Kevin Drum - November 2010

World Meets, Does Nothing

| Fri Nov. 12, 2010 12:07 PM EST

Here's a shocker:

Leaders of the world’s biggest economies agreed on Friday to curb “persistently large imbalances” in saving and spending but deferred until next year tough decisions on how to identify and fix them.

Still, I suppose merely acknowledging the problem in a big public forum represents a bit of progress. A "single," as President Obama puts it.

By the way, if you want to reduce the federal deficit, guess what else has to happen? The trade deficit has to come down. This is one bellwether of seriousness on the budget deficit: if you mention the trade deficit, you're serious. If you don't, you're not. So without looking, anyone want to place a bet on whether the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission report mentions the trade deficit? I'd take bets on this with all comers, but I'd be cheating. I already looked.1

1Answer: no it doesn't. This is yet another stake in the heart of the report's supposed seriousness.

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Is Our Kids Learning?

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 6:13 PM EST

Another day, another confusing magazine article about American education. This one is by Amanda Ripley in the Atlantic, and it focuses solely on how our top performing students do compared with those in other countries. In particular, how do our top students do in math?

We’ve known for some time how this story ends nationwide: only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced-proficiency level in math, a share that lags behind kids in some 30 other countries, from the United Kingdom to Taiwan. But what happens when we break down the results? Do any individual U.S. states wind up near the top?

Incredibly, no. Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list. The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17....“If all American fourth- and eighth-grade kids did as well in math and science as they do in Massachusetts,” writes the veteran education author Karin Chenoweth in her 2009 book, How It’s Being Done, “we still wouldn’t be in Singapore’s league but we’d be giving Japan and Chinese Taipei a run for their money.”

Aha! Massachusetts may not be up there with Taiwan or Japan, but they're better than any other state in America. So what's their secret?

Is it because Massachusetts is so white? Or so immigrant-free? Or so rich? Not quite. Massachusetts is indeed slightly whiter and slightly better-off than the U.S. average. But in the late 1990s, it nonetheless lagged behind similar states — such as Connecticut and Maine — in nationwide tests of fourth- and eighth-graders. It was only after a decade of educational reforms that Massachusetts began to rank first in the nation.

What did Massachusetts do? Well, nothing that many countries (and industries) didn’t do a long time ago. For example, Massachusetts made it harder to become a teacher, requiring newcomers to pass a basic literacy test before entering the classroom. (In the first year, more than a third of the new teachers failed the test.) The state also required students to pass a test before graduating from high school — a notion so heretical that it led to protests in which students burned state superintendent David Driscoll in effigy. To help tutor the kids who failed, the state moved money around to the places where it was needed most. “We had a system of standards and held people to it — adults and students,” Driscoll says.

Wait a second. The literacy test sounds like a good idea, but it seems fairly disconnected from the performance of our top math students. California has required new teachers to pass both a literacy and math test for nearly 20 years and we rank barely above Turkey in advanced math proficiency. Ditto for a high-school graduation exam, which plainly doesn't have any impact on top-tier students who have been performing above the basic graduation level all along.

And that's it. Maybe Massachusetts did some other stuff, but I assume Ripley chose to highlight their most important reforms, not the trivia. And their most important reforms seem pretty unlikely to have affected the math scores of our crème de la crème. So what's the deal? Once again, after reading a popular account of education reform, I'm more confused than I was when I started.

Hard Truths

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 2:45 PM EST

I want to make a followup point to my post last night about the deficit commission. Mainly, that post said that if you're serious about the long-term deficit, you need to be serious about healthcare costs. That's pretty much the whole ballgame. The rest is fluff. Matt Steinglass comments:

Mr Drum writes for a liberal magazine. And here he is saying that the main thing we need to do in order to restrain growth in the deficit and in government spending, which will otherwise bankrupt us, is to cut the biggest government entitlement programme, Medicare....Shouldn't this be big news for our contrarian press? "Liberals Call for Cuts to Entitlements!" Aren't we amazed that supposedly big-government liberals want to slash the projected Medicare budget? What an example of responsible bipartisanship on their part!

And yet the press pays absolutely no attention to this. In general, liberals are given no credit whatsoever for acknowledging reality and calling for cuts in social-welfare entitlement programmes. So here's what I'm hoping. I'm hoping some of you read my initial comment about wanting to retweet what Kevin Drum wrote on this and thought, "Well obviously a liberal who writes for Mother Jones would be saying that in the long term massive budget deficits threaten our future, and the only way to seriously reduce that long-term deficit is to slash Medi...wait a minute." Just take that "wait a minute", and maybe give people some credit for coming to reality-based conclusions.

Actually, this is only half the story. It's true that I think we need to rein in spending on both Medicare and healthcare spending in general. Be amazed, conservatives! But there's a flip side to this: the American population is aging and medical care is getting more expensive. This is simply a fact, and it means that even if we slow the rate of healthcare inflation we're going to need more money for healthcare. You want Hard Truths? That's a hard truth. We need to rein in healthcare spending and we need to raise taxes to pay for the higher healthcare costs of an aging population. Anybody who's serious about addressing the long-term deficit needs to deal with this instead of indulging in fantasies.

But fantasies are largely what we get from the co-chairs' report. Nick Baumann takes a closer look at what kinds of cost cutting they recommend for Medicare and concludes that it's (a) politically unrealistic and (b) ineffective anyway:

This is seriously third-rail stuff. There's medical malpractice reform....strengthening the Independent Payment Advisory Board [which is] already under attack by Senate Republicans....Seniors' copays and deductibles would increase.

....After putting forth proposals that will irk trial lawyers, doctors, hospitals, and seniors, the co-chairs still aren't done — they also want to take on Big Pharma....The rest of the co-chairs' health care proposals include ticking off veterans, whose copays would increase; medical colleges, who would receive less in federal subsidies; and states, which would receive less money to cover long-term care for poor seniors. In short, the chairs' health care proposals will force nearly every significant interest group in America to take a haircut.

The kicker is that, under the co-chairs' proposal, a large part of the health care "savings" would be immediately spent [on the "doc fix"]....This is the ultimate proof of Kevin's point: even though our main budget problem is that health care costs too much, the deficit commission wants to spend most of its controversial health care "savings" on making sure that doctors keep getting paid at a level that satisfies the American Medical Association. It's more evidence of just how difficult the long-term deficit problem really is.

In other words, they've offered up a plan that's almost impossible to envision passing, and even at that it would accomplish barely anything. This deserves far more serious attention from centrist deficit hawks, and it deserves attention on both sides of the deficit equation. On the cost control side it means thinking bigger, and on the revenue side it means acknowledging that taxes will have to go up regardless. Liberals will naturally resist a lot of the cost cutting proposals, but at least they acknowledge that cost cutting has to happen. That's a start. But conservatives? I don't have to tell you their position. This makes reducing the long-term deficit impossible. Dealing with healthcare spending can only be done if both sides have political cover, and that means both sides have to make those famous Tough Choices we hear so much about. That will only happen when conservatives start acknowledging demographic reality.

Tax Cut-O-Rama

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 12:51 PM EST

A couple of days ago I suggested that Democrats, having screwed up their response to the extension of the Bush tax cuts before the election, shouldn't bother wasting time on it during the lame duck session either. Instead, "Allow the Bush tax cuts to expire completely and let the 112th Congress deal with it."

After thinking about it, I'd like to revise and extend those remarks. Basically, there's not much time in the lame duck session, and wrangling over the tax bill could pretty much eat it up completely if Dems allow it to. So what I really think is this: either Dems should punt it into the 112th Congress or they should just cave in quickly and pass a comprehensive extension quickly. But if they do the latter, please please please tell me they're not going to do what McClatchy suggests they might do:

The Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire on Dec. 31 are expected to be extended temporarily by the lameduck Congress, with a two-year extension the most promising compromise.

....On the Republican side, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who's slated to become the top Republican on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, said this week that a temporary extension "would garner support from Democrats and Republicans alike. That path forward is an extension of all the tax relief well past the next election."....The temporary extension is gaining momentum because it would allow both parties to use the issue in the 2012 campaign. And making the tax cuts permanent wouldn't require a vote until a lame duck session after the 2012 presidential election.

Look, I get it: Democrats are idiots. Nothing we can do about that, I guess. But the whole reason the tax issue imploded on them this year is because the Democratic caucus couldn't handle the strain of separating the middle-income tax cuts from the high-earner tax cuts during election season. Why would they set themselves up for the exact same dynamic two years from now?

So if they're going to do this, extend the cuts for three years. The economy could probably use an extra year of tax breaks anyway, and a three-year extension means they'll come up for renewal in 2013, when they can be dealt with relatively calmly. And Republicans can hardly object to an extra year of tax cuts, can they?

(Well, yeah, of course they can. But it would be a stretch even for them.)

Democrats have already proven they can't handle the electoral pressure of separating the tax cuts during an election year. There's no reason to think they're going to grow a stiffer spine in two years, and Republican control of the House will make it harder to separate them anyway. So be smart. If they're going to cave, cave for three years.

Lede of the Day: Businesses Irate Over Record Profits

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 11:58 AM EST

Here's the lead story today from those noted communists at Bloomberg:

Investors around the world say President Barack Obama is bad for the bottom line, even though U.S. corporations are on track for the biggest earnings growth in 22 years and the stock market is headed for its best back-to-back annual gains since 2004.

The quotes in the rest of the story really have to be read to be believed. I'm not going to bother excerpting any of them because I haven't had breakfast yet and my blood sugar needs immediate attention. Long story short, though, they just want them some nice tax cuts. Everything else is just fluff.

Missile Control Hysteria

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 1:49 AM EST

I suspect that 67 votes just aren't there to approve the New START strategic arms treaty no matter when it comes up for a vote, so in a way the arguments pro and con don't matter very much. Still, the sheer level of shriekiness and hysteria that conservative opponents are mounting is remarkable even for an era practically personified by conservative shriekiness and hysteria. That's especially true considering how favorable the treaty is for U.S. interests and the fact that it boasts almost unanimous support by military and national security pros of all stripes.

Anyway, that's all just a preamble to Fred Kaplan's latest deconstruction of anti-New START hysteria, this time from the dynamic duo of John Bolton and John Yoo. It's all right here, and worth reading just for its comprehensive look at how empty the opposition is. It's really something.

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Troops OK With Gay Troops

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 1:34 AM EST

This is unsurprising, but still welcome news:

A Pentagon study group has concluded that the military can lift the ban on gays serving openly in uniform with only minimal and isolated incidents of risk to the current war efforts, according to two people familiar with a draft of the report, which is due to President Obama on Dec. 1.

More than 70 percent of respondents to a survey sent to active-duty and reserve troops over the summer said the effect of repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy would be positive, mixed or nonexistent, said two sources familiar with the document. The survey results led the report's authors to conclude that objections to openly gay colleagues would drop once troops were able to live and serve alongside them.

Apparently the Marine Corps remains the biggest obstacle, but even there only 40% of all Marines are concerned about lifting the ban. That seems pretty manageable. I don't expect the reactionary right to change its tune on this regardless of the evidence, but this report might still be enough to break loose a few Republican votes for repeal of DADT in the lame duck session. Keep your fingers crossed.

Is the Deficit Commission Serious?

| Thu Nov. 11, 2010 12:46 AM EST

I've been trying to figure out whether I have anything to say about the "chairman's mark" of the deficit commission report that was released today. In a sense, I don't. This is not a piece of legislation, after all. Or a proposed piece of legislation. Or even a report from the deficit commission itself. It's just a draft presentation put together by two guys. Do you know how many deficit reduction proposals are out there that have the backing of two guys? Thousands. Another one just doesn't matter.

But the iron law of the news business is that if people are talking about it, then it matters. So this report matters, even though it's really nothing more than the opinion of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. So here's what I think of it, all contained in one handy chart from the Congressional Budget Office:

Here's what the chart means:

  • Discretionary spending (the light blue bottom chunk) isn't a long-term deficit problem. It takes up about 10% of GDP forever. What's more, pretending that it can be capped is just game playing: anything one Congress can do, another can undo. So if you want to recommend a few discretionary cuts, that's fine. Beyond that, though, the discretionary budget should be left to Congress since it can be cut or expanded easily via the ordinary political process. That's why it's called "discretionary."
  • Social Security (the dark blue middle chunk) isn't a long-term deficit problem. It goes up very slightly between now and 2030 and then flattens out forever. If Republicans were willing to get serious and knock off their puerile anti-tax jihad, it could be fixed easily with a combination of tiny tax increases and tiny benefit cuts phased in over 20 years that the public would barely notice. It deserves about a week of deliberation.
  • Medicare, and healthcare in general, is a huge problem. It is, in fact, our only real long-term spending problem.

To put this more succinctly: any serious long-term deficit plan will spend about 1% of its time on the discretionary budget, 1% on Social Security, and 98% on healthcare. Any proposal that doesn't maintain approximately that ratio shouldn't be considered serious. The Simpson-Bowles plan, conversely, goes into loving detail about cuts to the discretionary budget and Social Security but turns suddenly vague and cramped when it gets to Medicare. That's not serious.

There are other reasons the Simpson-Bowles plan isn't serious. Capping revenue at 21% of GDP, for example. The plain fact is that over the next few decades Social Security will need a little more money and healthcare will need a lot more. That will be true even if we implement the greatest healthcare cost containment plan in the world. Pretending that we can nonetheless cap revenues at 2000 levels isn't serious.

And their tax proposal? As part of a deficit reduction plan they want to cut taxes on the rich and make the federal tax system more regressive? That's not serious either.

Bottom line: this document isn't really aimed at deficit reduction. It's aimed at keeping government small. There's nothing wrong with that if you're a conservative think tank and that's what you're dedicated to selling. But it should be called by its right name. This document is a paean to cutting the federal government, not cutting the federal deficit.

Hard Truths

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 7:20 PM EST

Jon Chait makes a pretty good point after reading Ruth Marcus's latest column:

One of the defining beliefs of sensible-center Washington establishment types is that elected officials need to make Tough Decisions, including unpopular decisions, rather than just try to skate through to the next election. However, a second set of beliefs held by this group is that, if you do lose an election, this proves that all your ideas were not just politically unwise but substantively wrong.

[Some excerpts from Marcus's column.]

....What's fascinating to me is that Marcus believes not only that elections are completely ideological judgments, but that those judgments ought to be adopted by the party in power. Here President Obama was doing all kinds of unpopular things — bailing out banks, bailing out the auto industry, cutting hundreds of billions from Medicare — because he felt those courses of action were responsible. And then he loses seats, in part because of those hard decisions, and now he's supposed to admit that his policies were bad?

This is something that Obama doesn't get enough credit for. As Jon says, the centrist establishment is pretty unanimous in believing that presidents need to tell the nation Hard Truths and not simply Pander To Their Base. Well, Obama followed their advice more than most presidents. And guess what? His liberal base wasn't amused and the nation didn't really want to hear hard truths while unemployment was hovering around double digits. This should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

If this were just another example of pundit blathering about the election, it might not matter. But guess what? The president's deficit commission just produced a draft report (about which more later), and once again Beltway pundits are going to lap it up. Why? Because it Tells Hard Truths and Attacks Sacred Cows. It also proposes a bunch of stuff that will be stupendously unpopular. Somehow, though, Obama will once again be expected to endorse a bunch of unpopular stuff without becoming unpopular himself. Because if that happens, it will somehow represent the reaction of honest heartland workers who want to hear a president who cares, not one who spouts percentages of GDP and healthcare inflation rates. The fact that he didn't listen to what they wanted — which is always the same: more spending, lower taxes, and a smaller deficit — will, as usual, represent a failure to connect with Real America. Funny how that always seems to be the verdict on Democratic presidents.

Sarah and the Media

| Wed Nov. 10, 2010 3:52 PM EST

I think Karl Smith gets today's award for most incorrect statement of the day:

Sarah Palin looks to be on the losing end of a brawl with the Wall Street Journal....

By definition, Sarah Palin cannot be on the losing end of any argument with the mainstream lamestream media. It is unpossible. I demand an immediate retraction from the elitist Professor Smith.