Kevin Drum - November 2011

The Pentagon's Bulging Toy Chest

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 5:57 PM EDT

Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, writes to the New York Times to defend himself against the slander of caring about jobs:

To be clear, as a fiscal conservative I have never supported policies that advance government expenditure for the express purpose of job creation. Indeed, I believe that the private sector is far better equipped to promote lasting jobs growth than Washington will ever be.

....Congress is charged by the Constitution with providing for the common defense by raising and supporting our armed forces. We don’t spend tax dollars to protect American jobs, but to protect American lives. As such, it is accurate to point out that cuts in defense spending will cripple a critical industry, result in huge job losses and erode our ability to provide for the common defense.

Fine. McKeon doesn't care about jobs. He's a Republican, after all. But would cuts in the defense budget really "cripple" the defense industry? Adam Weinstein directs our attention to a new study from the Stimson Center that  suggests the Pentagon's cupboard isn't quite as bare as they'd like you to believe:

The study shows there's one big reason the brass are concerned about budget-cutting discussions in Congress: They've been double dipping into the taxpayer's pocket to finance weapons purchases. Of the roughly $1 trillion spent on gadgetry since 9/11, 22 percent of it came from "supplemental" war funding—annual outlays that are voted on separately from the regular defense budget. Those bills are primarily intended to keep day-to-day operations running in Iraq and Afghanistan—meaning that if a member of Congress votes against a supplemental spending bill, she exposes herself to charges that she doesn't "support the troops" in harm's way.

But once the services got the supplemental money, they managed to spend $232.8 billion of it back home on the manufacture of costly weapons like Abrams heavy battle tanks and the troubled F-22 jet fighter—neither of which has proven particularly useful in counterinsurgency warfare.

There's more at the link. Bottom line, though, is that the Stimson report suggests that the Pentagon has very successfully modernized its forces over the past decade and isn't quite the red-headed stepchild McKeon makes them out to be. If budgets need to be cut, the Pentagon will just have to figure out where its fat is like everyone else.

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OMG! It's ODS at the G-20

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 1:58 PM EDT

Dan Drezner encounters Obama Derangement Syndrome in the wild today and is revolted. You see, the Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper is outraged that at today's G-20 meeting President Obama hugged Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, someone who, as Dan points out, is an American friend and ally. But Halper is outraged anyway, because "Turkey has made its hostility to Israel abundantly clear." Dan has a question:

To be blunt about it, is Israel now America's ally uber alles? If other countries disagree with Israel, does that mean, in Goldfarb's eyes, that they no longer qualify as either friend or ally? Are there any other of America's friends that fall into this super-special status? I really want to know.

I think the answers are Yes, Yes, and probably Yes. I'm thinking of France for question 3, but I suppose there are others too. That's life in the fever swamps.

An Abortion Law Even Conservatives Balk At

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 1:21 PM EDT

Tim Murphy directs my attention to the very conservative Haley Barbour today. Barbour says he's having second thoughts about a Mississippi ballot measure that would define human life as beginning at the moment of fertilization:

I believe life begins at conception. Unfortunately, this personhood amendment doesn't say that. It says life begins at fertilization, or cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof....I am concerned about some of the ramifications on in vitro fertilization and ectopic pregnancies where pregnancies [occur] outside the uterus and [in] the fallopian tubes. That concerns me, I have to just say it.

Since I'm basically fine with abortion under nearly all circumstances, I don't normally pay a lot of attention to the minutiae of when, down to the second, conservatives believe that life begins. But is this for real? It's like counting angels on the head of a pin. Life, Haley is suggesting, begins not at fertilization, for some reason, but only at conception — which means what? Implantation in the uterus? But if that's the case, then the Plan B emergency contraceptive should be fine and dandy, shouldn't it?

But the anti-abortion crowd hates Plan B. And they're OK with in vitro fertilization. Even by their standards, does this make any sense? Do I really have to start reading up on this stuff, or can I continue ignoring it the way I have for the past 50 years?

(And yes, just to forestall the obvious, I know perfectly well what's going on. Plan B = sluts who can't control their animal urges. In vitro = loving married couples who just want to have a family. So one way or another, conservatives have to figure out a way to oppose the former and support the latter. But it's tougher than it sounds, isn't it?)

Cain Invents a Cover Story for His Nuclear Blunder

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 12:31 PM EDT

Ah. I see that Herman Cain has revised and expanded his remarks the other day about the nature of China's nuclear arsenal:

Maybe I misspoke. What I meant was China does not have the size of the nuclear capability that we have. They do have a nuclear capability. I was talking about their total nuclear capability. So that's what I meant by that.

Roger that. This is why I'm annoyed at Judy Woodruff for not following up on Cain's original statement in her interview on Monday. She didn't have to be confrontational about it. Just a flat, non-leading followup would have been fine. Something like this:

What exactly do you mean when you say China is "trying to develop" nuclear capability?

At that point, Cain either says something that makes it clear he knows China has nukes and he's actually talking about something else, or else Cain says something along the lines of "Well, I've seen reports in the news media that China would like to develop nuclear weapons, and that's something we can't allow."

Instead, she did nothing, and that gave Cain plenty of time to invent a cover story and then retail it to a friendly interviewer. What a wasted opportunity.

Greece is Doomed! Greece is Saved!

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 12:12 PM EDT

Things move fast in the eurozone. Here's the latest bullet-point summary from the Guardian as of an hour ago:

  • The plan for a referendum on Greece's membership of the eurozone has been cancelled. Prime minister admits to cabinet that it cannot go ahead.
  • There is now growing acceptance that a National Unity government may need to be created. But it is unclear if the New Democracy opposition will agree.
  • UK admits that it may have to pay more into the IMF to support financial recovery. David Cameron says it's the right thing to do
  • Finance minister Evangelos Venizelos forces PM's hand in early morning speech. Eurozone membership too important, he said
  • European Central Bank cuts interest rates. Mario Draghi lowers borrowing costs to 1.25%

Well, that whole referendum thing didn't last long, did it? What's unclear to me is what Prime Minister George Papandreou's original goal was. Option A: He wanted to use the threat of a referendum — and a possible No vote — as leverage to get a better deal out of Germany and France. Option B: He wanted to use the referendum as a way of forcing his own citizens — and his political rivals — to come firmly to grips with the cost of rejecting the deal on offer from France and Germany.

I sort of assumed originally that Option A was his motivation, but in the end it looks like maybe it was really Option B. Papandreou had spent months negotiating this deal and felt like it was the best Greece was going to get. But riots in the streets were continuing, his own party was rebelling, and the opposition was licking its chops at the possibility of the government falling. So he wanted to force everyone's hand with something dramatic. The referendum, it turns out, was probably his version of a come-to-Jesus moment. Do you really want the government to fall? Do you really want to reject the deal and (probably) exit the euro and leave the European Union? The answer, it turns out, is that everyone blinked. Maybe the deal isn't so bad after all. Maybe a government of national unity isn't a such bad idea either.

Anyway, that's the latest. Stay tuned.

(And keep in mind that even if Greece now accepts its fate and takes the deal, there's still plenty of skepticism that the deal is enough to save the eurozone. The fat lady hasn't sung yet.)

Poll: Even Wingers Think That Wingers are Tanking the Economy

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 11:05 AM EDT

Via Steve Benen, here's a fascinating little poll result. It's from Suffolk University, and it's limited to registered voters in Florida, but it's still the first time I've ever seen this question polled:

Do you think the Republicans are intentionally stalling efforts to jumpstart the economy to insure that Barack Obama is not re-elected?

Results are below. What's interesting isn't just that half of all voters think the answer is yes, it's the breakdown: A quarter of all Republicans and a third of all conservatives also think the answer is yes. In other words, this isn't just a liberal conspiracy theory. Even a lot of conservatives recognize what's going on. I wouldn't make too much of a single state poll, but those numbers are high enough that they might represent a glimmering recognition of something that's only been Beltway chatter up to now. If even their own supporters start to believe that they're deliberately tanking the economy for partisan gain, it could spell trouble for Republicans.1 It would be interesting to see further polling on this question at a national level.

1Assuming, of course, that conservatives who understand what's going on actually disapprove of this. If they hate Obama enough, they might think it's actually a fine and dandy strategy.

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The Eerie Influence of Grover Norquist

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 1:30 AM EDT

The Washington Post tells us today that several dozen Republican members of Congress have decided to brave the wrath of Grover Norquist:

A group of 40 House Republicans for the first time Wednesday encouraged Congress’s deficit reduction committee to explore new revenue as part of a broad deal that would make a major dent in the nation’s debt, joining 60 Democrats in a rare bipartisan effort to urge the “supercommittee” to reach a big deal that could also include entitlement cuts.

....Among those who signed were several dozen Republicans who had previously signed a pledge promising they would not support a net tax increase....Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) said if he had a nickel for every one of the Republicans who said they supported the letter’s goal but feared how Norquist would react, “I’d be rich and retired, and we’d have 200 signatures on the letter.”

LaTourette, a close ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said the new coalition was a sign that Republican leaders are now willing to unite with Democrats on a grand bargain that would address both revenue and entitlements, even if it meant leaving behind some of the GOP’s hardline voices.

Even after all these years, I continue to marvel at the bizarre stranglehold that Norquist has on the Republican Party. Sure, LaTourette is exaggerating for effect, but if there are even a hundred Republicans who are tired of Norquist's schtick, why don't they band together to tell him to go to hell? His power depends on being able to pick off individual congressmen who stray from the oath, but he can't pick off a hundred at a time. One small show of collective action and they'd be free of him.

I conclude from this that LaTourette is being duped. Lots of Republicans tell him privately that they'd support him if it weren't for Norquist's baneful influence, but it's just a snow job. They really don't support him at all, and Norquist is just a convenient foil to hide behind. That may not be true for all of them, but I'll bet it's true for most. After all, collective action is what national political parties are all about. It isn't really all that hard to come up with if its members are truly serious about something.

The Very Lucrative Pro Sports Business

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 12:20 AM EDT

The LA Times reports on the upcoming sale of the Dodgers:

The winning bidder is expected to pay owner Frank McCourt in excess of $1 billion for the team, its stadium and the surrounding parking lots....All summer and into the fall, McCourt — who purchased the Dodgers for $421 million in 2004 — sought to maintain control of his team by taking it into bankruptcy.

Amazing. That's an appreciation of about 12% per year for a team that McCourt has all but ruined and a business that he and his wife have looted of hundreds of millions of dollars. It's something to keep in mind when owners of sports teams weep about how much money they're losing — usually when they're begging for government subsidies or badmouthing greedy players. But businesses that are truly losing money don't usually see their market caps increase by 12% a year, do they?

Quote of the Day: Time for Congress to Start Spending

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 6:12 PM EDT

From Ben Bernanke, at a press conference today:

We are trying to do our best to support economic growth and job creation. It would be helpful if we could get assistance from some other parts of the government to work with us to help create more jobs.

Bernanke's comments about Congress and its budget-cutting mania keep getting more pointed every time he speaks. It's not likely to do him any good, of course, but at the rate he's going I predict that sometime around April of next year he's just going to give up and say something like, "Will you guys stop griping about the damn budget, get off your butts, and build a few effin bridges instead? Jesus." I have helpfully illustrated this progression below with quotes helpfully compiled by Steve Benen.

The High Cost of Overturning the Individual Mandate

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 1:56 PM EDT

Aaron Carroll is unimpressed by a Politico piece suggesting that getting rid of the hated individual mandate might take some of the steam out of opposition to the healthcare reform law:

Here’s what I think. Support for the law likely closely tracks support for a political party....I have yet to see any convincing data that show there’s a significant portion of America that loves the ACA, but hates the mandate. I see no politicians running on a platform of removing the mandate, but leaving the rest of the law intact. I see no reason to believe that dropping the mandate will do anything to increase support for the President, the Democrats, or the ACA.

Roger that. Opposition to ACA is as much down to cultural markers as it is to substantive objections to what the law does. On the other hand, I'm not sure the chart on the right makes quite the point Aaron implies. What it shows is that if the mandate is overturned, premiums will go up for everyone who does buy health insurance. In theory, that's a point in favor of the mandate: it keeps average premium costs lower. In reality, it means that if the mandate is overturned, opponents will simply have one more rock to throw at ACA. They said premiums would be affordable, but look! They're out of control! The only answer is to repeal the whole law.

Which is more or less what Aaron thinks opponents will say regardless of any actual facts or evidence. And he's right.