Kevin Drum - March 2012

Paul Ryan Finally Meets a Budget Cut He Hates

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 3:06 PM PDT

Paul Ryan is a budget hawk's budget hawk, never one to believe a government bureaucrat who self-servingly claims that a spending cut will cause real damage to his program and the people it benefits. But there are exceptions:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed skepticism Thursday that U.S. military leaders were being honest in their budget requests to Congress. “We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice,” Ryan said during a forum on the budget sponsored by the National Journal. "We don't think the generals believe their budget is really the right budget."

"You don't believe the generals?" [managing editor Kristin] Roberts asked.

"What I believe is this budget does hollow out defense," Ryan responded...."I think there’s a lot of budget smoke and mirrors in the Pentagon’s budget," Ryan added, saying his proposal was an "honest Pentagon budget."

Just to be absolutely clear here: if we're talking about a program that helps the poor or the elderly or the sick, Ryan is eager to cut spending. In fact, he's usually eager to be the biggest budget cutter in the room. But if it's a program for the military, he won't accept spending cuts even if the military brass supports them. In fact, he insists on raising their budget.

For some reason, this is known in mainstream circles as being a "deficit hawk."

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Economic Growth Might be Higher Than We Think, But Only Slightly

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 11:13 AM PDT

Binyamin Applebaum says the economy may be growing faster than we think:

Buried deep inside the government’s revised estimate of fourth-quarter growth (revised but unchanged at 3 percent annualized) is an alternate measure of economic activity that is winning increased attention. And by that alternate measure, gross domestic income, the annualized pace of growth in the final three months of 2011 actually climbed to 4.4 percent.

That’s the kind of growth we usually see during an economic recovery, the kind of growth that’s fast enough to create new jobs. Indeed, it suggests that we may have learned the answer to a fretful mystery. Until now, economists have struggled to explain why unemployment was falling so fast when the major measure of growth, gross domestic product, was rising at an exceedingly modest pace.

That's good news. Just a note of caution, though. GDP measures production of goods and services, while GDI measures the income used to buy goods and services. In theory, they should be identical, but noise in the statistics means they don't always come out quite the same. Sometimes GDI is less than GDP and sometimes it's more. Last quarter it was more.

But if you look at 2011 as a whole, total growth comes to 1.7% on a GDP basis and 2.1% on a GDI basis. That's not a huge difference. The higher GDI figure really does suggest that recent growth might have been stronger than we think, but only a little bit stronger.

Who Killed the Debt Deal? Hint: His Initials are EC

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 10:38 AM PDT

In the New York Times Magazine this weekend, Matt Bai has yet another gigantic story about what really happened last year to kill the "grand bargain" deficit deal between Barack Obama and John Boehner. When I saw it, I sighed. Do I really want to read another one of these things? Luckily, I can now easily download monster pieces like this to my iPad and then read them in the comfort of my easy chair, so I ended up reading it after all. There was, as near as I can tell, one genuinely significant new item of information in the piece.

First, a nickel summary. Last July, after several weeks of on-again-off-again negotiation, Boehner and Obama reached a kinda-sorta handshake agreement on a deficit deal that would raise $800 billion in revenue (though this part of the deal was shaky) and cut $1.7 trillion in spending. But then the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican senators, announced a deal of their own that included about $2 trillion in extra revenue. A substantial number of Republican senators expressed support for this package, and Obama immediately understood that Democrats in Congress would revolt if he asked them to approve a package with far smaller revenue increases than even a lot of Republicans were willing to concede. So he went back to Boehner and asked for a deal that included both more revenue and deeper spending cuts. At that point the deal fell apart.

So what happened? Boehner's story is that Obama reneged on a handshake deal. Obama's story is that no final deal had ever been agreed to. It's true that he pushed for more revenue concessions all the way to the end, but he was also willing to go back to the original deal if the bigger package turned out to be a nonstarter. In the end, though, the problem was that Boehner couldn't get his own caucus to agree to any deal that included additional revenue.

So who's right? Some of both, of course. Obama did push for extra revenue after the Gang of Six announcement, but it turns out that Boehner wasn't quite as shocked by Obama's proposal as he later pretended:

By the next morning, both men were facing rebellions on the Hill. The Times’s Carl Hulse and Jackie Calmes had written a front-page article disclosing the existence of the new round of talks and asserting that a deal was very near....And yet, even then, as powerful contingents in both parties rose up to oppose a deal that was already tenuous, negotiations were proceeding amiably and apace. At the White House that Thursday morning, July 21, Jackson, Loper, Nabors, Sperling and Lew, among other aides, agreed to set aside the revenue question and focus on hammering out some of the smaller discrepancies in the two offers.

....The speaker’s story about this moment in the negotiations has always been remarkably consistent....The additional revenue that Obama demanded was a “nonstarter,” he says....Boehner had no choice but to walk away from the negotiations....[But] Boehner wanted a deal badly enough to stay at the table for 48 hours after Obama “moved the goal posts,” which casts doubt on his claim that this breach of trust was an obvious dealbreaker.

....As part of a broader proposal, which has remained until now a closely held secret, Boehner was apparently open to meeting the president at the new, higher revenue target — a concession that most likely would have meant abandoning the idea that no taxes would have to be raised. Had that counteroffer ever made it to Obama’s desk, it’s not hard to imagine that the grand bargain would have gotten done within 24 hours, at great political risk to both men....What happened, instead, based on extensive reporting, was this: Boehner raised the possibility of his counteroffer with Cantor on that Thursday afternoon, and Cantor dismissed the suggestion out of hand.

....Boehner talked to Obama a short while later. The president laid out the options as he would later relay them to Reid and Pelosi: more revenue and a bigger package, or the $800 billion and a smaller one. Boehner heard him out, but by then he must have known, from his discussions with Cantor and others, that neither option was going anywhere in his own caucus. It was one thing to risk your speakership on a grand bargain, which Boehner had without question been willing and even eager to do. It was another thing to throw that speakership away with little chance of success, which is what Obama was now asking of him.

Bai makes it pretty clear that although the Gang of Six really did throw a monkey wrench into the negotiations, it was Eric Cantor who definitively killed the deal, making it clear to Boehner that the Republican caucus would flatly not be willing to support any deal that had even a hint of additional revenue. Toward the end, when Obama famously put a call into Boehner that went unanswered for an entire day, it wasn't because Boehner had "run out of time" and felt that Obama was unlikely to budge, as he now says:

Boehner didn’t want to talk with Obama because he feared exactly the opposite — that Obama would respond by offering him the original terms from the previous Sunday, and that Boehner would then find himself trapped. He had to now know that, despite his sense of himself as a persuasive statesman who could get his caucus to follow his lead, he couldn’t get any deal past even his own leadership. It was safer for Boehner to walk away and accuse Obama of having sabotaged the deal than to risk that Obama would retreat to the earlier terms on which they had agreed, forcing the speaker to backtrack himself.

So there you have it. There are enough moving parts to give both sides a decent story to tell, but the real story is the one that's been obvious all along: the current Republican caucus in the House flatly won't support any budget deal that includes even a cent in new taxes. Boehner kept hoping maybe he could fudge that, but eventually Eric Cantor put the hammer down and told him in no uncertain terms that he was living in a dreamworld. That's what killed the debt deal.

The Demographics of the Religious Right

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 9:29 AM PDT

Andrew Sullivan links today to a Julian Sanchez post from a few days ago that I had kinda sorta meant to comment on but never did. It's about religion and atheism generally, but also touches on the contemporary and widespread feeling of persecution among conservative Christians in America. Why do they feel this way when there are so many of them and atheists are a tiny minority?

Previously faith could more or less be taken for granted—maybe the candidate makes a passing reference to the church they regularly attend—and that’s all there is to it, really, because of course everyone’s a believer of one stripe or another. Increasingly, isn’t so—that there are actually quite a lot of unbelievers, many of them effectively operating in stealth mode. This was probably always the case, but outside the academy and a few urban enclaves, nobody was terribly vocal about it—you certainly didn’t have anything like a visible public “movement.” Suddenly, if you’re someone who thinks of faith as a minimal prerequisite for decency, what was previously tacitly understood has to be signaled with extra vigor.

There's probably something to this, but I really think that people pay too little attention to basic demographics when the topic of conservative Christianity comes up. A couple of points:

  • Membership in religious organizations had gone steadily up over the past century, from roughly 40% of the population in 1900 to 70% today. Lack of belief was more common and more public in 1900 than it is today, even if it was called "freethinking" or "skepticism" or some related term.
  • Conservative Protestant denominations have also been growing very steadily over the past century. It wasn't a sudden boom that burst onto the public scene when Jerry Falwell became famous. The Pentecostal movement started up in 1906 and it's been growing ever since. Ditto for evangelical sects, which have grown steadily from perhaps a third of all Protestant denominations in 1900 to something like 60% of them today.

If you put these two things together, here's what pops out: A century ago, something like 10% of the country belonged to a conservative Protestant denomination. That's grown steadily ever since, and today it's around 30%. So there's really no mystery to explain here. Conservative Christians have become more outspoken and more politically powerful simply because they've grown more numerous. Sometime in the 70s, their numbers finally passed a threshold where they became a serious voting bloc, and they've been growing more powerful every year since then.

What's more, at the same time this has happened, America really has become more secularized. No, religion isn't under assault, and a lot of the rhetoric from the Christian right is grotesquely over the top. Still, it's simply a fact that liberals have engineered a growing separation of church and state over the past few decades. Classroom prayers led by teachers have been outlawed. Your local city hall can't put up its traditional Nativity scene. Christmas assemblies focus on generic songs without any religious content. Judges can't festoon their courtrooms with copies of the Ten Commandments. Religious schools are denied federal funding. Etc.

I make no bones about the fact that I think this is all just fine. I prefer a broadly secular America. But I sometimes think that we liberals pretend to a level of mystification about this stuff that's disingenuous. We've been chipping away at traditional religious expression in the public square for decades. At the same time, conservative Christians denominations have grown steadily. Put the two together and you have a substantial segment of the population that feels like it's under assault. I don't agree with them, but it's not really all that hard to figure out why they might feel the way they do.

UPDATE: I changed the wording slightly on school prayer. Students can pray individually all they want. It's organized, teacher-led prayers that have been banned.

The Supreme Court Parties Like It's 1936

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 7:51 AM PDT

I might as well confess that I've been in something like a state of shock for the past day. Tuesday was bad enough, but Wednesday's arguments in the Supreme Court were nothing short of surreal, as the conservative justices, Kennedy and Scalia in particular, spent their time chatting as if they were in the Senate cloakroom, casually hashing out a deal to figure out how best to keep their campaign promises to the tea party. There was barely even a pretense of being a court, not a legislature.

Randy Barnett is getting lots of kudos these days as the guy who created the conservative case against Obamacare, primarily by inventing and proselytizing the activity vs. inactivity distinction. And I guess he deserves his star turn. But watching yesterday's session (or, rather, reading the transcript) it's pretty obvious that none of it mattered. The conservatives looked like five men who just didn't like Obamacare and were bound and determined to find an excuse to overturn it. The activity vs. inactivity distinction was good enough, so that's what they glommed onto, but anything else even reasonably plausible would have worked too.

It's not over til it's over, of course. Maybe the tone of the questioning has fooled us all, and at least a couple of the conservatives will pause before going fully rogue. But it looks grim right now, and even genial, generous E.J. Dionne is under no illusions about what it will mean if the court overturns Obamacare:

A court that gave us Bush v. Gore and Citizens United will prove conclusively that it sees no limits on its power, no need to defer to those elected to make our laws. A Supreme Court that is supposed to give us justice will instead deliver ideology.

I wasn't alive the last time the Supreme Court acted like this, and I never thought I'd live to see the day it would go there again. And maybe it won't. But they sure look like they're all ready to party like it's 1936 again.

It's the Supreme Court's Job to Solve the Broccoli Test

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 6:22 PM PDT

One of TPM's readers wrote in today with a comment about the arguments in the Supreme Court healthcare case. It happens to be about something that's been bouncing around in the back of my head for several days, so here it is:

The only problem that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy expressed with the mandate is the lack of limiting principle on Congress’s ability to mandate the purchase of privately-made/issued products. If that’s really the concern of each Justice, and it sure seemed that it was, neither man is lacking in the self-regard and intellect necessary to craft such a limiting principle. And that’s where my money remains. The Government didn’t make their jobs easier, but it’s one thing to fault the Government for failing to articulate a limiting principle and quite another to overturn momentous legislation on that basis. Because to do the latter is to say that the Justices can’t craft such a principle either. Here’s betting both can, and Roberts will.

This is related to the "broccoli question." If Congress can force you to buy health insurance, can they force you to buy broccoli too? In fact, if they can force you to buy health insurance, are there any limits at all on what Congress can do? Lots of smart observers think the conservative justices simply won't accept the idea that Congress can essentially do anything, which means that if they're going to uphold the individual mandate they'll need some kind of "limiting principle" that explains why the mandate is OK but, say, broccoli isn't.

But it strikes me that the government's job isn't to craft such a principle. The government's job is to argue that the mandate is already within existing limits on Congress's power. And given how extraordinarily broad Wickard is, that never seemed very hard to me. If Congress can stop you from growing wheat for private consumption, something that has only the most tenuous connection to interstate commerce, mandating the purchase of health insurance seems like a no-brainer.

But even if it's not, it's still not the government's job to articulate a limiting principle. It's the court's job. That's what they do. They write opinions that — in theory, anyway — provide guidance to lower courts about how to apply the law. Supreme Court opinions are chockablock with three-prong tests, significant nexus tests, balancing tests, and a million other kinds of tests. As long as Kennedy or Roberts or Breyer or Kagan or any of the others can come up with something that gets five votes, then we have our limiting principle. There's no reason it has to come from the Obama administration. In fact, all things considered, it's probably best if it doesn't. The justices will all feel a whole lot smarter and a whole lot more decisive if they do it themselves.

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Quote of the Day: The Big Solyndra Nothingburger

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 3:31 PM PDT

From Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on the Solyndra investigation he's been flogging for the past six months:

Is there a criminal activity? Perhaps not. Is there a political influence and connections? Perhaps not. Did they bend the rules for an agenda, an agenda not covered within the statute? Absolutely.

They bent the rules! Translation: The Obama administration really wanted the domestic solar industry to succeed, so they might have given Solyndra slightly more support than it deserved. That's the big scandal. Yeesh.

Taking Race Seriously

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 11:41 AM PDT

Conservative Josh Barro tells his fellow conservatives why they get attacked on racial issues so often:

Why do conservatives catch such heat? It’s probably because there is still so much racism on the Right to go alongside valid arguments on issues relating to race and ethnicity. Conservatives so often get unfairly pounded on race because, so often, conservatives get fairly pounded on race.

And this is the Right’s own fault, because conservatives are not serious about draining the swamp. In recent months, both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have gotten questions at public events that referred to President Obama being a Muslim. Neither candidate corrected the questioner. Santorum later told a reporter that’s “not his job.” PPP polls in Mississippi and Alabama have found that about half of Republican voters believe Obama is a Muslim, and others aren’t sure.

....There has been a clear strategic calculation here among Republican elites. Better to leverage or at least accept the racism of much of the Republican base than try to clean it up....My challenge to conservatives who feel they get a bum rap on race is this. Stand up for yourself and your colleagues when you feel that a criticism is unfair. At the same time, criticize other conservatives who say racist things, cynically tolerate racism in the Republican base, or deny the mere existence of racial issues in America today. The conservative movement desperately needs self-policing on racial issues, if it ever hopes to have credibility on them.

I think it's fair to suggest that liberals use race as a cudgel more often and more crudely than we should. The problem conservatives have is that this is pretty much the sum total of their take on racial issues: that liberals bring it up too often. When they write about race there's usually a pro forma "to be sure" somewhere, but I can't remember the last time I saw a conservative take seriously — either generally or in a specific case — the idea that racism against ethnic minorities is still a genuine and important issue in America. If you inhaled nothing but conservative media, you'd think that African-Americans are endlessly pampered; that racial animosity is simply an invention of the "victim industry" these days; and that the white working class is the real object of oppression.

Barro is right: if conservatives want nothing more than to appeal to the racial resentment voting bloc, they're doing the right thing. But if they want to be taken seriously on racial issues, they need to take them seriously themselves. If they did, their criticisms would have a lot more force.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Explaining the Mandate in Language Conservatives Can Understand

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 10:14 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias points today to former White House spokesman Reid Cherlin, who says "Take It From Me: Defending Obamacare is Super-Hard." Matt thinks it's not as hard as all that, but in general, I think I'm on Cherlin's side here. Taken as a whole, Obamacare is really hard to explain to people.

However, I do agree that defending the individual mandate isn't that hard. In fact, the best explanation I've heard recently came in January from none other than Mitt Romney, explaining why a mandate is part of the healthcare reform bill he championed in Massachusetts:

ROMNEY: For the 8 percent of people who didn't have insurance, we said to them, if you can afford insurance, buy it yourself, any one of the plans out there, you can choose any plan. There's no government plan.

And if you don't want to buy insurance, then you have to help pay for the cost of the state picking up your bill, because under federal law if someone doesn't have insurance, then we have to care for them in the hospitals, give them free care. So we said, no more, no more free riders. We are insisting on personal responsibility. Either get the insurance or help pay for your care. And that was the conclusion that we reached.

SANTORUM: Does everybody in Massachusetts have a requirement to buy health care?

ROMNEY: Everyone has a requirement to either buy it or pay the state for the cost of providing them free care. Because the idea of people getting something for free when they could afford to care for themselves is something that we decided in our state was not a good idea.

Not bad! No more free riders. "The idea of people getting something for free when they could afford to care for themselves is something that we decided in our state was not a good idea." And guess what? It's not such a good idea in the other 49 states either.

How Did Evangelicals Hijack the Word "Christian"?

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 9:56 AM PDT

With my language cop duties out of the way, let's go ahead and talk about misuse of the word Christian. I'm going to quote Ed Kilgore on this rather than Tim Noah himself:

TNR's Tim Noah wrote yesterday about one of my all-time biggest pet peeves: the constant appropriation of the word "Christian" by conservative evangelicals as exclusive to their distinctive and hardly uncontested point of view. What sent Noah off was an NPR story on "Christian films," which, of course, turned out to be films by a very particular and not at all representative type of Christians.

....Noah figures secular media go along with this theft of Christianity in all its diverse glory because they've been intimidated into doing so by the endless whining of the Christian Right about "persecution." That's clearly a factor, but I suspect secular media ignorance contributes as well: a lot of media types simply don't know much about religion, which they find faintly ridiculous and embarrassing.

This is mostly a guessing game, of course, but this doesn't sound quite right to me. I don't think the media has been intimidated, and I also don't think they're that ignorant. Most of them might not be aware of the various sub-strains of charismatic/Pentecostal/evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, but they're well aware that Catholics and mainstream Protestants also exist. They aren't quite as dumb as all that, are they?

Rather, I suspect this is a case where, like it or not, we've developed a sort of tacit agreement among all Christian persuasions about this. I think media folks are willing to use "Christian" as a descriptive phrase not just for Christian right films and music and books, but for anything where overt Christianity is a key theme, not merely a subtext and not merely present by allusion. The problem is that the vast bulk of films and music and books that have overt Christianity as a key theme are, in fact, aimed at the Christian right. Mainstream Protestants have pretty much ceded the market.

What's worse, this actually seems to work for everybody. We all want labels that tell us whether we might be interested in something. Marketers want them and consumers want them. It saves time. So the use of "Christian" as a marketing term for "Christian right" works for marketers because it lets them target an audience. It also works for evangelical consumers, who want to make sure they're spending their entertainment dollars on the kind of Christianity they like. And in a way, even though there's a price to be paid for this, I have a feeling it works for mainstream Protestants as well, who'd just as soon be warned off that stuff.

But I'm genuinely curious about this. I know that mainstream Christians have long been annoyed in general at the fact that so many people automatically associate "Christian" with "Christian right" these days, but I wonder how many of them are also annoyed by, say, the existence of "Christian rock" that's almost exclusively evangelical Christian? The comment section of this blog is, for a variety of obvious reasons, a really poor place to get a representative read on this, but go ahead anyway. Is the modern marketing use of "Christian" as a way of targeting evangelicals a huge annoyance? Or just a shrug-your-shoulders kind of thing?