2013 - %3, January

We're Almost Done With Deficit Reduction!

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 6:21 PM EST

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has taken a look at projected future deficits and concludes that we need an additional $1.4 trillion in savings in order to stabilize the debt/GDP ratio at 73 percent by 2022. The chart on the right tells the story.

What's really so striking about this is what they say after diving a little further into the numbers. If we split this equally between spending cuts and tax increases, we need about $600 billion of each. (The rest comes from interest savings.) That's $60 billion per year. Or, if we did things rationally, it would come to zero dollars this year, increasing to perhaps $100 billion in 2022. For all the hue and cry from both sides, this is really not a huge amount of money. And if we did it, it would amount to total deficit reduction of nearly $4 trillion over the past couple of years.

This isn't necessarily what I'd do if I were your benevolent overlord. But it's hardly the end of the world as a baseline plan for now. After all, we can always change it in a few years if we don't like how things are turning out.

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Lead and Crime: Baselines vs. Crime Waves

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 2:07 PM EST

Whenever you write about a complicated subject, you struggle with how best to explain things. In the end, you always hope you got your point across in a way that sinks in, but you're never quite sure. And one of the things I'm not sure I explained well in my piece about the link between lead and violent crime is precisely how important the effect of lead on crime is. After all, the causes of crime are varied and complex. Surely lead isn't the whole answer?

It's not, and I don't want anyone to come away from my article thinking that. If we eliminated every microgram of lead from the planet, we'd still have plenty of crime. So here's a way to think about it. If you take a look at violent crime rates in America, you'd expect to see a sort of baseline level of crime. That level will depend on lots of things: poverty, drugs, guns, race, family structure, etc. But starting in the mid-60s, we saw an enormous rise in crime, well above any sensible sort of baseline. Then, in the 90s, we saw an equally enormous decline. The chart below illustrates this. (The numbers themselves aren't precise, so don't take them too seriously. I'm just trying to illustrate a point.)

The baseline crime rate is the light red portion at the bottom. It goes up and down a bit over time, but also—and I'm guessing here—shows a steady, modest rise since the 60s. Most likely, the reason for this lies with all the usual suspects.

But then, in dark red, there's the huge crime wave that lasted nearly 50 years from start to finish. That's the part the lead hypothesis aims to explain. And the reason we need an explanation is simple: the usual suspects simply don't seem to do a very good job of accounting for a gigantic, temporary rise and fall in violent crime rates. Within the criminology community, literally no one predicted the huge decline in crime that began in the early 90s. Their focus was on all the usual sociological causes, and they had no reason to think those were going to suddenly improve.

And they were right. For the most part, they didn't improve. It's true that the crack epidemic of the 80s burned out, but no one really knows the underlying reason for that. Policing tactics changed in some places, but crime dropped everywhere, so that's not a very compelling explanation either. Aside from that, poverty didn't change much, and neither did race or guns or demographics or the number of broken familes or anything else.

The truth is that there's just not a good conventional explanation for both the huge rise and the huge fall in crime of the past half century. That's one of the reasons the lead hypothesis deserves such serious consideration. Not only does it fit the data well and make sense based on what we know about the neurological effects of lead. It's also just about the only good explanation we've got. Other factors are still important, and they probably explain rises and falls in the baseline rate of crime. But lead is the best explanation we have for the rest of it.

If You Believe This Post, You're an Idiot

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 1:16 PM EST

Chris Mooney describes some recent research that involved volunteers reading an article about nanotechnology and then talking about it online. What effect did rude, trollish comments have?

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn't a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

Chris ties this into the modern media environment, and implies that an explosion of online rudeness may be partly responsible for increasing political polarization. I suppose that makes sense. Certainly the research results themselves are entirely unsurprising: as the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I think everyone understands at a gut level that insulting people is likely to make them dig in, while treating them nicely has at least a modest chance of changing their minds.

That being the case, why do so many of us spend so much time insulting people who disagree with us? Probably because most of us aren't really trying to change their minds. Rather, we're demonstrating our tribal loyalties and having fun in the process. Welcome to the blogosphere.

Chart of the Day: Medicare Not Really in Such Bad Shape After All

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 12:21 PM EST

Austin Frakt passes along this chart, which made the rounds yesterday, illustrating the projected growth of Medicare over the next 20 years:

Scary! Or is it? As Austin points out, most of the growth is simply due to an aging population. No matter how much of a fiscal hawk you are, you simply can't blame that on out-of-control spending or liberal utopianism. It's just demographics, and it's baked into the cake no matter how much we dislike it. This is money we're going to spend, and the sooner everyone accepts that the better.

Then there's the "excess" cost growth in red. It amounts to a grand total of three-quarters of a percentage point of GDP by 2035. That's really....not so much. And even this projection assumes that Obamacare's IPAB panel, which is designed to rein in cost growth, never gets implemented. [See update below.]

In any case, if this forecast is right, it tells us two things. First, our population is aging and we're going to pay for that. Deal with it. Second, Medicare is going to have some excess growth above that, and we should look for ways to get that under control. But that excess growth is fairly modest; we already have laws on the books to address some of it if we just have the fortitude to follow through; and healthcare wonks on both the left and right have plenty of sensible ideas for reining it in further.

Healthcare is a problem. But it's not an insurmountable one. If we could stop wasting time on fiscal cliffs and debt ceiling hysteria and all the other nonsense that consumes us at the moment, there really are things we could do about this. Our future is not the budgetary nightmare that conservatives keep trying to make it out to be.

UPDATE: Actually, it turns out that this projection does assume that IPAB is implemented. It also assumes some fairly substantial cost savings from increased productivity in the healthcare sector. That may be overly optimistic. Austin Frakt has more here.

Russ Feingold: Democrats Sold Out in 2012 and Need to Quit Big Money

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 12:01 PM EST
Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.).

President Obama's decision to let his 2013 inauguration committee accept corporate cash and million-dollar donations marks quite a reversal for the president: for his first inaugural in 2009, he capped individual donations at $50,000 and banned corporate money. The Associated Press calls the decision "part of a continuing erosion of Obama's pledge to keep donors and special interests at arm's length of his presidency." But for former Sen. Russ Feingold, it's yet another sell-out by his friends in the Democratic Party to the big-money forces so dominant in politics today.

No Democrat has so publicly ripped his own party for embracing super-PACs and dark-money nonprofits than Feingold. In a new article for the journal Democracy, Feingold, who co-wrote the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, the last major campaign finance restriction in the US, takes Democrats to the mat. He calls 2012 "a big step" back for Democratic-led efforts to get big money out of politics, and singles out Obama's reversal on super-PACs. In February 2012, the president encouraged his donors to give to Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC backing him, while allowing his top deputies to appear at Priorities events. On the PBS NewsHour, top Obama strategist David Axelrod defended Obama by saying that the president hadn't warned at all toward super-PACs but had to play by the rules of the game. You heard that a lot from Democrats in 2012. Yet with statements like that, Feingold says, Democrats were posing as a pro-reform party while tripping over themselves to "exploit any avenue to accept unlimited, corporate dollars to fund elections."

Beltway Democrats, Feingold argues, aren't going to reform big-money politics from the inside; they're addicted and they just can't quit. The task of fighting for real reforms to money in politics, of building what Feingold—who now runs his own pro-reform nonprofit, Progressives United—calls a "permanent majority" for reform, falls instead to liberal donors and activists outside of Washington.

Feingold says the most important thing big donors can do is stop giving—to super-PACs or any of the other Citizens United-enabled fixtures of our big-money politics. "Donors hold more leverage to create a movement for reform than almost any other actor in the political system," he says. If donors ignore super-PACs and nonprofits, "Washington will notice." And as for the liberal activists out there, they should redirect all the energy they've invested into passing a constitutional amendment reversing the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and channel it into "achievable goals"—public financing of elections, disclosure of donors to dark-money nonprofits and shell corporations, overhauling the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, the nation's top elections cop.

The stakes are high, in Feingold's view, for the Democrats. "Unless Democrats embrace election reform as a central tenet of our platform," he writes, "we will face another era reminiscent of soft money—when the dominance of corporate interests meant that no matter what party held power, the influence of Big Money always won."

Republicans Do Know Jack. Maybe a Little Too Well.

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 11:15 AM EST

Last year, Republicans managed to sucker Bob Woodward into believing that the reason they had gotten frustrated with OMB director Jack Lew during the debt ceiling negotiations was that the guy just wasn't willing to deal. "Jack Lew said no 999,000 times out of a million," Boehner told Woodward. Then he corrected himself. "999,999. It was unbelievable. At one point I told the president, keep him out of here. I don't need somebody who just knows how to say no."

This self-serving fairy tale has entered Washington DC lore, but it's so at odds with Lew's previous reputation that it hardly bears scrutiny. Matt Yglesias knocks it down:

But it emerged over the course of the negotiations that John Boehner and other Republicans kept trying to kick Lew out of the room to make a deal. That's because what Boehner wanted to do was make a deal in which spending cuts would be balanced by flim-flam, and Lew kept saying that the flim-flam didn't work mathematically. To put a balanced package together, Lew insisted that you needed to have real revenue-increasing tax hikes not just "tax reform" and handwaving. This kept spoiling the party, so Boehner wanted to make deals with Daley—with the political fixer rather than the budget guy. But ultimately you couldn't get a deal done, because you can't just smuggle a deal past the OMB.

Pretty much all the evidence suggests that this is exactly what happened. The sticking point in the debt ceiling talks was never Jack Lew, nor was it Barack Obama's supposed aloofness or poor negotiating skills. It was taxes. Full stop. In the end, the deal breaker was twofold: (a) Boehner wanted nothing more than a smoke-and-mirrors tax increase based on dynamic scoring pixie dust, and (b) he balked when Obama tried to increase his tax ask after the Gang of Six announced a bipartisan deficit plan that included $1.2 trillion in increased taxes.

Deficit negotiations between Obama and Boehner have always foundered on taxes, one way or another. The tea party zealots in the House simply won't support tax increases of even a dime, and Boehner can't make them. It's never been clear to me whether Boehner sincerely wants to make deals and just can't get his caucus to agree, or if he's always known that taxes are off the table but is pretty good at spinning reporters into believing that he really tried his best.

In any case, keep this mind when you read about the inevitable Republican kvetching over Lew's nomination as treasury secretary. It's mostly just invented nonsense. They don't like being embarrassed by a guy who keeps trying to drag them back into reality when the subject is budget numbers. That's what this is really about.

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In Hollywood, It's All About Washington

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 10:42 AM EST

On this surprisingly news-free day, I'd like to congratulate the Washington Post for coming up with a DC-centric perspective on today's announcement of the Academy Award nominations. I have to confess that this particular angle would never have occurred to me.

NRA's Armed Security Guard Proposal Kind Of Popular

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 10:23 AM EST

The National Rifle Association's proposal to eliminate school shootings by putting an armed guard in every public school was greeted with ridicule when it was unveiled last month. (MoJo was no exception.) After all, armed guards hadn't prevented massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech, and as I reported on Monday, the push seemed all the more dubious given that the NRA's point man on the issue was on the board of a private security company.

But the NRA may have been on to something—at least insofar as public opinion is concerned. According to a new poll released by Quinnipiac on Thursday, Virginians favor putting armed police officers in schools by a more than two to one margin. The proposal has bipartisan support, with 79 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats backing it.

The most revealing finding in the poll may be this: Although voters broadly favor many forms of gun control—59 percent support banning high-capacity magazines; 62 percent think assault weapons "make the country more dangerous"—most Virginians aren't necessarily prepared to do anything about it. Just 24 percent of those surveyed said that a candidate's position on gun control would be a deal-breaker come election time.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 10, 2013

Thu Jan. 10, 2013 9:58 AM EST
A United States gun crew fires illumination rounds at Forward Operating Base Hadrian. The 1st Section Bravo Battery 1-9 Field Artillery from Fort Stewart, Ga., have been conducting intensive training and fire missions to support operations in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan. US Army photo.

Bad News for Vampire Cops Everywhere

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 9:55 AM EST

So this is where the Roberts Court draws the line on civil liberties: warrantless, forced blood tests. The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Missouri v. McNeely, on whether someone arrested for drunk driving can be forced to provide blood samples without consent or a warrant.

Missouri’s top court had unanimously rejected a argument by the state that there should be a categorical exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement in all DWI cases. And it looks as though the highest court in the land will go the same way.