Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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The Economist's Bizarre Health Care Claim

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 11:20 AM EST

In an editorial in Friday's issue bemoaning American politicians' inability to tackle the budget deficit, The Economist offers this bizarre, unsupported assertion:

Health care offered a chance to [reduce government spending on social insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid] (broader coverage could come with tougher cost controls). But a weak administration and a greedy Congress conspired to produce a baggy monster of a bill which, from a fiscal point of view, might have made things worse.

The health care bill could have been a lot better. But if The Economist's editorial writers are going to claim that the bill "might" make the fiscal situation worse, they should offer some evidence. The Congressional Budget Office, which has been cited by both Republicans and Democrats as an impartial referee, found that both the House and the Senate health care bills would reduce the deficit over their first decade. And the Senate bill, according to the CBO's calculations, would reduce the deficit by more than a trillion dollars in its second decade. The news article that's paired with The Economist's editorial says that "many" (unspecified) analysts "doubt whether [health care reform] savings would have materialised" if reform passed, and argues that if they did, it would be "miraculous."

Economist readers would have been better served by coverage that made it clear that the CBO believes that passing health care reform will reduce the deficit. They would have been even better served if The Economist explained that America's long-term deficit problem is driven almost entirely by the rising cost of health care—not by the retirement of baby boomers or Social Security costs. As Dean Baker (an economist!) likes to remind us, "if the United States health care system were as efficient as those in other countries, the U.S. would be expecting huge budget surpluses in future decades."

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Which Members of Congress Are On Twitter?

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 12:34 PM EST

Which members of Congress are on Twitter? A lot of them, it turns out. A new report (PDF) by the Congressional Research Service examines the use of Twitter by representatives and senators during August and September of 2009:

The data show that 205 Representatives and Senators are registered with Twitter (as of September 30, 2009) and issued a total of 7,078 "tweets" during the data collection period of August and September 2009. With approximately 38% of House Members and 39% of Senators registered with Twitter, Members sent an average of 116 tweets per day collectively.

Unsurprisingly, member use of Twitter mirrors that of regular people: many registered members don't tweet at all, while a few members are responsible for a big chunk of the tweets. Half of the members of Congress on Twitter sent 20 or fewer tweets during August and September. But "16 Members sent more than 100 tweets," according to the report. Members of the House tweet far more often than Senators, and House Republicans are far more active tweeters than House Democrats. (Senate Republicans tweet slightly more frequently than Senate Democrats.)

The most interesting part of the CRS report focuses on the content of members' tweets. The authors of the study classified all the tweets they looked at into eight categories: position taking, policy statements, media or public relations, district or state, official or congressional action, personal, campaign, and other. Bottom line?

At this time, Twitter largely facilitates a one-way transmission of information from Members to the public. Members use Twitter to convey information about their official actions, press appearances, or policy positions. Given the limited data available thus far, a two-way exchange of information or policy dialogue appears less frequent.

That's also unsurprising, but it's too bad. It would be good for everyone if more Americans thought their representatives were hearing their concerns. Anyway, one more item. While the median representative had 1,297 followers, and the median senator had 3,536, one senator is the undisputed king of congressional twitterers: Sen. John McCain. He has over 1.7 million.

(h/t: Steven Aftergood)

Tax Cut Fail

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 4:00 PM EST

Flickr/Ben Ward (Creative Commons).Flickr/Ben Ward (Creative Commons).Democrats' inability to inform the public that the stimulus plan cut taxes in a big way should go down as one of their biggest political screw-ups in recent years. Barack Obama felt it necessary, during the State of the Union address, to spend a big chunk of time hammering home the fact that his party cut taxes. And PolitiFact recently decided it had to to check David Axelrod's claim that the Democrats passed 25 tax cuts last year without the help of Republicans. (PolitiFact has a list of all the tax cuts—they rated the claim "true.") Both of these events are signs that the fact that the Democrats cut taxes has not sunk in to Americans' psyches. It's not common knowlege. If it were, would the Tea Partiers be talking about how they're "Taxed Enough Already?" Well, probably. But they'd at least be challenged on that. 

The second part of Axelrod's claim is basically true, too. Only three Republicans (including Arlen Specter, who is now a Democrat) voted for a stimulus bill that included hundreds of billions of dollars of tax cuts. And yet the Dems are still hoping that the GOP is going to lend them a helping hand on their jobs bill. Good luck with that.

Kevin is traveling today.

The Market for Economics

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 3:31 PM EST

Ian Crosby offers up some interesting questions:

Paul Krugman maintains that Austrian business cycle theory is "as worthy of serious study as the phlogiston theory of fire." Milton Friedman claimed, less colorfully but no less categorically: "The Hayek-Mises explanation of the business cycle is contradicted by the evidence. It is, I believe, false."

Am I right to interpret this concurrence of opinion by two Nobelists from opposite ends of the political spectrum as a strong evidence that the Austrian critique is misguided?  Are latter-day Austrians the economic equivalent of creation scientists and climate-change deniers?  Or are there mainstream economists who take them seriously?  And if they do, what does it say about macro as science that there should be basic disagreements about a fundamental object of study in the discipline?

After talking to a few working economists, he concludes:

The real lack of consensus in macro, it seems, is not how to respond to a downturn in the business cycle, but what causes the business cycle in the first place.  And if mainstream macroeconomists agree that the Austrian explanation of this phenomenon is demonstrably lacking, it is not because they have a well-supported alternative or viable research program of their own.

Today’s Austrians may be a small and dubious minority.  But they have hardly opposed themselves to the edifice of a successful science.

Does that conclusion seem right to you guys?

And why is Austrianism appealing, anyway? Krugman argues that Austrianism appeals to people because it offers easy, clear-cut rules about cause and effect, and because it appeals to individuals' moral sense.*

But I think part of the reason people are attracted to the Austrian school is that more mainstream economists don't seem as interested in gaining public (i.e., nonacademic) acceptance of their ideas as the Austrians are. Whether or not they're "serious," the Austrians are definitely serious about promoting their theories. The Austrians have the Mises Institute, dedicated to spreading their ideas. They have the legions of Ron Paul supporters, most of whom lean towards Austrianism and are eager to tell you about it. And various Austrians and Austrian-leaning folks are responsible for clever things like the Keynes vs. Hayek rap video and Peter Schiff's series of YouTube videos. Russ Roberts, a professor at George Mason University who is behind the rap video, has written about the peculiarity of GMU's "Austrian-flavored" economics department:

We don’t just speak to the academy. We blog. We write novels. We write letters to the editor. Op-ed columns. We write books for a general audience. This isn’t an aberration. It isn’t just tolerated. It’s honored.

The point is that while it's easy to find someone ready to convert you to Austrianism, you just don't see "mainstream" economists out there trying to explain the basics of their theories to the masses. The closest you get to a public evangelist for Keynesian economics, for example, is Krugman, who generally focuses his New York Times column on the political and policy implications of economics—not the underlying theory. And yet when he has tried to explain the counterintuitive parts of Keynesianism, Krugman's actually been fairly effective. Witness this Slate article from 1998, in which Krugman talks about a microeconomy in order to explain his theories about the larger economy. More of that, please! 

Kevin is traveling today.

*I edited several sentences in the middle of this post for clarity.

Do Elections Have Consequences?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 2:19 PM EST

John Cole uses this video of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to highlight some unfortunate behavior on the part of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):

You see, McCain put a hold on Craig Becker, a nominee for the National Labor Relations Board, back in October, but never submitted any questions for Becker in all that time. The point of Franken's questions, which get at the fact that Becker is a former labor lawyer, is to point out that nominees for something like the NLRB are very likely to be from one side or the other—in this case, either management or labor.

Republicans, who generally take management's side, are going to oppose the labor-type nominees. And Democrats are going to oppose the management-type nominees. And because the minority's opposition to someone is often enough to block that person's confirmation (because of holds and the filibuster), you have a real problem. Elections are supposed to determine who runs the country. But the way the system works currently is that winning a presidential election gives you the right to determine foreign policy and assassinate Americans but gives you very little power over domestic governance. Winning a presidential election should at least give you the power to hire people to help you run the country. It should also probably give you a better shot at actually implementing your agenda. Right now, both those things are impossible.

Kevin is traveling today.

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