Kevin Drum - September 2010

Yet More Nonsense in the Senate

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 2:17 PM EDT

Pretty much everyone is on board with repealing or modifying the new 1099 reporting requirement that was added to the healthcare reform bill earlier this year in an effort to keep it within budget. The whole thing was sort of ridiculous from the start, since the new requirement would require masses of new paperwork from small businesses and bring in less than $2 billion a year for all their trouble. The easiest thing, frankly, would be to simply delete it now and forget about trying to offset the revenue, but naturally that makes too much sense. Ezra Klein fills us in on the alternatives on offer:

The Senate considered two different proposals to reform that law today. One, from Bill Nelson, would've exempted purchases of less than $5,000 (which is 90 percent of them) and paid for the lost revenue by cutting oil and gas subsidies. Another, by Mike Johanns, would've repealed the provision entirely and paid for it by cutting spending on public health and weakening the individual mandate.

So here you've got Democrats agreeing to modify the requirement and offset the cost by cutting oil and gas subsidies. Who could be against that? I mean, who's actually in favor of oil and gas subsidies? Come on down, Rep. Paul Ryan!

We’re going to single out one sector of our economy, a very important sector of our economy, and say higher tax rates if you produce in the U.S. than any other sector in the economy. This is just ridiculous economics, redistribution, but more importantly, it’s just punitive. It’s punitive and it’s political and it’s not going to help our economy.

So there you go. Republicans all voted against the Nelson proposal, and Democrats, needless to say, voted against the absurd Johanns proposal, which seems to have been deliberately designed to be as offensive as possible. I mean, cutting spending on public health? Seriously?

Anyway, we all know that Republicans think tax cuts are good things that don't need to be paid for with spending cuts, so again: why not just introduce a clean measure that gets rid of the 1099 requirement completely and doesn't bother trying to offset it? Would the GOP caucus really vote against that?

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TV Time In Congress

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 1:51 PM EDT

George Mason law student Alex Mitchell takes a look at the guest list for the Sunday chat shows in 2009 and comes up with this:

As usual women and minorities get the short end of the stick. But mainly that seems to be due to an entirely unrelated underlying cause: the overwhelming preference of talk show bookers for senators instead of House members. The people's chamber just doesn't get any respect.

Delaware and the Future of the GOP

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 12:22 PM EDT

I was on the radio yesterday chatting about my piece on the Tea Party movement in the current issue of the magazine, and although I don't think I said anything very interesting, I was at least proud of myself for successfully remembering the names of Mike Castle and Christine O'Donnell, the Republican candidates currently duking it out for a Senate nomination in Delaware. (On the other hand, I unsuccessfully remembered the name of the Koch brothers' father, so you can't win 'em all. It's Fred Koch. Fred Fred Fred.)

Anyway, this came up because the host asked if the tea partiers were nuts for continually dumping centrist candidates who would be easy winners in November and instead nominating true believers who might very well lose. Think Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Rand Paul in Kentucky. As it happens, my guess is that most of these will turn out OK for the tea partiers. Paul and Miller will probably win, and although Angle is certainly the best opponent Harry Reid could have hoped for, even she has a chance.

But Delaware is the real test. Mike Castle would be a shoo-in to win in November, while O'Donnell — Delaware's version of Harold Stassen1 until the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express got involved — is extremely likely to lose even in the current anti-Democrat environment. Nominating her would truly be a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. E.J. Dionne writes about the Delaware race today:

Few races this year have been more clear-cut on the matter of electability: The polls demonstrate that Castle would be the favorite against a rather strong Democratic candidate, New Castle county executive Chris Coons. By nominating O’Donnell, the Republicans would hand Coons and the Democrats the seat.

Castle, at least, is not in the least bit complacent. “The Tea Party Express, which claims it’s not a political party, is in reality a pretty good political operation,” he said in an interview last night. “This is a more sophisticated political operation than they’ve been given credit for.”

He adds that what’s happening here “goes way beyond this election” — and that’s entirely true. Democrats may be rooting for O’Donnell because they need all the Senate seats they can get this year. But my hunch is that a lot of them would quietly mourn if Castle, a guy of old-fashioned decency, were to lose. If there is no longer any room for him and people like him in the GOP, it will be the clearest sign yet of a party that has decided to go off the edge.

Not me! I'm rooting for O'Donnell with no quiet mourning for Castle at all. I'm not sure at this point why Dionne still wonders "if" there's room in the modern GOP for guys like Castle, since that seems about as clear to me as anything could possibly be. The answer is no, and Castle's fate won't change that one way or the other. The die has been well and truly cast here for some time: the GOP is irrevocably committed to the undiluted Fox/Limbaugh/Drudge party line, and there's no going back. They're either going to stand or fall on that. So I say: let 'em do it. No excuses, no scapegoats. Finish up the Texification of the Republican Party and see how it goes. Only then is there any hope of a return to common sense.

1See Suzy Khimm's report here for more.

Taking Boehner Seriously

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 11:38 AM EDT

Jon Cohn wants us to take Rep. John Boehner more seriously. Here is the CBPP's estimate of what Boehner's proposal for spending cuts means:

Rep. Boehner has proposed limiting total discretionary funding for fiscal year 2011 to $1.029 trillion [...] while setting funding levels for defense, military construction, veterans, and homeland security at the same levels that President Obama’s 2011 budget requests for those areas. According to CBO, the President proposes $673 billion for the defense (other than funding for the wars) and veterans parts of the budget (the “budget function” for those areas) and the Department of Homeland Security. This leaves $356 billion for “non-security” discretionary funding under the Boehner plan.

First things first. What's remarkable here is what Boehner doesn't want to do. Out of a total federal budget of about $3 trillion (not counting temporary stimulus spending), he puts almost all of it off the table immediately. He proposes no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, defense spending, overseas wars, or homeland security, and along with interest on the national debt that accounts for nearly 85% of the total budget.

So what's left? About $450 billion, which accounts for a grand total of 15% of the federal budget. That's not much, so in order to make a splash Boehner has to propose some pretty swinging cuts. But on what? Transportation? Energy? Agriculture? The Department of Justice? The EPA? NASA? Food stamps? He doesn't say.

And since Republicans have been in office before, after all, we know perfectly well what their spending priorities are. And they don't include swinging cuts to transportation or energy or agriculture or the FBI or NASA. This is, in other words, a joke. Boehner isn't just proposing a bit of trimming here and there, he's proposing truly massive cuts to a tiny sliver of the budget. And we all know that neither he nor the rest of his party will even pretend to follow through on this if they're elected.

But $70 billion a year in tax cuts for the rich? That seems like a pretty good bet. In the meantime, Jon is right: the media should treat Boehner like a grownup and ask him exactly how his plan adds up. If he has the guts to tell us, well and good. If not, then it's time to stop taking him seriously.

Republicans and the Rich, Part LXXVII

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 10:47 AM EDT

The unconditional subjugation of the Republican Party to the interests of the rich, the super-rich, and the hyper-rich remains impressively monolithic. That is all.

Making Basel Work

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 12:45 AM EDT

The Financial Times reports that the new Basel III banking standards might get toughened up in a few countries:

Top bankers in the UK, US and Switzerland are braced for their national regulators to impose tougher capital requirements than those required by Sunday’s landmark global agreement, even as investors bid up bank shares on relief that the standards were not more rigorous....Global banks based on Wall Street, in the City and Switzerland fear they will face the toughest rules.

They point to the “Swiss finish” that regulators there have traditionally applied on top of global standards and the UK’s willingness to be tougher on other issues, such as pay. They also said US regulators were likely to consider shorter timetables and may face pressure from Congress to be tougher.

Well, we can hope. And we can hope that these same regulators will toughen up on the risk weighting of assets while they're at it. At this point I think we can all agree that AAA-rated MBS should probably require a wee bit bigger capital cushion than the same amount of United States treasury bonds, right?

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Quote of the Day: More Preservatives, Please

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 12:21 AM EDT

From Robert Waldmann, responding to criticism of preservatives in food:

I stress this post is not a joke. I think that BHA and BHT are good for people's health. I even think that use of BHA and BHT are partly responsible for the increase in life expectancy since they were introduced.

You may read his reasoning here.

The End of Tennis

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 6:55 PM EDT

Ah, tennis. The rain-delayed U.S. Open — currently suffering through yet another rain delay — is on right now, and twitterer @jenningscraig says, "Would love to hear some commentary on this year's tourney." Sadly, though, the truth is that I've only watched bits and pieces of the Open this year. In fact I find myself following tennis less and less every year.

Why? Because it's gotten boring. Sure, today's players are phenomenal athletes, covering the court like gazelles and routinely hitting breathtaking shots. But every match is the same, what I've come to think of as "thug tennis": huge topspin forehands, booming two-handed backhands, and endless baseline rallies. The power and shotmaking are mesmerizing at times, but in the end, I can hardly tell the players apart these days.

I always thought that the beating heart of tennis was in the matchups between the top baseliners and the top serve-and-volleyers. Brilliant points, contrasting styles, and blinding speed. I loved those matches. Borg-McEnroe. Lendl-Edberg. Sampras-Agassi. But a few years ago the last generation of serve-and-volleyers retired — guys like Sampras, Rafter, Henman, and Martin — and today, thanks to improved racket technology that favors returners more than servers, there aren't any left in the top ranks. The clay court season now lasts 12 months a year.

And so I've slowly lost interest. Roger Federer is the last player who's really attracted my attention: he's a baseliner like everyone else, but it's a different, more fluid style that's a joy to watch regardless. And at least he has a one-handed backhand to set him apart a little bit. But that's about it. I still watch tennis, but I'm not glued to the set and I don't really mind that much if I miss a final — especially if Federer isn't in it. When he retires I'm not sure if I'll bother watching very much at all anymore.

I know the current state of the game has lots of fans, but aside from an intellectual admiration I just can't work up a lot of enthusiasm these days. In the end, new racket technology and the coaching that went along with it have finally conspired to spoil the game for me.

Is the Gulf Recovering Faster Than Expected?

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 3:26 PM EDT

This is all tentative and preliminary, so don't break out the champagne yet. Still, it's increasingly looking like the Gulf might be recovering from the BP blowout more quickly than we expected:

As the weeks pass, evidence is increasing that through a combination of luck (a fortunate shift in ocean currents that kept much of the oil away from shore) and ecological circumstance (the relatively warm waters that increased the breakdown rate of the oil), the gulf region appears to have escaped the direst predictions of the spring.

While its findings were disputed by some, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported several weeks ago that the oil was breaking down and dispersing rapidly, probably limiting future damage from the spill.

And preliminary reports from scientists studying the effects on marshes, wildlife and the gulf itself suggest that the damage already done by the spill may also be significantly less than was feared — less, in fact, than the destruction from the much smaller Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.

On the less optimistic front, however, the piece acknowledges that "The spill’s greatest scientific challenge may be understanding how the oil is interacting with the undersea environment. The oil was released 5,000 feet beneath the water’s surface and then treated with an unprecedented volume of chemical dispersants. Some enormous fraction — how much is disputed — formed at least one great undersea plume of microscopic droplets." For more on this, see Julia Whitty's definitive take on the potential undersea damage in our current issue.

Obama's Hidden Stimulus

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 2:02 PM EDT

Why does the American public seem to be convinced that the 2009 stimulus bill hasn't had any effect? Republican attacks are one reason, of course, as well as the fact that it failed to get unemployment down to the 8% level the Obama administration originally aimed for. But James Surowiecki suggests another factor as well. There was a lot of talk back when the bill was moving through Congress about the "smartest" way of implementing stimulus spending, and Surowiecki suggests that Democrats might have been too smart for their own good:

Paradoxically, the very things that made the stimulus more effective economically may have made it less popular politically. For instance, because research has shown that lump-sum tax refunds get hoarded rather than spent, the government decided not to give individuals their tax cuts all at once, instead refunding a little on each paycheck. The tactic was successful at increasing consumer demand, but it had a big political cost: many voters never noticed that they were getting a tax cut. Similarly, a key part of the stimulus was the billions of dollars that went to state governments. This was crucial in helping the states avoid layoffs and spending cuts, but politically it didn’t get much notice, because it was the dog that didn’t bark—saving jobs just isn’t as conspicuous as creating them. Extending unemployment benefits was also an excellent use of stimulus funds, since that money tends to get spent immediately. But unless you were unemployed this wasn’t something you’d pay attention to.

The stimulus was also backloaded, so that only a third was spent in the first year. This reduced waste, since there was more time to vet projects, and insured that money would keep flowing into 2010, lessening the risk of a double-dip recession. But it also made the stimulus less potent in 2009, when the economy was in dire straits, leaving voters with the impression that the plan wasn’t working. More subtly, while the plan may end up having a transformative impact on things like the clean-energy industry, broadband access, and the national power grid, it’s hard for voters to find concrete visual evidence of what the stimulus has done (those occasional road signs telling us our tax dollars are at work notwithstanding). That’s a sharp contrast with the New Deal legacy of new highways, massive dams, and rural electrification. Dramatic, high-profile deeds have a profound effect on people’s opinions, so, in the absence of another Hoover Dam or Golden Gate Bridge, it’s not surprising that the voter’s view is: “We spent $800 billion and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

Good policy, unfortunately, isn't always good politics. If Democrats had really been trying to get the biggest political bang for the buck, they probably would have proposed $800 billion in programs like cash for clunkers. Everyone loved cash for clunkers! But it didn't really do much to stimulate the economy. Aid to states did, but the money mostly went to government workers, and these days everyone hates government workers. I dunno. Maybe Obama should have insisted on a big slug of money going to a plan to buy every man, woman, and child in America a free weekly lottery ticket. At least people would have noticed it.