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“Ask the wizard”: Grandpa Simpson babbles nonsense again

I think that many people believed that George W. Bush and Sarah Palin were members of a new breed of conservative politicians who were mean as snakes, dumb as posts and spoke gibberish instead of English. Not true. They've been around forever:

"The AARP, I mean, come come," [Alan] Simpson said to an audience of Washington insiders. "If you can't understand that when I was a freshman at the University of Wyoming, there were 17 people paying into the system and one taking out, and today there are three people paying into the system and one taking out -- if you can't understand that it was never set up as a retirement program, it was an income supplement which became a retirement, if you can't understand it was never structured to handle disability insurance, it couldn't exist with that burden on it. If you can't understand it didn't take care of kids at 22 going to college, we can't make it."

Simpson went on to reference a recent interview with Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim, who presented Simpson with evidence that one of the statistics he deployed in his Social Security arguments was misleading.

"Now the great sharpshooters are out there and the cat food commission cats and all those guys using these distorted figures," Simpson told the crowd. "And I always say, look, if you torture statistics long enough, eventually they'll confess."

In truth, Social Security was indeed established as a retirement program.

Lately, Simpson has been fond of claiming that the average life expectancy when Social Security was created was just 63 years of age, much lower than today. But the figure that actually matters for Social Security finances is the life expectancy for people who live to 65, the age at which benefits kick in. That number hasn't changed much since 1940.

In an interview with The Huffington Post following his remarks, Simpson reiterated his attack.

"I was talking about the guy who called me and went through this exercise of sharpshooting," Simpson told HuffPost. "And if he can't understand a couple or three things then there's no help. Forget all the crap he's going through and know that if you -- if 17 people were paying into this system in 1950 and one taking out, today there are three paying in and one taking out. I'd like you to refute that."

Can't someone draw him a picture or something? Or just direct him to the social security administration web site? Here's the explanation of the life expectancy question:

If we look at life expectancy statistics from the 1930s we might come to the conclusion that the Social Security program was designed in such a way that people would work for many years paying in taxes, but would not live long enough to collect benefits. Life expectancy at birth in 1930 was indeed only 58 for men and 62 for women, and the retirement age was 65. But life expectancy at birth in the early decades of the 20th century was low due mainly to high infant mortality, and someone who died as a child would never have worked and paid into Social Security. A more appropriate measure is probably life expectancy after attainment of adulthood.

As Table 1 shows, the majority of Americans who made it to adulthood could expect to live to 65, and those who did live to 65 could look forward to collecting benefits for many years into the future.

Or maybe he could read Nancy Altman's book The Battle For Social Security where she spells out the worker to retiree issue so plainly that even Alan Simpson should be able to wrap his addled mind around it:

… all pension programs that require a period of employment for eligibility, private as well as public, show similar ratios at the start, because all newly covered workers are paying in, but no one in the newly covered group has yet qualified for benefits. The president could just as accurately have said that in 1945, the ratio of works to beneficiaries as 42 workers paying in for every one beneficiary or the equally accurate but misleading ratio from 1937, 26 million workers paying in for about a dozen beneficiaries.

… what is important is not the worker-to-beneficiary ratio at the start of the program but the ratio when the program reaches maturity. Consistent with the meaninglessness of the 16-to-1 factoid, the worker-to-beneficiary ratio was halved to eight workers for every beneficiary within five years, and by 1975, the ratio was where it is today. The 1994-1996 advisory council had not agreed on much, but it made one very valuable contribution. Its report included the appendix that stated that "the fundamental ratio of beneficiaries to workers was fully taken into account in the 1983 financing provisions, and, as a matter of fact, was known and taken into account well before that...

That's right. And as a matter of fact some of the people who created the program are still around to testify about what they intended. Also from Altman's book:

Bob Myers watched Bush on television from his home right outside Washington and stared in disbelief. In 1934, not only could Myers foresee the world as it changed, he had forecast these changes with great specificity. He was the one who had crunched the numbers for Roosevelt's Social Security proposal. Myers and Otto Richter, the senior actuary with whom he had worked, had been extremely farsighted. Myers knew, in 1934, that people in the twenty-first century would live longer and draw benefits longer.

As it turned out, Myers and Richer were a shade too conservative in their projections, believing the percentage of the population that would be elderly in the future would actually be higher than it turned out to be. Specifically, in 1934, he and Richter projected that, in year 2000, 12.7 percent of the population would be age 65 or older. How accurate were they? According to the 2000 census figures, the percentage of those aged 65 and over was 12.4 percent of the population.

So no, these Social Security actuaries over the years have not been total morons who need Alan Simpson to point out that they were total dopes by not foreseeing that people would probably live longer in the future or that there would be more people paying into the system than collecting from it in the early years of the program's existence.

And by the way, the unexpected post-war baby boom was dealt with by having all of us pre-pay a ton of money into the system that would make up for the fact that we were a larger than normal demographic. We invested that money in an unusual financial instrument called a US Treasury bill, the same one that Bill Gates and Lloyd Blankfein and The People's Republic of China buy because they are considered the world's safest investment. It's not like we didn't all do the prudent thing.

Huffington Post concludes with this:

"Repeating a false claim over and over again does not make it true," said Frank Clemente of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition over 270 national and state organizations dedicated to protecting Social Security from benefit cuts. "Those who continue to use this canard show they are more interested in tearing down Social Security rather than making it stronger. Social Security has a huge surplus today but a long-range gap in 25 years that can be closed relatively painlessly if the richest two percent of Americans started paying Social Security taxes on all their wages -- like nearly all other Americans do."

Good idea. But they've all threatened to go on strike because it just wouldn't be worth it to them to work anymore and our whole civilization would come down around ears.

Finally, please, someone tell Simpson to pipe down and take his nitro glycerin before he has a heart attack from all the gibberish:

"I know all the stuff [Ryan Grim] goes through. Its like gymnastics! Yes and we've done distributional analysis. Ask him if he knows what that is! Ask the wizard if he knows what distributional analysis is! We did that. And then ask him what we did for the seniors, for the older old and the people who are in poverty. Ask the wizard all that and then get back to me."

He then shouted, "I'm through!" and walked away.

God, if only ...



Food Storage and Preservation Class Starting Next Week! [Casaubon’s Book]

It seemed up here in the north that spring would never come - and now we're headed rapidly into that time of year when everything is ripe and abundant in our gardens and at local farms, and learning to put food up can make it possible for you to enjoy summer in winter, and continue eating locally as long as possible. It can be overwhelming when you start preserving, so if you'd like a friendly voice to walk you through it, please join us, starting next Tuesday!

The class is on-line and asynchronous, and you can participate at your own pace. Every week we'll have projects involving what's growing in gardens and markets to get you familiar with the basics of preserving the harvest, and also help you build up food security by building up a reserve of stored food.

My hope is that at the end of the class, everyone will have a plan for how they want to go about increasing their food storage reserves, and will have tried the major methods of food storage. You will be able to watch the jars increase as the class goes on, and you'll be ready for peak preserving season.

Here's a rough syllabus:

Week 1, May 31 - Introduction to Food Storage, How much, where to put it, and how? Can I afford this? Low energy overview of food preservation methods. Storing Water, making space.

Week 2, June 7: Water bath canning 101, Preserving with Salt, Sugar and Honey, Bulk purchasing, sourcing local foods, finding food to preserve, what food storage can and can't do.

Week 3, June 14: Dehydration basics, Tools you need and where to get them, Menu making and how to get people to eat from your pantry, Setting up your kitchen for food storage, Storing herbs and spices, Sourdoughs and grain ferments, Preserving foraged foods.

Week 4 June 21: Lactofermentation; Special needs and health issues; Storing food for children, the elderly, pregnant and lactating women; Storing medications, gluten-free storage; Basic dairy preservation and cheesemaking; Building up your pantry and Managing your reserves.

Week 5, June 28: Pressure Canning; Beverages, Teas and Drinks; Preserving in Alcohol, Coops and Community Food Security; More Menus and Recipes; Root Cellaring and in-Garden Storage.

Week 6, July 5: Season extension, Preserving Meats, Sprouting, The next Steps, Getting Your Community Involved, Teaching others, Food Preservation as a Cottage Industry.

We will try and track the seasonal produce coming in, support each other as we experiment with new techniques and build up our pantries as we go - and have a lot of fun! If you are interested in joining, cost of the class is $150 or equivalent barter if we can come to a mutually agreeable arrangement.. I also have three scholarship spots remaining for low income participants who would otherwise be unable to afford to take the class. If you'd like to donate to the scholarship fund, just let me know - 100% of your donation goes to making classes available to low income participants. Email me to enroll or with questions at

Ok, off to do something with the rhubarb coming in!


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Also check out the featured ScienceBlog of the week: Inside the Outbreaks on the ScienceBlogs Book Club


GOP Congressional Members

Caucus behind closed doors with Paul Ryan to respectfully discuss the tricky position that his Bold and Serious Plan to Destroy Medicare puts them in.


Fall into the gap

Brad DeLong is not a drama queen. So when he writes this, I think it's probably a good idea to pay attention:

Time to push the panic button.

Macroeconomic Advisers is revising their tracking forecast of real GDP growth in the second quarter. It now looks as though, come July 1, that there will have been no gap-closing in the six quarters since the start of 2010.

That means that it is:

  • Time for Quantitative Easing III...
  • Time for pulling more spending from the future forward into the present, and pushing more taxes from the present back into the future...
  • Time to use Fannie and Freddie to (temporarily) nationalize mortgage finance and fix the ongoing foreclosure crisis...
  • Time for a weaker dollar...

I don't have an opinion on the solutions. But then none of them seem likely to happen as we go into presidential campaign. Scary.



Human echolocation activates visual parts of the brain [Neurophilosophy]

WE all know that bats and dolphins use echolocation to navigate, by producing high frequency bursts of clicks and interpreting the sound waves that bounce off objects in their surroundings. Less well known is that humans can also learn to echolocate. With enough training, people can use this ability to do extraordinary things. Teenager Ben Underwood, who died of cancer in 2009, was one of a small number of blind people to master it. As the clip below shows, he could use echolocation not only to navigate and avoid obstacles, but also to identify objects, rollerskate and even play video games. 

Very little research has been done on human echolocation, and nothing is known about the underlying brain mechanisms. In the first study of its kind, Canadian researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of two blind echolocation experts. Their findings, published today in the open access journal PLoS ONE, show that echolocation engages regions of the brain that normally process vision.  

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No dice to Medicaid cuts

I have long felt that it was unlikely that the President would allow substantial cuts to health care programs, since it is his signature issue. But since everyone in DC has come down with Deficit Fever, I've become a little bit worried that he might be coerced into cutting Medicaid since it's seen by many people as a "welfare" program and who likes that? (This was why I was always more worried about Social Security --- it's not a health care program and so less likely to be protected by the president in a Grand Bargain.)

If Gene Sperling's words this morning are any indication, the White House is not going to use health care as a bargaining chip:

He said Mr. Ryan has “put himself in a box” with his unwillingness to raise tax revenue. He said this forced Republicans to call for “very severe cuts” that if “explored” by Americans “they would not be proud of.”

Mr. Sperling attacked the House Republican proposals to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid, saying that the $770 billion in savings Republicans wanted from changing Medicaid would be unneccessary if Republicans would agree to roll back certain tax cuts.

“You can’t say to anybody who would be affected by that, that we have to do that, that we have no choice,” he said. “The fact is that all of those savings would be unnecessary if you were not funding the high income tax cuts.”

He also said that Mr. Ryan was wrong when he said that raising taxes as part of a broader package would hurt economic growth.

“Everything he said I heard nine million times in 1993,” said Mr. Sperling, who was NEC deputy director in the Clinton administration and later became Mr. Clinton’s national economic adviser.

This is really important. Sperling has ben one of the foremost proponents of the Grand Bargain and this pretty unequivocally takes Medicaid cuts off the table.

It will always be vulnerable --- whenever the Republicans get the chance they will try to cut Medicaid, especially once it is expanded to cover more people. They will be desperate to call it a welfare program that somehow is keeping people from being productive members of society. But if the Dems can at least protect what exists now and get the expansion enacted it will be harder. Sperling's comments were terribly important in that it positioned it as a safety net program that helps the middle class as much as the poor and I'm not sure most people know that.

Update: Dday has the full transcript of Sperling's remarks:

And I say this to everybody in this room, there is enormous discussion about the revenue side and the Medicare side. But from a policy perspective, from a values perspective, we should be very deeply troubled by the Medicaid cuts in the House Republican plan. I want to make clear what they are. This is not my numbers, this is theirs.

After they completely repeal the Affordable Care act, which would take away coverage for 34 million Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office. After they’ve completely repealed that, they do a block grant that would cut Medicaid by $770 billion. In 2021, that would cut the program by 35 percent. Under their own numbers, by 2030, it would cut projected spending in Medicaid by half. By 49 percent. So, of course– I don’t think– or imply any negative intentions or– lack of compassion. But there is a tyranny of the numbers that we have to face.

And here’s the tyranny of the numbers. Sixty-four percent of Medicaid spending goes to older people in nursing homes or families who have someone with serious disabilities. Another 22 percent goes to 35 million very poor children. Now I ask you, how could you possibly cut 35 percent of that budget and not hurt hundreds of thousands, if not millions of families who are dealing with a parent or a grandparent in a nursing home, or a child with serious disabilities. How is the math possible.

If you tried to protect them mathematically, you would have to eliminate coverage for all 34 million children. Now I know some people didn’t like when– the President mentioned that this was going to be very negative for families, for those amazingly brave parents. And he may be one of them in our country, who have a child with autism or Down’s and who just are enormously committed and dedicated to doing everything they can to give their child the same chance– every other child has.

But here’s the reality. Medicaid does help so many families in those situations. Over the years, we’ve allowed more middle class families who have a child with autism to get help in Medicaid. There’s a medical needy program that says when you spend down– we’ll– we’ll count the income after you’ve spent down medical costs.

There’s a Katie Beckett (PH) program that was passed by President Reagan that says if you have a child that’s in need of institutional care– you can get help from Medicaid. This is– this is a life support for many of these families. But these are the optional programs in Medicaid. These are the ones that go to more middle class families. If you’re going to cut 49 percent of projected Medicaid spending by 2030, do you really think these programs will not be seriously hurt.

So when we say that there– that the tyranny of the math is that these– these– this Medicaid– program, this Medicaid cut will lead to millions of poor children, children with serious disabilities, children with autism– elderly Americans in nursing homes losing their coverage or being– or– or having it significantly cut, we are not criticizing their plan. We are just simply explaining their plan.

Can any American know that that none of these things will ever happen to them?



Legislative Analyst’s Office Slapped Down by Federal Government

One core piece of the Legislative Analyst's Office's attack on HSR was their suggestion that California follow the lead of Scott Walker and Chris Christie and demand that we be allowed to use federal rail funds for other purposes, including delaying their expenditure. I predicted that the feds would not go along with this, and that the LAO would have known this if anyone on their staff actually had a clue about HSR.

Today we learn that I was right and the LAO was wrong:

Federal officials say that a 2012 deadline to start construction of a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail system in California is firm and can't be postponed.

The U.S. Transportation Department said in a letter Wednesday to the California High-Speed Rail Authority that regulators have no authority to change the deadline. The department also says it won't allow the state to move the first stretch of track from the Central Valley to a coastal city.

The LAO ought to toss out their report and start from scratch, this time with people who actually know a thing or two about HSR, interview people who have worked on HSR, gather stats from other countries (and from the Acela) on HSR, assess the benefits of HSR as well as the costs of not building HSR, and produce a report that actually provides some informed discussion and recommendations that are based in reality and respect what the people of California voted to do.

The report has made the LAO look foolish and uninformed. For the sake of their own credibility, they would be wise to start over. California deserves a well-informed assessment of the HSR project, not an uninformed hit job that is so easily dismissed.


Carnac Speaks

Answer: Chrysler, Medicare, Osama bin Laden.

Question: Name three things Republicans completely failed to kill.


Do more planets, gas and stars mean less dark matter? [Starts With A Bang]

"We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special." -Stephen Hawking
You're probably familiar with the standard picture of our Universe. You've heard it all before: that the Universe we know of -- stars, planets, atoms, etc. -- is less than 5% of the Universe's total energy. That most of the matter is dark matter, and that most of the energy in the Universe isn't matter at all, but dark energy.


But recently, we've started to discover a couple of interesting things about the atoms in the Universe. First off, take a look up at the night sky, and you'll be greeted by a familiar sight.


(Image credit: Chris Hetlage.)

Stars! Our galaxy -- like all galaxies -- is full of them, as you can see by looking at M46 and M47, above. We've known for a long time that there aren't enough stars in the galaxy to explain what we see gravity doing, so we know that most of the mass in the Universe isn't stars.

At least, it isn't conventional stars. But you might start to wonder, what if there are lots of small, low-mass, very dim stars out there? What if, in fact, there are failed stars out there?


(Image credit: European Space Agency.)

Not just dim, red, M-stars, which still fuse hydrogen into helium, as long as they're about 1/12th as massive as the Sun. But even smaller, lower mass ones. Maybe they can fuse deuterium, which makes them brown dwarfs, or maybe they're just big, Jupiter-like blobs on their own. Regardless, this could be considered some type of "dark" matter, because we don't see it with standard telescopes.

However, there is a very clever way to detect such objects.


(Image credit: STScI.)

When one of these "rogue planets" passes in between us and a background star, we'll see that star briefly brighten and then dim again, thanks to a process called gravitational microlensing. While searches such as MACHO and EROS showed that these objects can't be most of the missing matter, they can still be a significant amount.

An artist's impression of how one the rogue planets acts as a lens, bending the light of a distant star .jpeg

(Image credit: Jon Lomberg.)

And recently, a team has found many more of these planets -- freely floating through space and not attached to any star -- than we thought! Again, it isn't enough to be all (or even most) of the dark/missing matter, but it's something!

We can also look at other things that have mass: things that aren't stars, planets, or other collapsed objects. Things like interstellar gas and dust, like Bok Globule B68.


(Image credit: European Southern Observatory.)

After all, if there's plenty of gas and dust, maybe that could be some of the dark matter, too! In fact, it's just been discovered that there's plenty of this, too, in the Universe. It's actually really cool. When we look far out in the Universe, we can map out where the galaxies we can see are.


(Image credit: 2dF galaxy redshift survey.)

You'll notice that the shape of this looks like some type of web, or network. (Someone has even pointed out to me that it looks a lot like a series of neurons in the brain!) If we try to simulate structure in the Universe, we get something that matches observations (and neurons) very well.


(Image credit: Mark Miller, Brandeis Univerity; Virgo Consortium for Cosmological Supercomputer Simulations.)

If you look at the "nodes" above, that's where you're going to find the greatest concentrations of galaxies clustered together. But if you look between the nodes, along the imaginary lines connecting them, you'll find a few, small galaxies, sure. But you'll also find X-rays, which come from the collapsing gas clouds!

Structure Formation animated gif

(Animation courtesy of In The Dark.)

So, if there are more rogue planets than we thought, and more dim stars than we thought, and more intergalactic gas and dust than we thought, is it possible that we don't need dark matter? Or, a little more conservatively, is it possible that we need less dark matter?

There's only one way to decide: let's ask the Universe! We can look at cosmic structure formation, above, as well as...


(Image credit: WMAP Science team and NASA.)

The fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, and...


(Image credit: MAP990403, taken from UIUC's website.)

The primordial abundances of the light elements: Hydrogen, Helium-3, Helium-4, Deuterium, and Lithium.

These are observations we can make that tell us how much "atomic" matter there is -- stuff made out of protons, neutrons, and electrons -- versus how much is truly some new type of matter that doesn't emit light.

And all of these observations -- these independent observations -- point to the same thing: a Universe that's about 4.5% atoms.


(Image credit: Physics for the 21st Century.)

Not only can we not get rid of dark matter, we can't even make a dent in it!

But then, what do these extra planets, dim stars, or gas mean for our Universe?

The truth of the matter is, they simply tell us how that 4.5% of atoms is divided up.


(Chart courtesy of Fukugita and Peebles, 2004.)

It's important and fun to know how the normal matter in the Universe is divided up, and how much of our Universe is made of stars, planets, gas, dust, or anything else you can think of, but no matter how it's divided, you can't replace dark matter with it.

Too many things would be different. Large-scale structure would be all wrong; you'd see too much Silk damping. Nucleosynthesis would be all wrong; you'd have too much helium and too little deuterium. And the fluctuations in the microwave background would be all wrong; the third peak wouldn't be there.

It's why we do the measurements we do, and this is what we learn from them: physical cosmology requires a Universe with 20-25% dark matter, and with just 4-5% of normal (atomic) matter. And what an interesting thing to learn: no matter how the 4.5% of the Universe that's made out of atoms is split up, we still need just as much dark matter to make the Universe the way it is.

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