Retired U.S. Presidents Receive a Generous Pension, But Not as Generous As Some Think

Political Myth: Retired U.S. Presidents receive a pension of $450,000 for life.

Reality: Their pension is actually slightly under $200,000

Explanation

Prior to 1952, former presidents did not receive retirement benefits at all.  Then, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act (3 U.S.C. § 102 note), and provided for former presidents a lifetime pension equal to the salary of the highest paid member of the cabinet.  Currently, that amounts to $191,000.

In addition to the aforementioned pension, former presidents are also entitled to transition expenses, staff and office expenses, a travel allowance, health care provided by the military, secret service protection for 10 years after leaving office, and a military funeral upon his death.  Those are, indeed, generous benefits, but they do not amount to the $450,000 annual pension some have claimed.

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U.S. Students In the Middle Of The Pack, Educationally

Political Myth: Students in K-12 schools in the United States are routinely outperformed by students in other parts of the world

Reality: Relative to the rest of the world, students in the United States are about average.

Explanation

Every three years, since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — an international organization of 34 primarily developed countries, conducts “PISA,” or the Programme for International Student Assessment.  PISA assessment tests are given to 15-year-olds in various countries, to measure their abilities in the areas of reading, math and science.  In 2009, the most recent year in which the PISA assessment was given, the United States was roughly average in all three areas.  Generally, American students outperformed students in Central and South America and most of Western Europe (UK, Spain, France, Germany), but they did not perform as well as students in Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or most of the major Asian nations.  The best-performing students were from Shanghai, followed by South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

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Obama Is Still The President, No Matter Where He Was Born.

Political Myth: If it could be proven that President Obama was born outside the Untied States, he would then be ineligible to hold the office of President of the United States.

Reality: Even if he had been born in Kenya, he would still be eligible.

Explanation

Since he first became a serious candidate for President of the United States, Barrack Obama has been plagued by allegations that he was born, not in Hawaii as he, his birth certificate, his two published birth announcements, and the Hawaii Department of Vital Records state, but Kenya.  Save for a small number of its most dedicated adherents, the “birther” movement has largely lost popular support, and most of its claims have been addressed elsewhere and need not be re-addressed here.  But one thing that has gotten very little attention is the “birthers'” underlying assumption that if President Obama was born in Kenya, then he would automatically be ineligible to be President of the United States.

Article II § 1 Cl. 5 of the U.S. Constitution says, in applicable part:

No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President.

The original Constitution did not attempt to define what a “natural born Citizen” was, leaving the task to Congress.  Congress then passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which said, in applicable part, “the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens: Provided that the right of citizenship shall not extend to persons whose fathers had never been resident in the United States.”  The laws that govern nationality have been revised many times since then, with the most notable revision being the Nationality Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires, as an irreducible minimum, that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”  But, the Supreme Court made it clear long before Obama’s candidacy that even after the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified Congress retained the power to provide for natural born citizenship in cases not covered by the Fourteenth Amendment:

There are “two sources of citizenship, and two only: birth and naturalization.” United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649, 702 (1898). Within the former category, the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees that every person “born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, becomes at once a citizen of the United States, and needs no naturalization.” 169 U.S., at 702. Persons not born in the United States acquire citizenship by birth only as provided by Acts of Congress. Id., at 703.

Miller v. Albright, 523 U.S. 420 (1998).

The Act of Congress that’s currently in effect dealing with who acquires citizenship at birth says, in applicable part:

The following shall be nationals and citizens of the United States at birth:

(a) a person born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof;

*  *  *

 (g) a person born outside the geographical limits of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents one of whom is an alien, and the other a citizen of the United States who, prior to the birth of such person, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years.

Since even the “birthers” themselves do not dispute that Barrack Obama’s mother was a citizen of the United States who met the requirements stated above, he would be a “natural born citizen” even if he had been born in Kenya (or, anywhere else).

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“Corporate Personhood” Doesn’t Mean What Many Think It Means

Political Myth: “Corporate Personhood” is responsible for giving large corporations an excessive amount of influence over the political process in the United States.

Reality: “Personhood” has nothing to do with the amount of influence corporations exercise over the political process.

Explanation

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010) was one of the most controversial decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts because it ruled unconstitutional any restriction on political expenditures by corporations, whether they be for-profit corporations or non-profits.  The full extent of the effect this decision will have on elections in the Untied States remains to be seen, but for the most part, both the supporters of the decision and its detractors agree that the decision will have an effect of some sort.

Some of the opposition to the decision stems from a general sense among many that for-profit corporations in the United States have become too big and too powerful as a result of our society embracing the legal fiction that a corporation is to be treated as a “person.”   That several business corporations have become very large and powerful will not be disputed here, and the question of whether their size and power is a problem is a matter of personal opinion.  But if the Citizens United decision added to corporate power, it isn’t because of “corporate personhood.”

Suppose you want to start a business.  For purposes of this hypothetical, we’ll say it’s a delivery business.  You hire a few delivery drivers, and one of them gets into an accident while on the job.  The person who your driver ran into will, of course, sue the driver, but he will also sue you because an employer is generally responsible for his  employee’s on-the-job negligence.  Since people who own delivery companies generally have more money in the bank than delivery drivers, the plaintiff will probably be looking primarily to you to get paid.  That makes hiring employees a risky proposition for a business owner — so much the more so if it’s a particularly large business with tens of thousands of investors, who jointly “own” the company even though they don’t personally participate in running it.

The purpose of the corporation is to address this problem by creating the business as a  fictitious “person,” separate from the individual owner.  The purpose of creating this ficticous “person” is to limit the owners’ liability.  Thus, if the delivery driver your business hired runs somebody over, you wouldn’t get sued because the delivery driver isn’t  your employee; he’s your corporation’s employee.  You personally can’t lose any more than what you invested.

To say that you are opposed to the idea of “corporate personhood” is, in effect, to say that you are opposed to the idea of a business owner being able to limit his liability in this manner.  While that is a perfectly valid point of view with which people may agree or disagree, it has nothing to do with campaign finance.

It has always been well accepted that corporations, like individuals, have a right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment.  Were it otherwise, the concept of “freedom of the press” would be largely meaningless as a practical matter, since most newspapers, television stations, radio stations, movie producers, and book publishers are businesses set up as for-profit corporations.  Freedom of speech gives corporations the right to say whatever they want to say.  The controversy in Citizens United involved the question of whether the First Amendment also gives corproations the right to spend money from whatever source it pleases in pursuit of its political objectives.

Before Citizens United, if a corporation wanted to, for example, “speak” in support of a particular candidate or ballot initiative, it had to set up a Political Action Committee with funds solicited from corporate executives, shareholders, and their families, and segregated from the corporation’s general treasury.  There was a wide variety of reasons for this, chief among them being that the funds in the corporation’s general treasury were “accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s political ideas.”  Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652, 660 (1990).  In other words, the people who bought stock in Proctor and Gamble thought they were investing in a household chemical company, not that their money would be used to support a particular political candidate.  If Proctor and Gamble can  say what it wants, but if it wants to use its shareholders’ money to support a particular political candidate, it has to first solicit its shareholders to voluntarily pool their money for that purpose.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court essentially ruled that the First Amendment forbids the government not only from imposing restrictions a corporation’s speech, but also on which “pot” a corporation may draw from to finance its political activities.  Corporate personhood (i.e. the legal doctrine that protects shareholders from being held personally liable for the actions of a corporation’s employees) is an issue entirely separate from that.

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Does Europe Have Bigger Fiscal Problems Than the United States?

Political Myth: The governments of Europe have a harder time balancing their budgets than the United States.

Reality: A few do, but most do much better than the United States fiscally.

Explanation

The financial problems faced by the Greek government have been generating a lot of news lately, presented as a hardship faced by the Greeks themselves, as a financial risk faced by those who are unfortunate enough to have loaned money to Greece, and as a cautionary tale concerning the what some believe might lie in store for the United States.  Many see Greece as an exemplar for a supposed lack of fiscal discipline on the part of European governments in general.

The truth, however, is that the national governments of Europe are, in many cases, enjoy much healthier income statements than does the United States.  Here is a list of European governments that have either budget surpluses, or lower deficits than the United States relative to their economies:

All amounts are in billions of US Dollars.

Country GDP Total Government Expenditures Deficit / Surplus Deficit / Surplus as % of budget Deficit / Surplus as % of GDP
United States 15,040 3,604 1,340 37% 8.9%
Norway 264.5 219.3 64.5 29.4% 24.3%
Liechtenstein 5 0.820 0.123 15% 2.46%
Croatia 80.84 27.02 1.68 6.2% 2%
Switzerland 340.5 216.8 5.2 2.4% 1.5%
Sweden 379.4 289.6 3.4 1.17% 0.89%
Luxembourg 43.55 25.61 0.3 1.17% 0.69%
Belarus 141.2 23.2 0.98 4.2% 0.69%
Andora 3.17 0.8684 0.0036 0.41% 0.11%
Moldova 11.93 2.7 0.024 0.88% 0.02%
Estonia 27.02 8.8 0.15 1.7% 0.55%
Macedonia 21.39 3.348 0.245 7.3% 1.14%
Bulgaria 101.2 20.69 1.58 7.6% 1.56%
Bosnia and Herzegovina 31.72 9.1 0.558 6.1% 1.75%
Monaco 5.47 1.11 0.103 9.2% 1.8%
Poland 765.6 110.3 13.86 12.56% 1.81%
Albania 25 3.87 0.465 12% 1.86%
Germany 3,085 1,643 61 9.4% 1.9%
Ukraine 329 50.35 6.56 13% 1.9%
Hungary 195.3 68.37 3.91 5.7% 2%
Finland 196.7 146.3 4.6 3.1% 2.3%
Serbia 78.86 19.55 1.98 10.12% 2.5%
Kosovo 12.85 2.06 0.32 15.5% 2.5%
Montenegro 6.957 1.9 0.2 10.5% 2.9%
Romania 263.9 67.56 7.84 13.13% 3%
Czech Republic 272.2 60.8 8.15 13.4% 3%
Latvia 34.58 10.76 1.09 10.13% 3.15%
Slovakia 126.9 39.54 4.78 12% 3.76%
Italy 1,822 1,122 81 7.2% 3.9%
Lithuania 61.3 16.54 2.45 14.8% 4%
Belgium 529 275.5 22.2 8% 4.2%
Austria 351.4 219.5 15.5 7% 4.4%
Denmark 206.8 127.5 9.2 7.2% 4.4%
Portugal 246.9 119.6 10.9 9.1% 4.4%
Netherlands 705.7 424.8 32.7 7.7% 4.6%
San Marino 1.136 0.940 0.0583 6.2% 4.7%
Iceland 12.33 6.862 .851 12.4% 6.9%
France 2,214 1,547 164 10% 7.4%

Here is the financial conditions of the European governments that, relative to the size of their economies, are doing worse fiscally than the United States.

Country GDP Total Government Expenditures Deficit / Surplus Deficit / Surplus as % of budget Deficit / Surplus as % of GDP
United States 15,040 3,604 1,340 37% 8.9%
Ireland 181.9 98.59 22.39 22.7% 12.3%
Spain 1,411 692.2 130.6 18.8% 9.25%
Greece 308.3 154.5 30 19.4% 9.7%
United Kingdom 2,250 1,232 217 17.6% 9.64%
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Who Is Really Responsible For the Federal Deficit?

Political Myth: Earmarks / welfare / excessive foreign aid / Obamacare / TARP / the Bush tax cuts / [insert disfavored federal policy here] turned the federal budget surplus of 2000 into the massive federal deficit of 2009 (and beyond).

Reality: The federal government’s ongoing financial problems are caused by a wide variety of factors — some of which are often cited by politicians, and some rarely mentioned.

Explanation

In 2000, the United States government collected over $200 billion more than it spent.  Things looked good.  Yet, by 2009, the $200 billion surplus had turned into a deficit of over $1.4 trillion.  What happened?

Inevitably, who you blame for this reversal of the federal government’s financial fortune will depend largely on where you stand politically.  Democrats will likely blame Republican President George W. Bush and/or the Republicans in Congress, while Republicans are equally likely to blame President Obama and/or the Democrats in Congress.  This article will focus not on who is to blame, but instead on  what is to blame.  There is an adage among troubleshooters of all types:  At some point in the past, it worked.  Then, at some later point, it stopped working.  The problem was most likely caused by something that happened between the time it was working (2000), and the time it stopped working (2009).

Of course, it is well known that the federal government ran deficits in the years preceeding 2009, and continues to run deficits today, but 2009 is being picked because it was the year when the Federal Deficit reached its peak.  Federal deficits before and after 2009 were lower.

Here are the major difference between 2000 and 2009, in terms of the federal government’s income statement:

Defense spending:  $440 billion

In 2000, the federal government spent $358 billion per year on defense.  That number nearly doubled to $794 billion by 2009.

Federal Pensions:  $280 billion

In 2000, the federal government paid out just under $450 billion in pensions.  That number went up to $730 billion by 2009.

Medicare:  $230 billion

In 2000, the federal government spent $197 billion providing medical services to seniors.  By 2009, that number went up to $430 billion.  The increase is likely due to the rising cost of health generally, plus the aging population (meaning, the rising number of seniors the federal government has to provide health care for).  During that same time period, the amount of money the federal government collected for insurance rose only modestly, from $135 billion in 2000 to $190 billion in 2009.

Income tax revenue:  $200 billion

The federal government collected $200 billion more in income taxes in 2009 than in 2000.  Part of that is due to the “Bush Tax Cuts”; part of it is due to the shrinkage of the economy due to the recession.  Notably, in 2008, while the Bush Tax Cuts were in effect, the federal government collected approximately $400 billion more in income taxes than in 2009.

Medicaid:  $164 billion

Likely also due to rising health care costs, Medicaid cost the federal government roughly $164 billion more in 2009 than it did in 2000.

Troubled Asset Relief Program: $153 billion.

Unemployment Benefits:  $100 billion

In 2000 the federal government spent $23 billion on unemployment benefits.  That number went up to nearly $123 billion in 2009.

GSE Preferred Stock Purchase (aka Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout):  $95 billion

Tax Credits (EITC and Child Tax Credit):  $40 billion

When a taxpayer is able to claim an Earned Income Tax Credit or a Child Tax Credit that is larger than their income tax liability (i.e. families with children headed by parents who work but don’t make much money), that represents an expense to the federal government.  In 2000, that expense amounted to just under $27 billion.  It went up to just under $67 billion in 2009.

Together, the above things add up to the difference between the $200 + billion surplus of 2000 and the $1.4 trillion deficit of 2009.  Some of those things are one-time expenditures unique to 2009 (e.g. the bailouts).  Some are due to factors that the federal government does not directly control (e.g. the number of unemployed, the aging of the population, rising health care costs).  And some are due to policy decisions that the government has made (e.g. the larger defense budget).

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Debunking the Myths About Mormonism

With it now being all but certain that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for President of the United States in 2012, you will no doubt hear a number of interesting myths about the Governor Romney’s religion.  Each of us will have to decide for ourselves how much of an effect a candidate’s religious beliefs should have on who we vote for, but if the candidate’s religious beliefs are going to have any effect at all, then it’s important to understand them.  Unfortunately, Mitt Romney belongs to one of the most misunderstood religious denominations in the United States.

Here are some of the myths about Mormonism that will be addressed here:

Political Myth: Mormons practice polygamy.
Political Myth: If Mitt Romney were to be elected President, he would be required by the the cannons of his faith to obey the President of the LDS Church on public policy matters.
Political Myth: Mormons are not Christians.

Continue reading

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