Friday, August 19, 2011

Hey everyone,
I recently purchased the URL and switched everything from here to a Wordpress account. This will make it easier for people to find my posts and my goal is to do more original reporting as well.

So again, all new writing will be on Please check it out and don't be afraid to comment!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Policy and Debt Collide

After failing to pass a "clean" debt vote, Republican's in Congress are looking for a compromise. The Hill reported today that Senator Jon Kyl said "the GOP would look to a shorter-term increase in the debt ceiling if the talks fail to produce more than $2.5 trillion in cuts." The Treasury has been dipping into reserve funds to forestall the worst case scenario, but those funds will run out in July, and it looks like the GOP is still willing to play politics until the very last moment.

It left me with two questions. 1) What is Kyl thinking? $2.5 trillion worth in cuts?! In a time where most states are strapped for cash Republican's have decided that cutting social programs that millions of American's rely on is OK by them.

Plus, what is a "short term" increase? Congress has voted to raise the debt ceiling every year for the past decade. If the time period is any shorter than that, it means the Republican's aren't kicking the can down the road, they're crushing it.

If you're a politician, the rule of thumb you follow in any crisis is to do no harm. Well, many families are in a crisis right now, and by not raising the debt ceiling Congress will be doing them harm. All the positive "estimates" that economists made for 2011 will be wiped out because, as the U.S. is already broke, there won't be any room to make the investments it needs to execute programs that will help create jobs or make sure families are taken care of. As the majority of the debt is for paying programs such as Medicare and Social Security, asking for $2.5 trillion in cuts means these vital programs will be a part of it.

2) Can the Republican's do math? Even though the Congressional Budget Office has stated numerous times The Affordable Care Act will reduce future deficits, all the GOP talks about is how it will ruin America. But as it will help our fiscal situation, it also saves lives. The law forbids insurance companies from saying no to certain medical treatments, and giving parents the ability to keep their children insured under their plan until they are 26. It also includes tax credits for small businesses, and makes sure seniors can pay for their prescription drugs. I'm not making this up.

But politics has succumbed over policy once again. The Affordable Care Act is better known as Obamacare, and recent polls show 47 percent of American's do not want the debt ceiling raised. A Pew study also found the majority of people are not in favor of raising taxes or cutting benefits. But this is not because they are irrational people, it's because they don't have enough information. Our "leaders" in Congress are supposed to tell us what we need to know so we understand the actions they are taking. Instead, it has become a battle of words and trying to figure out which ones will position their party or candidate to win the next election. Instead of calling them out on it, the media focuses on it and polls the candidates that don't even try to have credibility.

If the emergency funds run out and the debt ceiling isn't raised, it means America will have to default on its loans, leading to an even worse economic down turn than the one we're still recovering from. President Obama has said his decision to vote against raising the debt ceiling while still in the Senate was a mistake; it's the Republican's turn to stop playing politics and deal with the matters at hand.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Building Better Schools, Means Better Buildings

There was big buzz in the education world when the NAACP sued the Department of Education in New York City. On their website they list the reasons for the suit:

  1. The "regular school's children" had library access for a little over four hours so that the "new charter school's kids" could have access for almost seven.
  2. Traditional school students were moved to a basement, where they were next to the boiler room, to make room for their charter school peers, and teachers of the regular students were forced to teach in the halls due to lack of space.
  3. Students in the traditional public school must now eat lunch at 10 a.m. so that charter school students can enjoy lunch at noon
  4. New York state law requires the city to involve parents before announcing its intention to shut down a school or make way for a charter to share a school's space.
But in the Daily News, Stanley Crouch said "The suit is proof of how low a great civil rights organization has fallen since its days of advocating for racial equality in the face of tremendous hatred." He further criticizes the organization, claiming the only reason why they are doing this is because charter schools are non-union. "Poor teaching performance is dismissed or explained away with the position that everything will be just fine if teachers are paid more money and given more benefits. The UFT (United Federation of Teachers) does not admit to its members' inferiority, even if test scores and graduation rates stay stagnant."

We don't know if student's are having class next the boiler room, but do you really think a librarian is telling students in a school that they can't enter the library? That would have to be the meanest librarian ever and the NAACP should focus on getting that librarian out of the school. But there's not much link to this and the teacher's union. Yes, the NAACP and UFT have been on the same side on many battles, but (my uneducated legal analysis) I can't see how a win for the NAACP would also be a win for the UFT. Even politically, does either group really want to be responsible for closing a school?

Now at the risk of sounding old, when I went to high school we had lunch at 10:30am. Yes it was a public school, and no it wasn't a charter. The building was transformed into a school after being a factory for over a decade. In fact, the trucks for American Express still move in and out of a garage right next to it.

It's a small building, and during my sophomore year the principles were forced to accept (because it was considered one of the best schools) around 200 more students then had graduated the previous year. The hallways were always crowded and if your class wasn't on the same floor it usually took over five minutes to get there. In my senior year, rooms in the basement were opened because there wasn't enough space on the other three levels. There was no boiler. Administrators had no choice but to schedule lunch at odd times because the cafeteria was too small to hold everyone. The question then became whether it was better for the students to have lunch early or late. Speaking from experience, eating that early wasn't fun, and by the time my last class came I was so hungry it was hard to concentrate.

There are other parts in the city where classes are being held in trailers. This isn't right, but the problem is not the Board of Education kicking out traditional schools, it's structural. There simply aren't enough schools for the growing young population in New York. So we not only need better schools, we also need better buildings.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

It’s Families Stupid

In Nate Silver's recent post "What Do Economic Models Really Tell Us About Elections?" he argues that it's not much. All in all I agree with his conclusions, but for different reasons. He takes a look at GDP growth and the margin of victory/loss in a presidential election, and shows when you take away inflation, 43 percent of incumbents win reelection. He admits these numbers don't go into why, but that's where I come in.

The fact is GDP doesn't measure what voters really care about and can miss a lot of important aspects to a families quality of life. Pollster's never ask how many people know how much the economy grew in the last quarter. Instead they ask how they feel it is going, and since the majority of voters aren't economists, the only reference they can refer to is themselves. So they think about if they are able to pay the bills, put food on the table, and have healthcare for the members of their family. The reason why Nate's formulas are so off is because GDP, like most macro data, doesn't cover these things. Even basic data like average incomes still don't tell you the whole story. Take a look at the average income for individuals:

Whether incomes have gone up or down, it hasn't lead to a President, or his party, keeping the White House. This was the case in 1976, 1992, and 2000. While there wasn't much change between 2004 and 2008,  there was a drop in 2009 because of the Great Recession, and we all know who won that year.

While pollsters try and figure out what's on people's minds, economists need to try and start doing the same thing. A Washington think tank called the Economic Policy Institute came out with a report titled The Rising Instability of American Family Incomes, 1969-2004. The authors point out that "Part of the reason why family economic instability—sometimes called "income volatility"—has not been extensively examined is that aggregate economic statistics have been relatively stable and favorable. Neither the 1991 nor the 2001 recessions were particularly deep, and inflation and unemployment have remained historically low. Yet.. these broadly stable and favorable aggregate indicators mask many signs of declining economic security among American families."

The report came out in May of 2008, before the Great Recession, but some of the findings might surprise you. It turns out 15 percent of American's saw their salaries decrease between 1969 and 2004, causing serious strain within the family. Right at the turn of the century, levels of family income were extremely violent, where over half of American families saw their earnings drop.

Just because incomes were rising and unemployment was low, didn't mean all families were living the high life. Health care costs soared way over inflation, so even if there were two breadwinners per household, there was still a good chance they couldn't afford health insurance. Not to mention most people received coverage through their job. And future problems are becoming apparent. As the price of food has gone up, it will eventually start affecting a large amount of families.

The unemployment numbers that came out last week weren't good. And yes those and other macro indicators can show politicians where the state of the overall economy is right now. But if politicians want to actually do something about it, they need to look at the root causes of high unemployment, why food prices are rising, and figure out why the cost of health care has been rising. But they can't do this without getting the right information. If a politicians job is to get reelected, they will start demanding the information that will show them how to help their constituents, and economists will start figuring out ways to calculate it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Taxes: Political vs. Reality

It's not every day the Working Families Party and the Manhattan Institute agree on a issue. But in the case of capping property taxes here in New York, they found a common cause.

Last week Governor Cuomo and Republican's in the Senate agreed to cap property taxes by 2 percent for parts of Long Island, Westchester, and most of upstate New York (you're welcome Westchester, I won't bundle you in with the suburbs of Albany, Syracuse, or Buffalo). There was no choice but to lower property taxes. Being that they were already one of the highest in the nation and many families were already tightening their belts as much as they could. But the problem was that the revenue was not made up from anywhere else.

Instead of raising taxes on the wealthy or corporations, New York's legislature cut programs for education, the homeless, and safety. These cuts have had a disproportionate affect on the bigger counties and cities. While 93 percent of counties were able to pass education budgets, New York City's Council is now debating the ways it can stop experienced teachers from being fired. Neither Syracuse, Buffalo, or Albany, figured out how to pass their budgets either.

One of the reasons for the bad employment data that came out today was because state governments cut their budgets. But raising taxes is never a popular move, especially in bad economic times. One of the problems with tax policy is that it's so complicated. The federal code is longer than War and Peace, and it makes it hard in this thirty seconds or less media to explain the effects this compromise will have on the state.

But the fact remains people are willing to pay for the programs that benefit their families like public education and safety. Cuomo got the political victory for getting his agenda passed, but the reality is most New Yorker's are facing the reality of those cuts.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Weiner Isn’t The Most Important Penis Story

With all the penis talk taking place in Washington, it’s a shame that some of the actual horrific or sex trafficking stories don’t get as much attention. The Nation’s Ari Melber wrote about a thirteen year old boy from Syria who was taken from his parents, mutilated, and the entire event was recorded and put on YouTube. The video went viral and because the image is so graphic (the boys penis is shown being cut off) that YouTube took the video down until large amounts of people complained and was put back up.

According to Ari “The boy was separated from his parents at a protest against the Assad government, which allegedly mutilated, castrated and killed him, then returned the corpse to his family, who risked their lives to produce the video. The boy’s father is now reportedly missing as well.

Then in yesterday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote a story about a ten year girl from India whose family might sell her to a brothel. Now don’t forget, you are reading this online and are living in the 21st century, but in India, 90 percent of girls end up in the global sex trade. Kristof conceals the girls identity so she will not be put down by her classmates, but describes how far she has already come in her studies: “Both her parents are illiterate, but she learned English and earned excellent grades in an English-language school for middle-class children outside the red-light district.” The pimps in India go into low income communities looking for attractive young girls. They convince the families to give them the girls by describing the job as a farm hand out in the western part of the country. But once in the brothel, these girls have no defense against any sexual transmitted diseases.

Unfortunately, these stories are not rare. According to UNICEF, 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. Sexual exploitation is the vast majority of the trafficking, with the next being forced labor. It is one of the fastest growing “industries” in the world generating $9.5 billion a year.

The case of Congressman Weiner is a legitimate political issue, but do you really believe he is the only one out there sending pictures of his penis to college girls? I get spammed by fake Twitter accounts almost every day. But this story is getting more attention because Weiner is a member of Congress, and unfortunately the children that Nicholas and Ari described do not get the attention they deserve. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Boehner’s Pork

If you are arguing with your friends about how John Boehner doesn't wield much power, here's some ammunition. When the Republican's took control of the House of Representatives last year, Speaker Boehner said he would put an end to all earmarks. Well, guess what? Lawmakers found a loophole for their own rule.

Instead of directly asking money from a committee, the committee members have set aside money for lawmakers where they can request money to be allocated for their district. Walter Pincus reported that the House Armed Services Committee reserved one billion dollars (that's twenty zeros) for what has been dubbed the Mission Force Enhancement Fund (MFEF). In this Fund, members of Congress could request money for projects in their districts through the appropriate federal agency within the Defense Department. Ironically, or maybe not, even before the bill could be passed half of the money within MFEF was already allocated for members who sit on the House Armed Services Committee.

This proves two things. First, Speaker Boehner can't handle his job. You don't run on reducing the deficit and the size of government, then allow your members to spite you on those very issues. In the 90's Tom Delay threatened to remove members of his own caucus of their chairmanship if he didn't like what they were doing. If Boehner had the same control like The Hammer once did, the Committee chairs would be afraid of applying this run around.

Second, the Tea Party doesn't have as much influence as they like to believe. If members really cared about reducing the deficit and America's debt, they wouldn't take place in this practice. Instead, Freshman members like Congressman Joe Heck walk a tight line between getting the funds their district needs, and making sure they don't get a primary challenge for doing so. Congressman Heck, who is a member of the Armed Services Committee, realizes if a terrorist attack does occur in the high tourist area of Las Vegas, it could be detrimental to the local economy. As someone who recently went there for the first time (I broke even), and wouldn't mind going back one day, I would like to know that I'm safe doing so. Also, as a tourist attraction for people and businesses around the world, you could give a good argument for why terrorists would want to attack the city.

If the Tea Party really had a major influence over what the Republicans were doing, these funds never would have been created. They only represent a tiny proportion of conservative Americans, and the GOP knows they can't retain their majority by exclusively pandering to them. The current speaker hasn't figured out how to handle either of these issues, and instead has let his caucus take votes that he knew would hurt them at the polls leading to its recent defeat in NY26.

Personally, I don't mind members of Congress asking for money. It is part of their job, and if they weren't their constituents would be asking them why they haven't been doing anything. Which happens to be the case for this Congress anyway.