• No Deal Yet


    Obama on TV: no deal yet.

    I will concede—grudgingly—that if Ezra Klein is right about the current state of the talks, things might not be quite as bad as I suggested in my earlier post. Here’s Ezra:

    Here are the details, as multiple sources close to the talks have described them to me: The top tax rate rises to 39.6 percent for individuals making more than $400,000 and families making more than $450,000. Capital gains and dividends will be taxed at 20 percent with the same income thresholds. The Personal Exemption Phaseout (PEP) is set at $250,000 and the itemized deduction limitation (Pease) kicks in at $300,000. The AMT is patched permanently. The estate tax would exempt estates up to $10 million and tax them at 40 percent above that.

    The various business tax credits — R&D, wind, etc — would be extended through 2013, as would unemployment insurance. The stimulus tax credits — namely, the expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the college credit — would be extended for five years, which is hugely important to the White House. The scheduled cuts to doctors in Medicare would be averted through spending offsets that neither side considers injurious. The treatment of the sequester is still up in the air, as the president is refusing to offset it unless revenues are part of the mix.

    Like many of us, I shall now go watch some football and wait for the parameters of an actual deal to be announced.

  • Fiscal Cliff Talks Now Entering La-La-Land Stage


    I have deliberately ignored the fiscal cliff machinations over the past few days. It’s a holiday weekend, after all, and the rumors and reports of rumors barely seemed worth acknowledging anyway.

    But the 11th hour is now upon us, so where are we? As near as I can tell, we’re in la-la-land. A grand bargain has been off the table ever since John Boehner fell on his face when his own colleagues wouldn’t support his “Plan B” proposal, so now we’re looking at a non-grand bargain. Supposedly, this will just be a small deal that keeps middle-class income taxes from rising but not much else.

    So what’s the latest gossip? Well, over the weekend Republicans briefly tried to insist that Social Security be cut (via adoption of chained CPI), but then backed down immediately when it became clear that they’d actually have to take ownership of the idea, rather than pretending that it was a Democratic demand and they were merely acquiescing to it. As usual, when it comes to entitlement cuts, Republicans like to talk a big game, but are unwilling to make actual proposals that they can be held accountable for.

    So now what? Supposedly, Republicans are now suggesting a deal in which taxes go up for those making over $450,000, rather than those making over $250,000. This is ridiculous. Not only would it raise only a tiny sum, but it won’t even have much impact on the rich unless it’s also accompanied by increases in the capital gains, dividends, and estate taxes, all of which Republicans are fighting. At the same time, taxes on the working class would go up because Republicans are insisting on the expiration of the payroll tax cut and the stimulus tax cuts. In return for this absurdly wealth-tilted deal, Democrats would get….something. It’s not really clear what. Perhaps a one-year delay of the sequestration spending cuts. But since those cuts affect both defense spending and domestic spending, that’s something Republicans want as much as Democrats. Ditto for the AMT patch and the doc fix, which are basically nonpartisan. Brian Beutler wraps things up pretty well:

    In a tremendous irony, Republican requests for lower tax rates, a high estate tax threshold, and a permanent AMT fix — combined with Democratic requests to delay the sequester, include a “doc fix” for Medicare physicians, and extend emergency unemployment benefits — have left the parties negotiating toward a plan that would result in no net deficit reduction over 10 years on a current-policy baseline, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.

    This is nuts. I suppose the details could end up looking better than I think, but honestly, based on what I’m seeing so far, Democrats would be crazy to agree to this. At the very least, we need a clean tax increase on high-income Americans. If the only way to get that is to let tax rates go up tomorrow, and then negotiate from there, then that’s what they should do. It’s time to stop the serial cave-ins to the tax jihadists in the Republican Party.

  • A Quick Look at U.S. Healthcare Costs for the Elderly


    Austin Frakt has a chart up today showing that healthcare costs for the elderly are fantastically higher in the United States than they are in other similar countries. However, the vagueness of his note that the chart “is, apparently, from a year 2005 study,” immediately set off my spidey sense. The link goes to a news article about an engineering professor who created the chart based on data “drawn from a 2005 study done by Boston University economist Lawrence Kotlikoff and his colleagues.”

    Kotlikoff’s data might well be right, but it’s worth at least a little bit of skepticism. A study published in Health Affairs using data through 2004 says that per capita healthcare spending for those 65+ is about $15,000, which suggests that a decent point estimate for those exactly age 65 is around $10,000 or so. Likewise, the estimate for those 85+ is $25,000, which suggests that a good point estimate for those exactly age 85 is perhaps $20,000 or so.

    Using these two numbers, I drew a new line for the United States onto the chart in Austin’s post. It’s the dashed line below, and although it’s still a lot higher than the other four countries, it’s not quite as scary looking. If anyone knows of a more authoritative international comparison by age cohort, I’d be happy to post it. In the meantime, I suspect that U.S. spending levels are just in the normal scary range—which we already knew—not the mega-scary range suggested in the original chart.

    UPDATE: Judging from the comments to Austin’s post, this chart is bogus. Aside from the fact that costs at the high end might be overstated, it includes only public spending, which is very low in the U.S. for those under 65. So the spike at age 65 is artificial. Also, several countries are omitted, making the United States look more extreme than it actually is.

  • For Republicans, It’s All About the Rich, the Very Rich, and the Super-Rich


    Here’s what the fiscal cliff negotiations have come down to:

    Senate negotiators labored over the weekend on a last-ditch plan to avert the “fiscal cliff,” struggling to resolve key differences over how many wealthy households should face higher income taxes in the new year and how to tax inherited estates.

    ….Negotiators were trying to resolve a dispute over the estate tax, a critical issue for Republicans who have dubbed it the “death tax” and argue that it punishes people who build successful businesses and family farms.

    In an agreement brokered between McConnell and the White House in 2010, estates worth more than $5 million are exempted and taxed above that amount at 35 percent. Republicans want to maintain that structure, while Democrats want to drop the exemption to $3.5 million and raise the rate on larger estates to 45 percent.

    Do you know how many people leave estates valued at more than $3.5 million? Something like 0.01 percent, give or take a bit. This is a tax that’s a huge deal for the super-rich, but completely irrelevant for nearly everyone else, including the merely ordinary rich. And needless to say, all the talk about small businesses and family farms is just a pretense. Virtually no family farms are affected, and the ones that are have extremely generous rules for dealing with estate taxes.

    President Obama has Republicans dead to rights on this. “They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way,” he said on Meet the Press this morning, “but the way they’re behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected. That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme.” Quite so.

  • More Guns, Fewer Deaths? Not So Fast.


    Doug Mataconis writes about California’s drop in gun-related injuries over the past decade despite the fact that gun sales have nearly doubled during that time:

    There are several reasons that gun related deaths an injuries have fallen, of course, not the least of them being a nationwide drop in violent crime….Nonetheless, the fact that a significant increase in gun ownership has not led to an increase in gun injuries or deaths would seem to undercut one of the primary arguments of advocates of gun control. Contrary to their assertions, it would appear that allowing law abiding Americans to own guns doesn’t lead to an increase in violence after all.

    That just doesn’t follow. As Doug mentions, violent crime has fallen dramatically over the past couple of decades. Without controlling for that drop, you simply can’t draw any conclusions at all about the role that guns play.

    As an analogy, traffic deaths in California have declined by a third since 2002 despite the fact that the number of registered vehicles has gone up by about a third. Does this mean that more cars and trucks don’t lead to an increase in vehicle deaths? Of course not. Fatalities are down because of airbags, antilock brakes, higher seat belt use, improved ER technology, and so forth. If you controlled for all that, you’d likely find that more vehicles do indeed lead to more highway fatalities. But you’d have to do the math to know for sure. Until then, you really can’t conclude anything at all.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 28 December 2012


    Here it is: your final bit of catblogging before we start our Cats & Quilts series in 2013. Marian got me a fisheye lens attachment for my iPhone for Christmas, so last night I experimented taking some distorted iPhone pictures of Domino that could be turned into a Christmas ornament image of her very own next year. (In fact, this is actually a two-iPhone picture, since Marian provided the lighting via the flashlight app on her phone.)

    Unfortunately, Domino looks more scary than cute. I think we’ll have to try again outdoors where the light is better. Hopefully we’ll manage to come up with something good by next December.

  • The Year in Wonkitude


    Ezra Klein and the Wonkblog crew handed out their second annual Wonky awards today, “where we recognize outstanding achievements — and spectacular disasters — in policy wonkery.” It’s a surprisingly good list! By that, of course, I mean that I mostly agree with their picks, which is the way that most of us define “good,” right?

    But I do have one big nit to pick: Grover Norquist as Wonk of the Year. Not because Norquist isn’t important. He obviously is. Not because he isn’t smart. And not because tax fights don’t deserve to be highlighted. I’m perplexed because Norquist isn’t a wonk. He’s got one simple message that he’s been hammering away at for decades: taxes should be as low as possible. That’s it. No speeches, no white papers, no Greek letter economics. Just an exercise of raw power in the service of low taxes. That makes him a player, but it doesn’t make him a wonk.

    That aside, it’s a pretty interesting list. It’s worth a read.

  • Starbucks CEO Should Leave His Baristas Alone


    Paul Krugman, like a lot of liberals, is annoyed with Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks:

    By all accounts, he’s a good guy, with genuinely generous instincts. But in his message to employees, urging them to write “come together” on coffee cups, he gets the nature of the fiscal cliff completely wrong. In fact, he gets it wrong in two fundamental ways…..First of all, the fiscal cliff is NOT A DEBT PROBLEM. In fact, it’s the opposite.

    ….And then, on top of that, he has the politics all wrong, in the characteristic centrist way: he makes it sound as if the problem was one of symmetric partisanship, with both sides refusing to compromise. The reality is that Obama has moved a huge way both in offering to exempt more high-earner income from tax hikes and in offering to cut Social Security benefits; meanwhile, the GOP not only won’t agree to any kind of tax hike at all, it also has yet to make any specific offer of any kind.

    I’m curious about something: Am I the only one who’s annoyed not just at Schultz’s confusion, but at the fact that he’s asking his employees to endorse an explicitly political message? It’s one thing to sell coffee in cups with a message already printed on them: that obviously doesn’t suggest any kind of personal recommendation. But writing the message yourself? That’s a whole different thing.

    Sure, “come together” is pretty anodyne. But it’s a political message nonetheless. If Schultz wants to use his own money and his own soapbox to broadcast misinformation, that’s his right. But he should leave his employees out of it.

  • Warrantless Wiretapping Approved Yet Again, This Time With Barely a Fight


    I didn’t watch yesterday’s Senate debate over the reauthorization of the 2008 FISA Amendments, but my Twitter feed suggested that it was a grim affair. A few senators tried to introduce amendments that would have provided a tiny bit of oversight of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program—remember that?—but they were basically shouted down by my homestate senator, Dianne Feinstein, and the program was quickly reauthorized with essentially no public oversight at all. Glenn Greenwald is quite reasonably angry:

    It’s hard to put into words just how extreme was Feinstein’s day-long fear-mongering tirade. “I’ve never seen a Congressional member argue so strongly against Executive Branch oversight as Sen. Feinstein did today re the FISA law,” said Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. Referring to Feinstein’s alternating denials and justifications for warrantless eavesdropping on Americans, the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer observed: “This FISA debate reminds of the torture debate circa 2004: We don’t torture! And anyway, we have to torture, we don’t have any choice.”

    ….Here we find yet again a defining attribute of the Obama legacy: the transformation of what was until recently a symbol of right-wing radicalism — warrantless eavesdropping — into meekly accepted bipartisan consensus. But it’s not just the policies that are so transformed but the mentality and rhetoric that accompanies them: anyone who stands in the way of the US Government’s demands for unaccountable, secret power is helping the Terrorists. “The administration has decided the program should be classified”, decreed Feinstein, and that is that.

    The worst part of all this is that nobody cares. None of our three major daily newspapers made this front-page news. Virtually none of the blogs I read highlighted it. Even my Twitter feed only mentioned it sporadically.

    And of course, that includes me. I didn’t write about it either. Glenn thinks that liberals have largely given up criticizing this stuff because we now have a Democratic president in the White House rather than George W. Bush, and I suppose that’s part of it. But a bigger part, I think, is simply that it’s all become so institutionalized. Back in 2004 and 2006, we were outraged because this was all so new. Today, after fighting and losing, it’s just part of our brave new world, along with 3-ounce bottles on airplanes, unreviewable no-fly lists, and cops who demand to know what you’re up to if you start taking pictures in public places.

    As a country, we’re now divided into two parts: those who aggressively support things like warrantless wiretapping because they’re consumed with fear, and those who don’t but have given up trying to fight about it. There’s hardly anyone left still willing to tilt at this particular windmill. It’s sad as hell.

    UPDATE: Here’s a straight news account of yesterday’s Senate debate from Wired. Our own Adam Serwer has more coverage here, including the obvious question about opposition to the oversight amendments: “But if the program is constitutional, and the oversight is effective, what is there to be afraid of?”

  • Why Has the Crime Decline in Los Angeles Slowed Down?


    The LA Times reports that serious crime was down in Los Angeles this year, but it didn’t decline as much as it has in the past:

    Overall, crime declined by about 2% in Los Angeles, fueled by drops in many serious crimes including robbery, assault and auto thefts, according to preliminary numbers collected by the Los Angeles Police Department. The decline was smaller than in previous years because of jumps in lower-level crimes such as thefts from vehicles and personal thefts.

    ….”The fact that Los Angeles has continued to decline, especially when several factors haven’t been as good as they could be — it’s remarkable, frankly,” said Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at UC Irvine. “I’m puzzled.”….The Police Department’s ability to battle crime, she said, deserved much of the credit, but could not on its own account for the trend. Sociologists and criminologists say other likely factors include strict sentencing laws that, until recently, increased the number of people in prison; demographic shifts; and sociological influences.

    ….The decade of falling crime in Los Angeles — which continued during California’s deep recession — has forced many researchers and law enforcement officials to rethink the once commonly held belief that crime was linked inextricably to the economy.

    Lots of people think it makes sense that crime should go up when the economy goes down, but that’s never really been consistently true. So it’s no big surprise that crime has stayed low during our current economic downturn. As for the police department’s ability to battle crime, that does deserve some of the credit. But violent crime in Los Angeles peaked more than 20 years ago, long before LA changed its policing tactics.

    A big part of the answer to this mystery is almost certainly lead. Los Angeles is the car capital of the world, and lead emissions from cars rose dramatically after World War II, poisoning small children in ways that lowered both IQ and impulse control. When those kids grew up, more of them turned to violent crime. Then, in the mid-70s, unleaded gasoline took over and we slowly stopped poisoning our children. When those kids grew up in the early 90s and beyond, fewer of them turned to violent crime. This happened not just in LA, but all over the world.

    But lead was almost completely removed from gasoline by 1990, and the kids from that era were fully grown by about 2010. We did nothing further in the 90s and aughts to clean up the remaining lead in our environment (mainly from old paint and lead-impregnated soil), and this means that the dramatic crime drops we’ve seen over the past couple of decades are now leveling out.

    The good news is that this is permanent. We’re no longer artificially turning our kids into monsters, so the current generation of teens and 20-somethings simply aren’t as violent as they were 30 years ago. The bad news is that this was largely an accident—we initially reduced lead emissions as an unintentional byproduct of combating smog via catalytic converters—and we’ve never seriously tackled lead cleanup beyond that. Improved policing practices will likely keep crime rates at their current low levels, but we could do more if we wanted to. A serious effort to clean up more lead today would produced better, smarter, less violent kids 20 years from now.

    If you want to read more about this, check out the latest issue of Mother Jones, which has a long article of mine on the cover about exactly this topic. It’ll be online in the near future, and I’ll have more to say about it then.

  • Republicans Continue to Stare Into the Abyss, But Nothing Stares Back


    The absurdities of the fiscal cliff continue apace. Here is Mitch McConnell, master of the absurd:

    “Nothing can move forward in regards to our budget crisis unless Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell are willing to participate in coming up with a bipartisan plan,” Reid said. “So far, they are radio-silent.”

    McConnell retorted that Republicans have been eager to work with Obama. After one-on-one talks between Obama and Boehner failed to produce a broad deficit-reduction package last week, McConnell said it is now the president’s responsibility to put forward a new plan. “Republicans bent over backwards,” he said. “We wanted an agreement. But we had no takers. The phone never rang.”

    ….Boehner’s message was that “we were going to wait for the Senate to take up the bill that we passed six months ago,” said one Republican lawmaker who was on the call. “Quit trying to do this leadership-negotiating thing.”

    Republicans bent over backwards! Boehner apparently did his bending over by never once proposing a detailed plan and never once being willing to publicly tell us what spending cuts he wanted. Then he failed to get passage of even a PR stunt and simply gave up. McConnell, for his part, did his bending over backwards by retreating to his office and never once poking his head out for four consecutive weeks.

    But maybe “one Republican lawmaker” has the right idea. Why bother negotiating with McConnell, who so far has shown no inclination to want responsibility for anything? Maybe Obama and Reid should simply come up with a modestly different package than the most recent Democratic proposal and see if they can round up seven Republican votes for it. The Maine twins might vote for it. Lugar’s retiring, so he might vote for it. Murkowski could maybe be bought off. Scott Brown wants some centrist cred for his next Senate run, so he might vote for it. Maybe a bit of old-fashioned horsetrading could put together 60 votes.

    (Needless to say, 60 votes will be necessary, since Mitch McConnell certainly won’t forego a filibuster of anything that Obama proposes. He’s not willing to bend that far backward.)

    After that, who knows? Maybe a bill with no fingerprints on it from the GOP leadership could pick up a couple dozen Republican votes in the House if Boehner allows it to come to the floor, as he’s promised. You never know.

    It’s a long shot. But I wonder if it’s any more of a long shot than continuing to engage with Boehner and McConnell, both of whom are obviously scared to death of doing anything other than simply rejecting every proposal Obama puts forward and then accusing Obama of “not being serious”?

  • How Technical Sounding Nonsense Can Boost Your Career Prospects


    Is a research paper in the social sciences more impressive if it contains some impenetrable math? Kimmo Eriksson, who made a mid-career move from pure mathematics to cultural evolution and social psychology, had a hunch that it might. So he did a test. He recruited a bunch of volunteers with either masters degrees or PhDs to read abstracts of two actual papers that had been previously published. Half the group got the original abstract, while the other half got the abstract with this sentence added:

    So what did he find? Reviewers were asked to rate the quality of the research on a scale of 1-100, and it turned out that when the reviewer had a degree in a tech-related area, the addition of the nonsense equation had no effect. In fact, it reduced their rating of the abstract slightly. But if the reviewer’s degree was in the humanities, social sciences, medicine, or education, the added math raised their rating of the abstract significantly. Eriksson comments:

    The experimental results suggest a bias for nonsense math in judgments of quality of research. Further, this bias was only found among people with degrees from areas outside mathematics, science and technology. Presumably lack of mathematical skills renders dif?cult own critical evaluation of meaningless mathematics….It may also be that people always tend to become impressed by what they do not understand, irrespective of what ?eld it represents—much in line with the “Guru effect” discussed by Sperber (2010). The scope of the phenomenon is a question for future research.

    The chart on the right shows how participants rated the abstracts with the added math compared to the original mathless abstract. The full paper is here.

  • The Big Debate: Should We Raise Taxes on the Rich or the Poor?


    Ezra Klein has said this before, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said it before too—possibly by linking to Ezra saying it—but it bears repeating: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise taxes on certain people. The main difference is which people they want to raise taxes on:

    Democrats do want to raise taxes on families making more than $250,000. You sometimes hear Democrats say they just want to “restore the Clinton-era rates” for these folks, but that’s misleading. In addition to letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the White House wants to add about $700 billion in further tax increases on these taxpayers. And that’s in addition to the high-income taxes passed in the health-care law. Under Obama’s plan, taxes on the richest Americans would be much higher than under the Clinton tax code.

    So yes, Democrats want to raise some taxes. But so do Republicans. They want to let the payroll tax cut and the various stimulus tax credits (notably the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit) expire. Those are the tax cuts that primarily help poor and middle-class Americans. In fact, 87.8 percent of the payroll tax cut’s benefits go to taxpayers making less than $200,000 and 99.9 percent of the stimulus tax credits’ benefits go to taxpayers making less than $200,000.

    But you want numbers, don’t you? How much do Democrats want to raise taxes on the rich? How much do Republicans want to raise taxes on the poor? This is a little tricky, since the healthcare taxes Ezra mentions are a done deal. They really shouldn’t be counted as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations at all. What’s more, I don’t have numbers for the entirety of Obama’s most recent proposal. However, the Tax Policy Center gives us a good rundown of the major points of contention in the chart below, which I’ve compressed and annotated. Bottom line: allowing the payroll tax cuts and the stimulus tax cuts to expire will raise taxes on the poorest Americans by nearly 3 points. Allowing the high-end Bush tax cuts to expire will raise taxes on the richest Americans by nearly 4 points. Take your pick.

  • The Whole Six Yards


    Have you always wondered where the phrase “the whole nine yards” comes from? You’re not alone. “For decades,” says Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, “the answer to that question has been the Bigfoot of word origins.”

    And that’s true. Back before I knew this was a controversy, I simply assumed the phrase derived from the game of football. Why? Because I had always heard it used a bit sarcastically, suggesting that if you gave something “the whole nine yards,” you weren’t really putting in enough effort to get the job done. This naturally suggested a football origin.

    That’s wrong, it turns out, but no one really knows the actual origin of the phrase. Until now! Recent research suggests that the meaning of “nine yards” is….nothing. It’s just “numerical phrase inflation.” Click the link for the whole deflating story.

  • Quote of the Day: The Problem With Economics


    From Matt Yglesias, talking about the current state of macroeconomic theorizing:

    It’s far too easy for people with the relevant skills to demonstrate just about anything.

    Technically, of course, this is true of just about any field. I’ve seen plenty of sophisticated debunkings of Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example. Luckily, it turns out that physics is a fairly simple field, which makes it possible for the physics community to gather enough empirical data to keep the cranks safely at bay. If your GPS device gets you safely home, then the theory of relativity can’t be too wrong, after all.

    At the same time, climate science is only moderately more complex than relativistic mechanics, and its standing in the relevant scientific community is very nearly as strong. What’s more, there’s a ton of empirical data suggesting that the globe is indeed warming dangerously. But that hasn’t done it much good. In the end, it turns out that the reason the theory of relativity is widely accepted in the outside world has very little to do with how strongly the physics community believes it. It has to do with the fact that, unlike climate science, it doesn’t gore any powerful oxes. (Oxen?)

    Sadly, macroeconomics combines the worst aspects of just about everything. It’s wildly complex. Its fundamental precepts change over time as the basis of the economy changes. Reliable experimental evidence is practically impossible to come by. Even the effect of fairly simple changes to basic quantities—hell, even the direction of the effect—is often contested. And of course, it’s a field that gores just about every ox in existence. So there’s always a ready audience for any result, no matter how strained an interpretation of reality it takes to get it.

    The part I can’t figure out is why there’s so much contention even within the field. In physics and climate science, the cranks are almost all nonspecialists with an axe to grind. Actual practitioners agree pretty broadly on at least the basics. But in macroeconomics you don’t have that. There are still polar disagreements among top names on some of the most basic questions. Even given the complexity of the field, that’s a bit of a mystery. It’s understandable that economics is a more politicized field than physics, but in practice it seems to be almost 100 percent politicized, with the battles fought out by streams of Greek letters demonstrating, as Matt says, just about anything. I wonder if this is ever likely to change? Or will changes in the real world always outpace our ability to build consensus on how the economy actually works?

  • A Question From the Staff of the Mother Jones Irvine Bowl


    Browsing through the sports section this morning, I came across this sentence:

    UCLA brings plenty of offense to the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl on Thursday night in San Diego….

    I’ve been wondering for a while how it is that newspapers got bullied into using the full, sponsored names for bowl games. I understand why TV announcers do it: I assume they’re contractually obligated to use the sponsor’s name. But what’s everyone else’s excuse? Why not just call it the Holiday Bowl and let the TV guys do all the water carrying for the corporate sponsors? Ditto for every other bowl that actually has a name. Does anyone know how and when this entered the stylebooks of our nation’s print media?

  • Republicans Now 100 Percent AWOL From Fiscal Cliff Talks


    John Boehner gave up on fiscal cliff negotiations after he was unable to get House Republicans to agree to any proposal at all, even one that he himself had crafted. The fate of the Republic, he said, was now in the Senate’s hands. So how is Mitch McConnell handling things?

    An aide said Wednesday that McConnell had not been in contact with any top Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, during the holiday break….Always cautious, McConnell has kept a decidedly low profile during the last few weeks of political theater in the Capitol….Behind the scenes, he [] helped devise Boehner’s Plan B maneuver, which failed to gain enough Republican votes to be brought up in the House. In the aftermath of that defeat, however, McConnell may be unwilling to take on the job of deal-maker. The reasons reflect the pressures that have buffeted his fellow Republicans.

    “I cannot emphasize how little a constructive role he will play in this,” Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top Reid aide, said of McConnell. “He’s going to be very reluctant to get involved, and to the extent he does get involved, he’s going to move very slowly.”

    No Republican dares to be associated with a tax increase, including McConnell. Grover Norquist and his blood pledge still control them all. Will this change after January 1, when the conversation is no longer about raising taxes, but about lowering them? That would make sense, but sense is in short supply these days in the GOP caucus. Here’s the best quote in the entire story:

    “The president made a strategic miscalculation and overreached,” said one GOP aide granted anonymity to discuss party strategy. “He could have worked to reach a fair agreement, but instead he picked a fight, poisoned the well, and now we are likely to have a rather unproductive next four years. The decision he made only hurts himself.”

    The president overreached! He spent an entire year campaigning on letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich, and then, after winning a convincing victory in November he insisted on….letting tax rates go up modestly on the rich. In GOP-land, that constitutes “poisoning the well,” and it will now become the official excuse for another four years of bitter obstruction and spittle-flecked conspiracy theories. The whole process took less than two months from start to finish. Happy New Year, everyone.

  • The Great Republican Recession of 2013 is Now Five Days Away


    After the failure of his fiscal cliff negotiations with the White House, followed by his humiliating inability to get even his ridiculous “Plan B” proposal approved by House Republicans, John Boehner gave up and punted the whole thing over to the president and the Senate. Why? Matt Yglesias says Boehner likes the idea because the only way to get anything through the Senate is to compromise with Republicans, which will produce a deal to the right of Obama’s current proposal. “Then once something like that difference-splitting bill passes the Senate, Boehner gets to take it up as the new baseline for negotiations and pull the ultimate resolution even further to the right.”

    True enough. But I doubt this was Boehner’s intent from the beginning. Remember that during the debt limit talks last year, Boehner initially handed off negotiating duties to Eric Cantor, hoping that if Cantor signed off on a deal it would get the rest of the tea party caucus to throw in their votes as well. But Cantor double-crossed him after a few weeks, pulling out of the talks and pushing them back in Boehner’s lap so that Boehner would have to take the heat for agreeing to any tax increases. But even at that, Boehner didn’t give up: he tried to keep negotiating until it became clear that the Cantorites just flatly wouldn’t approve any feasible deal. Eventually a deal got done after Mitch McConnell got involved.

    We’re seeing the same dynamic this time around: Boehner trying to negotiate, but eventually giving up after it became clear that the Cantorites wouldn’t agree to any feasible kind of deal. So now he’s going back to the debt limit playbook, and hoping that maybe a deal that comes with the imprimatur of Senate Republicans will also get enough Republican votes in the House to pass. Besides, if a deal passes the Senate, that gives him an excuse to bring it to the floor even if it doesn’t have the votes of a majority of the Republican caucus.

    Now, it’s true that Mitch McConnell will almost certainly want to take Obama’s most recent proposal and use that as a starting point to move even further rightward:

    But that’s exactly why Obama would be foolish to take any such thing seriously. Starting in the New Year, the Senate gets more liberal. The House also gets more liberal. And the policy baseline also gets more liberal. The White House isn’t going to pull the plug on negotiations, but unless Boehner comes back to the table with something new to say they have no incentive to further weaken their hand.

    Yep. However, for PR reasons, Obama has to remain the adult in the room at all times, continuing to negotiate honestly even in the face of seemingly relentless intransigence. No ultimatums, no walking out of talks. But on January 1, taxes on the middle class go up and the economy slowly begins to slide into the great Republican Recession of 2013. That’s the leverage that will finally force GOP leaders to get serious. Obama will never say so publicly, but I imagine he knows this perfectly well.

  • A Wee Comparison of Civil Liberties in the United States of America


    Compare and contrast. Here is how seriously we take civil liberties when the subject can be plausibly labeled terrorism:

    [New rules] allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.

    Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited.

    And here is how seriously we take civil liberties when gun ownership is involved in any way, shape, or form:

    Under current laws the bureau is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions….When law enforcement officers recover a gun and serial number, workers at the bureau’s National Tracing Center here — a windowless warehouse-style building on a narrow road outside town — begin making their way through a series of phone calls, asking first the manufacturer, then the wholesaler and finally the dealer to search their files to identify the buyer of the firearm.

    ….The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, for example, prohibits A.T.F. agents from making more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers. The law also reduced the falsification of records by dealers to a misdemeanor….The most recent Tiahrt amendment, adopted in 2010…requires that records of background checks of gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours of approval. Advocates of tighter regulation say this makes it harder to identify dealers who falsify records or buyers who make “straw” purchases for others.

    So that’s where we are. The federal government can swoop up enormous databases, keep them for years, and data mine them to its heart’s content if it has even the slightest suspicion of terrorist activity. Objections? None to speak of, despite the fact that terrorism claims only a handful of American lives per year. But information related to guns? That couldn’t be more different. Background checks are destroyed within 24 hours, serial numbers of firearms aren’t kept in a central database at all, and gun dealers can barely even be monitored. All this despite the fact that we record more than 10,000 gun-related homicides every year.

    Compare and contrast.

  • Artificial Intelligence is the Key to Future Growth — Or Stagnation


    A few days ago Tyler Cowen pointed me to an op-ed by Robert Gordon suggesting that future economic growth will be fairly sluggish. Gordon points out, correctly, that the strong growth of the 20th century was based on two key inventions, electrification and the internal combustion engine, and the thousands of innovations that followed on from those. The computer revolution of the late 20th century just hasn’t produced as much innovation, and thus hasn’t powered as much growth.

    Fair enough, as far as it goes. But what about the future? Here’s the nutshell version of Gordon’s op-ed:

    The first response from skeptics always involves health care….[But] pharmaceutical research appears to be entering a phase of diminishing returns….The fracking revolution and soaring oil and gas production have also excited optimists. But this isn’t a source of future economic growth….Another claim by the growth optimists is that 3-D printing and micro-robots will revolutionize manufacturing….Can economic growth be saved by Google’s driverless car? This is bizarre ground for optimism, but it is promoted not just by Google’s Eric Schmidt but by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Erik Brynjolfsson.

    This is very strange. Gordon may be right about all these things, but he rather conspicuously left out the most important future innovation of all: artificial intelligence. You simply can’t write about the future of innovation without talking about that. At the very least, you need to acknowledge it, and then explain why you think it will never happen, or why it won’t produce a lot of future growth even if it does. But you can’t just ignore it and then say there are no grounds for being optimistic about future growth. It would be like writing about the future of sports in 1960 and not bothering to address the possibility that television might have an impact on things.

    There are lots of things that might change the future in big ways. Genome sequencing might eventually revolutionize healthcare. Cheap fusion power might revolutionize the energy industry. But as big as those things might be if they come to pass, there’s only one near-future invention that has the potential to rival electrification as a source of innovation: artificial intelligence. If you talk about the future without talking about artificial intelligence, you’re simply not taking the topic seriously. Gordon does us all a disservice by pretending that it doesn’t exist.