2011 - %3, July

Ed Miliband Demonstrates How to Stay on Message

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 2:28 PM EDT

Via Time's Adam Sorensen, this is pretty entertaining. It's Ed Miliband, leader of Britain's Labor Party, who's obviously memorized the talking point he wants to make and then proceeds to make it in precisely the same words six times in a row to every question asked. One gets the impression that if the interviewer asked him how his kids were getting on at school, his answer would be, "For the sake of every child getting an education in Britain, I say these strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still going on." But at least the British public knows what he thinks of the strikes.

UPDATE: ITV reporter Damon Green tells us how things looked from his side of the camera.

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Fixing the Deficit By Doing Nothing

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 1:46 PM EDT

Via Ezra Klein, here's an interesting chart. CRFB's Marc Goldwein shows us graphically the difference between the CBO's "Extended Baseline Scenario" — which assumes current law just goes on forever — and its "Alternative Fiscal Scenario," which is supposed to be a somewhat more realistic look at what Congress is likely to do in the future. Under the AFS, the budget deficit soars to 360% of GDP by 2050. But under the EBS (the bluish chunk at the bottom, modified to assume our wars end eventually) the deficit stays placidly under control forever:

Now, no one actually thinks that the EBS is realistic. Still, this is a fairly dramatic (and colorful!) way of making a point: if Congress just disbanded and let existing law continue forever, there would be no deficit problem. More realistically, if Congress let the bulk of current law continue (i.e., the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule, PPACA cost controls are allowed to take effect, etc.), drew down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and simply agreed to pay for any changes that just have to be made (doc fixes, AMT patches, etc.), there would be no deficit problem. This is not quite as intractable a problem as Republicans would have us think. It's only intractable if you refuse to pay for your spending.

There are more details on all this stuff at the link. It's worth a quick read.

What if You Held a Class War and No One Showed Up?

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 12:20 PM EDT

National Review's Robert Costa interviews rising right-wing attack dog Marco Rubio:

Rubio tells us that he will respond to Obama’s recent press conference, where the president reveled in class-warfare bluster....“Talking about corporate jets and oil companies,” Rubio says, missed the point. “Everybody here agrees that our tax code is broken,” he says, and he is open to discussing tax reform. “But don’t go around telling people that the reason you are not doing well is because some rich guy is in a corporate jet or some oil company is making too much money.”

Watching Obama brandish such talking points made Rubio wince. “Three years into his presidency, he is a failed president,” he says. “He just has not done a good job. Life in America today, by every measure, is worse than it was when he took over.”

“When does it start to get better?” Rubio asks. “When does the magic of this president start to happen?”

Today is one of those days where I hardly know how to react to things anymore. Part of me shrugs at this stuff: politics is politics. Of course Republicans are going to call a Democratic president a failure. What else would they do?

But then, for about the thousandth time, my mind wanders over the past ten years. Republicans got the tax cuts they wanted. They got the financial deregulation they wanted. They got the wars they wanted. They got the unfunded spending increases they wanted. And the results were completely, unrelentingly disastrous. A decade of sluggish growth and near-zero wage increases. A massive housing bubble. Trillions of dollars in war spending and thousands of American lives lost. A financial collapse. A soaring long-term deficit. Sky-high unemployment. All on their watch and all due to policies they eagerly supported. And worse: ever since the predictable results of their recklessness came crashing down, they've rabidly and nearly unanimously opposed every single attempt to dig ourselves out of the hole they created for us.

But despite the fact that this is all recent history, it's treated like some kind of dreamscape. No one talks about it. Republicans pretend it never happened. Fox News insists that what we need is an even bigger dose of the medicine we got in the aughts, and this is, inexplicably, treated seriously by the rest of the press corps instead of being laughed at. As a result, guys like Marco Rubio have a free hand to insist that Obama — Obama! The guy who rescued the banking system, bailed out GM, and whose worst crime against the rich is a desire to increase their income tax rate 4.6 percentage points! — is a "left-wing strong man" engaged in brutal class warfare against the wealthy. And Rubio does it without blinking. Hell, he probably even believes it.

We are well and truly down the rabbit hole. The party of class warfare for the past 30 years is fighting a war against an empty field and the result has been a rout. I wonder what would happen if the rest of us ever actually started fighting back?

McKinsey Backpedals on Health Care Reform Study

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 12:10 PM EDT

Last week, global consulting giant McKinsey & Company released a study suggesting that 30 percent of businesses currently offering health care to their employees would probably stop doing so once President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act goes into full effect. Conservative foes of health care reform eagerly lapped this up, asserting that the study clearly debunked Obama's promise that Americans would be able to keep their current health care coverage under his new law if they so desired. But health economists and supporters of the law quickly voiced skepticism of the study, asking the most basic of questions: what was the methodology?

McKinsey's explanation, via National Journal's Julie Rovner:

McKinsey conceded that its survey "was not intended as a predictive economic analysis of the impact of the Affordable Care Act." . . . [T]he survey was more of a point-in-time reading of employer opinion. "As noted, the survey only captured current attitudes," the firm explained.

"Employers’ future actions will be determined by many considerations. Among them: medical-cost inflation; the details of new state health insurance exchanges; employee attitudes toward compensation and benefits; a company’s ability to attract and retain talent; actions taken by competitors; and the state of the economy."

Eventually, McKinsey released its methodology—albeit, in incomplete form. And it only disclosed the survey's questions in response to a letter of inquiry from Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Apparently, there was a reason for the firm's reluctance, Rovner reports: 

[E]mployers were asked leading questions that made it seem logical for them to stop offering insurance. Respondents were told that the new health insurance exchanges would become "an easy, affordable way for individuals to obtain health insurance." Then they were given examples of how little their low- and moderate-income workers might have to pay for insurance, thanks to new federal subsidies. Only then were they asked how likely they would be to stop offering health insurance.

McKinsey stands behind its work. And its exalted, apolitical, professional reputation within corporate and policy circles isn't likely to suffer too much as a result of this episode. Yet the lesson is clear: given the never-ending controversies surrounding the ACA, lawmakers should tread carefully before blindly accepting declarative predictions predicated on less-than-transparent data. The same is true for bloggers and partisan food-fighters.

Is DSK Innocent?

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 10:58 AM EDT

The New York Times is reporting that the prosecution's rape case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is "on the verge of collapse" because the hotel housekeeper at the center of the case has lied repeatedly and now has some very serious credibility problems. Serious enough that, if true, this would not be a case of DSK getting off on some kind of technicality. He'd be getting off because it's at least plausible that the housekeeper made up her entire story. Jeralyn Merritt asks:

It sounds like this case will be dismissed. Cyrus Vance will have much deserved egg all over his face. (I'm glad I supported his opponent.) The DA's sex crime unit was apparently in such a hurry to detain DSK they did no homework and took the accuser at her word. All they had to do was conduct a proper investigation, and if her account panned out, get a sealed indictment and arrest him the next time he came to NY. DSK would have been none the wiser. Instead they staged a perp walk, and DSK became the biggest pariah and media sensation since Bernie Madoff. The buck stops with Vance.

....How does DSK get his reputation back? You may not think he deserves it, after all the post-arrest media stories about his womanizing. But he had one until his arrest, and those stories would never have been published but for the arrest. Not only did he lose his IMF job, but his chances of running for President of France were obliterated. All because of an accusation, that according to the New York Times, the prosecution is now willing to dismiss. The DA's office isn't Emily Littela, they shouldn't just get to say, "Never mind." There should be serious consequences for this kind of recklessness.

As with the original charges, I'll wait to see how this pans out. But if everything the NYT reports is true, Vance and his prosecutors do indeed have some explaining to do.

How Much Oil Can Saudi Arabia Produce?

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 10:14 AM EDT

There's a fair amount of guesswork involved in this, but Stuart Staniford takes a look at Saudi oil production over the past decade, compares it to the number of active rigs in the Kingdom, and comes to a gloomy pair of conclusions:

  • Saudi Arabia currently is producing at capacity, which has eroded from 9.5mbd [million barrels per day] in mid 2008 to 8.8ish today.
  • If that's right, then oil production will not go to 10mbd by July. Thus the IEA is going to be disappointed in its hopes, and world leaders will have to decide whether to keep draining the SPRs or not.

The official line from the Saudis has always been far more optimistic: they say they can produce 10-11 mbd right now and are building capacity to increase that significantly within a few years. And maybe they can. But the actual facts on the ground have never been very friendly toward this claim. I'd say they still aren't.

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Quote of the Day: A Status Report on our Non-War

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 9:58 AM EDT

From AFRICOM spokeswoman Nicole Dalrymple, commenting on U.S. involvement in our non-hostilities in Libya:

As of today, and since 31 March, the U.S. has flown a total of 3,475 sorties in support of OUP [Operation Unified Protector]. Of those, 801 were strike sorties, 132 of which actually dropped ordnance.

But don't call it a war. These are merely support operations that also happen to be dropping bombs on people.

Via Doug Mataconis.

Tim Pawlenty: I Wish I'd Shut Down My State Even Longer

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 9:56 AM EDT

At midnight last night, Minnesota's government officially shut down, save for essential services, after the Republican legislature and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton failed to reach an agreement on how to close the state's $6.2-billion budget deficit (Republicans want more spending cuts; Dayton wants to raise taxes in some areas). So how did Minnesota end up with a $6.2 billion budget deficit? Two words: Tim Pawlenty.

As I explained yesterday, the GOP presidential candidate and former governor spent his eight years in St. Paul turning in balanced budgets by using various accounting tricks (deferred payments, declining to take into account inflation when calculating future expenses), and shifting resources (local property taxes skyrocketed in order to offset shrinking state revenues). It looked good on paper, provided you didn't look too hard. But now, with Minnesota's shutdown making headlines, Pawlenty is doing damage control. Last night, he held a brief press conference at the Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport to offer his thoughts on the shutdown. The kicker: He thinks it's a good thing.

Via St. Paul's KSTP:

Former Governor and Presidential Candidate Tim Pawlenty says he wishes the brief shutdown he presided over in 2005 lasted longer.

He explains that had the shutdown continued the state might have been better off fiscally.

While Pawlenty refused to directly address the tens of thousands of state workers facing unemployment, he did suggest they should adopt longer term Republican goals based on fiscal responsibility.

This misses one key thing, which is that the actual shutdown itself has an economic impact. As Minnesota Public Radio reports, the shutdown could cost about $12 million per week in lost tourism revenue, $10 million in lost productivity, $2.3 million in lost lottery revenue, and a few million dollars more in lost productivity because workers were drawing up contingency plans for the shutdown rather than doing actual work. Beyond that, one direct consequence of laying off tens of thousands of state workers is that those people become unemployed, placing an even greater strain on the economy. Shutdowns are great if you're primarily concerned with slowly shrinking the size of government with no larger concern for the state's economic health—but that's about it.

Judge Blocks South Dakota's Abortion Counseling Law

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 7:00 AM EDT

On Thursday, a federal judge blocked a South Dakota measure that would have forced women to visit a counseling center and wait 72 hours before obtaining an abortion.

The law, set to take effect on Friday, required women to visit a so-called "crisis pregnancy center"—which are often run by religious and anti-abortion groups—before having an abortion. It also imposed the longest mandatory waiting period in the country. Judge Karen Schreier of the US District Court in South Dakota granted a preliminary injunction sought by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, ruling that the law is likely be found unconstitutional.

The law inspired outrage from abortion rights advocates, who note that crisis pregnancy centers are unregulated, frequently staffed by unqualified volunteers, have been found to provide false information, and often exist for the sole purpose of discouraging women from going forward with an abortion. The text of the law passed in South Dakota didn't really hide that goal, stating that the aim of the measure was to help women "maintain and keep their relationship with their unborn children."

Schreier wrote in the decision:

Forcing a woman to divulge to a stranger at a pregnancy help center the fact that she has chosen to undergo an abortion humiliates and degrades her as a human being. The woman will feel degraded by the compulsive nature of the Pregnancy Help Center requirements, which suggest that she has made the 'wrong' decision, has not really 'thought' about her decision to undergo an abortion, or is 'not intelligent enough' to make the decision with the advice of a physician. Furthermore, these women are forced into a hostile environment.

In a state like South Dakota, the 72-hour waiting period would have presented an even bigger logistical barrier. There's only one abortion provider in the state, and a woman could have to drive up to six hours to reach the clinic.

Mimi Liu, a Planned Parenthood attorney who argued the case in court, said in a statement Thursday evening: "We are happy and relieved for our patients that the court's decision today means they will not have to suffer through these outrageous and demeaning requirements."

This Week in National Insecurity: July 4th Edition

| Fri Jul. 1, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Happy (almost) birthday, America! Nothing says red, white, and blue firecrackin' love of country like a roundup of defense dementedness. Each Friday, we grab our lensatic compass, rucksack, and canteen, then mount out across the global media landscape for a quick national security recon. Whether you think our military is too damned busy—or not busy enough—here's all the ammunition you'll need, in a handy debrief.

In this installment: No to "toe shoes"! And no to tech support! But yes to ugly cars, loads of marijuana, $5 trillion wars, and coating your colleagues in "foreign substances."

The sitrep:

The government's national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow "at a heightened level of vigilance."

  • Bye bye, Bob Gates. Care for a Presidential Medal of Freedom on your way out? All outgoing defense secretaries get a medal now. (Stars & Stripes)
  • And what does the new secdef, Leon Panetta, get? A $5 trillion war on terror. A new study says that's the actual cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (not the $1 trillion the Pentagon estimated last week). The report also gives an "extremely conservative" estimate of 225,000 deaths and 365,000 injuries in the wars. (Time)
  • So what are we spending all that money on? Computer systems that don't work, apparently. The Army's $2.7 billion DCGS-A network is supposed to give commanders real-time battlefield data, but "was unable to perform simple analytical tasks" and has actually helped insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. "There's a lot of bugs in the workflow," says one officer. Lesson learned: Computers can make chocolate rain, but they can't rebuild failed nations. (Politico)
  • But here's something the Army's unwilling to spend money on: "toe shoes" for exercising soldiers. According to a new directive from the brass: "...only those shoes that accommodate all five toes in one compartment are authorized for wear. Those shoes that feature five separate, individual compartments for the toes, detract from a professional military image and are prohibited" during workouts. (Washington Post)