Kevin Drum - January 2010

Chuck Lane Annoys Liberals

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 2:41 PM EST

Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane in the movie Shattered Glass. When they make Bureau of the Corn, I hope to be played by Zac Efron. (Promotional photo.)Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane in the movie Shattered Glass. When they make Bureau of the Corn, I hope to be played by Zac Efron. (Promotional photo.)The real-life version of ex-TNR editor Chuck Lane (as opposed to the Shattered Glass version most of us are more familiar with) seems to have a habit of feuding with liberals. Last month he accused his fellow Washington Post writer Ezra Klein of promoting a "venomous smear" of Joe Lieberman, and a minor blogwar ensued. Now Lane's getting on liberals' nerves by hyping a study (also pimped by Fox News) that says the minimum wage kills jobs. The study is by longtime minimum wage opponent, and, as ThinkProgress notes, "almost all of the economic research on the subject shows that the minimum wage has little to no effect on employment," but Lane doesn't mention that. (He also doesn't mention Paul Krugman's detailed explanation of why reducing minimum wages could be counterproductive during a recession.) Here's the point, from DougJ at Balloon Juice:

The point here is not that Lane is an asshole for suggesting we lower minimum wage. Nor is to cast aspersion on the work of David Neumark, the economist whose work he cites.

The point here is that Neumark is an economist, who (rightly or wrongly) has made a career of criticizing minimum wage laws (his conclusions, based on my skim, are not simplistic). It’s simply nuts to hold up his work as the consensus of the entire field, especially since critics of Lane’s original article held up a large body of work by various authors who hold different positions on the issue.

I'm going to go to a somewhat unlikely source to try to resolve this dispute: The Economist. Even the libertarians from the other side of the pond acknowledged (paywall), in 2006, that the Democrats' plan to raise the minimum wage would probably not have significant negative effects on employment. They referred to Lane's source, Neumark, as "perhaps the leading sceptic about the minimum wage." But they also offered a suggestion I think a lot of people will be able to get behind:

[A] better tool exists for helping the working poor: the earned-income tax credit (EITC). This tax subsidy, a "negative income tax" that tops up the earnings of the low-paid, was introduced in the 1970s and has been expanded four times since.

Lane should do more to acknowlege that Neumark's research does not represent the consensus of economists. But there's room to work towards a resolution here: like The Economist, Lane supports increasing the EITC. That's great, because while economists do disagree (despite Lane's protestations) about the economic impact of increasing the minimum wage, they largely agree that increasing and broadening the EITC is a better option. Can't we all just get along?

Kevin is traveling today.

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Conservatives vs. Executing Gay People

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 12:41 PM EST

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan linked to this blog post by John Mark Reynolds, who blogs for First Things, the conservative ("theoconservative," according to some) Catholic magazine founded by the late Richard John Neuhaus. Sullivan praised Reynolds' "brilliant evisceration" of Uganda's proposed "execute gay people" law "from both a Christian and secular perspective." Here's how Reynolds launches his attack: 

Uganda may pass a law that could lead to the death penalty for homosexual behavior.

The proposed law is odious.

Due to the legacy of colonialism, Western people should be sensitive about interfering in sub-Saharan African politics and modest in making moral pronouncements regarding Africa, but this law deserves universal condemnation. Uganda experienced many evils under colonialism, including the loss of basic liberties.

Experiencing evil does not give a free pass to do evil and this bill is wicked.

It is not a close call.

No good can come of this bill and great harm will be done if it is passed.

The rest is here. I want to draw your attention to the comments section of Reynolds' post, which is pretty unique. It's not full of idiots or trolls, per se. The commenters make long, often well-reasoned arguments and show basic respect for each other. But the subjects they're arguing about are well outside mainstream political discourse. For example:

I have a friend who defends slavery on the grounds that the Bible does. No amount of quoting texts like Titus have helped. I have tried to show him the changing standards of morality that God holds us to while remaining faithful to the idea. I have hit a brick wall with him, but fell any time spent trying to talk someone out of ever saying in public that Christianity is okay with slavery is time well spent. Have you expounded on these ideas elsewhere in a fuller form that I might hopefully change his mind. Oh one other thing, what is the best introductory work on the Orthodox church, though I am Reformed, and not likely to change. I do feel there is a gap in my knowledge when I don’t know anything about a 1/3 of Christendom.

Reynolds responds—not to say that slavery is obviously wrong but instead to point to his work on the Bible's approach to slavery in a new Christian apologetic.

It's all well and good, I suppose, to offer lengthy attacks on the Ugandan law. But at this point in human history, given the experience of the twentieth century, some things should really be part of a broad moral consensus. The immorality of slavery or of executing minorities shouldn't really require long arguments.

I suspect this is why it's been hard for Sullivan to find examples of the National Review or the Weekly Standard or the American Conservative or Commentary denouncing the Ugandan law. The writers at those magazines may disagree with Sullivan on a lot of things, but I suspect they think it's pretty obvious to most Americans that executing gay people is wrong. The problem for conservatives is that it's inconvenient for them to defend any sort of gay rights—even the right not to be executed—because doing so brings up awkward questions about why conservatives want to deny other rights to gay people.

When you have to make long arguments to convince your audience to accept the basic moral consensus—slavery is wrong, executing gay people is abhorrent—it makes you (and your audience) look radical. After all, how many of us have friends who argue that slavery is okay? How many of us hang around with folks who think it would be great if gay people were executed for their "crimes"? It's fine that John Mark Reynolds spent hundreds of words attacking the murder of minorities and a chapter explaining why slavery is wrong. But he shouldn't have to do it. A quick note of opposition ("executing gay people is obviously wrong") should suffice. If that's not more than enough to convince you, you had better be ready to explain your position. When it comes to easy moral questions like enslaving people or slaughtering homosexuals, the burden of proof falls overwhelmingly on those who would buck the modern consensus.

Kevin is traveling today.

Why Dodd Retired

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 8:11 PM EST

As I mentioned this morning, I was working on a piece about Chris Dodd's reelection campaign for the print magazine. That's obviously moot now, but I've recast it as an explanation of what went wrong:

The writing was on the wall for Chris Dodd in December, when even Peter Schiff, the longshot candidate in the fiercely contested Republican primary, was leading the five-term incumbent in the polls. "We have a unique opportunity," Schiff assured supporters in December, during an appearance I attended in Watertown. Dodd "is so unpopular that just about anybody can beat him."

Apparently Dodd and his political advisers ultimately arrived at a similar conclusion. The senator announced Wednesday that he would not seek reelection.

The rest of the piece is here.

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

Paper of the Day

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 6:15 PM EST

Economist James Galbraith, an occasional Mother Jones contributor, has an interesting new article [PDF] in Thought & Action, the journal of the National Education Association. It's about economists who saw the financial crisis coming, and why you never hear about them:

[T]he lines of discourse that take up these questions have been marginalized, shunted to the sidelines within academic economics. Articles that discuss these problems are relegated to secondary journals, even to newsletters and blog posts. The scholars who betray their skepticism by taking an interest in them are discouraged from academic life—or if they remain, they are sent out into the vast diaspora of lesser state universities and liberal arts colleges. There, they can be safely ignored.

While Galbraith will no doubt be slammed by the trolls for not heaping praise on the Austrians, his whole essay is well worth a read. After all, it's not every day you see "the Marxian view" of economics taken seriously.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 2:06 PM EST

This morning, in the wake of the news that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) will retire and that Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal will run for his seat, I wrote:

[I]f the first polls of the race with Blumenthal show even a hint of hope for the Republican challengers, that might be even worse news for Democrats. Linda McMahon (of wrestling fame), former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons, and former Ron Paul adviser Peter Schiff were battling to face Dodd in the general. If the most popular politician in a super-blue state like Connecticut is in any sort of trouble against those three, well, national Dems are probably cooked.

Public Policy Polling, which was in the field on Monday and Tuesday, has some good news for Dems. Dodd's retirement makes this look like a safe seat:

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal leads all three of the Republicans in the race by at least 30 points in polling we conducted Monday and Tuesday night before Dodd's announcement.

Blumenthal is unusually popular, especially in hyper partisan times when voters like few politicians. 59% have a favorable opinion of him to just 19% who see him negatively. It's no surprise that he's liked by 71% of Democrats and 60% of independents, but even Republicans view him favorably by a 37/35 margin. It doesn't take a lot of hands to count the number of Democratic politicians with positive numbers among GOP voters these days.

Blumenthal leads Rob Simmons 59-28, Linda McMahon 60-28, and Peter Schiff 63-23. It would take an epic collapse for him not to be Connecticut's next Senator.

With this race moving rapidly off the national radar, Connecticut politicos will probably focus more on the fight for the open governor's mansion, and Republicans will spend more money (and energy) trying to win at least one of the Connecticut House races. (Republicans held three of the state's five House seats as recently as 2006.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

Social Democracy

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 1:50 PM EST

David Brooks and Ross Douthat, the New York Times' top conservative columnists, have gazed upon Jim Manzi's essay on conservative reform in National Affairs and found it worthy of great praise. The New Republic's Jon Chait, who just launched a new blog, isn't so sure:

The weakness of Manzi's essay is that it does almost nothing to establish its key premise that President Obama's agenda will stifle growth. Almost all the work of establishing this point comes in this section:

From 1980 through today, America's share of global output has been constant at about 21%. Europe's share, meanwhile, has been collapsing in the face of global competition — going from a little less than 40% of global production in the 1970s to about 25% today. Opting for social democracy instead of innovative capitalism, Europe has ceded this share to China (predominantly), India, and the rest of the developing world.

Manzi's argument is poppycock. First, as Chait lays out and as Manzi admits to Chait via email, Manzi is comparing the US from 1980-present to Europe from 1973-today. Secondly, Manzi is including former Communist bloc countries in his "calculations"—making this far from a fair comparison between American-style economic strategy and European-style "social democracy." The Ukraine in 1983 was not a social democracy.

At first glance, all this reeks of intellectual dishonesy. But Chait very generously decides to give Manzi the benefit of the doubt and argues that Manzi "simply assume[d] that [social democracy] inherently produces dramatically lower growth." It's interesting that Brooks and Douthat, who are supposedly the "thinking person's" conservatives, made exactly the same assumptions. Since conservatives just know in their guts that the European socioeconomic model is bad for economic growth, there's no need to actually prove it. Anyway, Chait has more on this, including a guest appearance by Kevin.

Update: Manzi responds to Chait. Ezra thinks he is pretty convincing, but I'm not so sure. Manzi doesn't offer any explanation for why he used the countries and time periods that he did. Manzi is arguing that the "innovative capitalism" model is superior to the "social democracy" model. It's his responsibility to make sure that he doesn't undermine his arguments by throwing late-90s France and late-70s Ukraine into the same basket and calling it "Europe." And as Manzi's own commenters point out, he doesn't even begin to address Chait's points about population growth. The declines in share of global GDP that Manzi seems so worried about seem to have little to do with the failures of "social democracy" and a lot to do with stagnant population growth.

Update Two: The Economist's Democracy in America blog hits Manzi hard on the population growth point:

[T]he entirety of the difference between the change in global GDP shares in America and Europe from 1980-2009 is explained by the difference in population growth rates. That's the whole thing. Europe's share of global population fell by 40.4%, while its share of global GDP fell by 25.2%. America's share of global population fell by 13.2%, while its share of global GDP rose by 2%. Indeed, given that per capita income rose at essentially the same rate (66% in America versus 63% in the EU15), population growth is the only possible explanation for the difference.

This seems like a win for Chait. In this case, contra commenters, The Economist weighed in to defend Europe's social model. That's probably because their American politics blog tends to be leftier than the print magazine.

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Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND)

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 1:01 PM EST

Byron Dorgan's retirement has made John Hoeven, the three-term Republican governor of North Dakota, very close to a lock to become a US Senator if he runs. So will he? TPM's Eric Kleefeld has the goods:

[North Dakota] State GOP chairman Gary Emineth told Politico: "I expect Gov. Hoeven to get in, and he's going to work through personal issues relating to his family, but I would be shocked if he's not in the Senate race soon."

North Dakota GOP political director Adam Jones explained to me that the family issues referred to here were simply a matter of Hoeven talking to his family about the prospect of a Senate run and a move to Washington. "First and foremost, the governor is a father and husband before he's a public servant," said Jones. "First he has to decide what's good for his family."

I asked Jones if he thought there was any significant chance that Hoeven wouldn't make the race. His response: "No, absolutely not."

That seems settled. It's worth noting that Hoeven has a truly weird doesn't-match-his-hair mustache and is really young-looking (he's 52). At first, I thought he actually looked kind of bizarrely like Michael Cera. Unfortunately, a few minutes with Photoshop revealed that this was a fairly stupid theory that will not hold up under scrutiny. Behold:

Dodd, Dorgan, and the Banks

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 12:44 PM EST

Sen. Tim Johnson will be the senior Democrat on the banking committee after Dodd leaves Congress. (Official photo.)Sen. Tim Johnson will be the senior Democrat on the banking committee after Dodd leaves Congress. (Official photo.)(Cross-posted from MoJo.)

On Twitter, Reuters' Jim Pethokoukis points out that Chris Dodd's retirement is (like everything) "great news for banks." It will make South Dakota's Tim Johnson, who likes banks even more than Dodd, the senior Dem on the banking committee. "And Byron Dorgan was a big Glass Steagall guy," Pethokoukis writes. Indeed—Dorgan was one of several lawmakers who gave earily prescient quotes to the New York Times when the bill was repealed ten years ago. As Kevin wrote in the most recent issue of the print mag, the banks already own the Hill, so while these retirements are good for Big Finance, they don't mark some big transition—they simply reinforce the status quo.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), another hated enemy of liberals, also benefits from Dodd's retirement, since Lieberman probably won't have to face the very popular Richard Blumenthal in 2012.

Dodd's retirement is bad news for Merrick Alpert, who was running what Nate Silver describes as a "competent campaign" but who lacks name recognition and probably can't fend off Blumenthal. (Mother Jones' Ben Buchwalter interviewed Alpert last month.)

Over at TAPPED, Monica Potts wonders "why the White House fought for [Dodd] until the very end." That's easy: Dodd and Biden are close friends, and if Dodd had stayed in, Biden would probably have kept fighting for him all the way through to election day. I won't be surprised when the Times and the Post do their play-by-plays tomorrow or Friday if it turns out that the Veep played a key role in convincing Dodd to give up the fight.

On the Dorgan front, DougJ at Balloon Juice has a truly epic email from a former Dakota senate staffer who gives the R-rated explanation of why Silver immediately moved the North Dakota race to the top of his "most likely to flip" list. It's probably too profane for a family blog, but you can read it over at Balloon Juice.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 12:16 PM EST

Hi everyone. You've probably noticed by now, but Nick Baumann from our DC bureau is filling in for me for a couple of days as I travel to chilly climes back East. I may have time to put up a post or two — WiFi and flight delays permitting — but if not, Nick has you covered. I'll be back on Friday.

CT-Sen: Dodd Out, Blumenthal In

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 10:34 AM EST

Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the embattled five-term incumbent, will announce his retirement later today:

The decision came hours after another Democratic senator, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, also announced that he would not seek re-election this November. The developments underscored the fragility of the Democrats’ 60-vote Senate majority, which is just enough to block Republican filibusters. Democratic incumbents also face serious challenges in Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania among other states.

The Dorgan seat will almost certainly be a Republican pickup. But Democrats probably have a better chance of holding Dodd's seat now that he's out. That's because Richard Blumenthal, the state Attorney General and by far the most popular elected official in Connecticut, is jumping into the race. Only 13 percent of Connecticut voters disapprove of Blumenthal, and his approval rating is a stratospheric 78 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Those put Dodd's numbers to shame. Dodd's exit and Blumenthal's entrance were almost certainly arranged behind the scenes, of course—Dodd probably wouldn't have given up his re-election fight unless he could be sure dropping out would actually improve his party's odds of holding his seat.

Chris Dodd with President Obama and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in happier times. (White House photo.) Dodd with President Obama and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in happier times. (White House photo.)I was actually working on a piece for the magazine arguing that Dodd was a bit of a canary in the coal mine for Democrats, since as chair of the Senate banking committee he's seen as more responsible for the country's economic woes than other Dems. That's moot now. But if the first polls of the race with Blumenthal show even a hint of hope for the Republican challengers, that might be even worse news for Democrats. Linda McMahon (of wrestling fame), former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons, and former Ron Paul adviser Peter Schiff were battling to face Dodd in the general. If the most popular politician in a super-blue state like Connecticut is in any sort of trouble against those three, well, national Dems are probably cooked. (Update: Good news for Dems—Blumenthal leads all three Republicans by 30 points. This is probably a safe seat now.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.