Class Warfare Blog

October 5, 2012

WTF? The Labor Department “Cooked” the Unemployment Numbers?

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 8:24 pm
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The monthly unemployment numbers were announced with the unemployment rate dropping to a recent low of 7.8% resulting in an immediate outcry from conservatives that the numbers were made up, “cooked.” The most prominent of these critics was former G.E. CEO Jack Welch.

I just saw two economists interviewed on the PBS Newshour show earnestly being asked “Golly Gee, can the unemployment numbers be cooked up?”

WTF? How about some skepticism here. Doesn’t anybody ask whether a long retired business executive is in a position to address such a subject. How the hell would he know anything about how this month’s numbers were arrived at? Did he have an opinion last month or any previous month? Does he have a track record as a critic of government labor statistics?

Or is he just a blowhard?

Why do we take seriously people who are just blowing smoke?

Boy, Are We Stupid!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 1:45 pm
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In my former state of residence, California, gasoline prices spiked almost overnight to become the highest in the country. The causes apparently are disruptions in the distribution system (refineries, etc.—it is no accident, by the way, that the oil companies haven’t built a new refinery in 40 years; they make a huge amount of money every time the system has a hiccough).

So, what did the people do? They rushed to gas stations, buying as much gas as they could before the price went up further. That and local shortages were created including gas stations being sold out!

How dumb can you get? They raise prices arbitrarily and we rush to buy more? WTF? Does that work with jeans, too?

How about buying as little gas as you must until the prices come down. Buy enough gas to get through the day. When their sales drop, maybe they will drop their prices, did’ja think?

October 4, 2012

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh, My!

Filed under: Economics,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:20 am
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In an article by Monte Morin in the Los Angeles Times © 2012, the following revelation was proffered:

“Fraud, plagiarism and other forms of misconduct are responsible for the majority of retractions in biomedical journals, according to a new study. The finding, published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contradicts earlier studies that suggest most retractions are the result of errors.

“In a review of 2,047 retracted biomedical papers, study authors found that only 21% were withdrawn due to research error. But 67% were pulled due to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud, duplicate publication and plagiarism. Miscellaneous or unknown reasons accounted for the remaining 12%.”

Gasp, faithful readers of this blog know that I am one of those “science-types.” And I am sure you are dying of curiosity to know what I think about my vaunted colleagues’ behavior.

It is: ho, hum.

Basically, the closer you get to publishing on medicine and the farther you get from basic science the more fraud there is. I came to this realization while trying to find the science behind what seemed to me to be weird nutrition recommendations. (If you are curious it was why high carbohydrate diets (low fat, moderate protein diets are automatically high carbohydrate) were recommended for weight loss when that is what you feed mammals to fatten them up (wheat and corn to cattle, rice to Sumo wrestlers, etc.). If you are interested in the topic, I recommend heartily “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes.)

I was appalled at the poor quality of the research and the thinking behind it.

But, there is money (I mean mucho dinero, really mucho) to be made, so scientists often receive large grants, from people they should not, to do research. The Reynolds’s Tobacco Institute sponsored a great deal of research. And if it didn’t back up the points they wanted to make, it never saw the light of day and those researchers never saw another grant. You can see how the game is played. The same is true to a much higher degree when it comes to pharmaceutical research. Research into patented drugs that doesn’t back up their efficacy finds the inside of a safe. The reason: the value of a “star” pharmaceutical is mind boggling (look up Viagra in Wikipaedia).

This is why drug companies shouldn’t be sponsoring external drug research, unless, unless . . . (are you ready for another of my big ideas?) . . . unless the sponsors create a blind funding source. I am sure you are aware of “double-blind” research studies, where neither the patient nor the doctor know which drug is being administered (so that neither can skew the results), for example. Why not do this with grants for scientific research. Some benevolent agency collects funds from companies for, say, a particular sort of biomedical research. The people collecting the funds in this agency and the people dispensing them are separated from each other. Voila! Trying to please one’s client goes bye-bye, as does the deep sixing of research that doesn’t meet the donor’s criteria. (This is what government sponsored research is: you and I and everybody else contribute a few pennies to a large pool of dollars that are then spent—with no strings attached—for the public good.)

In any case, scientists are human and the closer one gets to “real money,” not the chump change that a professor’s salary represents, the more fraud and deceit will take place (think “Wall Street” with pikers).

So, does this study prove that my field, science, is corrupt? On the contrary, these people got caught and had to retract their work. I wish we had such power over the opinions of politicians!

And, there is room for improvement in the field of scientific research, to be sure.

Will Anything Convince Creationists?

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 8:31 am
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Most American creationists are anti-evolution. Looking around the world it is hard to find any other country which compares with ours in the number of citizens who believe in a creation story and who oppose the theory of evolution because of it. Granted, a majority of the world’s population are not Christians or Jews, but other religions have their creation myths. There doesn’t seem to be any other Western nation with the population of creationists that we have. We seem to be unique.

Convincing creationists of the validity of evolutionary theory is not my goal. But I devoted a great deal of my life’s time and energy as a science educator and feel that rational decision making is a viable approach to coming to peace with the way things are. And the idea that the Earth is only about 6000 years old really bothers me. (The Bible does not say that. It was a biblical interpretation (one of many, by the way).)

I recently read Thomas Paine’s book “The Age of Reason” (yes, that Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense” in revolutionary times) and Paine’s argument against the Holy Bible being an exact guide to reality was that the Bible’s teachings conflicted with “God’s Creation,” God’s Creation being the physical world. This has suggested an approach that might help.

At the date of his writing, the late 1700’s, Paine did not have available much information that is available to us. For example, that of the existence of fossils. When fossils of dinosaurs were first discovered they were mis-identified as being the bones of mythical creatures (giants, dragons, etc.) but are now well known to be the mineralized bones of actual creatures. This suggests an approach to crack into the cognitive dissonance surrounding creationist’s thinking. Along the lines of:

Question Do fossils exist?
It would be hard to answer no, but they aren’t mentioned in the Bible, so I guess this is a possibility.

Question Do you know that the ages of some fossils have been scientifically dated to being millions of years old?
Again, it would be hard to answer no, but I also assume that many people may be ignorant of this basic fact.

Question If God created everything this way, why would he deliberately make it appear something it is not?
Some creationists have tried to answer this question (or its equivalent), but I can’t say how successfully as I am not a creationist. (God is testing our faith?)

I am sure that you can come of with a great many other examples of similar arguments (the age of the Earth is about 4.6 billion years; the age of the universe is about 13.6 billion years, there are 10’s of billions of planets in 100’s of billion galaxies, so one could ask why so many planets, if there isn’t something on them, etc.). The idea being is to create a set of arguments that create so much cognitive dissonance that the two ideas (the creationist’s universe and actual physical reality) could not co-exist.

Why do I care? As I said I devoted much of my career to encouraging people to look at nature and decide for themselves. If one part of one’s brain is completely comfortable with magical thinking, then anything is believable. For example, we are being told by politicians with receipts in pocket from energy company lobbyists, that global warming is a hoax, a myth, while scientists, who also have something at stake (reputations and positions, etc.) almost unanimously say it is real. Who should we believe? If you can’t examine at least some of the evidence (and many do not have the time or the resources) then at least you have to be able to rationally examine the motives and reputations of the people making the claims. This is rational decision making.

And a belief in creationism completely eliminates a commitment to rational decision making.

October 2, 2012

20% Sounds Fair … But I Can Do the Math! (It’s not.)

Mitt Romney’s tax plan calls for a 20% decrease in tax rates across the board! And political pundits across the nation have been asking for details how we can afford to give away $5,000,000,000 of tax receipts. The Romney campaign insists the changes will be “revenue neutral” and the way they are going to pull that off is to close “tax loop holes.”

Well, everybody should be in favor of closing “tax loopholes” and in favor of a tax cut, so this should be a net winner, right?

Not if you can do the math.

The key words are that the 20% reduction is in “tax rates”! This is the key to this redistribution scam. Here are the 2012 Income Tax Brackets

10% is the tax rate for the first $0 – $8,700 of income, then
15% for income between $8,701 – $35,350
25% for income between $35,351 – $85,650
28% for income between $85,651 – $178,650
33% for income between $178,651 – $388,350
35% for income over $388,351

Let me estimate that the bulk of your earnings (after deductions) are taxed at the 15% rate or the 25% rate; that should cover most of the middle class.

The “fair sounding” 20% deduction in rates, lowers the tax rates thus:

10% becomes 8%
15% becomes 12%
25% becomes 20%

35% becomes 28%

So the poorest see their tax rate drop 2% but the richest see their rate drop 7%. So, here’s the deal: would you rather have 2% of a paltry sum or 7% of millions and millions and millions of dollars?

Uh huh, the fat cats are getting a much bigger tax cut than are regular folks.

Would you rather have 2% of a paltry sum or 7% of millions and millions and millions of dollars?

To pay for this, certain “tax loopholes” have to be closed. When people think of tax loopholes they think of corporation’s and rich people’s special laws that give them special privileges, like the “carried interest” rule that allows people like Mitt Romney to pay a much smaller percent of his income in tax than you or I do.

But that is not what they are talking about here. Romney is talking about “loopholes” like your mortgage interest deduction and the college expenses deduction, and for charitable donations, and the deduction for having paid state and local taxes. These are things that don’t quite seem like “loopholes” to most folks. So, the Romney plan takes away with one hand that the other hand gave.

But wait . . . there’s more!

Think about what the mortgage interest deduction means to someone in the middle class. If you were paying $2000 per month on a mortgage, that would allow you to deduct most of $24,000 from your annual income. This is a whopping big tax savings for us. And a whopping big loss if we no longer can deduct that.

But Romney’s class of people? How much do they pay in mortgage interest? (On just their primary residence, not their “vacation homes.”) Let’s say they pay $20,000 per month for a total deduction of much of $240,000 for the year. How much of a dent does that make in someone’s “adjusted gross income” when they are making $15-20 million a year? Not very much.

So, when the mortgage interest deduction (and the others) go “bye-bye” under Romney’s plan the rich will give back very little, while reaping huge benefits. The middle class will see the taxes they pay go up while the rich’s taxes go way down. Mitt Romney is ostensibly against “redistribution of wealth” but not, apparently, when it is in his favor.

And that’s not all! (Must be watching too much TV.)

Mr. Romney’s tax plan includes doing away with capital gains taxes. Capital gains taxes are the taxes one pays on earnings made from investing one’s money. What, you’ve never paid capital gains taxes? Gosh, could it be because you don’t have millions and millions of dollars in Cayman Island accounts to invest?

If capital gains taxes go to zero, Mitt Romney’s federal tax rate goes from 13-14% to approximately 0%. This change is needed apparently because money earned by investing one’s wealth is more honorable than the money you earn by the sweat of your brow or dint of your imagination. WTF? There used to be a principle in this country that capital gains shouldn’t be taxed any lower than ordinary wages as no effort was made in earning them. So much for that. They will claim that the tax reduction will allow more capital to be invested, which will grow the economy. Right. The rich have been harvesting money like it was corn for 20 years and do you see more capital investment? U.S. businesses are sitting on over $2,000 billion dollars of cash. Do you see them hiring folks? Do these cockamamie ideas ever get challenged?

Couple this with the fact that the bulk of “payroll taxes” (basically for Unemployment Insurance, Social Security, and Medicare) are capped at $111,000 of income, which means if you make over that amount, you stop paying them. Let’s see. Given Romney’s 2011 income of about $14 million, he would have stopped paying payroll taxes on . . .  (wait for it) . . . January 4th, 2011 . . . if he actually were being paid that money as wages, which he was not. The Medicare and SS parts of the payroll tax constitute a flat tax of about 7% on your earnings, which added to the effective tax rate you pay via income taxes of roughly 13-14%, you are paying roughly 20% in federal taxes while Romney and his gang are paying at about a 9-12% rate. And even this is just too much for the monied interests of this country, they want their taxes to go down and yours to go up. After all money is power (and free speech) and they were born to wield power and you were not.

So, instead of waiting for Romney to supply his math, I have applied my own. After all it is simple arithmetic. Simple enough that even greedy effing Plutocrats can do it.

October 1, 2012

School Choice—Sounds Good Doesn’t It?

Filed under: Education,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 11:37 am
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Politicians everywhere are touting charter schools and voucher programs as panaceas for what ails our public schools. The question is: is having more choice a good thing? We tend to say “yes” in a knee-jerk fashion, but is it?

Is more choice a good thing?
Often it is, but you can see where this leads to. Modern supermarkets provide bewildering levels of choice for everything from mayonnaise to mortgage plans. (What your supermarket doesn’t have a bank in it yet?) What we don’t often realize is that instead of checking out all of the choices available, we default to our “favorite” brand of mayonnaise because it is just too much work to examine all of the others.

If you were methodical, you could buy the smallest jar of each kind of mayonnaise and taste test each to determine which is best. Even checking which brand gives you the most mayo for the least cost is somewhat daunting. And don’t get me started on breakfast cereal! Who the heck ever convinced us that stuff was good for us in the first place?

So, if there were real “school choice” what would it look like? Okay, let’s say you have a voucher for your kid going to high school. How many high schools are within a reasonable distance from your home? Let’s say there are three. (So, your choices start out being severely limited by something as simple as the number of high school age students in your community.) Let’s also say that one of the three is really good and there are hundreds and hundreds of people on its waiting list but you aren’t one of them. Therefore there are two real options.

“The point I am trying to make is your thinking
has to go a little farther than ‘“choice is good.’”

How are you going to get reliable information on which of these two schools would be better for your child . . . not for just any generic child, but for your musically and mathematically gifted child? Lots of luck figuring that out. Do you think there will be “shopping guides” springing up to help you with your choice? How do you think you will be able to tell if the guide is any good (or just selling reviews like so many do)? More choice.

But, people say that, if there were “real competition,” good schools would be popping up like mushrooms. Ah, so a school having been open for three years with shiny brochures looks really attractive. So, you bite and give them your child to teach and your voucher to pay for it. Assuming in the first place that the voucher would be enough to pay for it, a very unlikely assumption, what are you going to do when that school declares bankruptcy mid year. (Half of all new businesses fail in the first five years. I know, I have had a few.) They can’t return your voucher as they spent it trying to stay solvent. Home schooling may be an option because the remaining “public” schools will not be in a place to do any charity work.

Opening and running a school and doing a good job of it is one of the most difficult things I can imagine. (I think being a high school principal is the hardest job to do well in the country.) I also can’t imagine all of the new start-ups will thrive or even survive.

The point I am trying to make is your thinking has to go a little farther than “choice is good.”

When someone gives you an argument like “if there were “real competition,” good schools would be popping up like mushrooms” try to think of counter examples, like, say, the food deserts in black communities. There is a huge need for stores to sell healthy foods in urban black neighborhoods. Do you see the major chains rushing in to fill that need? Do you see anyone rushing in to serve that need? No? Then what makes you think those same neighborhoods will see a rush of new schools cropping up to harvest those school vouchers?

This actually sounds a lot like another “I’ve got mine, Jack” plan where the well to do folks will get their nice, choice school systems (which they already have) and poor people will just have to fend for themselves.

Wasn’t this why we created public schools in the first place? (A major part of which was to Americanize immigrants from foreign soils.) The same need exists now but the reasons are not just integration of immigrants into our society but more we need economic integration of our poorest communities into the mainstream economy. Education is the best way to accomplish that, but not education as we are doing it now.

And simplistic thinking, like “choice is good” isn’t going to solve our problems.

Our Infrastructure Revisited

In May of 1938, Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s WPA czar, toted up just some of the accomplishments of his Works Progress Administration: 43,000 miles of new roads, 119,000 miles of road improvements, 185,oo culverts, 105 new airports, 12,000 new schools and other public buildings, 15,000 small dams, 10,000 miles of water and sewer lines, and more than 10 million trees planted. To this he added:

These things constitute national wealth and national assets. Any private business which builds improvements
to its physical plant counts these improvements as assets, and considers itself richer because of them.
Government alone counts the cost of such improvements on the red side of the ledger.

Now, these projects were not cheap. Was the federal government in a place where it could easily pay for all of this? Clearly not having recovered much from the Great Depression, the answer is an emphatic “no.” But the political will was there (mostly . . . Republicans were trying to block everything and roll back everything that got passed then as now—consistent they are). But, a great deal of misery was prevented in the process, along with starvation, disease, and declining self worth. Families were saved.

Our current infrastructure woes are well documented. Our roads and bridges alone need over 1000 billion dollars worth of improvements. We need a better power grid, one no so vulnerable to outside meddling. Our infrastructure needs are vast. And, because of the depression, the cost of borrowing money is almost if not zero. Putting American workers to work repairing our roads and bridges would revitalize the construction industry and the economy as a whole. People’s lives will be made better and the “trickle down” effect when those workers spend their wages is real, not imagined. That money will go through many hands during the year. If we wait, the cost of materials, labor, and financing all go up. It is time to proceed. All we lack is the political will.

If President Obama is re-elected do I think the Republicans will see the wisdom of this path and stop blocking it?

I think not.

I don’t think they are bright enough to see past the ends of their noses and when they do they come up with things like “President Obama has turned over interrogation of our prisoners of war to the ACLU.” (Michele Bachmann) The only hope is to re-elect the President, as flawed as he is, and de-elect as many members of the Tea Party Madness as can be.

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