2011 - %3, August

Corn on "Hardball": the Politics of Cheney's Memoir

Mon Aug. 29, 2011 6:10 PM PDT

David Corn and Lynn Sweet joined guest host Michael Smerconish on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Dick Cheney's memoir and the former vice president's criticisms of Colin Powell.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Healthcare Reform Doing Both Better and Worse

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 4:45 PM PDT

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, healthcare reform is getting steadily more popular among Republicans and steadily less popular among Democrats. Weird, huh? But as the chart below shows, the popularity of ACA peaked among Dems in January and then started declining, while it bottomed out among Republicans in March and then started rising. Using advanced mathematical techniques, I can forecast that ACA will be equally popular among both Democrats and Republicans in March 2012:

Just kidding, of course. But I think this goes to show what happens when something falls out of public view. Roughly speaking, I think that ACA has been replaced on the cable shoutfest circuit with other topics, which means it's becoming less of a tribal totem. So you no longer say you hate it just because you're a Republican and Fox News says you're supposed to hate it. You only say you hate it if you really do. Ditto in reverse for Democrats. It's becoming less of a culture war issue and more a simple question of whether it provides you any benefits that you care about. And on that score, it's always been better for conservatives than they think (they get their doughnut hole removed just like everyone else) and worse for liberals than they think (most of them won't really see much difference in their healthcare).

This immediate trend won't keep up (the 2012 campaign is likely to put ACA back on the partisan front burner), but this kind of convergence is still pretty likely over the long term. After all, is there much of a partisan split these days about whether you like Medicare or not?

Gov. Nikki Haley vs. the NLRB

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 2:54 PM PDT
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Conservatives just got something new to cycle through their outrage machine: The National Labor Relations Board is doing its job, again. On Thursday, the federal board handed down a new regulation instructing companies to conspicuously display posters reminding employees of their union rights. Politico reports that the letters "must tell employees that they have the right to strike and picket under certain circumstances; to form or join a union; to bargain collectively; to raise work-related complaints...; or to decline to do any of those things."

The National Federation of Independent Business, an organization with famously thin skin when it comes to regulatory-anything, released a statement insisting that the move demonstrates how the NLRB "has reached a new low in its zeal to punish small-business owners" and that the rule "sets up a 'gotcha' situation for millions of businesses which are unaware of the new rule or unable to immediately comply."

But that criticism reads like kids' stuff compared to what South Carolina's Republican governor Nikki Haley had to say about the NLRB this past week. Having previously deemed the NLRB a "rogue agency" during an interview on "Fox & Friends" earlier in August, the tea party governor posted the following to her official Facebook page on Friday afternoon, as her respone to the federal board's verdict on union rights notices:

Right next to that sign that is being mandated by Barack Obama's union cheerleaders at the NLRB, I encourage all S.C. employers to put up another sign: in our state, every worker has the freedom to reject the efforts to form unions and keep their paychecks for themselves and their families instead of paying dues to union bosses in Washington.

And during Haley's cameo appearance at Rep. Michele Bachmann's town hall in Charleston on Thursday, Haley seemed even more appalled by the NLRB's flexing its authority, this time blasting their decision in April to file a complaint against Boeing for the company's plan to ditch its union-represented plant in Washington and construct a factory in the right-to-work state of South Carolina:

Our president decided to allow the NLRB, which he appoints members to, to try and stop what Boeing is doing in South Carolina. It's the most un-American thing I have ever seen.

Check out Haley's comment in the video below at around the 1:20 mark:

Naturally, Bachmann responded with this anti-government chaser: "If the NLRB would also be continuing their current stance, they may not last very long," Bachmann said. "Once they see what I do to the EPA they may shape up."

Well, at least Haley didn't ask her about that light bulb thing.

The Right, Anti-bacterials, and the "Nanny State"

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 1:33 PM PDT

Earlier I blogged about the soap lobby's giant campaign to convince consumers that anti-bacterial products are safe, effective, and totally necessary, despite the fact that the science says otherwise. Well it turns out that industry has an ally in right-wing groups who argue that an EPA ban on anti-bacterials would bring us one step closer to a "nanny state"—and an anti-feminist one at that. Herewith, a few examples of the campaign:

Here's the conservative women's group Smart Girl Politics on triclosan for Andrew Breitbart's Big Government website:

Americans are living longer than ever due in large part to advancements in science, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the wailing and gnashing of teeth by environmental extremists. It seems that every day brings news of some substance that will maim, injure or bring about Armageddon. The latest target of these extremists is the antibacterial agent Triclosan, a substance used safely and effectively for decades by millions of Americans.

Here's the Weekly Standard:

Our friends in the government have decided to improve our lives again by trying to get rid of anti-bacterial products. You know them—the gels, wipes, and soaps that we use to disinfect shopping cart handles, gym equipment, children’s toys, phones, hands—you name it. Anti-bacterials contain Triclosan and Very Concerned Citizens think that Triclosan is a Very Bad Thing. So they want it banned.

Americans for Tax Reform weighs in:

Both the FDA and EPA have a spotty past of overstepping their authorities to push aggressive and careless policy in the absence of legislative support for particular agendas. Indeed, recognizing the unsavory nature of his latest ploy to handicap consumer choice, Rep. Ed Markey has been pushing both the FDA and EPA to undertake efforts to ban an important antibacterial chemical used in antibacterial soaps, a product which research shows is used by nearly three-quarters of Americans. Clearly moving to eliminate a product used by almost 75 percent of Americans should be based on evidence stronger than speculation. None exists, and research clearly shows Americans would prefer being free to choose these products rather than being restricted by regulatory caprice.

And finally, here's my very favorite: a piece from the website Human Events (check out the seriously awesome picture of a raving enviro hippie) that argues that an EPA ban on triclosan would amount to a "war on women:"

Maybe environmentalists thought women would be too busy to notice the growing regulatory assault on them.  They were wrong.  Nothing gets women’s attention more quickly than dirty dishes, clogged toilets, grimy clothes, toxic materials, and budget-busting energy prices.  It’s time the fairer sex took environmental Neanderthals head-on.

[...]

A woman’s dream, on the other hand, is to lead an efficient, clean, healthy life, free of arrogant do-gooders’ relentless meddling.  Yet meddling is national sport for environmental elites, and their regulatory schemes steal women’s time and increase their workload and stress.

Well now. I beg to differ. What increases my personal stress level is having to worry about a potentially harmful ingredient lurking in my soap, toothpaste, and deodorant. And my dream? That after 37 years of foot-dragging on triclosan, regulatory agencies will quit listening to industry griping and make a decision based on science.

 

A Venn Diagram for Rick Perry: Social Security Is Not a Ponzi Scheme

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 1:30 PM PDT

On Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a group of voters that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie" to younger Americans. It's not the first time the GOP presidential candidate has made such claims. The Texas governor also described Social Security as a Ponzi scheme in his 2010 book, "Fed Up!," and has argued the program is unconstitutional and could be handed over to the states.

When politicians make clearly false claims, reporters have an obligation to explain to readers why those claims are false—or at least quote someone who can. I would suggest political scientist Jonathan Bernstein:

Very simple: anyone who says that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme either misunderstands Social Security, misunderstands Ponzi schemes, is deliberately lying, or some combination of those...After all, a Ponzi scheme is a deliberate fraud. Saying that Social Security is financed like a Ponzi scheme is factually wrong, but saying that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme or is like a Ponzi scheme is basically a false accusation of fraud against the US government and the politicians who have supported Social Security over the years.

Andrew Sullivan's readers also have a number of good reasons why Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. The Social Security Administration also has a good web page explaining why Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. But I find that charts often make understanding things easier, so here's a Venn diagram I made that explains some of the differences and similarities between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme:

social security ponzi scheme venn diagram

Quote of the Day: Rick Perry Says RTFM

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 12:45 PM PDT

From Rick Perry, doubling down on the mountain of crazy in his book, Fed Up!:

I haven’t backed off anything in my book. Read the book again, get it right. Next question.

Hoo boy. There's some stuff in that book that any sane presidential candidate would be deftly trying to "clarify" at every opportunity. I guess Perry is choosing another path. Should be fun.

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We've Got a Tough Decade Ahead

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 12:02 PM PDT

Tyler Cowen points us today to a set of predictions from Michael Pettis that he thinks are "mostly correct." Most relate to China, which Pettis thinks is going to enounter some heavy economic weather in the near future, and I don't disagree. But he also has some things to say about Europe. Here's his forecast for Germany:

Germany will stubbornly (and foolishly) refuse to bear its share of the burden of the European adjustment, and the subsequent retaliation by the deficit countries will cause German growth to drop to zero or negative for many years.

....If Germany does not take radical steps to push its current account surplus into deficit, the brunt of the European adjustment will fall on the deficit countries with a sharp decrease in domestic demand....For one or two years the deficit countries will try to bear the full brunt of the adjustment while Germany scolds and cajoles from the side. Eventually they will be unable politically to accept the necessary high unemployment and they will intervene in trade – almost certainly by abandoning the euro and devaluing. In that case they automatically push the brunt of the adjustment onto the surplus countries, i.e. Germany, and German unemployment will rise. I don’t know how soon this will happen, but remember that in global demand contractions it is the surplus countries who always suffer the most. I don’t see why this time will be any different.

Pettis has been bearish on the euro for a long time, and he's even more bearish now. Here's a bit more detail on his prediction that the eurozone is going to crack up:

Spain will leave the euro and will be forced to restructure its debt within three or four years. So will Greece, Portugal, Ireland and possibly even Italy and Belgium.

...The only strategies by which Spain can regain competitiveness are either to deflate and force down wages, which will hurt workers and small businesses, or to leave the euro and devalue. Given the large share of vote workers have, the former strategy will not last long. But of course once Spain leaves the euro and devalues, its external debt will soar. Debt restructuring and forgiveness is almost inevitable.

I don't know if Pettis is right, but this sounds all too plausible to me. Leaving the euro seems impossible for a number of reasons, but the fiscal integration necessary to save the euro seems impossible too. That's also Wolfgang Münchau's take: "While I cannot see how Greece or Italy can remain in the eurozone indefinitely without a eurobond, I find it equally hard to see Germany, Finland and the Netherlands agreeing to it." So I guess it's a question of which one turns out to be more impossible. Or, perhaps, a question of which faction caves first.

If you held a gun to my head and forced me to guess, I actually think I'd guess that a eurobond and a massive bailout of the PIIGS is more likely than a breakup of the eurozone. At the same time, it's easy to be too complacent about the integration of Europe states over the past 65 years. They're not likely to go to war against each other anytime soon, but that doesn't mean that all the old animosities are gone. They're just lurking below the surface, and a prolonged crisis could create a climate of public opinion that simply doesn't allow for a sensible solution. When the eventual crisis comes, and it's not possible to shove it any further into the future, the euro may not survive

Why College Costs so Much

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 10:36 AM PDT

Benjamin Ginsberg writes in the Washington Monthly about one reason that the cost of attending university has skyrocketed over the past few decades:

Forty years ago, America’s colleges employed more professors than administrators. The efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staffers.

....In 2005, colleges and universities employed more than 675,000 fulltime faculty members or full-time equivalents. In the same year, America’s colleges and universities employed more than 190,000 individuals classified by the federal government as “executive, administrative and managerial employees.” Another 566,405 college and university employees were classified as “other professional.”

Faculty growth has been roughly in line with growth in enrollment, which Ginsberg pegs at 50% over the past four decades. By contrast, support staff of various kinds has increased by nearly 500,000, a growth rate of 182%.

There's more at the link, including Ginsberg's take on why this is a bad trend even aside from all the money it costs. Maybe we need fewer adjunct professors and more adjunct administrators?

Bachmann Calls for Drilling in the Everglades

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 9:36 AM PDT
Drill here, drill now!

The Florida Everglades are a largest subtropical wilderness in the country. They're home to a number of endangered and rare species, and they're already threatened by habitat destruction, encroaching development, and agricultural run-off. But GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann thinks we should drill there—if we can do so "responsibly."

Bachmann discussed this at a campaign stop in Florida this weekend. She added the caveat that, "If we can't responsibly access energy in the Everglades then we shouldn't do it."

"No one wants to hurt or contaminate the earth," she continued. "We don't want to harm our water, our ecosystems or the air. That is a minimum bar." But Bachmann wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. So it's not entirely clear who would be charged with ensuring that we are protecting the environment in our bid to drill in the Everglades and any other part of the US.

The Bush administration allowed oil companies to explore for oil in other ecologically sensitive areas of Florida's wetlands. The question of whether to drill in the Everglades pops up every campaign season. But drilling there is not very popular; Everglades restoration is much more popular among Floridians. Besides, there's not a whole lot of oil there to be had anyway.

The Everglades Foundation issued a press statement responding to Bachmann's comment on Monday morning:

NRA card-carrying hunters, fishermen, waterfowlers, and other outdoors enthusiasts do not want to see oil drilling in their Everglades wildlife paradise. In addition, the Everglades is the source of fresh, clean drinking water for more than 7 million Floridians. Congresswoman Bachmann needs to understand that oil and drinking water do not mix.

Perhaps Bachmann's desire to drill in the Everglades is just a stealth attempt to protect us from the fearsome manatee overlords that Florida tea partiers are so worried about.

Who You Gonna Believe?

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 9:27 AM PDT

Soon-to-be colleague Adam Serwer writes today about a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. In a word, it sucks:

It may seem shocking just how unreliable your eyes can be. The ruling cites studies that showed eyewitnesses picking the wrong person out of a lineup as often as they picked the right one, along with another study showing that even when witnesses are told the person might not be in the lineup, they'll choose an innocent person about a third of the time. The reason is that our memories may seem vivid, they're often not as accurate as we think they are. While lineups are constructed of similar looking individuals precisely to force the witness to think strongly about what they remember, this may result in witnesses unconsciously conforming their memory to the available choices.

The most complex part of eyewitness misidentification, though, is the fact that people who wrongly identify someone are often really confident they've made the right choice — and that confidence is persuasive in court.

This evidence has been around for decades, and it's common knowledge throughout the legal profession. Everyone knows about it, including prosecutors, though they'll generally refuse to acknowledge it for obvious reasons. The fact is that even under ideal conditions most of us are lousy at IDing people, and under the conditions of most crime scenes we're a whole lot worse. There are several things that are known to make eyewitness identification less reliable, and all or most of them are usually in play when you're watching a crime unfold:

  • The action is often far away.
  • It's often dark and the light is bad.
  • There's lots of tension and your adrenaline is pumping.
  • Everything happens quickly.
  • The culprits often belong to a different ethnic group than the eyewitness, and we're all much worse at distinguishing between people of a different race.

There's more, but you get the idea. As Adam says, though, this makes little difference to the witnesses themselves. Just as everyone thinks they're a great driver, just about everyone thinks they're great at remembering faces, too, even if they did get only a brief look in dim light from 50 feet away.

This isn't a topic I've spent a ton of time on, but knowing the basics, and knowing just how widely appreciated this stuff is in the criminal justice profession, I've always been a little surprised that the Supreme Court hasn't weighed in with some new guidelines on the use of eyewitness identification. I'm not talking about the usual stuff, like insisting that police conduct lineups properly, but something deeper: guidelines about how eyewitness testimony can be used in court, how the circumstances have to be disclosed, what kind of instructions the jury should get, and so forth. This is about as fundamental a part of getting a fair trial as there is. Perhaps this New Jersey decision is the first step in making this happen.