Kevin Drum - September 2010

Killing the Filibuster

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 12:31 PM EDT

Ezra Klein notes that the American Constitution Society, the Sierra Club, Common Cause and the Communications Workers of America are holding a conference call today to highlight filibuster abuse:

One of the questions I've posed occasionally on this blog is whether various organized constituencies will eventually recognize that their agenda isn't being stalled because specific senators aren't convinced of the merits of their bills, but because the filibuster makes it extremely difficult to pass anything. If immigration groups, environmental advocates, labor unions, business lobbies, pro-nuclear power coalitions and so on began pooling some of their resources and relationships to work on Senate rules reform, that would be a big deal. And yesterday brought evidence that it's beginning to happen.

Beginning, maybe, but probably not going anywhere. My guess is that this kind of thing will only make a difference if conservative groups join in, and they'll only join in if they think their goals are being impeded by the filibuster. So here's the question: are there any important conservative goals that could probably muster 51 votes but not 60 in the Senate? Given the size of the current Democratic majority, probably none at the moment, but how about in January? If you can think of any, the groups who are behind them are the ones who might make good political allies.

Of course, teaming up with these groups (if they exist) would really drive home the fact that filibuster reform is a two-way street. Liberals might get their way more often on some things, but they'd also lose more often on other things. It's easy to say you're willing to take that chance, but I wonder how many liberals would change their minds if they were confronted with some very specific examples of just what conservatives could do with a 50-vote Senate?

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Healthcare: Where the Money Goes

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 12:13 PM EDT

Why does healthcare cost so much in the U.S.? Well, we typically rely less on hospital care and more on outpatient care than most countries, so you might expect that we pay less for hospital care and more for outpatient care. But you'd only be half right. Even though we use less hospital care we still pay more for it than most countries. And since we use more outpatient care we pay a lot more for it:

The fact that we’re spending so much on outpatient care isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Same day surgery does cost less in general that longer inpatient stays. But it’s undeniable that the incentives in the system to financially reward quicker and less invasive procedures have increased their use. The financial rewards are much more for outpatient than inpatient care, and the fee-for-service mechanisms of the US encourage the use of more care.

....So here’s our first bit of depressing news. The single biggest contributor to the money we’re spending that’s “extra” is for medical care. It’s not a company or a crook. It’s for actual stuff that we seem to value. I will get into some of the specifics of this in future posts, but the bottom line is that when we talk about cutting spending, we will need to talk about reducing this amount. Especially since, if we were spending so much on care, we should expect to see impressive returns in quality (which we don’t).

The introduction to Aaron's series on the cost of medical care is here, including links to each post in the series. It'll be finished up on October 1.

Closing the Achievement Gap

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 11:59 AM EDT

David Kirp notes today that the academic achievement gap is widest among African American males. Better preschool can help, but it doesn't do any good unless it's followed up with plenty of other things:

What does work? Reducing class size to 14 or 15 students, a large-scale Tennessee experiment demonstrated, can generate big academic gains in the long run. Focusing on reading is also smart practice....Keeping schools open from dawn to dusk, six days a week — offering youngsters a raft of medical, social and psychological supports, academic help, sports and activities — also has a demonstrable effect on academics.... Carefully scrutinized mentoring programs like Big Brothers or Friends of the Children, which keeps mentors involved in the lives of the hardest-to-reach youngsters from kindergarten through high school, have been proven to rewrite life-scripts for such children, including African American males.

....Changing students' attitudes about the value of hard work also makes a difference. A study of black eighth-graders found that students' self-discipline was twice as good a predictor of grades as IQ. Charter schools, like those run by Green Dot and KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), that emphasize character-building have narrowed the achievement gap for adolescent black males. At one Green Dot school in L.A., 68% of African American male students graduated in four years, while at a nearby public high school, just 3% graduated on time.

Of course, all of these things cost money. And who's willing to spend money these days on nonsense like this? Overseas wars and tax cuts for the rich are surely much better uses of our resources.

Quick Hits

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 1:33 AM EDT

A few miscellaneous late-night hits:

  • Mark Kleiman on a new bit of Heritage Foundation claptrap on drug policy: "What’s really scary is that the people running Heritage think they can produce this kind of crap and get away with it. It wouldn’t have been hard to run a draft report past any of a dozen actual experts hostile to cannabis legalization and have them spot the howlers."

  • Josh Gerstein and Scott Wong on the spectacle of lefties blaming lefties because the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell didn't get a single Republican vote: "The high-profile collapse of what would have been a landmark bill triggered a round of second-guessing and recriminations from repeal proponents. Their main targets: President Barack Obama, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and leaders of gay rights organizations who have helped set strategy for repeal efforts."

  • Howard Kurtz on why NYT economics reporter Peter Goodman is jumping ship for the Huffington Post: " 'With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what's going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.'....While he was happy at the newspaper, he says, he found he was engaged in 'almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.' "

  • Nick Anderson on a new study showing that paying teachers bonuses doesn't magically turn them into better teachers: "The study suggests that teachers already were working so hard that the lure of extra money failed to induce them to intensify their effort or change methods of instruction....On the whole, researchers found no significant difference between the results from classes led by teachers who received bonuses and those led by teachers who did not."

  • Peter Baker on the West Wing sniping over Afghanistan revealed in Bob Woodward's latest book: "Although the internal divisions described have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known and offers new details. Mr. Biden called Mr. Holbrooke 'the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.' A variety of administration officials expressed scorn for James L. Jones, the retired Marine general who is national security adviser, while he referred to some of the president’s other aides as 'the water bugs' or 'the Politburo.'....Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates worried that General Jones would be succeeded by his deputy, Thomas E. Donilon, who would be a 'disaster.'...Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was overall commander for the Middle East until becoming the Afghanistan commander this summer, told a senior aide that he disliked talking with David M. Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, because he was 'a complete spin doctor.' General Petraeus was effectively banned by the administration from the Sunday talk shows but worked private channels with Congress and the news media."

  • Paloma Esquivel on today's arrest of the administrators and councilmembers of the city of Bell who had been covertly paying each other millions of dollars for the past decade: "Among residents, many of whom rose up in angry protest amid revelations about a huge salary and loan scandal, there was a sense of celebration and relief....They were ebullient, shouting 'si, se pudo!' (yes, we did!) amid cheers. One man used a bullhorn to broadcast the Queen song 'Another One Bites the Dust.' Another held up a cardboard sign with illustrations of City Council members looking like movie mobsters in dark overcoats and fedoras. 'Stealing us blind since day one!' it read."

How to Save the Economy, ADHD Version

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 1:00 AM EDT

Here is tonight's seminar in emergency monetary economics, cut to blog-friendly length and delivered in 140-character chunks:

interfluidity Gentle request: When arguing 4 Fed activism, please specify the policy levers u support: buying long Treasuries, MBS, equities; neg IOR, etc

kdrum You pick. I'll take anything at this point.

interfluidity there's a strong consensus for "do something". i bet the Fed gets that....if we want neg IOR (Sumner) or equity purchases (Rowe), it'd help 2 publically make the case rather than ask BB 2 "do something!"

MarkThoma No quarrel -- I've been a skeptic from day one on Mon pol, have a J. Econometrics paper showing effectiveness is state [dependent]....I think all the focus on the Fed takes the pressure off of Congress, hence it's a mistake. Tried to convince others, no luck

interfluidity Right now, only nonradical choices r buying long Ts & MBS. i don't think those work. If BB agrees, he's stuck til crisis is acute

ModeledBehavior I'm kind of thinking that MBS is the wrong type of debt to buy off of balance sheets at this stage in the game.

interfluidity i agree. but agency MBS is the only thing the Fed can buy besides Treasuries without playing a profoundly fiscal role.

interfluidity buying Treasuries and MBS are the only levers absent a crisis or shift in conventional wisdom. So he has to talk those up now

AndyHarless When safe assets have -100% return, people will buy risky ones (or spend) & the economy will recover...

interfluidity by what legal means would the Fed threaten -100% return? threaten to unilaterally cancel currency? (we won't honor our notes!)

ModeledBehavior Negative IOR...although that would be an incredible feat.

interfluidity Negative IOR would almost certainly be doable w/o Congress. Call it a variable fee for Fed services. Banks do that.

ModeledBehavior cld directly and dramatically affect real interest rates, without fear of the ZLB.

interfluidity well, go too far below zero and you have to worry about a run the physical cash. but ZLB becomes -0.5% LB at least...

ModeledBehavior I don't know...1% neg int. on hand-to-hand currency saved Worgl, Austria in 1932 during the G. Depression and according to Irving Fisher, caused no inflationary tendency (flat SRAS).

Did you catch all that? The Fed could buy long-dated treasury bills or Mortgage Backed Securities in order to pump cash into the economy. But that might not work, and if Ben Bernanke agrees then the Fed is stuck. So how do we force banks to put more money into circulation? Answer: right now the Fed pays banks 0.25% Interest On Reserves — that is, interest on cash kept on account at the Fed. Lower that to zero, and banks have less incentive to keep cash at the Fed and more incentive to do something else with it.

But wait! How about if we pay negative IOR? Then banks will really have an incentive to do something else with their money. They'll loan it out. Real interest rates will decline even though we're at the Zero Lower Bound already. The economy will boom. And if Fisher was right, it won't have an impact on Short Run Aggregate Supply and thus produces no danger of excessive inflation. Hooray!

Maybe. Anyway, that's the seminar. At the moment, though, it doesn't look like the Fed plans to do anything of the sort. Thus interfluidity's plea to start talking this stuff up because "the Fed needs cover for radicalism." So talk already!

Tea Partiers and God

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 9:40 PM EDT

In my tea party post earlier this afternoon, I ridiculed the notion that tea partiers represent a new breed of economic conservatives who don't really care about social hot button issues. The technical term for this belief is "wrong." They do care about all the usual social issues. That's because they're standard issue conservatives, just a little louder and more hardline than usual.

A few minutes later, over at his new home on the Newsweek site, Mickey Kaus reported that Andrew Breitbart is pissed at Glenn Beck for bringing God into the tea party movement. But:

I doubt Breitbart's beef with Beck reflects a fatal split among Tea Partiers — indeed, it seemed to be the only point in Breitbart's talk where he maybe lost his audience. But the split's there. And resentment of Beck is widespread among other right-wingers I've talked to — less because he's made the Tea Party about God than because he's made it about Beck. These conservatives don't think he's a dangerous ideologue. They have no problem with ideologues. They think he's a phony who's in it for himself.

Well, yeah. I don't know if Breitbart is just terminally naive or what, but of course he lost his audience at that point. His audience was full of conservatives, and they care about gays and abortion and all the rest of the usual social issues even if Breitbart doesn't.

On the other hand, do right wingers widely dislike Glenn Beck because they think he's a phony who's in it for himself? That's certainly more plausible, though it's hardly as if he'd be the first. Maybe they're just jealous?

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Individualism and Growth

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 7:23 PM EDT

This comes from Yuriy Gorodnichenko and Gérard Roland, who find a correlation between how individualistic a country's residents are and that country's long-term economic growth. After some additional testing, they also claim there's a causal relationship:

We find a strong causal effect of individualism on income per worker, total factor productivity, and innovation as predicted by our theory. These results hold even when we exclude the Americas and Oceania where settler colonization played an important role. They also hold when controlling for measures of geographic distance, human capital, ethnic fractionalization, and other factors affecting growth....Moreover, even after controlling for measures of institutions which were previously found (e.g., Hall and Jones, 1999, Acemoglu et al., 2001) to affect long-run growth, culture continues to play a statistically significant and quantitatively important role, implying that culture has an effect on economic development that is independent of institutions.

Summary here. I'd be interested in seeing a statistical critique of this result. (Via Free Exchange.)

The Coming of Big Tea

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 3:26 PM EDT

I think Jonah Goldberg is right that the supposed "civil war" between the tea parties and the GOP establishment is mostly just a made-up media narrative:

It takes two to tango, and it takes two to fight a civil war. What seems lost on a remarkably diverse group of observers and political combatants, on the left and the right, is that there are no worthy Republican opponents to the tea parties. Among the Republican leadership or the "conservative establishment," you will not find a single full-throated critic of the tea parties.

....Both the GOP leadership and the major conservative outlets enthusiastically support Marco Rubio in Florida, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Sharron Angle in Nevada (after some initial concerns) and Joe Miller in Alaska. Even supreme RINO John McCain won not by vilifying the tea parties but by claiming to join them, an approach more sincerely and successfully followed by other GOP candidates across the country.

Meanwhile, Rubio and Toomey chased moderates like Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter clear out of the Republican Party. And now Miller has pretty much done the same with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who in a sad attempt to cling to power announced that she will run as a write-in candidate come November. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, immediately moved to excommunicate Murkowski, stripping her of all her seniority and leadership positions.

In all three cases the "establishment" has said to the moderates, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out." And how have they responded to the allegedly barbaric, uncouth, tea-fueled hordes storming the Beltway castle? "Lower the drawbridge!"

Yep. This might change in the future, but for all practical purposes the tea party movement is the Republican Party right now. And the tea partiers aren't just a bunch of newbies getting involved in politics for the first time in their lives. They're rapidly becoming part of a richly funded, highly professional organization:

Leaders of the Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots announced a $1 million donation Tuesday, from an anonymous single contributor....FreedomWorks, which is headquartered in Washington and endorsed 25 House and Senate candidates during the primary season, said it will expand that list to more than 80. The Tea Party Express, based in Sacramento, is planning its largest national bus tour at the end of October to get conservatives to the polls.

....The new push illustrates the movement's transformation since the primaries from a disorganized coalition of fiscally conservative activists to a measurable political force. But the tea party's rapid growth — along with the influx of cash and political professionals — has led some followers to worry that it risks losing its rebel spirit.

...."There is no question the movement has changed," [says Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation]. "The evolution of 'Big Tea' is the logical result of where this movement must go."

I don't know what this means for the future. My guess is that the tea parties will successfully push the GOP further to the right this year and then effectively cease to exist as they get entirely coopted by the Republican establishment and existing movement conservative organizations. "Big Tea" may be the logical endgame, but the emphasis there should be on big, not on tea.

POSTSCRIPT: And while we're on the subject, can we please knock off the faux surprise that tea partiers aren't just a bunch of deficit hounds? Of course they're opposed to gay marriage and abortion and illegal immigration and in favor of gun rights and prayer in school. Come on, people.

Obama and the Left

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

Paul Krugman on (one of) the differences between George Bush and Barack Obama:

Bush and his handlers were masters of dog-whistle politics — of conveying to their base, in ways that went under the radar of mainstream media, the message that he was really one of them....Obama, however, seems to go out of his way to convey the message that although he rode to office on a wave of progressive enthusiasm, he and his people don’t respect the people who got him where he is....In fact, it often seems to me that there’s an almost compulsive aspect to the administration’s anti-dog whistling. Maybe it comes from hanging out with the political and business establishment, which leads to a desire to seem respectable by dissing the DFHs. But memo to the president: Wall Street will hate you anyway. All you’re doing is undermining the enthusiasm of people you need.

I agree, but I'll repeat a point I made a few weeks ago: this is baked into the cake of modern American politics. Every local race has its own dynamics, but it's still worth taking a look at the Gallup chart on the right to get a sense of the broad national hole that liberals are in. About 40% of the electorate self-identifies as conservative and getting their votes is critical for any conservative politician. If you piss off a few moderates in the process, that's life. After all, if you win the conservative base convincingly, then on average you only need to hold on to the most conservative 10% of moderates to win an election.1

But only 20% of the electorate self-IDs as liberal. So the math is exactly the opposite: you need to win nearly all the moderates in order to win an election. If you piss off centrists by playing too hard to the base, you'll lose.

This is a bummer, but it's reality, and lefties really need to suck it up and get less annoyed by the fact that politicians react to the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Like it or not, most pols just can't afford to give the liberal base too much rhetorical lip service until and unless it gets a lot bigger than it is today.2

Still, there's a mystery here. Not why Obama feels the need to market himself the way he does, but why he lately seems so clumsy at it. As Krugman implies, dog whistling can be subtle but still clear. So where's the subtlety in the Obama White House these days?

1To repeat: on average. Every district is different. But the national numbers still give you a good idea of what party leaders are going to do and which way most politicians are likely to lean in their rhetoric.

2Which, granted, would be more likely to happen if more liberal politicians tried to help out on this score. Still, the self-ID numbers have barely budged in over 40 years, so the basic imbalance isn't likely to change anytime soon.

Watching Feingold

| Tue Sep. 21, 2010 11:46 AM EDT

Maybe I'm being too complacent about my home state, but I don't think Carly Fiorina has much of a chance of beating Barbara Boxer in California's Senate race. She's just not a good enough candidate. (And this ad about Carly's yacht is pretty devastating according to my longtime focus group, aka my wife). But TPM reports that in Wisconsin Russ Feingold might be in much more serious trouble:

He's trailing in the polls against Republican businessman Ron Johnson — the TPM Poll Average gives Johnson a healthy lead of 51.6%-44.8%. In addition, Public Policy Polling (D) will have another survey out today, showing Feingold down by double-digits as a result of a "massive" enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters.

Thomas Holbrook, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee....explained that as of now, the race still has not heated up — and people still don't really know Johnson: "Right now people don't know much about him, other than he's the guy running against Feingold." As such, Feingold and his supporters have the task of defining Johnson negatively in the voters' minds.

"It's not clear to me that Feingold does negative very well," said Holbrook. "It's sort of out of step with his overall approach to politics. I remember over the summer seeing an ad, and I don't even remember what the substance was other than it was negative, and I just remember thinking it didn't fit well with Feingold himself."

Several commenters to this post make the point that much of Johnson's current lead in the poll average is due to the effect of Rasmussen's numbers, which are typically five points too favorable toward Republicans. So things might not be as bleak as they look.

Then again, they might. And that would be a tremendous loss. I was pretty annoyed at Feingold for his quixotic decision to support the Republican filibuster of financial reform, but that doesn't change the fact that he provides a uniquely honest and valuable voice in the Senate. That makes this a bellwether race to keep a close eye on. Do we really want to lose the only person who voted against the PATRIOT Act back in the dark days of 2001?