2012 - %3, October

How Congress Turns Deficit Reduction Into a Videogame

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 10:06 AM PDT

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.

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

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 9:32 AM PDT

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.

Chart of the Day: We Are Becoming a Nation of Heathens

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 9:30 AM PDT

There's nothing new here, but the chart below happened to show up in a new Pew report on the rise of Americans with no religious affiliation, so I thought I'd pass it along. As you can see, religious affiliation held fairly steady until 1991, but in the twenty years since then the number of people reporting no religion has more than doubled. This has come almost entirely out of the ranks of Protestants.

We all have our own guesses about why this might be, and obviously this has been a common phenomenon throughout the advanced economies of the world. In the American context, I blame the rise of Jerry Falwell and the politicization of religion for the drop in the number of people who want to call themselves Protestants. It's just become a toxic label for a lot of people who aren't rabid social conservatives, especially among the young. The Pew report has more on this, and Ed Kilgore has some comments too.

Paul Ryan: Obama Won't Take Away Your Guns

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 8:26 AM PDT

Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski flagged this video on Monday afternoon, in which an agitated Rep. Paul Ryan chides a Michigan television reporter for a particularly loaded line of questioning. But I was more interested in what Ryan actually said.

Pressed on whether he supported new restrictions on gun ownership, Ryan responded: "If you take a look at the gun laws we have, I don't even think President Obama's proposing more gun laws. We have good strong guns laws—we have to make sure we enforce our laws, we have lots of laws that aren't properly enforced. We need to make sure we enforce these laws."

By contrast, take a look at this new ad from the National Rifle Association:

And here's Paul Ryan himself, in an interview with Outdoor Life magazine in September: "What I worry about as a hunter, as a person who believes in the Second Amendment, as a gun owner, is knowing that President Obama—in his earlier career, prior to his presidency—was an advocate for gun control. I worry about what his attitude will be once he never has to face voters again."

President Obama isn't proposing new gun laws. In fact, the only gun-related pieces of legislation he's signed into law have actually expanded gun rights. Caught in a defensive moment in a local news interview, even Ryan seems to admit it.

The Conspiracy of Silence About Mitt Romney's Medicare Plan

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 8:09 AM PDT

Once again, I am gobsmacked. David Brooks writes an entire column today about the Romney/Ryan plan to voucherize Medicare, and the whole thing goes like this:

The second approach is to replace the fee-for-service system with more normal market incentives. Give recipients a choice among insurance options and have providers compete to offer comprehensive coverage like today’s Medicare....Paul Ryan wrote his own version a few years ago and has come up with a more moderate version with Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat.

....There are serious health economists who scoff at market-based strategies. Others just don’t know....The Romney-Ryan approach might work. If it doesn’t, the federal budget would suffer but seniors wouldn’t. Today’s seniors would be left untouched anyway, and tomorrow’s would have the option of private plans or traditional Medicare. At worst, if the market approach flopped, we’d be back to where we started.

As usual, there isn't a single word in this column about the most important feature of the Romney/Ryan plan: it arbitrarily limits premium growth to GDP + 0.5% per year.

Now, there are good arguments for imposing a cap like this. But one thing you can't say is that it's a market-based approach. If you had to pick just one single thing that distinguishes a market-based economy from any other kind of economy, it's the principle of using competition to generate a price signal. If you don't generate a price signal, it might look superficially like a market, but it's not.

In the Romney/Ryan plan, the government sets the price it will pay for Medicare coverage and then asks private providers for bids. It's true, as Brooks says, that competition among providers might help reduce prices a bit, but by far the heaviest lifting is done by the government-mandated price cap. That's central control every bit as much as any panel of bureaucrats that Barack Obama has ever proposed.

I just don't get it: how can conservatives repeatedly write about the Romney/Ryan Medicare plan without ever mentioning the price cap? It's as if they don't even realize it exists, and don't realize that both Romney and Ryan have been studiously unwilling to say what happens if insurers can't meet the cap — which they probably can't. Does the cap go up? Do seniors pay the difference? No one knows. If the latter, then it's decidedly untrue that "seniors would be left untouched" if it fails. 

But one thing we do know: the cap exists, and it's by far the most important part of the plan. There sure seems to be a mighty widespread conspiracy to keep it a little-known secret, though.

UPDATE: Andrew Sprung emails to tell me that although Paul Ryan's Medicare plan includes the GDP + 0.5% spending cap, Mitt Romney's plan doesn't. The Boston Globe quotes one of Romney's advisors saying: "Governor Romney has never proposed a cap on premium support growth that would leave seniors without the assistance they need to afford a plan with coverage at least as good as today’s Medicare."

I'm not sure what to think now. Romney's plan, as outlined on his website, is vague to the point of meaninglessness, but I thought he had endorsed Ryan's cap. Now he says he doesn't. So I guess Brooks is off the hook on this.

However, this also makes Romney's plan laughably incomplete. I don't think there are any serious analysts anywhere who think that competitive bidding all by itself will hold down Medicare costs. Without some kind of additional structure, this is just fairy dust.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 9, 2012

Tue Oct. 9, 2012 7:19 AM PDT

Marines with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) wait for a flight next to a UH-1Y Venom helicopter in Camp Dwyer, Helmand province, Afghanistan Oct. 4, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gregory Moore.

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Bloggingheads: Culture War Edition

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 7:07 AM PDT

ThinkProgress culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg graciously invited me on her Bloggingheads show this week to talk TV—namely, three of the most politically inclined shows this season: the spy thriller Homeland, the Tom Clancy-meets-Gilligan's Island Last Resort, and the political mystery/romance Scandal:

My review of Homeland is here; Rosenberg reviewed Homeland and Last Resort together here. As for Scandal, which is a ridiculous show that I very much enjoy, here are my favorite fantasy Washington things about the series:

  • You only need a bare majority to pass legislation in the Senate, because apparently the filibuster either doesn't exist, or no one ever uses it. 
  • The president is a moderate (liberal?) non-interventionist Republican who supports the DREAM Act.
  • It's really cheap to live in DC, as evidenced by a "cub reporter" for a "dying newspaper" living in a really, really, nice one-person condo.

Abortion Rights Group Launches "Bill of Reproductive Rights"

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 6:00 AM PDT

The Center for Reproductive Rights, known best for fighting against state and federal laws that seek to limit abortion access, is branching out. Its new "Draw the Line" campaign asks Americans to sign a "Bill of Reproductive Rights," and features a star-studded series of ads.

The first video, posted at Drawtheline.org, features Meryl Streep. Another video features Streep, Amy Poehler, Kevin Bacon, Sarah Silverman and a bunch of other stars. Here's what the "Bill of Rights" includes:

1. The right to make our own decisions about our reproductive health and future, free from intrusion or coercion by any government, group, or individual.
2. The right to a full range of safe, affordable, and readily accessible reproductive health care—including pregnancy care, preventive services, contraception, abortion, and fertility treatment—and accurate information about all of the above.
3. The right to be free from discrimination in access to reproductive health care or on the basis of our reproductive decisions.

The pledge comes as CRR marks its 20th anniversary. This year was also the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the court first allowed states to put their own limits on abortion access. It's also just ahead of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2013. 

Those notable milestones, coupled with the unprecedented number of new laws limiting abortion access passed in the last two years, pushed CRR to launch its new campaign, president Nancy Northup told Mother Jones. The group plans to deliver the signatures to the new president and to members of Congress after the election. 

"We knew it was time to not only continue defending in the courts, but to begin a very aggressive campaign with a clear articulation of what it is that we are seeking to establish," said Northup. The campaign calls for women's access to reproductive care to be as protected at the national level as the rights to free speech, she said. "You shouldn't have a different set of rights as a woman in Mississippi as you do in New York."

Here's the Meryl Streep video, with a cameo from Sarah Silverman:

Would an Obama Win Hurt Campaign Finance Reform?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

President Barack Obama has always had a love-hate relationship with campaign finance reform. In 2008, he backtracked on a pledge to join John McCain in accepting public financing, remarking that "we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system." He then went on to raise a record $745 million. When the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling came down in early 2010, Obama slammed it a week later in his State of the Union address, predicting that it would "open the floodgates for special interests."

More recently, Obama's campaign distanced itself from super-PACs, only to decide they're a necessary evil. Meanwhile, his campaign is on track to haul in $1 billion, even as it's claimed that Obama could be "the first president in modern history to be outspent."

Which raises the question: If Obama defeats Mitt Romney in November, will his victory weaken the opposition to Citizens United by undercutting the notion that a handful of megadonors pouring millions of dollars into super-PACs and shadowy nonprofits have the power to dictate the outcome of an election?

Can We Bank on Recessions to Keep Global Warming In Check?

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Greenhouse gas emissions rise when economies expand but don't fall as quickly when recession strikes, according to new research that emphasises the risks of relying on economic downturns to keep future emissions in check.

The most likely reason is that carbon-emitting vehicles and infrastructure created as the economy grows continue to be used in harder times, even as the economy contracts.