2012 - %3, November

The Economist's Weird Centrist Lament About President Obama's Economic Policy

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 2:24 PM EDT

I understand bashing Barack Obama because you don't like his social views. I understand bashing him because you don't like his national security policy. I understand bashing him if you're just flatly opposed to any expansion of government. But I continue to be puzzled by complaints from the center about his economic policy. Here's the Economist:

Previous Democrats, notably Bill Clinton, raised taxes, but still understood capitalism. Bashing business seems second nature to many of the people around Mr Obama. If he has appointed some decent people to his cabinet—Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Arne Duncan at education and Tim Geithner at the Treasury—the White House itself has too often seemed insular and left-leaning.

This is crazy. As the Economist points out, Obama appointed Tim Geithner at Treasury. He reappointed Ben Bernanke at the Fed. His top White House advisor was Larry Summers, a protege of Robert Rubin and an alumnus of the Clinton White House. He appointed Peter Orszag as director of OMB. He hired Wall Street financier Steven Rattner to manage the Detroit rescue. He appointed Paul Volcker, the man who saved us from stagflation, as chair of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board. And he appointed Christina Romer as chair of the CEA—a lefty, perhaps, but certainly not a business basher. Every progressive pundit I know, from Paul Krugman on down, has mostly complained that Obama's economic team was too centrist, too mainstream, and too Clintonian. The idea that these folks are somehow unenlightened about capitalism is laughable.

The Economist also has a weird complaint that Obama "surrendered too much control to left-wing Democrats" over Obamacare—in reality, he didn't surrender to them, he was forced to deal with them because Republicans refused to offer any of their votes in return for centrist compromises—but I'll let that go. Instead, I'll just turn the floor over to Matt Yglesias, who has the right critique of the Economist's wrongheadedness:

This idea that sound economic policy derives from palling around with job creators is one of the most pernicious myths out there today. And when you think about it, it undermines the whole logic of capitalism. The Soviet Union desperately needed politicians who understood agriculture, industry, and commerce because Soviet politicians were running the whole economy. In America we don't do that. What the president has to do well is the things that he's in charge of—being the single strongest voice in public policy disputes.

I think the best example of this is the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Businessmen really didn't like the guy. But the economy grew like crazy during his first four or five years in office. Why was there such strong growth? Primarily because FDR took the United States off the gold standard. That was a great idea, though it was much-criticized by business elites at the time. Tellingly, even when the policies were clearly working and the economy was growing again after years of collapse, businessmen didn't change their mind about FDR. Which doesn't show that they're bad people or bad businessmen, simply that they were really bad at public policy analysis. Which is fine, because just as we wisely don't have politicians running businesses we also wisely don't have businessmen running the government.

The fact that you may have brilliant ideas about running a large retail chain or marketing sneakers or selling medical supplies doesn't mean you know how to make economic policy, and making economic policy doesn't require you to make friends with the guy who runs the large retail chain.

Could Obama have used a few more CEOs in his economic team? Maybe—although I doubt that it would have mollified the business community or changed the political realities of Capitol Hill much. But look. Geithner's job was to support higher capital standards for banks whether banks liked it or not. Summers' role was to help pass new financial regulations whether financiers liked it or not. Obama's role was to pass healthcare reform whether the CEO of Walmart liked it or not. All of these things might have turned out better if Republicans had shown any interest in working together on them, but they didn't. That was the hand Obama was dealt.

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Romney Weighs in on FEMA, Finally, Sort Of

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 1:08 PM EDT

In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, Mitt Romney has spent much of the last few days dodging questions about his 2011 comment that he'd like to see some of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's services privatized. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction," Romney said at the time. "And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."

On Thursday, the GOP presidential nominee broke his silence, releasing this statement to the press:

I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.

That's all well and good, but it doesn't really answer the relevant question: What would happen to FEMA in a Romney administration? As MoJo alum  Suzy Khimm notes at the WonkBlog, under Romney's proposed budget, the agency could see its funding fall by about 40 percent. But we don't know for sure, because with the exception of a handful of appropriations like public broadcasting and Planned Parenthood, Romney hasn't specified how his cuts would be made and which programs might be exempted.

Republicans Finally Riding to Todd Akin's Rescue

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 12:44 PM EDT

Let us turn our attention to the Missouri Senate race being waged by Todd "legitimate rape" Akin. How am I doing with my prediction that once Akin was firmly in the race for good, Republicans would abandon their principled stand against him and start sending money his way? Well, the rehabilitation project started a month ago, and now it's in full swing:

Rep. Todd Akin and the Missouri Republican Party are launching a nearly $700,000 TV ad blitz in the closing days of his challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, but the source of the funds for the effort is unclear....The National Republican Senatorial Committee declined repeatedly to comment on whether it is the source of the funds being used by the Missouri GOP on Akin’s behalf. Previously, the committee has insisted it would stay out of the race. However, only national committees — the NRSC or the Republican National Committee — or individual campaign committees that raise money in compliance with federal limits are permitted to shift funds to a state party for a coordinated ad buy.

So....yeah, it's probably the NRSC, even though they promised never to give Akin a dime. I don't really blame them for this, though. It's just garden-variety politics. The next question, though, is: will it be enough? The latest polls still have Claire McCaskill up by a few points, and she's outspent Akin heavily. So maybe not. I guess it all depends on just what $700,000 buys you in Missouri.

Why I Disagree With Kevin Drum on California's GMO Labeling Proposition

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 12:34 PM EDT
A rally in favor of Proposition 37 at Los Angeles City Hall in October.

In his recent "Guide to California's Ballot Mayhem," my colleague the prominent political blogger Kevin Drum came out against Prop. 37, which would require that all foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients be labeled.

In general, Drum says, he opposes the propositions that appear on his home state's ballots unless he sees a clear case for them. For him, Prop. 37 fails that test. "'l confess to mixed feelings about this," he writes. "But I'm afraid mixed feelings mean a No vote." Kevin is agnostic on the merits of compulsory labeling of GM foods. "I respect the desire to know where your food comes from, regardless of whether you want to know different things than I do, but on a substantive level I'm not convinced that GM foods pose enough of a genuine hazard to rate detailed labeling laws that are etched in stone forever."

It's technical issues push that Kevin to the "no" side. He writes: "as with so many initiatives, [it's] sloppily written; it can't be changed after it's passed; and it imposes expensive state labeling burdens on interstate commerce, something that I'm increasingly leery of."

I've written a lot about the hazards, potential and realized, that GM crops bring to bear: the complete domination of them by a handful of large companies, the accelerating pesticide treadmill on which they've placed farmers, and the still-little-tested potential health risks. For all of these reasons, I avoid GMOs, and would vote to require their labeling if I had a chance.

For now, I'd like to set those aside and respond to Kevin's technical concerns. I agree that California's ballot initiatives tend to be blunt instruments called upon to do delicate work. It seems to me that the state's meta-problem—the reason its public schools are a mess, the reason it keeps hacking away at its glorious public-university system—can be tied to the infamous, 1978 Prop. 13, still limiting property taxes and squeezing civic institutions a quarter century after its passage.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 1, 2012

Thu Nov. 1, 2012 12:13 PM EDT

Gunnery Sgt. John M. Warrenski attacks the obstacle course during the 2nd annual super squadron competition at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma Oct. 26. Warrenski is an aircraft mechanic with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kasey Peacock.

Mitt Romney Going for the Gold in Absurd Mudslinging Competition

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 11:07 AM EDT

Here is the Romney campaign's latest effort to mobilize the Hispanic vote in Florida with an uplifting, inspirational message:

NARRATOR: Who supports Barack Obama?

HUGO CHAVEZ: "If I were American, I'd vote for Obama."

NARRATOR: Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela Castro, would vote for Obama.

MARIELA CASTRO: "I would vote for President Obama."

NARRATOR: And to top it off, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency sent emails for Hispanic Heritage month with a photo of Che Guevara.

CHAVEZ: "If Obama were from Barlovento (a Venezuelan town), he'd vote for Chávez."

ROMNEY: I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.

Is it wrong to admit that this made me laugh more than it actually outraged me? Probably. But this is so ridiculously negative that it's almost as if Romney is competing in some kind of Monty Python-esque mudslinging competition. Apparently Romney knows it, too: he refused repeated requests from the Miami Herald to make the ad available, so they had to make their own iPhone recording of it straight off the TV.

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Here's Why All the Polling Models Are Probably Right

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 9:58 AM EDT

Paul Waldman describes the Bizarro-world war on polling guru Nate Silver that's gained steam over the past week:

In the last few days, we've seen a couple of different Silver narratives emerge as attention to him has increased. First, you have stories about how liberals are obsessing over Silver, "clinging" to him like a raft in a roiling sea of ambiguous poll data. Then you have the backlash, with conservatives criticizing him not because they have a specific critique of the techniques he uses, but basically because they disagree with his conclusions....Then you've got the reporter backlash. At Politico, Dylan Byers raised the possibility that Silver would be completely discredited if Mitt Romney won, because "it's difficult to see how people can continue to put faith in the predictions of someone who has never given that candidate anything higher than a 41 percent chance of winning."

This whole thing is deeply weird. Could Nate be wrong? Sure. Ditto for Sam Wang and Drew Linzer and all the rest of the poll modelers out there. But if they're wrong, it probably won't be because of their models. After all, with minor differences they all do the same thing: average the publicly available state polls, figure out who's ahead in each state, and then add up the electoral votes they get for each candidate. Sure, they all toss in a little bit of mathematical secret sauce, but not really all that much. You could do the same thing if you felt like it. Want to know who's ahead in Ohio? Go add up the five latest polls and then divide by five. Voila. You are now your own Nate Silver.

Needless to say, though, the poll modelers are only as good as the polls they use. If the pollsters are systematically wrong, then the models will be wrong. And while there are a few small sources of potentially systematic bias (not calling cell phones, demographic weighting, etc.), by far the biggest is the pollsters' likely voter screens. But even here, with one or two exceptions, this is pretty simple stuff. Most pollsters just ask a question or two that go something like this:

  • Are you planning to vote?
  • How sure are you that you'll vote?
  • Really? Honest and truly?

That's about it. If you tell them you're highly likely to vote, they mark you down as a likely voter. If not, they don't. There's no rocket science here.

So if the modelers are wrong, it will probably be because the pollsters were systematically wrong. And if the pollsters are systematically wrong, it will probably be because this year, for some reason, people started lying about their likelihood of voting. And while anything's possible, I sure can't think of any reason why this year there would be a sudden change in how truthful people are about their intention to vote.

That's what this whole controversy comes down to. Conservatives seem to be convinced that Democrats simply won't turn out in high enough numbers to reelect Obama. A fair number of liberals fear the same thing. But there's no analytic reason to believe this. The Obama campaign's ground game seems to be as good as any in the business, and Obama voters are telling pollsters that they're likely to vote in big enough numbers to give him the key swing states he needs to win. That's the current state of our knowledge. It might be wrong, but if it is, the question isn't going to be why Nate Silver went astray. The question is going to be, why was 2012 the year when people suddenly started lying to telephone pollsters?

UPDATE: Asawin Suebsaeng has a roundup of all the prognosticators here. It's a nice, Cliff Notes version of who's who and what they're saying.
 

Watch Live: After Sandy: The Debate We Should Have Had

Thu Nov. 1, 2012 7:33 AM EDT

This morning, Climate Desk Live is partnering with ScienceDebate.org to bring you the second event in our series: a conversation between Kevin Knobloch—the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists and an expert on climate—and Mike Castle, the former governor of Delaware and a nine-term Republican congressman from the state. Our moderator is award-winning journalist and author Chris Mooney. The question at hand: In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, to what extent can science—and climate science in particular—shape US policy?

The event begins at 9:30 a.m. ET. Live-stream it here:

Gary Taubes Answers Redditors' Sugar Questions

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 5:03 AM EDT
Gary Taubes

In their Halloween Day exposé "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies," best-selling science author Gary Taubes and researcher Cristin Kearns Couzens used internal documents to reveal the sugar industry's decades-long campaign to bury scientific evidence suggesting that its product plays a role in what one industry honcho called the "death-dealing diseases." Yesterday afternoon, Taubes showed up on Reddit to answer readers' questions about the story, sugar, and just about anything else related to diet and nutrition. There were nearly 1,400 questions and comments. You'll find below, largely unedited, the ones most relevant to the story. But all you nutrition fanatics can click here to read the entire thread.

Mamabearmcb: What are your thoughts on artificial sweeteners such as Sucralose, Stevia, and Xylitol?

Gary Taubes: Short answer is I think they're all better than sugar/HFCS and there's not nearly enough data—randomized controlled trials—to show whether they are deleterious on their own. The evidence is just poor and the observational studies linking diet sodas to obesity/diabetes are meaningless, because they're, well, just observations and don't say anything about cause and effect. I did a short New York Times Magazine piece on artificial sweeteners about a year ago and concluded that the stevia compounds are probably the best, in that they're natural and have a long history of use. Here's the link. That said, last time I had a Diet Coke I got a headache the likes of which I can't remember having and so haven't touched the stuff since and that was about four years ago.

unclewally: What will you be giving out to kids tonight?

GT: Reese's. I'm looking the other way. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

vtmusicwork: 1. In "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies" it appears that although added sugars per capita has increased by 10%, diabetes rates and obesity in adults have doubled while obesity rates in children have tripled. Why do you think these outcomes don't correlate to the 10% increase in consumption? Is there another major contributing factor? 2. Do you believe in IIFYM when attempting to lose fat, and why? 3. Do you believe the Glycemic Index is valuable, and why? Do you think there is too much emphasis on it? Thanks for doing this AMA.

VIDEO: Sandy Leaves Elderly New Yorkers Trapped in Dark High-Rises

| Thu Nov. 1, 2012 5:03 AM EDT

On Monday night, Hurricane Sandy's flood waters inundated electrical equipment underneath lower Manhattan and left hundreds of thousands of residents there without power. By Wednesday afternoon, nearly 240,000 were still in the dark, with no clear end in sight. Climate Desk visited one historic high-rise apartment where residents were running perilously low on water, food, and patience.