2012 - %3, March

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Economic Growth Might be Higher Than We Think, But Only Slightly

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 11:13 AM PDT

Binyamin Applebaum says the economy may be growing faster than we think:

Buried deep inside the government’s revised estimate of fourth-quarter growth (revised but unchanged at 3 percent annualized) is an alternate measure of economic activity that is winning increased attention. And by that alternate measure, gross domestic income, the annualized pace of growth in the final three months of 2011 actually climbed to 4.4 percent.

That’s the kind of growth we usually see during an economic recovery, the kind of growth that’s fast enough to create new jobs. Indeed, it suggests that we may have learned the answer to a fretful mystery. Until now, economists have struggled to explain why unemployment was falling so fast when the major measure of growth, gross domestic product, was rising at an exceedingly modest pace.

That's good news. Just a note of caution, though. GDP measures production of goods and services, while GDI measures the income used to buy goods and services. In theory, they should be identical, but noise in the statistics means they don't always come out quite the same. Sometimes GDI is less than GDP and sometimes it's more. Last quarter it was more.

But if you look at 2011 as a whole, total growth comes to 1.7% on a GDP basis and 2.1% on a GDI basis. That's not a huge difference. The higher GDI figure really does suggest that recent growth might have been stronger than we think, but only a little bit stronger.

Who Killed the Debt Deal? Hint: His Initials are EC

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 10:38 AM PDT

In the New York Times Magazine this weekend, Matt Bai has yet another gigantic story about what really happened last year to kill the "grand bargain" deficit deal between Barack Obama and John Boehner. When I saw it, I sighed. Do I really want to read another one of these things? Luckily, I can now easily download monster pieces like this to my iPad and then read them in the comfort of my easy chair, so I ended up reading it after all. There was, as near as I can tell, one genuinely significant new item of information in the piece.

First, a nickel summary. Last July, after several weeks of on-again-off-again negotiation, Boehner and Obama reached a kinda-sorta handshake agreement on a deficit deal that would raise $800 billion in revenue (though this part of the deal was shaky) and cut $1.7 trillion in spending. But then the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican senators, announced a deal of their own that included about $2 trillion in extra revenue. A substantial number of Republican senators expressed support for this package, and Obama immediately understood that Democrats in Congress would revolt if he asked them to approve a package with far smaller revenue increases than even a lot of Republicans were willing to concede. So he went back to Boehner and asked for a deal that included both more revenue and deeper spending cuts. At that point the deal fell apart.

So what happened? Boehner's story is that Obama reneged on a handshake deal. Obama's story is that no final deal had ever been agreed to. It's true that he pushed for more revenue concessions all the way to the end, but he was also willing to go back to the original deal if the bigger package turned out to be a nonstarter. In the end, though, the problem was that Boehner couldn't get his own caucus to agree to any deal that included additional revenue.

So who's right? Some of both, of course. Obama did push for extra revenue after the Gang of Six announcement, but it turns out that Boehner wasn't quite as shocked by Obama's proposal as he later pretended:

By the next morning, both men were facing rebellions on the Hill. The Times’s Carl Hulse and Jackie Calmes had written a front-page article disclosing the existence of the new round of talks and asserting that a deal was very near....And yet, even then, as powerful contingents in both parties rose up to oppose a deal that was already tenuous, negotiations were proceeding amiably and apace. At the White House that Thursday morning, July 21, Jackson, Loper, Nabors, Sperling and Lew, among other aides, agreed to set aside the revenue question and focus on hammering out some of the smaller discrepancies in the two offers.

....The speaker’s story about this moment in the negotiations has always been remarkably consistent....The additional revenue that Obama demanded was a “nonstarter,” he says....Boehner had no choice but to walk away from the negotiations....[But] Boehner wanted a deal badly enough to stay at the table for 48 hours after Obama “moved the goal posts,” which casts doubt on his claim that this breach of trust was an obvious dealbreaker.

....As part of a broader proposal, which has remained until now a closely held secret, Boehner was apparently open to meeting the president at the new, higher revenue target — a concession that most likely would have meant abandoning the idea that no taxes would have to be raised. Had that counteroffer ever made it to Obama’s desk, it’s not hard to imagine that the grand bargain would have gotten done within 24 hours, at great political risk to both men....What happened, instead, based on extensive reporting, was this: Boehner raised the possibility of his counteroffer with Cantor on that Thursday afternoon, and Cantor dismissed the suggestion out of hand.

....Boehner talked to Obama a short while later. The president laid out the options as he would later relay them to Reid and Pelosi: more revenue and a bigger package, or the $800 billion and a smaller one. Boehner heard him out, but by then he must have known, from his discussions with Cantor and others, that neither option was going anywhere in his own caucus. It was one thing to risk your speakership on a grand bargain, which Boehner had without question been willing and even eager to do. It was another thing to throw that speakership away with little chance of success, which is what Obama was now asking of him.

Bai makes it pretty clear that although the Gang of Six really did throw a monkey wrench into the negotiations, it was Eric Cantor who definitively killed the deal, making it clear to Boehner that the Republican caucus would flatly not be willing to support any deal that had even a hint of additional revenue. Toward the end, when Obama famously put a call into Boehner that went unanswered for an entire day, it wasn't because Boehner had "run out of time" and felt that Obama was unlikely to budge, as he now says:

Boehner didn’t want to talk with Obama because he feared exactly the opposite — that Obama would respond by offering him the original terms from the previous Sunday, and that Boehner would then find himself trapped. He had to now know that, despite his sense of himself as a persuasive statesman who could get his caucus to follow his lead, he couldn’t get any deal past even his own leadership. It was safer for Boehner to walk away and accuse Obama of having sabotaged the deal than to risk that Obama would retreat to the earlier terms on which they had agreed, forcing the speaker to backtrack himself.

So there you have it. There are enough moving parts to give both sides a decent story to tell, but the real story is the one that's been obvious all along: the current Republican caucus in the House flatly won't support any budget deal that includes even a cent in new taxes. Boehner kept hoping maybe he could fudge that, but eventually Eric Cantor put the hammer down and told him in no uncertain terms that he was living in a dreamworld. That's what killed the debt deal.

Iran War Watch: Azerbaijan Airbases and the Israeli Military

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 10:33 AM PDT

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, the rhetoric.

Senior US intelligence officials say that the Israeli military has recently gained access to airbases in the Republic of Azerbaijan, an independent Turkic state on Iran's northern border.

Foreign Policy's Mark Perry, who broke the story, explains what it means for the Israeli-Iranian standoff:

[A]ccording to several high-level sources I've spoken with inside the U.S. government, Obama administration officials now believe that the "submerged" aspect of the Israeli-Azerbaijani alliance—the security cooperation between the two countries—is heightening the risks of an Israeli strike on Iran...[F]our senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran's northern border. To do what, exactly, is not clear. "The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official told me in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."

Senior U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Israel's military expansion into Azerbaijan complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions, according to the sources. Military planners...must now plan not only for a war scenario that includes the Persian Gulf—but one that could include the Caucasus.

[...]

It is precisely what is not known about the relationship that keeps U.S. military planners up at night. One former CIA analyst doubted that Israel will launch an attack from Azerbaijan, describing it as "just too chancy, politically." However, he didn't rule out Israel's use of Azeri airfields to mount what he calls "follow-on or recovery operations." He then added: "Of course, if they do that, it widens the conflict, and complicates it. It's extremely dangerous."

In case you're curious, here's what an airbase in Azerbaijan looks like:

The Azerbaijani government flat-out denied the FP report on Thursday. Teymur Abdullayev, a spokesman for the country's defense ministry, called the allegations "absurd and groundless," and another senior official in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, vowed that "there will be no actions against Iran...from the territory of Azerbaijan."

Despite Baku's denials, this story will undoubtedly damage the already fraught relationship between Azerbaijan and its neighbor to the south. The Iranian government openly disapproves of Azerbaijan's friendly relations with Israel—the two countries' partnership includes over a billion dollars worth of arms shipments to Azerbaijan from the Jewish state—and Iranian authorities have repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of colluding with Israeli spies and assassins. Police in Azerbaijan this month arrested 22 terror suspects who were supposedly receiving marching orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Meanwhile, Anshel Pfeffer at Haaretz doesn't buy the speculation of an Israeli airstrike being launched out of an Azeri airbase:

[A] cursory glance at a map hardly bears it out. A range of American military experts claim that Azeri airfields would be invaluable for Israel as it would solve some of the fuel/range issues of a 2000+ km strike, they fail to address the problem of where the Israeli warplanes can fly to once they have refueled in Azerbaijan. There is no friendly route to fly back to Israel, except over Iranian or Turkish territory, hardly appealing alternatives once an attack has already been carried out and both countries will be on highest alert...Other uses proposed in the FP feature, using Azeri fields just in the case of emergency landings or using them to base search-and-rescue helicopters or reconnaissance drones, makes more sense.

The Demographics of the Religious Right

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 9:29 AM PDT

Andrew Sullivan links today to a Julian Sanchez post from a few days ago that I had kinda sorta meant to comment on but never did. It's about religion and atheism generally, but also touches on the contemporary and widespread feeling of persecution among conservative Christians in America. Why do they feel this way when there are so many of them and atheists are a tiny minority?

Previously faith could more or less be taken for granted—maybe the candidate makes a passing reference to the church they regularly attend—and that’s all there is to it, really, because of course everyone’s a believer of one stripe or another. Increasingly, isn’t so—that there are actually quite a lot of unbelievers, many of them effectively operating in stealth mode. This was probably always the case, but outside the academy and a few urban enclaves, nobody was terribly vocal about it—you certainly didn’t have anything like a visible public “movement.” Suddenly, if you’re someone who thinks of faith as a minimal prerequisite for decency, what was previously tacitly understood has to be signaled with extra vigor.

There's probably something to this, but I really think that people pay too little attention to basic demographics when the topic of conservative Christianity comes up. A couple of points:

  • Membership in religious organizations had gone steadily up over the past century, from roughly 40% of the population in 1900 to 70% today. Lack of belief was more common and more public in 1900 than it is today, even if it was called "freethinking" or "skepticism" or some related term.
  • Conservative Protestant denominations have also been growing very steadily over the past century. It wasn't a sudden boom that burst onto the public scene when Jerry Falwell became famous. The Pentecostal movement started up in 1906 and it's been growing ever since. Ditto for evangelical sects, which have grown steadily from perhaps a third of all Protestant denominations in 1900 to something like 60% of them today.

If you put these two things together, here's what pops out: A century ago, something like 10% of the country belonged to a conservative Protestant denomination. That's grown steadily ever since, and today it's around 30%. So there's really no mystery to explain here. Conservative Christians have become more outspoken and more politically powerful simply because they've grown more numerous. Sometime in the 70s, their numbers finally passed a threshold where they became a serious voting bloc, and they've been growing more powerful every year since then.

What's more, at the same time this has happened, America really has become more secularized. No, religion isn't under assault, and a lot of the rhetoric from the Christian right is grotesquely over the top. Still, it's simply a fact that liberals have engineered a growing separation of church and state over the past few decades. Classroom prayers led by teachers have been outlawed. Your local city hall can't put up its traditional Nativity scene. Christmas assemblies focus on generic songs without any religious content. Judges can't festoon their courtrooms with copies of the Ten Commandments. Religious schools are denied federal funding. Etc.

I make no bones about the fact that I think this is all just fine. I prefer a broadly secular America. But I sometimes think that we liberals pretend to a level of mystification about this stuff that's disingenuous. We've been chipping away at traditional religious expression in the public square for decades. At the same time, conservative Christians denominations have grown steadily. Put the two together and you have a substantial segment of the population that feels like it's under assault. I don't agree with them, but it's not really all that hard to figure out why they might feel the way they do.

UPDATE: I changed the wording slightly on school prayer. Students can pray individually all they want. It's organized, teacher-led prayers that have been banned.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Road to 270 Electoral Votes Goes Through...Nebraska?

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 8:00 AM PDT

On Wednesday, Public Policy Polling came out with a new survey of the Nebraska GOP primary race. That's not all that important—Rick Santorum will probably win the state, win slightly more delegates than Mitt Romney, and still not win the nomination. Not very many people live in Nebraska.

But there was one interesting element to the Democratic-leaning polling firm's Nebraska report: In the state's second congressional district, Obama trails Romney by just one point in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup:

Courtesy of Public Policy PollingCourtesy of Public Policy PollingNebraska, which allocates its electoral votes by congressional district rather than winner-take-all, went overwhelmingly to John McCain in 2008, but Obama was able to pad his landslide tally with a narrow win in Omaha.

The odds of Omaha delivering a decisive electoral vote to Obama this time around are pretty small, but via the good folks at 270towin.com, you can at least game a scenario—say, if Obama repeats John Kerry's 2004 map, then adds Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico to the mix while losing New Hampshire. And in that case, with Obamaha providing the winning margin, you might actually see some serious introspection from Republicans and Democrats alike on why we still rely on something as unwieldy and undemocratic as the electoral college in the first place.

The Supreme Court Parties Like It's 1936

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 7:51 AM PDT

I might as well confess that I've been in something like a state of shock for the past day. Tuesday was bad enough, but Wednesday's arguments in the Supreme Court were nothing short of surreal, as the conservative justices, Kennedy and Scalia in particular, spent their time chatting as if they were in the Senate cloakroom, casually hashing out a deal to figure out how best to keep their campaign promises to the tea party. There was barely even a pretense of being a court, not a legislature.

Randy Barnett is getting lots of kudos these days as the guy who created the conservative case against Obamacare, primarily by inventing and proselytizing the activity vs. inactivity distinction. And I guess he deserves his star turn. But watching yesterday's session (or, rather, reading the transcript) it's pretty obvious that none of it mattered. The conservatives looked like five men who just didn't like Obamacare and were bound and determined to find an excuse to overturn it. The activity vs. inactivity distinction was good enough, so that's what they glommed onto, but anything else even reasonably plausible would have worked too.

It's not over til it's over, of course. Maybe the tone of the questioning has fooled us all, and at least a couple of the conservatives will pause before going fully rogue. But it looks grim right now, and even genial, generous E.J. Dionne is under no illusions about what it will mean if the court overturns Obamacare:

A court that gave us Bush v. Gore and Citizens United will prove conclusively that it sees no limits on its power, no need to defer to those elected to make our laws. A Supreme Court that is supposed to give us justice will instead deliver ideology.

I wasn't alive the last time the Supreme Court acted like this, and I never thought I'd live to see the day it would go there again. And maybe it won't. But they sure look like they're all ready to party like it's 1936 again.

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

Thu Mar. 29, 2012 7:43 AM PDT

US Army Pvt. Ryan Slade (left) fires an M240 machine gun as Spc. Cody Branam fires his M4 carbine during a situational training exercise at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Grafenwoehr, Germany, on March 22, 2012. Both soldiers are assigned to India Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment. DoD photo by Gertrud Zach, US Army.