2013 - %3, January

Obama's Superior Organization Probably Didn't Win the Election for Him

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 6:58 PM PST

I'm not a fundamentals absolutist. That is to say, I don't believe that presidential elections are won and lost based on the state of the economy and not much else. Still, fundamentals play a huge role, and Larry Bartels reminds us today that despite all the hue and cry about how Obama won despite a lousy economy, he actually did about as well as you'd expect a one-term incumbent to do with the economy he had:

We have lots of distinct but broadly consistent statistical analyses of presidential election outcomes. My own favorite is based on just two factors: the income growth rate in the second and third quarters of the election year and the incumbent party’s tenure in office.

.... The 2012 election outcome []  fits the historical pattern of post-war presidential election results splendidly; Obama’s popular vote margin was 3.8%, while his expected margin (based on the preliminary tabulations of real disposable income currently available from the Bureau of Economic Analysis) was 4.6%.

....Anyone who wants to believe that Obama’s “formidable campaign” (or whatever) won him more votes than an ordinary campaign would have won should feel free to do so, but should be required to propose some equally plausible source(s) of vote losses to balance the ledger.

Bartels' regression line is based on a simple formula that takes into account two things: number of years in office and the growth of real disposable income per capita between Q1 and Q3 of the election year. Income growth this year between Q1 and Q3 was about 0.3 percent, and when you plug that into his formula you get a prediction that Obama would win the election by 4.6 percentage points. Read his whole post for all the usual caveats and warnings.

In comments, Bartels notes that one implication of this formula is that "events before the start of the election year have no effect, for better or worse." This isn't quite true, of course. The real implication is that presidents should do anything they can to make sure the economy is on an upward trajectory in the fourth year of their term. Income growth doesn't come out of the blue, after all. Conversely, the out party should do everything it can to sabotage the economy. If Republican obstructionism had managed to shave another point or so off the growth rate, Mitt Romney might have won.

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Chart of the Day #2: Last Year Was Hottest Ever in U.S.

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 6:27 PM PST

NOAA released its end-of-year temperature records for 2012 today, and the chart below tells the story. For the contiguous 48 states, 2012 was the hottest year on record by an enormous margin. It was a full degree hotter than the previous two record-setting years in 1998 and 2006.

This doesn't mean that the entire globe was a degree warmer this year than its previous record. It wasn't. But climate change is chugging along whether we like it or not. More details here and here.

Obama's CIA Pick to Face Questions on Torture

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 2:31 PM PST
White House Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan briefs the president in the Oval Office in 2010.

Two top senators have promised to ask John Brennan, Obama's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, about his views on torture before they vote on whether to confirm him to the post.

"I will be discussing with Mr. Brennan the Intelligence Committee’s recently completed report on CIA detention and interrogation operations from 2001 to 2009 and will ask how he would respond to the report's findings and conclusions if confirmed," Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Monday. A spokeswoman for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), an outgoing member of the committee, said McCain planned to question Brennan about his views on torture and the Senate report in writing. The Senate Intelligence Committee recently completed a three year review of the CIA's detention and interrogation policies during the Bush administration, but the report has not been released to the public. (An unclassified version of the report may be released at some point in the future, after the Senate hears from the CIA and the White House about whether they think that's wise.)

McCain also said Monday that he planned to scrutinize "what role [Brennan] played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs." Brennan previously defended coercive interrogation other than waterboarding.

The CIA's handling of its contacts with the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty, a movie dramatizing the hunt for Osama bin Laden, could also come up. Feinstein, McCain and Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sent a letter to the acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, asking for information on the Agency's cooperation with the filmmakers, because the film left the "clear implication that information obtained during or after the use of the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques played a critical role in locating Osama Bin Laden." The recently approved Senate intelligence committee report comes to the opposite conclusion, saying that those techniques did not help in locating the Al Qaeda leader. If the CIA doesn't respond to the senators' request before Brennan's confirmation hearing, the movie could come up as an issue. 

Morell released a statement in December critiquing Zero Dark Thirty for taking "significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate." Specifically, Morell wrote, "the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false." 

Chart of the Day: Deficit Reduction So Far = $2.4 Trillion

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 1:43 PM PST

Michael Linden and Michael Ettlinger provide us today with a handy chart of all the deficit reduction we've implemented over the past couple of years. In all, we've reduced spending by $1.8 trillion and increased taxes by $600 billion, for a total of $2.4 trillion. More details here. This may not be the grand bargain of Beltway dreams, but it's pretty good progress in a short period of time.

And three-quarters of it has been from spending cuts. If you're wondering why President Obama thinks the sequestration negotiations should include a balance of both spending reductions and tax increases, now you know.

SEC Could Require Corporations to Disclose Their Dark Money

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 12:26 PM PST

In August 2011, a group of 10 law professors submitted a petition (PDF) to the Securities and Exchange Commission urging the agency to consider requiring publicly held companies to fully disclose their political spending to their investors. After the proposal received more than 320,000 public comments, an unprecedented number, the SEC placed it on its 2013 agenda on the Friday before Christmas.

As it stands now, corporations must publicly disclose much of their political spending, but there is no way to know their total spending, partly because they can cloak their contributions by channeling them through outside-spending groups with lax disclosure requirements. For example, the insurance giant Aetna handed over more than $7 million to the American Action Network and Chamber of Commerce to quietly influence recent elections; those donations were only revealed inadvertently.

The Corporate Reform Coalition, a collection of campaign-finace reform groups led by Public Citizen, is applauding the SEC's willingness to consider the new rules. "Investors have been clamoring for this information from the SEC for some time," said Robert Jackson, a Columbia University law prof who cosponsored the SEC petition, during a conference call organized by the coalition this morning.

Some corporations already voluntarily disclose all of their political spending; others argue that mandatory disclosure would be too burdensome. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), a member of a newly formed House task force on election reform that's taking aim at Citizens United and one of 42 members of the House to publicly support the SEC proposal, has rejected that argument, calling for the agency to "mandate uniform disclosure of a minimum dataset" of political spending.

Corporate response to shareholders' demands for political spending disclosure, based on figures from the Center for Political Accountability.


While proponents of the proposal expect strong opposition from corporate America, they are hopeful that the SEC, influenced by what Pennsylvania state treasurer Rob McCord called a "moderate, centrist, good-government impulse," will implement the new rule this year. One of the SEC's four commissioners, Luis Aguilar, is already an outspoken proponent of uniform disclosure requirements. Without them, he's said, "it is impossible to have any corporate accountability or oversight."

And for all the controversy surrounding Citizens United, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly upheld the constitutionality of disclosure requirements as part of its ruling. (Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.) The CU decision explicitly acknowledged the importance of shareholders' "corporate democracy" in "determin[ing] whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits."

Rep. Sarbanes has called the SEC's willingness to consider the rule-change proposal "an incredibly important development." On this morning's conference call, he referred to outside spending groups as "money drones": "You're walking down the street running your campaign, next thing you know they come at you with a lot of money, and the people operating those drones are hidden because we don't have proper disclosure."

Allen West's Crazy "Nuts" Letter Is Now on eBay

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 12:00 PM PST

In November of 2011, the South Florida chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations wrote to Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) to ask him to denounce Pamela Geller, a blogger and friend of West's whose writing on Islam has been classified as "hate speech" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Instead, West, a notorious critic of Islam, wrote back with the one-word response you see above: "Nuts!"—a reference to Americans General Anthony McAuliffe's message to the Germans at Bastogne.

The Miami New-Times called the letter "the dumbest thing ever written on congressional stationery," which is something we can debate, but it's almost certainly the most Allen West thing ever written on congressional stationary.

So now that CAIR's biggest antagonist has been forced into early retirement (effective last week), how is the organization coping? By putting the letter on eBay, apparently:

Up for Auction is one of the shortest Congressional Letters ever written in US History! This is the ORIGINAL LETTER on Official US Congressional Stationary signed by Allen West himself!This item has something for everyone. It doesn't matter if you are a die-hard member of the Tea Party, Democratic Party, or protect the Civil Rights of Americans; this item is perfect for your collection.

Tea Party- This letter is signed by your fearless Rock Star! If you win this auction you will have signed documented proof that Allen West stood up in the face of your “EVIL” to protect the US (A "Judeo-Christian" Nation) from the Muslims. Your collection can’t go without this item.

Members of the Democratic Party- This letter represents the accomplishment of Democratic Party’s victory over Allen West. Allen West’s firebrand of politics often came with blanket insults towards Democrats with no regard of Congressional Fellowship or Respect. Vice-President Biden recently thanked Murphy at a rooftop party for running and defeating Allen West...

Protectors of Civil Rights- As you are well aware Allen West represented the antithesis of equality and fair treatment of ALL AMERICANS. If you were not part of his narrative or didn't agree with him you were a threat to our “Gene Pool”. J Bid on this letter today as a sign of your commitment to protect ALL Americans Civil Rights. If you win this Auction you will have a little piece of US History and proof that Equality is not negotiable !

The letter is currently going for $1,575. Bidding ends January 17. Steadfast and Loyal.

eBay

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Lead and Crime: Assessing the Evidence

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 11:51 AM PST

Over at the Guardian, George Monbiot read my article on lead and and thought it sounded preposterous:

The hypothesis was so exotic that I laughed. The rise and fall of violent crime during the second half of the 20th century and first years of the 21st were caused, it proposed, not by changes in policing or imprisonment, single parenthood, recession, crack cocaine or the legalisation of abortion, but mainly by ... lead.

....It's ridiculous — until you see the evidence....I began by reading the papers. Do they say what the article claims? They do. Then I looked up the citations: the discussion of those papers in the scientific literature. The three whose citations I checked have been mentioned, between them, 301 times. I went through all these papers (except the handful in foreign languages), as well as dozens of others. To my astonishment, I could find just one study attacking the thesis, and this was sponsored by the Ethyl Corporation, which happens to have been a major manufacturer of the petrol additive tetraethyl lead. I found many more supporting it. Crazy as this seems, it really does look as if lead poisoning could be the major cause of the rise and fall of violent crime.

It's important to understand that there are at least three independent strands of evidence linking lead to violent crime:

  1. Ecological studies. These look at correlations between lead exposure and crime rates at a population level. There are now multiple rigorous studies using different methodologies that demonstrate this correlation at the city level, the state level, the national level, and in different countries at different times.
  2. Longitudinal studies. A University of Cincinnati team began following a group of children starting in the early 80s. Every six months they measured lead levels in their blood. At age 7, kids with higher lead levels were doing worse in school. At age 17 they were more heavily involved in juvenile delinquency. At age 27 they had higher arrest rates for violent crimes.
  3. Imaging studies. The Cincinnati team recently did a series of MRI scans of their subjects and found that participants with higher childhood lead levels had permanent damage to areas of the brain that are responsible for things like impulse control, judgment, and emotional regulation. We've long known that lead poisoning at high levels makes you more aggressive and prone to violence, and this study strongly suggests that the same thing is true even at moderate levels.

For a more skeptical take on this, check out this post by Scott Firestone. I think he's right to question this stuff, but I also think he might be a little too skeptical here. If there were only one study showing a single correlation, that would be one thing. But there are multiple high-quality population studies showing the same result, and there also longitudinal studies and imaging studies to back them up. And beyond that, there are plenty of studies I didn't cite in my article that point in exactly the same direction. It's really a pretty strong body of evidence—much stronger, I think, than any of the traditional explanations for the huge crime wave and crime decline of the past 50 years.

That said, Firestone is right to want further research. In particular, he's right to point out that my cost-benefit numbers involved a fair amount of handwaving. That's because no one has done a truly comprehensive analysis that I could draw on. So the truth is that we're both on the same track here. My goal wasn't to pretend that a magazine article can make an airtight scientific case for the association of lead and crime. My goal was to lay out the evidence and get the scientific community to take it seriously enough to take the next step. That next step would be to conduct a rigorous review of the evidence and a rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits of cleaning up the remaining lead in our environment. At the very least, I think the work on lead and crime done over the past decade demands that we do at least that.

Objective Facts Are More Important Than Personal Intrigue

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 10:56 AM PST

Andrew Sprung is frustrated that John Boehner is getting some mainstream traction for his sob story about how he tried really, really hard to accomodate President Obama in the fiscal cliff negotiations, but Obama was just a brick wall who treated everything like it was his way or the highway:

In truth, Obama in the course of grand bargain negotiations reduced his never-enough ten-year revenue targets from $1.6 to 1.4 to 1.2 trillion, raised the threshold for income tax rate hikes from his long-sought $250k/household to $400k (ultimately $450k), put chained-CPI on the table as a means of slowing Social Security spending, and proposed some $600 billion in Medicare spending cuts over ten years — to which Boehner responded by blowing up the negotiations with his ridiculous Plan B.

Andrew has much more on this, but at heart I think it's a demonstration of how reporters too often let tales of personal intrigue trump objective facts. Because in this case, the objective facts are really pretty clear. Boehner never once put forward a detailed plan, while Obama did repeatedly. And as Andrew says, Obama's position moved in Boehner's direction every time, with his revenue ask going down and his spending cuts going up.

In the end, though, Boehner just couldn't make a deal. This isn't because Obama was an arrogant bastard who never tried to understand their differences, it's because a majority of Boehner's caucus simply wasn't willing to agree to a tax hike of any kind and Boehner wasn't willing to back a plan that didn't have majority GOP support. There's really not much more to it than that. Boehner and Obama may well be tired of each other, but that's not why their negotiations routinely fall apart. It's because Boehner has no control over his own caucus.

Chuck Hagel Is Shocking Evidence That Obama Disagrees With Republicans

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 9:51 AM PST

Jonah Goldberg wonders aloud why President Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense:

Is it a bridge across the partisan divide? Or is it an "in-your-face" nomination (South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's words) aimed at eliciting a fight with Republicans?

At least from the perspective of nearly everyone on the right, it's the latter. Whether it's payback for the scuttled non-nomination of Susan Rice to be secretary of State or whether it's simply of a piece with Obama's efforts to divide and conquer the GOP that were on display throughout the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, the consensus in much of conservative Washington is that Obama is making this nomination at least in part out of spite.

Fascinating! Apparently presidents are now required to nominate only people whom the minority party approves of wholeheartedly. If he doesn't, the reason just has to be pure spite.

Well, politics is everywhere, and I'm sure Obama had some political motivations for his choice. For example, maybe he wanted to remind the country that, once upon a time, the Republican Party included traditional conservatives like Hagel, not just tea party lunatics. But guess what? Hagel is a longtime ally and advisor. He's on Obama's side on most important defense issues. I know how ridiculous this must sound, but it's just barely possible that Obama nominated Hagel because he likes the guy, respects his views, and thinks he'll do a good job of running the Pentagon and implementing Obama's policy agenda. Plus, he probably figures that presidents ought to get to choose their own cabinet.

If Republicans want to go to the mattresses to fight Hagel, that's their choice. "Divide and conquer" only works in this case if the GOP continues its hysterical insistence that Hagel is some kind of raging anti-Semite who will destroy America's ability to defend itself. If that's the road they choose, they have no one but themselves to blame if they end up being split down the middle.

Platinum Coins and the Fever Swamp

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 9:07 AM PST

Atrios thinks we should mint a $1 trillion platinum coin:

I remain baffled by the resistance. It's just a gimmicky — but legal — way to get around the debt ceiling nonsense. It won't cause inflation. It doesn't allow B. Barry Bamz to buy a trillion dollars worth of bling. And it can be undone the instant new bonds can be sold.

I remain baffled by the bafflement. No, it won't cause inflation, it won't allow Obama to buy anything he wants, and it can be undone as soon as new debt is authorized. So what? Like it or not, the debt ceiling is legal. Congress has the power of the purse. On the other hand, using a ridiculous loophole in a statute about commemorative and bullion coins in order to evade the debt limit isn't legal. Seriously, folks: just forget it. I know I'll never have to pay up on a bet over this since it will never be tested, but this would go against Obama 9-0 if it ever made it to the Supreme Court.

It's time to get a grip and leave the fever swamp thinking to the tea party. This whole thing is embarrassing. It will never happen; it's an exercise in executive overreach that liberals are supposedly opposed to; and it would never make it past a judge. If you really want to stop debt ceiling hostage taking in the future, the way to do it is to make Republicans pay a political price for it. That will stop them. The platinum coin is just a distraction from doing the real work of making Republicans pay for their recklessness.