture follow that with, "and that's why we need to start killing them and their allies." Maybe it is unstated because it's implied. Western societies, with their rights and political systems that all but preclude the idea of making a religion illegal, can only achieve the right-wing nationalist goal of eliminating the cultural influence of Islam through upheaval and violence. Apparently this guy felt compelled to go the extra mile and state explicitly what the people who consume this kind of reading already understand.

NPF: PUBLIC SPACES

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 22nd, 2011 by Ed

Just a reminder: No Politics doesn't always mean fun.

I keep a fairly regular schedule during the work week, including going to the gym at basically the same time every day. As a result I tend to see many of the same people every day, at least those who keep similarly regular schedules. Over the past year there is one girl in particular that I've seen nearly every single time I've gone to the gym on campus. If she isn't thrashing away on an elliptical machine when I arrive she's inevitably there when I'm leaving.

I just realized that the opening paragraph sounds like the intro to a 1970s Penthouse Letter, which it is not.

About a year ago when I first noticed her she was an unremarkable undergraduate, perhaps slightly overweight depending on one's definition. As the months passed she exercised herself down to a point that I think would please most people who started going to the gym with the goal of losing weight. I'd say she lost about 20 pounds. Eventually she was Thin. Then she lost more and got down to Sorority Girl Thin. Then she got to a point at which even sorority girls would say "You're too thin." Then over the last month or so she has become truly horrifying. By now she looks like a skeleton, and I mean that in the most literal sense. Her thighs and calves are the same diameter, and her knees are the thickest part of her legs. Her collarbone juts out a good inch or two from her shoulders. Bones that aren't visible on anyone like the humerus and femur are clearly visible on her when she moves. Her skin is yellow and her eyes have that dark, sunken look of a famine victim.

In short, one would have to be rather ignorant to fail to notice that this girl has an active eating disorder, and quite a severe one from the looks of it. Being a generally nosy and outspoken person, it's rare that I see her without wondering If I Should Say Something. Of course I never do. The excuses for avoiding it are so numerous. It's none of my business. She wouldn't care what a stranger says anyway. She might have some rare disease that causes weight loss. I wouldn't tell a large person "You're fat!" so I shouldn't tell this person she's too thin. Her friends and family are probably already intervening. I'm being paternalistic and sexist. And so on.

I don't know about you, but I struggle with this all the time. It bothers me that we all walk around seeing and hearing these…signs and we almost always look the other way. The woman with the black eye. The guy who "likes to party" but clearly drinks too much. The person with track marks on the arm. The friend who's obviously seriously depressed. The dozens of other people with whom we interact regularly and realize that something isn't right.

What do you do, though? Sure, a lot of us suffer from bystander apathy and blissfully live out the Kitty Genovese Effect. But when you do notice and you do think, "I should say something," there's still not much to say or do. It's not like Emily Post has a chapter about how to suggest to a stranger that she might seek help for an eating disorder. This isn't the kind of post that goes anywhere or arrives at a resolution; I don't have an answer, and a lot of things I notice might not be as they appear. But I tend toward hyper-awareness in public spaces and it never fails to bother me when I see things and can't figure out what (if anything) a reasonable person might do about it.

THE BURGER ECONOMY

Posted in Rants on July 21st, 2011 by Ed

Any moderately well-informed person understands that what we generically call the "unemployment rate" is unadulterated bullplop. Through the neat accounting trick of reclassifying the long-term unemployed (6 months or more) as no longer part of the workforce is based on the quaint notion that anyone unemployed for half a year has stopped trying to find a job. The official rate, then, masks a shadow population of long-term unemployed that, if counted, would likely double the official rate.

The never-reported U6 unemployment rate, which accounts for long-term and "discouraged" unemployed, is currently hovering between 16% and 17% compared to the official (U3) rate of about 9.5%. An honest economist will tell you that even the government's U6 rate is understated, as there are a greater number of long-term unemployed (including some who have never been employed) floating around outside of what we define as the labor force. If we could really count everyone – unemployed, part timers who can't find full time, discouraged workers who have stopped trying, etc. – we're probably looking at something like 1 in 5 adults who could be working but are not.

Even that understates the problem. Consider this unremarkable, back page news item about automaker BMW's distribution center in California. It is being closed and outsourced. Were it outsourced to a foreign country, its employees would probably end up in the unemployment statistics eventually (for a short time, if nothing else). It isn't heading to Mexico, though. The distribution center is being outsourced to a contractor that will operate the warehouse with the usual perks of subcontracting – namely a high turnover, $9/hr workforce – instead of the 20+ year veteran BMW employees.

This incident isn't exactly national news. We're talking about approximately 75 employees. Maybe the old BMW workers will go to work for the contractor doing the same job for 33% of their old salary. Maybe they'll be replaced by different workers. Either way the unemployment numbers over which we all obsess do nothing to capture what happened here, and what happened here is more damaging to the macroeconomy than plain old unemployment. There's no net job loss. It's merely a transition from 75 good jobs to 75 shit ones, from 75 people who are productive in the economy to 75 who live paycheck-to-paycheck as the working poor.

I can't tell which is worse, from the perspective of both the individual and the economy as a whole: being unemployed for a while but eventually finding a decent job or being continuously employed but "downgraded" from middle class to working poor status. Since the 1980s the unemployment statistics have been used to cover up what is too often happening to the employed. We can trumpet that 5% unemployment rate that we have in "normal" times all we want, but it is little more than a layer of paint over a workforce that is rusting from the inside out. There's little benefit to a low unemployment rate if the workforce is occupying itself by serving one another fast food.

VESUVIUS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 20th, 2011 by Ed

I'm going to keep it short today on account of the copious incoming traffic chewing on Monday's and Tuesday's posts. But we have enough time to indulge in a fun hypothetical.

Let's say that through a combination of fund-raising prowess, ideological militancy, and personal charisma, Jesse Jackson Sr. is able to assume a position of considerable behind-the-scenes power in the Democratic Party. His sway over elected Democrats is such that he manages to get 95% of the Democratic Congressional delegation, House and Senate, to sign an oath of personal loyalty to his policy goals. Specifically, they pledge that under no circumstances will they ever support cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other social welfare programs. Jackson believes that any such cuts will affect the poor and people of color disproportionately. Throughout the debate over the budget and debt ceiling, House and Senate Democrats refuse to even consider any proposal that touches any of those programs. It is a non-starter. Full stop. Because they swore an oath to Jesse Jackson that they wouldn't.

I'm sure you can see through this thin shoe-on-the-other-partisan-foot analogy to Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" that currently holds sway over the GOP. I do think it's interesting to draw out the hypothetical scenario, though, to underscore a point: Can you even imagine the sheer violence of the pant-shitting that the GOP, Teatards, and Beltway media would be engaged in if the shoe really was on the other foot? If every Democrat had signed a personal oath to an interest group and private citizen that took precedence over their oath to the American people and Constitution?

When I was about 6 months old I had such horrible diarrhea one day that my mother gave up constantly diapering and re-diapering me, instead opting simply to put me in the bathtub and rinse me down at intervals until my troubles passed. This is what I imagine we would have to do with the Tea Party and House GOP – find a derelict stadium (is RFK Stadium still standing?), cover its interior with industrial strength plastic sheeting, herd them all inside to explosively shit themselves until they could pant-shit no more, and then turn the fire hoses on them.

I really don't think some of them could survive Democrats signing loyalty pledges to Jesse Jackson. Sean Hannity's pants would disintegrate under the sheer force of the onslaught, and Eric Cantor would suffer some kind of explosive decompression, rupturing into several pieces and spraying hundreds of yards in all directions like a mighty shit geyser.

UPWARD SPIRAL

Posted in Rants on July 19th, 2011 by Ed

Arizona State University is often the butt of jokes – to this day every time I hear someone described as promiscuous I think "She's easier to get into than ASU!" – on account of its supposedly lax academic/admissions standards and bargain-basement cost. In-state tuition in the late 1980s and early 1990s was not even $2000. Between 1999 and 2010, the cost of tuition increased 300%, from just under $3000 to $8900. Tuition at the University of California-Riverside increased 29.7% in a single year from 2009 to 2010. Since 1980 the average public university tuition, adjusted for inflation, has increased almost 400%. Why is college tuition getting so much more expensive? The Chronicle of Higher Education has a neat interactive tool that you can use to find any institution if you're curious.

I question the knee-jerk response from those of us on the left, that state budget cuts are responsible for passing a greater share of the costs onto students. There is undoubtedly merit in this argument. State budget cuts are hard on universities, especially as enrollments skyrocket. But in aggregate, state allocations to universities have been rising almost as quickly as tuitions since 1980. It's not equal to the penny and that isn't the point here; instead, let's focus on the fact that everything about it is getting more expensive. The rising costs lead to one of two outcomes, and not the one most commonly used as a boogeyman:

1. Mom and Dad shell out the cash and get angrier / more reactionary about how much they have to pay. Teabagging ensues. Everyone involved feels entitlement, reinforcing the parents'/students' sense that they are paying a ton and they're paying a ton for an A and a degree.

2. Students accumulate more debt. This, not the straw man of "Poor people won't be able to afford college!", is the depressing result. Anyone who can fill out a FAFSA can find someone to offer them the loans, guaranteeing that people of all socioeconomic classes can graduate with a barely useful BA and a ball-crushing load of debt that will ensure their enduring servility in the workforce.

But I digress. Where's all this extra money going? How are both students and taxpayers pouring more money into public universities with no end in sight to get essentially the same service? It sure as hell isn't going to professor salaries. It sure as hell isn't going to teaching overall, what with the growing use of $12k/yr grad students and adjuncts. It sure as hell isn't going to research (the growth of which is relying mostly on external grants and the private sector). So, what? Let me propose two culprits we don't often hear about.

First, massive investments in infrastructure – particularly non-academic infrastructure – that aren't doing much to enhance the academic experience. Anyone who was on a college campus between, say, 1992 and 2008, knows that the sight of cranes and construction was unavoidable. Higher education went absolutely Big Shiny Building loco. Why? Growth for the future and anticipated growth in enrollment explains part of it, for sure. We needed more space. But so much of it was aimed at marketing the school to potential "customers". Students (and parents) have a tremendous amount of choice in higher education, from the local commuter 2-year school to high end private 4-years. No university wanted to give gaggles of high school seniors (with parents awkwardly in tow) the Campus Tour without being able to show them a bunch of Big Shiny Buildings. Mom and Dad aren't gonna be very impressed unless they can see "hi-tech" classrooms full of the latest gadgets. Big Shiny Buildings don't impress the kids much, though – gyms do. "Student centers" do. Student unions that look like shopping malls / amusement parks do. The big rock climbing wall and other MTV-esque crap does. None of this stuff is educational. It is strictly there to entertain students and lure in potential students. Everyone tells you they'll give you an education, so the important thing is which school offers you the most "fun". Which one has the most cool shit? Which one looks most like the campuses on TV shows?

Second, the growth in administration has been unchecked and exponential. Most public schools now have an administrative-to-educational employment ratio of 3:1 to 4:1. Or worse. Layers upon layers of extremely highly paid, dubiously useful administrators. Some of the growth has come from the addition of useful offices in recent years – for example, I'd argue for the value of the Offices of Women's Affairs that most schools have added since 1990. But good god, the average school literally has a dozen or more buildings chock full of people of no discernible utility. Everyone complains about bureaucracy; on campus it's more valid than in most settings. The Assistant Vice-Provost for External Affairs and his staff of 28 aren't working for free. The 500 deans on most campuses aren't doing any more than 100 did 30 years ago (except for fund raising; most of them spend 90% of their time on that, academic planning be damned). There is no more nuanced way to put it – universities are now top heavy with six-figure-salaried stuffed suits with no marketable skills and no apparent purpose except to make more difficult everything a university is supposed to do.

The cost of higher education, either for students or state legislatures, isn't going to go down until they stop putting politically expedient Band-Aids on their problems (furloughs, larger classes, pay/hiring freezes, more temp labor in the classroom) and decide to focus on what is supposedly their core mission: educating people. The new $100 million MultiTainment Complex and the Orrin Hatch Learning and Instructional Center are expensive frills. Athletic programs are money-losing albatrosses. Administrators exist mostly to perpetuate the need for administrators. Teaching and research should be 99% of what we do. But mention that on the Campus Tour and watch the eyes start to glaze over…

Tags:

HE WHOSE NAME SHALL NOT BE SPOKEN

Posted in Rants on July 18th, 2011 by Ed

Barack Obama (excerpt) on Tuesday, April 19, 2011:

Now, politically, it’s hard to do. Politically, it’s hard to do. For example — I’ll just give you one example of a change that would make a difference in Social Security. Right now you only pay a Social Security tax up to a certain point of your income. So a little bit over $100,000, your Social Security — you don’t pay Social Security tax.

Now, how many people are making less than $100,000 a year? Don’t be bashful. (Laughter.) The point is, for the vast majority of Americans, every dime you earn, you’re paying some in Social Security. But for Warren Buffett, he stops paying at a little bit over $100,000 and then the next $50 billion he’s not paying a dime in Social Security taxes.

So if we just made a little bit of an adjustment in terms of the cap on Social Security, that would do a significant amount to stabilize the system. And that’s just an example of the kinds of changes that we can make. (Applause.)

That is, to the best of my knowledge, the last time a major player in the current debate over the debt ceiling (Sadly I am not charitable enough to call Bernie Sanders and some bloggers "major players") mentioned the simple, unspoken change that would ensure the solvency of Social Security (which isn't currently at risk, and isn't projected to be for a few decades but ohmygodit'sanemergency and we have to cut it now because the president is a negro this is such a major crisis). The Cato Institute and the ragingly liberal Citizens for Tax Justice agree: lifting the Social Security payroll tax cap raises over $1.2 trillion over 10 years and essentially makes the program solvent in perpetuity. I hate oversimplifications, but this really isn't complex. Lift the cap and the "problem" disappears. Immediately.

The idea hasn't since come out of Obama's mouth, of course. He mentioned it as a hypothetical to make it easier to backpedal (see also: "I'd like to have a public option", "I fully support equal marriage rights for same-sex couples”, “Torture is wrong, and those who did it must be held accountable", etc.) and has made no effort to introduce the idea into the current debate. I mean, why mention something that would only affect about 6% of taxpayers – that's right, if you make $106,000 or more you're in the top five percent of wage earners in the country so maybe shut the fuck up about your taxes recognize that we're all making sacrifices here – and would actually accomplish the goal that everyone in Congress claims to care about?

Currently we pay 6.2% on the first $106,800 of our taxable income and not a red cent after that. But wait! In 2011 we're paying 4.2% because Obama decided to sign off on a bill with one of those I'm-going-to-kill-myself-if-you-don't-stop-with-these-titles titles, the "Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010" in December of 2010. This legislation cuts the payroll tax to 4.2% for 2011 only (*WINK*), although of course it'll never go back up again – because that would be "raising taxes"! (see: Bush tax cut expiration). But I'm sure this is helping to solve the problem. The problem of Americans paying too much into Social Security.

If the president had balls Americans weren't such reactionary dolts our political class was willing to show some initiative, with minimal effort we could probably come up with a pretty appealing way to package a "tax hike" in the form of repealing the cap. Let's say that for every $100,000 in income an individual makes over the current $106,800 cap, he or she is entitled to a 10% larger benefit at retirement age. That would eat away at some of the benefits of lifting the cap, but undoubtedly it would A) make clear that the wealthy would receive something extra in exchange for their larger contributions in absolute dollars, and B) still provide a huge net benefit to the program. Hell, with his current leverage a president could probably make this kind of deal look like the Sale of the Century – lifting the cap in exchange for some retirement age increases and a scaled benefit plan for high-earners. Sure, Eric Cantor wouldn't go for it, but who cares? With some additional candy corn perks for *insert buzzword here* ("small business owners," farmers, the self-employed, etc.) Congress would probably need Tommy John surgery from all the high-fives they'd be giving each other after passing the bill.

But we can't even talk about it, because we can't say "raise taxes." Normal people bandy about the idea all the time, but in the Beltway it remains the idea whose name shall not be spoken. Social Security has long been considered the third rail of American politics – touch it and you're dead, right? – and far too little attention has been paid to the fact that our political class would rather stand on the third rail than even mention the idea of raising taxes. By a small amount. On 5% of the population. With six-plus figure incomes.

So which one is the third rail?

NPF: FUNNY

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 15th, 2011 by Ed

I am lucky enough to live in a place with a large community of fellow comedians (relative to the city size) as well as proximity to Atlanta, one of the top three or four comedy cities in the country. There's been a bit of drama recently mirroring some of the controversy on the national stage in the past few months regarding "the line" over which comedians cannot cross.

Briefly, a group of people in town are organizing a comedy show that purports to be "anti-sexist" and "inclusive". This is no doubt a response to the fact that the average amateur comedy show / open mic night is filled to bursting with borderline (or worse) jokes about race, gender, sexual orientation, rape, masturbation, and so on. There are a lot of reasons for this. First, it's easy. Budding comedians learn quickly that "bathroom" humor and playing to stereotypes is like a crutch. Why? Because second, people laugh at it. Remember the kind of crap that is popular in this country; whether we're talking about books, music, movies, or comedy, people tend to like lowbrow, hacky crap. Third, one of the pillars of comedy (of which there are four, and that's a post for another day) is transgressing boundaries. People expect to be shocked a little, to have a few "Oh my, he did NOT just say that!" moments. Fifty years ago when married couples on TV slept in separate beds it was easy to shock people. Lenny Bruce was thrown in jail for saying "fuck". Today, with regular network TV laden with people murdering, swearing, and blowing each other for drugs, it takes quite a lot to shock people. This is directly responsible, I believe, for the recent explosion in jokes about abortion, rape, and other similar subjects. It's just so hard to shock people these days, comedians keep going farther and farther trying to do it…

There's definitely a line. People cross it. Tracy Morgan (who, according to the tales I hear from touring performers, really is the biggest asshole on the planet) did. Michael Richards did. Lots of people you've never heard of (and never will) cross it on a nightly basis. In the past few months in my small city alone I've seen:

1) A 10 minute act about how Asian people talk funny consisting of…a man imitating the way Asians talk
2) Entire sets of rape jokes
3) A half-dozen frat boys in backward baseball caps doing whole sets of frat boy humor, i.e., women are stupid bitches, and it is funny what stupid bitches they are.
4) Gratuitous on-stage use of words like "fag" and "nigger", sometimes by people who use such language regularly and sometimes by people who would never speak that way offstage but want to be "edgy".

I don't have the slightest doubt that people walk away from these shows offended. All of the preceding said, I think having a night of PC Comedy is just about the worst idea ever.

I have no way to reconcile the opposing realities that, A) people have a right to be in public spaces without being belittled, singled out, or demeaned, and B) comedy doesn't work if you give people a list of things not to talk about. The only way to push the boundaries and come up with something new is to push the boundaries. Performers have to use their own common sense in doing so. I try to do that by asking myself why, not merely if, things are funny. If you say "fag" on stage, is it funny because "Hah! He said 'fag'!" or because the audience is supposed to realize how idiotic people who say things like that are? Be honest with yourself when you think about what kind of laughs you're getting. Sometimes I worry about this. When I say that I love the War on Drugs because it's so good at filling prisons with brown people, 90% of the crowd will laugh because it's sarcasm pointing out an uncomfortable reality and social problem, 8% will be offended, and 2% will laugh because, yeah, brown people are all gang members. I can't control that. And I'd rather accept the downside than tell a bunch of jokes about airport security and TV dinners.

From the audience's perspective, when performers cross the line don't get cranky about it if you're not willing to let them know. Boo them. Tell them after the show "Your 10 minutes of rape jokes were horribly offensive, you hack. Too bad you can't make people laugh without going there." Live performance is a process of elimination – don't feel bad about pushing people who suck at it toward the exit (or, more optimistically, pushing them to think harder and come up with better material). Alternatively, you could decide that you're not going to get offended over comedy. That's not easy for everyone to do, of course, because "It's just a joke!" is the Tucker Max Defense, which is to say it isn't a valid defense when people cross the line. Being offended is a risk we accept when we agree to interact with the world, though. Don't let it keep you home. On balance you're better off being offended at Open Mic Night than sitting at home watching G-rated comedy from, I don't know, Sinbad.