Is It Michele Bachmann’s Year?

…to finally lose her congressional seat? It seems her abysmal showing as she ran for president, or her reputation for not showing up for House votes, or her inaccessibility to her constituents, or…well, let’s just say that she’s not polling so well.

Despite her national fan base and a massive war chest, Rep. Michele Bachmann may be in more danger than most suspect, with a new poll showing her lead diminished to just 2 points. Independent voters have swung against her by nearly 20 points in just two months, from a 4 percent advantage to a 15 point disadvantage. The internal poll, conducted by Democratic pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner at the behest of Democrat Jim Graves’ campaign and shared with Salon, shows that Bachmann’s favorability rating has tumbled since their last survey in mid-June, and finds Graves gaining ground with independents as his name recognition grows.

Overall, the poll shows Bachmann leading Graves 48-46 percent, within the margin of error. The race has moved significantly among independents, with a 20-point net shift toward Graves, from a 41-45 percent disadvantage in June to a 52-37 percent lead now. Among independents, Bachmann’s favorability rating has slipped 4 points while her unfavorability rating has jumped 7 points. Overall, she’s viewed mostly negatively. Among all voters, 40 percent give her a positive job rating, while a sizable 57 percent give her a negative one, with a plurality of 35 percent giving the most negative answer possible — “poor.”

I don’t know what’s going on. It could even just be general disaffection over the obstructionist tactics of congressional Republicans. I don’t much care. There is a chance to remove someone with no connection to reality, not just from Congress, but from important House committees. It’s also a chance to replace her with someone who is, at the very least, not trying to turn our country into a theocracy.

You can donate here to Graves’ campaign (usual restrictions about being a U.S. citizen apply). Today is the last day for donations to help fund a television ad campaign, something that will reach “low information” voters when nothing else will.

It’s not my district, but I gave a little. My rep is safe, and Bachmann is decidedly not. I like this state of affairs. I’ll like it better if she goes.

Social Security: We Aren’t Investing

This is part of a week-long series about Social Security. If you want to read the whole series, links are provided at the bottom of this post.

House built from $100 bills.

“Money House” by 401(K) 2012. Some rights reserved.

When we set aside money now to fund our retirements later, we call that investing. Frankly, though, most of what we’re doing is gambling with pretty good odds, not investing. To understand what I mean, you have to know a bit about stock markets.

The original stock markets were mostly set up to fund colonization. (What follows here is some gross generalization.) A trip across the world in a fleet of ships, the locating and setting up of mining operations, the consolidation of local fruit markets to siphon off some of the product for export, the fending off of competing countries’ interests–all those things take time. They all take money. That means they all required funding that could be tied up for a length of time with an uncertain outcome.

There aren’t a lot of individuals who are willing to fund that kind of project in toto or with just a few investors. This kind of colonization was done in a world shifting from a feudal system to a mercantile system, which meant that royalty was often broke, even more so than previously. There hadn’t been much consolidation of mercantile interests at that point; monopoly was rightly seen as a source of power that monarchies were wary of. Companies that wanted to exploit colonies had a limited number of choices for funding that exploitation.

Rather than giving the whole thing up as the bad business it was, companies found a new way to find funding. They crowdsourced it. They received a small amount of funding from each of many sources, granting each a small interest in the company. Markets were set up to handle the trade between investor and company.

Almost concurrently with the transactions between investor and company came transactions between investors. Because this funding was long-term in nature, some investors found that they couldn’t spare their investment funds for as long as they had expected to. They had to recoop at least some of their funds by selling their interest to someone else.

This type of trade then led, also very quickly, to a third type of trading. This type involved creating various types of financial agreements that people could use to hedge their bets or make new bets on how much return the original stock would produce. These days, we refer to this kind of trade as “derivatives”.

Again, this is all very simplified, but that gives you an overview of the structure of the financial markets in which our retirement funds are put to grow.

All of this activity is referred to as “investing”. However, when we talk about the virtues of investing, it is generally only that first kind of trade we’re talking about. [Read more...]

Travel Grants for Skepticon!

If you’ve been very sharp-sighted the last couple of days, you may have noticed something new in the sidebar here. It’s a widget for Secular Woman’s travel grant program. They’re looking to put travel to Skepticon within reach for at least ten women who would otherwise not be able to attend.

Eligibility requirements for receiving the grants are on the Secular Woman website. To indicate your interest in receiving one, simply check off your interest in receiving financial aid for travel on the Skepticon registration page. Admission to the conference itself is free, which makes the grants go even further.

You are planning to register for Skepticon, right? You’ve seen the list of speakers? You know that more interesting people are working to put workshops together (hint, hint)? Trust me, you’ll want to be there.

For now, though, contribute to the widget if you’ve got a few bucks to spare. As Onion Girl mentioned recently, it’s a nice way of making yourself feel a little better in the face of all the nasty trolling we’ve seen recently. There’s nothing like making a difference to make the ridiculous people look all the more ridiculous.

Social Security: We Suck at Money

This is part of a week-long series about Social Security. If you want to read the whole series, links are provided at the bottom of this post.

Hands holding money.

“Money” by 401(K) 2012. Some rights reserved.

One of the “selling points” of privatizing Social Security was the idea that “You manage your own money.” I put “selling point” in quotes because I don’t understand how this could be any such thing.

Check the business trade news (not investing news as presented in most papers) and you’ll find annual stories telling you how poorly prepared current workers are to retire. If your company offers a 401(k) plan, you’ll get similar information from your employer, urging you to save more and not be among the poorly prepared.

So, how many people (in the U.S.) who are reading this are saving enough? How many even know what “enough” is supposed to be? [Read more...]

We Have the Technology

I’m not asking you for money. Not today, anyway. I’m asking you for your Facebook account, briefly. Temporarily. A few clicks now and maybe a few more later, depending on how you feel about Facebook apps.

So, what am I asking you to do? I’m asking you to join in the Chase Giving voting, to help bring Camp Quest and the Secular Student Alliance into a decent amount of funding from corporate sources. I’m asking you to hold your nose when the application tells you it will collect a bunch of your personal information and vote anyway. (Also, I’m reminding you that it’s a good idea to purge apps on your Facebook account from time to time anyway, and a couple of days from now, after voting ends, would be an excellent time.) Chase can already collect a buy amount of information about you directly through Facebook. With this app, they’re paying secular nonprofits for it instead.

If you’re willing to share a link to the campaign with your friends, you can qualify for a third vote. Foundation Beyond Belief is also in the running, but they’re already doing better than the other two.

For more on why to do this, see JT’s post from this morning:

Please read this post all the way through.  It’s short.

Camp Quest and the Secular Student Alliance, along with Foundation Beyond Belief, were nominated by Chase employees for the Chase Community Giving program.  Here’s the deal: Chase doles out $5 million dollars to groups that were nominated.  The organizations get a portion of that cash based on how many votes they get on facebook.

Here’s the breakdown:

$250,000 to the Charity receiving the most votes
$100,000 to the next ten runners-up Charity
$50,000 to the next thirty-five runners–up Charity
$20,000 to the next fifty runners-up Charities
$10,000 to the next one-hundred runners-up

I’d like to direct you guys back to what I said about Camp Quest recently:

I will make an additional, personal plea on behalf of Camp Quest.  They are behind the other three organizations yet, in my estimation, they are atop the pile in terms of importance.  Go vote for them.  It will take you maybe, maybe sixty seconds to click “allow app” and “vote.”  Surely if you give the first shit about this culture war you can spare sixty seconds.  You could also go the extra mile and tell your friends to vote for them.

Amanda Metskas, the Executive Director of Camp Quest, has a near-magical ability to make money go further than anybody else thought it could.  She will do wonders with the kind of money Camp Quest could win here.

And, if you’re looking to donate, trust her with your money.  You won’t regret it.

Right now Camp Quest has 1,404 votes.  That’s all.  Only 1,404 for one of the most important things the atheist movement can be doing.  I know a lot of the readers here have gone and voted, but they need more! Camp Quest only needs to gain 100 more votes on the group presently at the $20k barrier to go from $10,000 to $20,000.  That’s a lot of money, especially in the hands of Amanda Metskas.

Please, please, please, if you haven’t, go do it.  It won’t take a dime out of your day.  It might, if you’re slow, take a whole minute.  That little click is not meaningless.  In fact, it means a ton!  If you care about this movement, this is a way to make a potentially enormous impact with a minimal amount of effort.

And please, please, please share this information.  Get everyone you know to vote.  Voting ends tomorrow and they need as many votes as possible before then.  If we can’t get more than 1500 people to click “yes, I’d like Camp Quest to have 10,000 more dollars” then there’s something really wrong with atheist activism.

And, if you want to go the extra mile, toss a vote at the other atheist orgs while you’re at it.  If the Secular Student Alliance drops a couple more spots they lose $30,000.  If Camp Quest is important to you, it should be equally important to put some bucks into the hands of the organization that helps these kids when they get a little older.

To vote for Camp Quest, click here.

To vote for the Secular Student Alliance, click here.

To vote for Foundation Beyond Belief, click here.

Also Chase customers can vote twice more at www.chasegiving.com.

Thank you, everyone.  *hug*

This is such a simple action that can have big consequences for some of our hardest-working nonprofits. Help with a few clicks, and show them what we’ve got as a movement, won’t you?

You can also help JT’s post catch the eye of the Reddit crowd if you have an account by upvoting it here.

I Get Email, Atheism+ Edition

Minus additional ‘nyms, here is an email I received this weekend via the contact form on my blog.

Hi!

I’ve been a reader of FtB for a time now. I’m very much an atheist, humanist, and I strongly support feminist issues. I thought that Atheism+ was a brilliant idea. But then I smacked head-first into this wall:
http://www.reddit.com/r/atheismplus/comments/zwctq/so_i_just_watched_innocence_of_muslims/c68d7zr

I (as UnholyGeezer) was banned from http://www.reddit.com/r/atheismplus/ for daring to ask questions, and, ironically, for bringing up the subject of banning.

Yes, I know you have nothing to do with reddit. But this, exactly this, is the very reason that I’m “merely” an Atheist, and not an Atheist+.

I have never, ever called anyone a “cunt”. I have never, ever threatened to rape anyone, not even in jest. I fully support both feminism and any and all forms of equality. But to be met with censorship and banning? What can I say, except, goodbye?

I have now unsubscribed to /r/atheismplus. It’s a good idea, but very badly implemented. I understand that Atheism+ wishes to exclude bigots and misogyny. But to exclude any and all forms of critical questions and contradictory arguments? Not particularly inclusive, is it?

Well, I’m sorry, but, exclude me.

The email raised a few questions, even without my having looked at the Reddit thread in question.

  • If you already know I “have nothing to do with reddit”, why expect me to spend my time on your complaint about Reddit?
  • If you already don’t identify as Atheism+, why are you subscribed to the subreddit?
  • If you already don’t identify as Atheism+, why are you upset you can no longer comment there?
  • If you already don’t identify as Athiesm+, and your experience changed nothing, what am I supposed to be concerned about here?

And then I went to Reddit. [Read more...]

Social Security: It Isn’t Broke

This is part of a week-long series about Social Security. If you want to read the whole series, links are provided at the bottom of this post.

"Budget" and dollar-sign street signs.

“Budget” by 401(K) 2012. Some rights reserved.

Every few years, we hear the news that Social Security is going to go broke. They have run the numbers, and the money is going to run out.

Of course, it is always going to run out decades from now.

And no one really talks about what it means for Social Security to go broke. So let’s do that now, in a slightly simplified version.

The first thing you have to know is that we pay more into Social Security than we pay out each year and that we have for the last three decades until 2010. The excess funds go to buy Treasury bonds, which pay for other government spending. Those Treasury bonds are what will pay Social Security benefits in years in which other funding is not sufficient.

So did we start tapping into Treasury bonds in 2010, when Social Security taxes didn’t cover benefits? [Read more...]

When Pregnancy Starts

The Arizona law restricting abortion that is currently being held up by a U.S. Appeals Court is frequently described as redefining the start of pregnancy. It’s mocked for saying pregnancy starts with starts with the first day of a woman’s last period before she becomes pregnant. “What kind of idiot would declare that pregnancy starts then?”, people ask.

Well, the answer is, “Doctors”. I’ve been meaning to write a post explaining this for a little while, but geengeek beat me to it:

In the first case-based class of medical school, students are asked to answer a virtual patient’s question about the development of the fetus. These students are smart and they know all about betaHcG and are anxious to showcase their knowledge of the menstrual cycle with fluctuating levels of various hormones (FSH, progesterone, etc.). Yet one question brings confusion, “How pregnant is this women?” The related question,  ”When does pregnancy start?” leaves the students flummoxed. Is it at conception? But how do you know when that happens? Or does implantation make more sense? It’s a great example of how detailed facts need the larger context.

The usual dating is gestational age, based on the first day of your last menstrual period. However, you can also date a pregnancy with embryological age, starting at conception.

How you date a pregnancy can depend on your perspective. My very general guideline:

  • Pregnant woman is the focus = gestational age (e.g. obstetricians) 1
  • Focus on embryological/fetal development = embryological age (e.g. developmental biologist) 2

But why are there two types of dates? We might need a bit of a primer on the menstrual cycle and how it relates to pregnancy.

The rest of the post is interesting as well, and far better than I would have done as a lay writer. Check out the whole thing.

There are definitely problems with the Arizona law. It places restrictions on when a woman can opt to have an abortion that don’t consider the timing of important tests and don’t match any remotely reasonable boundary in pregnancy, such as viability, that might be cause for debate. They instead plant a flag to declare the state’s interest in a pregnancy at some early, arbitrary point.

That’s quite bad enough. We don’t have to accuse them as well of an underhandedness they didn’t demonstrate.

Social Security: Should We Double It?

Golden eggs in a basket sitting on one-dollar bills.

“Savings” by 401(K) 2012. Some rights reserved.

I was on a call recently, listening to somebody talk about a federal revenue committee that has been discussing ways to rearrange tax burdens and increase revenues. This person mentioned that one proposal under consideration was doubling Social Security. Two people in the room laughed.

I don’t have the details. This isn’t the sort of proposal that gets reported in the news. I assume the idea would be to raise withholding and employer-paid rates immediately, with increases in benefits to be phased in over time. People who are currently retired and not paying into Social Security would receive no increase. People who have been paying in at the new rates for a certain number of years would receive fully twice the benefit when they retire that they would now. Everyone in between would be affected based on years at the new rates.

I can see that this would be an appealing place to look for revenue. Because Social Security benefits paid now are funded by Social Security taxes paid now, the lag in increased benefits would substantially increase the current Social Security surplus. That would make those funds available for other uses. Instant additional funding.

This isn’t accounting funny business exactly. Social Security funding has always worked that way. We run funding surpluses. Eventually, the benefits paid out would catch up somewhat, making the situation then closer to today’s situation. In the meantime, there would be no worry about the boomers being a drain on general funds.

Sounds good, right? Well, then why did people laugh? [Read more...]

How We Fund Education

As you’ve probably already heard, Dan Fincke has moved Camels With Hammers to Patheos. He didn’t do it because of strife here. I know I’ve disagreed with him as much as anyone, but always with the hope of getting through and helping him change his mind in areas where I thought he wasn’t looking at a whole picture. We’ll miss Dan around here.

Moving to Patheos will get Dan a boost in pay. It will also put him more in the way of believers, which fits his approach better than many people’s, but it’s the pay that’s important. It really, really shouldn’t be, but it is. Why? [Read more...]