2012 - %3, September

Corn on "Face the Nation": Was the 47 Percent Video a Game-Changer?

Sun Sep. 23, 2012 2:38 PM EDT

David Corn joined Bob Schieffer and the crew on CBS' Face the Nation to discuss the state of the Romney campaign. Where did it go wrong, how will he try to turn it around, and how damaging was the 47 percent video?

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

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Football in Lo-Def Really Sucks

| Sat Sep. 22, 2012 7:54 PM EDT

For the first time in a couple of years I'm watching a football game in lo-def. It's like a big blur of colorful blobs moving randomly around the screen. It's hard to believe we used to watch games like this all the time.

And why am I watching a game in lo-def? Because the Pac-12, like every other major conference, decided last year that it wanted its own network. So now, instead of local games being shown on ESPN or CBS or ABC or Fox Sports or any of the other fine hi-def channels I already get, they're frequently shown on the Pac-12 network instead. My cable provider, however, doesn't provide the high-def version of the network with either their basic package, or their advanced package, or even their advanced premier package, which I have. They only provide it with the package that includes whole-home DVR. This is so obviously predatory that there's no way I'd sign up for it. But hey — I guess if the Pac-12 signs a $3 billion deal, then someone has to pony up that $3 billion.

Not me, though. Enough's enough.

POSTSCRIPT: I know, I know: whine, whine, whine. But it's a weekend, and it's my God-given right to whine about my cable carrier and the greediness of modern college sports. Feel free to add your own personal whines in comments.

One More Round on the YouTube Bleg

| Sat Sep. 22, 2012 3:29 PM EDT

I'm going to test everyone's patience by taking one last shot at seeing if anyone can solve my YouTube problem. To recap: several weeks ago YouTube videos stopped playing on my computer. I've uninstalled Flash completely and reinstalled it. I've tried going back to a previous version of Flash. I've dumped my cache. I've uninstalled and reinstalled my browser. Nothing has worked. Some YouTube videos play, while others simply display a blank black rectangle. I haven't been able to figure out any pattern that accounts for which ones play and which ones don't.

The obvious suspect is some kind of interaction between Flash and my Opera browser — and this is an especially good suspect since YouTube continues to work fine on Firefox. However, I don't really have a clue what the problem here could be, so instead I want to ask about something else. It turns out that if I manually change the URL of a YouTube video, replacing "watch" with "v," the URL is then redirected and the video plays in full screen mode. This works 100% of the time. So here's my question: does anyone have any idea what's happening here? What's the significance of "v" in a YouTube URL?

UPDATE: I'm still not sure about the "v" thing, but I seem to have obtained a fix for my problem. Thanks to commenter Rajeev Raizada for the pointer!

The Most Clint Eastwood-y Clint Eastwood Quotes in "Trouble with the Curve"

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 7:36 PM EDT

Trouble with the Curve
Warner Bros. Pictures
111 minutes

NOTE: There will be no empty chair jokes in this post. Yes, Clint Eastwood gave a circuitous, hilarious speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention as an old and slightly confused man. And just three weeks later, he has a new movie in theaters in which plays an old and slightly confused man. It practically begs for a torrent of lazy puns, headlines, and ledes. Almost all the film critics making their chair jokes are motivated by a misguided impulse to be clever, cute, and topical. (Emphasis on "misguided.") Do. Not. Make. Them. You are better than that. (Also, if you'd like to hear more about this film, ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg and I chat about it here.)

Clint Eastwood's new movie came out today. It's an ordinary but innocently enjoyable film about cigar-chomping baseball scout Gus Lobel (Eastwood, always worthwhile) and his daughter Mickey (the reliably wonderful Amy Adams, who is also in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master this week). Yogi Bear adaptation superstar Justin Timberlake shows up for some of the movie. Trouble is serviceable, but nothing special (for such so-so material, Eastwood was probably wise to produce and star, and turn over directing duties to Robert Lorenz).

At its better, non-sentimental moments, it's simply Clint Eastwood continuing to elevate crotchety emoting to a level of art form.

And so I present to you my list of, "The Most Clint Eastwood-y Clint Eastwood Quotes in Trouble with the Curve":

1. "Don't laugh. I outlived you, you little bastard." — to his penis, as he urinates in the morning, struggling with an aged prostate.

Mitt Romney's Cynical Tax Ruse

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 6:12 PM EDT

So this afternoon's big news is that Mitt Romney finally released his 2011 taxes. He paid $1.9 million on $13.7 million in income, for an effective tax rate of 14.1%.

But there's more! His tax rate would have been about 9% or so, but he decided not to deduct all of his charitable contributions in order to get his tax rate up to 14%. Why? Here's the official statement:

“The Romneys [] limited their deduction of charitable contributions to conform to the governor’s statement in August, based upon the January estimate of income, that he paid at least 13 percent in income taxes in each of the last 10 years,” said R. Bradford Malt, Mr. Romney’s trustee.

Huh. So he did this specifically in order to fulfill his promise from August? Apparently so:

Campaign spokeswoman Michele Davis said in a statement that Romney “has been clear that no American need pay more than he or she owes under the law. At the same time, he was in the unique position of having made a commitment to the public that his tax rate would be above 13 percent. In order to be consistent with that statement, the Romneys limited their deduction of charitable contributions.”

This is....weird. Not that Romney would do this solely in order to avoid a single-digit tax rate that might be a political liability, but that he'd actually admit that he did it solely to avoid a single-digit tax rate that might be a political liability. Very odd. But I guess he felt like had no choice. There was no subtle way of increasing his tax bill that might go unnoticed, so that left only the charitable deduction dodge, something that reporters would obviously discover within minutes of paging through his return. He could hardly claim that he had done this out of the goodness of his heart, so he had to fess up that it was a purely cynical maneuver to avoid a politically dicey 9% tax rate.

But how much good will that do him? Won't that 9% rate (or whatever it turns out to be) still get plenty of attention? I'll bet it will.

Poor Mitt. He's between a rock and a hard place. He either reveals that he paid only 9% in taxes, or else he publicly acknowledges that he fiddled with his returns to avoid looking like the tax-avoiding plutocrat he is. What a choice.

Nick Baumann and Adam Serwer have more on Romney's tax returns here.

UPDATE: I'm actually seeing conflicting estimates about what Romney's tax rate would have been if he'd taken his full charitable deduction. Maybe 9%, maybe 11%, maybe 12%. It's a tricky bit of arithmetic because Romney's taxes are so low that the AMT kicks in, and there's no telling exactly how that affects his total tax liability. I'll update this post if I see an authoritative estimate.

9 Things to Know About Mitt Romney's Tax Returns

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 5:40 PM EDT

Mitt Romney released more tax information on Friday. Here's what you need to know.

He's still only released two years' worth of tax returns. Romney released his 2010 tax return in January. On Friday, he released his 2011 return and a very brief "summary" of the past 20 years' worth of returns. That summary was missing the kind of detail that would have provided a full picture of Romney's finances, rather than the incomplete snapshot the campaign has provided to date. Romney's father, George Romney, released 12 years of returns when he ran for president in 1968

He picked his own tax rate in 2011, purposely paying more than he owed. Romney intentionally took fewer deductions than he earned in 2011, paying over $250,000 more in taxes than he needed to.

The Romney campaign released what it says are the effective tax rates Romney paid for the past two decades. His effective tax rate was calculated based on his Adjusted Gross Income. That's standard, but in Romney's case, it doesn't tell the whole story. The Romney campaign is reporting the percentage of Romney's AGI that he paid to the government, explains Brian Galle, an associate professor at Boston College Law School who is an expert on individual and corporate income tax. AGI is the number you get after you take certain, limited deductions. The most relevant of these deductions for Romney are losses from the sale or exchange of property. That could include stock or partnership interests in Bain Capital and associated companies that were sold at a loss. The Romney campaign is disclosing the percentage of tax he paid "on the amount he got after he subtracted out all those losses," which could have been very substantial, Galle says—perhaps even enough to almost eliminate Romney's tax liability. That means that although Romney paid at least something in previous years, it could have been a very small amount. "He could have been paying 13.66 percent of $100 in 2009. He might have paid $13.66," Galle continues. We won't know unless the Romney campaign releases more information.

This chart shows that the gap between Romney's adjusted gross income and the total amount he paid in taxes in 2011 far outstrips that of several former presidents.

And this chart compares the effective tax rates paid by the same presidents (and Romney) compared to the top tax rate at the time. 

Romney still pays taxes on his sons' enormous trust funds. David Cay Johnston, a Reuters columnist, tax expert, and Pulitzer Prize winner, tells Mother Jones that without the taxes Romney paid on his sons' trust funds, which are worth around $100 million combined, "his rate would be much lower."

Romney's advisers used an odd method to calculate how much he paid over the past two decades. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported, Romney's advisers averaged his tax rates over 20 years to get a number for his tax burden over that period. But it would have been more accurate to take Romney's total tax paid over that period and divide it by his total earnings to get a new percentage. Sargent spoke to Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, about this problem:

"Let's say you have 10 years in which you paid 13 percent in taxes, and 10 years in which you paid 27 percent," Williams told me. "If you average those rates, you'll get an overall rate of 20 percent. But if the 13 percent years were high income years, and the 27 percent years were low income years, then his total taxes paid as a share of total income over the 20 years would be less, perhaps significantly less, than 20 percent."

Romney and other private equity managers get a tax break for earning investment income, but tax reform advocates think a lot of their "investment income" is really labor income. Romney has saved a lot of money over the years with the carried interest exception, a loophole that allows private equity managers—i.e., the people who run private equity funds, not the people who invest in them—to treat part of what they're paid in fees as investment income, even though they didn't necessarily invest the money. Often, this results in people like Romney paying a 15 percent tax rate on income that would otherwise be taxed at 35 percent. They "pretend their labor income is really investment income by calling it 'carried interest' and paying at a low rate," explains Slate's Matt Yglesias. (It's perfectly legal.)

Harry Reid probably owes Mitt Romney an apology. Back in July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the Huffington Post that a "Bain investor" confided to him that Romney "didn't pay any taxes for 10 years." Reid's allegations put Romney on the defensive for refusing to release more than two years of tax returns, but based on what we know now they're most likely false, Galle says. "If Harry Reid had said something like he paid 'like no taxes,' that might be accurate," Galle says. "It might be a quite small number potentially, but he didn’t pay nothing."

Romney's tax rate does not account for much of his wealth. "The income tax…doesn't tax you on changes of the value of your stuff from year to year unless you convert that stuff into cash," Galle explains. "If you never sell it then it doesn't become part of your income." A huge portion of the Romneys' fortune—as much as $100 million—is tied up in Mitt's individual retirement account (IRA), where it has grown tax-free for decades. That account is in the top .001 percent of all IRAs. Any increase in the value of Romney's IRA is not counted when his income is calculated. This is true for other Americans, too, but most Americans who have IRAs—only 48 million do—have relatively small amounts of money in them. The median IRA was worth $17,863 in 2010. So, for most Americans, the IRA tax exemption isn't the huge factor it is for Romney. 

The bottom line: Most American workers don't have significant investment income; their income is almost all wages. Factoring in his massive nonwage gains, and Romney's "real tax rate is something like half of what he's reporting if you were to compare him to most workers," Galle says.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bloggingheads: 47 Percent Edition

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 5:32 PM EDT

In this week's episode of Adamize over at Bloggingheads, the American Spectator's John Tabin and I discuss the content of the video of a private Mitt Romney fundraiser published by Mother Jones, Romney's remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes, his views on the two state solution, and the protests at American embassies all over the Middle East:

One thing I wish I had emphasised more during our discussion about peace between Israelis and Palestinians is that the entire premise of Romney's remarks—that the all Israelis want peace and all the Palestinians don'tis false. After all, the entire Israeli settlement project in the West Bank, abetted by both sides of the Israeli political spectrum over decades, remains a huge obstacle to peace and has undermined efforts to bring the conflict to an end. Romney's remarks assume no responsibility on the part of the Israelis at all for the absence of a resolution.

The Afghanistan US Troop Surge Is Officially Over

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 5:01 PM EDT

This happened on Friday, to "little fanfare":

The American military says it has completed what it called the "recovery," meaning withdrawal, of the 33,000 surge troops it had sent to Afghanistan two years ago, more than a week ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline President Obama set for them to go home.

Here a few more numbers to keep in mind as we approach the 2014 deadline for withdrawal of US combat forces:

68,000: The number of US troops still stationed in Afghanistan.

117,227: The total number of Department of Defense contractors working in Afghanistan.

34,765: The number of US citizens working as contractors in Afghanistan.

9,355: The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since Obama took office.

18,553: The total number of civilian casualties since the war started.

1491: The number of US troop casualties in Afghanistan since Obama took office.

2121: The total number of US troop casualties since the war started.

$385,600,000,000: The estimated financial cost of the war in Afghanistan to the US taxpayer since Obama took office.

$557,300,000,000: The estimated financial cost of the war in Afghanistan to the US taxpayer since October 7, 2001.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 September 2012

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 3:07 PM EDT

Domino would like everyone to know that she's even more of a moocher than the 47%. Not only does she pay no federal income tax, but she also pays no sales taxes, no property taxes, no payroll taxes, and no excise taxes. She's part of the 1% that pays no taxes at all, and she thinks all of you who do pay taxes are a bunch of suckers. I tried to explain to her my role in the taxpaying ecosystem, and the tax incidence on cats that this implies, but she just ignored me and crawled into her bag. As long as Uncle Sam doesn't tax afternoon naps, she's happy.

The Generic Congressional Ballot: Take 2

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 2:53 PM EDT

Yesterday I asked whether the results of generic congressional polling were a good predictor of the actual national House vote. I was skeptical because conventional wisdom says that Republicans usually outperform the generic ballot. Today, Sam Wang produces the following historical numbers from Real Clear Politics:

2010 Polling average, R+9.4%. Outcome: R+6.6%. [R delta = -2.8%]
2008 Polling average, D+9.0%. Outcome: D+10.9%. [R delta = -1.9%]
2006 Polling average, D+11.5%. Outcome: D+7.9%. [R delta = 3.6%]
2004 Polling average, tie. Outcome: R+2.6%. [R delta = 2.6%]
2002 Polling average, R+1.7%. Outcome: R+4.6%. [R delta = 2.9%]

"R delta" represents whether Republicans did better or worse than the generic ballot results, and it turns out that sometimes they do better and sometimes they do worse. I'll toss out two comments. First, this shows that I may have been out of date. My belief that Republicans outperform the generic ballot was based on data through 2006, and in fact, Republicans did outperform the generic ballot in 2002-06. However, they've underperformed in the two most recent elections. So I need to update my priors.

Second, these results are for the final week of polling. It makes sense that the generic ballot would converge toward the actual national vote a few days before the election. But how about earlier? This is a little quick and dirty, but here are the average generic ballot results for the few days around September 1:

2010 Polling average, R+4.8%. Outcome: R+6.6%. [R delta = 1.8%]
2008 Polling average, D+8.4%. Outcome: D+10.9%. [R delta = -2.5%]
2006 Polling average, D+11.3%. Outcome: D+7.9%. [R delta = 3.4%]
2004 Polling average, D+0.7%. Outcome: R+2.6%. [R delta = 3.3%]
2002 Polling average, R+2.0%. Outcome: R+4.6%. [R delta = 2.6%]

It looks to me that a couple of months out, the generic ballot really does underweight how well Republicans will do. The only exception is 2008, which turned into a Democratic landslide. So I'd probably subtract two or three points from the current RCP generic poll average, which has Democrats ahead by 2.2%. In reality, this probably suggests that Republicans will win the national vote by a point or a bit less, and given their incumbency advantage, that might translate into a one or two-point lead in actual number of seats won.

This is very, very rough. Consider it extremely tentative. I'd be pretty interested in a more rigorous look at this if anyone wants to do it.

UPDATE: Why did I choose September 1? Because I'm an idiot and forgot what month it is. October 1 would have been better, or even September 21 if I wanted to use today's results. In any case, my interest in a more rigorous analysis stands. Mid or late-September would probably be a better comparison point, though.