Kevin Drum - October 2011

Health Care and the 2012 Election

| Tue Oct. 18, 2011 10:44 AM EDT

This isn't exactly big news or anything, but the Los Angeles Times reports today on just how much of a litmus test repeal of Obamacare has become for Republican activists:

Republican activists, increasingly optimistic they can win the White House and Senate next year, are beginning to lay the groundwork for a multi-pronged campaign in 2013 to roll back President Obama's sweeping healthcare overhaul. The push includes an effort to pressure Republican candidates to commit to using every available tool to fully repeal the law, a tactic pioneered by conservative activist Grover Norquist, who made an anti-tax pledge de rigeur for GOP politicians.

…Some activists are so concerned that Republicans will miss their chance that they are trying to lock GOP candidates into using a controversial parliamentary tactic known as budget reconciliation to circumvent Senate Democratic opposition to repeal. "This needs to be a threshold question for both presidential and Senate candidates," said Michael Needham, head of Heritage Action for America, an advocacy group affiliated with the Heritage Foundation that supports many tea party positions.

I've been trying to think whether anything like this has really happened before. Has repeal of a major new law ever been the subject of such a feeding frenzy during a presidential campaign? There have always been small blocs that were dedicated to repeal of, say, Social Security or Medicare or the ADA, but I can't remember such a position ever being front and center for an entire party as its top concern.

A lot of progressives were pretty unhappy that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ended up so watered down before it passed. There was no public option! For that reason and others, enthusiasm among the Democratic base for Obama's reelection is pretty muted right now. But my guess is that it won't stay that way: Once Republicans have an actual candidate nominated, the lefty base will find its outrage again. I sure hope so, anyway.

Because watered down or not, Obamacare is our best hope for national health care anytime in the next decade or two. It's not nearly as bad as its critics think, and in any case, it's something that can be built on. But if it's repealed? Then you can say sayonara to health care reform for at least a decade, and probably more. At a minimum, nothing serious will happen until we have a Democratic president and something close to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate again. I'd put that at 20 years away.

That's really what the 2012 election is about. All the shouting aside, neither party is going to end up doing anything very different about the economy. Nor is there really all that big a difference between the parties on foreign policy these days. No, the single biggest accomplishment of the past decade has been the passage of Obamacare, and the single biggest difference between the parties going forward is whether or not it gets repealed, ending health care reform for another decade or two. In the end, that might not be enough to get the liberal base fired up, but it should be.

Front page image: TalkRadioNews/Flickr

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Your Fuel Efficiency Questions Answered! (Sort Of)

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 8:43 PM EDT

So how fuel efficient are modern passenger cars? Stuart Staniford passes along a link to the latest EPA mileage report, which both clarifies things and adds a bit to the murk.

First the clarification. Table 1 in the report provides an "adjusted composite" figure of 25.8 mpg for model year 2010 cars. This number is production weighted, so it reflects the actual distribution of cars sold.

But wait! For the past decade the EPA report has published "adjusted" — i.e., real world — numbers because the "laboratory" EPA mileage, which is the number you see on a car's sticker, is notoriously over-optimistic. For 2010, the average laboratory 55/45 combined mileage was 32.7, which kinda sorta explains the BTS figure of 33.7 from the previous post. Close enough for government work, anyway. (Though this still sounds pretty high to me. It's based on average city mileage of 27.6 and average highway mileage of 42.3, but according to DOE's search site, there were a grand total of eight cars in 2010 that got lab EPA highway mileage over 42 mpg. So it's hardly credible that the fleet highway average was 42.3 even using the lab EPA values.)

So I'm still a little confused. Still, if you're looking for a real-world, production weighted fleet average for gas mileage, the best current estimate is 25.8 mpg for model year 2010. Now you know.

How Fuel Efficient are Modern Passenger Cars?

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 5:22 PM EDT

Warning: Obsessive data post to follow, probably of minimal interest to most normal people.

Brad Plumer has an interesting item today suggesting that once you account for all the electricity used to produce gasoline, electric cars not only use less gasoline than regular cars, they use less electricity too.1 Interesting! But something else in his post caught my eye: according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average new passenger car in 2010 got about 33.7 miles per gallon. Really? We just bought a new car a few months ago, and while we were doing our comparisons I was surprised at just how few cars were available that got really high mileage. So where does that 33.7 figure come from?

Well, Brad links to this table from BTS, which does indeed promote the 33.7 mpg number. But how did they come up with that? According to footnote C:

Assumes 55% city and 45% highway-miles. The source calculated average miles per gallon for light-duty vehicles by taking the reciprocal of the sales-weighted average of gallons per mile. This is called the harmonic average.

OK, so what's the source? Here it is:

1995-2009: Ibid., Highway Statistics (Washington, DC: Annual Issues), table VM-1, available at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics.cfm as of Apr. 20, 2011.

Great. So let's take a look at Table VM-1. It provides a figure of 23.8 mpg for all light-duty vehicles on the road in 2009. There's nothing there about about 2010 passenger cars in particular. So where does their data come from? Here's footnote 1:

The FHWA estimates national trends by using State reported Highway Performance and Monitoring System (HPMS) data, fuel consumption data (MF-21 and MF-27), vehicle registration data (MV-1, MV-9, and MV-10), other data such as the R. L. Polk vehicle data, and a host of modeling techniques. Starting with the 2009 VM-1, an enhanced methodology is used to provide timely indictors on both travel and travel behavior changes.

Hmmm. Table MF-21 estimates total 2009 gasoline usage of 132.8 billion gallons on highways and 3.8 billion gallons elsewhere. Table MF-27 provides a similar number for 2008.That's it. Table MV-1 informs us that there were 134.8 million automobiles registered in 2009. Tables MV-9 and MV-10 provide registration numbers for trucks and buses. None of that is helpful.

So apparently BTS's actual methodology is based on HPMS data "and a host of modeling techniques," not anything in those tables. That means I have no way to check their work. Still, does that 33.7 mpg figure seem credible? Using their 55%/45% split, that would mean an average city EPA rating of about 29 mpg and a highway rating of 39 mpg. That sure seems high to me. DOE's search site won't let me plug in those exact numbers, but when I ask for a list of all cars rated above 30 city and 40 highway, I get a grand total of 13 hits — and of those, eight are either Volkswagens or Smart cars, neither of which has a huge sales presence in the United States. What's more, as near as I can tell, not a single one of the top ten sellers in the United States in 2010 had a combined mileage of 33.7 mpg, and according to Ward's Automotive, only 4% of auto buyers in 2010 purchased cars with a combined mileage over 30 mpg, let alone 33.7 mpg.

Bottom line: If I had to guess, I'd say that somewhere between 2-5% of passenger car sales in 2010 had a combined mileage of 33.7 mpg. The average mileage of 2010 cars just has to be way less than that. If anyone has better data on this, please let me know.

1Or maybe not. In an update, Brad says this: "According to this Argonne study — and this analysis by the Department of Energy’s Jacob Ward— it takes about 6 kwh of energy to refine a gallon of gasoline, not 6 kwh of electricity, as I originally stated." Electric cars still come out looking pretty good, but quite that good.

Rick Perry: Caught in a Tea Party Spiderweb

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 4:11 PM EDT

Guess what? Rick Perry's energy-centric "jobs" plan turns out to be — surprise! — pretty much a joke. (A joke mostly stolen from the American Petroleum Instititute, but a joke nonetheless.) Aside from the usual heroic assumptions you'd expect in a campaign white paper, Perry basically pretends that President Obama plans to halt a bunch of stuff — natural gas fracking, pipelines to Canada, etc. — and then counts as new any job that results from not halting this stuff that, in reality, Obama has no plans to halt in the first place. And even at that, he only comes up with something like 100,000 new jobs per year. More likely, says Michael Levi, Perry's plan would produce, at most, about 50,000 new jobs per year.

Does this mean that Perry is unserious? Jonathan Bernstein says no: Perry is just reacting rationally to the environment he finds himself in:

Perry is confronted with a tough problem, and is taking a sensible way out. The tough problem is that doing policy in the GOP nomination contest is almost impossible. What motivates Tea Partiers and other enthusiastic primary voters? A lot of it is mythical, such as the imminent Obama crackdown on fracking seen here, or Obama's apology tour, or Obama's plans to seize everyone's guns, or all those IRS agents that Jon Huntsman was complaining about in last week's debate.

Others are internally contradictory; good luck proposing a budget that eliminates the deficit, cuts taxes, and doesn't cut spending on the military or current Medicare or SS payments. Still others are massively unpopular general election positions; that part is normal in all presidential nomination contests, but particularly an issue this time around. And hanging over all of it is the possibility that something on the approved list today could be the mark of a RINO tomorrow (see: Mitt Romney, health care reform). Not to mention that there are a half dozen or so "candidates" who are prone to making up stuff intended to ingratiate themselves to the crazies (well, it's really mainly three — Newt, Bachmann, Cain).

In that environment, calling for a tough stand against the mythical is an obvious and probably smart choice. Thus Mitt Romney's foreign policy, which appears to be entirely designed against opposition to mythical apologies, not to mention everyone's opposition to the mythical "Obamacare" version of ACA. And thus Rick Perry's energy plan.

There are only so many ways to say that the modern Republican Party is crazy. Plus it's depressing to think too hard about this. So I often find myself trawling around the internet looking for the interesting and humorous ways that other people are saying this. Jonathan wins today's prize for his Kinsley-esque explanation of why Rick Perry isn't a nitwit so much as he's merely caught up in the spiderweb of crazy that is today's GOP.

To illustrate this, here's a picture of the spiderweb outside my window. Does this seem like a stretch? Of course it is, but I've already given you pictures of the ducks, turtles, squirrels, mice, roses, birds, and, of course, cats that have inhabited my backyard from time to time. And I'm not going to stop until I've shown you everything. (The possum in our garage a couple of weeks ago scurried away too fast to get a picture. But next time I'll be ready.) So today you get a spiderweb. Next week, perhaps I'll be reduced to taking a picture of a grasshopper or something, and trying to make some kind of political parable out of it. But that's next week's problem.

UPDATE: I originally quoted Levi suggesting that Perry's plan would create about 25,000 jobs per year. However, via Twitter, he says the jobs are front loaded, so 50,000 is probably a better estimate for the first few years. I've corrected the text.

Chart of the Day: The Press Hates Barack Obama

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 12:26 PM EDT

You'd hardly know it from listening to the endless complaints about the lamestream media from movement conservatives, but guess which presidential candidate has gotten the worst press coverage over the past five months? The Pew Research Center took a look at all the Republicans running for president, and the answer is: none of them.

One man running for president has suffered the most unrelentingly negative treatment of all, the study found: Barack Obama. Though covered largely as president rather than a candidate, negative assessments of Obama have outweighed positive by a ratio of almost 4-1. Those assessments of the president have also been substantially more negative than positive every one of the 23 weeks studied. And in no week during these five months was more than 10% of the coverage about the president positive in tone.

The chart below tells the whole story. Anita Perry may think her husband has been "brutalized" over the past few weeks, but the numbers tell a different story. Rick Perry is actually the media's golden boy.

Now Less Than Ever

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 11:52 AM EDT

Over the weekend I flagged a blog post from Adam Ozimek called "Now Less Than Ever," but didn't get around to responding to it. Adam's post is framed around this assertion from economist Russ Roberts:

[Paul] Krugman is a Keynesian because he wants bigger government. I’m an anti-Keynesian because I want smaller government. Both of us can find evidence for our worldviews.

Before I get to Adam, I just want to add a comment about this. Krugman has already defended himself in the usual way — liberals aren't ideologically in favor of big government the same way conservatives are ideologically in favor of small government, and Keynesianism has never been about big government anyway — but I want to make another point. To the extent that Keynesianism has informed the liberal response to the financial meltdown of 2008, it's prompted support for temporary spending increases. But this is not something that liberals are generally for. It's just not. Outside of a recession, when was the last time you heard a bunch of lefties demanding a temporary increase in some program or another? Pretty much never. Various stripes of liberals may be in favor of various kinds of programs — national healthcare, carbon taxes, universal preschool, etc. — but the people who favor them want them to be permanent. Temporary globs of cash are very seldom on the liberal agenda.

For that reason, stimulus spending during a recession really isn't a matter of liberals taking advantage of a crisis for liberal ends. If we're going to allocate temporary piles of money, then sure: liberals would just as soon allocate it to stuff we support. But generally speaking, temporary spending just isn't, and has never been, part of the liberal agenda.

Now, on to Adam. It's easy to use a crisis like the current recession as an excuse to argue for stuff you've wanted all along (tax cuts, healthcare reform), but what about stuff you don't like? "Help prove Russ Roberts’ cynicism wrong," he says. "Tell us what favorite policies of yours we need Now Less Than Ever. These can be things that either would be downright harmful now, or that we simply shouldn’t be focusing on and aren’t as important as actual recession cures." Sure. Here's an example. A couple of months ago I proposed fighting the recession with a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. But:

That's the jobs plan. A trillion dollars to make us into a first-world country again. And as part of the enabling legislation, ask for emergency powers to temporarily streamline the regulatory red tape, interagency approval processes, environmental-impact statements, and labor rules that might otherwise keep the money from being put to work speedily.

As a mainstream liberal, I normally wouldn't favor watering down either environmental impact reviews or labor rules, even temporarily. But the problem with infrastructure as a stimulus is that it's slow. If we genuinely favor spending a lot of money on bridges and dams and schools to boost the economy now, we need a way to get these programs started quickly. That means making some compromises we'd normally hate.

How about you? What dearly held priorities would you be willing to (temporarily) give up in order to get the economy moving again?

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Should US Troops Be in Uganda?

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 11:17 AM EDT

Aside from the fact that Barack Obama did not, in fact, send troops to Uganda in order to "kill Christians," what should we think about the fact that he sent troops to Uganda in the first place? Needless to say, I'm far more hesitant about sending U.S. troops anywhere than I was a decade ago, but let's look at the circumstances:

  • The Lords Resistance Army is as worthy a target of being wiped out as any band of murderous fanatics in the world. We can't go after everyone, but the United States has been committed for some time to the integrity of both Uganda and the newly created South Sudan. If we're going to go after anyone, the LRA surely deserves to be near the top of the list.
  • It's a very small deployment. Sending a hundred trainers and advisors isn't in the same category as a full-scale commitment of troops and U.S. military power. And with the LRA now cut off from Khartoum, there's a realistic chance of getting rid of them for good at fairly low cost.
  • Unlike Libya, this deployment was authorized by Congress last year in the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. This, combined with the small scale of the operation, makes it constitutionally benign.
  • Finally, there's the question of whether this deployment will remain small as time goes by. On this score, I think Obama deserves the benefit of the doubt. The Libya operation may have been constitutionally suspect, but operationally Obama demonstrated that he was capable of putting limits on what the United States was willing to do and then sticking with it even under considerable pressure from our allies. And although he has escalated in Afghanistan, the escalation wasn't a matter of caving in to pressure from the military. It came only after very detailed discussion and planning, and it was consistent with everything he had been saying about Afghanistan for the previous two years.

Put this all together and I'm pretty much OK with this operation. I'd love to see the LRA cleansed from the face of the earth, and I think there's a decent chance of being able to do it now. This mission is, obviously, being done with the cooperation of the Ugandan government, it's small and focused, and there's every reason to think it will remain small and focused. This is not Iraq 2.0.

Our Enduring Love Affair With Small Towns

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 10:23 AM EDT

Michael O'Hare recounts his childhood growing up on Third Avenue in Manhattan and compares it to the big-box-big-business environment of today:

The big stores that sell me stuff cheap have even figured out a way to imitate the unrehearsed social intercourse of family-scaled retail. At the local Safeway, and Fry’s, and Best Buy, staff who are complete strangers greet me walking down an aisle with “Hi! How are you doing?” in a creditable imitation of the way people who know each other enough to care about the answer interact....Of course the effect of this robotic pseudo-friendliness is exactly the opposite of Mr. Fabrizio’s bending the comic book rule. The “hi’s” and eye contact at Best Buy are actually uglier; this distasteful little fakery is put on because it has been shown that people are less prone to shoplift if someone has made eye contact with them and uttered some sort of greeting. I have started reassuring these folks “don’t worry, I’m not planning to steal anything!” but they don’t seem pleased to hear it; indeed some give me an unmistakable fish eye. Odd.

The whole post is worth a read. When you're done, check out Paul Waldman's meditation on the value of a small-town upbringing in American politics. Growing up in a small town supposedly instills down-to-earth values and enduring virtues, but as Paul says, "The most important thing to understand about Perry's relationship to Paint Creek may be this: He got out." Indeed. They always do, don't they?

An Economics Bleg

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 7:49 AM EDT

A few days ago, Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post that the economy has gotten so bad that it really doesn't have much room to fall any further. In particular, housing and cars almost have to rebound at this point:

It is the simple math of recession. Consider housing, which is typically a major factor in recessions. At the peak of the last boom, Americans were spending $813 billion a year on residential investment. That figure bottomed out last year at only a $327 billion....Since hitting its low ebb, residential investment spending has rebounded only slightly, to a $336 billion annual rate this past spring. That means that, mathematically, it would be impossible for a new housing downturn to be as powerful an economic drain now as it was over the past several years; there isn’t $500 billion worth of housing activity left to vanish.

....The same dynamic applies in other areas. Americans bought more than 16 million cars and light trucks in 2006, before the economic downturn. That fell to about 10 million in 2009. The 6 million fewer cars that were sold that year was another major factor in the economic contraction, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs at automakers and their suppliers. But auto sales have rebounded to only about 13 million a year, meaning that there is not as much room to fall if waning consumer confidence again leads Americans to become ultra-cautious.

This is an argument that several other people have made in somewhat different form. Brad DeLong frequently points out that housing has been underbuilt since 2006 far more than it was overbuilt in 2000-05. So there should be a lot of pent-up demand for new housing. Likewise, Karl Smith has pointed out that the U.S. auto fleet is aging, and as old cars get scrapped more people will be forced into both the used and new car markets. So the auto market is likely to pick up.

This all makes sense, with one caveat: no matter how much they want them, people will buy new houses and new cars only if they have the money. If they don't, they won't — at least, not in the same dollar volume as they did in the past.

So how do we know if people have enough money to start buying stuff? Well, for most of us there are three basic sources of money:

  • Cash income, mostly from wages and investments.
  • Credit, mostly from auto loans, HELOCs, and credit cards.
  • Savings. You have more money if you draw down savings, and less if you boost your savings rate.

So what's the size of each of these components? The answers are pretty easily available from public sources, though not always as quickly as we'd like. But there's a problem: I don't think it makes much sense to look at the overall aggregates. You need to know the distribution. The top 10% of wage earners make so much that fairly small changes in their supply of money can swamp fairly large changes in the bottom 90%, and that can be badly misleading. Why? Because changes in the top 10% don't matter that much: their spending on ordinary consumer goods doesn't change a lot when their incomes go up or down by modest amounts.

So what I'd like to know is the size of those three components solely for the bottom 90%, the segment of the population that's more sensitive to changes in their supply of money. For wage income that's fairly easy to come by, but I don't know if it's available for the other pieces. So here's my question to the economic community: Are these numbers available? If they are, how do they compare to 2000-07? And what does the trend look like?

Or, alternatively, am I overthinking this? Are the gross aggregates actually perfectly good indicators of the spending power of the American consumer? I think that looking just at the bottom 90% would be useful, but maybe I'm wrong. Anyone care to weigh in?

The Senate is a 60-Vote Body

| Sun Oct. 16, 2011 6:04 PM EDT

I don't usually engage in too much back-and-forth blogging, since this rarely results in more light than heat. However, my Saturday post responding to James Fallows was so badly misconstrued in comments that I obviously expressed myself poorly. Let me take another crack at it.

Fallows was annoyed at a Washington Post story about the defeat of Obama's jobs bill which (a) implied that No votes from two Democrats were somehow more important than unanimous opposition from Republicans, (b) didn't mention that the bill was filibustered, (c) treated a cloture vote as if it was a vote on the bill itself, and (d) rather laughably suggested that the two Democratic No votes had somehow given cover to Republicans who might otherwise have voted Yes.

I'm on board with all of these items except for (c). The current reality of American politics is that cloture votes are, for all practical purposes, not mere "procedural votes," they're votes on the bill itself. The current reality is that bills require 60 votes to pass the Senate. But in comments to the original post, Fallows says this:

The more important point, which I tried to stress, is that nowhere in the WaPo piece did the writer explain why a bill would "fail" with 51 Yes votes, how it had happened that 60 votes were required, that this was a filibuster-threat, or that we were dealing with a historically new situation. Yes, reporters should reflect the reality of a changed situation. But they should mention that it has changed, as this story did not.

This is a legitimate complaint, and it's one I've made a number of times myself. But now I think we should go further. Unfortunately, I prefaced my disagreement with Fallows by saying "I'm on the Post's side." This led a whole bunch of people to think that I was pulling some kind of "reasonableness" schtick and suggesting that Fallows was being a little too radical. That's exactly the opposite of what I intended.

So let me try again. What Fallows is suggesting is that the Post story should have explained that the bill was filibustered, it should have explained that this was why it failed with 51 votes, and it should have explained that routine use of the filibuster is a historic anomaly instituted by Republicans a few years ago. And that's fine. But it's no longer enough.

These aren't filibusters in the heroic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sense, which is how most people react to the word. So rather than tediously explaining the evolution of the filibuster in every story, something that probably isn't really practical anyway, I think the American news audience simply needs to be repeatedly exposed to the plain fact that the Senate is now a 60-vote body. Maybe then they'll start wondering why.

So: Cloture votes should be treated as if they were votes on the bill itself because, in practice, they usually are. And news stories should explain that nowadays it takes 60 votes to pass a bill. This doesn't require a longwinded explanation in every story about a Senate vote, it just requires a short and simple statement.

Whether you agree or disagree, this is, I think, more extreme than Fallows's position. It's time to stop pretending that each vote is some kind of historical aberration. News consumers simply need to be exposed, over and over, to the simple reality that the Senate is now a 60-vote body. Maybe this will get them fired up, maybe it won't. But it's more accurate than the current practice and, I think, more accurate and more practical than Fallows's suggestion.