Kevin Drum - June 2011

Has Grover Norquist Lost His Hold on the GOP?

| Wed Jun. 15, 2011 10:14 AM EDT

As I've mentioned before, Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge — signed in blood by virtually every Republican member of Congress — is really more of an anti-revenue pledge. Norquist believes in small government, so he opposes anything that increases government revenue. This means that if there's some kind of tax loophole or tax credit in the law, he's opposed to repealing it since that would effectively raise tax revenue.

Yesterday, the Senate voted on a bill by Tom Coburn that would eliminate the ethanol subsidy. Norquist opposed it for the usual reasons, but most Senate Republicans voted for it. It's a Norquist revolt!

Grover Norquist's grip on the Republican Party's tax policy slipped dramatically on Tuesday, a development that is likely to have significant repercussions on the debate over spending, revenue and the federal deficit....Norquist has been vicious in his recent talks on Coburn, charging that his amendment means he "lied his way into office" and is breaking the pledge.

....Late on Friday, as it became increasingly clear the Republican conference was shifting toward Coburn, Norquist performed a bit of legislative gymnastics, releasing a statement saying that it was okay to support the Coburn amendment — the same measure he'd savaged for weeks — as long as Coburn also supported an amendment from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would cut the estate tax and repeal ethanol subsidies.

Wait a second.  Was this bundling maneuver just a last-minute trick on Norquist's part to save face? To some extent, sure. But it basically sounds to me like classic Grover: he's opposed to net tax increases, not all tax increases. As long as you support an overall decrease in taxes, it's OK if there are individual tax components that are increased. But a bunch of senators saw Norquist's change of heart differently:

That enraged several Republican opponents of Coburn’s plan, who believed that Norquist was simply giving political cover to senators who want it both ways on the issue: They wanted to vote to eliminate what they see as unnecessary ethanol subsidies but not be accused of raising taxes....The fight came to a boil at a closed-door meeting of several GOP senators Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill, with Norquist’s supporters saying they needed to maintain the arrangement to prevent accusations of breaking the party’s anti-tax orthodoxy, several attendees said. But others were not convinced.

“This is a tremendous amount of gymnastics to try to get the pledge to fit so they can say that this amendment is OK,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota....Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), one of ethanol’s biggest proponents, said “there is a certain inconsistency because there are two separate votes."

Hmmm. So one anti-tax wing of the party is pissed off because Norquist flayed them for voting to end ethanol subsidies, and another anti-tax wing is pissed off because Norquist then said it was OK as long as you also voted for an accompanying tax decrease. Poor Grover.

But here's an interesting thing: the second group largely comes from corn states while the first group largely comes from non-corn states. So maybe this is more of a good old sectional fight than a real schism on the proper interpretation of Norquist's anti-tax pledge.

We'll see. The theory here is that having once voted to end a tax expenditure (the ethanol subsidy), Republicans will now be more willing to defy Norquist and vote to end other, bigger tax expenditures (mortgage interest, employer healthcare contributions). I have my doubts about that. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona may have voted for the Coburn amendment, but he's also adamant that revenue increases remain off-limits in the debt ceiling talks. This vote has produced a lot of over-the-top rhetoric and frayed tempers, but in the end I suspect it doesn't mean much. Republicans remain just as firmly anti-tax in all its incarnations as they've ever been. Especially with an election coming up.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day: Romney Outbids Even Grover Norquist

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 6:40 PM EDT

From Mitt Romney, asked whether the federal government should respond to natural disasters or just let the states handle it:

Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction.

Like Michele Bachmann's promise to do away with the EPA, this didn't even raise any eyebrows. But it's a pretty sweeping statement, no? Every single thing that could conceivably be done by the states, should be done by the states. Aside from national defense and a bit of foreign policy, that really doesn't leave much for the federal government to do any more, does it?

Do American Schoolkids Suck at History?

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 6:03 PM EDT

The latest NAEP scores are out showing how much our schoolkids know about U.S. history. Results from the past 16 years for three different grade levels are on the right. Quick: what's your reaction?

If you're anything like me, it's something like "not bad." Fourth grade scores overall are up by about one grade level (two grade levels for blacks and Hispanics); eighth grade scores overall are up about half a grade level; and 12th grade scores are flat. (Ten points roughly equals a grade level on the NAEP test.)  It's mostly good news — moderately good news, to be sure, but in any case nothing to be wildly distressed about. Unless you're an education wonk interviewed by the New York Times:

U.S. Students Remain Poor at History, Tests Show

American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a nationwide test released on Tuesday....Over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam.

....Fewer than a third of eighth graders could answer even a “seemingly easy question” asking them to identify an important advantage American forces had over the British during the Revolution....Only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education....“The answer was right in front of them,” [Education historian Diane] Ravitch said. “This is alarming.”

....If history is American students’ worst subject, economics is their best: 42 percent of high school seniors were deemed proficient in the 2006 economics test, a larger proportion than in any other subject over the last decade.

Something smells wrong here on a variety of counts:

  • High school seniors are far more proficient in economics than history? That really sets my BS alarm flashing. Has anyone noticed that 18-year-olds have lately begun demonstrating a great grasp of economics? Anyone?
  • Only 2% of high school seniors correctly answered an item about Brown? That's crazy. There has to have been something wrong with that question.
  • "Proficient" is a purely arbitrary standard. You can make it go up or down just by deciding what you think people ought to know. Are you non-proficient in high school economics if you don't know how interest rates affect the economy? Are you non-proficient in history if you don't know that China fought alongside North Korea in the Korean War? It all depends, doesn't it?
  • I went through the five sample questions for 12th graders, and I have serious doubts that my 12th grade self could have answered two of them. I was a pretty good student in high school, but as near as I can tell this performance would have qualified me as barely proficient.

I'm just not sure what to think here. It's obvious that American schoolkids aren't getting any worse at history. It's also clear that the history profession has a very high bar for what it considers minimal proficiency in U.S. history. Beyond that, I'm not sure what these results tell us.

Europe's Monetary Woes

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 3:38 PM EDT

Via Ryan Avent, Fernanda Nechio of the San Francisco Fed has produced a chart that demonstrates Europe's monetary problems in a nutshell. It shows the interest rate target of the European Central Bank (red line) compared to the rate suggested by a simple application of the Taylor rule. But instead of looking at the euro area as a whole, he breaks it into a set of core countries (Germany, France, and a few others) and peripheral countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain).

This makes Europe's problem clear: it's a lousy currency area. Between 2001 and 2006, ECB policy was OK for the core economies but way too permissive for the peripheral economies, which eventually spiraled out of control. Then, ever since 2009, ECB policy has been far too restrictive for the periphery. Roughly speaking, the ECB has run monetary policy all along so that it's fairly reasonable for the big, central economies of Germany and France but monstrously inappropriate for the smaller economies on the periphery. The result has been catastrophic.

There's a bit of evidence — take it with a grain of salt — that the ECB is perfectly happy with this state of affairs and hopes to use the current crisis to force closer fiscal union on the euro area's governments. But given the ECB's obvious bias in favor of Europe's core economies, Ryan says, "If the ECB is unsuccessful in winning such progress from core governments, however, we shouldn't be surprised if peripheral economies find euro-zone policy intolerable and — eventually — drop out of the system entirely." We'll see.

Are Tea Partiers Mad at Big Business?

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 12:37 PM EDT

David Brooks says that tea partiers are angry at the "unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country." I think that's crazy: tea partiers don't seem to have any problem with big business at all. But Tim Carney thinks I'm nuts:

Does Drum think that Tea Partiers prefer a complex, special-interest-rewarding, behavior-modifying tax code to a flat and simple one? Does Drum think that Tea Partiers cheer for regulations like the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the tobacco regulation bill, and the employer mandate in health-care that Big Businesses support in order to crush smaller competitors?

Just for the sake of discussion, let's grant that these bills favor big companies over small ones. It's more complicated than that, but leave that aside. Contra Carney, the question isn't whether tea partiers cheer for bills like this (I doubt it), it's whether the main source of their anger is that these bills favor big business. There's simply no evidence of that at all, as near as I can tell. I can't think of a single hot button tea party issue that's related to the power of big business or to the coziness of corporate lobbyists with our nation's lawmakers. It's simply not something that ever comes up in conversations with tea partiers. It's all about Obama and socialism and Obama and government spending and Obama and deficits and Obama.

Needless to say, it's hard to prove this one way or the other. Who knows what's really in the hearts of tea partiers? But for what it's worth, here's some evidence from a much discussed New York Times poll of tea partiers from last last year. They asked an open-ended question: "What are you most angry about?" Not only is there nothing whatsoever there about big business, but a mere 18 months after an economic collapse that was widely blamed on some of the biggest businesses around, virtually no one said they were most angry at Wall Street, big banks, or the bank bailout. It wasn't even on their radar.

Maybe tea partiers are angrier about government coziness with big business than I think. But I sure don't see it in either their rhetoric, their funders, their legislative priorities, or the polling evidence.

The Worst is Yet to Come

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

Over at National Review, Tevi Troy says that Monday's GOP debate was pretty good:

The Republican debate dispelled at least two clichés about American politics, that it is nastier than ever and that it is not substantive. For two hours, the Republican candidates had a civil and mostly informed debate about serious issues.

It's true: the debate was mostly civil. And although I might not have been quite as impressed as Troy was by how informed it was, I suppose that by the degraded standards of modern politics it was reasonably substantive.

But this is more a warning about what's yet to come than a reason for celebration. I noted last night that Romney and Bachmann seemed like the obvious winners, but that was largely because neither one of them was really ever challenged or attacked. That's obviously going to change. I doubt that last night's debate represented some kind of turning point in American campaign civility, after all.

As Tim Murphy points out, the old school version of Michele Bachmann is still around, it was just hidden last night. It's bound to resurface before too much longer and she's bound to take some serious heat for saying something outrageous to one tea party crowd or another. And Romney didn't get hit at all about RomneyCare (in fact, Tim Pawlenty actively resisted an attempt to get him to criticize Romney's healthcare record). That's certainly going to change too, and there's no telling how Romney will react to it.

Basically, last night we got to see how the candidates reacted when the pressure was off and they could just make mini-stump speeches. The fact that Pawlenty couldn't even do that very well doesn't bode well for him. But it's early days, and Pawlenty doesn't have to do well on any absolute scale. All he has to do is do better than the others, and once the attacks start flying there's no telling which candidates will wither under fire. Last night was just a bit of bullpen warmup. The show is yet to begin.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Patent Trolls and the Little Guy

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 10:46 AM EDT

After several years of litigation, Apple has signed a deal to license some patents from Nokia related to the iPhone and iPad. Matt Yglesias comments:

The people for whom this promises to be a big headache are, as usual, not the incumbent players but hypothetical future players. Imagine a firm that’s not currently a highly profitable, super-successful manufacturer of mobile devices. Now you’ve got a new barrier to entering the market....I don’t have a super-clean policy point to make about this, but it’s striking how much time and energy is spent in this most vibrant and innovative sector of the economy on these patent wars. It’s an equilibrium that’s obviously wonderful for patent lawyers, and seems to serve all the major incumbents well enough but I don’t think it really bodes well for the world.

I agree about this, and I'd like to see the area of IP patents cleaned up considerably. It shouldn't be impossible to get an IP patent, but the standard ought to be pretty high: not just a small twist on an existing idea or a "business method," but something genuinely innovative. I'm not sure how you get there, but it seems like something worth spending more time on.

Still, having said that, I wonder how much impact this stuff really has on small players? During the 80s, I remember learning that IBM held the original patents for stuff like DMA and interrupt controllers,1 which surprised me because by that time those things were like oxygen: just a standard part of every computer in the world. But hey — someone had to invent that stuff, and in the end the patents didn't really slow anyone down. Basically, the technology got incorporated into chips, the chipmakers presumably paid royalties, and everyone else just bought the chips. There was a modest cost, but it didn't prevent Steve Wozniak from designing the Apple II. The same thing happens with patent pools for things like MPEG and other standards. It's all a gigantic pain in the ass, and it can impede progress while the lawyers hash everything out, but once they do, all the little guys end up using the patented technology without having to jump through hoops.

Anyway, I'd be curious to hear more about this from startup tech folks. Is patent litigation mostly a game played by the big boys, with small companies generally unaffected aside from small price increases in the off-the-shelf technology they buy? Or is it a bigger deal than that?

1I should note for the record that I might have heard wrong on this score. I don't really know for sure who invented either of these things.

Tea Parties and Big Business

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 9:42 AM EDT

I mostly agre with Ezra Klein's comment on David Brooks' column today: what Brooks wants from our government is awfully close to what Barack Obama seems to want too, if only Republicans would agree to ante up the money for it. It's not a 100% match or anything, but really, it's silly to pretend that both Obama and Republicans are equally feckless about all this stuff.

But this passage really drew my attention:

The Tea Parties are right about the unholy alliance between business and government that is polluting the country. It’s time to drain the swamp by simplifying the tax code and streamlining the regulations businesses use to squash their smaller competitors.

Say what? Is Brooks seriously pretending that the motivating anger of the tea parties comes from the fact that government is too friendly to big business? The tea partiers hate Obama and they hate Obamacare, but they like big business just fine and so do their funders. If you're really looking for partners in a crusade to prevent government regulation from favoring the interests of existing business incumbents, you're more likely to find them in the radical lefty community than in the radical tea party community. Where does Brooks get this stuff?

The Future of Non-War

| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 1:07 AM EDT

Here's the latest on Yemen:

The CIA is expected to begin operating armed drone aircraft over Yemen, expanding the hunt for al-Qaeda operatives in a country where counter-terrorism efforts have been disrupted by political chaos, U.S. officials said.

....Because it operates under different legal authorities than the military, the CIA may have greater latitude to carry out strikes if the political climate shifts in Yemen and cooperation with American forces is diminished or cut off.

I know I'm not the first to ask this, but exactly what theory of military action allows President Obama to do this without congressional approval? In Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 80s, you could argue that we were merely funding allies, not fighting a war ourselves. In Grenada and Panama, you could argue that we were merely pursuing small-scale police actions. In Pakistan, you can argue that our operations are all part of the Afghanistan war. You might not like any of those arguments, but at least they're something.

But what's the theory here? This is obviously not a short-term operation (it began well over a year ago). It's obviously not part of the Afghanistan war. You'd have to twist yourself into a pretzel to pretend that the post-9/11 AUMF applies here. (The fact that Congress is considering an extension of the 2001 AUMF in order to cover operations like this is a tacit admission that the old AUMF doesn't apply.) Nor does the fact that Yemen's president has given it his blessing really mean anything from a war powers standpoint.

In practice, the theory seems to be that unmanned drones are somehow not as real as actual manned fighter jets. After all, does anyone seriously believe that Obama could send sortie after sortie of F-22s over Yemen and not have anyone complain about it? I doubt it. But as long as they're just drones, no problem. Given the inevitable growth of robotic warfare in both the near and long term, this doesn't bode well for the future.

Romney, Bachmann Big Winners in GOP Debate Tonight

| Mon Jun. 13, 2011 9:34 PM EDT

I tweeted this earlier, but I thought tonight's GOP debate produced unusually clear winners and losers. The winners were Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann and the losers were Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty.

Romney produced clear, fairly concise answers, didn't filibuster, and managed to avoid attack. He made his conservative bona fides clear without sounding like a tea partier, and he appeared decisive and well briefed. Nothing flashy, but there were no mistakes and he conducted himself like a front runner.

Bachmann, alone of the candidates, occasionally gave genuinely interesting replies that drew on specific knowledge she has from her service in Congress. Her replies were clear, easily understandable, and she avoided sounding crazy. In fact, she often seemed like the best briefed candidate on the stage.

Gingrich was a big nothing. His calling cards are intellectual heft and creative thinking, and he showed none of that tonight. He stuttered through his answers and said nothing interesting.

Pawlenty didn't bomb completely, but he seemed unsure of himself on multiple occasions and said almost nothing memorable. He can recover, but he's going to have to stake out some kind of personality for himself if he wants to beat Bachmann for the ultra-conservative vote.

Santorum, Paul, and Cain were non-factors coming in and they remain non-factors now. The debate did nothing for any of them.