Money in Politics

Why do tabloid press barons have so much power in Great Britain? The Washington Post offers an explanation that never really occurred to me before:

In Britain, money plays a smaller role in politics than it does in the United States, and politicians have few ways to communicate effectively with the public outside the media filter. Television advertising plays no significant role in campaigns; for the most part, it is not allowed.

An American politician who feels aggrieved by the media can buy television spots to answer them. His British counterparts have no such option. Elected officials must depend on the good graces of newspapers for favorable coverage.

File this under "watch what you wish for," I guess. In America, vast pools of money in politics give the business community enormous power to influence elections. That's bad. But the alternative, apparently, is to get the money out and instead give media moguls enormous power to influence elections. Pick your poison.

Four Programs

A reader points me to a critic who thinks that in yesterday's post about the debt ceiling I played fast and loose with budget numbers:

To me, the most damning part of this article was what the Author determined that our Government would fund. Mainly, Social Security, Medicare, interest debt, and some defense spending. According to the article, these items would take up the entire revenue stream? Yet, by the design of the programs, Social Security and Medicare are supposed to be self sufficient....The truth of course, is that the left is simply being loose with the facts. Social Security and Medicare do not use up as much revenue as this article would like you to believe.

Actually, they use up more. In fact, this whole post is worth a response since most people don't have a very good understanding of where federal revenue comes from and where it goes. But the basic figures are all easily accessible from the OMB and a few other sources, so here's a quickie summary for 2011:

  • Social Security: Roughly speaking, Social Security is self sufficient. So yes, we can assume that even if the debt ceiling isn't raised, dedicated payroll taxes will be enough to keep the program going.
  • Medicare: Medicare gets about half its financing from dedicated payroll taxes and premiums. However, the non-hospital portion, which costs about $250 billion per year, comes out of the general fund.
  • Defense + Veterans Benefits: Using the narrowest definition of national defense, this costs about $900 billion per year.
  • Interest on the debt: About $200 billion per year.

So excluding the parts of Social Security and Medicare paid for out of dedicated payroll taxes, here's what comes out of the general fund: $250 + $900 + $200 = $1,350 billion.

Now for taxes. Excluding dedicated payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, here's roughly where our money comes from:

  • Individual income taxes: $950 billion.
  • Corporate income taxes: $200 billion
  • Other taxes: $200 billion

That comes to $1,350 billion. In other words, aside from payroll taxes, our entire tax base — income taxes, excise taxes, estate taxes, customs duties, everything — is just barely enough to pay for our military, the non-hospital part of Medicare, and interest on the debt. Finis. If you want to fully fund those parts of government, as most tea partiers do, and if you also want to force an immediate balanced budget by not raising the debt ceiling, as most tea partiers do, you literally have to zero out the entire rest of the federal government. No Medicaid, no FAA, no border patrol, no FBI, no embassies, no highways, no disaster relief, no SEC, no court systems, no prisons, no national parks, no CIA, no school lunches, no medical care for children, no SNAP, no flood control, no student loans, no medical research, no nothing. You get Social Security, Medicare, the military, and interest on the debt. That's it.

Capiche?

Gridlock on Greece

Tyler Cowen takes a look at the latest European stitch-up for saving Greece:

If you had told me it was an Onion-like satire of all the previous plans, and not an actual serious plan at all, I would have believed you.

And here's Paul Krugman:

The Serious People are determined to destroy all the advanced economies in the name of prudence.

I don't really have the heart right now to go through the entire plan and try to make sense of it. Others can do a better job than me anyway. Broadly speaking, though, it demonstrates yet again that European leaders simply aren't willing or able to deal with the eurozone's problems, and probably won't be until something genuinely catastrophic happens. There's really no partial restructuring that has the slightest chance of helping Greece, but as the difficulty of getting this agreement shows, even partial restructuring is a tough sell. At some point everyone is going to have to come to grips with an all but total default from Greece, but apparently we're still some ways off from that day of reckoning.

Watching both the United States and Europe careen recklessly toward fiscal oblivion simultaneously is not something I thought I'd see in my lifetime. Just goes to show my lack of imagination, I guess.

From Felix Salmon, who doesn't like the government finance = family finance comparison no matter who's making it:

I’m beginning to think that the most politically corrosive movie of the past 20 years was Ivan Reitman’s Dave, from 1993, where the president, armed with nothing but his neighborhood accountant and a couple of bratwursts, manages to fix the budget over dinner.

Hey! We like that movie around this house. But yeah, like so many other Hollywood versions of politics, it sure does make things look a lot easier than they really are.

Fun With Numbers!

The chart below is dedicated to the Heritage Foundation. Thanks go to Matt Yglesias, Karl Smith, and Stan Collender.

Less Lead, Better Kids

Matt Yglesias points to a welcome bit of good news reported in the New York Times today. The EPA, it seems, is field testing a new way of using fish bones to clean up lead contamination in urban areas:

Today, there is more lead contamination in America’s cities than any federal or state agency could ever afford to clean up and haul away. So scientists and regulators are trying a new strategy, transforming the dangerous metal into a form the human body cannot absorb, thus vastly reducing the risk of lead poisoning.

The principle is straightforward, said Victor R. Johnson, an engineer with Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. “The fish bones are full of calcium phosphate,” he said. “As they degrade, the phosphates migrate into the soil.” The lead in the soil, deposited by car exhaust from the decades when gasoline contained lead or from lead-based paint residue, binds with the phosphate and transforms into pyromorphite, a crystalline mineral that will not harm anyone even if consumed.

Evidence mounts almost daily about the damage that the modern environment does to our children. Lead, small particulates in the air, phthalates and other endocrine disruptors, sugar-heavy diets that promote Type 2 diabetes, and lousy conditions in the home all combine to make our children far more vulnerable to chronic problems, both physical and cognitive, than they need to be. It's nice to see that at least one of these things is being addressed in a creative new way.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, based on everything I've read about him, is not very bright. Not merely incurious or overly reliant on his gut, like George Bush, but genuinely just sort of dimwitted.

Andy McCarthy of National Review, based on everything I've read of his, ought to be locked up in a mental ward somewhere. I really, sincerely, don't understand why NR continues to associate itself with him. There's gotta be a line somewhere, after all.

But guess what? Perry and McCarthy have apparently teamed up! If Perry decides to run, this really has the makings of an epic disaster. I can hardly wait.

The New York Times reports that Wall Street folks are really, truly, finally starting to come to grips with the fact that Republican lunatics in Congress might actually refuse to raise the debt ceiling on August 2nd:

Even though many on Wall Street believe that a default remains unlikely, the financial markets are starting to become agitated. Volatility in stocks has soared, and some investors say stock prices are falling because a United States default could severely raise companies’ costs of doing business. In the Treasury market, investors are starting to sell, fearing that the government will not make good on some interest payments that will be due next month. And complex financial instruments that will pay out if the United States defaults have become twice as expensive to buy as they were at the start of the year.

....“The metaphor is a pile of sand,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “You keep putting one piece of sand on the pile, nothing happens, and then, all of the sudden it just caves.”

Wall Street helped elect 'em, and only now are they finally figuring out what they got themselves into. Who knows? If the GOP wackos really do run the train off the cliff, maybe rich people will finally figure out that paying a few more percentage points in income taxes isn't such a high price to pay for sanity after all.

I wasn't really planning to write again about Michele Bachmann's migraines, but since she's now released this letter from her physician I have to admit that I'm curious to know what the "known trigger factors" are. Probably none of my business, though, unless it's something like "having to make difficult decisions that affect millions of people."

James Fallows sums up a recent — bipartisan! — bill that harnesses no-nothing jingoism to kill off joint research into clean carbon technology with China:

So, the Democrat makes sure the U.S. doesn't do clean energy research with the one partner that matters most. And the Republican makes sure we don't do it anywhere else, except with Israel.

In fairness to Rep. Sherman, his comments on the floor make clear that he was offering his "don't deal with China" amendment as a "moderate" alternative to Harris's "don't deal with anyone (except Israel)." This is the state of bipartisan debate: the alternative to complete, destructive flat-Earthism (the Harris amendment) is targeted, specific, "moderate" flat-Earthism (the Sherman amendment). Rather than choose, the House embraces them both.

Yay Congress! Yet another legislative moment for us all to be proud of.