2012 - %3, February

"Spending" is Not Our Problem, Healthcare Is

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 11:12 AM PST

What's the problem with the federal budget? CBPP has the answer: demographics. As the chart on the right shows, over the past 50 years spending on Social Security and Medicare has gone up steadily, while everything else has gone down steadily. Basically, "everything else" is in good shape. We should direct our attention a little bit toward Social Security and a lot toward healthcare costs, and stop obsessing about the rest.

In fairness, I'd break this down a bit further. Assuming I did my sums properly, federal spending on "everything else" — that is, everything except Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the debt — has indeed gone down from 15.2% of GDP in 1962 to a projected 11.3% of GDP in 2017. (That's from Table 3.1 here.) However, the national defense piece of that has declined from 9.2% to 2.9%, while the nondefense piece has increased from 6.0% to 8.4%. There are some arguments to be had about whether the defense piece of the budget is calculated correctly (it doesn't include veterans benefits, for example), and it's worth noting that healthcare costs are part of the nondefense picture too (mostly due to rising Medicaid expenditures). Still, the basic shape of the river doesn't change much. Most of the downward slope in spending is due to lower defense spending. Domestic nondefense spending hasn't gone up a lot, but it has gone up.

This doesn't really change CBPP's point, it just amplifies it a little. Outside of Social Security and Medicare, domestic spending rose during the 70s and then fell, but it's been pretty flat ever since then — until the Great Recession walloped us, anyway. We should, as always, keep an eye on it, but overall it's simply not a major problem, no matter how many times Republicans insist otherwise.

Bottom line: Social Security needs a little bit of tweaking and healthcare needs a huge amount of concentrated attention. Everything else is small beer. When it comes to federal spending, anyone who spends more than 10% of their time rabble-rousing about anything other than healthcare costs really shouldn't be taken seriously.

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California Government Has No Idea Fracking Is Happening

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 10:00 AM PST

Gas well drilling in Sutter or Colusa County, California: CalWest/FlickrGas well drilling in Sutter/Colusa County, California CalWest/FlickrThere isn't supposed to be much fracking in California. In the past, the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) has said that it "does not believe that fracking is widely used" in the state. More recently, the division allowed that the practice is "used for a brief period to stimulate production of oil and gas wells," but added (PDF) that "the division doesn't believe the practice is nearly as widespread as it is in the Eastern U.S. for shale gas production."

Californians, then, should be able to breathe a sigh of relief, since the controversial practice of fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, has been linked to a host of environmental problems, including air pollution, groundwater contamination, and possibly even earthquakes.

But according to a report (PDF) just released by the Environmental Working Group, fracking is much more common in California than the regulators would like you to believe. A team of EWG investigators has unearthed dozens of industry documents and academic papers indicating that the practice has been going on in at least six California counties for 60 years or more. And evidence suggests that it's still going strong: "We asked Halliburton, 'What percentage of wells are you fracking in Kern County, for example?,'" says Bill Allayud, EWG's California Director of Governmental Affairs. "And they said 50 to 60 percent of oil wells." A 2008 paper by the Halliburton subsidiary Pinnacle Technologies detailed the widespread current use of fracking in California.

The DOGGR didn't respond to the multiple emails I sent asking for comment, and EWG says that in a meeting earlier this month, division officials claimed again that it did not have any information about fracking in California. But the really strange thing is that the practice is clearly on the agency's mind: In 2010, the DOGGR requested funding to broaden its regulatory program to include new oil extraction technologies like fracking. It received more than $3.2 million for that very purpose in its 2010-11 budget, but according to the EWG report, so far it has not used the funds to regulate fracking. "They told us that regulating fracking is not on their plate," Allayud says. "Until they see manifest harm, they won't act." 

Gay Marriage: Nothing to Be Afraid of Anymore

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 9:44 AM PST

Back in 2008, after the passage of Proposition 8 banned gay marriage in California, there was a lot of talk about putting a pro-marriage initiative on the ballot in 2010. That didn't happen, and my read of public opinion at the time suggested we'd be better off waiting a little bit to ensure victory. Time was on our side, after all.

This may all be moot if Prop 8 gets overturned by the Supreme Court, but in any case, it looks like the success of same-sex marriage laws in other states has had a galvanizing effect on California public opinion. According to the Field Poll, about 51 percent of Californians approved of gay marriage in 2008, and that number hadn't budged much by 2010. But their latest poll shows a huge shift: 59 percent of Californians now approve.

What's even better is that this shift crosses virtually every demographic groups. Democrats are already strongly in favor, but approval rose 13 points among Republicans and 15 points among independents. Approval rose among the young, the middle-aged, and even the elderly. It rose among whites, Latinos, and blacks. It rose among Protestants, Catholics, and atheists.

There are no efforts in place to repeal Prop 8 via a ballot measure this year, and we might not need one. But if we do, it looks like it would pass easily this time around. Other states have taken the lead, and guess what? The four horsemen didn't ride. Apparently people are finally getting the message that there's really nothing to be afraid of here.

Obama's Apology Tour Makes a Stop in Asia

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 9:16 AM PST

I see that President Obama is kowtowing to America's enemies yet again:

North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear weapons tests and uranium enrichment and to allow international inspectors to verify and monitor activities at its main reactor, the State Department and the North’s official news agency announced on Wednesday, as part of a deal that included an American pledge to ship food aid to the isolated, impoverished nation.

Although the Obama administration called the steps “important, if limited,” they signaled a potential breakthrough in the impasse over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program following the death late last year of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il....North Korea’s agreement to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to the country appeared to be a significant concession. After years of negotiations, North Korea expelled inspectors and went on to test nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.

No word yet on exactly how Obama worded his apology to the North Koreans, but I'm sure Mitt Romney will be on Fox News soon to tell us.

Can We Bribe People to Have More Kids?

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 8:48 AM PST

I see, via Andrew Sullivan, that Will Wilkinson and Reihan Salam are arguing about whether it would be a good idea to increase tax incentives for having children. Will opposes it because he doesn't think the government has any business intruding here in the first place, and Reihan favors it because he favors pro-natal policy in general. "On the whole," says Reihan, "I’d rather we subsidize child-rearing than the purchase of large homes in capacity-constrained regions or high-tax jurisdictions at the expense of low-tax jurisdictions."

Put that way, I guess maybe I'd agree. But before this argument goes much further, it might be worth asking whether changes to the tax code have any real impact on childbearing in the first place. Our philosophical predispositions don't matter much if the empirical evidence tells us not to care.

And it seems like that's what it tells us. An influential paper a couple of decades ago suggested that tax policy really did have an effect on fertility rates, but two decades and some big changes in tax policy have gone by since then. A couple of years ago a trio of researchers at NBER recrunched the numbers and found that the original paper relied on a couple of critical assumptions that most likely aren't true. And even if they are true, "there is some evidence that child tax benefits affect the timing of births, but find no evidence of any lasting fertility effects."

Chart below. Do you see any effect from the skyrocketing level of child tax subsidies over the past couple of decades on the general fertility rate? I sure don't. If you want to reward people for having children just because you think it's the right thing to do, that's fine. But if you're actually trying to affect the number of kids we have, the evidence suggests it simply doesn't make any difference.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 29, 2012

Wed Feb. 29, 2012 8:36 AM PST

Spc. Richard Madrid (left) and Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Murphy of 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, take in the view of the horizon at a check point near Daab Pass in Shinkay district, Afghanistan on February 25, 2012. Photo by the US Army.

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Obama (Mostly) Disregards Defense Authorization Bill's Military Custody Requirements

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 7:43 AM PST
Obama meets with his national security team.

The White House issued a presidential policy directive Tuesday evening that allows the president to largely disregard a provision in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, which mandates military custody for non-American terrorism suspects captured on American soil.

Writing on the White House blog, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor emphasized that the directive would do little to alter the current approach to handling terrorism suspects. "[T]hese procedures seek to preserve the framework for the detention, interrogation, and trial of suspected terrorists that this Administration developed, and has executed with great success for more than three years," Vietor wrote.

Essentially, the directive issues waivers that include broad categories of suspects, meaning that instead of taking each case individually, the military custody requirement is avoided in just about every possible circumstance. If the terrorism suspect is a legal resident, if he is arrested by local authorities, if the government has any reason to believe the suspect or their home country might not cooperate with an investigation if the suspect is placed in military custody, then the "mandatory" military custody provision is ignored. Moreover, if the suspect doesn't fit into any of the waived categories, the president or the attorney general can determine whether or not the suspect is actually required to be in military custody. So, as I reported in December before the bill was passed, the "mandatory" military custody rule is mostly symbolic.

There are still a few caveats, however, chief among them that the president's directive leaves open the possiblity that non-citizen terrorism suspects apprehended on American soil could still face indefinite detention without trial, and that the bill itself establishes the expectation that the military has a role in domestic counterterrorism. While Congress itself watered down the detention provisions to allow the president this kind of leeway, should another underwear-bomber-type situation occur, it would be a simple matter for legislators to claim that Obama was flouting the law should he decide aganst placing the suspect in military custody.

The military custody provision is the final legacy of Umar Abdulmutallab. He received multiple sentences of life in prison by a federal judge earlier this month, while the lawmakers who crafted military detention provisions on the assumption that the civilian system was incapable of handling terrorists remained conspicously quiet.

The mandatory military custody requirement does not apply to American citizens. A separate provision the defense bill contains a compromise that allows the courts to decide in the future if American terrorism suspects captured in the US can be subject to indefinite military detention without trial. However, the Senate Judiciary Committee is taking up a bill Wednesday that would resolve the issue by making it absolutely clear that Americans captured in the US cannot be denied the right to a fair trial by their own government. How many votes in the Senate has the Constitution?

Occupy Rallies Against Powerful Right-Wing Group You've Never Heard Of

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 4:00 AM PST

Portland Action LabPortland Action LabToday, occupiers in 80 American cities will hold the movement's largest coordinated demonstration since fall: a huge protest against the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Never heard of it? That's the point.

"It's an extremely secretive organization," says David Osborn, an organizer with Occupy Portland's Portland Action Lab, which is spearheading the national protest (known on Twitter as #F29 and #ShutDownTheCorporations). "Our goal is to expose the destructive role that it plays in our society."

Founded in 1973 as a "nonpartisan membership organization for conservative state lawmakers," ALEC brings together elected officials and corporations like Walmart, Bank of America, and McDonald's to draft model legislation that often promotes a right-wing agenda. It claims to be behind 10 percent of bills introduced in state legislatures.

Romney Can't Win, But He Can't Lose Either

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 10:32 PM PST

Going into today's primaries, I figured Romney had to win Michigan by five points to demonstrate that his campaign still had its old mojo. In the event, he won by three. So....I guess things are still up in the air. Romney is in sort of a quantum superposition between winning and losing, still waiting for the Republican base to look at him just a little bit harder and collapse him into one or the other.

Or something. In any case, I'll bet no one else uses that particular imagery to describe tonight's results. And Romney is still the luckiest man in the world. (Well, the second luckiest after Barack Obama, anyway.) It's as though he's a modern-day Dr. Faustus. No matter how stilted and awkward and jawdroppingly detached from normal human experiences he remains, somehow every one of his opponents ends up self-destructing under his steely gaze. Bachmann had Gardasil, Perry had "Oops," Cain had Ginger White, Gingrich had Gingrich, and now Santorum is reeling from Snobgate. Ron Paul has come through unscathed, but that's only because he's apparently cut a side deal with Romney and his infernal patron.

So Romney is still the presumptive nominee, the winner by default because everyone else is unthinkable. And after limping through the spring and finally staggering into the convention like a punch-drunk Rocky Balboa, guess what? Not only will he have to face Apollo Creed in the main event, but it looks like the Greek Streak, Olympia Snowe herself, might be pecking away at his kneecaps the entire time. Unfortunately for Romney, being the second luckiest guy in the world in a presidential race is sort of like being the second best team in the Super Bowl. He better check the fine print on his contract.

Romney Quiets Critics With Michigan Primary Win

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 10:25 PM PST
Mitt Romney

When he needed it most, Mitt Romney's home state of Michigan came through for him.

Romney, the front-runner in the GOP's nomination battle, clinched a key victory on Tuesday in Michigan's presidential primary. With 88 percent of votes tallied, he led former US Sen. Rick Santorum 41 percent to 38 percent. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) placed third, with 12 percent of the vote, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rounded out the pack in fourth, with 7 percent.