Free Speech and College

Incompatible concepts? I think not. High school and free speech, maybe. But you don’t think of colleges as a place where you’re not allowed to talk about legalizing marijuana or express your political opinions or put up awesome posters of television shows/movies.

Nevertheless, a police chief in the University of Wisconsin system decided that this Firefly poster constituted a threat (or something):

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Time to Pay Less Attention to Perry v. Romney…

…and more to the 2012 Senate races.

Sometime far off in the future, white Republican guy will face off against President Barack Obama. His chances of winning are fair, barring some huge scandal on either side or an economic miracle.

The Republicans will continue to control the House of Representatives. But can they capture the Senate? Considering the number of Democrats up for re-election versus the number of Republican seats… Well. If you’re an Independent favoring divided government or a Democrat cowering in fear at the prospect of a trifecta of Republican rulers – move up your plans to flee the country.

Wait now, what about the supermajority necessary to pass most bills in the Senate? Ah, well. That’s the true glory of the prospect of a Republican 51-49 majority. Budget reconciliation bills can be pushed through the Senate with a simple majority! Spending cuts for all!

It’s looking so grim, the Democrats are pinning their hopes on the Tea Party candidates beating more established, electable Republican candidates in the primaries.

Primary Scuffles

Chaos. Sheer, unadulterated chaos. Ain’t it grand?

The universe has granted me two gifts for my Oct. 1 birthday: the season finale of Doctor Who and the deadline for states to schedule their GOP primaries. One I consider to be the best gift ever. The other is just a bonus. I leave you to decide which is which.

So, what’s up with these primaries?

It used to be like this:

Four states were special and everyone else was very, very jealous.

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Ethical Internet

Prof. Steve Rice talked about the ethical implications of multimedia journalism… with focus on the use and misuse of Photoshop – the temptress of photogs everywhere.

In sum: Just ’cause you can do it in Photoshop doesn’t mean you should. Especially in journalism.

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Perry v. Romney Part III: The Aftermath

Remember way back in late August, when Rick Perry had more than a ten point lead in the polls over Mitt Romney? And everybody (me) was just like: yeah, yeah, polls don’t matter at this point, but let’s base our entire analysis on these polls anyway.

Well, we’ve seen Romney and Perry square off against each other in three debates, the first at a shrine to Reagan, one in Tampa, Fla., and one in Orlando just a few days ago. And the charm has decidedly started to wear on the big-talking Texan. Where once he had a 10 point lead only 10 days ago, he’s been dropping steadily and Romney is on the upswing, leaving Perry up less than eight points.

I’m thinking this Venn diagram still holds except (this is big) immigration is a huge weakness for Perry with GOP primary crowd. None of them like his policy in Texas of giving young illegal immigrants in-state tuition and Romney (along with all his other opponents) are going to hammer him on giving this “incentive” for people to come into the U.S. illegally. Plus, the “have a heart” comment from Perry struck exactly the wrong note – something that became clear during the focus-group discussion on Fox News. Nobody likes being told they’re heartless – even if it might be partially true.

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Congressional Compensation

All right, I’ve seen a few of these: “Argh, congresspeople get cushier retirement benefits than the military! How awful/evil!”

So let’s take a look at how much money people in Congress make and what retirement benefits they get compared to people in the military.

Military Pay

Complicated. There are charts for the basic per month pay, because it depends on two things: your rank and your years of service. Officers make more than enlisted and generally the longer you serve, the more you get paid. The military also provides allowances for housing, clothing and food. On top of the base monthly pay, there’s additional compensation based on skills, duty locations and hazard. Some examples: submarine duty pay, jump pay, hazardous duty pay, hostile fire pay and cost of living allowance (offsets costs of living in a particular location, usually overseas).

That’s how it works. The CBO did a report in 2007 examining military compensation. Here’s their chart comparing civilian and military pay:

Some useful information to compare with congressional pay: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gets more than $243,000 a year in base pay.

Congressional Pay

Less complicated.

Regular Representatives and Senators: $174,000.

House and Senate majority/minority party leaders: $193,400.

Speaker of the House: $223,500.

That’s not, of course, including the allowances they get to help them fulfill their duties. The average Members’ representational allowance in 2011, according to a Congressional Research Service report, was $1,446,009. Yes, nearly $1.5 million. This allowance is for things like furnishing the district home offices, paying legislative and constituent services staff, franking mail, traveling between their district and D.C., and sending people to conferences and caucuses. All pretty legitimate activities. Senators likewise have allowances for staff and offices. The amounts there ranged from $3,149,536 to $4,967,505.

Now, all that money has to be spent on job-related things – they can’t use it to campaign or anything like that. (Not bringing up the incumbent advantage conferred by constituent services etc. etc.)

Military Retirement

Just as complicated. Technically, the military retirement pay isn’t a “pension” – active personnel don’t pay into any system and, in fact, retired military can be involuntarily called up for active duty. Unlikely but, you know, it’s legal.

There is no minimum retirement age for when a retired military person can start receiving their retired pay. So you could join the military at 18, stay in for 20 years, retire, and immediately begin receiving 50 percent of your base pay in your highest 36 months of duty at the age of 38.

Under the default system, High 36, military personnel get 2.5 percent of the average of their highest 36 months of base pay, multiplied by their years of service. This means that after 40 years, you’d get 100 percent of your highest three years’ base pay. Hypothetically, if you stay in longer than 40 years, you can get more than 100 percent.

The military is also covered under Social Security and retirees can collect 100 percent from both programs.

Congressional Retirement

Congresspeople are covered under the same program as all federal civilian employees – the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Under this program, you must work five years to get any benefits and you won’t start receiving them until you reach the age of 62 unless you’ve been in Congress for 25 years, at which point you can immediately start receiving your pension. There’s sort of a sliding scale of years of service and age at which you can start to receive retirement pay. For example, if you’ve worked 10 years, you can start receiving it at the minimum retirement age (typically 55-56) but it gets docked 5 percent for each year under 62 you are.

How much do they get? Well, it’s 1.7 percent times up to 20 years plus 1 percent times any additional years of the average of their highest three years of pay.

Since we know the current pay of Members of Congress, we can do some maths.

A Senator elected once: six years, $174,000 per year. Retirement pay at 62: $17,748/year.

In the 112th Congress, the mean number of terms for Representatives was 4.9 and the mean number of terms for Senators was 1.9. So the average Representative serves about 10 years and would receive $29,580/year after reaching 62.

Members of Congress pay 1.3 percent of their annual salary into this system. They also pay into Social Security and can collect that. The amount they can receive is capped out 80 percent of the average of their highest three years – although to even get that much, they’d have to have served 66 years and even Robert Byrd only got to 57 years.

So, the military retirement plan is actually way better than congressional retirement. Military pay? Not quite so much, but (on average) it beats civilian sector pay.

Beware Politicians Bearing “Cuts”

What with the President’s new plan to cut the deficit, I thought it an opportune time to take a sideways look at the term “cut” when used by politicians and government bureaucrats.

A normal person would think that “cutting the budget” or “budget cuts” mean that the amount spent year-to-year decreases. But politicians and bureacrats actually mean cuts to what we planned on spending in the future in that the amount spent year-to-year continues to increase but not as much as planned. Which makes them feel so proud of themselves. So very proud. The term for these cuts is “deficit reduction.”

So Obama’s deficit plan will cut $3 trillion over the next 10 years. From the projected CBO baseline of cumulative deficits totaling $3.5 trillion between 2012 and 2021. The good news here that the baseline is much lower than the previously projected $6.7 trillion. But wait! That depends on current law not being changed.

For example, if most of the provisions in the 2010 tax act that were originally enacted in 2001, 2003, 2009, and 2010 were extended (rather than allowed to expire on December 31, 2012, as scheduled); the alternative minimum tax was indexed for inflation; and cuts to Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services were prevented, then annual deficits from 2012 through 2021 would average 4.3 percent of GDP, compared with 1.8 percent in CBO’s baseline projections. With cumulative deficits during that decade of nearly $8.5 trillion, debt held by the public would reach 82 percent of GDP by the end of 2021, higher than in any year since 1948.

So, how likely is it that one or all of these things will happen?

Well, cuts to physician fees have been delayed annually for a decade now and yet the “future cuts” still get included in official budget estimates. Indexing the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT for inflation is a bit trickier – not indexing it for inflation would hit the middle class with higher taxes, which Congress doesn’t like to do. The Bush tax cuts may or may not be extended beyond 2012 – it’s after the 2012 election, so… We’ll see.

Baselines matter. The super committee has to find $1.2 trillion in government savings over 10 years. But they could use the unreality of the CBO’s under current law or the more realistic baseline. That will significantly change the size of the deal they need to reach.