Kevin Drum - June 2010

Are You a Deficit Poser?

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 12:32 PM EDT

Over at TNR, William Galston continues his recent conversation about just how much fiscal stimulus the United States can afford, and concludes that it's hard to say. We certainly shouldn't terminate basic safety net protections during a brutal recession, he says, but beyond that there's some limit to how much we can run up the federal debt and we just don't know for sure what that limit is. Fair enough. Then this:

What matters most is making a credible commitment — through binding legislation that changes both programs and budget procedures — to alter our long-term fiscal course before our debt enters the red zone (where federal debt closes in on GDP). I can only hope that the report of the president’s fiscal commission, due out in December, sets the stage for the national discussion we have evaded for far too long. This discussion will test our capacity to govern ourselves wisely, and the whole world will be watching.

Well, I recommend that the world avert its eyes now, because our capacity to govern ourselves wisely is in pretty short supply right now. The basic problem, as about a million pundits have pointed out before, is that most of the things we talk about will have only a small long-term effect on federal spending. We could raise taxes a bit, cut a few programs here and there, resolve to fight fewer wars, and fix Social Security, and that would all be great. It would have a genuinely positive effect. But it's a drop in the ocean compared to healthcare costs. If we don't rein those in, they'll swamp everything else.

But what are the odds of that? The recent healthcare reform bill made a start on holding down spending, but it was a pretty small start and generated massive opposition anyway. In the near term, then, there's simply no chance of making a credible commitment to seriously reduce the growth rate of healthcare costs. But this is the subject that separates the posers from the real players. Forget Social Security, which is a smallish problem and an easily solved one. That's mostly good for demagogues. Healthcare spending is the 800 pound gorilla. Solve that, and you've solved our long-term spending problem. Ignore it, and you don't.

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Taxes and the Rich, Take Two

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

Yesterday I pondered the question of why most Americans, who aren't rich themselves, are generally unsympathetic to increased taxes on the rich. Today, Robert Waldmann takes me to the woodshed:

The answer is that Americans are sympathetic to higher taxes on the rich, as has been demonstrated by every poll on the question in the past two decades....Kevin Drum and Felix Salmon ignore not only massive evidence but also my many posts pointing to that massive evidence. My feelings are hurt. Not to boast, but just to boast, I have actually corresponded by e-mail with Drum and by some kind of instant messenger with Salmon.

Italics mine. In my defense, I thought about mentioning this in my post yesterday. But then, for some reason, I didn't. I'm not sure why, to tell the truth. In any case, here is Robert's most frequently cited evidence from Gallup:

I've condensed the full report, but basically it shows that large majorities have felt that upper-income taxes are too low since at least 1992 — though that majority has dropped considerably during that time (from 77% in 1992 to 60% in 2009). It's also worth noting that essentially nobody thinks that they, personally, are paying too little federal income tax.

Still, there you have it. Soaking the rich isn't the electoral loser I made it out to be. So then the question becomes: why is Congress unable to reform the estate tax, which affects only the very tippy top of the super rich? Why are negotiations over the carried interest loophole, which affects only zillionaire hedge fund managers, retreating from 100% repeal to 75% repeal to 65% repeal? The answer, of course, lies primarily in the ideology of the Republican Party, aided and abetted by the ideology of "centrist" Democrats, which is strong enough to overcome public sentiment.

So then, how about this question instead: Americans apparently are sympathetic to higher taxes on the rich, but equally apparently, they don't really care very much about it. They don't care enough, anyway, to sway their elected representatives much. How come?

Numbers are Tricky

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 11:07 AM EDT

There's been a bit of blogospheric back-and-forth recently on the issue of social spending in the United States vs. the Nordic countries. I haven't followed it closely, but basically Price Fishback argues that the U.S. is better than you think on this score, while Lane Kenworthy, after taking a closer look at the data, says we aren't after all. This isn't really surprising, but via Matt Yglesias, I just want to highlight this one paragraph from Kenworthy:

[Fishback] cautions, though, that “One advantage the poor Americans would have had in spending their disposable income is that they face consumption tax rates in the 4 to 7 percent range, while consumption taxes in the Nordic countries are above 20 percent.” Actually, consumption tax rates are incorporated in the purchasing power parities (PPPs) used to convert incomes to a common currency, so these income figures already adjust for differences in consumption taxes.

Italics mine. I don't have any point to make about the generosity of America's safety net here, just about the trickiness of international data comparisons. You'd have to be pretty knowledgable about this stuff to realize that consumption taxes are already accounted for when you look at comparisons of disposable spending in different countries, and if you didn't know that you'd derive an entirely incorrect conclusion about how much disposable income people in different countries really have. What's more, I'll bet there are some calculations where consumption taxes aren't taken into account, and you'd better know that too.

This is mostly a note to myself to be careful in the future with this kind of thing. But these kinds of notes usually work better if you take the time to actually write them down, and they work even better still if you make them public so that people can mock you if you ever get sloppy and fail to apply proper care. Consider that done.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, Kenworthy's post is worth reading if you're interested in the subject at hand. He's a genuine expert who does know how to properly read the data, and you'll be unsurprised to learn that, in fact, the United States tends to be pretty stingy on the social welfare front.

Watch the Bouncing Ball

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 10:44 AM EDT

The quadrennial festival of kvetching about the new World Cup ball is in full force again this year, but the LA Times reports that this time the kvetchers might have more of a point than usual:

"It's very weird," Brazilian striker Luis Fabiano said. "All of a sudden it changes trajectory on you. It's like it doesn't want to be kicked … like someone is guiding it.... It's supernatural."

Teammate Julio Cesar was more succinct. "It's horrible," the Brazilian goalkeeper said...."It moves around so much ... this ball can go anywhere," said Marcus Hahnemann, the backup U.S. goalkeeper. "You can't judge it. And it's taking the skill away from the game.... You can't pinpoint a pass anymore."

...."The ball's terrible," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "You're going to hear that now, you're going to hear that next week and next month."

This sounds great! I can hardly wait until some pipsqueak team like, say, the United States, ends up beating Argentina on a bizarre fluke play where the ball suddenly starts acting like Sean White on a halfpipe and dives into the net a full body length away from the astonished goalie. Sounds like great TV.

Props 16 and 17 Lose

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 10:07 AM EDT

When I went to sleep last night, California Props 16 and 17 were winning by narrow margins. This morning, with 100% of the vote cast, they lost. There is a God.

This means that PG&E (Prop 16) and Mercury Insurance (Prop 17) have just wasted a boatload of money trying to use the ballot box to improve their corporate fortunes. In turn, this means that other corporations might be a little less willing to try their hand at this in the future. Only a little less, mind you, but that's way better than the alternative. If they had passed there would have been an absolute tidal wave of stuff like this in the future.

Proposition 14, which essentially gives California an open primary system, was approved. I was against it, but I don't mind all that much that it passed. It's not as if our politics can get an awful lot worse than it already is. We'll see how it works out.

UPDATE: A reader emails to note that Prop 14 passed every place except San Francisco and Orange Country. "FWIW, my guess is that what SF and the OC have in common is a high level of partisanship relative to other counties, and partisans are more likely to want to protect their own party's primaries." That sounds like a reasonable theory to me.

UPDATE 2: Mickey Kaus won 5% of the vote in the Democratic Senate primary, well behind second-place vote-getter Brian Quintana. Barbara Boxer won 80% of the vote.

R.I.P. Climate Legislation

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 12:50 AM EDT

Today probably marks the official death of climate legislation in the United States. Lindsey Graham, the only Republican even nominally favorable toward any kind of carbon pricing plan, has announced that he can't support the Kerry-Lieberman bill because it doesn't allow enough offshore drilling (!), and without Graham there's pretty much zero chance of getting any further Republican support. So the odds of passing climate legislation, already slim, have now dropped to zero. The only option left is a pure energy bill, something that accomplishes very little, and accomplishes that little solely by offering up subsidies to every special interest you can imagine.

By coincidence, Stanford researcher Jon Krosnick has an op-ed in the New York Times today that suggests this is exactly what the American public wants:

When respondents were asked if they thought that the earth’s temperature probably had been heating up over the last 100 years, 74 percent answered affirmatively. And 75 percent of respondents said that human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred.

....Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent.

Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power. And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent).

So there you have it: the American public believes in global warming and wants the government to do something about it. However, the American public doesn't want to do anything — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — that might actually work. But they do want to open the federal goody bag and dole out subsidies and tax breaks to everyone under the sun, presumably because these all sound like pleasant things to do and they're under the impression that they're all "free." Whether they work or not isn't really on their radar.

And it looks like that's what Congress is going to deliver. We are, in this case, getting exactly the government we deserve. A government of children.1

1Yes, I'm feeling bitter about this at the moment. Anyone have a problem with that?

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Quote of the Day: Gays in the Military

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

From Rep. Ike Skelton (D–Missouri), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on why he doesn't want to end the ban on openly gay soldiers in the military:

What do mommas and daddies say to a seven-year-old child about this issue? I don't know. I think it would be a family issue that would concern me the most ... What they might see in their discussions among the kids.

WTF? Skelton thinks seven year olds are asking their parents about whether gays can serve in the military? What planet is this guy from?

Kicking Ass at the White House

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

Last night, the media boomlet of the nano-moment was President Obama's televised Chuck Norris schtick, when he told NBC's Matt Lauer that the reason he talked to experts about the Gulf oil spill was because they "potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick."

Boo-yah! Obama's showin' some outrage! He's takin' it to the street! Bluster, baby, bluster!

Except, no. I was unhappy that Obama said this because I don't think he should give in to the yahoos who insist that he needs to be the emoter-in-chief, but I didn't bother commenting on it because something about the clip seemed slightly off. I wasn't sure what, but it didn't quite scan. Today, via Steve Benen, I know why. Here's the whole exchange:

LAUER: Critics are now talking about your style, which is the first time I've heard that in a long time. They're saying here is a guy who likes to be known as cool and calm and collected, and this isn't the time for cool, calm and collected. This is not the time to meet with experts and advisers; this is a time to spend more time in the Gulf and — I never thought I'd say this to a president — but kick some butt. And I don't mean it to be funny.

OBAMA: No, and I understand. And here's what — I'm going to push back hard on this. Because I think that this is a — just an idea that got in folks heads, and the media's run with it. I was down there a month ago, before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf. A month ago I was meeting with fishermen down there, standing in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be. And I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick.

Well, that explains it. Obama's seemingly odd answer about why he talks to experts was a direct reply to the question Lauer asked and to the way Lauer phrased it. But none of us knew that because NBC chose to release only a part of Obama's answer and none of Lauer's question. They knew perfectly well what impression this would leave, they knew perfectly well that the media interpretation of Obama's statement would be set in stone before anyone saw the entire interview, and if you go to about the 4:30 mark (and then to the 9:50 mark to hear the rest of Obama's answer to the "kick some butt" question), you'll see that the clip they released represents the exact opposite of how Obama twice told Lauer he actually feels. But they went ahead and did it anyway. Because, I guess, they really don't care about reporting the news accurately. They just care about attracting attention.

But at least now I have a pretty good idea of whose ass I want to kick. The BP execs are going to have to get in line.

Go Vote!

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 12:45 PM EDT

I feel the need for some fresh air. I believe I'll take a stroll down to my local polling place and cast a vote or three against Proposition 16. I'll vote on a few other things too, but mainly I'm just going to vote against Prop 16. I'll be back in a little bit.

Reining in the Debt Machine

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 12:15 PM EDT

The conference committee on financial reform gets down to business this week, and one of the subjects on the table is Susan Collins's provision to increase capital requirements for banks. Wall Street is dead set against this, of course, but Pat Garofalo dismisses their objections:

Throughout the financial reform debate, the banks have claimed that every proposed regulation would hinder credit and decrease the availability of loans. The same threat, used over and over, begins to ring a bit hollow.

I sort of wonder about the advisability of this approach. Because let's face it: the banks are right. Other things equal, anything that raises capital requirements or reduces leverage does limit the size of a bank's asset base. That's the whole point. And since the vast bulk of most bank assets consists of loans in one form or another, higher capital requirements will indeed lead to them reducing the availability of loans.

Now, it's possible that the effect will be less than Wall Street says. Maybe banks will shift their portfolios in ways that keeps credit to the real economy flowing. Maybe other parts of the financial industry will take up some of the slack. Maybe. But the housing bubble of the aughts was really a credit bubble, and one of the whole points of financial reform is to put rules in place that rein in the kind of unsustainable increases in debt we saw over the past decade. It might or might not work (the financial industry is pretty good at figuring out ways around prudential regulation, and global capital flow imbalances are going to continue driving debt upward unless we get them under control), but putting a modest damper on loan availability is a feature of financial reform, not a bug.

Whether it's wise to say this very loudly I'm not sure of. But I'm not sure it's wise to deny it too loudly either.