Hardy the Not So Obscure

Thomas HardyOn this day in 1740, Marquis de Sade was born. He was quite an interesting and twisted guy. He was clearly into torture and humiliation—the kind of thing that is associated with his name. On the other hand, he wasn’t a murderer, as many men who followed in his footsteps. He managed to spend almost half of his life in prison. In fact, if it had not been for the storming of the Bastille, he might well have been put to death. Although certainly not a man I would ever have wanted to be around, he did create some important works and lived a life that can’t be called banal.

The late Romantic-early Modern composer Edward Elgar was born in 1857. Composers who straddle musical periods are usually difficult for listeners and Elgar is definitely that. There is much romanticism to his music, especially in the layering of melodies. But the melodies themselves and the harmonic structure is distinctly modern if still entirely tonal. I appreciate it more than I enjoy it. In general, I prefer Prokofiev or Poulenc, but neither of them were the innovator that Elgar was. And some of Elgar’s music is great fun. For example, here is Yo-Yo Ma playing the second movement of the E-Minor Cello Concerto:

Another fine popular music composer Marvin Hamlisch was born in 1944. An awkward and nerdy man, I don’t think he ever got quite the respect he deserved. He is most known for his Broadway musicals. But I think he was one of the most inspired film composers ever. In particular, his scores for Bananas and The Sting really stand out. He also wrote the music for A Chorus Line, which alone would be enough for a lifetime, even if I think in the context of his career, he was slumming. And then he died much too young from things I would have thought doctors could have prevented. Sad, but here is the brilliant opening credits sequence to Bananas:

Actor Stacy Keach is 72 today. Columnist Frank Rich is 64. And public intellectual Cornel West is 60.

The day, however, belongs to the great novelist Thomas Hardy who was born on this day in 1840. He is probably best known for the novels Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. But I am most fond of his last and most depressing novel Jude the Obscure. It’s interesting that as he got older, his novels got more depressing. Madding Crowd, of course, has a downright happy ending. In Tess and Jude, Hardy provides them enough of a glimpse of happiness to make their short lives all the more heartbreaking. But whereas Tess doesn’t relate quite so well today, Jude could be transformed to a modern American inner city without difficulty.

Interestingly, Hardy considered himself primarily a poet. He wrote almost no prose at all the last 30 years of his life. I’ve tried reading his poetry but I didn’t find it very compelling. But that’s not unusual. People very often don’t appreciate their true talents. And hardy gave us more than enough, even if it wasn’t exactly joy.

Happy birthday Thomas Hardy!

Ibragim and the Gun or Knife or Broom

Abdulbaki Todashev

This is Abdulbaki Todashev holding up a photograph that he alleges is his son Ibragim, who an FBI agent recently killed during an interrogation. Here in the United States we don’t generally believe that law enforcement officers take people into custody and kill them in cold blood. And indeed, in this case, the FBI claims that Ibragim attacked the agent. With a gun.

Or a knife.

Or maybe a samurai sword.

But more likely a metal rod.

No. A broomstick. That’s the ticket![1]

As Conor Friedersdorf reported in The Atlantic on Friday, all of these weapons have been reported. And look: I understand. We have yet to get an official statement on this case. What we might be seeing is nothing more than an unfortunate, very public game of telephone. Then again, maybe an FBI agent went on tilt and blew away this young man.

Other parts of the story are suspect. What we think we know is that Ibragim was writing down a confession. The agent looked away. Ibragim used the opportunity to flip the table over, causing the agent fall to the floor. Ibragim came toward him with a broomstick (or whatever), so the agent pulled his gun and shot him several times, knocking the young man back. But Ibragim got back up and came at the agent again who fired more times, killing him. Again: we don’t know.

But it looks bad. There are a couple of things. The whole matter of the kid getting back up after he was blown back smells fishy—especially after hours of questioning. What’s more, there was a Massachusetts State Police detective in the house who did not shoot his gun at all. Now, I can see how that could happen. But it smells fishy. And that brings us back to Abdulbaki Todashev’s photographs of his son. If they are real, how did Ibragim get shot though the top of his skull? This whole story smells worse than an unregulated Asian seafood market.

My guess at this point (and that’s all it is), is that Ibragim did come after the agent. And the agent freaked out. He totally lost it and killed the kid when a calmer person might have shot the kid, but wouldn’t have unloaded on him. At this time (and I’m very eager to know more), it seems unlikely that the agent killed Ibragim without any cause. But on the other side, this just doesn’t look justified. Time will tell.

[1] Some broomsticks are metal rods, so it could be both. However, a wooden broomstick is actually a better weapon; the metal kind are flimsy.

War on Terror With No Name

Terry AdamsTerry Adams wrote a really good overview of the Glenn Greenwald-Andrew Sullivan debate about the definition of terrorism, Aren’t Religion and Politics Both to Blame for War on Terror? Although he tries to be scrupulously fair, I’m afraid he comes down pretty far on the Greenwald side.

This reminds me very much of the left-right economic debate in this country. On the left, we say that economic stimulus is not often that effective in helping the economy. Basically, it is only useful when the economy is in a liquidity trap and that’s only happened twice in the last century: first during the Great Depression and second now. This is not a radical theory. But on the right, the argument is rigid and extreme: stimulus never works. In this case, you have one side (the left’s) that is simply the consensus view that pretty much everyone who isn’t a ideologically dogmatic to the conservative cause agrees with. People who try to split the difference are just showing their ignorance.

In this terrorism debate we get much the same thing. On the left, we say that American foreign policy is a large part of cause of terrorism. When we bomb innocent civilians (accidental though it may be), we create enemies and make the people far more receptive to radical ideologies like martyrdom and jihad. This isn’t to excuse the behavior or to say that this is the sole cause. Just as with the economic stimulus example, this is a nuanced position. On the right, we get Andrew Sullivan screaming that any notion of causation in terrorism is a form of apologia. And what’s more that there is something special about Islam that makes it a violent religion.

I think what lies beneath this fight is really the ideology of what we wish to do. Greenwald and I would like to see the United States stop propping up dictators and trying to bomb our way to victory in the War on Terror With No Name. On the right they would like to see American hegemony throughout the Middle East. I’m sure that we on the left could be somewhat clearer about our aims. But on the right, I’m not even sure they are honest with themselves. Instead of admitting to their imperialistic goals, they claim that terrorism represents some kind of existential threat to the country. But as bad as 9/11 was, it was not an existential threat. And it is by far the worst we’ve seen.

The American people should be offered a clear and honest alternative. Do we want to be an imperialistic meddler all over the world? This has the upside that our corporations have great access to cheap resources and labor. And the people get the benefit of slightly cheaper prices. But the down side is that the War on Terror With No Name goes on forever while the threat only increases. Or do we want to be more modest in our conception of our national interests? This has the upside that it will cause fewer American and foreign deaths. But the downside is that corporate profits will be slightly lower and manufactured goods will be slightly more expensive.

I think that Americans are at heart a “live and let live” kind of people. I think that they would be horrified to get a good look at what our government does on our behalf. But maybe I’m wrong. The only way we can know is if the media start telling the truth. And the first step in that endeavor is to get rid of narrative that terrorism is an existential threat to the country and that the War on Terror With No Name is not about keeping America safe.

Reform Social Security App

Poor Family by Dorothea Lange

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) is not one of my favorite groups. But they are a smart and reasonably honest group. They’ve created an interactive tool that allows the user to change the benefits and revenues for Social Security. It is way cool and a whole lot of fun. But it is also Chicken Little style propaganda.

When you start the app, the title reads, “Social Security remains insolvent. The trust fund will run out in 2033 at which point all beneficiaries will face a sudden 23% benefit cut.” As regular readers ought to know, Social Security is not a big problem.

What they’ve written there is true, but it could be put in a more neutral way, “Social Security will be able to pay full benefits for the next 20 years; at that time, it will only be able to pay 77% of the benefit level at that time; we usually overstate the problem.”

Using the App

Overall, the app is really great. But even without playing with it, it provides a lot of useful information. For example, how much of the shortfall would Chained-CPI eliminate? Only 21%. And if we provide a fix for retirees who live a long time, this number drops to 16%. The app also allows you to increase benefits. I would prefer to have more flexibility than the program allows, but it is still pretty useful.

Reduce Benefits

On the benefit side, the app allows you to slow the growth at which initial benefit is calculated. Unless you apply this to half or more of retirees, this saves almost nothing. For example, if you apply it to only the upper class (top 20% of earners), it saves 3%. I’m not for reducing benefits regardless.

Social Security is actually a pretty stingy program as it is. You can also increase the retirement age. I really don’t understand the mentality of people who call for this. It seems like a way for people in pleasant high paying jobs who don’t ever want to retire to make people in back-breaking jobs do the same. Bad idea.

And as I said, you can apply Chained-CPI. I went with increasing benefits by using the CPI-E that better reflects the cost of living increases experienced by older Americans. That cost me 15%.

There are a couple of Disability reforms proposed. Two of them are pretty stupid: put further limits on the program (saves 4%) and force people out of disability at 62 (saves 5%). I did go along with 5% savings from reductions in fraud and over-payment. But I immediately lost the 5% by providing a guaranteed minimum benefit of 125% of the poverty level. You could also offer an old-age bump, but that only makes sense if you are doing Chained-CPI. And you could restore college benefits for kids up to the age of 22. I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but I didn’t do it.

There are three other benefit reductions. It’s shocking but 12% can be saved by basing the initial benefits on 38 rather than the current 35 years. Bad idea. Surprisingly, 8% is saved by phasing out benefits for people in the top 1% of income earners. I know the argument against this: if Social Security isn’t universal, it will become vulnerable. I don’t accept that. Social Security is safe because old people vote. Period. So I’ll go for that one, but I’m not wedded to it. The app also allows you to cut survivor benefits. Another bad idea.

Increase Revenue

Finally, we get to my favorite part: revenues. As you all should know by now, I’m a big proponent of raising the payroll tax cap. Right now, people only pay it on the first $114,000 of earnings. Raising it would produce a lot of revenue. Eliminating the cap altogether has two problems. First, there is the vulnerability problem. I don’t think it is real. Second, there is the tax avoidance problem: rich people would figure out ways to make all of their incomes capital gains or some other such scheme. That’s a real problem and so I think Social Security reform must be done in a larger context of tax reform. (By that I mean real tax reform and not a euphemism for “reducing taxes on the rich.”)

They offer three choices: eliminate the cap and increase benefits on high income earners; raise the cap to include 90% of all income (it is 84% now, which is lower than it used to be); or add a 3% surcharge on all income made above the current cap. All of these ideas are above the savings gotten from the other cuts and revenue increases: 77%, 32%, and 24%. I went with the full repeal of the cap.

All of these choices put me at, “Social Security remains insolvent. The trust fund will run out in 2061 at which point all beneficiaries will face a sudden 15% benefit cut.” I’m not finished, but I want to note that the trustees’ report normally assumes a very slow increase in economic growth. So even though I’ve only pushed the program out to 85% of benefits in 50 years, that’s probably enough. But I’ll go ahead and finish.

There are other ways to increase revenue. One is to force new state and local employees who are not in the program to start paying into and getting benefits out. I think that’s a good idea and it will save 9%. Currently, people pay their payroll taxes on income before 401(k) contributions, but they are paid on income after things like insurance. We could throw the insurance in with the 401(k). I don’t think that’s a great idea, but I’m willing to do it for a savings of 9%. Again: I’m not wedded to it. And we could fully tax Social Security income. I don’t want to do that.

Finally, we could invest in the stock market. That’s a bad idea. But note, if we did something like Bush’s “carve out” to allow people to invest part of their Social Security in the market, it would hurt the program’s finances.

My final score: “Social Security remains insolvent. The trust fund will run out in 2076 at which point all beneficiaries will face a sudden 16% benefit cut.” I’m fine with that. It doesn’t make sense to think about this stuff too far into the future; 63 years is good enough.

Social Security Reform


I went back to the app to see what it said if I got rid of the 75 year shortfall. It reported, “Social Security will be solvent over the next 75 years, but 54% of the gap between spending and revenue remains in the 75th year, meaning the program is not yet sustainable.”

So even when you do what the program asks, the CRFB still wants to scare you. In order to be congratulated, you must reduce the 75 year shortfall by over 200%. Removing the payroll tax cap and reducing COLA to “CPI minus 1%” only gets you to 169%. So CRFB is only happy if you savage Social Security.

Image by Dorothea Lange (in the public domain).

ADHD Cured by a Good Night’s Sleep?

KidSleepingThere are many titles we see floating around about how we can “cure” ADHD. Just now I read a blog fromThe Daily Beast entitled “A Cure for ADHD?,” written by Ashley Merryman. It points out that this ADHD brain type and its related behaviors can be the result of a poor night’s sleep due to sleep apnea. The solution, according to this article, is a surgical procedure which would include a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. There was supposedly a study done about it and everything.

Instead of immediately discounting this theory (I will do that later), let’s assume it has some validity, that snoring leads to poor sleep quality, which leads to hyperactivity, which leads to a clinical diagnosis of ADHD. But before we start yanking parts out of our kids unnecessarily, why don’t we look at the things that cause snoring? An article on the Mayo Clinic website lists such things like “alcohol consumption, allergies, a cold, and…(excessive) weight,” among others as being the causes of snoring. The general idea is that snoring is the result of enlarged tonsils and/or sinus tissue.

Now let’s take these common causes, one-by-one, and dissect them, so-to-speak. The first one on the list, alcohol consumption, can be disregarded. We don’t let our children drink alcohol, do we? Colds are temporary. The other two options, allergies and excessive weight, are things over which we can have control. A child’s weight can be modified, and allergies can be alleviated through various methods. I plan to discuss allergies in another blog, soon, particularly food allergies.

Mostly, I feel that the idea that sleep dysfunction causes ADHD is false. If a child can simply get rid of the symptoms with a good night’s sleep, then they didn’t have ADHD in the first place. Here is a quote from an abstract in PubMed.gov: “Recent genetic and neuroimaging studies…provide evidence for separate contributions of altered dopamine (DA) and serotonin (5-HT) function in (ADHD).” Once again, here is information validating the link between genetics and the ADHD brain type, and that it can be the result of multiple causes.

If parents and pediatricians want to get together and discuss surgery to alleviate snoring, that is their option. On the other hand, if they think a tonsillectomy is going to cure ADHD, I’m not a believer. Any surgery that would “cure” an ADHD brain would be much more complicated and would actually involve a brain.

(Image courtesy of Feelart and FreeDigitalPhotos.net)