2012 - %3, November

Franklin Graham: God May Have to Cause "A Complete Economic Collapse" to Save Nation From Obama

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 2:52 PM EST

Some conservatives are having a tough time with President Barack Obama's reelection. Take social conservative leader Franklin Graham. In an interview with Newsmax.com, the Rev. Graham, a prominent evangelist and son of top-dog evangelist Billy Graham, maintained that Obama's victory will put the country further along a "path of destruction." And he suggested it would take a "complete economic collapse" to place the United States on a better course and return it to godliness.

Graham equated the Obama years with a national rejection of God. "In the last four years, we have begun to turn our backs on God," he said. "We have taken God out of our education system. We have taken him out of government. You have lawyers that sue you every time you mention the name of Jesus Christ in any kind of a public forum." Oddly, Graham ignored the fact that he and other shepherds of the Christian right have griped about such matters for much longer than four years. It didn't start with Obama.

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Benghazi Scandalmongering Takes a Hit Today

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 2:23 PM EST

David Petraeus, late of the CIA, testified today before the Senate. Just by doing this, he batted down one of the dumber conspiracy theories surrounding Benghazi, namely that the expose of his affair with Paula Broadwell—or the coverup of his affair prior to the election, depending on which account you read—was somehow designed to prevent him from testifying before Congress. As it turns out, Congress can subpoena anyone it wants, so this was moronic from the start. And in the event, Petraeus was happy to testify voluntarily and no one tried to stop him.

So now let's move on to conspiracy theory #2: The Obama administration knew what really happened in Benghazi, but sent Susan Rice out to the Sunday talk shows to lie about it. How did that turn out?

Lawmakers said Petraeus testified that the CIA's draft talking points written in response to the assault on the diplomat post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus told the lawmakers that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn't sure which federal agency took out the reference.

Democrats said Petraeus made it clear the change was not made for political reasons during President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. "The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. "He completely debunked that idea."

....Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb but those names were replaced with the word "extremist" in the final draft....Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said Petraeus explained that the CIA's draft points were sent to other intelligence agencies and to some federal agencies for review. Udall said Petraeus told them the final document was put in front of all the senior agency leaders, including Petraeus, and everyone signed off on it. "The assessment that was publicly shared in unclassified talking points went through a process of editing," Udall said. "The extremist description was put in because in an unclassified document you want to be careful who you identify as being involved."

....Schiff said Petraeus said Rice's comments in the television interviews "reflected the best intelligence at the time that could be released publicly."

So that's where we are. The interagency process removed the word "terrorist" and, for security reasons, replaced "Ansar al-Shariah" with "extremists." There was no political pressure to do this, and everyone signed off on the final draft. So that's what Susan Rice got: a brief set of talking points that said there had been protests in Benghazi inspired by those in Cairo, which had subsequently evolved into an assault on the consulate by "extremists." And that's what she said on TV.

The part about the protests turned out to be wrong. And Ansar al-Shariah was eventually firmly identified. But on September 15, four days after the attacks, this was what the intelligence community believed.

If that's your scandal, you have a pretty low bar for scandals.

If You Must See "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2," Bring Booze

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 2:22 PM EST

Rest assured, they all break out into Gangnam Style shortly.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2
Summit Entertainment
115 minutes

For the past four years, the Twilight franchise has been America's abortion-hating, abstinence-promoting insane ex-girlfriend who won't go away and won't stop stealing all your worldly possessions and patience. The final installment in the adaptations of the Stephenie Meyer tween fantasy book horror-show is, unsurprisingly, no exception.

As the series trundles toward its box-office-goosing conclusion, it's now virtually impossible to give half a damn about the fate of the central characters. After four novels, four prequels, and godless piles of fan fiction, Bella, Edward, Jacob, etc. are all fully developed as the wafer-thin archetypes they have always been. Twilightmentum has burrowed so deeply itself into our culture and national consciousness that our Supreme Court nominees are actually asked about it during their confirmation hearings.

There is, quite simply, nowhere else for the series to go but down a tedious, two-hour road to the inevitable happily-ever-after.

Breaking Dawn - Part Deux takes an extraordinarily talented director (Bill Condon, whose work includes Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls) and reduces him to choreographing Playstation-grade melees and monotonous vampire sex. The dialogue is so stodgy it's a miracle it wasn't legally classified as a hypnotic drug. (Bella screaming "SOME STUPID WOLFY CLAIM!" right before drop-kicking Jacob is the highpoint.) The acting is so epically phoned, the vamp-and-werewolf emoting so markedly blah, it's hard not to think everyone on camera is grateful for this to finally be done. (This goes just as much for the especially adept actors—Michael Sheen, Billy Burke, Elizabeth Reaser, Kristen Stewart—as it does for everybody else.) And when you get to the end credits, you have to hear this bleeding awful song, again.

After 10 minutes of this movie, this was the only note I managed to scribble out:

And then, the Natty Light kicked in, and I began enjoying myself famously.

GOP House Leadership Pledges To Oppose Climate Change Tax

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 1:02 PM EST
Is it getting hot in here?

Perhaps smarting from getting a zero percent return on investment from the $36.7 million spent bashing Barack Obama, the Koch Brothers' Super PAC Americans For Prosperity has narrowed its focus on a new enemy: a tax on carbon emissions. On Thursday the AFP announced that the entire House GOP Leadership Team, including Speaker John Boehner, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and seven other GOP Congressional leaders, signed a pledge to "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue."

"It is heartening to see that for the second congress in a row the House of Representatives will be led by a team that is publicly committed not to use climate as a guise to grow government," said James Valvo, AFP Director of Policy. "Carbon taxes are once again being floated as a way to raise revenue so that Washington can skip the hard work of actually getting runaway entitlement spending under control."

Meanwhile, fearing the White House is discreetly plotting to push through a carbon tax in the lame duck session of Congress, the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute has filed a lawsuit to force the Treasury Department to release more than 7,300 emails that include the word "carbon."

With a carbon tax, the government imposes a fee on carbon, then translates it into a tax on electricity, natural gas, or oil with the intent of curbing planet-warming greenhouse gases. But the AFP sees it as a lot of (regulated) smoke and mirrors to hide tax hikes to fund bailouts and big government spending.

Historically, a carbon tax has not been a politically winning issue. During his first term, Obama's plans to reduce emissions through a cap-and-trade legislation lost steam after stalling in the Senate. He also left a slew of other politically risky environmental reforms in limbo in the run up to the election.

But not everyone in Washington is opposed to the idea of a carbon tax. Even some conservatives are coming around. In 2010, Republican Congressman Bob Inglis was ousted from office in South Carolina in favor of a Tea Party candidate after saying he believes climate change is a real thing. Inglis now heads up the Energy & Enterprise Institute which promotes a "tax swap" plan to increase levies on carbon dioxide emissions while reducing taxes on personal income and businesses. The idea is backed by several conservative icons including former Secretary of State George Shultz and Reagan economic advisor Arthur Laffer. And on Tuesday, the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute held a panel discussion on the "economics of carbon taxes," making the case that the tax might serve as a possible solution to reducing the nation's debt as the fiscal cliff looms.

Mark Begich's Gigantic Tax Increase on the Rich

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 1:02 PM EST

Dylan Matthews writes today about a proposal from Sen. Mark Begich to fix Social Security's finances:

The Begich bill would lift the current payroll tax cap, which exempts wages in excess of a certain amount ($110,100 this year) from the tax....According to the Congressional Research Service, a change like that would almost entirely wipe out the program's long-run actuarial imbalance. Specifically, it would eliminate 95 percent of the shortfall.

....But Begich's bill doesn't just increase taxes for high earners....

Dylan breezes by this a little quickly for my taste. Lifting the payroll cap is an idea that comes up a lot, but it's worth acknowledging what it really means. If you're a high earner—let's say $500,000 per year—you currently pay 12.4 percent of $110,100 in payroll taxes. That's $13,652, or 2.7 percent of your income. Under Begich's proposal, you'd pay the full 12.4 percent on all your income.

That's a total tax increase and a marginal tax increase of 9.7 percentage points. That's huge. It's four times the increase we'd get from letting the high-end Bush tax cuts expire and double the marginal increase.

That would, obviously, be a massive political battle. But what's worse from my perspective is that it imposes this huge tax increase for one tiny purpose: saving Social Security. That's crazy. We shouldn't waste a big tax increase like this just to save Social Security, especially when there are lots of better ways of doing this that would require far less pain. Raising the payroll tax cap a bit to get it back to its historic level (covering 90% of income, or maybe a bit more) is a perfectly good idea. Eliminating the payroll tax cap is an idea that I don't think even liberals ought to be happy about.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 16, 2012

Fri Nov. 16, 2012 12:56 PM EST

Soldiers of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division’s unload baggage from a CH-47 Chinook upon arrival in Afghanistan Nov. 12, 2012. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Hackbarth.

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The Coming Threat to Your Craft Brew

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 12:44 PM EST
These are a few of my favorite things—and I like to be able to find them on the retail shelf.

Over at Washington Monthly, Tim Heffernan has an in-depth piece on a topic dear to my heart: the stunning consolidation of the US beer industry. He points out, as I have before, that two vast, globe-spanning companies, SABMliler and Anheuser-Busch InBev, control 80 percent of the US beer market. Heffernan argues that the two companies have essentially hit a wall in getting much bigger here—consolidation is already so extreme that there just isn't much more consolidating to do without provoking the ire of antitrust authorities. To increase their profits, he shows, the companies are moving toward a vertical-integration strategy: gunning for control of the distribution and wholesaling. That way, they can grow by extracting more revenue and profit out of each dollar Americans spend on beer.

Heffernan takes an odd angle to set up his story. Hyperconsolidation of the kind seen in the beer industry drives down consumer prices, he writes, and low prices for alcohol lead to excessive drunkenness. More on that below—I think Heffernan might be off here. But what caught my eye was his discussion of the way the beer giants are squeezing suppliers and wholesalers to take control of the retail shelf—and potentially squeezing out independent craft brewers, whose wares (which I adore) have taken off in the past 20 years even as the giants consolidated.

Five Think Tanks Attack the Deficit

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 12:33 PM EST

The deficit hounds at the Pete Peterson foundation asked a bunch of think tanks to come up with their own deficit plans, and the results are sort of interesting at a 100,000 foot level. Here are their projected spending levels 25 years from now:

Of the right-wing think tanks, the Heritage Foundation is in fantasyland. They want to reduce spending to 18 percent of GDP, which is just flatly not going to happen. Social Security will not be cut by a fifth from current levels, and domestic spending will not go down to 3 percent of GDP. They're clearly not even bothering to put forth a reality-based proposal.

AAF is slightly better at 19 percent of GDP, and they have an interesting VAT-like tax proposal that actually has the potential to increase economic growth and produce more revenue than our current system. And although they cut Social Security spending compared to promised future levels, at least they don't pretend that we can actually cut it from current levels.

Of the lefty think tanks, BPC and EPI are too aggressive for my taste. I don't think there's any question that federal spending is going to increase over its historic levels (typically around 19-20 percent of GDP) by 2037. Healthcare costs are going to keep rising even if we do a great job of controlling them, and we have to face up to that. Nonetheless, I'd like to at least have a goal of keeping spending in the low 20s.

So sign me up for CAP's vision. Their plan includes some small cuts in future benefit growth for Social Security, domestic spending at a more achievable 5 percent of GDP, and healthcare at 7 percent of GDP. That last will be tough to meet, but it's a worthwhile goal. And their overall spending target is a bit under 23 percent of GDP. That strikes me as about right. It's reality-based, but still makes a serious effort to keep spending under control.

There are more details at the link, but sometimes it's worthwhile to get a big-picture view of what everyone is proposing. This is a useful chart in that regard.

The Enthusiasm Gap Revisited

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 10:51 AM EST

Here's a pretty interesting chart from Seth Masket showing how much voter turnout changed between 2008 and 2012. Some of the outliers are obvious: Arizona and Alaska went down because they didn't have candidates on the ticket this year. New York and New Jersey went down because of Hurricane Sandy. California is a mystery.

What's more interesting, though, is the pattern. I'm just eyeballing this, but it looks like there really was an enthusiasm gap. Obviously three big Obama states were way below their 2008 levels. Beyond that, though lots of states at or below the red line were also Obama states in 2008 (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Vermont, etc.). Conversely, lots of states above the red line were McCain states (South Carolina, Idaho, Texas, Georgia, etc.). There are plenty of exceptions, so I might be off base here, but my quick read of this data is that if state-by-state turnout had stayed at 2008 levels, Obama would have won the popular vote by nearly as much as he did four years ago. I imagine it would be easy for someone with the raw data to stick it in a spreadsheet and find out for sure.

Why Do Women Think Inflation is Higher Than Men?

| Fri Nov. 16, 2012 10:29 AM EST

Tyler Cowen finds an old article showing that perception of inflation is usually much higher than actual inflation, and that women overestimate it much more than men. Why?

Is it possible that a high perception of inflation is largely the result of a relatively low real income, perhaps mixed in with a slight unwillingness to blame oneself for imperfect labor market prospects? Does this help explain why tight money and stagnant median income have come together?

I'm just guessing, but these don't seem like hard questions. People overestimate inflation because (a) they notice price increases much more than price decreases, and (b) the emotional impact of a few outliers with very high increases is unusually strong. And women overestimate inflation more because they tend to do more grocery shopping than men, thus exposing themselves to prices more routinely.

I can see how those with low incomes would also be more sensitive to price increases, so it makes sense that they also tend to have high estimates of inflation. But I'll bet you ten bucks—no, wait, better make that twenty—that an unwillingness to blame oneself for imperfect labor market prospects plays no role at all. I'd be fascinated to even hear a plausible mechanism for that.