Politics Archive

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How Big Is the National Debt?

Dollar SignI've talked with a few people who think the national debt is a huge, huge problem that's just growing exponentially and uncontrollably. And while it's true that it is a major issue, and that the debt is currently growing, I think that many people look at the issue a little too simply, exaggerating the true nature and magnitude of the problem.

For reference and due credit, all the graphs in this entry are from the site, USGovernmentRevenue.com/, with many of them from the specific page, US National Debt and Deficit History. And I guess that as a disclaimer, I should note that economics certainly isn't my specialty, but much of this seems pretty straight forward.

The following graph shows the way many people think of the national debt, where it looks like the debt is just growing uncontrollably:

Federal Debt History

But that's a simple plot, looking just at raw debt numbers. To account for inflation and the growth of the economy, it makes more sense to look at debt as a fraction of GDP:

Federal Debt History as a Percentage of GDP

And while debt is certainly high right now, it paints a different picture than the simpler graph above. For one, it hasn't been just non-stop growing and growing, but different periods of growth and reduction. For another, the growth is currently slowing down, and is projected to start decreasing in the next few years. (I'll be honest - I'm not sure exactly where this source got their projections for the future, but even just taking that graph up through 2015, it's clear that debt growth is slowing.) Thirdly, it shows that the current debt isn't unprecedented. While it's nearing historical highs, the debt was actually higher during WWII.

You'd expect the debt to have grown in recent years due to the two recent wars and the Great Recession. The problem is the debt was so high already before that, thanks mainly to the governments during the Reagan and Bush Sr. years. Prior to that, the debt had been steadily reducing since the WWII peak. After them, under Clinton, the government had actually gotten debt back under control and it was on its way back down again before Bush Jr. took office. Under Bush Jr., the debt began increasing even before 9/11 or the 2007 financial meltdown, and those events just exacerbated the growth. If the projections in the graph hold true, it looks like under Obama, the debt might begin decreasing again.

Moving past the debt to the deficit, here's a graph of that:

Federal Deficit History as a Percentage of GDP

The current levels are a little high, but not too unreasonable when you consider the wars and the recession. Further, the deficit has been decreasing since the peak in 2009. And in even starker contrast than overall debt, that peak deficit was much less than what it was during WWII.

Related to deficit, here are charts of spending and revenue:

Federal Spending History as a Percentage of GDP

Federal Revenue History as a Percentage of GDP

Current rates are in line with what they've been since the '40s (other than the huge spending spike for WWII). Recent spending peaked in 2009 and has generally decreased since then. Recent revenue was almost a mirror image, reaching a minimum in 2010, and steadily increasing since. Those responses are exactly what you expect for a recession - the government invests in the economy through deficit spending when tax revenues will be at their lowest, but slowly recoups the cost when tax revenues begin increasing as the economy picks back up.

I'm not saying the debt's not an issue, nor that we shouldn't try to balance the budget. I'm just saying that certain alarmists that only point to the raw numbers without considering them as a percentage of GDP are presenting a misleading image of the issue and exaggerating the problem, often times advocating 'solutions' that are more extreme than what's really called for.

Image Sources: I actually made that 3D dollar sign myself. As noted above, all graphs are from USGovernmentRevenue.com/.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Another Look at Ben Carson's Views on Evolution

Ben CarsonI know it wasn't that long ago that I said I was done writing about Ben Carson (see Ben Carson Wrap Up), but I got into another discussion the other day where he came up, and the person I was talking with was pretty sure that Carson really did accept evolution. So, for due diligence, I took another look to see if I could find Carson's views on evolution in a source more recent than the Adventist Review interview from a few years ago that I'd been assuming was his current position. I found an interview from September of 2014 where he talked about evolution again, and it looks like his views haven't changed. You can listen to just the evolution portion by going to Right Wing Watch. The full interview is available on the Faith & Liberty podcast.

I did my best to transcribe his response below (though I did take the liberty of not writing all his 'um's, 'uh's, or stutters).

I don't know how old the Earth is, because the Bible says in the beginning God created heaven and the Earth. It doesn't say how long a time went by before he started creation. So no one has that knowledge based on the Bible. What I do know is that I believe that God is all powerful. He can do anything. So if he can create a man who is fully mature, he could also create an Earth that was mature. So, you know, carbon dating, all these things, you know, really don't mean anything to a god who has the ability to create anything at any point in time. And the problem with man is that they believe that they're so smart that if they can't explain how God did something, then it didn't happen. Which of course means that they're God. You don't need a god if you consider yourself capable of explaining everything.

After this, the interviewer momentarily interrupted, "Those are good points. What about being a surgeon? Any of that lead you to some of those conclusions, too?" To which Carson replied as below.

Well, certainly being a neurosurgeon and dealing with the complexity of the human brain - billions and billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections. And they all have to be connected the right way. And somebody says that came from a slime pit full of promiscuous biochemicals? I don't think so. And, you know, even if you look at something like natural selection, which I totally believe in, by the way. But, with natural selection it says that, you know, things that are useful tend to be passed on. Things that are not useful don't get passed on. And this is how, you know, the whole genetic display occurs. But, how, on the basis of that, do you ever develop a kidney? Or how do you develop an eyeball, which has multiple parts, none of which have any function without the others. So did a rod cell just appear one day, and just decide, let me sit around for a few million years until a cone cell develops? And then, a retinal network can develop? And then, you know, posterior and an anterior chamber and a lens and a cornea and short ciliary nerves? Gimme a break. You know, according to their scheme - boom! It had to just occur overnight. Had to be there.

So, I instead say, if you have an intelligent creator, what he does is give his creatures the ability to adapt to the environment so he doesn't have to start over every 50 years, so he can [unintelligible] all over again. And that's why you see the changes that occur within species, with environment and with time that makes perfectly good sense for a created universe and a created Earth.

So, he does say that he accepts 'natural selection', but qualifies it as 'within species'. He also says that carbon dating can't be trusted, implies that there really was a historical Adam, implies the human brain couldn't be the product of billions of years of evolution starting with single celled organisms, and flat out denies that kidneys or eyes could have evolved. In that last sentence, he even said 'a created Earth', and in the opening paragraph he implied that it could have been created 'mature' (shades of Last Thursdayism). His position seems to be fairly straight-forward old earth creationism. Perhaps Carson does say different things in different venues, but that would be a problem in and of itself. If he was willing to make such contradictory statements to different audiences, he wouldn't have much credibility.

Assuming what Carson's saying here is what he actually thinks, then it's back to what I've said before about his extreme arrogance - pontificating about a subject about which he's so extremely ignorant. Just read that part about the eye. He seems to think that if an eye evolved, it must have appeared fully formed, and he seems to think this is what evolutionary biologists actually believe. Has he ever even read a biology book? He's an extremely talented surgeon, so he had to take biology classes, but how can he make such ignorant statements if he actually paid attention in class? It's not like this is a new topic. Darwin himself addressed eye evolution in the Origin of Species (Chapter 6). And with just a bit of googling, you can find explanations of how the vertebrate eye evolved in a stepwise fashion (e.g. Wikipedia). Here's one of my favorite diagrams on eye evolution (which I've shown before), showing actual existing eyes in molluscs that are far from the complex human eye, lacking many of the features Carson said must have been present for the eye to function properly, but which obviously provide benefit to those molluscs.

Evolution of Complex Eyes

I don't want to dwell on this last point because it's not part of the main theme of evolution this post is about, but that whole section on people coming up with secular explanations and thinking they're now gods is completely ridiculous. I wonder how many evolutionary biologists or atheists Carson has talked with, and where he gets this absurd characterization.

I know you don't need to understand evolutionary biology perfectly to be a politician. But given Carson's background as a surgeon, it's unsettling that he is so ignorant when it comes to the foundational concept of biology (particularly concepts that he should have learned in high school biology). Further, as I've said before, the worst part is that he's so sure of himself in an area where he's so ignorant. Nobody knows everything, politicians included (or maybe especially). But what good politicians must be able to do is recognize the limits of their knowledge so that they can ask for input and advice from appropriate experts. I wouldn't trust a politician who didn't know their own limits.

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Image Source for Eye Evolution: Random Internet source, but probably originally from Douglas J. Futuyma's Evolutionary Biology

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Little Political Humor

PoliticsI recently came across a political joke that doesn't really ring particularly true (probably because it was originally about engineers and management, where it made more sense).

A woman in a hot air balloon realized she was lost. She lowered altitude and spotted a man in a boat below. She shouted to him, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The man consulted his portable GPS and replied, "You're in a hot air balloon approximately 30 feet above a ground elevation of 2,346 feet above sea level. You are 31 degrees, 14.97 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49.09 minutes west longitude."

She rolled her eyes and said, "You must be a Republican."

"I am," replied the man. "How did you know?"

"Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and I'm still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help to me."

The man smiled and responded, "You must be a Democrat."

"I am," replied the balloonist. "But how did you know?"

"Well," said the man, "You don't know where you are or where you're going. You've risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You've made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and now you expect ME to solve your problem. You're in EXACTLY the same position you were in before we met, but somehow, now, it's MY fault.

Now, I don't particularly mind political jokes making fun of both sides of the aisle (for example, see the Halloween comics I posted a few years ago). The problem with this one is that with modern Republicans (or at least, the loudest voices), most of their positions aren't even 'technically correct'. Here are a few answers for the man that I think fit better with the modern Republican party:

"All your attempts to regulate the path of your balloon are over-burdening it. Just go back up and let the invisible hand of the atmosphere guide you."
"Go try to find my rich friend's aircraft. I've already helped him buy fancy navigation equipment which should trickle down to benefit you."
"Lost?! You're not lost. 'Lost' is a conspiracy by scientists to try to get more funding for their so-called navigation research. What you think is lost is just the natural variation of your balloon's path. Your balloon hasn't even moved for the past 15 hours. And even if you are lost, travel is good for you so extra travel will be even better."
And if the man in the boat happens to be startled by the balloon, he may just shoot it and claim it was his constitutional right and that he was just standing his ground.

For the record, I originally posted most of this in a comment to a friend's Facebook post, but figured I'd repost it here.

Image Source: Unknown - Comment if you know the original source.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Wrap Up

Ben CarsonThis is the final entry in my series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series. I've also copied it below.

As I wrote in the first entry, the few things I'd heard about Carson before I began this series were enough to turn me off from him. Now that I've looked into his positions in more depth, my opinion of him has sunk even lower. I haven't covered all of his positions in this series, but I tried to be fair by taking a 'snapshot' of the articles on his own homepage. There are other issues he's written about that I disagree with, some very strongly. And he's made some huge factual errors that I would love to point out. But including this entry, I've already devoted twelve blog entries in total to Dr. Carson (2 previously, 10 in this series). How much time should I spend writing about a single person that I disagree with? I don't want this blog to become the anti-Carson blog. There are other, more interesting things I'd rather be spending my free time writing about. So for now, this will be my last entry about the man. Unless he does something particularly noteworthy in the future, or actually has a chance to win the presidential nomination, I'm done writing about him.

But since this is my parting shot, I figure I'll provide a brief summary of some of those other positions I didn't already cover (or only covered in passing). The table below lists the issues, provides a link to Carson's position, and then another link to my position (something I've written if available, or an external link otherwise). When possible for long articles, I've linked directly to the relevant section. For many of Carson's positions, I've used the RunBenRen site, which provides links to the original sources. And keep in mind that this still isn't exhaustive, but like I wrote above, I think I've put enough time into responding to Carson's positions.

Issue Carson's Position My Position
Gold Standard I couldn't find a link, but here's a quote from print, One Nation, Page 75, "Since Franklin D. Roosevelt decoupled the U.S. dollar from gold, our currency has been backed only by our good name." The 2014 Texas Republican Platform.
Abortion RunBenRun Abortion
Second Amendment - Interpretation & Effectiveness RunBenRun Thoughts on Gun Control - New Studies on Effectiveness of Gun Control Laws
Second Amendment - The Hitler Argument Washington Times Thoughts on Gun Control - The Hitler Argument
Wealth "Redistribution" / Welfare Expansion RunBenRun Response to 'I'm Tired' E-mail
Marijuana RunBenRun Time - Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: The Myth That Will Not Die
IFL Science - New Study Finds Marijuana Safer Than Alcohol Or Tobacco
Flat Tax* RunBenRun Houston Chronicle - Steffy: Why the flat tax is flat wrong
Citizens for Tax Justice - Who Pays Taxes in America in 2014?
School Vouchers RunBenRun Economic Policy Institute - Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Economic Policy Institute - School vouchers don't make the grade
Marriage Equality GLAAD Another Part of Me - 12 reasons gays shouldn't be allowed to marry
The 2014 Texas Republican Platform

And even though there's already a separate entry for the index to this series, I'm going to repeat the index here, to make a one stop location on this site for issues dealing with Ben Carson.

Series Index

Previous Entries

It's actually a bit hard to pick the position of Carson's that's the worst. Out of the individual entries I wrote, I can pick three of Carson's positions that stand out as particularly bad - his disgusting apologism for torture, his non-acceptance of climate change, and his irresponsible scare mongering over Ebola. If I consider some of his other positions, his opposition to marriage equality ranks pretty high, as does his nearly constant conflation of religion and politics. But it's not just that there are a handful of big issues where I disagree with him and then a lot of other issues where I agree. In practically every article of his that I've read, I find myself in disagreement over the positions he's taken**. I'd be tempted to say that I couldn't imagine a politician I'd agree with less, but most of Carson's positions are typical right-wing positions, so they're not really all that different than any potential Republican or Tea Party candidate. In fact, it's when he shifts a little more to the left that I agree with him more. So, I suppose about the best I can say about Carson is that at least he's not Rick Perry, faint praise that it is. If he somehow does manage to become a viable candidate, I certainly hope there's a reasonable candidate opposed to him.

Related Links

  • Forbes - Ben Carson's Odd Notion Of The Constitution And Same-Sex Marriage - I came across this one after I posted Part 7. So, I added the link there, but just in case anyone's been following the series and isn't likely to go back, I'm putting it here, too. It's another example of Carson not understanding how government works (thinking Congress has the power to overturn court rulings).
  • Washington Post - The folly of term limits - I could have sworn I read or heard somewhere that Carson supported term limits for elected officials, but I couldn't find any quotes of him saying so. Still, I've seen it from his supporters in many comment threads under articles by or about Carson, so I figure it's worth the link. This article echoes my opinions on why I think term limits are a bad idea. (Basically - people with experience at a job do better than inexperienced people, and legislating is no different. We already have a process, voting, to get rid of the people we don't think are doing a good job. There are several issues giving incumbents too much of an advantage that should be addressed, but a measure that guarantees inexperienced legislators isn't the solution.)
  • CNN - Ben Carson: Prisons prove being gay is a choice - I'm including this link because it just made the news today. It's not the most offensive thing Carson's every said about homosexuality, but it seems like just about every time he speaks about homosexuality, he sticks his foot in his mouth.

*Actually, a flat tax is one I've thought about a bit, and want to comment on a little more. A true flat tax might not be horrible (the liberal in me still would prefer progressive taxes, since I realize that I can afford to pay a higher percentage of my income compared to some of the less fortunate people I know, and that people wealthier than me can afford even more - the other way of looking at it is that those that have benefitted the most from this system should put the most back in), but a true flat tax would be a huge overhaul to the entire tax system and possibly even government in the U.S. Right now, the federal government has their taxes. State governments have theirs. Local governments have theirs. Even different departments can have different taxes (just read the fine print on where all your money's going when you buy an airplane ticket). Many of these taxes are regressive in nature, hurting the poor more than the wealthy, so federal income taxes are progressive to offset that, resulting in an overall tax burden that's fairly proportional to income. If taxes were going to be made truly flat, where each person paid the same percentage of their income, you couldn't just make federal income taxes flat but leave all the other taxes the same, or else overall tax burden would be very regressive. The only way to actually implement it would be to make people pay only one tax, and then distribute that one big pot of money to all the levels of government. And like I said, that would be a huge change to the current system, and one I doubt many state or local governments would be too happy about.

**Not quite every article. His position on vaccination, at least, seems pretty good (Washington Times - Ben Carson: Vaccines are good medicine, not political issue), even if he blames the anti-vax movement on liberals, when the only official party platform I've seen endorsing an anti-vax stance is the Texas Republican Party Platform. (I'm not saying that there aren't liberals that are anti-vax, but rather that the problem crosses party lines. A related issue is the general anti-science position of the right, which I discussed in The Progressive War on Science?.)

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 9 - Shoddy Scholarship

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, mainly by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

For this entry, I'm actually going to look at a very short excerpt from his book, America the Beautiful, dealing with the supposed inadequacy of modern education.

To gain a real appreciation of what children were expected to know in early America, one has only to look up an exit exam from middle school grades during the nineteenth century. I suspect that many, if not most, college graduates today would fail that test. Some sample questions:
  • Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
  • Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865.
  • Show the territorial growth of the US.
  • Name and locate the principal trade centers of the US.
  • Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
  • Describe why the Atlantic Coast is colder than the Pacific at the same latitude.

As a matter of fact, I recognize all those questions, because I've seen them before in a chain mail. In fact, I wrote a blog entry about it, Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam. It turns out that the test was almost certainly administered to teaching candidates, not students, so Carson's example of nineteenth century middle school education was wrong.

It would be one thing if this was a remark Carson made off the cuff during an interview, but that's not the case here. This was a published book. He had plenty of time, and an ethical responsibility, to research any factual claims he was making. But he got it wrong, and it appears as if his source was chain mail that could have been easily debunked (or at least piqued his suspicion) merely by visiting Snopes. That's really rather shoddy scholarship, and certainly not the type of ethic I'd want in a politician.

But beyond who the test was administered to, Carson was trying to make the larger point that modern education has gone downhill, with negative impacts for the U.S. Here's what he wrote just a couple paragraphs after the above excerpt.

In the mid-twentieth century, however, a series of things began to happen that negatively impacted the quality of public education in the US. Public prayer was banned in school, and the educational agenda began to expand significantly beyond basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.

So, how does a 19th century education compare to a modern one? If you actually take the time to read that test and consider the questions, it doesn't look particularly difficult. To quote myself from that previous entry I wrote about the test, "My daughter has had a much broader education than the hypothetical one from this test, and she won't finish with 8th grade for another year (and this is Texas, which doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation for education)." And if you consider that the test was administered to teaching candidates, not middle schoolers, this difference becomes even starker. And not only that, but that Snopes article I linked to above described a very similar test from the same period that was definitely administered to teaching candidates, and noted that the potential teachers didn't do that well on it. So, what this test really shows is that modern day middle schoolers would do as well or better than 19th century teaching candidates.

As another point, let's take a look at some hard data, using literacy rates as a rough indication of how good education is in the present day compared to the past. Literacy can be measured multiple ways, and I couldn't find a single source with a single methodology that went all the way from the 1800s to the modern day, but I did find one source that went from the 1870 to 1979 (National Center for Education Statistics), and another for recent years (CIA Factbook via Wikipedia). I combined them into the graph below, noting which curve is for which data source.

U.S. Literacy Rate by Year

I think it's pretty obvious that as a nation, we're doing a much better job of educating people, especially in basic reading and writing, as Carson would put it.

So not only did Carson get his scholarship wrong, but if he'd dug a little deeper, he'd have realized that his example didn't support his larger point, and that additional data certainly doesn't indicate that modern day education is worse than that in the 19th century. This may not be the most important issue out of the entries I've written about Carson, but it's just one more in the long list of reasons why I wouldn't vote for him in an election.

Continue to Wrap up

More Info:

  • The website, Uppity Wisconsin, has a little more discussion on this issue, making a few points on the absurdity of trying to say that nineteenth century America was better educated than modern day America, RoJo: Education Was Better in 1830s, But Dems have "Dumbed-Down Our Population" to Get Votes.
  • Simple literacy and functional literacy aren't the same thing. Earlier measures of literacy were very basic - the ability to read short passages or write your own name. Functional literacy is about reading and comprehending enough to get by in society. That's why using the older measures of simple literacy (the type I plotted in the graph), the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99.9%. However, using newer measures of functional literacy (for which data doesn't exist going back much more than a few decades), the functional literacy rate is between 60%-90%, depending on exactly how functional literacy is defined. While this is comparable to the rates in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it's worse than other countries like the UK and Ireland, so there's certainly room for improvement. However, if even simple illiteracy in the U.S. was at 20% back in the 19th century, functional illiteracy was almost certainly higher than today, so simple literacy still supports the idea that modern education in the U.S. is better than in the past. For more discussion, take a look at the Wikipedia article on Functional Illiteracy.
  • Carson also discussed how the average scores by U.S. students in international tests tend to be lower than many other countries. However, Carson saw this as an indictment of the education system in general, when in fact, much of the problem has to do with the high proportion of U.S. students living in poverty compared to other countries. Socioeconomic status plays a huge role in how students perform in school. When you take this into account, comparing advantaged students in the U.S. to advantaged students in other countries, and disadvantaged students in the U.S. to disadvantaged students in other countries, the scores are more similar. The U.S. still lags the best countries, so there is certainly still room for improvement, but it ranks much higher this way. So if you want to fix the problem with U.S. education, you must recognize the true nature of it, and a major part of the problem is the high poverty rate in the U.S. A big way to improve average U.S. test scores would be to improve the social safety net, improving students' home life, which in turn would allow them to better focus on their education. (Of course, we can certainly try other improvements at the same time, since not all of the problem is down to poverty.) To read more, here's a good article/study from the Economic Policy Institute, What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?. Here's another good article, PISA: It's Still 'Poverty Not Stupid'. And finally, here's a commentary from Nature, Making the grade.


Selling Out