Kevin Drum - September 2011

Fight Back Against Corporate Control of Politics

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

A few weeks ago marked my third anniversary with Mother Jones. That's 36 months of fact-based liberal wonkery, 156 weeks of Friday catblogging, and, oh, something like 8,000 blog posts or so.

And, of course, 18 issues of the magazine itself. During that time we've broken stories about the Republican plan to redefine rape, the real long-term damage done by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the nighttime raid that killed a sleeping seven-year-old in Detroit, and much more. If you missed any of these stories, you missed some of the best reporting being done in America today.

But all this reporting is expensive, and this week we're trying to raise $75,000 to keep it humming along—and to keep my blog online and free for everyone at the same time. So if you enjoy what I do every day, please show it by donating a few dollars to keep the entire MoJo operation going. Even $5 or $10 makes a difference, and $50 or $100 makes an even bigger difference. Plus, your donation is tax deductible. So please take a minute right now to give via credit card or PayPal.

Thanks to the Citizens United case, corporations and the rich have more influence over the political system than ever. Someone has to fight back, and that's something that I and the rest of the MoJo crew do every day. So please—help us out today.

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Rick Perry on Pakistan....Or Something

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 12:24 AM EDT

Holy cats. When I wrote earlier about Rick Perry "sounding like a schoolboy" during tonight's debate, I hadn't even seen this clip. I must have stepped out of the room for a minute or something. But he was obviously caught off guard when Bret Baier asked him about Pakistan, stumbled through a positively Palinesque bit of word salad, and then burbled something about the answer being better relations with India. What a train wreck. I humbly apologize to schoolboys everywhere.

Quote of the Day: No Sex Please, We're in the Army

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 12:10 AM EDT

From Rick Santorum, answering a question about allowing gays in the armed forces:

I would say, any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military .

Hmmm. Something tells me Santorum hasn't spent a whole lot of time around soldiers. Also of note: this exchange came right after the audience booed a soldier serving in Iraq because he was gay. Classy bunch.

John Boehner and the Lunatic Fringe

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 11:17 PM EDT

Susan Davis and Major Garrett describe John Boehner's reaction after losing a floor vote because 48 Republicans refused to vote for it:

Boehner was described as "spitting nails" during a closed-door member meeting on Wednesday, and his harsh talk demonstrated that the usually unflappable speaker is reaching something close to a breaking point with his internally divided conference.

Those close to Boehner said there is a growing anger in the leadership that some in the freshman class and other intractable conservatives pay no mind to the legislative dangers of abandoning leadership—especially at a time when Democrats feel as if they and President Obama are fighting for their political lives.

....In private, Boehner has grown tired of what he dismissively calls the "know-it-alls who have all the right answers." Boehner knew what a defeat would mean—a more costly spending bill, one that provides more emergency disaster relief and contains fewer budget offsets.

It was all kind of fun back when these guys were threatening the financial reputation of the country over the debt ceiling, wasn't it? Of course, that's because it seemed like President Obama might get the blame, and wrecking our credit rating was well worth it as long as it cost Obama a few points in the polls. But guess what? People with that kind of glassy-eyed fervor aren't especially reliable allies. I guess Boehner is finally figuring that out.

Has the Worm Turned for Rick Perry?

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 10:17 PM EDT

In one sense, the Republican debate tonight wasn't too interesting: most of the candidates repeated pretty much the same talking points as before. But Perry really stuck to his talking points. He remains completely unable to say anything really substantive, and stumbles badly when he's trying to dredge up a new talking point from the depths of his brain. I know that deep policy expertise isn't his big selling point, but he's really starting to sound like a schoolboy who memorized a few index cards ten minutes before show time, delivers them haltingly when the teacher calls on him, and then tries to joke and grin his way into a passing grade.

So what was interesting was listening to Frank Luntz's focus group after the debate. There were a ton of defectors from Perry to Romney. I don't know if this means anything, but if it does it means that even the Republican base may be getting a little weary of Perry's audio-animatronic good ol' boy schtick. Plus a lot of the focus groupers really bought in to Romney's criticism of Perry's policy of letting illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at Texas universities, and they were really upset at Perry's defense. They did not — not not not — appreciate his suggestion that anyone who disagreed with him about this was heartless. That's the kind of thing they hear from liberals, and they're sick of it.

Perry now has the base firmly upset with him over both immigration and the HPV vaccine; he was unable to really defend himself on either Social Security or the number of uninsured in Texas; and his lack of policy seriousness is starting to go beyond winsome and edging instead into not-ready-for-prime-time territory. So we'll see. I keep thinking that Perry's smugness and lack of depth is eventually going to wear thin even among the faithful, and maybe tonight was the night where that started to happen. Maybe.

Park51 Mosque Opens, No One Cares

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 6:04 PM EDT

Mark Jacobson notes that the Ground Zero Mosque opened yesterday and....nothing happened. No protests, no Fox News cameras, not even so much as an outraged blog post from Pamela Geller:

Standing there, two blocks away from the crews working on the Freedom Tower, it left you wondering what all that business last year was truly about. Was it because finally, after nine years of shock, we had a concrete issue to focus all those pent up 9/11 feelings on? Was it just last year’s version of the Casey Anthony story? Standing amid those pictures of children who managed to smile no matter the odds against them, it was hard to imagine there was ever a problem at all.

I'm hoping this is a rhetorical question, because, I mean, come on. We all know what this was about, don't we? The mosque was introduced to the public in December 2009, Pamela Geller shrieked about it, and no one cared. In May 2010 the project was approved, Pamela Geller shrieked about it, and no one cared. A week later, a New York Post columnist wrote a piece called "Mosque Madness at Ground Zero," Pamela Geller continued shrieking about it, and —

And suddenly Rupert Murdoch's other New York-based news operation took notice. After all, there was an election coming in November, and what better way to rally the troops? It was just one more log for Fox to toss onto its Bonfire of Xenophobia last summer. As I said in August:

You'd have to literally be blind not to notice that the Fox/Rush/Drudge axis has been pushing racial hot buttons with abandon all summer. There's all the stuff Hitchens mentions [Arizona's immigration law, the Ground Zero mosque, and the anchor baby fracas], and you can add to that the Shirley Sherrod affair, the continuing salience of the birther conspiracy theories, the New Black Panthers, and Beck's obsession with Barack Obama's supposed sympathy with "liberation theology." Are we supposed to simply pretend that it's just a coincidence that virtually every week brings another new faux controversy that just happens to appeal to the widespread, inchoate fear of a non-white country that Hitchens writes about?

Anyway, that's all it was about. It was a convenient foil for Fox News during a long, hot, pre-election summer. Now that the election is over, they don't care anymore.

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Poll: Half of All Government is Wasted

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 5:10 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias takes a look at a recent Gallup poll about perceptions of government waste and says, "I infer from the fact that state/local government is seen as less wasteful than the federal government and that older people have a much higher waste-perception than younger people that this is driven by the fact that people don’t understand Social Security and Medicare." I thought I might write a post about why older people perceive so much waste, but I changed my mind when I clicked through and found this summary table of responses.

First, on the young-old thing: there's actually surprisingly little difference. 30-somethings think 52 cents of every dollar is wasted while seniors think 56 cents of every dollar is wasted. Meh.

In fact, it's pretty surprising how similar everyone's views are. Democrats say 47 cents, Republicans say 52 cents. High school grads say 52 cents, PhDs say 45 cents. Etc.

What I'd really like to know about this is what people are thinking when they hear the word "waste." Are they thinking about conventional waste, money that's just flatly going down a rathole and not doing what it's supposed to be doing? Or are they applying the term to spending they just don't like? Is this a matter of pacifists calling the entire Pentagon budget waste and libertarians calling the entire Medicare budget waste?

There's no telling, but either way this number is astonishingly large, and it's another demonstration of the overwhelming success conservative messaging has had over the past three decades. Perception of waste has gone up slowly but steadily since 1980 (which means the latest numbers aren't due to stimulus spending or anything like that), but the truth is that nothing much has actually changed on the waste front since then: the federal budget looks about the same now as it did in 1980, it's roughly the same size, and the amount of bad management is probably pretty similar. There are really only two big things that have changed: (1) a huge slowdown in income growth, which probably makes people begrudge their taxes more, and (2) three decades of scorched-earth conservative warfare against the very idea of government.

And it's worked. Hell, if I thought 50 cents of every dollar was wasted, I wouldn't support another dime in taxes either. It's insane that people think this, though, and it's a sign of the massive failure of liberal imagination that we've allowed it to happen.

Raw Data: Who Pays Federal Taxes?

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 2:32 PM EDT

A reader writes:

I'm writing regarding an often repeated refrain that the top 10% of income earners pay 70% of all income tax. This looks big when compared to their 50% share of total income, but I know this ignores payroll taxes. I have not been able to find a good online breakdown of how payroll taxes paid by individuals changes this. Could you refer me to some sources if you know?

Well, why not? The Congressional Budget Office has a nice page here that provides lots of useful tax and income share data. The table below is combined from their income share document and their tax share document, and it shows the share of all federal taxes paid by different income groups (their latest data is for 2006). Their definition of "income" is quite broad, including healthcare benefits and federal welfare benefits. As you can see, the top 10% receive 41% of total income and pay 55% of total taxes. In other words, the federal tax system as a whole is progressive, but it's not very progressive.

Add in state and local taxes and things get even less progressive. But for federal taxes only, this is the basic story.

UPDATE: Via Citizens for Tax Justice, here's a similar chart that accounts for all taxes — federal, state, and local. The income groups at the high end are arranged a bit differently than CBO's, but the basic comparisons are the same. As you can see, the total tax system in America is only very slightly progressive.

European Economy Hits the Skids

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 1:11 PM EDT

A single month of data is never cause for panic, but this particular piece of data sure isn't good news. The advance release of the composite PMI index for Europe fell below 50 in September, which suggests the European economy is now contracting. Outside of France and Germany the news is even worse, and in the service sector both current activity and expectations of future activity are down. There's just no silver lining here.

NSA Surveillance Program Gets Tiny Setback

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 12:08 PM EDT

Can ordinary Americans like you and me sue the government for illegally spying on them? When it comes to the NSA surveillance program, the government itself says the answer is no. After all, since it's a secret program you don't really know if you're being spied on. And if you don't know you're being spied on, you have no standing to sue.

If that logic makes your head spin, it should. But today Glenn Greenwald reports some modest good news. A few months ago a panel of judges on the 2nd Circuit Court decided that such a suit could indeed go forward. So the government appealed to the full court:

Yesterday, the full Second Circuit panel issued its ruling on the Obama DOJ's request. Six of the judges voted against a full review of the decision by the three-judge panel, while six voted in favor of reviewing it. Because a majority is needed for a full-circuit review, the 6-6 tie means that there will no further review, and the March decision of the three-judge panel — allowing the lawsuit challenging the FAA's constitutionality to proceed — will stand. This significant victory for the rule of law may well be temporary, as the unusual 6-6 vote (and the numerous contentious opinions accompanying the vote) makes it likely (though by no means guaranteed) that the Supreme Court will accept this standing dispute for resolution. But at least for now, this is a good and important development.

Actually, "modest" might be overstating just how good this news is. As a layman, I find it pretty shocking that any judge could rule that, effectively, no one ever has any standing to sue in a case like this, let alone six judges. And it gets worse. You really have to read the opinion of Dennis Jacobs, the Chief Judge of the Second Circuit, to believe it. Jacobs apparently can't even conceive that there might be a legitimate reason for anyone to object to the NSA program:

At the risk of being obvious, the purpose of this lawsuit is litigation for its own sake — for these lawyers to claim a role in policy-making for which they were not appointed or elected, for which they are not fitted by experience, and for which they are not accountable. As best I can see, the only purpose of this litigation is for counsel and plaintiffs to act out their fantasy of persecution, to validate their pretensions to policy expertise, to make themselves consequential rather than marginal, and to raise funds for self-sustaining litigation.

That's just staggering. Hell, it would seem over the top coming from Rush Limbaugh, let alone an appellate judge. What rock did this guy crawl out from?