Kevin Drum - February 2010

This Just In

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 3:13 PM EST

So here's a weird thing. Today my copy of the LA Times has five sections instead of the usual four. The new section is called LATExtra, and it features "late-breaking stories, primarily from California but also including the latest possible reporting from throughout the nation and the world."

That's fine, I guess. But as near as I can tell, the front page of today's inaugural LATExtra doesn't contain a single late-breaking story. They're all just ordinary news pieces. The inside pages seem equally non-urgent. Very strange.

UPDATE: Thanks, commenters! Apparently the LAT leased its presses to the Wall Street Journal, which gets the late press run. So the composing room deadline for the LAT's news pages has moved up to early evening. LATExtra then gets anything late breaking, which I guess is defined as anything later than about 6 pm. Or something. LAObserved has the story.

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Chart of the Day: Military Spending

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 3:02 PM EST

Via Spencer Ackerman, here's the Pentagon's estimate for future spending. Ignore the gray bars at the top — those are just the numbers for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Look instead at the blue bars. That's the base Pentagon budget, and it's increasing 3% per year in nominal terms.

If we applied the same freeze to Pentagon spending that we're applying to domestic spending, their FY13 base budget would be the same as their FY10 base budget: $531 billion. That would be a $51 billion savings in just a single year. So why not do it? What is it that makes us think our national security needs are going to get more and more pressing but not our domestic needs?

DADT Update

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:01 PM EST

We have good news and bad news today on the gays-in-the-military front. First the good news:

The nation’s top two Defense officials called for an end on Tuesday to the 16-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, a major step toward allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the United States military for the first time in its history.

“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said it was his personal and professional belief that “allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

Needless to say, Bill Clinton didn't have this level of support from within the Pentagon when he tried to end the military ban on gays in 1993. And experience tells us that it's necessary in order to get anything done. So two cheers for Gates and Mullen. Unfortunately, there's also this:

But both Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the committee they needed more time to review how to carry out the change in policy, which requires an act of Congress, and predicted some disruption to the armed forces.

....To lead a review of the policy, Mr. Gates appointed a civilian and a military officer: Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon’s top legal counsel, and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the United States Army in Europe. Pentagon officials said the review could take up to a year.

Italics mine. Here's the hopeful interpretation: we're still on track to firmly end DADT in an amendment to the Pentagon budget this year, but implementation will be left up to Gates and he'll be given until, say, January 2011 to publish new regs. The less hopeful interpretation is that Congress won't do anything until the Pentagon review is done, which would mean delaying repeal until 2011 and implementation until 2012.

For now, I'll assume the hopeful interpretation since it seems more likely. But I'm a little more nervous about it than I was last week.

The Vision Thing

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:14 PM EST

You might have missed it, but there were actually two huge, boring federal documents released yesterday. The second one was the Quadrennial Defense Review, which is — well, self-explanatory, really. It's a review of our defense strategies that's published every four years. And P.W. Singer (aka the other Peter Singer) doesn't think much of the 2010 edition:

The closest to a summary I can come to is this: We plan to do what we do now, but we'll try to do it a little bit better. That's probably not what was intended.

....For such an important effort, the report disappoints in two key areas. The first is that of vision....President Obama has made a forward-looking, positive vision of America's role in the world a centerpiece of his policy goals, and the Pentagon could have used the review to expand on that vision as it pertains to national security.

Instead, the 2010 review offers more a series of agenda items than a comprehensive vision. Even more, most of these items are belated ones that should have been worked out since the 2006 version. There is no thread that links it all together, no broader framework that lays out the journey we are on, the challenges we face and, most important, what we must do to end up at our target destination.

I understand the issue here, as well as Singer's second disappointment, the overall lack of clear goals and hard metrics. But honestly, I wonder if that's really as big a problem as he suggests. It's natural to think of these kinds of documents as a chance to change direction and create new visions, but let's be honest: do we really need a whole new vision of America's national security every four years? In 1997 the QDR's vision included the ability to fight two medium-sized wars at once, and now, 12 years later, that vision is gone. But during that time, did it really drive the Pentagon in any directions it wouldn't have gone anyway? And will its loss really make any concrete difference?

I have my doubts. Sometimes, your plan really is to keep doing pretty much the same thing, but to do it smarter and better. Maybe a QDR that avoids grand pronouncements and hard metrics that no one really takes seriously isn't such a bad thing. Sometimes honesty is a better policy.

Peanuts

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:53 PM EST

The LA Times provides a brief overview today of the programs President Obama wants to cut in order to freeze the overall level of domestic discretionary spending:

The familiar programs on the list this year include the C-17 cargo jet, a program to restore polluted industrial sites, a program for reclaimed coal mines and various scholarship programs.

....The cuts in mine grants never went anywhere last year. "We will do everything in our power to stop this attempted robbery again," Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) said Monday.

Others on the termination list also have ready-made support. A website for Boeing's C-17 cargo plane notes that the program employs more than 30,000 people, with concentrations in Southern California, where the plane is made, and Missouri. A defense spending bill in December included $2.5 billion to buy 10 C-17s that the Pentagon did not request.

This is a familiar point, but always worth making one more time. The domestic discretionary budget is peanuts, and to make it even worse, elephants and donkeys1 both love peanuts. They won't give them up just because the president wants them to. So we'll likely end up with a peanut budget just as big as it was before — maybe bigger! — as cuts get added back into the budget while increases are happily accepted. Obama's spending freeze might be good PR, but it's lousy politics and lousy policy.

1OK, I don't really know whether donkeys like peanuts. Can someone find out for me? In the meantime, just roll with the image.

The Social Contract

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:18 PM EST

David Brooks says today that old people are being selfish because they take a lot more out of the political system than they put in. Ezra Klein demurs:

It's worth making the mechanism explicit: When commentators complain that seniors are "taking money," here's what they mean: They are going to the doctor, the doctor is prescribing treatments, and Medicare is paying for those treatments.

....Brooks calls their behavior selfish. He writes that "the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children."....[But] it's hard to say that what seniors are doing is selfish: They're going to the same doctors as everyone else, doing the same things that everyone else does when they get there. Our health-care system is unaffordable across the board. We need to fix that, but there's no special key held by seniors (save maybe their disproportionate tendency to vote in midterm elections), and nor do they deserve special condemnation.

I agree that they don't deserve special condemnation. The social deal we made several decades ago is that those of us of working age pay taxes for programs that will be consumed by senior citizens. That deal makes perfect sense — but it also points to a way in which seniors could embrace what Brooks calls a "cause of nonselfishness." Instead of standing foursquare with the anti-tax jihadists, as they largely do, they could be working to make sure that this deal continues. That means changes in the way we deliver healthcare services and it means changes in the tax base of the federal government. By opposing both of those things in large numbers, today's seniors (and soon-to-be seniors) are helping to ensure that they're the only generation that will truly benefit from this deal.

This is obviously not what Brooks meant. But the future health of the country and the future continuation of the social deal we've made depends on raising taxes, lowering long-term deficits, and making changes to the way healthcare is delivered. Some of these changes will affect today's seniors and some will affect tomorrow's. But if they want their children to enjoy the same kind of retirement they're allowed to enjoy, these are the things they should support. In general they don't, and that deserves condemnation. Not special condemnation, since lots of other people feel the same way, but condemnation nonetheless since they know, better than most, just what those taxes are for.

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Paul Ryan's Smoke and Mirrors

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 7:56 PM EST

Rep. Paul Ryan recently introduced the Roadmap for America’s Future Act of 2010, a piece of legislation that claims to eliminate the long-term budget deficit. The CBO agrees, and Ezra Klein says it's "an object lesson in why so few politicians are willing to answer the question 'but how will you save all that money?'"

Well, sort of. I give Ryan credit for being more forthcoming than most supposed deficit hawks, but the truth is that for the most part he doesn't explain how he's going to save all that money. It's true that he's got a plan for Social Security private accounts, a plan for Medicare vouchers, and a plan for tax credits to replace the current tax deductibility of health insurance. It's good conservative boilerplate.

But it turns out that's all it is. Those things themselves don't really save any money. The real action comes from a collection of arbitrary spending limits, but these limits don't offer any clues about how we're going to meet them. There's a freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending from 2010-2019 — but saying you're going to freeze spending is easy. The hard part is figuring out what to cut. There's also a limit to the growth of Medicare payments — but saying you're going to limit growth is easy. The hard part is figuring out how to limit growth and deciding what you're going to cut to meet your caps. Medicaid is treated the same way: Ryan's plan simply sets a limit on growth rates without saying how those limits will be met.

In fairness, there are a few specifics. The eligibility age for Medicare would rise gradually to about age 70. Social Security payments would be reduced. All the money in the stimulus bill that hasn't been spent yet would be eliminated.

But those are nits. For the vast bulk of the savings, Ryan simply declares that they'll happen. His bill would cap growth rates, and that's that. Whatever happens, happens — and he carefully avoids actually saying what would happen. That's not serious, and it doesn't deserve praise.

A Grim Economic Forecast

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 2:42 PM EST

Ryan Avent is listening to a budget briefing:

OMB head Peter Orszag is giving a press conference just now with Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisors, on the president's Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Ms Romer explained the economic assumptions underlining the budget forecasts....She then gave the unemployment forecast. At the end of 2010, the unemployment rate, according to the administration's forecast, will be 9.8%. At the end of 2011, the rate will be at 8.9%. And at the end of 2012, after the next presidential election, the unemployment rate will be 7.9%.

Good God. I suppose this isn't a big surprise anymore, but it's still painful to have your nose officially rubbed in it. In any kind of normal economy, 8% unemployment would be considered disastrously high, but Orszag and Romer say we're not even going to improve to disastrous levels for another three years. A $100 billion jobs bill, even assuming it passes, is going to do very little about this.

Our economy is going to stay fragile for a very long time. I sure hope our banking system can handle that. Our political system too.

Corn and Oil

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 2:05 PM EST

Stuart Staniford surveys various liquid alternatives to oil and concludes that the only one that's truly sensitive to oil prices is biofuels. Today, that primarily means ethanol:

Biofuel production growth appears to be extremely oil price sensitive, and increased the fastest and reached the largest volume in response to the mid-to-late 2000s oil shock.  I have argued in the past that there are structural reasons for this: given the comparatively low capital requirements and small plant size of biofuel plants, they can respond much faster to episodes of high oil prices than can the other sources, all of which tend to involve larger, slower-to-build, more capital intensive plants.  This has important implications for food and land prices in future oil price shocks.  Food prices are likely to rise quickly and markedly in response to oil shocks, public policy permitting.

Italics mine. I don't have a lot to add to this at the moment, but it's a thought-provoking, chart-laden post. Worth taking a look at.

Money Meet Mouth

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 1:39 PM EST

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to run for president in 2012. That's been pretty obvious for the past year, ever since the once-earnest wonk took up the death panel meme, started jabbering about the tenth amendment, and began delivering stemwinding speeches to the tea party crowd. Today he writes in Politico about his outrage over the budget deficit. Bruce Bartlett is unimpressed:

Like all Republicans these days, Pawlenty wants to have it every possible way: complain about the deficit while ignoring everything his party did to create it (Medicare Part D, two unfunded wars, TARP, earmarks galore, tax cuts up the wazoo, irresponsible regulatory and monetary policies that created the recession that created the deficit, etc.), illogically insisting that tax cuts are a necessary part of deficit reduction, and never proposing any specific spending cuts.

The only specific thing Mr. Pawlenty is capable of proposing is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. It’s hard to know where to begin in explaining why this is such an irresponsible idea, but I will try.

And try he does. And succeeds! Until he gets to his final paragraph:

In conclusion, Tim Pawlenty is not ready for prime time. He may think he has found a clever way of appealing to the right wing tea party/Fox News crowd without having to propose any actual cuts in spending, but it isn’t going to work. It’s too transparently phony even for them.

I don't think anything is too transparently phony for this crowd. There's a famous old Onion headline that goes like this: "Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others." This is pretty much the sentiment that Pawlenty — and the rest of the Republican Party — are pandering to in the tea party movement: 98 percent of them favor spending cuts for others. Just don't cut their Medicare or their Social Security or take away their mortgage interest tax deduction or — in Minnesota — do anything to rein in farm subsidies. Unfortunately, Pawlenty can't think of anything sizeable to cut that would affect only "others" for a large enough definition of others. So he's stuck. Just like his entire party is stuck, never willing to put its money where its mouth is because they know perfectly well that would mean having to make some hard decisions.

But I'm sure he'll do fine with the tea partiers anyway. Just think of him as a slightly less robotic Mitt Romney without the Mormon baggage and you've got his number. There's no reason that shouldn't wear pretty well with these folks.