Kevin Drum - April 2012

We're Spending Down Our Savings to Prop Up Our Economy

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 6:44 PM EDT

Consumer spending can increase if (a) wages go up, (b) borrowing goes up, or (c) savings are spent down. Jed Graham reports that last quarter it was Option C that saved the day:

U.S. households saved just 3.9% of disposable income in Q1, the lowest since the last cycle’s peak in Q4 2007. In fact, the decline in saving from 4.5% in Q4 financed half of all personal consumption gains in Q1, adding one full percentage point to real GDP growth.

Needless to say, saving rates can't decline forever, and borrowing isn't likely to increase much either. That leaves disposable income as our main hope for future economic prosperity, and with job growth picking up, so should disposable income. So why isn't it?

This time, government policy is the main culprit. Real disposable income growth has trailed real private wage growth by nearly 3% the past two quarters as fiscal stabilizers have gone into reverse....The drag on disposable income comes, in large part, from three factors: flat total wages for government workers; roughly flat government social benefits; and a normal cyclical boost in income and payroll tax payments (up a combined $151 billion from Q1 2011).

....The bottom line is that fiscal policy is leaning too hard against recovery based on present conditions. The question is whether such austerity is avoidable right now amid trillion-dollar deficits and pressure from the ratings agencies.

Oh, I think it's avoidable. The problem isn't either short-term deficits or Standard & Poor's. It's an excess of politicians who don't really care much about the real-world economy. There's no point in trying to blame anyone else.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Suppressing the Vote is Harder Than it Looks

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 3:26 PM EDT

In the New York Times, Michael Shear explains how the Obama campaign is working to limit the damage from a wave of Republican laws that restrict voting rights:

In Wisconsin, where a new state law requires those registering voters to be deputized in whichever of the state’s 1,800 municipalities they are assigned to, the campaign sent a team of trainers armed with instructions for complying with the new regulations.

In Florida, the campaign’s voter registration aides traveled across the state to train volunteers on a new requirement that voter registration signatures be handed in to state officials within 48 hours after they are collected.

And in Ohio, Mr. Obama’s staff members have begun reaching out to let voters know about new laws that discourage precinct workers from telling voters where to go if they show up at the wrong precinct.

The political motive behind these laws is pretty obvious: most of them have a disproportionate effect on minorities, students, and the poor, who vote for Democrats in large numbers. From a Republican point of view, the fewer of these folks who vote, the better.

As contemptible as this is, especially given the mountains of evidence that voter fraud is a minuscule problem in America, this article exposes the flip side of all this: more than likely, the Republican plan to suppress voter turnout won't work in the long run. The effect of these laws is fairly small in the first place, and even that small effect will probably melt away as Democrats change their voter registration tactics. In states that require photo ID, Democrats will get aggressive about making sure potential voters have ID. In states with new restrictions on early voting, Democrats will change their tactics and concentrate more on election day. Etc.

None of this lets Republicans off the hook for their frankly loathsome efforts to suppress the votes of groups they don't like. But it does mean they're probably wasting their time. In the end, the impact is likely to be pretty small.

Faux Outrage Claims Another Victim

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 3:02 PM EDT

I see that our latest outburst of faux outrage has ended yet another career:

The Obama administration's top environmental official in the oil-rich South and Southwest region has resigned after Republicans targeted him over remarks made two years ago when he used the word "crucify" to describe how he would go after companies violating environmental laws. In a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson sent Sunday, Al Armendariz says he regrets his words and stresses that they do not reflect his work as administrator of the five-state region.

Dave Weigel is properly acerbic:

Critics will go on claiming that "crucify" was something other than an analogy for making examples out of crooks. (Imagine if a district attorney had used the analogy to describe a crack-down on car thieves, or something similar.) After all, how can you expect government to work efficiently if people are allowed to make analogies that some other people find offensive?

Needless to say, no one really cared all that much about Armendariz's comment. It was just a convenient excuse to go after a guy who had annoyed oil and gas interests in the state of Texas. And it worked. Pretending to be mortally offended by some ancient remark or another continues to be an excellent strategy for getting people fired.

The Media's Real Social Security Problem

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 2:11 PM EDT

Last week the annual report of the Social Security trustees was released, and the news was bad. Thanks mostly to a weak economy, they now project that the Social Security trust fund will be depleted three years earlier than they thought before. If we don't do anything about this, it means that promised benefits will be abruptly cut by 25% in 2033 (or 2035 if you merge the OASI and DI trust funds into a single projection). Trudy Lieberman says the media botched the story:

The public got plenty of doomsday headlines: “Social Security (is) heading for insolvency even faster,” as The State Journal, a weekly newspaper in Charleston, West Virginia, proclaimed; and “Social Security is slipping closer to insolvency,” as the Chicago Tribune told all of Chicagoland; and “Social Security fund cash (will be) gone in 2033,” according to The Christian Science Monitor; and that Social Security’s trust funds “will run dry in 2033,” as the New York Daily News shouted to New Yorkers. Other outlets added to the journalistic drama. Bloomberg.com reported “Social Security Fund to Run Out in 2035,” noting “the giant retirement programs are straining the U.S. government’s finances.” Bloomberg TV’s Inside Track with Scarlet Fu was outside reality. A government report “confirmed what we all suspected. Social Security is a train wreck just waiting to happen,” Fu practically screamed. “The Social Security trust is now expected to run out of money in 2035, three years earlier than projected.” How’s that for accurate reporting?

Hmmm. The Daily News says the trust fund will run dry in 2033. The Tribune says Social Security is slipping closer to insolvency. The Christian Science Monitor says "fund cash" will be gone in 2033. I fail to see anything wrong with any of these explanations. I won't defend Scarlet Fu's idiotic "train wreck" comment, but the rest of them strike me as OK.

I said last week that liberals should get off their fainting couches and stop complaining every time someone reports that Social Security funding is in trouble. Unsurprisingly, not many liberals agreed with me -- and I'm willing to give some ground on my defense of the "bankruptcy" formulation, which is probably suitable only for polemics. Still, the trust fund is running out of money. Social Security is heading toward insolvency. What else would you call a program that can only pay out 75% of its promised benefits?

The place where the media falls down, I think, isn't in its description of Social Security's financial problems. The media's real weakness lies in its almost total lack of interest in explaining how those problems can be fixed. The answer is: pretty easily. The only thing stopping a simple, no-drama resolution of Social Security's long-term funding problems is the Republican Party's jihad against taxes. That's it. You could pretty easily put together a Democratic coalition that would support a combination of small, phased-in benefit cuts and small, phased-in tax increases that would fix Social Security forever. If you think Social Security is already too stingy, you might not like the idea of doing this. But it's still a fact that you could get plenty of Democrats to sign up for such a plan, and President Obama has sent plenty of signals that he'd favor it too.

The only thing stopping it is that Republicans simply aren't willing to back such a compromise. Their only solutions are either unfunded privatization schemes, which everyone knows will never happen, or balancing Social Security's books solely by slashing benefits, which is equally unlikely. The truth is that, financially, Social Security isn't a hard problem to solve. It's only hard because the modern Republican Party, which is happy to scaremonger the problem relentlessly, flatly refuses to engage with real-world solutions. That's what the media needs to report more often.

How We're Held Hostage by the Medical-Industrial Complex

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 12:42 PM EDT

Stephanie Mencimer doesn't much like her annual ob-gyn exam. And medical research increasingly suggests that these annual rituals don't really do much good. So she asked her doctor if she could just skip it this year. Answer: no. If you want your birth control pills, you have to come in for the exam whether you like it or not:

The doctor had me over a barrel. As it turns out, my experience isn't unique. Doctors regularly hold women’s birth control prescriptions hostage like this, forcing them to come in for exams that research is increasingly showing are too frequent and often unnecessary and ineffective. A 2010 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that 33 percent of doctors always require a pelvic exam and Pap smear for a hormonal contraception prescription, and 44 percent regularly do so, even though there's no medical reason for linking the two.

Indeed, there's a growing body of evidence that the entire annual ob-gyn exam, with the mandatory and miserable pelvic exam where doctors poke around one's uterus and ovaries with their fingers, is largely obsolete. For instance, there's no evidence that doctors can diagnose ovarian cancer with a pelvic exam in women showing no symptoms. A clinical trial found that doctors were unable to identify any cancers in test subjects by pelvic exams alone, and the National Cancer Institute no longer recommends the tests for postmenopausal women. Even chlamydia screenings, which are recommended for women under 26 and those at higher risk for the sexually transmitted disease, can be done by simply having women pee in a cup, and don't require an invasive and expensive exam.

The scientific basis for much of the traditional well-woman ob-gyn annual check-up is so slim that "the routine pelvic examination may be an example of more service leading to worse outcomes," Dr. Carolyn Westhoff, an ob-gyn at Columbia University, wrote in the Journal of Women's Health last year.

It's worth reading the whole thing. And when you're done, maybe it's time once again to revisit the evidence that we should sidestep the whole problem by making contraceptives available over the counter. Plenty of other countries do.

Paul Ryan, Washington Charmer

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 11:35 AM EDT

I've written so much about the hagiography of Paul Ryan among the Beltway media that I'm sick of it. You're probably sick of it too. It's been clear for years that no matter how wonky and mild-mannered an image Ryan projects, in reality he's a garden-variety hard-right ideologue who has no interest in compromise and cares only about cutting taxes on the wealthy and slashing programs for the poor. I'm sure he thinks that cutting the deficit would be great too, but it's very plainly a distant third out of three goals.

Normally, I wouldn't bother writing about this yet again, but today Jon Chait has such a mind-blowing example of Ryan's hypnotic hold over DC reporters and pundits that you really have to read it to believe it. Here it is:

New York Times business columnist James Stewart, for instance, recently opined that Ryan’s plan would usher in an overhaul of the tax code that would raise taxes on the rich, by eliminating special treatment for capital-gains income.

It is certainly true, as Stewart argues, that one could reduce tax rates to the levels advocated by Ryan without shifting the burden onto the poor and middle class if you eliminated the lower rate enjoyed by capital-gains income. But Ryan has been crystal clear throughout his career in his opposition to raising capital-gains taxes....I asked Stewart why he believed so strongly that Ryan actually supported such a reform, despite the explicit opposition of his budget. “Maybe he’s being boxed in” by right-wing colleagues, Stewart suggested.

After Obama assailed Ryan’s budget, Stewart wrote a second column insisting that Ryan’s plans were just the sort of goals liberals shared. He quoted Ryan as writing, in his manifesto, “The social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens.” Stewart is flabbergasted that Democrats could be so partisan as to attack a figure who believes something so uncontroversial. “Does anyone,” Stewart wrote in his follow-up, “Democrat or Republican, seriously disagree?”

The disagreement, I suggested to Stewart, is that Ryan believes the social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens by spending too much money on them....Stewart waves away the distinction. “I was pointing out that, at least rhetorically, you can find some common ground,” he says. Stewart, explaining his evaluation of Ryan to me, repeatedly cited the missing details in his plan as a hopeful sign of Ryan’s accommodating aims. “He seems very straightforward,” he tells me. “He doesn’t seem cunning. He seems very genuine.”

Go ahead and read the whole thing if you have the stomach for it. It's pretty flabbergasting. Ryan's uncompromising hard-right bona fides have been obvious throughout his entire career, but somehow the fact that he quotes budget numbers off the top of his head and refrains from bellowing in public has turned him into a teddy bear in the eyes of much of Washington. Go figure.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Hooray! Gasoline Prices Are Going Down

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 10:47 AM EDT

Last night, while trying to keep my dinner down during 60 Minutes' softball interview with CIA torturer Jose Rodriguez, I happened to notice during the commercial break that gasoline prices were down last week. I haven't been paying a lot of attention to this lately, but it turns out that gas prices have been declining for the entire past month. Jared Bernstein has a question:

When gas prices were rising in March, I couldn’t turn around without being asked to explain why we shouldn’t blame the President for higher gas prices....But this month, with prices falling, I’ve yet to get one request to explain why the president should get credit for falling gas prices (answer: he shouldn’t).

This just goes to show the agenda-setting power of Fox News and the rest of the conservative megaphone. They don't get all the credit, of course — it really is news when gasoline prices have gone up 20% since the beginning of the year — but they sure get a big chunk of it. When they're screaming, the rest of the media follows along. When they stop, everyone else stops too. Remarkable.

POSTSCRIPT: And why are gasoline prices down? Because crude oil prices are down. Remember the rule of thumb that a $1 change in crude oil prices translates to a 2½-cent change in gasoline prices? Well, Brent crude is down about $4 this month, which translates into an 8-cent drop in the price of gasoline. And that's roughly what we've seen.

Obama Spikes the bin Laden Football

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 12:26 AM EDT

After taking a low-key approach to the killing of Osama bin Laden for most of the past year, the Obama campaign released a video on Friday taking credit for green-lighting the operation and questioning whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call. Conservatives scoffed, claiming that the raid was a no-brainer that any president would have approved. I don't know who's right, but if you want to decide for yourself you probably ought to know just how the entire operation was planned and what part Obama played. David Corn explains in detail in Showdown, his recent book about the Obama presidency during 2011. Here's a small piece:

Five months into his presidency, he sent a memo to Leon Panetta, then the new CIA chief, signaling that he considered finding bin Laden a high-priority task. He requested a detailed operation plan for locating and “bringing to justice” the mass-murderer. Yet for a year, Panetta did not have much to report to Obama on this front. Then in the summer of 2010, the agency informed Obama there was a lead: bin Laden might be in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, about 35 miles north of Islamabad. He could be within Obama’s reach.

....As the planning meetings proceeded—the president and his aides often had a model of the compound before them—a critical point about a unilateral U.S. assault caught Obama’s attention: How would these covert warriors return safely from the compound, especially if they were to encounter hostile Pakistani military forces?....McRaven had based the planning on an assumption that if his commandos were confronted by the Pakistanis, they would protect themselves without attempting to defeat the Pakistani forces, while waiting for the politicians in Washington and Islamabad to sort things out. He calculated that his team could hold off any Pakistani assault for one or two hours.

Obama nixed the idea of commandos hunkering down to await diplomatic rescue. He worried that the Navy SEALs conducting the mission could end up as hostages of the Pakistanis, and he told McRaven to ensure that the U.S. forces could escape the compound and return to safety, whether or not they encountered Pakistani resistance.

“Don’t worry about keeping things calm with Pakistan,” Obama said to McRaven. “Worry about getting out.”

The rest is at the link. I don't know what Mitt Romney would have done in similar circumstances, but there's not much question that Obama played an active and ultimately crucial role. Without his leadership, things might have turned out quite differently.

Human Beings Not As Impressive As You Think

| Sun Apr. 29, 2012 1:55 PM EDT

A recent study suggests that computers can score student essays about as well as human beings. Les Perelman, a director of writing at MIT, isn't impressed:

While his research is limited, because E.T.S. is the only organization that has permitted him to test its product, he says the automated reader can be easily gamed, is vulnerable to test prep, sets a very limited and rigid standard for what good writing is, and will pressure teachers to dumb down writing instruction.

The e-Rater’s biggest problem, he says, is that it can’t identify truth. He tells students not to waste time worrying about whether their facts are accurate, since pretty much any fact will do as long as it is incorporated into a well-structured sentence. “E-Rater doesn’t care if you say the War of 1812 started in 1945,” he said.

Sounds like another win for e-graders to me! An excessive deference to facts is just an obstacle to success these days, best left to the little people responsible for the drudge work of implementing plans and tactics. If you have higher ambitions, an ability to bullshit persuasively is far more important, and apparently our robot essay scorers know that. Besides, they can grade nearly a thousand essays a second. What's not to like?

On a more serious note, I suspect that Perelman's criticisms are off base. He says that electronic grading programs can be gamed, and I have no doubt that he's right. But here's the thing: the study that started all this didn't say that robot graders have discovered some cosmically valid measure of writing quality. The study just said that computer graders handed out the same scores as human graders. In other words, apparently humans don't care much about facts either; are easily impressed by big words; and have idiosyncratic likes and dislikes that can be easily pandered to. The average human being, it seems, can be gamed just as easily as a computer.

If you want a broader moral about computer intelligence from all this, I've got one of those too. Here it is: People who don't believe in "real" artificial intelligence natter on endlessly about their belief that computers will never be able to truly replicate the glorious subtleties and emotional nuances of human thought. The problem is this: most of them overestimate just how impressive human thought really is. Human beings, in most cases, are just a bundle of fairly simpleminded algorithms that fuse together in enough different combinations that the results seem ineffable and impossible of reduction. But that's only because most of the time we don't really understand our own motivations. We aren't nearly as impressive as we like to think.

In the end, this is my big difference with the AI naysayers: I'm just not as impressed by human intelligence as they are. All those human essay graders probably think they're making use of deep human values and intelligence as they score those essays, but in fact they're mostly just applying a few hundred (or maybe a few thousand) linguistic algorithms they've learned over the years and spitting out a number. And before you scoff about the poor drones doing this grading, who are nothing like you because you have subject area knowledge and do care about facts, well, how long do you really think it's going to be before robo-graders have that too? If a computer can win Jeopardy! and act as an expert system for medical diagnoses, how long will it be before their judgement of factual material is as good as ours? Ten years? Twenty?

The future success of AI doesn't fundamentally hinge on the fact that computers will someday be far more impressive than they are today. It hinges on the fact that human-level intelligence isn't all that high a bar in the first place. My guess is that we don't have very much longer to get used to that.

No, Irvine is Not the Most Fashionable City in America

| Sat Apr. 28, 2012 1:40 PM EDT

My hometown of Irvine, California, is mostly famous for being one of the most heavily planned communities in America. We are not just boring, we are deliberately and proudly boring. But it turns out that we're #1 in more than municipal planning. According to the Daily Mail, we are also the most fashionable large city in America. My sister is properly skeptical and asks what's going on here. "None of the Real Housewives lives in Irvine," she points out, and the accuracy of the Mail piece is also called into question by the suggestion that Irvine was "made famous by the hit show The OC," which, as I recall, was set in Newport Beach, not Irvine.

So here's the scoop: the Mail has its facts, such as they are, right. A site called Bundle, which promises "unbiased, data-driven ratings," says that Irvine is indeed "an unexpected number one" in its fashion rankings:

We selected the 50 largest cities by population in our data set and created a fashion-conscious index, with 1.0 being average. We based our index on the percentage of "fashion-conscious households" in our sample, which we defined as households that had at least four transactions at top-end designer merchants in the past 30 months.

Okey dokey. Basically, if you have lots of people who buy clothes at expensive stores, that makes you "fashionable." This is, needless to say, a debatable proposition. What's more, if you click on "50 Places in the OC that the Fashion-Forward Frequent," you get lots of shops in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles and virtually none in Orange County. And it turns out that the Bundle folks are also the source of the Mail's confusion about American TV, calling Irvine "Home of the OC." So I think we can all take this with a grain of salt. I suspect that even the Irvine Chamber of Commerce will have a hard time making a silk purse out of this particular sow's ear.