2012 - %3, July

Corn on MSNBC: Right-Wing "Social Welfare" Money May Tip Senate

Tue Jul. 10, 2012 8:47 PM EDT

David Corn joins The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson and Democratic strategist Julian Epstein on MSNBC's "Martin Bashir" to discuss how conservatives are planning to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into politically-driven "social welfare organizations," possibly tipping the balance of the Senate.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Let's Index Everything for Inflation!

| Tue Jul. 10, 2012 5:18 PM EDT

Andrew Stuttaford is unhappy about the state of the U.S. tax code:

And then there’s capital gains (due to rise, of course, courtesy of Mr. Obama), and still not adjusted for inflation, a deliberate anomaly that means the taxpayer pays real taxes on unreal “gains”. Even the amount of the best-known capital gains tax exemption (on the sale of a primary residence) of $500,000 for a couple, $250,000 for a single person, hasn’t been changed since 1997. That won’t matter for most, for now, but give inflation QE and time: The IRS is waiting.

That's pretty sad. I wonder how he feels about indexing the minimum wage to inflation? In any case, speaking for myself, I'd be willing to level the playing field by adjusting capital gains taxes to inflation just as soon as we level the playing field by increasing the capital gains rate from its current 15% to the rate charged on ordinary income. Oddly, though, rich people seem uninterested in making such a bargain. Inflation and all, I guess they must think the current setup is a fairly sweet deal.

"You Look Out the Window and You See Climate Change in Action"

| Tue Jul. 10, 2012 3:15 PM EDT

Peter Sinclair, who blogs at Climate Denial Crock of the Week, released a must-see new video on Tuesday recapping news coverage of the recent heat wave, the drought in the Midwest, the extreme storms in the Mid-Atlantic, and the Colorado wildfires.

"You look out the window and you see climate change in action," Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research says in a clip from PBS NewsHour. "This is the way it gets manifested." Here's the video, "Welcome to the Rest of Our Lives":

3 Ways Lazy America Could Bring Back the Draft

| Tue Jul. 10, 2012 2:45 PM EDT

Uncle Sam wants you, maybe. Flickr/Robert Couse-BakerUncle Sam wants you, maybe. Flickr/Robert Couse-BakerThe New York Times op-ed page says it's time to bring back the draft! In a brief column published this morning, longtime military reporter Tom Ricks takes a novel approach to required mandatory national service. "Unlike Europeans, Americans still seem determined to maintain a serious military force, so we need to think about how to pay for it and staff it by creating a draft that is better and more equitable than the Vietnam-era conscription system," Ricks writes. He then describes what such a draft would look like, and it's actually not so terrible: There's something for everyone, even war resisters and tea partiers and libertarians. Seriously.

Rick's proposal has three options for young men and women:

David Brooks' Strange Preoccupation With Single Parents

| Tue Jul. 10, 2012 1:12 PM EDT

David Brooks has returned from Aspen, where he heard a presentation from Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. According to Putnam, there's a growing gap in the way the rich and poor raise their kids:

Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines.....A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important.

Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year....In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it’s a chasm. Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.

It's not 100% clear from Brooks's column, but it sounds as if the problem here isn't that working class families are doing any less than before. The growing gap is caused by the fact that affluent families are doing much, much more. This is similar to the trend of growing income inequality in America: the problem isn't that the working class is making less money than they used to, the problem is that their incomes have been sluggish while incomes of the well-to-do have skyrocketed.

This makes me skeptical of Brooks's favored explanation for the parenting gap: the growing number of single parents in America. This is, he says, primarily a working/middle class phenomenon, and single parents simply don't have the time or money to raise their kids properly. I'm willing to buy the idea that growing single parenthood is a problem, but still, if that were really the cause of the gap then I'd expect to see kids in poorer families doing worse on an absolute scale. But I don't know of any evidence on that score, and Brooks doesn't provide any. In fact, the one piece of evidence he mentions is school test scores, and he very cagily writes of poorer kids only that "Their test scores are lagging." Technically, that's true: poorer kids have always done worse than affluent kids, and they continue to do worse today. But that doesn't mean their test scores have gone down. On the contrary: whether you measure by income level (kids who qualify for free lunches) or by performance level (the bottom decile of test scores), poor kids have improved their scores over the past four decades. That's true for white kids, black kids, and Hispanic kids. It's true for boys and girls. It's true for public school kids and private school kids. On the NAEP test, the supposed "gold standard" of national testing, children of all kinds have improved or, at worst, stayed steady, on every possible metric since the early 70s.

What else can you say about poor and working class neighborhoods over the past 40 years? Well, crime is way down. Drug use is down. Those are positive social indicators. So I'm a little puzzled when Putnam says of working class kids that "virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community." I won't pretend that our major social institutions are doing a great job with poorer children, but I don't quite see the cataclysmic failure that he does. What I do see is growing income inequality that allows affluent parents to do far, far more for their kids than they could even a few decades ago. That may be a problem, but it's a very different kind of problem than the one Brooks usually talks about.

Fun With Numbers From the #4 Man in the Senate

| Tue Jul. 10, 2012 12:22 PM EDT

A few days ago, the clue in one of my daily crossword puzzles was "#4 name in Senate seniority." Hmmm. Five letters. Hatch? He seems like he's been around long enough that he might be #4. But the last two letters were IN. Maybe Levin? He also seemed like a decent candidate. But no: I was right the first time. I was just stuck in a rut thinking of only last names. The answer was Orrin.

Today, Bob Somerby highlights a peculiar statement from our #4 man in the Senate. He was on Fox last night chatting about the individual mandate and whether it was a penalty or a tax:

Now they're trying to say, “Well, it's just really a penalty.” Unfortunately for them, the chief justice and the majority of the members of the Supreme Court held that it is a tax. And therefore, that means that, well, if you talk about a tax, that means about 77 percent of people earning less than $120,000 a year are going to have to pay it. And by the way, 10 percent of the people earning less than $23,000 a year, the poverty level, have to pay that tax as well. It's going to be a devastating thing for those not earning a lot of money in our society.

WTF? I can't even fathom what he's talking about here. Does anyone know? I'm almost afraid to ask, because the answer always turns out to be some kind of meme circulating in Rush/Fox/tea party land that I've been blissfully unaware of, but curiosity has gotten the better of me. Who makes up this vast crowd that's supposedly going to feel the icy grip of the IRS when the mandate goes into effect?

UPDATE: I think we have an answer. It comes from a piece written by Keith Hennessey at Real Clear Politics a few days ago. Hennessey quotes a CBO report projecting that in 2016 there will be 3.9 million people who will be both uninsured and have to pay the tax:

CBO says that under this law in 2016 there will be 400,000 people below the poverty line who will be uninsured and pay the tax....There will, in 2016, be three million people with incomes less than $59,000 (singles) or $120,000 (families of four) who will be uninsured and have to pay the tax. These three million people are not rich, they will be uninsured, and they will be required to pay higher taxes.

400,000 is 10% of 3.9 million, and three million is 77% of 3.9 million. So the correct talking point is that of the people paying the penalty, 10% will be under the poverty level and 77% will be middle class. Hatch just bollixed it up. Thanks to Gadolphus and JohnBroughton for clearing this up in comments.

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It Doesn't Really Matter Who Runs the Fed

| Tue Jul. 10, 2012 11:57 AM EDT

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers note that the Fed has consistently undershot its inflation target lately. Monetary policy today only makes sense if the Fed not only doesn't care about unemployment at all, but also, for some reason, is hellbent on getting inflation under its 2% target. Matt Yglesias is contempuous: "Ben Bernanke has brought us the lowest inflation of any Federal Reserve Chairman of the postwar period. You may call it prolonged mass unemployment, but he may see it as a huge success." Atrios goes even further:

I do wish more people who are maybe a bit more respectable than I am would start using moral language to describe the reprehensible actions of Bernanke and pals. There's no possible analysis of the welfare tradeoffs of these policies which leads to any other conclusion than "mass unemployment is a small price to pay for keeping the rich fat and happy, or even fatter and happier."

Time to end our failed experiment in "independent" central banking.

I don't really disagree with any of this except for one thing: what makes anybody think that monetary policy would be any different if the Fed weren't independent? It's not clear to me that Tim Geithner would run things much differently, and it's sure as hell not the case that Congress would suddenly get religion and ease up on monetary policy.

The problem, I think, isn't Fed independence. It's the mindset of the entire financial elite in the developed world. Until that changes, it hardly matters who runs the Fed.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 10, 2012

Tue Jul. 10, 2012 11:28 AM EDT

Army Reserve Capt. Herm Blacaflor speaks to a local teenager about the location of his school during a visit to the Central Kunar Demo Farm. The Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunar agricultural section assists the demo farm to show the farmers and other locals nearby more effective ways to cultivate crops. The PRT is made up of Navy, Army, Air Force and civilians who work alongside local government officials to reconnect the people of Afghanistan with their government. US Air Force photo by Tech Sgt Christopher Marasky.

Why Doesn't Obama Have a Bigger Lead?

| Tue Jul. 10, 2012 10:56 AM EDT

Ezra Klein points out today that presidential polling has been unusually stable this year: Neither Romney nor Obama has managed to open up a lead of more than a couple of points over the past 12 months:

This is a good moment for my typical polling disclaimer: At this point in 1980, Jimmy Carter was ahead in the polls. At this point in 1988, Michael Dukakis was ahead in the polls. At this point in 1992, George H. W. Bush was ahead in the polls. In other words: Who cares what the polls say in July?

But it’s not a disclaimer I fully believe. Permanent campaigns, mass media and bitterly divided parties has, I suspect, encouraged many voters to form a preference earlier than was true in past elections. Or, as Balz and Cohen put it, "the lack of movement underscores intense polarization—about nine in 10 Republicans back Romney, and a similar proportion of Democrats support Obama—and a relatively small percentage of voters say there is a 'good chance' that they could change their minds before November.”

When I was growing up, one of the big deals in political science was the steady deterioration of party loyalty: People simply didn't vote the party line the way they had in the past, which made presidential campaigns more volatile. That trend continued for a long time, but seems to have plateaued around 2000 or so, when we famously became a 50-50 nation and party cues apparently began to reassert themselves. It might be more accurate to say that most voters have ideological loyalties these days, rather than party loyalties per se, but I'm not sure that's much more than a semantic difference in the end. There just aren't many independents left who genuinely switch their party loyalties from election to election. 

Will this 50-50 split persist? A lot of smart people say that demographic trends are steadily moving in favor of Democrats, and they make a good case. The young have turned sharply against Republicans over the past decade, and brand loyalty means their anti-Republican voting behavior is likely to persist over their entire lives. A lot of that was driven by George Bush and the Iraq war and might therefore be expected to lighten up now, but new cohorts of the young continue to be repelled by the GOP's anti-gay animus. And the steadily growing nonwhite vote is getting, if anything, even more loyal to the Democratic Party than it was in the past, thanks to Republican immigration stands driven by the tea party. 

And yet, real-world events belie these trends. Republicans continue to be just as competitive in national elections as ever. It's easy, of course, to chalk this up to events: 9/11 moved the electorate in a pro-Republican direction, while continuing economic stagnation has more recently moved them in an anti-incumbent—and therefore anti-Democratic—direction. But either the demographic argument is wrong, or else it's been continuing apace, a growing tide held back by chance events. If the latter is true, Democrats should very soon start blowing Republicans out of the water in a very regular and very spectacular kind of way.

That sounds great, but I confess that I don't see much sign of it. What am I missing?

Corn on Hardball: Obama, Romney, and the Future of the Bush Tax Cuts

Tue Jul. 10, 2012 7:33 AM EDT

David Corn and the National Review's Robert Costa joined guest host Michael Smerconish on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Obama and Romney's latest dance around extending the Bush tax cuts.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.