Kevin Drum - February 2012

Chart of the Day: The Surprisingly Stable Cost of Presidential Elections

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 9:02 AM PST

This is a pretty fascinating chart from the latest issue of the magazine. (At least that's where I assume it comes from. It looks too professionally done for anything but print.) What's fascinating, to me, isn't that the costs of presidential campaigns have skyrocketed so much, but that they haven't. Until very, very recently, that is. From 1964 all the way through 2000, the cost of presidential campaigns was pretty stable, ranging around $300-600 million in inflation-adjusted terms. It was only in 2004 and 2008 that costs suddenly went through the roof.

I wouldn't have guessed that. I always figured that campaign costs had been rising inexorably for decades. But apparently not. They've only been rising inexorably for the past eight years.

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My Memory is a Hazy Fog. How About Yours?

| Sun Feb. 19, 2012 9:54 PM PST

I desperately need a shot of PKMzeta, an enzyme that mediates long-term memory:

What does PKMzeta do? The molecule’s crucial trick is that it increases the density of a particular type of sensor called an AMPA receptor on the outside of a neuron....This process requires constant upkeep—every long-term memory is always on the verge of vanishing. As a result, even a brief interruption of PKMzeta activity can dismantle the function of a steadfast circuit.

If the genetic expression of PKMzeta is amped up—by, say, genetically engineering rats to overproduce the stuff—they become mnemonic freaks, able to convert even the most mundane events into long-term memory. (Their performance on a standard test of recall is nearly double that of normal animals.)

My memory has always been terrible. My mother is nearly 80 and still remembers classmates from her kindergarten days. I barely even remember going to kindergarten. Actually, that's too charitable: I don't remember going to kindergarten. Or first grade. Or fifth grade. Or high school. Or college. Or, for that matter, stuff I did two years ago.

Is this an exaggeration? Only barely. I remember occasional shreds from years past, but that's about it. On the bright side, this means that if I had a nasty fight with you a few years ago, there's a good chance I have no memory of it. On the not-so-bright side, it means that if we were close friends in high school, I might or might not even remember knowing you, let alone remember anything substantive about what we did together.

So which are you? Is the past just a hazy fog, as it is for me? Or do you have sharp memories going all the way back to your third birthday? Or something in between?

Who's Afraid of a Little Inflation?

| Sun Feb. 19, 2012 11:37 AM PST

Dylan Matthews has a nice piece in the Washington Post today about Modern Monetary Theory, an economic model that, roughly speaking, says government deficits are always good unless there's a risk of runaway inflation. Jared Bernstein comments:

For me, I’m down with MMTs up to a point. I very much agree that deficit reduction has been deeply miscast as pure virtue, with little regard for its economic impact. As I’ve written many times here, the first question re fiscal policy, at least until we’re reliably headed toward full employment is not “how quickly does your deficit come down?” It’s: “is your deficit large enough to replace lost private sector demand?”

This emphasis on using the tools of government, including the ability to print money and run large budget deficits in times of market failure, is MMT’s most important contribution to the current debate.

Now this I don't get. Sure, MMT says we should run large budget deficits during severe recessions. But so does Old Keynesianism. And post-Keynesianism. And New Keynesianism. If that's really MMT's most important contribution, who needs it?

The more important side of MMT is its insistence that we should run substantial deficits even when the economy is in good shape. Only when inflation appears ready to run out of control should we use budget surpluses to rein things in. But MMT proponent Jamie Galbraith says that pretty much never happens:

Economists in the Modern Monetary camp concede that deficits can sometimes lead to inflation. But they argue that this can only happen when the economy is at full employment — when all who are able and willing to work are employed and no resources (labor, capital, etc.) are idle. No modern example of this problem comes to mind, Galbraith says.

“The last time we had what could be plausibly called a demand-driven, serious inflation problem was probably World War I,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a long time since this hypothetical possibility has actually been observed, and it was observed only under conditions that will never be repeated.”

In some sense, this all comes down to a question of how scared we should be of inflation. Mainstream economic opinion says that a strong focus on full employment will inevitably risk high inflation, just as our current obsession with low inflation produces generally high unemployment. If we were focused on, say, a target unemployment rate of 4%, we'd see some periods where unemployment fell below that rate and some where it rose above it. But as the chart on the right shows, that's not what we've had over the past few decades. Instead, because our economic policy has been focused strongly on low inflation, we see only a couple of brief periods in which unemployment barely got close to 4%, followed immediately by a recession that kicked it back above 6%.

So should we focus instead on a genuine target of 4% unemployment, reining in budget deficits only when we fall well below that? That depends a lot on what you think the productive capacity of the country really is, and the mainstream estimate of NAIRU, the highest unemployment rate consistent with stable inflation, is around 5.5% right now. If that's the right estimate, then you could argue that we've been doing OK for the past few decades. But if full employment is really more consistent with an unemployment rate of 4%, then we've been wasting an awful lot of productive capacity for nothing.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, you might also want to consider MPT, or Modern Petro-Monetary Theory. Rather than asking what level of economic growth kicks off unacceptable inflation, it asks what level of economic growth kicks off an oil price spike that produces a recession and higher unemployment. I have to admit that I increasingly think of the economy in those terms these days.

JAMIE GALBRAITH RESPONDS: In comments, he says:

Your instinct on the oil price is on target, in my view. The inflation threat that we face doesn't come from deficits or high employment — it comes from the cost and price of energy. But managing this is not within the competence of the Federal Reserve.

I have been trying to call attention to this issue for years (it's in my 2008 book, The Predator State, and in articles written recently with Jing Chen, most recently in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, which contains the following paragraph:

Our central argument is that stimulus fell short — and would have fallen short even if the amounts had been greater — because increased demand under existing high-fixed cost structures drove, or would have driven, the price of resources too high, too quickly. The constraint on growth was not inflation generated by easy money, but the combination of the rising real marginal cost especially of energy, combined with monopoly control of and speculative instability in energy prices, which together act as a choke-chain on the return to full employment.

But the endless debate over deficits, debt and quantitative easing tends to obscure this issue — and in public discourse one cannot easily answer questions that are not being asked. So thanks for making the point, and keep digging at it.

Apparently I am a Galbraithian but just didn't know it.

LA Times Op-Ed Page Finds Common Ground: Liberals Are Pricks

| Sun Feb. 19, 2012 10:13 AM PST

Today the LA Times has a paired set of op-eds: Diana Wagman's "Why liberals can't talk to conservatives" (in blue!) is splashed across the page from Charlotte Allen's "Why conservatives can't talk to liberals" (in red!). And guess what? Ironically, it turns out that liberals and conservatives actually agree about this. It's because liberals are assholes.

Note to Times op-ed editor: The next time you hire someone to present the liberal side of things, please choose someone other than Wagman. I assure you she doesn't speak for all of us. Thanks.

Teen Pregnancy Is Higher in Red States Than in Blue States

| Sat Feb. 18, 2012 11:31 PM PST

Ross Douthat on teen pregnancy rates in blue states and red states:

If liberal social policies really led inexorably to fewer unplanned pregnancies and thus fewer abortions, you would expect "blue" regions of the country to have lower teen pregnancy rates and fewer abortions per capita than demographically similar "red" regions.

But that isn't what the data show. Instead, abortion rates are frequently higher in more liberal states, where access is often largely unrestricted, than in more conservative states, which are more likely to have parental consent laws, waiting periods, and so on. "Safe, legal and rare" is a nice slogan, but liberal policies don't always seem to deliver the "rare" part.

What’s more, another Guttmacher Institute study suggests that liberal states don’t necessarily do better than conservative ones at preventing teenagers from getting pregnant in the first place. Instead, the lower teenage birth rates in many blue states are mostly just a consequence of (again) their higher abortion rates. Liberal California, for instance, has a higher teen pregnancy rate than socially conservative Alabama; the Californian teenage birth rate is only lower because the Californian abortion rate is more than twice as high.

Are abortion rates lower in states that make it really hard to get an abortion? Of course. I'm not really clear on what, if anything, this is supposed to prove.

As for California and Alabama, that's mostly just a clever bit of cherry picking. The table below is reconstructed from Guttmacher Institute data, and it gives a better sense of the big picture. Douthat is right that there's not a sharp red-blue divide between states with the highest and lowest teen pregnancy rates. Still, the top 10 is pretty heavily dominated by red states and the bottom 10 is pretty heavily dominated by blue states. I think it's probably unwise to pretend that there are simple lessons to be derived from this, but at the same time it's deceptive to pretend that the divide isn't there. There really is a difference, and it's likely that social values play a role in it.

Public Libraries and the Digital Divide

| Sat Feb. 18, 2012 10:15 AM PST

Via David Ryan, a Metafilter comment on libraries and the digital divide. Here's a piece:

If you can take yourself out of your first world techie social media smart-shoes for a second then imagine this: you're 53 years old, you've been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn't finish high school, and you have a grandson who you're now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You're lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy's. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn't hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don't have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly.

Do you go to the local social services office? No, you don't. The overworked staff there says that due to budget cuts they can no longer do walk-in advising, and that there's a 2 week waiting list to get assistance with filling out forms. You call them up on the by-the-minute phone you're borrowing from your cousin (wasting 15 of her minutes on hold) and they say that they can't help, but you can go to your public library. OK, so you go to your public library after work.....

It's worth a few minutes of your time to read the whole thing from the beginning.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 17 February 2012

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 12:53 PM PST

Spring is approaching, and after a bit of rain last weekend the weather has been lovely here in Southern California. On the left, after rolling around in the sun for a while, Domino poses with one of our legion of concrete rabbits. On the right, Inkblot is eating....something. Marian told me what it was last night, but now I've forgotten. But to Inkblot it seemed like a nice snack.

As for me, I've finished our vacation planning. Hooray! It's a family affair scheduled for the second half of May, and we're going to spend a week in Copenhagen visiting friends and then a week in Rome visiting the ruins. It's the first long vacation Marian and I have taken since 2002, and my mother has never been to Rome. Should be fun.  

Barack Obama's Hardline Turn on Medical Marijuana Is a Mystery

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 12:08 PM PST

Over at Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson has a good piece about the Obama administration's sudden about-face on medical marijuana. Initially they made soothing noises and announced that they wouldn't target pot dispensaries that complied with state law. Then, last year, everything changed:

The reversal began at the Drug Enforcement Agency with Michele Leonhart, a holdover from the Bush administration who was renominated by Obama to head the DEA…Almost immediately, federal prosecutors went on the attack. Their first target: the city of Oakland, where local officials had moved to raise millions in taxes by licensing high-tech indoor facilities for growing medical marijuana…Two months later, federal prosecutors in Washington state went even further…In isolation, such moves might be seen as the work of overzealous U.S. attorneys, who operate with considerable autonomy. But last June, the Justice Department effectively declared that it was returning to the Bush administration's hard-line stance on medical marijuana. James Cole, who had replaced Ogden as deputy attorney general, wrote a memo revoking his predecessor's deference to states on the definition of "caregiver."…Pot dispensaries, in short, were once again prime federal targets, even if they were following state law to the letter.

As I was reading this piece I kept asking why this had happened. But it was all very mysterious. Finally Dickinson provided the best answer he could:

Supporters of medical marijuana are baffled by Obama's abrupt about-face on the issue. Some blame the federal crackdown not on the president, but on career drug warriors determined to go after medical pot…The White House, for its part, insists that its position on medical pot has been "clear and consistent."…But the official makes no attempt to explain why the administration has permitted a host of federal agencies to revive the Bush-era policy of targeting state-approved dispensaries.

…The administration's retreat on medical pot is certainly consistent with its broader election-year strategy of seeking to outflank Republicans on everything from free trade to offshore drilling…But the president could pay a steep price for his anti-pot crackdown this fall, particularly if it winds up alienating young voters in swing states like Colorado, where two-thirds of residents support medical marijuana…"Medical marijuana is twice as popular as Obama," notes [Rob] Kampia. "It doesn't make any political sense."

None of this makes much sense. Leonhart was a holdover. Nothing changed when she was reappointed. And US Attorneys don't report to DEA anyway. Nor do deputy attorney generals change policy on their own. It has to be approved higher up.

So obviously Obama and Eric Holder went along with this. But Kampia is right: medical marijuana is pretty popular. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have recently cracked down on it, but no one was really begging the federal government to get more involved. And it wasn't a wedge issue either. I don't think the tea party or anyone else on the right was making a big deal out of this. There was really no compelling political reason to change direction.

So why did Barack Obama suddenly decide that a benign attitude toward medical marijuana was a loser? It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

UPDATE: Tim Fernholz suggests an answer: when the Obama administration saw the results of its own policy, it got nervous and backed away:

As fear of federal prosecution lessened, more states began adopting or considering medical marijuana laws; where the practice was already legal (as it was in California), there was a boom in the marijuana trade. Operating in a grey market between the federal prohibition and untested state rules, dispensaries of all kinds operated without much supervision.

…Though law enforcement officials could not point to any commensurate increase in crime, all that activity made the federal government uneasy: It realized that tacitly allowing states to regulate medical marijuana had far-reaching consequences that it wasn’t entirely comfortable with…With local and state officials writing letters to their U.S. Attorneys, asking for their thoughts on various schemes to license marijuana growers and distributers, the federal government decided to take a tougher line.

More here.

Mitt Romney's Bank-Friendly Plan to Save Detroit

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 11:26 AM PST

Last year I took a long look at Mitt Romney's position on the auto bailout and concluded that he was kinda sorta right to say that Obama's eventual plan was close to the one he had previously recommended. Romney seems bound and determined to make me regret ever writing that, but so far I haven't had the energy to revisit the subject. Today, though, Steve Benen directs my attention to a piece by Tom Walsh in the Detroit Free Press. Romney swung by to talk to their editorial board and Walsh took notes:

To be specific about the editorial board discussion, Romney feigned surprise and outrage that anyone might conclude from his November, 2008 op-ed article in the New York Times, entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” that he would have allowed GM and Chrysler to be liquidated if he were president. “That is so absurd,” he said.

Rather, Romney insisted, citing the second-to-last sentence in his 2008 op-ed essay, he would have steered the companies into managed bankruptcy — but with loan and warranty guarantees, not tens of billions of dollars in bailout cash. [I think Romney is right on this point. He didn't write the headline for that NYT op-ed. –ed.]

And who would have made the big loans that Romney would have federally guaranteed? The private credit markets were frozen in the financial panic of late 2008 and early 2009, leading many experts to conclude that no private lender would have stepped up to finance bankruptcies as huge and risky as those of GM and Chrysler.

When I pressed Romney on this point, he insisted that if the U.S. Treasury issued bonds or guarantees, plenty of private lenders would have surfaced.

That's probably not true. But leave that aside for the moment. Why does Romney favor loan guarantees instead of direct federal loans in the first place? The way this works, taxpayers don't just risk taking a loss, they're practically guaranteed to take a loss. If the loans perform well, private lenders get all the profit. If they tank, Treasury pays the bill. And in the meantime, billions of dollars in scarce private loans are directed toward GM and Chrysler, making it even harder for other businesses to access the credit markets.

In what way is this a better deal than just making the loans directly? As with college loan guarantees, it's really nothing more than a way of ensuring private banks a surefire profit with no risk. Republicans need to find a new wheeze. This one is getting long in the tooth.

Quote of the Day: Negative Campaigning in Venezuela

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 10:46 AM PST

From Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, upon learning that his opponent in October's election will be Henrique Capriles Radonski:

Now we have the loser, welcome! We're going to pulverise you. You have a pig's tail, a pig's ears, you snort like a pig, you're a low-life pig. You're a pig, don't try and hide it....The only place you're going to govern is the land of Tarzan and his monkey Cheeta.

Via Dan Drezner, who points out that Chávez's allies have also tarred Capriles at various times as gay, Zionist, fascist, and bourgeois. And the race hasn't even heated up yet.