Kevin Drum - June 2010

Deficit Hawks vs. Deficit Posers

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 11:20 AM PDT

Should we spend more to stimulate the economy? Or spend less because runaway debt is threatening our fiscal health? Ezra Klein comments:

Few economists, I think, would argue against the combination of short-term spending and longer-term deficit reduction if they believed the deficit reduction was certain. But the American political system has a lot of trouble making unpopular choices and some trouble sticking to those choices once they're made.

This is where you might expect a bloc of deficit hawks to step into the middle of the legislative debate with a proposal pairing spending in 2011 with savings beginning in 2014, but we've seen no such thing.

I think I'd put this differently: there is no bloc of deficit hawks. End of story. There are a few individuals here and there who are sincere about cutting the deficit, but a bloc? Not even close. They're almost all posers.

But Kevin, you say, how can you know this? Can you read the minds of men and women three thousand miles away? Actually, no — though it would be pretty cool if I could. But in this case I can do something almost as good: I can look at the public evidence. And that evidence is crystal clear: there are lots of members of Congress who are willing to talk endlessly about deficits, but there are very, very few who are willing to publicly support specific cuts. There are fewer still who are willing to publicly support cuts that might affect any of their own constituents. And there are fewer still who have shown any inclination to actually vote for serious cuts when they've had the power to do so. So: no bloc of deficit hawks.

Still not convinced? Well, Ezra is right that America's political system (like every other democracy's) has a lot of trouble making unpopular choices, but it's not entirely impossible to stick to spending cuts and tax increases once they've been made. It's true that anything one Congress does, another can undo. But the fact is that tax increases have been phased in over time in the past, and the phase-ins have taken effect. Likewise, entitlement cuts have been phased in over time, and those cuts have taken effect. Not always, but a lot of the time. If Congress actually had the will to legislate Medicare and Social Security cuts that phased in over ten years starting in, say, 2013, there's a very strong likelihood that the cuts would happen. The 1983 Social Security compromise, for example, gradually raised the retirement age over a span of two decades starting in 2003, and that has taken place exactly on schedule.

Really, the only serious issue is actually doing it, not having faith that the cuts will actually happen. Discretionary cuts are very difficult to promise credibly, but entitlements have always worked largely on autopilot once the rules are set. If there were genuinely a bloc of deficit hawks in Congress, they'd be willing to vote for both Medicare cuts and tax increases that phase in over a period of years. But almost none of the supposed deficit hawks are willing to do either of these things, let alone both. They're posers.

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Have We Won the War on Terror?

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 8:51 AM PDT

After hearing Leon Panetta estimate al-Qaeda's strength in Afghanistan at about 60-100 members, Dan Drezner wonders if maybe it's time to reassess our national security priorities:

The fact is, Al Qaeda's abilities to execute Grand Guignol-kind of attacks appears to be nil. There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West — the USA-England World Cup match, most recently — and there's been nothing.

....Isn't it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies? In a world where "The [defense budget] gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time," isn't it time for political leaders to argue in favor of resource retrenchment, even if it increases the probability of a successful attack just a smidgen?

Now, Panetta also said that "the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan," and ABC's Jake Tapper, for some reason, failed to follow up on that. Still, their overall numbers are probably pretty small even with Pakistan included, which suggests that we've basically won our war against al-Qaeda. So why not continue harrassing them in the various tribal areas with drones and special ops, but otherwise cut back substantially on counterterrorism and use the money on other things? Good answers welcome.

I Miss Chicago Already

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 8:29 AM PDT

Well, I now have a big mystery on my hands. For several years I've suffered from a chronically sore right shoulder. About six months ago, my left shoulder joined the crowd, and a few months later my neck did too. My entire upper back is now perpetually in pain, especially at night.

But guess what? During my stay in Chicago the pain largely abated. Not completely, but it wasn't nearly as bad as before. I figured this was because I wasn't tapping away at the keyboard all day, but that's not it. Last night, the pain was back as bad as ever, and after getting home from the airport I hadn't done anything more than spend a few minutes clearing out email.

Thus the mystery: what was different about Chicago? The mattress at the hotel? It's the obvious candidate, but it didn't really feel very different from the one we have at home, which is new and seems pretty nice. The pillow? I didn't notice anything special there either. Something in the air? The fact that I took a sleeping pill the first couple of nights? What what what? I sure felt better in the morning there than I do here, though. It's really very annoying to come so close to an answer but still not really have any clue what's going on.

Chart of the Day: Supreme Court Chatter

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 8:02 AM PDT

Via the New York Times, which reports the shocking news that among Supreme Court nominees, "female and minority nominees are questioned more closely than white male ones," here's a chart showing the number of comments made by senators and nominees during confirmation hearings between 1939 and 2009. (Full study here.) Aside from the fact that certain nominees were obviously more controversial than others, the most noticeable thing is that starting in the early 70s the sheer volume of babble has increased dramatically. Just eyeballing the chart, it looks like the average number of comments from senators has gone up from around 200 to 1000. But does this also mean that the quality of Supreme Court confirmation hearings has gone up 5x? The question sort of answers itself, doesn't it?

'Bye, Everyone.

| Sun Jun. 27, 2010 8:07 PM PDT

Kevin's back on Monday. Thanks for all your attention over the past few days--and thanks to Kevin for having me here. You can find me back on MoJo's main news and politics blog and on the "Twitters" over here. Peace.

Dave Weigel and the Culture of Exposure

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 4:56 PM PDT

When General Stanley McChrystal was fired this week, it was for disparaging his superiors on the record.

When journalist Helen Thomas retired this month, it was for disparaging the Jews on the record.

When blogger Dave Weigel left the Washington Post today, it was for disparaging conservative figures in an off-the-record conversation with friends and colleagues on a private discussion list.

All are recent casualties of the newly dubbed "culture of exposure" that's consumed Washington today—one intent on "destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important," as David Brooks writes in his column on McChrystal. (See Ezra for more on this and Julian Sanchez on the DC-as-high-school theory of Beltway culture.)

But McChrystal and Thomas, at least, knowingly exposed themselves and their comments to public scrutiny, if sometimes under the influence of a Bud Lime Light (or five). By contrast, Weigel—a leading reporter on the conservative movement, who I also consider a friend and colleague—never consented to do so, as his comments were cherry-picked from private correspondence and leaked to a journalist/lobbyist tag-team. I can attest to the fact that  If his remarks were truly newsworthy—that is, if the failure to expose them would have done real harm to the public good—then exposing them might have been warranted. Instead, they were just an overheated version of personal views that Weigel had already made public in his writing, blogging, and Tweeting, where he made it clear that he was no party-line conservative. And as a member of the now-defunct JounoList, I can vouch for the fact that there was nothing more to Weigel's remarks than what was published, despite the speculation from some that he must have had a clear ideological agenda. In dredging up his private remarks, FishbowlDC, the Daily Caller, and the email leaker simply facilitated a smear job that spawned the kind of outsized ragefest that’s accompanied all of these so-called exposés.

The anti-Weigel camp has succeeded in its mission. But it’s only a matter of time (days? hours?) before the same scandal-hungry culture of exposure, shaming, and hyperbolic outrage moves on to the next one.

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Are Liberals Less Liberal Than They Think?

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 12:39 PM PDT

British economist James Rockey suggests that self-identified liberals actually possess more conservative views on issues than their ideological affiliations would suggest. Andrew Sullivan points us to an academic working paper that surveyed some 280,000 people in 84 countries, including Hungary, Vietnam, and China, as well as major Western industrialized countries. One of the paper's most perplexing findings:

It would seem that the better educated, if anything, are less accurate in how they perceive their ideology. Higher levels of education are associated with being less likely to believe oneself to be right-wing, whilst simultaneously associated with being in favour of increased inequality. This result contrasts with those for income: higher levels of income are associated with both believing oneself to be more right-wing as well as considering more inequality to be necessary.

So what's going on here? In the US, for example, there are certainly pockets of wealthy self-identified liberals who are less inclined to support income redistribution—but who support liberals because they’re either willing to overlook some of their differences with the left on economic issues (given their views on social issues), or who ultimately decide it's not worth being as selfish when it comes to actually casting a vote.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 June 2010

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 12:00 PM PDT

I may be out of town, but thanks to the miracle of scheduled posting and tiltable camera LCDs we have catblogging this week anyway. Today's theme is lap cats. On the left, Domino is in one of her favorite spots, snoozing away in the crook between my legs. On the right, we have a rare shot of Inkblot sitting in my lap, something he doesn't do often — and probably just as well given his impressive geometrodynamic proportions. Believe me, Inkblot can put your legs to sleep pretty quickly. Still, until they wear out their welcome there's nothing quite like a purring cat nestled into your lap. Highly recommended as a stress reliever.

Why the Health Care Repeal Movement Is Failing

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 10:42 AM PDT

Jonathan Chait proffers the latest evidence of why the Republican movement to repeal health care reform is doomed. The problem is that even hard-right conservatives admit that there’s something to love in the health care law, as Florida Senate hopeful Marco Rubio recently told the National Review:

[Rubio] just mentioned that there are two parts within the Obamacare legislation that he doesn’t want repealed*. The first is the ban on insurance companies denying coverage based onpreexisting conditions and the second is that he thinks that children up to age 26 should be allowed to “buy into” their parents’ coverage.

The problem is that you can’t just cherrypick the parts of the health care reform that you want to support and junk the rest, as both the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Chait acknowledge. If you prohibit discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, then you have to find ways to compel both healthy and sick people to get coverage, otherwise costs will skyrocket if only sick people are insured. This is part of the reason why the Affordable Care Act contains an individual mandate to purchase insurance—one of the provisions that’s a frequent conservative target—as well as other ways to expand insurance coverage.

Republicans, as a result, have had to call for an all-out repeal of the bill, with the assumption that they’d pass another health care bill afterwards. This unpalatable option split the GOP from the very moment that health care reform passed. And it appears that even anti-reform Americans aren't buying it.

Jobs: A Silver Lining for Democrats?

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 9:00 AM PDT

Democrats have been vowing to make the 2010 elections all about jobs, jobs, jobs. And yesterday, the GOP dealt the Democratic Party—as well as the nation's economic recovery—a big blow by voting down the Senate jobs bill. By week’s end, some 1.3 million Americans will lose unemployment benefits, which had been extended by the federal government given the ongoing recession. By the end of the year, many states will begin a painful process of budget bloodletting that’s likely to axe hundreds of thousands of jobs in both the public and private sectors. The bill's failure will make it that much more difficult for Democrats to prevent voters from turning against them out of anger about the sluggish economic recovery.

But the New York Times points to a potential silver lining for jobs in key battleground states that could give Democrats a potential boost this fall. The story notes that the largest number of swing House races are happening in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio—places where jobs are actually bouncing back more quickly than in the rest of the country. And concrete improvements in these districts could end up having more of an effect on voters' mindsets than overall economic trendlines. Michael Luo explains:

All three states, coincidentally, are considered to be on the leading edge of the nation's recovery. Since December, they have added jobs at a faster rate than the country as a whole and even led the country in the total number of jobs added in April. One reason is that manufacturing, a traditional backbone, has been on the rebound; another is that these states generally did not suffer as acutely as other regions from the housing boom and bust.

While much attention has been paid to the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, political scientists have found little correlation between that measure and midterm elections results. Instead, they have found more broad-based indicators, particularly real personal disposable per capita income, which measures the amount of money a household has after taxes and inflation, to be better gauges.

The story notes, moreover, that "voters' memories tend to be short,” citing political science research showing that economic conditions between the second and third quarters of an election year (between April and September) matter the most.