Kevin Drum - December 2011

Quantifying the Blowhard Factor, Newt Gingrich Edition

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 2:30 PM EST

Jon Chait's move to New York magazine has been annoying for two reasons. First, he doesn't blog as much as he used to. Second, the only way to read his occasional posts is to plow through New York's entire effing Daily Intel blog and pick them out from among the endless Big Apple-oriented detritus that I don't care about. On the bright side, though, all this plowing has introduced me to Dan Amira, who's worth the price of admission.

(But only barely, Dan. Can't you convince the powers-that-be to give you and Chait your own blog so I can more easily ignore the rest of the riffraff?)

Anyway, here he is today with a lexicographic tour of the mind of Newt Gingrich:

By now, we've all become familiar with Newt Gingrich's habit of using a few choice adverbs to make the things he says sound just a bit more intelligent to his listeners. Profoundly. Deeply. Frankly. But none of them are as vital to the Gingrich lexicon as fundamentally (along with its cousin, the adjective fundamental).

....To give you a more complete understanding of how compulsively Gingrich abuses his favorite words, I searched Nexis transcripts and news accounts with the goal of plucking out every single phrase in which he uttered them. I started in the present day, and made it all the way to the beginning of 2007 before I had to stop, for my own health and sanity, which, according to my editors, was beginning to suffer in noticeable ways....Scroll onward, if you dare, to behold all loosely alphabetized 418 entries.

"fundamentally a falsehood"
"fundamentally a lie"
"fundamentally a violation of international law"
"fundamentally about reassessing our entire strategy in the region"

[410 more....]

"fundamentally wrong with it"
"fundamentally wrong with the current system"
"fundamentally wrong with the system"
"fundamentally wrong with weakness in America"

Now that's what Lexis was invented for and what blogging is all about: to quantify just how big a blowhard Newt Gingrich is. Kudos.

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War, Endless War

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 1:21 PM EST

A few days ago I brought up the idea that the original Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed a week after the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, was obsolete. The AUMF authorizes action against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and anyone who harbored them, but it was al-Qaeda central that was responsible for 9/11, and the CIA says that we've now killed all but a couple of their leaders and a few dozen of their foot soldiers. All that's left is the Taliban, which is the target of a very specific military campaign in Afghanistan.

I didn't take any of this too seriously, figuring that no one in Congress really seemed to care. They'd just go on assuming that the AUMF authorizes anything the president feels like doing, and since there's no one who can stop them, it was all a moot point. But no! I didn't realize this, but the terrorist detention bill sponsored by senators Carl Levin and John McCain specifically renews and expands the AUMF to include anyone who "substantially supports" al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or "associated forces." Glenn Greenwald is predictably appalled:

There are several very revealing aspects to all of this. First, the 9/11 attack happened more than a decade ago; Osama bin Laden is dead; the U.S. Government claims it has killed virtually all of Al Qaeda’s leadership and the group is “operationally ineffective” in the Afghan-Pakistan region; and many commentators insisted that these developments would mean that the War on Terror would finally begin to recede. And yet here we have the Congress, on a fully bipartisan basis, acting not only to re-affirm the war but to expand it even further: by formally declaring that the entire world (including the U.S.) is a battlefield and the war will essentially go on forever.

Indeed, it seems clear that they are doing this precisely out of fear that the justifications they have long given for the War no longer exist and there is therefore a risk Americans will clamor for its end. This is Congress declaring: the War is more vibrant than ever and must be expanded further.

As before, I don't know how much concrete difference this makes. Congress hasn't made a peep over our Yemen operations and only barely roused itself to notice the Libya war. But Glenn is right: apparently some of them have noticed an embarrassing loose end or two, and they want to make sure no one can pester them over it. From now on, military force will be perpetually pre-authorized against anyone who "supports" any group "associated" with something that looks like al-Qaeda. In other words, pretty much anyone at all.

Republicans Agree: Newt Is a Walking Time Bomb

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 12:37 PM EST

Hooray! We have bipartisan agreement at last. Political insiders on both sides of the aisle agree: Newt Gingrich would be a disaster for Republicans. National Journal quantifies this for us today:

This comes via Jonathan Bernstein, who gleefully passes along the following quotes:

  • “Winning the presidency is all about discipline, focus, and organization,” said one Republican Insider, “none of which are strong suits for Gingrich.”
  • “With Newt, we go to bed every night thinking that tomorrow might be the day he implodes,” said another Republican. “Not good for our confidence — or fundraising.”
  • A third Republican stated plainly, “Gingrich is not stable enough emotionally to be the nominee — let alone, the president.”
  • “Bigfoot dressed as a circus clown would have a better chance of beating President Obama than Newt Gingrich, a similarly farcical character,” quipped a Republican.
  • “Come on,” sighed another GOP Insider, “the White House is probably giving money to Gingrich as we speak.”

I guess Newt still has a wee bit of confidence building to do. But he's a master of language as a key mechanism of control, so I'm sure he's up to the job.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 12:13 PM EST

The chart below shows net job growth every month since 2008. Why net? Because the U.S. population increases every month, which means you need a certain number of new jobs just to tread water. This chart subtracts that out to show the true net growth in employment.

I've run this chart before, but there are a couple of changes this time. First, per Dean Baker, I'm now using 90,000 as the number of jobs needed to keep pace with population growth. Second, I finally got off my ass and automated the whole thing on FRED instead of redrawing it every time I do this. You can link to it here and juggle the numbers yourself if you feel like it.

Bottom line: the number of net new jobs added in November was about 30,000. That's better than zero, but not a lot better.

Good News Today, But Not Quite as Good as You Think

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 10:56 AM EST

The unemployment rate fell last month to 8.6%. Hooray! But that seems odd since the country added only 120,000 new jobs, which should be just barely enough for us to keep treading water. Phil Izzo tells us what happened:

In October, the household survey showed the number of people unemployed fell by 594,000, but the labor force — the number of people working or looking for work — fell by a little more than half that amount. That means that though the number of employed people rose, a large group just stopped looking for work. That could be due to discouragement of the long-term unemployed or by choice over retirement or child care. So the decline in the unemployment rate to 8.6% was about half due to people finding jobs and half people dropping out.

There's enough slop in the difference between the establishment survey (which gives us the number of new jobs) and the household survey (which gives us the unemployment number) that there's a fair degree of uncertainty here. But the establishment survey is bigger and generally more accurate, and it just doesn't support the idea that there's been a huge uptick in employment. So take this as good news, but probably not quite as good as the headline number suggests.

A Little Straight Talk on National Defense

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 6:00 AM EST
A paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division’s “Devil Brigade” aims his M240-B crew-served machine gun.

The Economist's Roger McShane is unimpressed with all the doom-mongering over proposed cuts to the Pentagon budget:

So by how much will the defence budget decline over the next decade? That could be seen as a trick question, because in nominal terms it will grow. Prior to the supercommittee's failure, the defence budget was slated to increase some 23% between 2012 and 2021. Now, according to Veronique de Rugy, the Pentagon will have to make do with a 16% boost…Or to put it another way, as Lawrence Korb does, the "sequestration will return defense spending in real terms to its FY 2007 level, the next to last year of the Bush administration, when no one was complaining about devastating levels of spending."

…But these numbers have not quieted the critics. And perhaps the most ardent among them has been [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta. My colleague cites a statement from the secretary, in which he lists the tragic results of a 16% increase: "We would be left with our smallest ground force since 1940, the fewest ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history." Here's another fact: America already has the fewest ships since 1916, despite a 70% increase in defence spending between 2001 and 2010.

We could, of course, have thousands of ships and tens of thousands of warplanes if we wanted. But that would mean buying lots of PT boats and swarms of F-4s instead of a dozen Nimitz- and Ford-class supercarrier groups and a few hundred F-35s. We don't have a small number of ships and planes because we're too cheap to buy more, we have them because that's what the Pentagon wants. Modern war makes a small number of superadvanced weapons systems more effective than a bunch of cheap cannon fodder.

Defense hawks like to insist that we should judge the Pentagon budget as a percentage of GDP. The Bill Kristol contingent, for example, claims that we should never allow defense spending to fall below 4 percent of GDP. But is this a sensible way of looking at things? For some programs it is. Social Security and Medicare, for example, are both inherently tied to population growth and living standards, so as those go up so will outlays. But in other areas this doesn't make so much sense. Do we need more embassies overseas just because our GDP has grown? Not really. There will be some increase in wages that's tied to economic growth, but that's about it.

National defense falls into this category. The United States is no harder or easier to defend when our economy grows, so it's foolish to pretend that defense spending as a percentage of GDP should remain constant. It should go up when we're at war, or when external threats are high for some reason, and it should go down in other times.

This is one of those other times. Despite the best efforts of defense hawks to jangle nerves over China, the plain fact is that China remains a minuscule military threat and probably will remain so for the foreseeable future. We aren't going to start a land war in Asia, after all. Spending on cybersecurity will increase in the future, but it's still a nit in the grand scheme of Pentagon spending. On other fronts, Al Qaeda is all but dead, and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. We'll continue to keep troops in the Middle East and (for better or worse) we'll continue with our drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. But those are pretty cheap. As scary as terrorism might be, the fact is that it's primarily an intelligence expense. On a pure military basis, it's simply not a big-ticket threat.

So can we afford to reduce defense spending to 2007 levels? Of course we can. The world is not more dangerous today than it was in 2007, and there's no a priori reason it should cost more to defend the security of the United States today than it did in 2007. We might spend that money differently, of course. Perhaps the Pentagon will decide it would rather have a thousand more drones instead of a single additional supercarrier group. That might well make sense since the mission of supercarrier groups is becoming fuzzier all the time in an era of primarily asymmetric warfare.

The supercommittee sequestration will require the Pentagon to find additional cuts of about $50 billion per year in its budget. To pretend that this would make us virtually defenseless is to insult our collective intelligence. We can make that cut and still have the most powerful military on the planet by a factor of five or six. If that doesn't make you feel safe, nothing will.

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Newt Gingrich Loves Freddie Mac

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 1:55 AM EST

Newt Gingrich in November 2011, asked what he told Freddie Mac when he was consulting for them in 2006-07:

My advice as a historian, when they walked in and said to me, "We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that's what the government wants us to do," as I said to them at the time, this is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible.

Newt Gingrich in April 2007, during an in-house interview promoting the virtues of Freddie Mac, uncovered today by Morgen Richmond of the blog Verum Serum:

I think it is telling that there is strong bipartisan support for maintaining the GSE model in housing. There is not much support for the idea of removing the GSE charters from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And I think it’s clear why. The housing GSEs have made an important contribution to homeownership and the housing finance system.

....Millions of people have entered the middle class through building wealth in their homes, and there is a lot of evidence that homeownership contributes to stable families and communities. These are results I think conservatives should embrace and want to extend as widely as possible. So while we need to improve the regulation of the GSEs, I would be very cautious about fundamentally changing their role or the model itself.

Hmmm. He seemed much more....upbeat....back when he was getting paid $1.6 million for his historical advice, didn't he? I guess the "insane" part must have been delivered only in private. Richmond comments:

Either he knew Freddie Mac’s lending practices were contributing to an unsustainable housing bubble headed for collapse, as he now claims, and yet accepted money to publicly defend them anyway. On their web site. Or he is now stretching the truth about his assessment of Freddie Mac’s problems at the time, and the advice he privately gave to their management.

Roger that. Newt's defense is (surprise!) that he's changed his mind since 2007. I'll bet you didn't see that one coming.

Neville Chamberlain Not a Good Reason to Invade Iran

| Thu Dec. 1, 2011 6:43 PM EST

Max Boot has a piece in the LA Times today arguing that we should take a much tougher stand against Iran than we have so far:

In retrospect, weakness in the face of aggression is almost impossible to understand — or forgive. Why did the West do so little while the Nazis gathered strength in the 1930s? While the Soviet Union enslaved half of Europe and fomented revolution in China in the late 1940s? And, again, while Al Qaeda gathered strength in the 1990s? Those questions will forever haunt the reputations of the responsible statesmen, from Neville Chamberlain to Bill Clinton.

....Western policymakers have implicitly made the same assumption today that their predecessors made in the 1930s, 1940s and 1990s: that an immediate war, even one fought on favorable terms, is to be feared more than a looming cataclysm that is likely to occur at some indefinite point in the not-too-distant future. That was the right decision to make with Stalin's Russia; it was tragically wrongheaded with Hitler's Germany and the Taliban/Al Qaeda.

I was glad that I ended up reading the whole piece, because when Boot mentioned Stalin's takeover of Eastern Europe I thought maybe he'd lost his mind. But no: in the very last paragraph, he admits that not starting up a new war with the Soviet Union after Hitler's fall was the right thing to do. It was a terrible thing to do, but still the right thing.

But without that, Boot is left with only two examples: Neville Chamberlain, poster boy of the hawkish right for over 70 years now, and Bill Clinton. And Clinton isn't even a very good example: al-Qaeda didn't truly start to seem dangerous until 1998, and Clinton actually kept a fair amount of attention focused on them. It wasn't enough — primarily because the CIA and the Pentagon, like the American right, refused to take non-state terrorism seriously at the time — but it wasn't an example of appeasement. So at best, let's call it one and a half examples.

But here's what's interesting: when hawkish right-wing types make this argument, they always haul out poor old Neville Chamberlain. Boot throws in Bill Clinton, probably more for partisan reasons than because he truly believes Clinton was soft on al-Qaeda. But that's not exactly a complete history of softness toward potential enemies. When China turned communist in 1949, we let it happen. That was a good decision. When Vietnam did the same we eventually sent half a million troops over, and that turned out to be a bad decision. France took an aggressive stand in Algeria, and the Soviet Union did likewise in Afghanistan, and those were also pretty bad decisions in retrospect.

Sometimes aggressive action is a good idea. Sometimes containment is a good idea. Sometimes international pressure is a good idea. And sometimes just sitting back and letting events unfold for a while is a good idea. If you want to make the case for flattening Iran, you need to actually make the case for why it's worth it. We've gotten — or should have gotten — way past the point where you can just yell "Neville Chamberlain!" and expect anyone to take you seriously.

A Fat Cat Explains Basic Economics

| Thu Dec. 1, 2011 2:52 PM EST

Zillionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer says his marginal propensity to consume is lower than mine:

Since 1980, the share of the nation’s income for fat cats like me in the top 0.1 percent has increased a shocking 400 percent, while the share for the bottom 50 percent of Americans has declined 33 percent. At the same time, effective tax rates on the superwealthy fell to 16.6 percent in 2007....In my case, that means that this year, I paid an 11 percent rate on an eight-figure income. 

One reason this policy is so wrong-headed is that there can never be enough superrich Americans to power a great economy. The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the average American, but we don’t buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like most American men. Like everyone else, I go out to eat with friends and family only occasionally.

....I can’t buy enough of anything to make up for the fact that millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans can’t buy any new clothes or enjoy any meals out. Or to make up for the decreasing consumption of the tens of millions of middle-class families that are barely squeaking by, buried by spiraling costs and trapped by stagnant or declining wages.

If the average American family still got the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would have an astounding $13,000 more in their pockets a year. It’s worth pausing to consider what our economy would be like today if middle-class consumers had that additional income to spend.

The rest is worth a read. We need entrepreneurs, but we need a thriving middle class even more. Washington DC's centrist punditocracy needs to have this pounded into their skulls.

(Via Jared Bernstein.)

Ask For More!

| Thu Dec. 1, 2011 2:18 PM EST

E.J. Graff asked all the men to leave the room before she linked to this reddit piece below, but I didn't. It's from an HR person at a tech company explaining why women routinely get lower salary offers than men:

The reason they don't keep up, from where I sit, is simple. Often, a woman will enter the salary negotiation phase and I'll tell them a number will be sent to them in a couple days. Usually we start around $45k for an entry level position. 50% to 60% of the women I interview simply take this offer. It's insane, I already know I can get authorization for more if you simply refuse. Inversely, almost 90% of the men I interview immediately ask for more upon getting the offer.

The next major mistake happens with how they ask for more. In general, the women I have negotiated with will say 45k is not enough and they need more, but not give a number. I will then usually give a nominal bump to 48k or 50k. Company policy wont let me bump more than 5k over the initial offer unless they specifically request more. On the other hand, men more frequently will come back with a number along the lines of 65k to 75k, and I will be forced to negotiate down from there. After this phase, almost all women will take the offer or move on to somewhere else, not knowing they could have gotten more if they asked.

At the end, most of the women I hire make between 45k and 50k, whereas the men make between 60k and 70k. Even more crazy, they ask for raises far less often, so the disparity only grows.

I apologize for sticking around, but there's a reason. I've run into this before myself, and have always told women "Just ask! The worst that can happen is that they say no." But that's not actually the case. Here's a bit of research on the subject:

Their study...found that women's reluctance [to negotiate] was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did...."What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not," Bowles said. "They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not."

So listen up, boys: there's a reason women don't negotiate as hard as men. Several of them, in fact. But one of these reasons is that men treat them shabbily when they do. So knock it off. Tell the women you love to negotiate the same as you would, and when they do, don't hold it against them. OK?