Robbed by a Fountain Pen

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Yes, as through this world I've wandered / I've seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen. - Pretty Boy Floyd

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Wednesday, January 29, 2003
The State of the Union ... Not So Good.
Still think Junior is a lock for reelection? Consider this from Slate's William Saletan:

If you went to the refrigerator during the first three minutes of President Bush's State of the Union address, you missed the part where he discussed the state of the union. ...

Why didn't Bush talk about the state of the union? Because the state of the union is nothing to talk about. ... Remember those State of the Union speeches Bill Clinton gave? The guy couldn't stop quoting happy numbers. That's one problem Bush doesn't have. ...

The state of the union isn't a process. It's a result. Yet in the few minutes Bush spent on what he had "accomplished," he spoke of processes, not results. "To lift the standards of our public schools, we achieved historic education reform," he said. "To protect our country, we reorganized our government. ... To bring our economy out of recession, we delivered the largest tax relief in a generation. To insist on integrity in American business, we passed tough reforms. … Some might call this a good record. I call it a good start."

Record? That isn't a record. It's an agenda. ...

Actually, Bush does have a record. It just isn't good. Unemployment? Up. IRA accounts? Down. Poverty? Up. Deficits? Up. Homelessness? Up. Education funding? Down. Health care costs? Up. Number of uninsured? Up. Environmental progress? Down. Bankrupcties? Up. Public confidence? Down. Crime? Up.

If that's a "good start," I don't want to stick around for the ending. (Take a gander at these charts or this fact sheet or the links in the post directly below for more information.) And don't forget Saletan's punchline:

What Bush said of Saddam's disarmament record could equally be said of Bush's domestic record. He has given no evidence of progress. He must have much to hide.

Did you look at the charts? What are you waiting for?
Monday, January 27, 2003
State of the Union.
In honor of George W.'s midterm SOTU address, I bring you a flashback from the Onion. The week before Bush took office, America's Finest News Source published an article that is both extremely funny and painfully prescient.

Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over'

WASHINGTON, DC—Mere days from assuming the presidency and closing the door on eight years of Bill Clinton, president-elect George W. Bush assured the nation in a televised address Tuesday that "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over."

[Photo caption:] President-elect Bush vows that "together, we can put the triumphs of the recent past behind us."

"My fellow Americans," Bush said, "at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us." ...

During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years. ...

Wall Street responded strongly to the Bush speech, with the Dow Jones industrial fluctuating wildly before closing at an 18-month low. The NASDAQ composite index, rattled by a gloomy outlook for tech stocks in 2001, also fell sharply, losing 4.4 percent of its total value between 3 p.m. and the closing bell. ...

Turning to the subject of the environment, Bush said he will do whatever it takes to undo the tremendous damage not done by the Clinton Administration to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He assured citizens that he will follow through on his campaign promise to open the 1.5 million acre refuge's coastal plain to oil drilling. As a sign of his commitment to bringing about a change in the environment, he pointed to his choice of Gale Norton for Secretary of the Interior. Norton, Bush noted, has "extensive experience" fighting environmental causes, working as a lobbyist for lead-paint manufacturers and as an attorney for loggers and miners, in addition to suing the EPA to overturn clean-air standards.

Bush had equally high praise for Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft, whom he praised as "a tireless champion in the battle to protect a woman's right to give birth." ...

Continued Bush: "John Ashcroft will be invaluable in healing the terrible wedge President Clinton drove between church and state."

The speech was met with overwhelming approval from Republican leaders.

"Finally, the horrific misrule of the Democrats has been brought to a close," House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert (R-IL) told reporters. "Under Bush, we can all look forward to military aggression, deregulation of dangerous, greedy industries, and the defunding of vital domestic social-service programs upon which millions depend. Mercifully, we can now say goodbye to the awful nightmare that was Clinton's America."

"For years, I tirelessly preached the message that Clinton must be stopped," conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh said. "And yet, in 1996, the American public failed to heed my urgent warnings, re-electing Clinton despite the fact that the nation was prosperous and at peace under his regime. But now, thank God, that's all done with. Once again, we will enjoy mounting debt, jingoism, nuclear paranoia, mass deficit, and a massive military build-up."

An overwhelming 49.9 percent of Americans responded enthusiastically to the Bush speech.

"After eight years of relatively sane fiscal policy under the Democrats, we have reached a point where, just a few weeks ago, President Clinton said that the national debt could be paid off by as early as 2012," Rahway, NJ, machinist and father of three Bud Crandall said. "That's not the kind of world I want my children to grow up in." ...

"We as a people must stand united, banding together to tear this nation in two," Bush said. "Much work lies ahead of us: The gap between the rich and the poor may be wide, be there's much more widening left to do. We must squander our nation's hard-won budget surplus on tax breaks for the wealthiest 15 percent. And, on the foreign front, we must find an enemy and defeat it."

For more information on the actual state of the Union, click here, here, or here.
Sunday, January 26, 2003
A Modest Proposal.
Ted Barlow had a very interesting post about race, income, wealth and achievement this week, which prompted me to make a quickie write-up (in his comments) of a proposal I've been wondering about for some time. Barlow's entry describes work by Dalton Conley, a Yale sociologist whose work includes Being Black, Living in the Red, and quotes this summary from an SF Chronicle article.

Conley's big idea addresses the perplexing fact that black and white students from homes with identical incomes do not perform equally well. Why is a white girl much more likely to graduate from college than a black girl from a family that earns just as much money?

That gap in performance -- not only in education, but in employment, welfare and crime -- is terribly disturbing. It fuels racism. At times, I have found myself wondering if my deepest beliefs about equality are valid. I hate the thought...

Conley thought: Why not look at wealth, at family assets, as opposed to merely earnings? Would the differences in academic achievement still be there? He almost dismissed his own insight. A million people, he thought, must have studied this before.

As it turned out, nobody had. And when Conley did, he discovered that if you looked at the assets of black families and white families, or in other words their wealth, their children performed equally in school. ([Barlow's] emphasis)

The problem is, Conley writes in ``Being Black:'' ``At all income, occupational and educational levels, black families on average have drastically lower levels of wealth than similar white families.'' ...

He proposes, for instance, that government policy should aggressively support the accumulation of property by poor people, instead of penalizing them for having assets the way Medicaid and welfare programs do.

It seems so obvious. ``People who have a stake in the American dream,'' says Dalton Conley, ``are better citizens.''

My policy idea is half-baked at most, but I'm going to reproduce it here in all of its half-baked glory. If any of my readers have comments or suggestions on this topic, please let me know via the email address at left.

I've been kicking around a policy idea for a while that might help. I've always been disturbed that middle-income and well-off people get a huge tax break for mortgages but renters don't (even though I now have a mortgage), and because it is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to afford to buy housing in many parts of the country (I live in SF), and because I'm one of those people that thinks the Jeffersonian idea of small landowners as good citizens makes some sense (even though it also disturbs me on many levels). The finding in your post would be another reason.

Anyway, long story short, I wouldn't want to repeal the mortgage tax deduction (think social security is a third rail? ain't nothing compared to that) but institute a rental payment deduction to even things out.

But here's the trick - to encourage and enable the money to go toward downpayments, I wouldn't have the deduction result in cash. I'd have it feed into a downpayment account - sort of a homeownership IRA. (It'd probably be really expensive, but, well, we could finance it by forgetting about the estate tax repeal.)

I've been meaning to flesh out the proposal (how much it would cost, how it would be administered, whether all rent would be tax-free and you'd then have to pay taxes when you redeemed the account to make a downpayment, or whether only some portion would be deductable, but it would remain tax free, etc) but I haven't had a chance.

Just an idea.

Four Wings!
I'm still digging the four-winged dinosaur-slash-bird creature they discovered in China. Click here for a cool graphic, here for the NYT article and here for the Nature article.
Click here for today's featured graphic (scroll down for the budget deficit and surplus chart), here for today's featured comic, and here for today's featured news quiz. The news quiz was posted a few days ago at Wampum Blog, which asks what these and other headlines have in common:

Published on December 5: Charlie Stein, Boston Globe Staff

Published on December 4: John D. McClain, Associated Press

Steven Mufson, Washington Post Staff Writer
December 18; Page a18

Think you've got it figured out? Click here for the full quiz.
Thursday, January 23, 2003
In Their Own Words.
Well, Jerry Thacker withdrew from the Presidential AIDS advisory board today. Not to fear, though, there are plenty of other jerks lined up for the panel. For instance, former Representative Tom Coburn (R-OK), a doctor(!) who is famously insightful about immune systems:

And I want to touch on cryptosporidium for a minute...this disease can sometimes can be very helpful [as a physician], because it helps us identify those people who in fact are in immune compromise ....

And a bullet to the head is useful for diagnosing hemophilia. (Source: comments before a safe drinking water hearing at the Health and Environment Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee, 1/31/96; primary source unavailable online; click here for Coburn and other classic quotes from the 104th Congress - really, they're good.) (NSD link via Atrios).
Wednesday, January 22, 2003
The Competence Myth.
Is it just me, or does President Bush's foreign policy not -- how should I put this -- work?

Even critics of the Bush Team tend to give them high marks for their handling of foreign policy and the war on terror. To a certain extent, this is human nature. In matters of international affairs, people tend to rally around the President. Especially in wartime, if the President fails at foreign policy, America fails. Not surprisingly, everyone roots for the President. And everyone wants to believe he's doing a good job.

Even before 9-11, the Bush Team -- Cheney, Rummy, Powell, etc. -- were hailed as wise grownups that would restore a measure of stability following Bill Clinton's term.

But it seems to me that the Bush Administration's foreign policy has been a notable failure. By what measures could it be considered a success? Is the world a safer place? Are any of the international hotspots in better shape now than they were two years ago? Are Americans less threatened, at home or abroad? Do we have fewer sworn enemies? Are our sworn enemies neutralized? Are we doing anything to reduce future sources of conflict, such as poverty, disease, refugee flows or disputes over energy or fresh water?

No. The world is in worse shape than it was.

I am not suggesting that any presidential administration bears primary responsibility for everything that happens on its watch. But I do think many of this administration's foreign policy decisions have been counterproductive.

Let's go to the tape:

- North Korea. Upon taking office, the new administration first supported President Clinton's policy of engagement, then abruptly declared it a failure. Bush made North Korea a charter member of the "Axis of Evil," called its leader a "pygmy" and announced a policy of preemptive strikes against those nations the U.S. considers its enemies. If you were North Korea, what would you do?

North Korea responded by deciding it needed to be better armed. After North Korea announced it had accelerated its nuclear program and kicked UN inspectors out, Bush responded by downplaying the crisis and declaring that the U.S. was not considering a preemptive strike against North Korea. By all accounts, this is because North Korea is too heavily armed and could flatten Seoul. Now, the administration has again reversed course and is seeking to negotiate - indeed, to recreate the framework it rejected two years ago.

- Osama bin Laden. Remember him? President Bush famously declared that he wanted the mastermind behind the 9-11 attack "dead or alive." But when our troops invaded Afghanistan, Osama and almost all of his leadership got away. Bush effectively declared victory and went home. (Actually, our men and women in uniform are still risking their lives in Afghanistan. But the administration has moved on to other topics and now asserts that it wasn't really about Osama at all.) But September 11 is the defining event in recent American history, and to a very real degree, it is about Osama. If that's victory, I do not want to see defeat.

- The War on Terror. It's not just Osama that got away. As the Washington Post and others have reported, "the Homeland" isn't really any safer from al Queda and similar terrorist networks. Indeed, "there is nothing in al Qaeda's former arsenal -- nothing it was capable of doing on Sept. 11, 2001 -- that the president's advisers are prepared to say is now beyond the enemy's reach." As the terrorist bombings in Bali and the Middle East demonstrate, Americans abroad remain an attractive target for would-be terrorists. Meanwhile, the anthrax trail (remember that?) has grown cold.

- Iraq. I remain open to the possibility that war with Iraq could prove necessary. Unfortunately, Bush appears to have made up his mind long ago, without justifying his conclusion on either moral or practical grounds to his constituents or his potential allies. Saddam is bad, but is he an imminent threat? And would toppling him create a more stable and less dangerous Iraq? What are the consequences for the war on terror and Middle East peace? The Administration's approach to Iraq may eventually make the world a better place, but I'm not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, it strains credulity to believe that the Administration's focus on (obsession with?) Iraq has not hurt the war on terror. (For example, there is a shortage of qualified linguists, so every expert focused on Iraq is an expert not focused on al Queda. The U.S. has expended its political capital with other nations on Iraq. The U.S. risks losing the critical support of people in Muslim countries for anti-terrorist activities if it invades Iraq, and so on.) It also strains credulity to believe that the Administration's single-minded focus on Iraq has not detracted from its handling of North Korea and other hotspots.

- Israeli/Palestinian Divide. Early on, the Bush Administration decided not to be as involved in the Middle East as his predecessor, who devoted enormous energy and political capital to the subject. The peace process might not have survived had Bush been engaged, but it is difficult to see how it could be worse.

- Long-Term Threats. As I have argued at length in previous posts, the Bush Administration has systematically sought to turn back the clock on international efforts to combat global climate change and population growth, and been indifferent at best to the worsening plague of AIDS and the growing possibility of famine in Africa. The Administration has resisted any meaningful effort to promote energy efficiency or the development of renewable energy, thereby guaranteeing continued reliance on oil-rich nations that are at best unreliable allies and at worst, hostile. As a result, the seeds of future conflicts continue to germinate. Only an administration staffed by Cold War fossils could fail to understand that, because these problems create instability in affected countries, they represent national security threats as well as humanitarian crises.

- The list could go on and on ... I haven’t even mentioned the India/Pakistan border, Venezuela, nuclear proliferation, basic relationships with our allies, and more.

So I ask again: Are not the wise old men screwing things up?
Monday, January 20, 2003
More Stupid Predictions Unburdened By Analysis.
The day after Al Gore decided not to run for President, I had a conference call with a couple of former colleagues from the Clinton/Gore Administration. During the call, I predicted that George W. Bush would be a one-term President.

Actually, it was a lukewarm prediction. I started by saying that the media CW that said Bush was unbeatable was baloney, then said I'm not necessarily predicting that he'll lose and finally went on to say OK, I hereby predict he'll lose. It's a belief I've had for months and in recent weeks it has only grown stronger.

When asked Why? I usually respond Because he's a terrible President.* But of course it's more complicated than that.

(Bush is actually pretty good at some of what goes into being President. But things have gotten worse on his watch, both home and abroad. And it's tough to be an incumbent in a wrong track world.)

Anyway, I'm going public with my prediction - not because anyone should believe it, unaccompanied as it is with anything approaching analysis - but to challenge myself to articulate why the Democratic nominee will be the next President of the United States. Stay tuned.

* Update: Helen Thomas agrees:

"This is the worst president ever,” she said. “He is the worst president in all of American history.” The woman who has known eight of them wasn’t joking.

New Blogcritics Post: a Second Look at Human Nature.
I've got a new movie review that will appearing shortly on Blogcritics - check it out. This is the link and this is the blurb:

To the extent critics noticed Charlie Kaufman's Human Nature when it was released last spring, it was mostly to pan it. For their part, movie-goers stayed away in droves. We put it on our Netflix list anyway ... and were pleasantly surprised.

(1/21 edited to add permalink and blurb.)
Blind Quote of the Day.
I've got DSL again, and just in time to notice this gem planted in the middle of today's Nagourney dispatch about the growing confidence expressed by Democrats in Iowa:

White House aides sought to counter even those measured expressions of optimism. They noted Mr. Bush's high approval rating, close to 60 percent in some polls, and the likelihood that he might be leading the nation through a war at the very time that Democrats would be seeking to persuade Americans not to support him.

So what you're saying is, we here at the White House are counting on a war to improve our domestic political standing.

If Saddam didn't exist, Cheney, Rummy et al would have to invent him. Oh ... right.
Thursday, January 09, 2003
Prediction - Dividend Tax Repeal is DOA.
Bush's dividend tax repeal will not become law, because not enough people want it. (And there are a lot of people who don't want it. It screws states and local governments; it puts young companies in general, and tech companies in particular, at a competitive disadvantage; it's extremely complicated; it makes moderate members of both parties, who were critical supporters of the first tax cut but who also care about the deficit, very nervous; it won't stimulate the economy; and it clearly fails to help middle-class people in favor of helping the wealthiest.)

To be sure, you could say most of the same things about the estate tax cut, and that became law. But I think this is different, for three reasons. First, the deficit is a more obvious threat to the long-term health of the economy now and moderates of both parties will find the cut hard to swallow. Second, Democrats need to demonstrate they are still Democrats, and soon. Third, and this is just a hunch, but I think lots of people probably did not understand that the estate tax would not affect them, but everyone knows whether they're paying taxes on dividends, and how much. And for most people, it's not much. (Edited to fix a typo.)
Tuesday, January 07, 2003
Brought to You by the Number Seventy-Eight.
Still no DSL connection here in RobbedbyaFountainPen Land, so I'll stick to short and infrequent posts. Here's one on the subject du jour, the dueling Bush & Democratic economic proposals.

The important point, for both policy and politics, is not that Bush is proposing another tax cut for the rich. The point is that he is not proposing a tax cut - or any other meaningful economic stimulus - for everyone else. His proposal would do very little for those hit hardest by the economic downturn, would do very little to revive the economy, and would do very little for the states (many of which are facing huge budget shortfalls and are constitutionally prohibited from running a deficit - so they will have to raise taxes and/or cut spending, both of which will further dampen the economy).

In that spirit, I present today's most revealing number, 78. Seventy-eight is the percentage of people earning less than $100,000 who report no income from dividends, as calculated by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and reported in the New York Times. For more detailed distribution tables, click this link to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

So far, the media - and far too many Democrats - have only focused on the astronomical sums going to the very richest among us. That's a loser, both because most people do not begrudge the rich their money and also because they believe they will be among the very richest among us, if they are not already. (See here and here.)
Monday, January 06, 2003
Star Wars and Caviar.
Today's Quote:

"We can't make the mistakes of trying to have guns and butter." Amy Call, a spokeswoman for the White House budget office explaining sharp cuts proposed for non-defense discretionary spending in the Washington Post.

For the record, there's plenty of budget for both guns and butter. The question is one of priorities. On the "butter" side, for instance, the Post reports that the administration is proposing to slash $300 million from the low-income home energy assistance program. That sum is a drop in the bucket compared to the administration's massive tax cut, which goes largely to those making more than $373,000 per year.

One source in the Post article said as many as 500,000 people could lose their home energy assistance if the administration gets its way. The move is also contrary to the Bush-Cheney campaign promise to increase support for the program. (See Governor George W. Bush: A Comprehensive National Energy Policy, September 29, 2000.) The campaign was not famous for initiatives to help the needy; it's discouraging to see them back away from one of the few promises they made.

As for the "guns" part of the equation, the administration also has backward priorities, cutting pay increases for military personnel and benefits for vets, while supporting boondoggles like "star wars" missile defense that are unlikely to do anything to make America safe.
Sunday, January 05, 2003
Weekend Wrapup.
Don't miss these recent environmental stories:

Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News reports: "The dramatic die-off of 33,000 salmon last fall along the Klamath River in Northern California was directly caused by the Bush administration's decision to pump extra water from the river to farmers, biologists from the California Department of Fish and Game have concluded." The report is not yet available on the CDFG website. (Merc link via Joseph Arrieta at Kos's Political State Report.)

The SF Chronicle reports that a recent court ruling restricting water releases down the Trinity River has people warning that similar fish kills could occur there.

Eric Boehlert (Salon Premium) on how Time Magazine did not let the facts get in the way of a good story line: "According to the same CNN/Time poll, just 50 percent trust [Bush], while 48 percent do not. Basically it's a tie, given the poll's margin of error of 3.5 percent. But that doesn't stop Time from insisting, "Most Americans are inclined to give Bush the benefit of the doubt; they trust his motives and approve of his performance." Most Americans?"

Mike Dombeck, Chief of the Forest Service during the second part of the Clinton-Gore Administration, writes about water, the forgotten forest product.

Rachel Odell reports that the US Fish & Wildlife Service has released its bull trout recovery plan for much of the Pacific NW.

Governor McGreevey signs up for the 'War on Sprawl.' "After eight dismal years, I think we've restored the public's faith. They know that the environmental cop is back on the beat," says New Jersey Environmental Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell.

Two new studies by researchers from the Universities of Texas, Wesleyan, Stanford and elsewhere in the journal Nature conclude that global warming is already forcing species around the world to move (if possible) or adapt. A degree or two of temperature change could have dramatic consequences for agriculture and ecology. Even if all species could migrate quickly, there is so much fragmentation of habitat that they might have nowhere to go. (Links: Summaries and full text of the studies; NYT article by Andrew Revkin.)

Credit where credit is due. The Bush Administration appears set to propose a very good environmental standard for diesel emissions. The rule, which would affect construction and off-road vehicles, "would slash off-road diesel emissions by as much as 95 percent and bring them in line with newly adopted standards for heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses that traverse the nation's highways. Off-road diesel engines have been held to a much weaker standard than on-road vehicles since 1977," according to Eric Pianin, who first reported the story. (See also this NYT follow-up.) The proposed rules will be published for review and comment this spring. While many details remain to be worked out - and no final decisions will be made for a while - this is an encouraging sign. (The "newly adopted standards" for buses and trucks Pianin refers to were developed by the Clinton Administration and retained by the Bush Administration.)

See The Forest on the forest, specifically, Clear-Cutting 100-Year-Old Sequoias.
Friday, January 03, 2003
Notice: Slow Blogging to Come.
My home DSL line is on the skids (the provider got out of the business) so my posting will continue to be infrequent until it's replaced.
For The Record: The Top 1 Percent.
Numbers of the day: In my last post, I said the Statistic of the Decade (so far) is the poll showing that 19% of voters thought they were in the top 1% of income earners, and another 20% said they expected to be there one day.

So I looked up how much the top 1% actually make. The answer: more than $373,000 and an average of $1,117,000. The fourth quintile of income earners maxes out at $72,000, so at least some of the 19% are about $300,000 short of where they think they are.

By the way, those making more than $373,000 get about 37% of the President's tax cut. (Source for all numbers in this entry: Gale and Potter, "The Bush Tax Cut: One Year Later," Brookings Institution Policy Brief No. 101, June 2002 at Table 1.)
Wednesday, January 01, 2003
For The Record: Statistic of the Decade (so far):
Happy New Year. I'll be back to active blogging soon. For now, I'll ring in the new year with the first of what I hope will be a regular feature of Robbed By A Fountain Pen - noteworthy facts, statistics, or quotes - just For The Record. I want this to be the first:

During the most recent presidential election a Time magazine-CNN poll asked voters whether they were in the top 1 percent of income earners. Nineteen percent reported that they were, and another 20 percent said that they expected to be there one day.

This explains so much.

(Source: David Brooks (Atlantic Monthly) reprinted by Brad DeLong. I'll post a link to the original poll if I can find it, but so far I have been unable. None of the commentors at DeLong's site had it either. The result has been reported elsewhere, most recently in this year-end NYT piece.)