Kevin Drum - May 2011

Friday Cat Blogging - 13 May 2011

| Fri May 13, 2011 2:51 PM EDT

It's Friday the 13th! To commemorate the occasion, here's a picture of a black cat looking....unlucky. Or something. And anyway, Domino is only mostly black. Can a cat with white paws really be unlucky? On the right, we have Inkblot pushing his luck as he climbs up the rose bush in our backyard. There was something on the sidewalk outside our house that attracted his attention, but I don't know what. Whatever it was, he got bored quickly and hopped down. Hopefully without stepping on a thorn first.

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Growth and Taxes

| Fri May 13, 2011 2:19 PM EDT

Reihan Salam wants to persuade us that raising tax rates on the rich is bad for growth:

How can we possibly believe that low marginal tax rates are good for growth if we’ve had lackluster growth and relatively low marginal tax rates! The relevant question is this: would growth performance have been even worse under higher marginal tax rates? The problem, of course, is that this question is extremely difficult if not impossible answer. The folk response to this question is, “Well, growth was spectacular in the 1990s, after an increase in MTRs!” Which is true! But one can again argue that growth would have been stronger had MTRs been lower.

But this isn't an argument. It's just idle speculation. Top marginal rates went down under Reagan and growth was good. They went up under Clinton and growth was good. They went down again under Bush and growth was sluggish. That's not a slam dunk case, but it's at least actual evidence suggesting a pretty weak relationship between growth and taxes. Of course you can say that maybe growth would have been better in all three cases if tax rates had been even lower, but that's only because you can say anything. But where's the evidence?

Later there's this:

My basic view is that, for the reasons Alan Viard and others have carefully explained, high marginal tax rates have negative incentive effects that outweigh the potential revenue gains....

So I clicked the link. And Viard, again, doesn't present any evidence at all, careful or otherwise. Go ahead and see for yourself. There's a section titled "The Harm from High Marginal Tax Rates," but all it does is explain in general terms that taxes on income reduce the returns to work. This is so obviously true that I'm pretty sure no one has ever disputed it. The question is whether, in the real world, higher tax rates actually reduce the amount of work people are willing to do. As it happens, there's some evidence in both directions, and there's evidence suggesting different answers for different groups of people. Beyond that, we'd also like to know how big the effect is. How it compares to other ways of raising revenue. What the distributional impacts are. Etc.

So I guess what I'd like to know from Reihan is why he thinks that raising the top marginal rate from 35% to 39.6% would be so disastrous. What actual evidence is there that it impeded growth in the 90s? How big does he think the impact would be? Why would more regressive options be so obviously better? There's a real lack of serious evidence linking modest changes in the top marginal income tax rate to lower economic growth, but it's become practically a religious obsession on the right regardless. It needs something better than that.

Fox News as a Social Movement

| Fri May 13, 2011 1:23 PM EDT

Here's an intriguing chart from Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol and John Coggin, via the Monkey Cage. It shows coverage of the tax day rallies put on by the tea party movement in 2009 on both CNN and Fox. The nickel version is that CNN gave the rallies a lot of coverage on the day of the events plus a little bit of followup the next day. In other words, they treated the rallies as a news event. But Fox's approach was a wee bit different:

In telling contrast, Fox News shows significant and growing coverage in the lead-up to the April rallies. … FoxNews has explicitly mobilized its viewers by connecting the Tea Party to their own brand identity. … Rather than serving a journalistic, or even a propagandistic function, Fox News in effect acts as a “national social movement organization,” as described by sociologist Debra Minkoff in studies of liberal identity movements. For a scattered set of people who might feel isolated or marginalized (like gays and lesbians, in Minkoff’s original example), a resourceful national organization can help to provide “an infrastructure for collective action” by promoting “the diffusion of collective identities” and fostering “at least a minimal degree of solidarity and integration.”

Fox News and its audience are all one big happy family, and Fox views its job as rallying its base, not as simply providing them with news. I don't think anyone will be especially surprised to hear that, but this is an interesting lens for understanding the difference between how a news organization covers the news and how an activist organization like Fox covers the news.

Mitt Romney and the Al Gore Problem

| Fri May 13, 2011 12:51 PM EDT

Dana Milbank says Mitt Romney has an "Al Gore problem." The problem, he says, is that Romney always seems phony. At his healthcare speech yesterday, "His very appearance — a suit worn without a necktie — shouted equivocation." Jon Chait comments:

This is a perfect demonstration of an Al Gore problem, but I'd define the problem differently. An Al Gore problem is what happens when the media forms an impression of your character and decides to cram every irrelevant detail of your appearance and behavior into that frame, regardless of whether or not it means anything. Thus Romney's hair and lack of tie are now evidence of a character flaw, as is his decision to give a detailed policy lecture in a university town without being officially sponsored by a University. An Al Gore problem results in the media ganging up on a candidate like cool kids mocking a geek, with literally everything he's doing serving as more evidence for the predetermined narrative.

I'm glad that reporters are paying attention to the Al Gore problem. But I wish reporters would understand what the problem is — namely, a media pathology. After all, John McCain spent the years leading up to the 2008 campaign madly dissembling about and frantically reversing his record, but his mannerisms or appearance were never deemed to be a metaphor for a character flaw.

Mitt Romney is a panderer who's shifted his positions repeatedly as the sweet spot for the Republican nomination has shifted. But that was never Al Gore's problem. Gore's problem was that, as politicians go, he was a perfectly decent but not especially sociable guy. So the press didn't care for him much. But instead of simply reporting occasionally that he was a serious but not especially sociable guy, they turned on him like a pack of hyenas and insisted that every word out of his mouth, every stitch of clothing he wore, and every story told about him was part of a carefully calculated, meticulously constructed political persona. It was a feeding frenzy. See Bob Somerby for several million more words on this.

However, although Chait is right about this, I'm not happy about having to acknowledge something non-negative about Romney. Or even about the media's coverage of Romney. So let's make up for that. I wrote last night about Romney's bottomless desire to say and do anything to get himself elected president, and this morning I got this from a friend who grew up in Romney's hometown:

When people speak of Romney really, really wanting to be president, they probably don't know just how true that is. Over the years, and more recently, I've spoken to some of the Romneys' close family friends who served with him in the Belmont church. And they all say the same thing: Mitt Romney has always wanted to be president. Always. I mean, we're talking about statements like, "As long as we've known him, it's been clear that Mitt wanted to be president." And they're talking about 30 years ago or more.

So there you have it. Nothing to do with his clothes or his hair or his dog. Just the candid recollections of friends who have known Romney for a long time. And who knows? Maybe there's nothing wrong with wanting to be president since your 20s and relentlessly working toward that goal. Romney would hardly be the first. Still, that's who he is. A guy who wants to be president desperately and, by all accounts, will pretty much take whatever position is most likely to get him there at any given moment.

Even from a broader perspective, this is Romney's biggest problem: he's merely ambitious, not insane. If he gets the nomination and loses, he'll simply be dismissed by the faithful as a RINO and nothing will change. What the Republican Party really needs right now is a Goldwater moment. They need to nominate a true believer and then get their asses handed to them in a landslide that leaves no doubt about what direction they need to go if they ever want to inhabit the Oval Office again. Romney wouldn't get them there. For the long-term health of the party, Michele Bachmann is probably their best choice to run against Obama next year.

UPDATE: Brendan Nyhan was on the "Romney as Gore" beat a couple of months ago.

The Political Problem That is Greece

| Fri May 13, 2011 10:30 AM EDT

Can Europe just keep muddling along for years without ever really addressing Greece's problems? Matt Yglesias suggests the odds are better than you think:

[The] sage words I keep reading in the American press about how Europe’s leaders can’t just keep kicking the can down the road and need to deal with Greece’s basic insolvency strike me as unwarranted. In general, the capacity of large wealthy societies to allow festering problems to go un-addressed seems perennially underrated. I’ll be thirty next week and for as long as I can remember people have been talking about how the United States needs to address entitlement spending and trade imbalances. And as best I can tell, we do need to address those things. Presumably at some point something will happen. But in practice we’ve managed a great deal of can-kicking, seem to have more can-kicking in us, and actually the public and the political elite alike are quite averse to the kind of steps that would address these issues.

I think this is true in general terms, and probably underappreciated. But in the case of Greece I think there's a bigger problem than just the possibility of contagion that forces the EU to act because some bigger country like Spain ends up in trouble.

Roughly speaking, U.S. entitlement spending and trade imbalances are purely economic problems. They can't last forever, but yes, they can last longer than most people think. Greece, though, is different: not only are its economic woes far, far bigger than ours, but it's a political problem too, and it's a political problem on two sides. On the European side, keeping Greece alive requires periodic bailouts, and the German/French/etc. public is getting increasingly edgy about putting up with this forever. Economically it may not be a huge burden, but eventually public animosity toward those Southern wastrels will overwhelm policymaking and the bailouts will have to stop. In Greece, however, the political problem is the mirror image. The austerity required by the end of bailouts is so mind-numbingly severe that the public simply won't stand for it. Eventually, if EU demands become too heavy, the public will demand that Greece default and exit the euro.

Now, it's true that there are two "eventuallys" in that paragraph. And maybe eventually will take a longer time than I think. Still, you're dealing here not primarily with an economic problem, but with a political problem in which public hostility on both sides is rising steadily. That's the kind of thing that's hard to mask with smoke and mirrors forever. If the economy stays sluggish for a lengthy period — and all signs suggest that it will — public acrimony is going to combine with economic nationalism to force something to happen sooner rather than later. If I were an EU/Greek policymaker, I'd assume that I had a pretty limited time to take serious action before the public revolts.

How Raising The Retirement Age Screws the Poor

| Fri May 13, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

I've never been a fan of raising the Social Security retirement age. It's a blunt instrument mainly favored by journalists and policymakers who don't plan to retire at age 65 anyway and figure that asking people to work a little bit longer than they used to is no big deal. But people who don't have white collar jobs quite plainly don't feel the same way about it, as the skyrocketing number of people who retire early at age 62 demonstrates. We've already raised the full retirement age to 67 (this was part of the 1983 Social Security deal put in place by the Greenspan Commission), and I think there are plenty of better ways of bringing Social Security into balance than by raising it yet again.

Aaron Carroll demonstrates this dramatically with the chart below, taken from a paper by Hilary Waldren. As you can see, life expectancy in the top half of the income distribution has indeed risen dramatically over the past few decades. But in the bottom half of the income distribution, it's barely risen at all.

I want to make it crystal clear what this means, using further data from Waldren's paper combined with the increase in retirement age that's already scheduled to take effect. This is for workers in the bottom half of the income distribution:

  • If you retired in 1977 at age 65, your life expectancy was 14.8 years.
  • If you retired in 2006 at age 65 years and 8 months, your life expectancy was 15.4 years.
  • Using a simple linear extrapolation, if you retire in 2025 at age 67, your life expectancy will be 14.9 years.

So that's it. Over the course of half a century, thanks to the increase in retirement age already scheduled by law1, the poor and the working class will have seen the length of their retirements increase by a grand total of one month. Yippee!

Keep this firmly in mind whenever someone talks about how life expectancies have skyrocketed and we can't afford long, leisurely retirements anymore. If you're fairly well off and work at a white collar job, there's something to this. If you're not, it's bunk.

If you want to use rising life expectancy as an argument for means testing Social Security, or perhaps for reducing benefits for high earners, the data here gives you some good ammunition. Personally, I'm not sure this is the best way of tackling Social Security solvency either, but it's certainly an arguable point. Maybe modest means testing should be part of a bigger solution.

But raising the retirement age? Go tell that to a clerk or a factory worker. They won't be quite as thrilled about this as people who write newspaper columns for a living, and they have pretty good reason not to be. It's a lousy idea.

1You can still take early retirement at age 62 no matter what year you retire, but you get reduced benefits — and those benefits are being gradually reduced even further as the full retirement age goes up. Actuarially, early retirement doesn't change a thing. If you're in the bottom half of the income distribution, the total expected payout of your Social Security benefits will have risen by one month's worth between 1977 and 2025 no matter what age you choose to retire.

Front page image: Celine Nadeau

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Quote of the Day: Who is Mitt Romney?

| Thu May 12, 2011 11:15 PM EDT

From DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on Good Morning America today:

What I think is unfortunate about Mitt Romney is he doesn’t even know who he is.

I appreciate the sentiment, but Wasserman Schultz is wrong about this. Mitt Romney knows exactly who he is: he's a guy who wants to be president at any cost. If he has to pretend not to believe in global warming, then that's what he'll do. If he has to pretend to believe that the individual mandate is a sign of impending tyranny, then that's what he'll do. If he has to pretend that we can balance the budget with spending cuts alone, then that's what he'll do. If has to pretend to hate gay people, love guns, and believe that every blastocyst is a precious human life, then that's what he'll do.

Romney is keenly aware that given the state of the modern Republican Party, jettisoning every vestige of self respect is the price of getting a crack at the Oval Office. He decided long ago he was willing to pay that price.

The Sweet Smell of Secret Campaign Cash

| Thu May 12, 2011 5:48 PM EDT

This is how path dependence happens:

Democratic opposition is growing to a draft proposal under consideration by President Obama to force prospective government contractors to reveal political contributions.

....The draft executive order would require companies bidding for federal contracts to disclose contributions made by directors and officers to federal candidates and parties. It would also require the disclosure of corporate donations to third-party advocacy groups that support or oppose federal candidates with campaign ads.

....“The requirement that businesses disclose political expenditures as part of the offer process creates the appearance that this type of information could become a factor in the award of federal contracts,” [two Democratic] senators wrote.

Up until a few years ago, everyone was in favor of requiring disclosure of political contributions. Then Republicans figured out a shiny new way to conceal big donations and decided they were no longer in favor of transparency. Democrats complained, but then quickly copied Republican fundraising tactics. Now that they're getting big secret donations too, they're starting to lose their enthusiasm for transparency the same way Republicans did. In a couple of years, secret donations from giant corporations and the rich will be so entrenched that it will be inconceivable it was ever any other way. Isn't politics grand?

Enforcing the Rules

| Thu May 12, 2011 5:10 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that contributions to a new breed of super-advocacy groups might start getting taxed:

Big donors like David H. Koch and George Soros may owe taxes on their millions of dollars in contributions to nonprofit advocacy groups that are playing an increasing role in American politics.

....The organizations in question were established as nonprofit corporations under a section of the tax law, 501(c)(4), and the rules governing them say their primary purpose cannot be political. Unlike contributions to charities, however, donations to these groups have always been subject to a gift tax. But tax experts and campaign finance experts say the I.R.S. had not enforced that rule, until now.

I'm confused. Why hasn't the IRS enforced this rule until now? Isn't its job enforcing tax rules?

Is Harvard Worth It?

| Thu May 12, 2011 2:08 PM EDT

What's the value of a college education? Quite a bit, if the wage premium for college grads means anything. But maybe it doesn't. After all, smart kids go to college, and smart kids are going to earn more regardless. Maybe college doesn't have any independent effect at all. Annie Lowrey explores that question here.

But what about elite colleges? Are they really worth the skyrocketing prices they charge? Here we have much better data. A few months ago Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger updated a paper they wrote a decade ago that examined the earnings of college grads, and what they found was that elite universities don't seem to provide much benefit over lesser universities. What they did was clever: instead of just looking at SAT scores and college selectivity, they also looked at which colleges students originally applied to. David Leonhardt summarizes:

Once the two economists added these new variables, the earnings difference [of elite universities] disappeared. In fact, it went away merely by including the colleges that students had applied to — and not taking into account whether they were accepted. A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State but applied to Penn earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 who went to Penn.

“Even applying to a school, even if you get rejected, says a lot about you,” Mr. Krueger told me. He points out that the average SAT score at the most selective college students apply to turns out to be a better predictor of their earnings than the average SAT score at the college they attended.1

I'm a pretty good example of this phenomenon. I ended up graduating from Cal State Long Beach, and I did pretty well during my pre-blogging career. But what schools did I apply to? Answer: Caltech, Stanford, and UC San Diego. That, it turns out, was a better predictor of my future success than which school I eventually ended up at.

For what it's worth, then, high school seniors probably shouldn't worry quite as much about which university they attend as they do. If you're good enough to get into Harvard, you'll probably do just as well if you end up going to the University of Michigan instead. Having a degree is important (though even here the jury is out on exactly why it's important), but having an elite degree probably isn't. If you can only afford to go to a state university, don't fret about it too much. You'll do fine anyway.

1It's worth noting that this isn't universally true. It's true for white and middle-class kids, but minority and low-income students seem to benefit at least somewhat from attending elite universities.