Kevin Drum - October 2010

Voter Fraud, Take 2

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 8:11 PM EDT

Kevin Williamson says I'm wrong to say that voter fraud is practically nonexistent. After all, maybe there really is lots of fraud, but nobody is getting convicted of it so we don't know about it.

Well, OK. That's pretty hard to argue with. But I'd still like to see some evidence that it's actually widespread. And unluckily for me, says Williamson, "Kevin Drum has really, really bad timing, I think." This is based on three examples of voter fraud that turned up just this week. So let's roll the tape:

  • Example #1 is some guy who ran for a seat on the Daytona Beach City Commission back in August and apparently requested 92 absentee ballots under suspicious circumstances. Today he was arrested and charged with committing absentee ballot fraud.
  • Example #2 concerns Patrick Murphy, running for Congress in Pennsylvania, who has done — something. I can't quite tell what. "Flooded" the post office with absentee ballot requests is one version of the story. "Fooled" voters into requesting absentee ballots they didn't need is another version. Created a mailer that looked really official, goes another. But I can't tell what's really going on here. At worst, it appears that Murphy is nudging people to request absentee ballots even though they might not actually be absent on election day. On a corruption scale of 1-100, this rates about a 1.5.
  • Example #3 concerns some felons who apparently voted in Hennepin County in 2008. According to the local prosecutor, "The rate of alleged fraud amounted to about 0.00006 percent of ballots cast....'There was no evidence of any organized effort to enable or promote this activity,' he said."

So that's one (alleged) crook in an obscure municipal race, one election mailer that opponents have objected to, and a tiny bit of unorganized (and quite possibly unintentional) fraud two years ago. That's really not a very impressive tally.

But look: the point isn't that there's no voter fraud. Of course there is. It's a big country. If 50 million people vote and 0.01% of the votes are fraudulent, that's 5,000 fraudulent votes. That might seem like a lot, but it would actually be an indication of a really, really clean election system.

In any case, nobody is suggesting we shouldn't police elections. What I am suggesting is that mountains of evidence demonstrate that the actual incidence of voter fraud is minuscule and nearly always freelance. Nonetheless, every two years Republicans whip up a towering hysteria over the specter of massive organized efforts to steal the election from them. Efforts that quite plainly don't exist. And since no party in its right mind would spend gobs of time and money fighting a tiny problem that affects virtually no actual election results, they must have some other motive for doing this. What might that be?

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Worried About the Mortgage

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 6:31 PM EDT

Via Joe Klein, here's a Washington Post poll asking people if they're concerned about making their rent or mortgage payment:

As Klein says, let's concede that there might be some exaggeration here. And that at least a bit of this represents people who knowingly took out mortgages they knew they couldn't afford. It's still a helluva lot, especially considering that about a quarter of all Americans own their homes outright and, by definition, aren't worried about making their mortgage payment. A bit of arithmetic tells us that among people who actually have a rent or mortgage commitment in the first place, something like three-quarters are worried about having enough money to pay it. Yikes.

The Will to Win

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 5:21 PM EDT

Mark Thompson writes about the conduct of war:

When I think of wars I've known, they seem to boil down to a three-legged stool: capability, will and time. The U.S. always has plenty of capability; will and time — not so much. Dollars can buy capability, but not the other two.

I think this is a dangerous misconception. He's talking about Afghanistan, a war that's been going on for nearly a decade. Despite the famous impatience of the American public, the United States has had plenty of time. What it's lacked is capability. It's possible that more resources earlier might have helped, but that's not a sure thing by any stretch. This is not a war that can be won simply by pouring more resources into it. One of these days this is something we have to get straight about.

The Price of Fiscal Honesty

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 2:02 PM EDT

Jon Cohn writes today about the successful Republican attempt to create enormous opposition to healthcare reform among senior citizens. How? By demagoguing the $500 billion in Medicare cuts contained in ACA, of course. Then he says this:

But even to the extent that seniors hold different views, it's surprising they believe Republicans will keep Medicare sacrosanct. After all, this is the party that opposes government-run insurance (which Medicare is) and has tried repeatedly to privatize the program. Young Guns, the new book by three House Republican leaders, calls for turning Medicare into a voucher program that would dramatically reduce the program's guaranteed benefits — an idea that, as [Marilyn Werber] Serafini points out in a separate story, seniors strongly oppose.

I'd guess that two things are going on here. First, seniors just tend to be more conservative than other age groups and also a lot more resistant to change. So a lot of what we're seeing is Republicans pushing on an open door. Second, seniors aren't reading Young Guns. They're watching Fox News and reading stuff on tea party email lists, something that would turn anyone's brain to mush. What's worse, there's not even any pushback from Democrats to any of this. After all, what can they say? Yes, we cut Medicare spending, but it won't have any actual effect? Good luck with that. They're stuck.

This is one of the reasons why I think moderate conservatives give Democrats way too little credit for their relatively honest funding of ACA. Were there some optimistic assumptions there? Sure. Are some of the cost control measures not going to work as well as they hope? Sure. To about the 80% level, though, Democrats really did insist that ACA be fully funded. By ordinary political standards that's pretty impressive, and by recent Republican standards it's just a plain miracle. And it was a pretty costly piece of fiscal honesty too. A big part of how ACA was funded comes from that $500 billion Medicare cut, and that's just a flat out electoral disaster. It may have been necessary, but there's no question that Democrats are going to pay for it at the polls. They really deserve a little more credit for that.

More Inflation, Please

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 12:54 PM EDT

Would a Fed commitment to higher inflation merely spark capital flight to other, more investor-friendly countries? Yes! But Karl Smith explains why that's exactly the point, and does it with emoticons. Worth a quick read.

Suppressing the Vote, GOP Style

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 12:35 PM EDT

A friend writes to complain about press treatment of the biannual frenzy over voter fraud. Here is the New York Times, for example, in a story headlined "Fraudulent Voting Re-emerges as a Partisan Issue" yesterday:

A report by the public-integrity section of the Justice Department found that from October 2002 to September 2005, the department charged 95 people with “election fraud”; 55 were convicted. Among those, fewer than 20 people were convicted of casting fraudulent ballots.

Statistics! Actual facts! For all practical purposes, there is no voter fraud. Charges of fraud are merely a cynical tactic designed to suppress the vote of various demographic groups who are likely to vote for Democrats.1 So, my friend asks, why not collect some actual facts about that?

You don't see major outlets examining in any detail the suppressive effects of voter fraud hype, monitoring and legislative restrictions. Reporters duly note that Democrats claim it's intended to suppress turnout, but then they simply go back to whether there is evidence of fraud, because the facts to analyze that are frankly available through Google. They certainly investigate Republicans claims of voter fraud — why don't they investigate claims of suppression?

Actually, the Times article above does a decent job of glossing the issue of voter suppression, but glossing is all it does. So why not really dig into this? The facts themselves, after all, are painfully obvious: every two years, like clockwork, Republicans gin up a massive hysteria over voter fraud that study after study shows doesn't exist. The fact of its nonexistence is about as well established as anything can possibly be, so there has to be some other reason for relentlessly bringing it up. And that reason, quite plainly, is to suppress the vote of groups unlikely to vote for Republicans.

So why doesn't the mainstream press dig into that more deeply instead of merely dismissing it as a "partisan issue"? The cynical among you will probably think it's because an actual investigation would be unlikely to turn up a narrative in which both parties can be held equally to blame. But that would be pretty damn cynical, wouldn't it?

1And raise money from the kind of people who respond well to racially tinged hysteria, of course. We can't forget that.

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How to Gut Regulations the Old Fashioned Way

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 12:08 PM EDT

Is George Painter just another old guy suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's disease? Or is he perfectly in control of his faculties and quite correct when he says that Bruce Levine, his longtime colleague as an administrative law judge for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, made a vow 20 years ago never to rule against an investment firm? He made the charge in his resignation letter last month:

There are two administrative law judges at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission: myself and the Honorable Bruce Levine. On Judge Levine's first week on the job, nearly twenty years ago, he came into my office and stated that he had promised Wendy Gramm, then Chairwoman of the Commission, that we would never rule in a complainant's favor. A review of his rulings will confirm that he has fulfilled his vow. Judge Levine, in the cynical guise of enforcing the rules, forces pro se complaints to run a hostile procedural gauntlet until they lose hope, and either withdraw their complaint or settle for a pittance, regardless of the merits of the case.

Michael Hiltzik looks into Painter's charges here, and concludes that (a) he seems pretty lucid, and (b) he seems to be right. It's a great example of how you can effectively gut a financial regulatory regime without actually going through the hassle of getting the regulations themselves changed. Just hire someone someone who refuses to enforce the regulations, and voila! They might as well not exist. Nice work, George H.W. Bush.

Afghanistan: Not Going So Well After All

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 2:11 AM EDT

The Washington Post's Greg Miller has a front-page response today to Carlotta Gall's recent optimistic report in the New York Times about our military offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar:

An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.

....The blunt intelligence assessments are consistent across the main spy agencies responsible for analyzing the conflict, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and come at a critical juncture. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

....Among the troubling findings is that Taliban commanders who are captured or killed are often replaced in a matter of days. Insurgent groups that have ceded territory in Kandahar and elsewhere seem content to melt away temporarily, leaving behind operatives to carry out assassinations or to intimidate villagers while waiting for an opportunity to return.

Hmmm. It sounds like the intelligence guys and the military guys are going to have a wee bit of disagreement when they get together for the review of Afghanistan planned for December. They have met the enemy, and it is them.

Quote of the Day: Secret Campaign Cash

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 1:42 AM EDT

From Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing earlier this year about corporate campaign donations in the Citizens United case:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

Oops. David Savage has more in the LA Times today.

Public vs. Private

| Wed Oct. 27, 2010 12:21 AM EDT

Are public employees paid more than equivalent private sector employees? Several recent studies suggest they aren't, but AEI's Andrew Biggs thinks those studies are flawed. He's willing to accept their conclusions about basic wages, but thinks their estimates of future retiree benefits are off. California, as usual, is the example du jour:

As many people are aware, public sector defined-benefit pension plans are significantly underfunded. Using private sector accounting standards, which is necessary to make apples-to-apples comparisons, the typical public pension is less than 50 percent funded....A good guess of true public pension compensation is to divide the reported pension contribution of 8.2 percent by the 50 percent funding level of California pensions, producing a value for promised pension benefits of 16 percent of compensation. This increases the 2 percent pay advantage that the CWED study already acknowledges to a public sector pay premium of around 10 percent.

....There’s also another factor contributing to the flawed interpretation of data: Retiree health benefits aren’t counted as worker compensation. Most public employees receive free or subsidized health coverage after they retiree, a benefit that most private sector workers do not get. Given how early most public employees retire and the high cost of health insurance for older individuals, this retiree health coverage can be worth several hundred thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetimes....How much is this coverage worth? Using data from the Pew Foundation, I calculated how much each state would need to put aside each year, as a percentage of workers’ wages, to fully fund their retiree healthcare. For California, the answer is around 12 percent of pay, among the highest in the country. Accounting for retiree health coverage would increase total compensation by around 8 percent, pushing the total California public pay advantage to around 18 percent.

The form of this argument strikes me as basically sound because I've had the same reaction to all these recent comparisons of public and private sector pay: they seem OK on wages and current benefits, but don't appear to fully take into account the value of future benefits. At the same time, I'm not sure that using the 50% underfunding figure is entirely justified since a lot of that is based on losses suffered recently by pension funds during the housing crash. If investments recover over the next few years, pension funds may turn out not to be as underfunded as we think right now.

As for the retiree healthcare benefits, I'd certainly be interested in seeing some other folks try to calculate this stuff. In general, though, I find Biggs's 8% figure easy to believe given the skyrocketing cost of healthcare. But whatever the right number is, it ought to be taken into account.

Anyway, I hope that some of the organizations that have produced these reports respond to Biggs. It's a conversation worth having, and it would be nice to at least get everyone on roughly the same page about which numbers to include and how big they are.