2013 - %3, October

How Immigration Reform Could End the Budget Wars

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 1:00 PM EDT

The conversation in Congress' latest budget meeting Wednesday revolved around the standard issues you'd expect from DC politicians raising a fuss about the deficit: the Democrats argued that raising taxes should be the priority and Republicans pushed cuts in entitlement programs. But a few outliers from both parties offered an alternative route for fixing the fiscal impasse. "I would like to mention one other national priority," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, speaking directly to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), "that could both help get the economy moving, help reduce the deficit, and strengthen Social Security. And that would be to pass the comprehensive immigration bill within the House of Representatives. That would accomplish a lot of the goals of this committee, and we simply need a vote to make it happen."

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) chimed in with a similar argument later in the meeting. "As you look down the road," he said, "what drives the debt? Eighty million Baby Boomers...are going to retire in the next 30 or 40 years. Who replaces them in the workforce? That's why I think we need rational immigration reform, because our population growth is pretty much stagnant."

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The Battle of the NSA Surveillance Bills

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 11:31 AM EDT

On Thursday, the Senate intelligence committee took a step forward toward officially authorizing some of the National Security Agency's more controversial surveillance practices, which have recently come to light thanks to leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The panel passed out of committee a bill allowing broad phone surveillance to continue under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Backed by the committee chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the FISA Improvements Act leaves untouched the NSA's internet surveillance dragnet, PRISM, and does little to improve oversight of the government's surveillance powers. Feinstein's bill will face off against legislation introduced earlier this week by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would significantly curb the government's ability to sweep up the private information of Americans.

Privacy experts say that the FISA Improvements Act, which passed 11-4, codifies current surveillance practices instead of fixing the law to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans: "This was an opportunity for Congress to really recalibrate the statute, and it's very disappointing that they've used this opportunity to cement domestic spying programs instead," says Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the ACLU.

The primary focus of the bill is Section 215 of FISA. This is the part of the law that provides the legal justification for the bulk collection of the telephone metadata of Americans, including phone numbers and the date and duration of calls (but not the content of those conversations). While the bill's language amends the statute to prevent the NSA from hoovering up phone metadata en masse, it provides gaping loopholes that could allow the agency to continue with its bulk collection practices as usual, such as if there's a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that an investigation is related to international terrorism. The legislation also makes it legal for the government to collect and search records that are three "hops" from a target who is suspected of terrorism—in other words, a suspect, all of that suspect's contacts, and all of their contacts. The bill makes only surface fixes and "absolutely allows for the kind of collection that is already happening right now," according to Amie Stepanovich, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's (EPIC) Domestic Surveillance Project.

Also worrisome to privacy experts is the fact that the bill expands the NSA's powers, by allowing the agency to track cellphone's of non-Americans believed to be located abroad for 72 hours after they enter the United States. The bill additionally levies a penalty of up to 10 years in prison on anyone who accesses NSA information without authorization, like Snowden did.

"The call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security," Feinstein said in a statement. "But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place."

Feinstein's modest reforms include limiting the amount of time the government can store the information it collects to five years, with the approval of the attorney general required to search records that are older than three years. And it requires regular reporting to Congress on all FISA violations. The bill also requires the NSA to disclose to the public annually the number of times the agency searched its telephone metadata database.  

Feinstein's surveillance bill will now go head to head with Sensenbrenner and Leahy's legislation. They introduced companion bills in the House and Senate that would end the bulk collection of phone metadata and put strict limits on the section of FISA that has been used to justify PRISM (so that if the online information of an Americans is accidentally collected, it cannot be searched). The USA FREEDOM Act has been referred to committee.

Unlike the bills introduced by Sensenbrenner and Leahy, Feinstein's legislation was only made public after it was passed out of committee. EPIC's Stepanovich notes that the secrecy with the which the Feinstein bill was crafted does not bode well for real reform. "This is the problem with all of these programs," she says. "You don't find out about them until it's far too late, and you have secret collection approved by a secret court, that's now being reformed by a law that's kept secret. It is unclear to what substantive 'improvements' the title [of the bill] refers to."

Corn on "Hardball": Ted Cruz's Father "Represents the Far Right of the Tea Party"

Thu Oct. 31, 2013 8:33 PM EDT

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Chris Matthews tonight about revelations that Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) father called the United States a "Christian Nation" and told President Obama to go "back to Kenya."

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

Germany Continues to Fiddle as Europe Stagnates

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 7:04 PM EDT

Unemployment in the euro area hit 12.2 percent in September, up from 11.5 percent a year ago. The inflation rate hit 0.7 percent, down from 2.5 percent a year ago. This suggests that Europe could tolerate a wee bit more stimulus in its economic policy, especially from its biggest and most powerful country.

So what was the response of Europe's biggest and most powerful country? Dismissing as "incomprehensible" U.S. criticism of Germany's continuing dedication to running trade surpluses, and then taking a shot at high U.S. debt levels.

I think that perhaps "incomprehensible" does not mean what they think it means.

Taking a Second Look at Rate Shock

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 5:41 PM EDT

Rate shock is the subject of the day, and I have to confess to a growing unease about it. Here's why. I think a lot of us expected that young people in good health might see higher premiums under Obamacare. This is largely because Obamacare mandates a maximum 3:1 ratio between premiums for the young and premiums for the old. Roughly speaking, this means that insurers are being forced to charge older buyers artificially low prices, and that in turn forces them to charge younger buyers more. Instead of, say, charging $100 and $500, the 3:1 ratio means they have to charge $150 and $450. In essence, the young are subsidizing the old. Add in the fact that Obamacare forces insurers to provide better coverage, and prices are going to go up even more.

But this means that older buyers shouldn't see all that much rate shock. After all, they're getting the benefit of that 3:1 ratio. And yet, they are. A couple of days ago I wrote about the case of Deborah Cavallaro, a 60-year-old woman in Los Angeles who had been profiled on the NBC Nightly News. She currently pays $293 for her coverage, but got a letter saying her plan had been canceled and a replacement would cost $478. I wondered whether her insurance company was simply trying to steer her into a high-cost plan, even though they knew she could do better on the exchange.

In a word, no. I headed over to the California exchange, entered the appropriate numbers, and found a bronze plan from Anthem Blue Cross for $479. Her insurance company wasn't playing any games.

But maybe this new insurance is better than her existing policy? Michael Hiltzik talked to Cavallaro, who told him that her current policy has a deductible of $5,000 a year, an out-of-pocket max of $8,500 a year, and two doctor visits per year with a copay of $40. (She pays full price for subsequent visits.)

And the Obamacare bronze policy? It has a deductible of $5,000 a year, an out-of-pocket max of $6,350 a year, and three doctor visits per year with a copay of $60. (Subsequent visits are full cost until the deductible is met.)

Now, when you dig into the details, this is indeed slightly better coverage. Lifetime caps are no longer allowed, for example. And Anthem probably would have increased the price of Cavallaro's policy for 2014 even if Obamacare didn't exist. On the other hand, the new plan might have a more limited choice of doctors than Cavallaro is getting now. This stuff is probably a bit of a wash, which means that, roughly speaking, the bronze policy costs $2,200 more per year in return for an out-of-pocket max that's $2,200 lower. Any year in which Cavallaro goes over this max, the Obamacare bronze policy will pay off. Any year in which she stays under it, she's on the losing end of the deal.

So....I'm not sure what to think about this. The lower out-of-pocket max is a good thing, but basically Cavallaro is now paying for it every year instead of only in the years where she goes over $6,350. It's hard to spin that as a good deal.

Generally speaking, I'm trying to steer a path between denial and panic on this stuff. As Justin Wolfers illustrates on the right, there are still way more winners than losers under Obamacare. Right now, most of what we're hearing is anecdotal, and we simply don't know how everything is going to work out in the end or how many people are going to end up with higher rates. In Cavallaro's case, as in many others, that will depend a lot on the subsidies she gets. But there's not much question that any year in which her income is high enough to put her over the subsidy cap, she'll end up paying quite a bit more for coverage that's only marginally better. It's no surprise that she's unhappy about it.

And the fact that this is happening to 60-year-olds, not just 20-somethings, is a bit of a surprise to me. I'm not going to panic over these stories yet, but the more of them I hear, the less that denial seems like a reasonable response either.

WATCH: C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" Visits Mother Jones' DC Bureau

Thu Oct. 31, 2013 3:47 PM EDT

This morning C-SPAN hosted a special broadcast of "Washington Journal" by speaking to Mother Jones' editors and reporters, live from our Washington, DC bureau. David Corn, Stephanie Mencimer, Andy Kroll, and Lauren Williams discussed the history of Mother Jones, as well as recent news about dark money, welfare reform, and voter ID laws. They also took some calls and messages from viewers, some of which generated contentious debate. In short, it was good TV. Check it out:

David Corn:

Stephanie Mencimer:

Andy Kroll:

Lauren Williams:

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Conservatives Punish Fox News for 2012 Election Failure

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 3:19 PM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, Connor Simpson passes along the latest results of the YouGov BrandIndex survey, which tells us which brands are the most trusted. Results for Republicans are on the right, and as you can see, Fox News has fallen so far it's not even in the top ten anymore. Nor is this just an election year aberration. Fox News ranked #1 in both 2011 and 2012 before it cratered this year. Simpson takes a crack at figuring out what happened:

So where did it all go wrong? Some trace the recent Republican-Fox divorce all the way back to last November, when poor Megyn Kelly roamed through the Fox hallways looking for an answer to Karl Rove's ridiculous question: why isn't Mitt Romney president?

....Right after the election, Slate's Allison Benedikt argued Republicans should stop trusting the network because of its impossibly close ties with the Republican Party if they want honest news. "After Karl Rove’s on-air freakout and the aforementioned MegynCam challenge, Fox was forced to acknowledge that Obama had won the damn election. And now what are they left with?" Benedikt asked. "A whole lot of viewers who are quite surprised to find that they are once again outnumbered by Americans who actually like better access to health care and don’t all keep Carrie Mathison-style timelines of the Benghazi cables on their living room walls." A Public Policy Poll released in January showed a serious decline in trust during the months after the election. Only 52 percent of those who identify as "somewhat conservative," said they trust Fox News, down from 65 percent last year.

Well, it would be nice to believe this, but I have to admit I'm having a hard time with it. You see, I haven't noticed any particular increase in conservative dedication to the values of truth and compromise and caring about the less fortunate. Quite the contrary. Perhaps you've noticed the same thing?

So I'm a little flummoxed. If conservatives are even more radicalized than ever—and all the evidence suggests they are—why don't they like Fox News as much as they used to? Maybe it's not really trust at all. Or at least, not trust in the usual sense. Maybe after Obama's election victory, they decided that Fox News had failed them. After all, the implicit promise of Fox News was an assurance that they were going to get rid of that Kenyan socialist in the White House, and they didn't deliver the goods. Maybe conservatives still trust Fox News in the usual sense of believing their version of events, but they no longer trust them to be effective.

Or, who knows? Maybe conservatives are just watching less TV. The History Channel suffered a pretty big plunge too. So two TV channels got replaced by Craftsman and Lowe's. Maybe they're all just retreating to their workshops?

Anyway, the whole thing is pretty weird. What's up with Welch's? How did they break into the top ten? Are Republicans drinking more grape juice these days? And why is Chick-Fil-A no longer highly trusted? I suppose that happened after their epic cave last year, when they traded in their anti-gay message for PR mush: "We are a restaurant company focused on food, service and hospitality; our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena." Just another bunch of losers.

Anyway, here are the full results for 2012 and 2013. Basically, liberals like Google and conservatives like Welch's. Feel free to make sense of that as you will.

Republicans Declare Yet Another War

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 1:39 PM EDT

A couple of months ago, Democrats agreed not to fiddle with the Senate's filibuster rules in return for Republicans agreeing to confirm several of President Obama's executive branch nominees. The last of the nominees was quietly confirmed this week, and you'll be unsurprised to learn that full-court obstruction reappeared instantly:

With votes slated for Thursday, Senate Republicans were poised to reject by filibuster the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to head a major federal housing agency. Patricia Millett’s bid for a seat on the prestigious D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals also looked to be right on the margin of getting the 60 votes needed defeat a filibuster.

The two standoffs come as a group of other Republicans, led by Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), have threatened to filibuster the nominations of Janet L. Yellen for Federal Reserve chairman, Jeh Johnson for homeland security secretary and a host of other presidential picks.

Sure enough, Watt and Millett have been blocked, and Yellen is being blocked two ways. Rand Paul plans to hold her nomination until he gets a vote on his father's "Audit the Fed" hobbyhorse, and Graham and McCain are blocking both Yellen and Johnson until they "get answers" on Benghazi.

So that's that. All of these are perfectly ordinary, well-qualified candidates without any special ideological baggage. Except that they're liberals, of course. Apparently that's enough. Republicans are back to war.

Oddly Enough, Syria Really Is Destroying Its Chemical Weapons

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 1:04 PM EDT

Here's the latest news on the chemical weapons front:

The international chemical weapons watchdog said on Thursday that Syria had met an important deadline for “the functional destruction” of all the chemical weapons production and mixing facilities declared to inspectors, “rendering them inoperable” under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.

....The next phase of the timetable set down by the United Nations foresees Syria destroying its stockpiles of chemical weapons by mid-2014. Those weapons are reported to include mustard gas and sarin, a toxic nerve agent which the Obama administration says was used in the Aug. 21 attack.

I don't really have any comment about this, except to express a bit of puzzlement. As near as I can tell, Bashar al-Assad is really and truly sincere about destroying his chemical weapons stocks.1 But why? I very much doubt it's because he fears retaliation from the United States. And given his past behavior, it's hardly likely that it's driven by feelings of moral revulsion.

So what's his motivation? For reasons of his own, he must have decided that he was better off without chemical weapons than with them. Perhaps it has to do with the internal political situation in Syria. Or maybe Russia got fed up for some reason. But it's a bit of a mystery, and not one that I've seen any plausible explanations for.

1So far, anyway. Obviously things might change in the future. At the moment, though, it seems like he's genuinely being cooperative.

Can Conservatives Be Persuaded to Raise the Minimum Wage?

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 12:47 PM EDT

McDonald's operates a help line called McResource that offers advice to their employees. Among other things, that means directing workers to government programs that can help them, such as food stamps. At the Guardian, Sadhbh Walshe wants to know why conservatives are OK with this. If they hate welfare programs, why are they "seemingly okay with hugely profitable corporations exploiting these programs while they underpay their workers?" This is in the context of an argument for raising the minimum wage to $15, but Adam Ozimek says it's misguided:

Conservatives believe that minimum wages lead to more unemployment, and people on unemployment are going to rely on more not less public assistance....So if you’re going to try to sell them on an argument that a higher minimum wage will lead to less food stamps you’re wasting your time. You may succeed in raising their ire more about food stamps, but you’re simply not going to sell them on a minimum wage with these arguments. My guess is those who write or cheer pieces like this are simply too cloistered in their own ideological bubbles to understand that.

Maybe. At a guess, though, it doesn't really make any difference. Conservative politicians don't oppose increases in the minimum wage because they think it increases unemployment. After all, they oppose even modest increases that, by almost unanimous consensus, don't have any noticeable effect on unemployment. The truth is that they simply oppose business regulations, and the minimum wage is a business regulation.

Of course, this still means that Walshe's argument is falling on deaf ears. That's OK, though, because she's only talking to conservatives in a rhetorical sense anyway. It's the Guardian! The real goal here is to keep pressing a campaign that, eventually, might move the Overton Window among liberals and centrists. Those are the people who might nod along with the minimum wage argument.

So what's the answer? Should we substantially raise the minimum wage? In one sense, I doubt that it would make a big difference. If you raise the wages of fast food workers, you help fast food workers. But you also raise the price of fast food. And who buys fast food? Mostly poor and middle-class folks. But our biggest problem of the past few decades has been a massive redistribution of economic gains to the rich, and since the rich don't eat much fast food, this would mostly leave them unaffected.

Still, it would help a bit, and certainly there are other minimum wage occupations that affect the rich more than fast food. And since most minimum wage jobs are in the nontradable sector these days, a big increase isn't likely to send jobs overseas. For the most part, the kinds of jobs that can be lost to China and Indonesia are either already gone or already pay more than minimum wage.

The bigger wild card is whether a substantially higher minimum wage would make automation more cost effective, thus replacing workers with machines at a higher rate. Regular readers know that I think the use of automation is going to accelerate no matter what we do, and with a tail wind like that already in place, it's certainly possible that a big increase in the minimum wage would put people out of work even faster. But at this point, nobody knows. We simply don't have enough experience to understand what would happen.

I am, generally, in favor of paying people for work rather than giving them means-tested welfare benefits. For that reason, I like the idea of a higher minimum wage, just as I like the idea of the EITC. At the same time, though, I doubt that this would be a truly progressive reform. Welfare benefits are paid out of the general fund, which means that the money comes from income tax receipts. In other words, it primarily comes from the well off, who pay the bulk of the income tax. A higher minimum wage, by contrast, mostly raises the price of goods and services. This hits everyone equally—or maybe even regressively.

I'm still in favor of a higher minimum wage because I believe there's a minimum amount that any working adult should expect to receive for an hour's labor. But it's no panacea. For all its faults, our current system of social welfare is pretty progressive, and given the enormous redistribution of wealth we've seen over the past 30 years, that's probably the most important feature to keep in mind. Ironically, it's also a reason that conservatives should prefer a minimum wage increase: because it's less progressive than food stamps or Section 8 vouchers. We've come full circle to Walshe's original argument.

POSTSCRIPT: For the record, I should note that I mostly agree with Ozimek's post. "Food stamps are an excellent program. It really is the sort of basic safety net that should have near 100% support. The recent cuts to the program only amounted to a 5% change, but there are larger changes being considered. Let’s not try to undermine this program further by putting it on the corporate welfare radar of Tea Party republicans."

Yep.