Kevin Drum - November 2010

Quote of the Day: Al-Qaeda's Track Record

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 1:42 PM EDT

From Dan Drezner, on the foiled al-Qaeda plot to blow up airplanes via bombs installed in toner cartridges:

Al Qaeda failed... again. Seriously, if al Qaeda is ostensibly the New York Yankees of terrorism, the Steinbrenners would have fired the GM and coach years ago.

More here.

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Immigration Reform in 2011?

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 12:45 PM EDT

Richard Wolffe looks into his crystal ball to tell us what will happen after the midterms:

The White House plans to test Republicans' unity and political resolve on three controversial issues: repealing the Bush tax cuts, implementing the deficit commission's findings, and pushing immigration reform....The White House believes immigration reform may be the toughest test for the GOP — even tougher than tackling the deficit. "This will separate the reasonable Republicans from the pack running for president," said one senior Obama aide.

Ross Douthat is unimpressed:

This is the kind of thing that makes me seriously doubt the White House’s political acumen. Even in the best of times, with the economy humming and the country in a relatively expansive mood, immigration can be an issue that divides Democrats as easily as it divides Republicans. And in an economic downturn, with the public trending in a pro-enforcement direction, it seems like an obvious loser.

....In 2008, amid intense Democratic enthusiasm, the Latino share of the electorate was still only 9 percent, and as Andrew Gelman noted afterward it’s very difficult to argue that they were a particularly crucial component in Obama’s sweeping victory. Which suggests that if the White House wants to repeat that triumph in 2012, wooing back disaffected whites is going to be much more important than re-consolidating the Hispanic vote — and it’s hard to see how a big effort on immigration reform helps them on this front, and very, very easy to see how it might hurt.

I suspect Ross is right about this. The obvious argument in the past has been that immigration is a bigger wedge issue for Republicans than for Democrats. The Republican culture warrior base is dead set against a deal, after all, while the Republican business base would really like one. They don't want tough enforcement, they want a nice big pool of cheap workers. If you can set these two groups at each other's throats, it's a win for the Dems.

But I don't see how this works. Even in 2006 the business community didn't push all that hard for immigration reform, and in the middle of an economic slowdown they'll care even less about it. It's just not on their Top Five list these days, and they'd much rather let sleeping dogs lie and team up with the culture warriors to insure a Republican victory in 2012. Their reward in the form of juicy industry subsidies, tax bennies, regulatory forbearance, union bashing, and skyrocketing incomes for the rich more than makes up for the minor impact of not getting a new immigration law.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a real problem with this. Push too hard and they seriously risk pissing off moderates. Push too timidly and the liberal base, which is already famously disenchanted with them, will turn on them once again.

I hate to say it, but it seems like a lose-lose, politically. It also seems like a suicide run, since nothing of any real substance has the slightest chance of passing with Republicans in control of the House and only a slim Democratic majority in the Senate. I guess I'd really like to hear more about what the supposed strategy is here.

The Ds and the Rs

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 12:20 PM EDT

Should you vote for the person or the party? Steve Benen argues that voting for the person is pretty ridiculous:

The "I vote for the person" crowd is making an odd argument. These folks seem to be suggesting they're not especially concerned with policy differences, policy visions, or agendas, but rather, are principally concerned with personalities. Maybe the candidate seems more personable; maybe they ran better commercials. Either way, as a substantive matter, the "vote for the person, not the party" approach seems pretty weak. Indeed, it's what leads people to express a series of policy priorities, and then vote for a candidate who opposes all of those priorities — a dynamic that's as exasperating as it is counter-productive.

As a firm — and getting firmer all the time! — party-voting guy, let me defend the person-voting people a bit. Aside from the fact that voting for personalities is just what human beings do, I think a lot of what's going on here is a matter of being stuck in the past. Thirty years ago, voting for individuals wasn't crazy. There were conservative Democrats and liberalish Republicans, and they sometimes helped the parties make deals in Congress that, perhaps, made the independent-minded folks happy. Nothing wrong with that.

But no longer. We have, for all practical purposes, a parliamentary system these days, with strong party discipline and down-the-line voting. Almost no one crosses the aisle to vote for compromise measures anymore, and this means that it make a lot less sense to vote for personalities than it used to. Here in California, even some loyal Democrats might think that Barbara Boxer is not the greatest senator in the history of the Golden State, but so what? Given the current state of American politics, all that matters is that she'll vote for the Democratic agenda and Carly Fiorina will vote for the Republican one. That is all ye know, and all ye need to know.

On the other hand, things are a little different outside Congress. For statewide offices like governor, insurance commissioner, attorney general, and so forth, voting for individuals makes a little more sense. I've occasionally voted for Republicans in statewide offices when the R seemed basically decent and the D was a clown.

But clown or not, I wouldn't do it for Congress, and I wouldn't expect a Republican voter to do it either. These days, the letter beside their name really does tell you everything you need to know.

California Propositions

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

Because early voting has become so popular, I posted my usual review of California ballot initiatives a couple of weeks ago. However, since most of us still vote on election day, I figured I should repost them today. So here they are.

As longtime readers know, I'm generally unhappy with the entire initiative process (reasons here), so keep this bias in mind as you continue reading. This doesn't mean I oppose everything, but it does mean that even things I basically approve of have to pass a pretty high hurdle before I'll vote for them. (With this in mind, if you'd like to see a more conventional take on this year's ballot from a liberal perspective, check out the Courage Campaign's ballot guide here.)

UPDATE: I originally labeled Prop 19 a Maybe. And technically I guess it still is, since it's far from perfect. But there's no use pretending I'm not going to vote for it. Imperfect or not, we have to start somewhere. I'll be voting Yes on Prop 19.

  1. Marijuana Legalization: MAYBE. Let's be honest: nobody needs my help with this one. If you're in favor of legalizing pot, vote Yes. If not, vote No. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I probably won't make up my mind about Prop 19 until I'm actually in the voting booth and ready to push the button.

    On the merits, the big problem with Prop 19 is that it puts California squarely in opposition to federal law. However, this strikes me as a feature, not a bug, since I think it might just be time for a few fireworks. Prop 19 also shares one of the drawbacks of all initiatives, namely that it sets its rules in stone and allows the legislature very little scope to change them if things don't work out. And there's no question that allowing every county in California to write its own marijuana laws could create a fair amount of chaos. What's more, there's also the fact that legalizing marijuana won't just create more casual marijuana users, it will almost certainly also create more heavy users. That's not a good thing.

    So there really are a few things to be careful about here. On the other hand marijuana is, overall, basically a pretty damn safe drug, and the dangers of increased use are modest enough that there's really not much excuse for the state prohibiting grown men and women from using it if they want to. What's more, a perfect legalization measure is unlikely to ever come along, and the California legislature won't work up the stones to deal with this any time soon either. As initiatives go, this one isn't bad.

  2. Redistricting Reform: YES. Two years ago we passed Proposition 11, which took redistricting of state districts out of the hands of the legislature and put it in the hands of a "citizen commission." There were two modest downsides to this: (a) the way the commission was set up is a little bit squirrelly, and (b) there's a lot of evidence that redistricting reform is unlikely to have a big effect.

    Still, I recommended a Yes vote on Prop 11 and I recommend extending it this year to congressional districts. Having legislatures draw their own boundaries is crazy, and we've passed up a bunch of opportunities in the past to fix this. This one isn't bad — the "citizen commission" may be a little squirrelly but it's not obviously biased in favor of either party — and even if it makes only a small difference, small is better than nothing.

    (Also note that this is the kind of thing the initiative process is actually designed for. It's not ballot box budgeting, it's not something trivial that doesn't belong in the constitution, and it's not something the legislature is likely to tackle on its own.)

  3. Park Surcharge: NO. This initiative increases the vehicle license fee by $18 and applies the revenue to maintaining state parks. It's a hard one to vote against since it's fully self-funding and fiscally defensible, but we just can't keep doing stuff like this. Every year we pass ever more initiatives that set up special funds or earmark revenue for special purposes or demand that the legislature allocate spending in a certain way. Then we complain that the budget is a mess. We really have to stop doing this, even in a good cause.

  4. Prohibit State Raids of Local Funds: NO. This one is a little hard to vote against too. It's yet another long-term domino effect of Proposition 13, which not only lowered property taxes but essentially made Sacramento the final arbiter of how to allocate them. As a result, sometimes the state allocates money in ways that local communities resent, like giving more money to schools or using transportation money to pay off state transportation bonds. I sympathize. But you know what? Them's the breaks. Voters wanted lower property taxes in 1978, and one of the results is that local communities lost a big chunk of their funding and gave up a lot of fiscal control to Sacramento. I think that was a bad trade, but if voters ever decide to agree with me the answer is a full-scale overhaul of Prop 13, not constant piecemeal attempts to tie the legislature's hands and continue our collective fantasy that tax cuts have no consequences.

  5. Eliminate Greenhouse Gas Limits: NO. This is a no-brainer. The legislature passed AB 32, the Global Warming Act, four years ago, and it mandates a range of measures to cut greenhouse gases and encourage the use of renewable energy sources. It's extremely popular, as it should be, except with a few big oil refiners who are trying to buy themselves an initiative that would, in practice, repeal it forever. It's a bad idea.

  6. Repeal Business Tax Cut: NO. Another tough vote. These tax cuts were unnecessary, we can't afford them, and they were passed only as part of horsetrading with Republicans in order to enact a budget a couple of years ago. But look: ugly or not, these are the kinds of deals legislatures need to be able to make.

    But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I might vote Yes once I actually get into the privacy of the voting booth. Special interest tax cuts like these are pretty indefensible in a state with a $19 billion budget hole.

  7. Pass Budgets With a Simple Majority: YES. It is almost clinically insane that California requires a two-thirds vote to pass our annual budget. The whole point of a supermajority requirement is that it be reserved for only a few specific matters of special concern. The annual budget is the exact opposite of that. For good or ill, of course it should only require a simple majority.

  8. Require Two-Thirds Vote To Increase Local Fees: NO. Proposition 13 is most famous for lowering property taxes, but it also established a two-thirds vote requirement for future tax increases of any kind. But what about fees? Those can be raised with only a majority vote, and both the state and local communities often use fees to charge businesses for safety and cleanup programs — for example, levies on beverage containers to pay for recycling programs or fees for cleaning up oil spills and fighting air pollution. Needless to say, oil, tobacco, and alcohol companies don't much care for this, and Prop 26 is their way to put a stop to it. But even if they have a point about the fuzzy boundary between taxes and fees, flatly eliminating the ability to charge corporations for the damage they incur goes too far. (I say "flatly eliminate" because in practice no fee increase can ever get a two-thirds vote and they know it.) The last thing we need is another initiative from rich special interests that effectively ropes off yet another budget area from legislative control. It's madness.

  9. Eliminate Redistricting Reform: NO. This would undo redistricting reform completely. Obviously I'm against that.

The Most Important Social Security Chart Ever

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

This is apropos of nothing in particular, but I guess that Social Security is going to be back in the news when the president's deficit commission reports back, so I want to take this chance to post the single most important chart you'll ever see about the finances of Social Security. Here it is:

This is from page 15 of the latest trustees report. What's important is that, unlike Medicare, Social Security costs don't go upward to infinity. They go up through about 2030, as the baby boomers retire, and then level out forever. And the long-term difference between income and outgo is only about 1.5% of GDP.

This is why I keep saying that Social Security is a very manageable problem. It doesn't need root-and-branch reform. The trust fund makes up Social Security's income gap for the next 30 years, so all it needs is some modest, phased-in tweaks that cut payouts by a fraction of a point of GDP and increase income a fraction of a point. Here's a proposal from Jed Graham that's designed to cut benefits a bit for high earners and encourage them to retire later, and maybe it's great. I haven't looked at it in detail. But the point is that the changes he recommends are fairly small. Any plan for fixing Social Security requires only tiny benefit cuts and tiny revenue increases. It's just not that big a deal.

America's Awful Healthcare

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 1:02 AM EDT

We may spend more on healthcare than any other country in the world, but hey — at least we get a first class system in return for all that dough, right? I mean, aside from all those poor schmoes who don't have health insurance. At least the rest of us get great healthcare, don't we?

No. To go along with his recent series of posts on healthcare costs, Aaron Carroll just finished up another series on healthcare quality. The chart on the right shows where we stand compared to other rich countries:

With the exception of available technology, we do not rate well against comparable countries. And that’s the take home message. We can argue about which metric is best to describe the quality of a health care system, but it almost doesn’t matter what you pick. Don’t like population statistics? Fine. Choose another. But unless you think the only important thing is how many MRI machines are available, we’re still going to look bad. Not only does the system not perform up to snuff, but pretty much every stakeholder I discussed agreed that it’s not good.

The entire series is here. The whole thing is worth a read.

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FDR's Web

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 12:45 AM EDT

Ross Douthat makes a few good points and a few not-so-good ones in his column today, but this paragraph just confuses me. He's talking about Barack Obama's agenda of the past two years:

Legislative maneuverings — the buy-offs and back-room deals, the inevitable coziness with lobbyists — exposed the weakness of modern liberal governance: it tends to be stymied and corrupted by the very welfare state that it’s seeking to expand. Many of Barack Obama’s supporters expected him to be another Franklin Roosevelt, energetically experimenting with one program after another. But Roosevelt didn’t have to cope with the web of interest groups that’s gradually woven itself around the government his New Deal helped build. And while Obama twisted in these webs, the public gradually decided that it liked bigger government more in theory than in practice.

Interest groups spawned by the New Deal? The healthcare bill had to cope with a bunch of business lobbies, including the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the AMA. The finance reform bill had to cope with Wall Street. Cap-and-trade had to cope with electric utilities and geographical rivalries. Immigration reform, which never even got off the ground, had to deal with xenophobia on one side and business interests that wanted a continued flow of cheap labor on the other. And on all of these issues, Obama had to deal with a monolithic Republican Party that filibustered his every move, refused to bargain in anything close to good faith, and voted nearly unanimously against everything he proposed.

I'm just not seeing the shadow of New Deal interest groups there. These seem like the same old interest groups that FDR and every other progressive have had to fight since forever. I think you could make a case that AARP fits Douthat's description, but that's about it. What am I missing here?