2012 - %3, October

Scoop: Ben & Jerry's Cofounder Wants to Freeze Money in Politics

| Wed Oct. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Ben Cohen Gavin AronsenGetting the dough out: Ben & Jerry's cofounder and campaign finance reformer Ben Cohen Gavin Aronsen

Shortly after I met Ben & Jerry's cofounder Ben Cohen in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park last Saturday, he removed a rubber stamper from his pocket, took a dollar bill from my wallet, and stamped it with the words "STAMP MONEY OUT OF POLITICS. AMEND THE CONSTITUTION."

"Money stamping is kind of like petitions on steroids," he explained as we sat on a lakeside bench. "You sign a petition and, let's face it, nobody really sees it. But stamping money is essentially monetary jiu jitsu. It's using the power of money to get money out of politics." The money stamp is part of Stamp Stampede, Cohen's effort to build popular support for a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United, one greenback at a time.

Cohen hopes that thousands of marked bills soon will be circulating through cash registers around the country. Anyone can purchase a bill stamper on the group's website. Cohen also plans to spread the message via the Amend-o-Matic Stampmobile, a customized van mounted with a 10-foot-tall "Rube Goldberg-esque machine" that will stamp bills "in an entertaining and educational way." (The contraption was supposed to hit the streets of San Francisco last weekened, but Cohen cheerfully explained that his team was still "fine-tuning" it.) Ben & Jerry's, where Cohen is employed as a "pretty face" with "no authority or responsibilities," is one of Stamp Stampede's main supporters; Cohen promised "there will be times where ice cream is given away."

Stamp Stamp Stampede"Monetary jiu jitsu": A stamped dollar bill Stamp Stampede

Stamp Stampede, which launched in July, was inspired by two similar projects: the dollar bill-tracking site Where's George? and the 99-percent themed bill-stamping site Occupy George. It was also inspired by Occupy Wall Street itself. Last fall, Cohen and fellow ice cream magnate Jerry Greenfield stopped by Zuccotti Park and came away "impressed and inspired." The duo later returned to hand out ice cream. (They hid the company logo and used unmarked cups to appease corporate-wary occupiers.) The board of directors at Ben & Jerry's also endorsed the movement but stopped short of naming an ice cream flavor after it.

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How Not to "Feed the World"

| Wed Oct. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Military guards protect a palm oil plantation on disputed land in Bajo Aguán, Honduras.

The debate over how to "feed the world" amid population growth and climate change often hinges on crop yields. The theory is that if we can squeeze as much crop as possible per acre of farmland, we'll have abundant food for everyone. This idea dominates the marketing material of giant agrichemical firms like Monsanto. "In order to feed the world's growing population, farmers must produce more food in the next fifty years than they have in the past 10,000 years combined," proclaims the company's website. "We are working to double yields in our core crops by 2030." Such rhetoric is routinely echoed by policymakers like US Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack.

But jacking up yields—even if Monsanto and its peers can accomplish that feat, which they haven't so far—won't solve the hunger problem on its own. The globe's farms are already producing enough food to feed 12 billion people—twice the current population and a third again more than the peak of 9 billion expected to be reached in 2050. Yet at least 925 million people lack access to enough to eat. What causes hunger isn't insufficient crop yields but rather people's economic relationships to food: whether they have access to land to grow it, or sufficient income to buy it.

Unfortunately, rising food prices and competition for resources appear to be making the situation worse. Take the trend of rich-country investors buying or leasing huge, highly productive tracts of farmland in low-income countries, and exporting the resulting crops. In a scathing report on these "land grabs," the global anti-hunger group Oxfam reports that an "area of land eight times the size of the UK" has been sold off in the past decade—a combined swath of land that "has the potential to feed a billion people," or more than the 925 million who live in hunger. "[V]ery few if any of these land investments benefit local people or help to fight hunger," Oxfam adds.

Investors in these deals aren't agribiz companies like Monsanto, which just want to sell inputs like seeds and agrichemicals, not take on the risk of farming. Rather, they are US or European hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds from nations like China or Saudi Arabia, or companies like Iowa's AgriSol, owned by GOP stalwart, large-scale hog farmer, Iowa university regent, and all-around charmer Bruce Rastetter, whom I wrote about here.

While some land grabs involve domestic elites taking land in low-income areas of their own countries, the more typical cases involve rich-country investors gobbling land in poor countries. According to an April 2012 analysis by the Land Matrix, cited by Oxfam, the average investor in these deals come from a country with a per capita GDP of $18,918, while the target countries' per capita GDPs average $4,404—a more than five-fold disparity.

Quote of the Day: Should Obama Call Romney a Liar?

| Wed Oct. 10, 2012 1:23 AM EDT

From Paul Ryan, talking about the Democratic presidential campaign with a Michigan radio host:

It seems pretty clear that their new strategy is basically just call us liars.

Well....yeah, I guess so, and that would be a pretty sleazy thing to do if Romney and Ryan were being honest and above board about their plans. But they aren't. William Gale of the Tax Policy Center is the co-author of a report showing that Romney's tax plan is mathematically impossible, and that's made him the target of endless attacks from the Romney campaign. Here he explains in plain English just what his study concluded:

Suppose Governor Romney said that he wants to drive a car from Boston to Los Angeles in 15 hours. And suppose some analysts employed tools of arithmetic to conclude that "If Governor Romney wants to drive from Boston to LA in 15 hours, it is mathematically impossible to avoid speeding." After all, the drive from LA to Boston is about 3,000 miles, so to take only 15 hours would require an average of 200 miles per hour. Certainly other road trips are possible — but the particular one proposed here is not.

The Obama campaign might put ads out that say Romney wants to speed or is going to speed. Romney's campaign might respond by saying the study is a "joke" and "partisan," that he supports speeding laws and would never, ever speed, and it is ridiculous to suggest that he would. The Romney campaign and its surrogates might say that the analysts must be wrong because they don't even know what his road plan is or which car he would drive. Besides, Romney never really said he wanted to go LA, he might want to go somewhere closer; he could get to LA without speeding if he took more than 15 hours; he could get somewhere else in 15 hours without speeding. And so on.

With a few substitutions, this is almost exactly how the tax debate has evolved....Romney can't do all of the tax cut proposals he has advocated, remain revenue neutral, and avoid taxing households with income below $200,000 or cutting taxes for higher income households.

Let me translate: Romney is lying about his tax plan and he knows it. When he's called on it, however, he turns around and smears the folks who pointed out his lie.

Pretty rancid stuff. On a political level, though, the interesting question is whether there's any way for Obama to make hay with this. The dispiriting answer, I think, is that he probably can't. Let me unpack that a little, because a lot of liberals were unhappy with Obama for not calling out Romney more forcefully on this during Wednesday's debate. But Obama did call out Romney on taxes on three different occasions. Here they are:

#1: Now, Governor Romney’s proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. And he is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions. The problem is that he’s been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn’t been able to identify them.  [Etc.]

#2: And the fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s — it’s math. It’s arithmetic.

#3: It just reminds me of, you know, he says that he’s going to close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan. That’s how it’s going to be paid for, but we don’t know the details....And at some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good? Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?

Could Obama have done more? Maybe a little. But there are really only two ways he could have been substantially more effective. The first would have been to somehow hammer home the math. Color me skeptical that there's any way to do that for your average undecided voter, who can probably balance his checkbook but not much more. They'd zone out almost instantly.

The second way is to just call Romney a liar to his face. But the conventional wisdom says you can't do that. It's too negative and voters don't like it. Personally, of course, I think it would be fascinating to watch Obama buck that conventional wisdom and flatly accuse Romney of lying, followed by a challenge to Romney to prove him wrong by laying out a set of deductions that will cover his 20% rate cuts. Fascinating! But it's also the kind of pipe dream that only bloggers can indulge in. In reality, no matter how satisfying it might feel, the conventional wisdom is probably right. It would hurt Obama, not help him.

Why? Because one of the weird aspects of American politics is that voters, no matter how cynical they claim to be, basically accept politicians at their word when they make concrete promises. Romney says he won't raise middle class taxes? Then he won't. Romney says his plan won't increase the deficit? Then it won't. The fact that it might be mathematically impossible doesn't seem to carry any weight. It's all just confusing numbers, after all. What matters is whether you think Mitt Romney would look you in the eye and tell a bald lie. Most people don't, and unless you've literally got a secret video with smoking gun evidence proving otherwise, they consider accusations of lying to be playground level mudslinging.

Maybe that's weird. Maybe that's unfair. But it's reality, and it's a pretty good deal for Mitt Romney.

How Much Did Wednesday's Debate Help Romney?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 7:59 PM EDT

Did Obama's poor debate performance cause his poll standing to crater? There's good reason to doubt this. Obama's drop has been large enough that, almost literally, the debate could have been the cause only if every single undecided voter watching on Wednesday had decided overnight to vote for Romney. Historically, there's simply no precedent for this. Presidential debates typically have only a modest impact on campaigns, and it's not as if Obama staggered onto the stage shitfaced or something.

But if you're not convinced, take a look instead at the Pollster poll average below. I've labeled it for easy reference. Between September 27 and October 3 — before the debate had an impact — Romney gained 3.5 points on Obama. Between October 3 and October 8 he gained another 0.4 points. In other words, nearly all of his gain came before the debate, not after.

Other poll averages I've looked at show different trajectories. RCP shows Romney gaining ground starting at the end of September, but (unlike Pollster) shows that he gained more ground after the debate than before. Nate Silver shows all of Romney's gain coming after the debate, but his model also shows a fairly smallish gain. There's no unqualified answer here. Still, the balance of the evidence suggests that Romney was bouncing back from his terrible September well before last Wednesday, and has gained modestly but not titanically since then. There's obviously been some mean reversion to the fundamentals here, and it's not yet clear just how big an impact the debate has really had. We'll know more over the next few days.

Less Theater Criticism, More Content Criticism, Please

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 6:13 PM EDT

As long as I'm getting beat up on the subject of Wednesday's debate and the liberal dearth of mindless hackery, I should note that I've gotten a number of emails asking me if I'm arguing that liberal pundits should be more hackish. That's a fair question, and the short answer is no. Sure, it might hurt us now and again, and sure, hacks have a place in the political ecosystem just like everyone else, but I'm pretty happy that lefties tend to be somewhat more wonkish and policy-oriented than righties.

So if I'm not endorsing greater liberal hackitude, what do I think liberal commenters should have done on Wednesday night? I'll tell you, but first let me lay some groundwork. Have you ever heard the old saw that the best way to judge a presidential debate is to watch it with the sound off? Well, I think that's just about the stupidest piece of folk wisdom I've ever heard. It's not just that this reduces debates to theater criticism. It's worse than that. It's not even good theater criticism. After all, would you watch a play or a movie with the sound removed and then write a review for your local newspaper? Of course not. You can't possibly judge a play without hearing the actual dialog.

The same is true for presidential debates. Sure, demeanor matters. If Obama hesitated too much, seemed unsure of what he wanted to say, and inserted too many ums and ers into his sentences, then by all means ding him for it. But what I'd really like liberals to focus on is the actual content of the answers Romney and Obama delivered. And on that score it's hard for me to believe that Obama deserved the shellacking he got. Maybe you think he should have attacked Romney harder. Maybe you think he should have called out Romney's evasions more crisply. But those are fairly modest criticisms. On a substantive basis, Romney consistently evaded, distorted, and in some cases outright lied. And Obama called him on it. It's right there in the transcript in case too much steam was blowing out of your ears in real time to hear it. That's what I wish liberal talking heads had focused on: the actual content of the debate. On that score, yes, Obama could have done better. But it wasn't an epic disaster.

Content, content, content. That's what I want my fellow lefties to obsess about.

The Hack Gap Revisited: How Powerful Is the Modern Media?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 2:28 PM EDT

Last night I argued that although President Obama turned in a weak debate performance on Wednesday, his bigger problem was the wild overreaction of liberal talking heads immediately after the debate. Joan Walsh of Salon takes issue with this today, and she lands some good punches. But I particularly want to respond to one of the things she says:

Can Drum truly believe that mainstream media reporters take their cues from liberals on TV? Some 58 million people watched the debate; maybe a few million watched MSNBC afterward. Could Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz really define Obama's debate performance as poor in the absence of evidence that it was, well, poor?

Let's take these one at a time. First, do mainstream reporters take their cues from liberals on TV?

Normally, no. But this isn't a normal news story. It's an explicitly partisan event, one where news reporters would normally be required to cover it straight: Obama said X, Romney said Y, blah blah blah. If both sides insist that their guy did well, that's about all the mainstream folks can say. But when Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz and Joan Walsh all deliver stinging denunciations of Obama's performance, this gives them permission to report as fact that Romney won. See, even liberals agree! And sure enough, that's how things eventually congealed. This is a fundamental point about how the modern media works, one that we fail to understand at our peril.

Second, can TV talking heads really define Obama's performance? I think so. I admit that the evidence here is thin, but the polling I saw suggests that viewers polled during the debate thought it was about even; viewers polled right after the debate though Romney had won; and viewers polled a little later still thought it was a rout. I can't think of any good explanation for this aside from the effect of the talking heads right after the debate and the firestorm of liberal criticism that quickly turned into a feeding frenzy of outrage. And generally speaking, I'd say there's plenty of historical evidence that media coverage of presidential debates has much more impact than the debates themselves. (However, I'd be very interested if someone could point me to a solid analysis of poll data on this question. I'm basing this on what I saw and read at the time, but my memory might be faulty.)

For the record, I should note that I'm making an observation here, not an endorsement. Walsh says, "Certainly if Drum thinks it’s my job to be Sean Hannity in lipstick, repeating David Axelrod’s talking points every night, that’s not a job I’m interested in." Me neither! Nonetheless, there's a clear price to be paid for this, and I think we saw an unusually dramatic demonstration of it last Wednesday.

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Democratic Groups: Hey, Remember the 47 Percent Video?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 1:40 PM EDT

There's been something missing from the presidential campaign since last Wednesday's debate in Denver: the 47 percent. Since President Obama's underwhelming performance, his campaign has hammered Mitt Romney repeatedly, in stump speeches and television spot, on the sanctity of Big Bird. But the talking point that helped turn Obama's post-convention bounce into what became an eight-point cushion has been AWOL. (That was the case during the debate, too.)

But in a new radio ad, AFSCME and the super-PAC Priorities USA, two leading Democratic outside groups, are trying to reprise the narrative, this time comparing Romney's decidedly warmer debate rhetoric to his closed-doors ruminations on the makers and takers:

CREW Files FEC Complaint Over Coal Company's Coerced Campaign Donations

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 1:40 PM EDT

An ethics watchdog group wants to know whether an Ohio coal company violated federal election rules by forcing employees to donate to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a complaint to the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday alleging that Murray Energy and its CEO Robert Murray "coerced" company employees to make contributions to its political action committee (PAC).

The company's PAC regularly donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican politicians. The CREW complaint, based on reporting in The New Republic, alleges that the company threatened employees with "financial reprisals, including the loss of their jobs" if they did not contribute to the PAC.

The TNR piece published last week cites interviews with Murray employees as well as internal memos that suggest employees were pressured to donate. An internal memo from Robert Murray also complains about salaried employees not attending political functions for whichever "coal friend" in Congress happens to be visiting, and includes a list of specific staffers who had not attended the CEO's fundraisers. Another letter from September 2010 is very direct in its threat for staffers who don't give to the PAC: "We have only a little over a month left to go in this election fight. If we do not win it, the coal industry will be eliminated and so will your job, if you want to remain in this industry." Salaried employees were expected to give 1 percent of their salary to the PAC, TNR's Alec MacGillis reported, and would receive letters telling them which candidates to support.

In August, Murray Energy forced miners in Ohio to take a day off work without pay to attend a Mitt Romney rally. Romney then used the miners as props in television ads complaining about President Obama's "war on coal."

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan says that Murray's tactics are "outrageous" and claims they are a violation of campaign finance rules. "Whether coercing company executives to make campaign contributions or insisting coal miners take time off without pay so that a candidate can stage pretty pictures — it is all illegal," said Sloan. 

In the TNR piece, Murray's lawyers insist they aren't breaking any rules:

Murray Energy general counsel Mike McKown says the firm’s approach to political giving complies with federal laws. Employees are not required to give to the PAC, he says, nor are they reimbursed. "We follow carefully the FEC [Federal Election Commission] rules about what employees can be solicited and how they can be solicited," he says, adding that Bob Murray’s encouragement for employees to contribute to individual candidates is the CEO’s personal endeavor. "The PAC and Mr. Murray’s fundraising are kept separate," he says.

How Congress Turns Deficit Reduction Into a Videogame

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 1:06 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias says today that fixing a short-term deficit problem is something Congress can do. They can raise taxes or cut spending, as they did in 1990 and 1993, and deficits will go away. But it's a different story for long-term deficits. "No matter how much we scrunch our eyes together and promise really really hard, we can't force the political system of 2040 to avoid overspending on health care servies for my eighty-something dad rather than on private sector capital investments that will increase the productivity and wages of a hypothetical thirty-something kid. It simply can't be done."

More on this in a bit, but Matt goes on to make the perceptive point that since legislating long-term deficit reduction is all but impossible, self-proclaimed deficit hawks instead simply play a different, and completely useless, game:

What we can tackle is the shallow problem of CBO scores. Right now, the way the CBO scores things shows gigantic future deficits. If you pass a law saying "if the cyclically-adjusted budget deficit goes above 3.5% of GDP, Medicare reimbursement rates will automatically fall to eliminate the deficit" then you solve the CBO score problem.

It goes away like magic. But that's a dumb plan. Or, rather, it's not a plan at all. It's just a scoring rule. But if you peer into the details of different deficit reduction plans this is how they all work....The CBO doesn't employ fortune tellers who can assess conjectures about the future application of information technology to health care, about the military situation in the Pacific Rim, or about the political economy of tweaks in program design. So all the long-term plans end up relying on scoring rules. You direct the CBO to assess a situation in which congress "isn't allowed" to spend more than X on domestic programs or Y on the military or automatically applies cuts to hospitals. But giving the CBO those instructions doesn't change anything in the world, it's just an accounting exercise.

This is an extremely worthwhile point to internalize. A vast amount of what passes for long-term deficit reduction on Capitol Hill is just handwaving. This is especially true of Paul Ryan's endless parade of deficit reduction plans, all of which rely on telling CBO to assume various spending caps but provide no details on how those caps might be met or how they can possibly be enforced. When you do the arithmetic on these plans you always end up with wildly absurd projections, but that doesn't matter. CBO has to assume they're true, and the result is a series of nice charts showing the deficit slowly going away.

That said, I want to dissent slightly from Matt's point. There are, roughly speaking, four broad areas where Congress can act:

  • Taxes. Tax cuts and increases can't be forced on future generations and can't be prohibited either. As Republicans demonstrated in 2001, tax changes can be successfully passed via reconciliation, which means a simple majority in Congress can change tax law anytime it wants.
  • Discretionary spending. Ditto.
  • Social Security. This is a different case. Past experience suggests that when Congress passes rules that affect either future benefits or the future trajectory of payroll taxes, they stay intact. Practically speaking, Congress really can bind future generations here.
  • Medicare. This is a mixed bag. Some reforms don't stick (like the doc fix, which is deferred every year), while others do. Congress does have a limited ability to bind future generations to Medicare reforms that it passes today. However, the key problem here isn't really Medicare per se anyway. It's healthcare, full stop. Until we get a handle on that, there's no real chance of reining in Medicare growth.

Medium-term tax and spending changes aren't binding, but they do set the stage for future Congresses. Put that alongside long-term changes to Social Security and Medicare, and in practical terms you really do have a limited amount of power to bind future Congresses. It's not perfect by any stretch, but it's not entirely useless either.

Flashback: Mitt Says Ann's Views Not "Terribly Relevant to My Campaign"

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 12:32 PM EDT

Ann Romney has been getting more face time on the campaign trail, making the public pitch for her husband while also reportedly taking a more active role in strategy behind the sceens. She's been a key conduit to women voters, arguing that they should "wake up" and vote for Romney.

But it's worth noting that, during his first presidential bid, Mitt Romney argued that his wife's positions don't matter to his campaign. Back in 2007, reporters noted that Ann Romney had given a $150 check to Planned Parenthood in 1994 from their joint account, after the pair attended a fundraiser hosted by a Republican activist. The story also cropped up again later that year when a photo of Mitt attending the event was posted online. (It was also mentioned in Slate's exhaustive history of Romney's ever-evolving stance on abortion earlier this year). In response to the revelation in 2007, the presidential candidate told reporters, "Her contributions are for her and not for me, and her positions I do not think are terribly relevant to my campaign." Here's the video:

As a candidate, Romney has pledged to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. So maybe he's right: Ann's positions aren't terribly relevant to his campaign. But it's worth noting as she takes to the stump to rally women voters behind her husband.