Monday, February 28, 2005

The Gay Superbowl

First, a big, big thank you to my sweet friends Derek and Mike for hosting a great Oscar party with more candy and individual-sized snack packs than a 7-11. I had a blast! (of sugar, which kept me up until 2 a.m., but I have no one to blame but myself.)

The red-carpet pre-show just isn't the same unless Cher is nominated for something. (Slate has a report on the homogenizing Oscar-night fashion trend followed by starlets afraid of ending up on worst-dressed lists in tabloids around the world.)

It was decided at the party that The View should become a reality show where the suckiest hosts get voted off the island, so that we can return Star Jones back to the obscurity she deserves. She looked like she was going to a 1980's theme prom in Alabama in a dress she borrowed from her fatter older sister, shod in Payless pumps. Nothing wrong with being a big girl -- there's more of her to love! -- but wearing a dress that's too big for you doesn't help the illusion. And the HAIR! -- a lovely tribute to Marge Simpson.

Still, she was less distracting than Joan Rivers, who looks more and more like Amanda Lepore every year. Since Amanda Lepore used to be a man, that's not a compliment. For either of them.

In the fashion scene, Cate Blanchett always looks amazing, she has such class. Still, it was agreed that yellow is an odd gown color, unless you're Penelope Cruz. When Oprah strolled down the carpet looking like a million bucks, she easily eclipsed dumpy Star. Natalie Portman's gown seemed inspired by the Charioteer of Delphi, except with cleavage plunging to her pupik. Laura Linney -- a trifecta of fashion terror: gown (ugly color, Frankenstein stitching, and those ruffles!), hair (Dyke on a Bike), and necklace (my dog wants her choke collar back)!

Hilary Swank's gown looked prude from the front (closest thing to a turtle neck we've ever seen at the Oscars), but the back was about 1 milimeter shy of waaaay too much information. Renee Zellwegger's gown was clearly inspired by those heart-shaped boxes of Valentine's Day chocolates trimmed with frilly lace. Honey, you're a blonde, embrace it. Shoe-polish black hair doesn't work. PS, eat something. Gwyneth...if you don't got it, don't flaunt it. Counting Crows Guy...what the hell? Spike Lee: Fez + safety goggles makes you look like you just graduated from shop class.

Okay, on to the ceremony and the winners. Chris Rock did a pretty good job of hosting; the excursion to an inner-city movie theater to see how many fans had seen this year's nominees was hilarious. (Full disclosure: I didn't see any of this year's best picture nominees; I just can't get that interested in hobbit-free movies.) I didn't entirely approve of his putdowns of Tobey Maguire and Colin Farrell. (Notice I did not mention Jude Law.) If there was any doubt as to whether Hollywood has a "liberal bias," it was dispelled with Rock's praise for Fahrenheit 9/11 and his comments on Bush's presidency, which took the form of an analogy to a cash register at The Gap being $70 trillion short and an employee starting a war with Banana Republic over tank tops, only to discover that Banana Republic never made any tank tops. Conservatives presumably have their squarepants in a knot, but face it: your president is a thief and a terrorist so if Hollywood wants to make fun of him, you just need to shut up and take it.

Beyoncé looked and sounded fabulous, but...three songs? Is there no one else in Hollywood who can sing? I guess not, as she was partnered up with milquetoasty Josh Groban, and the evening's other soloist, Antonio Banderas, made composer Jorge Drexler -- who gave the evening's best acceptance speech, er, uh, song -- cringe in his seat.

In terms of acceptance speeches, Jamie Foxx put in a plug for corporal punishment and thanked his grandmother for continuing to "advise" him from beyond the grave. Scary! Hilary, tell me you didn't know you were going to win, everyone else did! What was that speech? First and foremost she wanted to thank her husband, after she'd thanked a lot of other people. (She forgot to thank him last time.)

For me, it was worth sitting through all the monotony and predictability to see Barbra Streisand doing her damndest to keep Dustin Hoffman vertical; he was so soused he made the best-picture nominees sound like the titles of foreign films. (Milluhdollahbubbah???) He almost stole her moment by going ahead and reading the winner, but with a roll of her eyes she managed to snatch the envelope with one hand and prop him up with the other. (Watch it all here.) Then she said she wasn't wearing her glasses and couldn't read the winner, so she had to hand it back to him. A priceless moment that will go down in Hollywood history, for sure.

On This Day in Middle Earth

Entmoot begins.

Eomer returning to Edoras meets Aragorn.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

A Blonde Moment

A friend of mine is studying German and is trying to nail down when to use "dativ" and when "accusativ." She was all excited. She said, "I learned a mnemonic device!...But, I can't remember what it is."

Bush: Sticking to the Message, 27 Years Later

Speaking to the Midland Country Club in Texas on the issue of privatizing Social Security, the New York Times reports that Mr. Bush had this to say:

"Social Security will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes," he said, according to an account published the next day in The Midland Reporter-Telegram.

That was in 1978.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You can't trust this man when it comes to numbers and economic analysis. He was wrong then, and he's wrong now.

On This Day in Middle Earth

Merry and Pippin escape and meet Treebeard.

The Rohirrim attack at sunrise and destroy the Orcs.

Frodo and Sam descend from Emyn Muil and meet Gollum.

Faramir sees the funeral boat of Boromir.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

On This Day in Middle Earth

Eomer overtakes the Orcs near Fangorn Forest.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Best. Hobbit. Ever.

Happy 34th Birthday, Sean Astin!!!

On This Day in Middle Earth

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli reach the west-cliff at sunrise.

Eomer disobeys Theoden's orders and pursues the Orcs from the Eastfold.

Homosexuality Threatens National Security

The United States of America is on the verge of collapse. Not because we are at risk of losing the war on terror or because we face imminent economic catastrophe. Not even because global warming threatens our crops, livestock and cities with natural disasters, or because Janet Jackson showed off one tit for 1.2382975 seconds.

No, the great nation that is America is facing its own obsolescence because of homosexuality.

At least, that's the new legal argument being put forth by conservatives in courtrooms around the country. As an AP report described it this morning, "states have a legitimate interest in barring gay marriage to promote procreation and thus ensure the survival of the state and the species."

The species? So it's not really even the United States. The human race, as we know it, could cease to exist. We're going the way of the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon.

"The fundamental right to marry has always been about procreation,'' Alliance Defense Fund attorney Glen Lavy said.

The fact that we, as a society, are hell-bent on self-annihilation via non-reproductive sexual practices is staggering in its implications. Imagine a world where everyone was a homosexual!

The restaurant chain Hooters would disappear, unless it dramatically overhauled its marketing campaign to start attracting an exclusively female clientele, or hired a male staff and renamed itself Boxes. The Monster Truck Show industry would be decimated, bringing economic ruin to the American south and midwest. Everybody Loves Raymond would be instantaneously canceled and never issued on DVD. Dinner theaters from Nashville to Boise would begin producing La Cage aux Folles and The Boy from Oz; classic stage works would be revised. On Broadway, one could see Harvey Fierstein starring in Oklahomo!

Well, one can always dream.

Jim Guckert, the self-described "born-again Christian family man" who is also available via the internet to fulfill your military-fetish same-sex fantasy desires at $200/hr, asked President Bush last month in a White House press conference, "How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

I frequently am forced to ask myself the same question.

Look around, people! Please share with me what evidence you see that heterosexuality is a phenomenon in decline. Are hospital maternity wards empty? Did Huggies recently declare bankruptcy? Teenage babysitters unable to find work? Television networks mounting same-sex dating reality shows? Oh, wait. Forget that last one.

But seriously, I live in Manhattan, which is one of the gayest places on earth. There are babies everywhere! Everywhere I go, even to restaurants and upscale shops in Chelsea -- which is the gayest place on earth -- heterosexual couples abound.

Still, I'm worried about the possibility that mankind could be on the verge of extinction. (Even Paris Hilton is apparently now a lesbian, so maybe there IS cause for concern.) I was so bothered by the prospect of our imminent demise, that I even devoted a good five seconds to internet research this morning to see what's going on out in the world.

And this is what I learned: It took several million years for the human population to finally reach a global total of one billion; then it took 130 years to double. Currently, another billion lives are added to the earth's population total every eleven years. (That's only if you accept evolution, because otherwise the earth is only 4,000 years old, which really messes up the calculation and would mean that heterosexuals have the breeding habits of guppies.)

If that's the "homosexual agenda" in action, I have a message for the good folks at the AARP: it's not working.

Activist judges in Arizona ruled in 2003 that "homosexual couples by themselves cannot procreate." (And here I've been using condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy!) Thanks for clearing that up. There must be a required law-school course out there entitled, "Stating the Obvious 101."

There's a small issue they've overlooked, however, and that is that every single gay person I know -- and I've met quite a few! -- is the product of a heterosexual physical union. Yup, it's straight people who are responsible for breeding gays. So go ahead, promote heterosexuality and childbirth. All you'll get are more gays. If those population statistics are true, then straight people are popping out 100,000,000 homosexuals every eleven years.

Keep it up, you're doing a fabulous job.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

On This Day in Middle Earth

The Breaking of the Fellowship. Boromir is slain, his horn is heard in Minas Tirith. Merry and Pippin captured.

Frodo and Samwise enter the eastern Emyn Muil. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas set out in pursuit of the Uruk-Hai at evening.

Eomer receives word about a party of Orcs entering Rohan.

It's Good to Get Out of the Public Eye for a While

Remember Jeff Gannon, aka Jim Guckert? I know, it's been a full two weeks since the story broke, so it's forgivable if you need a recap. He's the gay prostitute available through several websites catering to a clientele with a military fetish who, in his spare time, doubled as a White House correspondent.

For two years he was approved for a daily press pass to the White House, where he was allowed to query press secretary Scott McClellan and the President himself; this despite the fact that Gannon/Guckert did not possess any identifiable press credentials and posted "news" articles comprised of cannibalized White House press releases on a partisan website, Talon News. He also wrote under the name "Jeff Gannon" and was identified during Q&A by the President as "Jeff," even though he reportedly used ID with the name "Jim Guckert" on it in order to get through security every day.

He applied for a Congressional press pass, but was denied because he couldn't pass the background check or verify that he worked for an independent news service.

There is also speculation that he was given access to classified material regarding the Valerie Plame leak.

When the blogosphere revealed his identity and rentable alter-ego (as well as pointing out that he had written anti-gay "news" reports, including one that accused John Kerry of being homosexual), he immediately resigned from his position at Talon News and posted a statement on his personal website that said, "In consideration of the welfare of me and my family I have decided to return to private life."

By “returning to private life” he apparently meant granting an interview to Editor & Publisher, where he said he was hoping to be invited to the annual White House Correspondents Gala Dinner in April. (I’m sure some of his old pals in the press corps would love to see him again.) According to the Washington Post, he’s also been arranging paid speaking appearances, justifying it by saying, "There are people who are definitely interested in some of my behind-the-scenes work in the press room."

Excuse me? Is that a self-deprecating joke? Because, even if it is, it’s not funny. And if it’s not a joke, what exactly is he referring to? Did he have access to people or documents or situations that weren’t open to members of the legit press? Or is he hinting that someone in the White House press office was one of his sex clients?

Stay tuned, folks. There will be more to this story.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

On This Day in Middle Earth

The Fellowship passes The Argonath and camp at Parth Galen.

First Battle of the Fords of Isen; Theodred son of Theoden slain.

My Blog is Trading at $35.57

Can anyone please explain to me what the HELL this is?

Fellow bloggers, check it out, if you've not come across this before. If I've linked you on my blog, you're also being "traded." Scroll down to the bottom.

Scapegays

Social Security privatization advocates are getting desperate.

The New York Times reports today that an organization called USA Next is testing an advertising campaign intended to discredit the AARP with senior citizens by linking it to support for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

"We are going to be revealing areas where the AARP is out of touch with a large number of their members, including the issue of marriage," Charlie Jarvis, the group's chief executive, said in a statement. "We will engage AARP with an aggressive campaign to educate the people about where they really stand on the issues and how out of touch they are with the large majority of their own members."

The ad prototype, which was available briefly online through The American Spectator, showed two photographs: a crossed-out shot of a U.S. soldier and another one, marked with a campaign-ad style checkmark, of two men in tuxedos kissing each other. The campaign slogan? "The Real AARP Agenda."

Somehow, right-wing activists have managed to link the floundering struggle for privatization to the war on terror and gay marriage. I'm surprised they weren't also able to work in tort reform and the global warming hoax. Maybe that's a different commercial.

What an organization that advocates for senior citizens -- with a membership largely comprised of veterans -- has to do with the war on terror is not clear. The evidence that they support gay marriage comes in the form of their position on last year's ballot measure in Ohio banning gay marriage, which they opposed "because the second clause blocked legal recognition of any union, potentially including unmarried heterosexuals, that approximated marriage rights."

Either way, none of this has anything to do with social security. Apparently USA Next thinks seniors are so gullible that they'll run screaming in fear away from a photo of two gay men and conclude that the AARP is a subversive group actually trying to undermine social security and "family values" after all. If this sounds outrageous and far-fetched, consider that USA Next hired the same consulting team responsible for the anti-Kerry "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" ads.

I guess honesty and integrity aren't "family values" anymore.

Fortunately, it seems senior citizens are not so easily distracted. A separate Times article today detailed Senator Rick Santorum's efforts in Pennsylvania to get young voters to hop on the Social Security Derailment Express. Seniors are preventing that train from leaving the station.

"We refuse to accept this concept of 'you got yours, now back off,' " Martin Berger, president of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans, said. "We built the system. We believe it should be available for our children and grandchildren."

Monday, February 21, 2005

On This Day in Middle Earth

The Fellowship is attacked at night in their boats near Sarn Gebir.

Winter's Last Hurrah

Well, we hope. Had a mini-blizzard in New York overnight, I think we got about 4 inches or so. This morning I took a little walk through nearby Fort Tryon Park and snapped these pics below. (Click to enlarge!) Enjoy...

Believe it or not, this is a color photo. Posted by Hello

 Posted by Hello

Looking across the Hudson toward New Jersey. Posted by Hello

It's been a good week for cardinals! Posted by Hello

So...do you come here often? Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Correction

In my Valentine's Day post I lamented that Montserrat Caballe "didn't have an E-flat."

I stand corrected. It's true that she didn't interpolate the traditional E-flat at the end of "Sempre libera" on her recording of La Traviata and I'd never heard her sing higher than a D-flat on any recording, so I assumed she just didn't go there.

I never heard the 1979 Maria Stuarda in Munich with Brigitte Fassbaender. She went there!

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Customer Service, Washington Heights Style

Growing up in suburban Oregon you become accustomed to people like supermarket cashiers and gas station attendants greeting you with an enthusiastic, "Hi! How are you today?" as if you're their long-lost best friend. At the supermarket across the street from my apartment in New York City, I'm not exaggerating when I say that normally my transaction is made at the register without a single word being exchanged. Often the cashier doesn't even look at me, even when I say "Thank you." Traveling between the two locales often results in a brief bout of culture shock.

Tonight I stopped in at my local crappy video store to get a movie. (I got Bring it On. It was the poo!)

Let me define "crappy." They have Godfathers 2 and 3, but not the original. Jaws 2 and 4. Steel Magnolias is on the shelf, but the video is missing (yet they leave the box on the shelf). They have four DVD copies of Soul Plane but they don't have Citizen Kane. Kubrick fan? They do have Eyes Wide Shut and 2010, which I know he didn't direct but that's as close as they get.

Once I went in to ask if they had Romy & Michele's High School Reunion and the girl behind the counter furrowed her brow and said, "Oohhhhh...I donnnow these people."

In terms of organization, they have a very simple system. Videos are against the wall, DVD's are in the center shelves. Other than that, there's not even a pretense of subdivision (action, romance, comedy, etc.). Once -- many years ago -- they made an attempt at alphabetization, but -- and seriously, I'm not making this up -- they put every single The movie under T.

So you just go in with an open mind (i.e., don't go looking for something specific, it's not there), start in one corner, and just move along until you find something acceptable. While I was doing that, the phone rang.

"[Company Name Deleted to Protect the Innocent] Video," said the girl, whom I've never seen before. The following is a transcript of her end of the conversation. I can't phoneticize it all very well, you'll just have to imagine this all done in a Washington Heights spanish accent.

"Umm...no, I don't know. Yeah, I can look it up. How you spell that? L-A-U-R...no, we don' got it. What? Um, okay, L-A-W-R...Lawrence of Arabia? Umm, lemmesseee...issout. Yeah. Tomorrow. What? No, thassout too. I know because someone just checked it out. Yeah. What? Um, okay...Chinatown. C-H-I-N...yeah, video only. I said, VIDEO ONLY. No we don' got DVD. What? How many movies you gonna make me look up? I mean, cuz, lady, I don' mean to be rude or nuthin, but like, typically people they come in here and look for their movie, you know? Okay, I'm jus' sayin. We're open until 10:30. Bye."

Then she says to me, for no particular reason, "Did you see Constantine yet?" (It opened yesterday.) "Umm, haven't had a chance yet, no," I said. "Oh my gaw, I GOTTA see that movie! I saw the trailer and I be like, daaayyyyuuumm, that looks good!" (Slate said it's "borderline incoherent, theologically unsatisfying, and short to the point of dwarfism on suspense," but I didn't share that with her.)

So then this lady comes in and she wants a movie version of Frankenstein, preferably the recent Kenneth Branaugh version. (She hasn't yet learned rule #1 about coming in with an open mind.) The girl looks in the computer. "OH, e-I-n, I thought it be like "ine," thass weird. Um, yeah, we gottit."

"Do you have the Kenneth Branaugh version?"

"Um, yeah, 1964."

"What? No, that can't be it, I think it's from the 90s or even later."

"Okay um, well, I don't know, but it says here 1964."

"Could the computer be wrong, I mean, could that be a typo?"

"I don't know." (This is said in that shrugged way where all the words run together and the consonants are omitted, so it comes out like "Iohoh.") "Lemme see if it's back there." She goes away. "Yeah, we got it."

1964 is the index number of the video.

The customer then proceeds to share that she just finished reading the book. "I'm hoping this movie version is more faithful than some of the others," she adds.

"Ooooh, I hate that, when you like, you know, see a good movie and then you read the book and you be like, 'what is this?' cuz it's all different and shit."

I felt that way after The Passion of the Christ.

Anyway, finally it's my turn. I give her my card, she looks up my number, and then I guess she feels obligated to verify my identity.

Is "Andrew" an uncommon name? Because, she stared at that screen for a couple of seconds and then literally had to sound it out. It was barely recognizable. My last name was just beyond her.

Yes, that's me, Awnderroow Mik [pause] kkyurrrreee.

Then I give her a $20. I've just gone to the ATM, it's all I have.

"You don't got change?"

I'm trying to imagine a video store at 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday night that hasn't yet done enough business to make $16.76 in change. But I guess with customer service like that, it's not such a mystery after all.

As soon as I get my job, I have two things to say: a) Cable, b) Netflixx.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Gates

Below you'll find some snapshots I took today while strolling through Central Park to look at the temporary art installation, "The Gates" by Christo. (Click to enlarge.)

I have to say I wasn't really blown away by it. I think the real problem is that for some reason, they picked the absolute ugliest time of year for Central Park...everything is dead and brown; even what's green isn't especially vibrant right now. A few weeks from now, the grass will be a buzzing yellow green and there will be brilliant flowers everywhere. In the late summer, the park is a rich, deep, dark green. The "saffron" gates might look better mixed in with fall colors, too.

I'm not really keen on a color I can only describe as "detour orange." Basically I felt as if the park looked like it was under construction. But hey, if you're going to spend $21 million, hurray for spending it on a public art installation. The Gates are so popular, maybe they can be persuaded to do it again sometime when the weather is better.

On the Great Lawn. Posted by Hello

They should cut down the trees so you can see it better. Posted by Hello

The geese said they came back early from Mexico just to see it. Honk if you love Christo! Posted by Hello

I was hiding my baby from the pharaoh. Posted by Hello

Cardinals are my favorite birds, their song is unbelievably pure and sweet. This little fella just hopped right up to me. He said he wasn't that impressed with the Gates, either. Posted by Hello

Yup, it's frozen...been cold here! Posted by Hello

The two seconds of sunshine I got today. Posted by Hello

Looking south toward Columbus Circle. Posted by Hello

One Small Bone to Pick

I'm tired of taking surveys and filling out forms where they ask you about marital status. Here are your options:
  1. Single
  2. Married
  3. Divorced/Separated

In fairness, I demand another option: "Legally prohibited from being married."

On This Day in Middle Earth

Gwaihir bears Gandalf to Lorien.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Fabulous Time Wasting Device

Bored?

Try your hand at the Belief-O-Matic™ and find out what religion you are! (Thanks to Thunder Jones for posting it on his site.)

Here are Andy's results:

100% Orthodox Quaker
88% Mainline to liberal Christian Protestant
77% Unitarian Universalist
74% Buddhist

I'm only 60% Catholic, which isn't a surprise since I have issues with doctrine. I'm also half-pagan, apparently...which is fine. Nothing wrong with a little nature-worship.

Of course, all of my friends are going to come up orthodox atheists.

Notes to Myself

When I got home last night, I saw that I had left a bag of Kokuho Rose rice on the dining room table, and I thought, "Well, given the recent mouse issues, I guess I shouldn't leave that out."

So I go to pick up the bag, and a mouse fell out of a hole in the bottom of it along with a lot of rice.

(Note to self: add "rice" to shopping list.)

The mouse leaped off the table and disappeared through a tiny hole in the floor where the heating pipe comes through. (Note to self: add "steel wool" to shopping list.)

I held the rice bag upside down so I wouldn't spill anymore and dropped it in a plastic grocery sack and threw it in the garbage. I tied it closed to prevent spillage. I went to bed.

About 20 minutes later I hear a rustling from the kitchen. I go back to see what's going on now.

Inside the plastic bag with the rice, there is another mouse.

Now, I have valiantly saved the lives of a quite a few mice by capturing them in my humane trap and relocating them to the park. But it was 1:00 in the morning and I was tired and mad. So...down the garbage chute the bag went. I felt guilty about throwing him in the garbage, but consoled myself with the hope that he'll gnaw his way out of the plastic bag and escape before the super throws it into the incinerator. That is, if he survived the four-story fall.

On This Day in Middle Earth

The Fellowship departs Lorien. Gollum watches from hiding on the west bank.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Will Medicare cover Viagra for Missile Defense?

Donald Rumsfeld couldn't get his rocket up. Again.

This past Sunday, the Pentagon tried to test its missile defense system, aka "Star Wars." The basic principle is the theory that a missile launched by the U.S. could hit and destroy an enemy missile heading in our direction.

As in the previous test in December, the interceptor rocket failed to launch.

There have now been 10 tests of the system. Five were considered "successes," even though in those cases the interceptor rockets were programmed with the trajectories of their targets. The last three tests in a row have failed.

The system also reportedly doesn't work in cloudy weather.

So assuming North Korea, or perhaps China, launches eight missiles or less (the number of interceptor rockets we have in place) on a sunny day and provides us with the rockets' itineraries in advance, we can hope to knock out half of them.

Better check with Ned Flanders and see if he's got room for you in his shelterini.

Each test costs approximately $85 million. Funding for the program over the next five years is estimated at $50 billion.

What an enormous waste of money. The program is impotent against terrorist threats; it's highly, highly unlikely that a terrorist organization could get its hands on and successfully launch a long-range ballistic missile. Even if they could get a nuclear or conventional warhead on a missile, it's more likely to be a smaller, short-range rocket that theoretically might be launched from a boat just off the U.S. coast. Our interceptor could never get there in time.

Publicly and repeatedly demonstrating its dysfunction calls into question its effectiveness as a tool of deterrence, as well.

Simply put, given the likelihood of an intercontinental missile attack on the U.S. (right now, slim) and the fact that many experts doubt the concept could ever work, we should be directing our financial and technical resources to more immediate threats, such as finding ways to defend nuclear and chemical plants and other parts of the infrastructure from terrorist attacks.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Valentine's Day Special

To all you single-types out there, here's my Valentine's Day mantra: "Sempre libera!" It's Italian for always free (and I'm not talking about my low price) and it's Violetta's famous Act I cabaletta from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. I haven't counted, but I suspect I have more recordings of this aria than any other. (Any other aria, I mean, not any other gay man.)

June Anderson: live concert with Alfredo Kraus at the Paris Opera -- he sings Alfredo's lines onstage so they are disconcertingly loud. Plus he was 400 years old at the time. Above a Bb she doesn't wobble, but that's because it's a straight-tone.

Montserrat Caballe: One of my favorites, even if she didn't have an Eb. The Db's -- the first stunningly floated, the second exhilaratingly full -- and the perfect pacing make up for not cutting the second verse of "Ah! fors'e lui."

Maria Callas: Live in Lisbon, grainy sound, but true Callas. The Eb can only be described as "determined."

Ileana Cotrubas: A hair light for my taste, but it's not like I could do any better. Always extra credit for an Eb.

Renee Fleming: It's a pretty good high C.

Mirella Freni: She sang the CRAP out of the rest of the role, give her a break.

Monika Krause: You can actually hear her cords shredding.

Nellie Melba: Self-indulgent.

Anna Moffo (La Bellissima recital disc): Brilliant.

Anna Moffo (complete RCA recording): Not so libera.

Jennifer Rouse: Live in concert with the Zurich Opera; breathtakingly fast, but she nails it and tops it off with a flawless, spinning Eb. The crowd goes wild.

Renata Scotto, first recording (DG): Pretty much perfection.

Beverly Sills: technically perfect, yet oddly (for her) lacks the necessary sense of abandon. Deliberate.

Cheryl Studer: Not as funny as her "Una voce poco fa."

Joan Sutherland: Thuppralubbera.

Kiri te Kanawa: You didn't think she could do it!

Carol Vaness: I blame the conductor.

Virginia Zeani: The ideal voice for this role; recording was made past her prime so the coloratura is a bit muddy, but her diction and colors are phenomenal.

Selling Social Security

Over the past couple of weeks I've written a few things about the current Social Security debate which have generated more commentary than what I usually get. I'm grateful not only for the readership, but also for the responses, from which I've learned quite a lot -- not necessarily about Social Security, but about our perceptions of it.

The Democratic leadership is right on this, but we're at risk of losing the public relations war. One of the recurring criticisms is that it's a partisan agenda motivated primarily by our distaste for anything generated by this administration.

The party is, and should be, opposed to privatizing Social Security, but the most important point to make is not our opposition, but rather that Bush's plan cannot do what he claims it will. That's really the issue here.

We should embrace the ideals that President Bush and other conservatives are putting forward. We should encourage people to plan for their own retirement. (Reducing and eliminating the portions of the population who live paycheck to paycheck and have nothing left over with which to save or invest should be a priority.) We should find ways to encourage small-scale private investment. We should emphasize personal responsibility and fiscal discipline, even if we can't point to role models in the government. All of this, however, should be over and above our commitment to the current program.

  • Bush's plan is fantastically expensive and financially unsound. No financial advisor would tell you to take out a loan to invest in the stock market or to purchase stocks on credit and hope that you make enough money not only to profit but to pay back the loan and its interest. But that is exactly what Bush intends to do; in a time of record debt, he proposes borrowing trillions (by some estimates, the cost could total $15 trillion over 30 years) to pay for the transition.
  • It doesn't solve the shortfall. The White House's own analysts admit that the Bush plan will have no effect on the shortfall which is anticipated around the year 2042.
  • Guaranteed Risk. Right now from the time you retire until the day you die, you can count on a guaranteed dollar amount each month and certain benefits. Under the Bush plan, your personal account would have to see sustained growth at better than 3% in order for you to do better than the current system. If there was a recession or depression, you stand the risk of having significantly less to draw on.
  • Limited. Once you stop working, you stop diverting into your personal account. Whatever you've invested is all you have. It's up to you to make that resource last the rest of your life.
  • Where do you invest? A recent letter in the New York Times pointed out, "If President Bush's Social Security plan were in effect in the late 1940's, when I was starting my career, prudence would have guided me to invest in corporations like Anaconda Copper Mining, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central Railroad, R.C.A. and Pan American Airways - all of them giants of their day. And what kind of retirement would they have provided me?" Enron, also, would have looked like a solid investment.
  • Reduction of Benefits. Bush wants to tie Social Security benefits to the cost of living index, which according to experts on both sides of the debate "would significantly lower guaranteed benefits."
  • Flawed Analysis. Using a worst-case scenario projection, Bush foresees a multi-billion dollar shortfall in the Social Security budget around the year 2042. Such an outcome is entirely possible. However, if you apply his own plan to the same forecasts, retirees come out significantly better under the current system, even if it is unchanged. Bush uses a very optimistic vision of economic recovery to promote the "personal accounts" idea; if you apply those numbers to the current system, there won't be a budget shortfall.
  • Not the real crisis. Bush's Medicare bill, passed in 2003, will cost almost twice what he promised it would; the new total is almost seven times more expensive than the projected Social Security shortfall. The Medicare bill goes into effect in 2006 and by 2015 will have cost $720 billion; even the most ardent supporters of Bush's reforms say that Social Security is completely solvent until 2018, while other projections say it's safe until as late as 2052 or beyond.

On This Day in Middle Earth

Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Wrong, Again

The Bush Administration today rejected a request from North Korea for one-on-one bilateral negotiations.

"There's plenty of opportunities for North Korea to speak directly with us in the context of the six-party talks," said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

No, we won't talk to you one-on-one, but we will talk to you in a group? What sense does that make? North Korea doesn't want to have group talks, at least for now, but they are interested in sitting down with U.S. officials. Bush says no. One can assume from his comments during the Kerry debates that he would consider this giving in to Kim Jong Il.

"Giving in" would be allowing North Korea to continue with its nuclear weapons program: exactly what Bush is doing.

Agreeing to the talks North Korea wants is what we in the reality-based environment like to call "compromise."

"It's not an issue between North Korea and the United States," McClellan explained. "It's a regional issue. And it's an issue that impacts all of its neighbors."

I suppose that's why we went to war against Iraq over the objection of every government in the middle east, Kuwait and Israel excepted.

"The U.S. disclosed its attempt to topple the political system in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] at any cost, threatening it with a nuclear stick. This compels us to take a measure to bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom and democracy chosen by the people in the DPRK," said a North Korean official.

Hmm. It sounds to me like the North Koreans think it's an issue with the U.S. Bush doesn't seem to understand that. Maybe if he'd sit down and listen to what people are saying for once his policies wouldn't be so misguided.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan of Slate agrees.

Social Security's Motto

A while back one of my comment threads on Social Security took a Biblical turn, with one reader insisting that taxes violate the 8th and 10th Commandments (though, hi, separation of church and state and Jesus himself famously defended taxes). I found a couple of other verses in Social Security's defense, including a really great one from Deuteronomy. Last night I came across this one, which I like very much.

Philippians 2:4: "Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others."

Anyway, the bottom line with Bush's plan is greater risk at greater cost based on phony numbers.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

How Far Can I Throw Him?

The dizzying blend of audacity and incompetence that is the Bush Administration continues to amaze me.

Yesterday's big development was that the highly controversial 2003 Medicare bill, which squeaked through Congress with White House assurances that the cost would not exceed $400 billion -- only to have that estimate revised up to $534 billion after the bill's passage when it was discovered one of the actuaries responsible for the estimate had been ordered to hide the true cost -- will really cost $720 billion over a decade.

Now, hold on, the White House says. The first estimate was for the decade 2004-2013, the second estimate is for 2006-2015. The first number is still accurate because the bill does not go into effect until 2006, so it includes two years where there are no costs. Uh huh. If that's not Enron economics, I don't know what is.

By the way, $518 billion of that is for drugs, and the legislation makes it illegal for the government to barter with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices or to import drugs at lower prices from foreign countries. The government has to pay whatever the pharmaceutical companies ask. What kind of sense does that make?

Today's front page was a doozy. Kim Jong Il has withdrawn from the multilateral talks and publicly announced, for the first time, that he has nuclear weapons. (Whether they can actually be deployed is uncertain.) He declared that he believes that America's intention is the destruction of his regime and that we're not really interested in diplomacy anyway. I wonder where he got that idea from?

Bush has consistently mishandled this issue. Kim is a nutcase. He's even more deluded than Saddam, but this guy actually has a nuclear weapons program. His pride and arrogance even eclipses Dubya's. Bush has treated him with public disdain, once referring to him as a "pygmy." You can't take a hard line with North Korea because the cost of offending this crazy could be a nuke exploding in Seoul. Or Tokyo. Or Seattle.

Stick and carrot diplomacy is what we need; we'll give him official recognition of his government and a non-aggression treaty if he'll dismantle the weapons program. Don't worry, the rest of the planet will understand why we're doing it. From then on we dangle x (economic packages, trade agreements, etc.) in exchange for y (access by weapons inspectors, human rights teams, press, etc.). It might take a while, but eventually we can pull out the foundations of Kim's power. Bush tends to favor the "all-or-nothing and right now" approach. In Iraq, that left tens of thousands of people dead. Oh, and North Korea has nukes, did I mention that?

Between April and September 10, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration received 52 separate intelligence briefs that mentioned Osama bin Laden and/or al Qaeda. The administration blocked release of the 9/11 commission report on this information for five months. Hmm, February, January, December, November...October? No, there's no coincidence there. Does Secretary Rice still maintain there was "no way to predict" the attack?

The Washington Post conducted a survey that revealed 63% of Americans don't understand that Bush's plan for Social Security involves borrowing trillions. Thirty-nine percent don't understand that under Bush's plan retirees could receive less than they do under the current system. And 70% believe that cost of living has risen faster than wages over the last twenty years, whereas the opposite is true. Current Social Security benefits are tied to wages, but Bush wants to change that, which "would result in significantly lower guaranteed benefits for future generations, according to both supporters and opponents."

The trade deficit hit a record $618 billion last year. The Treasury Secretary says that's good news, it shows how strong our economy is because Americans are buying so many foreign goods. I might buy that as an explanation/rationalization for a moderate imbalance in favor of imports, but a record deficit? It's like when Bush said the growing insurgency in Iraq was a sign of our success there. Up is down, black is white, record debt is a strong economy.

Salon.com reports that the White House gave a press pass to a partisan hack posing as an accredited journalist under a penname, who was then called upon during one of Bush's rare press conferences where he deployed a planted question using a fake quote he attributed to Senate Minority Leader Reid. According to independent investigations, his "credentials" are from a two-day $50 course. Incidentally, the person who owns this "reporter's" personal website also owns "the gay-themed sites hotmilitarystud.com, militaryescorts.com and militaryescortsm4m.com."

Why does anyone find a reason to believe anything Bush or any member of his administration says? I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Defining Success

Buried down at the bottom of a long thread of comments on one of my recent Social Security posts, I got this note:

You guys are right. Your arguments have won me over to your side. Economics and real figures mean nothing to me now. The only thing that matters is 'Bush is evil and so is anything he endorses.' If his ideas had actually proven to be completely wrong, I might be somewhat disposed to truly agree with you guys. However, his initiatives like tax cuts, liberating Iraq, and the prevention of any domestic terror attacks since 9/11 are proven successes.

It's hard for me to make a convincing argument that I don't oppose Bush for partisan reasons, because everything he's done has been so objectionable. I could respect a traditional low-tax/small government Republican who ran a tight fiscal ship and placed an emphasis on personal responsibility, even if I might object to their social conservatism. But Bush is a low-tax/huge-government/big debt/fuzzy-math prevaricator with a severe Manichaean complex. And that's me being objective. If I want to get personal, he's a bigot who wants to discriminate against me in the Constitution.

His tax cuts were a success? I guess that depends on how you define their intent. In 2001, the tax cuts were sold as an aggressive way to rejuvenate the slowing economy. For all our buck, we didn't get much of a bang. Employment numbers are just now returning to pre-Bush levels, though a number of studies indicate the jobs being created aren't on par with the jobs that have been lost. The debt is still there. Well, actually, it's bigger. Defenders will say, "But we had 9/11 and the war on terrorism and corporate scandals and hurricanes," etc. Yes, we did. But a responsible President would tell voters and Congress, "Hey folks, we've got some problems right now, and it's going to cost us a little something to get through them." Now, Bush knows it costs something to get through these troubles, because he upped the spending. He just gave away the money he needed to pay for it.

If you buy something and put it on a credit card, there's interest. Well, there's interest on our debt, too (a scary amount of which is owned by China). It's going to cost us much more money in the long run to pay down this debt because of all the interest. For Republicans and Libertarians who chant, "Low taxes!", it's really in your best interest to raise taxes and pay this stuff off now, because the bill just keeps getting bigger. You'll have to pay for it someday. I can't believe that's not obvious.

So there's no evidence that Bush's enormous tax cuts helped the economy; over a four-year period, the economy might just have recovered on its own. In fact, it might have recovered faster and more robustly had we raised taxes. So how can they be considered a success?

They're a success if you like the "starve the beast" idea: reduce tax revenues so that the government will have to cut spending. You can see this played out in Bush's budget that came out this week: $15 billion in cuts for the environment, housing and heating programs, medical coverage for veterans, transportation, homeland security (yup), education programs and others. Against the federal debt, $15 billion is a drop in the swimming pool, but it has a severe impact on the effectiveness of these programs. Oh, Bush's budget includes additional tax cuts for top-tier earners.

It's far too early to be judging success in Iraq. The election was a big step in the right direction, but the credit goes to the Iraqi people for risking their lives to vote, not to George Bush who failed to provide adequate daily security. It's worth mentioning that we sponsored a democratic election in Vietnam in 1967, and look at all the good that did. The party of America's hand-picked president, Iyad Allawi, hasn't done nearly as well in early returns as the cleric-controlled Shiite coalition which is pro-Iran and favors a constitution based on Islamic law. A recent poll revealed that 92% of Iraqis view the US as "occupiers," not "liberators." Memo to Bush: a lot of those voters were voting for candidates who promised to get you out of Iraq.

Two years after our invasion, public works like sanitation and electricity have not returned to pre-war levels. As many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, according to one academic study. Fallujah has been flattened -- twice -- and a recent CIA report describes Iraq as a breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists. Almost $9 billion in US taxpayer money intended for Iraqi government ministries has been "misplaced."

If by success you mean that untold numbers of Iraqis -- many of whom are likely innocent -- have been tortured and sexually humiliated, okay. If by success you mean we sent our Secretary of State to the UN to make a presentation with phony evidence, okay. If by success you mean the Secretary of Defense can say, "We know where they are," referring to WMDs in Iraq and still have his job after Bush's investigators concluded that the UN and Clinton got rid of them by 1998, then okay. If by success in the war on terror you mean that not a single 9/11-related trial has been successfully prosecuted, okay. If you mean success by not knowing where bin Laden is producing his community-access public service announcement videos, then okay.

As far as I'm concerned, it's too early to call.

It's a fair point to make that the US has not had any terrorist attacks since 9/11. But then, America didn't suffer any domestic terrorist attacks at the hand of radical Muslims after the 1993 attack while Clinton was in charge, either. And I don't know where this poster lives, but I can guarantee you he doesn't ride the subway in New York City. I don't know anyone who doesn't feel vulnerable there. Chemical and nuclear plants have been given voluntary guidelines about safeguarding from a terrorist attack. No one has volunteered. Just yesterday, Slate Magazine discovered how easy it is to create a fake boarding pass for a commercial airline using the internet. So much for the no-fly list, which grounded Senator Kennedy and Cat Stevens. The lists created by public watchdog agencies of America's terrorist vulnerabilities are staggering. Departing Homeland Security head Tom Ridge said he was surprised no one has attacked our food supply yet.

So if you want to call all that a "success," fine. From where I sit, George W. Bush is a failure of catastrophic proportions.

Monday, February 07, 2005

It's Dean

CNN is reporting that Howard Dean is now the only candidate left in the race for DNC chair.

This Democrat couldn't be happier.

Go ahead, all you GOP types, who think this is the best thing that could happen to your party and that it's the final nail in the Democrats' coffin. You will live to eat crow, I have no doubt. And I can't wait.

You don't know him. The media got lots of attention doing stories on Howard Dean, the madman loose-cannon of the far-out lefties, YEEEEEAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGH! But those of us who really followed his campaign and stumped for him at the grassroots level know that he's not a radical at all; his values are far more in line with mainstream America than Tom DeLay's or Rick "Man-on-Dog" Santorum's. He was politically assassinated by a caricature created by the media, happily fed by GOP operatives and abandoned by the gutless leaders at the DNC who feared him.

His campaign did not self-destruct. The cowardly Iowa voters bought into the hype about Dean and were scared by the conventional wisdom that he was "unelectable." Had the first primaries been held in places like New York, California, Washington, Texas, Oregon or even Massachusetts, he'd have sunk Kerry. And I firmly believe he'd have sunk Bush, because he'd have had the courage from day one to confront Bush on his lies.

He will not run the DNC into the ground; on the contrary, he will revitalize the party. Largely bereft of real leadership in Congress, we now have a prominent figure with national recognition to call Bush's bluffs. And call them he will. Dean will be a success because he doesn't need spin, he has facts. Oh Bush, your next four years are not going to be a lot of fun for you.

Dean is every bit as charming and likeable as you and then some. The media will make him their new pet, and you and your folks are going to have to start facing, if not answering, some uncomfortable questions. We'll all get to watch you hem and haw and spontaneously prevaricate. It will be quite a show.

You may have won the election, but your agenda is toast.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Why Bush's Plan is a Scam

The New York Times spells it out for you today; here's highlights from the lead editorial.

What you deposit into your private account would be subtracted from your regular benefits: "Your Social Security benefit would be reduced, dollar for dollar, by the amount of money you deposit into your private account and an additional charge amounting to 3 percent plus the rate of inflation. All the money that is drained off would presumably go to pay for the enormous upfront government borrowing - $4.5 trillion over the next 20 years - that privatization would require."

Your account would have to grow at 3% over inflation to do what Bush promises: "People whose private accounts steadily earned three percentage points over inflation throughout their working lives would wind up with exactly what they would have gotten if Social Security remained untouched. Anyone who earned less than that would end up with less than is offered by the current system."

It doesn't solve the problem: "Establishing private accounts does nothing to solve the long-term shortfall in the system."

Privatization will require drastic benefit cuts: "All in all, they would leave the average worker with a government benefit worth only about 10 percent of his or her preretirement earnings. (Currently, Social Security replaces about 35 percent, on average.)"

Necessary safeguards will stifle growth: "Mr. Bush assured listeners that the government would prevent people from making bad decisions by restricting their investments to a conservative mix of stocks and bonds. But the more restrictions there are, the harder it would be for people to achieve the outsized returns that the administration has generally promoted to sell the public on private accounts."

Your heirs will only inherit a portion of your account, unless you die before you retire: "That works entirely only if you die before you retire. Under a scheme that is going to take a while for the public to digest, the White House wants to require new retirees to use their private accounts to buy annuities large enough to keep them above the poverty line for the rest of their lives. The most they could leave to heirs, then, would be what is left over after the annuities are purchased."

Bush has never given us a reason to trust him. Now is no time to start.

Marriage Update: City Will Appeal

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced yesterday that the City of New York will appeal the recent ruling that state marriage laws violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

It's a surprising move for Bloomberg, who is up for re-election this year. The former Democrat switched to the Republican party, presumably to run in the mayoral race on the popular Giuliani's coattails. He is not, however, a Bush style Republican. He's rather liberal, socially, and is fiscally responsible (west side stadium idea singularly excepted). The same would be true for most Republicans in New York City: social moderates, fiscal conservatives, leaning probably more toward libertarianism.

Bloomberg faces primary challenges from a couple of Republicans who complain he is not toeing the party line; one of the famous RINO's: Republican in Name Only. At yesterday's announcement, he voiced his personal support for gay marriage but conceded he is obligated to appeal because state law does not permit same-sex marriage.

It's a gamble: will it be enough for more conservative New Yorkers (especially in Giuliani's Staten Island backyard) that he subordinates his personal feelings to the law, or will he alienate the moderate and liberal contingencies -- which are far larger -- by going to bat for a law that he himself admits he doesn't agree with?

Furthermore -- and here my lawyer readers can help me out, please -- isn't the City's tactic a little redundant? Their argument is that state law forbids same-sex marriage. The judge has ruled that law unconstitutional, but the City is going to try to defend itself using the unconstitutional law? I wish them luck.

Oh, wait. No, I don't.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

NY State Marriage Law Declared Unconstitutional

From today's NY Times:

"A New York State judge in Manhattan ruled yesterday that a state law that effectively denied gay couples the right to marry violated the state Constitution, a decision that raised the possibility that the city would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as soon as next month."

"The state's Domestic Relations Law, which dates to 1909 and limits marriage to unions between opposite-sex couples, deprived gay couples of equal protection and due process rights under the state Constitution."

The City has 30 days in which to appeal; if they don't, it could "turn New York City into a gay marriage Mecca," said one city official, who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity.

Hmm, and that would be bad because...? Has anyone done an analysis of the effects of gay marriage on the economy in Massachusetts? Last year they had a record year for tourism, and all other wedding-related industries such as florists, caterers, etc., etc. I think if we did some research on that, we'd hear George W. Bush change his tune. We all know that the way to a Republican's heart is through his wallet.

Here's the icing on the wedding cake:

"Another couple, Mary Jo Kennedy and Jo-Ann Shain, said it was their 16-year-old daughter, Aliya Shain, who convinced them to seek a marriage license and join the suit. Aliya, smiling into the blaze of camera flashes and television crews, said she was proud of her parents. The family lives in Brooklyn, and Aliya, who had skipped physics class to attend the event, said that her friends at school were supportive and that she hoped the rest of the country would be as well.

When asked about Mr. Bush's speech, she said, "I would invite the president to spend a day in my home because I think that would greatly change his mind.""

You tell him, girl.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Don't Tease the Heteros

I went card-shopping for a friend who's having her birthday party tonight. (I hope she doesn't read this until tomorrow!)

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find a GOOD birthday card? They're all so terrible. So I decided to just run with that trend and pick out a card that was spectacularly inappropriate and hope she gets the joke: it's Darth Vader wishing you "a most impressive" birthday. That has to be the lamest card you could get an exceptionally attractive, über-talented 20-something woman currently skyrocketing her way to operatic stardom. I signed it, "May the Force Be With You."

I got in line to pay and there was a pretty girl ahead of me who gave me a nice smile. I showed her the card and said, "Do you think my girlfriend will like this?"

"Umm...is she a Star Wars fan?"

"No," I said, as cluelessly as I could.

Pause.

"She'll love it," the girl said supportively.

And another thing...

The numbers Bush is using to promote his privatization plan are based on an extremely optimistic scenario of economic growth; if that scenario were to play out -- and Bush will have you believe that it will -- then there is absolutely no reason to change social security because the corresponding increase in federal tax revenues will erase the shortfall.

One More Flaw

I wanted to point out that Bush's plan for Social Security would allow taxpayers to divert "4 percentage points of their payroll taxes in their accounts."

Obviously, the more you earn, the more stock-buying power you have with your 4%, and the greater your return (if the plan works). Once again, Bush's financial agenda tilts toward the top, and does least for the people who need the most help.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Fake of the Union

Right before I went to bed last night, the last bit of news that came across the internet from CNN.com was that President Bush had reaffirmed his support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. "I can't wait for your blog tomorrow!" commented one of my regulars.

I've decided not to write about that. Despite my intense personal interest and feelings on the subject, it really wasn't the news of the evening; I might as well focus on his support for hydrogen-fueled cars. (Did the Bush family strike hydrogen in Texas?)

There were many things he addressed worthy of discussion and rebuttal, but most of what he said was "true," from a certain perspective. It might be a little premature to see a wave of democracy sweeping across the world from Morocco to Iraq, but you also can't deny there have been encouraging developments. So most responses to the speech would begin, "Yes, but..."

When it comes to Social Security, however, the President lied. I can't put it any more plainly than that. He stood in front of the nation, and said things that were utterly, demonstrably untrue. No spin, no "this is true if" statements. Complete falsehoods. Let's begin.

I have a message for every American who is 55 or older: Do not let anyone mislead you. For you, the Social Security system will not change in any way.

It's the President doing the misleading. The "crisis," such as it is, is 37 years away. By phrasing it this way, Bush clearly means to insinuate that Democrats are intimidating seniors. Democrats know full well that people 55 and older, under the current set-up, are not at risk for losing benefits.

Social Security is not a savings account; the taxes I pay aren't going in to wait for my retirement. What I pay in taxes pays for my grandparents' checks. If we switch over to the system that Bush proposes, there is a $1-2 trillion transition cost; a large part of that is because Social Security will then become a savings account for me; the question that Democrats have asked is, where then does the money to pay today's retirees come from? And that is one of the many questions the President can't or won't answer.

Thirteen years from now, in 2018, Social Security will be paying out more than it takes in. And every year afterward will bring a new shortfall, bigger than the year before.

The first half of his statement is true; but because of changes that were made to Social Security under Ronald Reagan, Social Security has a reserve fund that was created for just this event, which economists have foreseen for decades. So yes, the ratio of retirees to workers means that what the government pays in benefits exceeds what's coming in from taxes. But the money to cover the gap is already there, and has been there for twenty years.

For example, in the year 2027, the government will somehow have to come up with an extra $200 billion to keep the system afloat, and by 2033, the annual shortfall would be more than $300 billion. By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt.

No. That reserve fund lasts until 2042 and beyond; what happens in that year, according to analysts, is that the government will only have enough money to pay 70% of the current benefits. Some projections say that we may not even reach this point until 2054.

Let me say that again. It is positively, utterly and in all other ways not true that social security will be "bankrupt" in 2042. Right now, if we do absolutely nothing at all, we can afford to pay full benefits for probably 35-40 more years. At that point, social security will still have lots of money; if we do nothing, we can still pay 70% of our current obligations.

Supporters of Bush's plan like to say that the Democrats deny there is a problem. Not true. There's the problem: in 2042, or thereabouts, we'll only be able to pay 70% of what we currently provide. The question is, what do we do about it? A very modest tax hike will solve the problem: if we repealed Bush's income tax cuts for just the top 1% of the population we can fully fund Social Security for 70 years.

Conservatives then ask, but what do we do at the next crisis, raise taxes again? But they're not looking at their own projections. The baby-boomers who are retiring and will strain the system are not going to live forever; the problem is caused by a relatively small number of folks of working age. Well, guess what? Eventually those folks will retire, too, and there's many fewer of them. At that point, Social Security might well be over-funded, and we could talk tax cuts.

Here is why personal accounts are a better deal. Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver, and your account will provide money for retirement over and above the check you will receive from Social Security. In addition, you'll be able to pass along the money that accumulates in your personal account, if you wish, to your children or grandchildren. And best of all, the money in the account is yours, and the government can never take it away.

In order for private accounts to make a return on investments, we would have to see a sustained rate of economic growth -- by sustained I mean forever -- that is unprecedented. I'll say that again: in order to do what Bush says they'll do, the stock market would have to grow even better than it did in the 1990s and never stop doing it. The proofs are complicated, but the bottom line is that Bush's numbers are based on wishful thinking.

People who use financial advisors are used to seeing this disclaimer: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Puts the "secure" in "security," doesn't it?

Under Bush's plan, it is conceivable that retirees would end up with more money than just Social Security; it's also conceivable that they could end up with less. And that's really the basic issue; Social Security, as it stands, is a guarantee. Bush's plan is not, though he claims it is: it "will" provide and you "will" receive.

He nodded at some of the concerns Democrats and other sane people have raised: he said there would be "guidelines" for the accounts; he said money would only be invested in conservative stocks and bonds; he promised potential earnings -- if any -- wouldn't be "eaten up" by Wall Street fees; he promised investments would be protected by "market swings."

But...how, Mr. President? That is what we want to know, and on that score, he had absolutely nothing to say.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but based on Bush's first four years, I wouldn't take his financial advice.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I'm a Mur-diddly-urderer!

I'm having a spiritual crisis. I try to regard all life as part of God's creation, and try to recognize that every living thing has its role to play -- no matter how ugly or annoying or potentially dangerous it might be.

In that spirit, I've been using a humane trap to deal with my recent mouse problem. (I've had my apartment for 8.5 years and never had a mouse until this fall.) I've got a few of the cute little buggers (they trip a switch and get flipped into a cage) and relocated them several blocks away to Fort Tryon Park. But this week they stepped up the war.

Principally my complaint about them has been that they wake me up in the middle of the night scratching around under the radiator in the bedroom, and sometimes I hear them in the walls. (See the post Das Glückliche Mäuschen for one hilarious adventure.) Well, this week I was awakened by the most unsettling realization that one of them was chewing away on that unsightly mess of wires and computer cables under my desk.

Last night I came home to discover that a potholder I'd left on top of the stove had a hole eaten in it and the filling was all over everywhere -- it looked like it exploded. There were little mouse droppings all over the stove. Then, on top of the refrigerator something had gnawed into a box of arborio rice, which had spilled out and mixed with the mouse turds. Both the stove and the refrigerator got wiped down with bleach.

Then I marched straight to the hardware store, bought poison, and set it out in the obvious areas. I washed my hands and disinfected myself with a large vodka tonic for good measure. (Starbucks needs to expand into the liquor industry. I'll have a grande cosmopolitan, thank you. To go.)

I'm not opposed to mice or particularly scared of them. But they're eating my computer cables, which is potentially expensive and if they expose wires, dangerous. And they're leaving droppings on top of my stove! They have the option of using my humane trap, but I guess they're choosing to be difficult. Still, I feel guilty.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A Nation of Religious Illiterates

Came across this essay on another blog today and found the data very insightful.

"According to a 1997 poll, only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the most basic of Christian texts, the four Gospels, and 12% think Noah's wife was Joan of Arc."

Damn, I'm Good Looking

From the Associated Press:

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) -- A buffalo that escaped from an auction ended up in a dressing room at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center where it spent a couple of hours staring into a mirror.

The buffalo jumped over a steel panel during the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo on Sunday morning, went down an alley and got into the dressing room reserved for visiting sports teams, said Brian Maliske, the civic center's general manager.

"The door happened to be unlocked and he pushed the door open and went in,'' Maliske said.

The crew conducting the Black Hills Classic Buffalo Sale decided to keep the animal locked in the dressing room for the rest of the auction. During its two hour stay, it reportedly became fascinated with the image it saw in a big mirror.

Once the sale ended, a rodeo crew member coaxed the buffalo out of the dressing room and back into captivity.

The animal never got into a public area, Maliske said.