Kevin Drum - March 2012

The Misogyny Bubble

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 12:59 PM EDT

Is misogyny worse than it used to be? Kathleen Geier thinks so:

One way in which things are much, much worse for women these days than 20 years ago is the sheer amount of virulent misogyny that is openly expressed, and tolerated, in our society. It feels to me that, in many ways, our culture is much more openly sexist now that it was then. Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Sandra Fluke are only the most recent and notorious example of this new misogyny. You see it online; women bloggers, for example, report they are frequently the target of vicious verbal abuse, up to and including rape threats and death threats. Female political leaders of both parties are held to a double standard and subjected to much humiliatingly sexist treatment. Many movies and TV shows, and reality shows especially, traffic in extremely sexist stereotypes; TV commercials sometimes seem to go out their way to be offensive to women. Tabloids obsessively police the bodies of female celebrities and cruelly ridicule any famous woman who dares to go out in public looking less than perfect.

....When I was growing up, there was certainly a lot of sexism in television shows, but misogyny is something different. Sexism was Archie Bunker calling his wife Edith a dingbat; annoying and insulting, certainly; sexist, definitely; but not violent or hateful. An example of misogyny is, for example, the way the character of the daughter, Meg, is portrayed in the popular cartoon sitcom, The Family Guy. Meg is frequently the subject of rape “jokes” and cruel jibes about her supposed ugliness; a frequent theme is that she is worthless and beneath contempt because she is not “hot.”

I'm too disengaged from popular culture to have a strong opinion about this. I don't watch much TV and I almost never read blog comments. I see enough references elsewhere to these things to believe that Kathleen is probably right, though. But why?

The internet allows many people to be extremely nasty anonymously, with impunity — that’s certainly part of it. Pop culture has become more vulgar, and porn has become more widely available, and thus more influential, I think. The proliferation of everything from home video to cell phone cameras to the internet has caused us to become a more visual culture, which partly explains why women today are judged much more harshly on the basis of their looks. We’ve become a much more conservative country, politically, and the Christian right, which is explicitly anti-feminist, has become more powerful. But that can’t be the whole thing.

At a guess, another part of the reason is that a lot of misogyny that was more-or-less private a couple of decades ago is now more-or-less public. We might not be more misogynistic than we used to be, but our misogyny is a whole lot more public than it used to be. That makes it seem like there's more of it. In reality, we're just being forced to confront the fact that there's always been, and still is, a helluva strong misogynistic streak in American culture.

But it's disgusting regardless of whether there's a real upswing or simply more media channels to make it public. I do think there's some occasional carelessness here, where mere nastiness toward a female target is mistaken for real misogyny, but that's a minor thing. There's too much of it, and if lefties won't call it out when they see it, who will? Examples in comments, please.

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Presidential Persuasion, Take 2

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 12:00 PM EDT

Last night I argued that Ezra Klein went too far when he suggested that presidents have little power to persuade. Today, Ezra acknowledges a distinction between agenda-setting and persuasion. In the case of Iraq, for example, it's true that public opinion about invading Iraq never actually changed much between the late 90s and 2002. But George Bush unquestionably put Iraq on the national agenda. Before 2002, it wasn't a big deal. After 2002, it was.

So we agree about that. But then there's this:

Kevin also argues that Ronald Reagan’s presidency changed the public’s attitude towards taxation in an enduring way. This is conventional wisdom, but it’s not evident in the polling. If anything, the belief that the income tax people paid was “too high” fell after Reagan.

It’s clear that Reagan’s presidency — and, perhaps as importantly, George H.W. Bush’s presidency — changed the politics of taxes inside the Republican Party. But I’m not certain that the country’s attitude toward taxes changed dramatically. Bill Clinton raised taxes when he was president, and he seemed to do okay. More recently, Barack Obama has had considerable success arguing for tax increases on wealthier Americans. But I’m sure there’s more thorough scholarship on this subject, and I’m open to being proved wrong.

There are some important points to be made about this. First: we should be careful not to take opinion polls too seriously. Gallup may say that attitudes toward taxes didn't change a lot pre- and post-Reagan, but the real world says different. Before 1980, it was possible to raise taxes both locally and at the federal level. After 1980 it became virtually impossible, and after the early 90s it became very nearly literally impossible. In Congress and at the polling place, where it really matters, public opinion was loud and clear: higher taxes were a killer.

Second: it's not just broad public opinion that matters. Persuading the base matters. Ramping up intensity matters, even among a minority. Raising money matters. And persuading the chattering classes matters. Those are all things that presidential persuasion can affect, even if they don't get picked up in the latest Gallup poll.

Third, there's always a pendulum effect. If your campaign to lower taxes succeeds in lowering taxes, it's natural that even the tax fighters will start to relax some and become more open to the idea that existing tax rates are OK. That doesn't mean persuasion on taxes has failed. Just the opposite: it means it worked! But no amount of persuasion will keep people heated up no matter how low taxes go. That's just not a realistic bar.

Now, I don't want to pretend that the tax revolt of the past 30 years was all Ronald Reagan's doing. It wasn't. He came into office on a wave of anti-tax sentiment that was already ramping up, and there was a big institutional movement to back him up. But did he really have no effect at all? That's a tough nut to swallow. He was the most important public face of the anti-tax crusade, and I think his choice to talk about taxes endlessly for eight years made a difference. Three decades later, it still does.

The Slippery Slope of the Rush Limbaugh Boycott

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 11:31 AM EDT

Rush Limbaugh has been losing advertisers at a ferocious clip ever since his slut/prostitute comments regarding Sandra Fluke, and ThinkProgress reports today that the exodus has now become a full-scale rout:

Radio-Info.com reports that Premiere Networks, which syndicates the Rush Limbaugh show, told its affiliate radio stations that they are suspending national advertising for two weeks. Rush Limbaugh is normally provided to affiliates in exchange for running several minutes of national advertisements provided by Premiere each hour. These ads are called “barter spots.” These spots are how Premiere makes its money off of Rush Limbaugh and other shows it syndicates.

But without explanation, Premiere has supended these national advertisements for two weeks. Radio-Info.com calls the move “unusual.” The development suggests that Rush Limbaugh’s incessant sexist attacks on Sandra Fluke have caused severe damage to the show.

I'm struggling about what to think of all this. On the one hand, obviously I'm pleased — and bleating from the right about liberal hypocrisy just doesn't wash. Misogyny soaks our culture everywhere, and plenty of lefties have been guilty of it too. But Limbaugh's no comedian. He's no B-lister. And these weren't heat-of-the-moment comments. He made them coolly and deliberately, and then kept up the attacks for three straight days. He went way beyond the pale here, and he deserves to get hit back hard for it.

And yet....there's an obvious slippery slope here. Lots of advertisers already shy away from political shows of every stripe, and this episode could begin to drive them all away. Why take the chance, even on a host who doesn't usually cause national outrage? "Usually" isn't never, after all, and in any case, you never know what a guest is going to say. Better to stick with local blowhards and self-help shows.

Limbaugh is getting what he finally deserves. I couldn't be happier about it. I just hope that down the road this doesn't turn into a preemptive boycott of every political gabber out there who has even the smallest chance of ever producing any national blowback. That runs the risk of turning every show into a bland marshmallow. It wouldn't make the world a better place.

Tax Policy is a Terrific Instrument for Raising Money

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 10:30 AM EDT

In the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, Allan Meltzer hauled out the chart below, which shows that income shares of the rich have been rising all over the world for the past 30 years. His conclusion: if income inequality is changing everywhere, "that means domestic policy can't be the principal reason for the current spread between high earners and others."

Really? Here's the chart, based on data from Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenström:

I'll make the obvious point first: there are some mighty big differences here. According to Roine and Waldenström, the income share of the top 1% in 2004 (their most recent data) clocked in at about 17% in the United States. It was 9% in Australia, 8% in France and Sweden, and 5% in the Netherlands. Only the other English-speaking countries, Canada and the UK, were near U.S. levels.

So although domestic policies certainly aren't the whole explanation for the exploding income of the rich — and nobody has ever claimed they are — the evidence certainly suggests they play a significant role. There's a big difference between 8% and 17%.

But Bruce Bartlett makes another point:

[Meltzer] seems to have missed an important implication of his own conclusion. If the rich are going to continue to get richer in low-tax countries and high-tax countries alike, then it must mean that high tax rates have far less of a disincentive effect on the rich than conservatives like Professor Meltzer continually proclaim.

He asserts that we should not raise tax rates on the wealthy, as President Obama has proposed, because it won’t do anything to reduce the share of income going to the ultrawealthy and thereby equalize the distribution of income. For the sake of argument, I will concede the point. But there is another very good reason to raise taxes on the ultrawealthy: the government needs the revenue.

Right. As it happens, I don't think tax policy is a great instrument for wealth redistribution. There are probably better ways to make society more egalitarian. On the other hand, tax policy is a great instrument for raising money that can be spent on programs that make society fairer and more decent — like universal healthcare, for example. And since (a) the evidence suggests that high-but-not-punitive tax rates have little effect on economic growth, and (b) growing income inequality means that the rich have ever more money, then it makes sense to tax the rich at higher rates. They're the ones benefiting from economic growth, they're the ones with the money, and they're the ones who can best afford it. If your income share doubles over the course of 30 years, it only makes sense that your tax rates ought to go up, not down.

Presidents and the Bully Pulpit

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 12:51 AM EDT

Do presidents really have the power to persuade? Citing the work of political scientists George Edward and Frances Lee, Ezra Klein writes in the New Yorker this week that they don't. Not much, anyway. When presidents talk, he argues, all they really do is polarize: instead of persuading, they simply make partisan divides even starker. So if you didn't have much of an opinion about contraceptive coverage a month ago, you probably do now — and thanks to President Obama's intervention, you're now for it if you're a Democrat and against it if you're a Republican:

Edwards’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion isn’t effective with the public. Lee’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress. And, because our system of government usually requires at least some members of the opposition to work with the President if anything is to get done, that suggests that the President’s attempts at persuasion might have the perverse effect of making it harder for him to govern.

....The question, [Paul] Begala says, is: What is the alternative to Presidential persuasion? “If you don’t try it at all, it guarantees you won’t persuade anybody,” he says. “And, to put it simply, your people in Congress and in the country will hate you if you don’t.” That’s the real dilemma for the modern White House. Aggressive, public leadership is typically ineffective and, during periods of divided government, can actually make matters worse. But passivity is even more dangerous. In that case, you’re not getting anything done and you look like you’re not even trying.

The entire essay is worth a read. It's surprisingly persuasive. And yet, that bolded passage makes a key point: even if presidential speeches don't accomplish much, we really don't know if shutting up would be any better. After all, we've never had a modern president who specialized in shutting up. And since it's not a trait likely to lead to the Oval Office, we probably never will.

I also think that Ezra doesn't really grapple with the strongest arguments on the other side. For one thing, although there are examples of presidential offensives that failed (George Bush on Social Security privatization), there are also example of presidential offensives that succeeded (George Bush on going to war with Iraq). The same is true for broader themes. For example, Edwards found that "surveys of public opinion have found that support for regulatory programs and spending on health care, welfare, urban problems, education, environmental protection and aid to minorities increased rather than decreased during Reagan’s tenure." OK. But what about the notion that tax cuts are good for the economy? The public may have already been primed to believe this by the tax revolts of the late '70s, but I'll bet Reagan did a lot to cement public opinion on the subject. And the Republican tax jihad has been one of the most influential political movements of the past three decades.

More generally, I think it's a mistake to focus narrowly on presidential speeches about specific pieces of legislation. Maybe those really don't do any good. But presidents do have the ability to rally their own troops, and that matters. That's largely what Obama has done in the contraception debate. Presidents also have the ability to set agendas. Nobody was talking about invading Iraq until George Bush revved up his marketing campaign in 2002, and after that it suddenly seemed like the most natural thing in the world to a lot of people.

Beyond that, it's too cramped to think of the bully pulpit as just the president, just giving a few speeches. It's more than that. It's a president mobilizing his party and his supporters and doing it over the course of years. That's harder to measure, and I can't prove that presidents have as much influence there as I think they do. But I confess that I think they do. Truman made containment national policy for 40 years, JFK made the moon program a bipartisan national aspiration, Nixon made working-class resentment the driving spirit of the Republican Party, Reagan channeled the rising tide of the Christian right and turned that resentment into the modern-day culture wars, and George Bush forged a bipartisan consensus that the threat of terrorism justifies nearly any defense. It's true that in all of these cases presidents were working with public opinion, not against it, but I think it's also true that different presidents might have shaped different consensuses.

Maybe I'm protesting too much. I actually think Ezra has the better of the argument here. But even if public opinion can rarely be directly challenged and turned around, it can be molded and channeled. Presidents and their party machines can influence which latent issues stay dormant and which ones become national obsessions. They can take advantage of events in ways that others can't. After all, talking is what human beings do. It's hard to credit the idea that it never really accomplishes anything.

Justice Department Blocks Texas Photo ID Law

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 9:06 PM EDT

The state of Texas recently adopted a law that requires residents to present photo ID at the polling place before voting. These kinds of laws are problematic even in the best cases, but Texas being Texas, their law is almost laughably brazen in its intentions. For example, in addition to driver's licenses, the law specifies that military ID and handgun permits are acceptable forms of identification; specifies that student IDs aren't acceptable forms of identification; and automatically qualifies elderly voters to cast mail-in ballots, which require no ID. In other words, the law does its best to make voting easy for every possible identifiably Republican-leaning constituency and hard for every possible identifiably Democratic-leaning constituency.

And those are just the identifiable Democratic constituencies. There are others that, for pesky legal reasons, can only be indirectly targeted: primarily blacks, Hispanics, and the poor. These constituencies lack photo ID at higher rates than white, middle-class voters, and this is what the Justice Department homed in on today when it put the Texas law on hold:

Our analysis of the January data indicates that 10.8 percent of Hispanic registered voters do not have a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS, but only 4.9 percent of non-Hispanic registered voters do not have such identification. So, Hispanic registered voters are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic registered voters to lack such identification.

....An applicant for an election identification certificate will be required to provide two pieces of secondary identification, or one piece of secondary identification and two supporting documents. If a voter does not possess any of these documents, the least expensive option will be to spend $22 on a copy of the voter’s birth certificate....As noted above, an applicant for an election identification certificate will have to travel to a driver’s license office. This raises three discrete issues. First, according to the most recent American Community Survey three-year estimates, 7.3 percent of Hispanic or Latino households do not have an available vehicle....Second, in 81 of the state’s 254 counties, there are no operational driver’s license offices....The third and final point is the limited hours that such offices are open. Only 49 of the 221 currently open driver’s license offices across the state have extended hours.

The second paragraph here is a key one. Lots of people assume that getting photo ID is no big deal. Most people have it, and even the ones who don't can easily get it. After all, it's free! But that's not true. First, you need a birth certificate. Middle-class folks might not realize this, but not everyone has a birth certificate handy, and both the hassle factor and the cost of getting one can be real deterrents. Add to that the hassle of getting a ride to a DMV office two counties away during working hours, and voting in the next election suddenly got a whole lot harder for you than it is for your average middle-class white suburbanite. You might even never get around to it.

Which, of course, is the whole idea. Kudos to the Justice Department for pointing that out and doing the right thing here by putting the Texas law on hold.

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On Third Thought, the Economy is Recovering Fairly Nicely

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 4:36 PM EDT

Today is my day for publishing charts that I find interesting but don't quite know what to think of. As you all know, government estimates of job losses and gains each month are released a few days after the end of the month. Then they're revised, and then, two months after the initial estimate, they're revised one last time. Mostly, though, only the first estimate ever gets much attention.

But those revisions matter, as Ryan Avent shows in the chart on the right. The light blue line shows employment changes based on the third and final estimate, and compared to the initial estimates (dark blue) it shows that the Great Recession was both deeper than we thought and that the recovery has been more robust than we thought. On the downside, we lost something like 6.5 million jobs instead of 5.5 million, but since then we've gained something like 3 million jobs instead of 2 million. (As always, the little spike in 2010 is due to temporary census jobs.)

In one sense this doesn't matter. Both lines show that we're about 3.5 million jobs below the previous peak. And neither line shows much acceleration in the jobs picture over the past year. Still, while this chart shouldn't change our minds a lot about how well the economy has been doing recently, it does suggest there's a little more cause for optimism than the headline numbers have suggested in real time.

Quote of the Day: Lowering the Bar on Sympathetic

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 2:30 PM EDT

From Erica Grieder on Game Change, the HBO movie about the 2008 presidential campaign:

Some early reviews have suggested that the movie offers a sympathetic portrayal of Sarah Palin. Considering that she's portrayed as stupid, self-absorbed, shallow, stubborn, volatile, delusional, hysterical, and mentally unstable, "sympathetic" is probably a stretch.

Sure, but she's not portrayed as corrupt. Or a liar. Or a demagogue. Come on! That's not bad!

Credit Conditions are Still a Headwind Against Economic Recovery

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 2:01 PM EDT

I don't even quite know what to make of this chart from Karl Smith, but here it is anyway for everyone to ponder. The red line represents employment by the government and by goods-producing sectors. Kablooey! The blue line represents employment by everyone else. Not bad!

Karl's take is that this demonstrates that the economy is still highly sensitive to credit conditions:

We are largely talking about construction workers, metal and automotive workers, and school teachers. These workers are massively influenced by credit constraints. One cannot build a building without credit. One cannot buy a vehicle without credit and state and local governments have very little credit room by statute.

So what we need for job growth to really hit its stride is for construction to come back, cars to come back and school teachers to come back....Because these sectors respond so much to liquidity the job recovery is still fragile.

I'm not sure I buy the idea that government as a whole is sensitive to credit constraints. Obviously the federal government isn't, and states are constrained by balanced-budget requirements at all times. But perhaps the ease of issuing state and municipal bonds has plummeted during the recession? I'm not sure.

Generally speaking, I suspect this chart says more about the housing/construction market in particular than it does about broader capital goods, which I think have rebounded fairly decently over the past year or two. It also says something about reduced state and local spending, though I don't think it's fair to call that a credit issue. It's more a statutory problem combined with bad austerity policy at the federal level. Further thoughts welcome, though.

When Is a Terrorist Group Not a Terrorist Group?

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 11:41 AM EDT

The People's Mujahedin of Iran, aka MEK, has long been designated as a terrorist group by the State Department. However, it was removed from the EU's terrorist list in 2009, and there's considerable controversy over whether MEK should continue to receive that designation from the United States. Today the group claims to be nonviolent and to represent a "parliament-in-exile" opposed to the current Iranian regime.

Nonetheless, it does in fact remain an officially designated terrorist organization in the United States, and providing material support for a designated terrorist group is illegal. As Glenn Greenwald points out today:

In June, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 6-3 ruling in the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law. In that case, the Court upheld the Obama DOJ’s very broad interpretation of the statute that criminalizes the providing of “material support” to groups formally designated by the State Department as Terrorist organizations. The five-judge conservative bloc (along with Justice Stevens) held that pure political speech could be permissibly criminalized as “material support for Terrorism” consistent with the First Amendment if the “advocacy [is] performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization” (emphasis added). In other words, pure political advocacy in support of a designated Terrorist group could be prosecuted as a felony—punishable with 15 years in prison—if the advocacy is coordinated with that group.

You may think this was a bad ruling. But a ruling it is, and it's the law of the land. And yet, a large cast of worthies, including Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Michael Mukasey, Ed Rendell, Andy Card, Lee Hamilton, Tom Ridge, Bill Richardson, Wesley Clark, Michael Hayden, John Bolton, Louis Freeh, and Fran Townsend have actively lobbied for MEK and have apparently done it in coordination with MEK's leadership.

So shouldn't this be against the law? Glenn, in particular, calls out Townsend, former Homeland Security Advisor under George Bush, who was a vocal supporter of the Humanitarian Law ruling. She actively supports MEK, yet appears to be under no threat of prosecution from the Obama Justice Department. Glenn again:

An NBC News report from Richard Engel and Robert Windrem in February claimed that it was MEK which perpetrated the string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and that the Terrorist group “is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service” (MEK denied the report).

....Even the dissenters in Humanitarian Law argued that the First Amendment would allow “material support” prosecution “when the defendant knows or intends that those activities will assist the organization’s unlawful terrorist actions.” A reasonable argument could certainly be advanced that, in light of these recent reports about MEK’s Terrorism, one who takes money from the group and then advocates for its removal from the Terrorist list “knows or intends that those activities will assist the organization’s unlawful terrorist actions”: a prosecutable offense even under the dissent’s far more limited view of the statute.

Discuss! Is support for MEK allowed because (a) their patrons are VIPs, not random Muslim schmoes, (b) MEK's allegedly lethal activities are aimed at Iran, which everyone thinks is wink-wink-nudge-nudge just fine, or (c) because there's some legitimate legal issue that distinguishes what Townsend and Rendell are doing from other cases of material support that have been prosecuted in recent years? I'd be genuinely curious to hear the other side of this argument.